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  • Reading Events:The Value of Reading and the Possibilities of Political Action and Criticism in Samson Agonistes
  • Ryan Netzley

Questions about the morality of Samson's apocalyptically violent act and the salvational status of Samson himself preoccupied criticism of Samson Agonistes long before September 11, 2001. In his 1968 introduction to the poem, John Carey famously dubbed Samson's destruction of the Temple of Dagon "morally disgusting." Irene Samuel and Joseph Wittreich shared Carey's condemnation of Samson's action, interpreting the poem as a critique of the violent, unregenerate bully of the biblical Judges account. Neither was there a dearth of critics who explicitly described Samson as a terrorist before 2001. Christopher Hill, in 1990, asked whether John Milton's famous injunction to hate God's enemies and Samson's apocalyptic violence might be more palatable to "A member of an anti-Nazi resistance movement during World War II, a black South African today, or a Palestinian in Israeli-occupied territories, indeed a member of the I.R.A." In a 1988 essay comparing Samson Agonistes and Doris Lessing's The Good Terrorist, Jacqueline DiSalvo went so far as to label Milton's Samson not just a terrorist, but "the one 'good terrorist' to whom the oxymoron of that title [Lessing's] might straightforwardly, rather than ironically, be applied."1

Even though questions about the morality of Samson's actions and his affinities with terrorists are not new, such questions seem to possess a greater urgency, and their answers a greater stridency, in the current political and academic climate. Yet as Feisal G. Mohamed has cautioned, readers and citizens would do well to treat with skepticism assertions that after September 11, 2001, everything is different or that recent terrorist attacks on the United States are radically unique, unparalleled events.2 Mohamed's essay worries, I think rightly, that the radicalism of Milton's text may get lost in a post-9/11 critical milieu that attempts to purge Milton's corpus of unsavory allegiances. Yet in what exactly does the radicalism of Samson Agonistes consist? Mohamed argues that it resides in the poem's [End Page 509] refusal to reify the boundaries between civilization and barbarity, a refusal that should then serve as a model for a politically informed reading strategy. But Mohamed's claim that we should be wary of announcements about how everything has changed after 9/11 relies on modern political arguments, not Milton's poem.3 That is, his essay does not explore how the poem itself interrogates modern reading strategies, our cherished notions of effective political engagement, and, most fundamentally, the relationship between reading and events.

I would argue that Samson Agonistes first casts doubt on readers' and citizens' abilities to recognize historically significant events by rendering Samson's internal motivation, treated in the poem as a dramatic and inexplicable turning point, as much more ambiguous and indeterminable than that offered in the Judges account. Paradoxically, though, Milton's dramatic poem does not then depict events as mysteriously inaccessible happenings, muddled by the vagaries of human perception or interpretation. Rather, when the poem turns to the Messenger's, Manoa's, and the Chorus's various interpretive responses to the destruction of the Temple of Dagon, Samson Agonistes presents events as all too knowable and insists that they are a political, not hermeneutic or epistemological, problem. In other words, events do not pose a problem because one cannot recognize the really important ones or because of their indeterminate meanings, but because they serve as an illusory, outsourced crutch for political transformation. In this sense, a political practice that waits for external events to alter the lot of individuals is not only hopelessly utopian, but also an abdication of political responsibility. Reading, in Samson Agonistes, appears as a superior mechanism for political change precisely because it foregrounds one's mediated relationship to the world and acknowledges the difficulty of transforming political institutions and individuals' internal dispositions. Milton's poem then dramatizes the extent to which a focus on immediate events impedes political action, resistance, and deliverance. In this respect, we should recall that The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates distinguishes between the vulgar and the learned...


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