Thursday, July 17, 2008

Why I (still) Love Milton, or Milton in Love

Stanley Fish has a column in Monday's Times about the Milton Conference in London, marking 400 years since the poet's birth.



Well, I was there too! Stanley came over to me--it's been a long time since he was my very first Milton teacher at Columbia--and said he wanted to talk. Preparing his piece for the Times, he was surveying the gathered Miltonists on the question of why we continue to find Milton 'captivating.' I was at the National Portrait Gallery (Madame Tussauds for snobs), the Tate Modern (chasing pigeons with Pinchos while my wife was in the gift shop), and then at Magdalen College at Oxford (and All Souls and Christ Church!), so I never got to have what Milton calls 'meet conversation' with the brilliant (and to me avuncular) Fish.

Sometimes an invited shabbos guest--usually a seminary girl or a yeshiva boy--will ask about the connection between Milton and Judaism. To which I usually respond by passing the hummus and charif (hot sauce), and reminding them, in not-so-subtle ways, that I am the One Who Asks the Questions (especially the personal ones!). But it is a good question.

The archangel Raphael in Book 5 of Milton's Paradise Lost explains to Adam:
...freely we serve
Because we freely love, as in our will
To love or not; in this we stand or fall...

Service and love come together: in this we stand or fall. And so Milton's Adam returns:

...we never shall forget to love
Our Maker.
The enjambment (remember that from high school?)--the line which both ends and runs into the next--shows how love of man and love of the divine are related, a service based upon love. We never shall forget to love!

Love, as Jonathan Lear writes, is the impulse towards connection and union. While Milton's seventeenth-century philosophical contemporaries were inventing reason and objectivity, Milton himself was hopelessly in love--with God, with poetry, with his fellow Englishmen. Milton understood that only through love does the individual truly 'stand': through identification and union the individual--and this is the paradox--becomes more and more himself. Thus Milton was both the greatest of individuals and the most faithful! (a paradox reduced to a contradiction by some of my Miltonist colleagues).

The modern university--the institutional legacy of those philosophers against which Milton rebelled--is founded upon the knowledge that comes from a disembodied and supposedly neutral reason, not the wisdom that comes from the connection of love. Universities train the detachment of sophisticated distance, the studied disengagement that trickles down into pop-culture, distilled in the expression: 'whatever.' There was no 'whatever' for Milton; for him the wisdom of love is 'an act of union'; he knew as Lear does that the 'perspective outside love'--what passes today as 'being objective'--must be 'one of developmental failure and pathology.' Milton passed on the philosophical innovations of his contemporaries--Descartes, Hobbes, and the rest of them--and continued to love. Without love, there is the illusion of an objective view of the world, but it is actually one of disinterested nullity--the pathology of disengagement.

So when in London last week, I was reminded of the importance of Milton in my path to engagement, as well as the persistent resonances of Adam's claim--that 'we never shall forget to love'!

3 comments:

poemparts said...

Well said and more need not be said.

mikeyboy said...

Hey Bill, I forgot that the guy you studied Milton with in college was Fish...in fact I forgot (or never knew) that he was at Columbia.

Tr8erGirl said...

Enjambment - Im gonna try to slip THAT one into a conversation today....