Imperfect Sense: The Predicament of Milton's Irony

Imperfect Sense: The Predicament of Milton's Irony

Imperfect Sense: The Predicament of Milton's Irony

Imperfect Sense: The Predicament of Milton's Irony

Synopsis

Why do we hate Milton's God? Victoria Silver reengages with a perennial problem in Milton studies, one whose genealogy dates back at least to the Romantics, but which finds its most cogent modern expression in William Empson's revulsion at Milton's God and Stanley Fish's defense.Thoroughly reexamining Milton's theology and its sources in Luther and Calvin, as well as theoretical parallels in the works of Wittgenstein, Cavell, Adorno, and Benjamin, Silver contends that this repugnance is not extrinsic but deliberately cultivated in the theodicy of Paradise Lost. From the vantage of a world riven by injustice, deity can appear to contradict its own revelation, with the result that we experience a God divided against himself. For as Job found in his sufferings, that God appears more ruse than redeemer. Milton's irony recreates this religious predicament in Paradise Lost to the intractable perplexity of his readers, who have in their turn fashioned an equally dissociated Milton--at once unconscious and calculating, heterodox and doctrinaire, heroic and intolerable.Silver argues that, ultimately, these contrary Gods and antithetical Miltons arise from the sense we want to give the speaker's justification, which rather than ratifying our assumptions of meaning and the incoherence they foster, seeks fundamentally to reform them and thus to justify God's ways.

Excerpt

Caught as we are between possibility and mortality, irony remains a quintessentially human expression that, without platitudes, conveys the perplexity of our condition. This is especially the case when irony is taken to the extremes of absurdity or extenuation, since these manage to ridicule that most fundamental of human dogmas, namely, our pretension to something grander and finer than mere animal existence. For even as irony expresses the rueful if distinctive impulse to reflection or consciousness of ourselves as creatures, our very attempts at that perspective tend to leave us lost in Swiftian loathing at the unangelic thing we find, in terror of what looks like our own bestial futility. of course, absurdity has always inspired such revulsion at our creatural nature, designed as it is to deliver us from the rational delusion of human preeminence. Yet more tacitly or more insidiously, so do the endless placating, temporizing, casuistical rounds we make in the opposite direction, invoking ‘mere humanity’ to excuse our seemingly invariable failure to improve ourselves. I mean the unctuous irony of rationalization, when we devote all our ingenuity to the task of avoiding thoughtfulness, and whose point is how we debase and betray our peculiar intelligence in thus refusing responsibility for what we have made of human being.

But intelligence, however it is expressed, remains our obligation as creatures, and the one quality capable of rendering this existence meaningful, memorable, artistic in the ancient sense. and for the most part, we invoke irony both more kindly and scrupulously to assess just this intelligence, in the desire to better if not transcend human nature as we find it, and at the same time to acknowledge the finitude of the creature on which human vanity appears doomed to founder. That is why irony and drama show such an entire affinity for each other, because drama is the mode of representation most completely capturing not just the sense but the intimate sensation of this tension integral to human being— between our aspirations and our actualities. When Aristotle says that epic, like tragedy, is a mimesis or imitation of an action, he is distinguishing this dimensionality that attends any populated, diversified account of our experience: it is the genius of drama as an expressive mode to imagine and depict the human predicament much like we undergo it, projected as the perpetually latent mean-

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