Academic journal article
By Weinfield, Henry
Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 , Vol. 45, No. 1
Religious Literature--Criticism and Interpretation
Milton, John (English poet)--Criticism and interpretation
Milton, John (English poet)--Religious aspects
Paradise Lost (Poem)--Religious aspects
Paradise Lost (Poem)--Criticism and interpretation
In the preface to the second edition of Surprised by Sin (1997), Stanley Fish claims that his book's success during the previous thirty years is a result of its ability to reconcile the arguments of the two major competing strains in Milton criticism, the Christian and Romantic camps. "By shifting the field where coherence was to be found from the words on the page to the experience they provoked," Fish asserts, "I was able to reconcile the two camps under the aegis of a single thesis: Paradise Lost is a poem about how its readers came to be the way they are; its method ... is to provoke in its readers wayward, fallen responses which are then corrected by one of several authoritative voices (the narrator, God, Raphael, Michael, the Son). In this way, I argued, the reader is brought to a better understanding of his sinful nature and is encouraged to participate in his own reformation." (1) To the extent that Fish's method and interpretation has become hegemonic in Milton studies in the thirty years since the original publication of the book, his claim of having reconciled the two camps is perhaps justified, but, of course, this does not mean that he has actually succeeded in solving "the Milton problem," as it has long been called. Indeed, as the equivocation in the first sentence of this passage would indicate, there is always a kind of duplicity in Fish's approach that makes it unclear what his claims actually are. The information before the semicolon suggests that all interpretation is unavoidably subjective and that the best one can do is analyze how the various subjectivities come into play, but the information after the semicolon suggests that there is an authoritative interpretation--and that it was written by C. S. Lewis.
If Paradise Lost is a poem about how its readers came to be the way they are, the fact of the matter is that some of those readers continue to hold to at least a version of the Romantic interpretation. For these readers, the "authoritative voices" imparting correction are simply not persuasive and hence not authoritative. Fish is certainly not able to prove that the "authoritative voices" are authoritative because the process of conferring literary authority depends on the actual responses of individual readers. He is only able to assert that they are authoritative because the tradition regards them as such. The whole argument thus rests on a tautology. The reason for the success of Fish's book, in other words, has nothing to do with any reconciliation between the two camps--for this could only result from an interpretation that actually resolves the Milton problem--but rather with the fact that, firmly ensconced in the "Christian" camp, Fish has discovered an ingenious method of defusing the Romantic perspective without merely circumventing it or denying its force. He argues that the force of the Romantic perspective stems from our fallenness and that Milton constructs the figure of Satan in such a way as to make us identify with him but only so as to enable us eventually to recognize our own sinfulness. The argument is not vulnerable to empirical refutation any more than it is empirically demonstrable. The fact that the argument is tautological (we are moved by Satan's sinful speeches because we ourselves are sinful), or that Fish's "reader's response theory" is a Rube Goldberg device that makes it seem as if what unfolds in the reader's mind is predicated on something other than what unfolds in the text, has been no impediment to its becoming hegemonic, at least not for an American academic community that seems willing to sacrifice Milton's poetry for any theory that offers the hope of a univocal solution to the impasse.
The Romantic perspective, baldly stated as it had initially been by William Blake and Percy Bysshe Shelley, was of course untenable as a full-scale interpretation of the poem for its own reasons. First and most obviously, it contradicted Milton's Christianity, not only his theological writings but also his professed aims in the poem itself and not only his professed aims but also what one might call the larger trajectory of the poem. …