- Destabilizing Milton: "Paradise Lost" and the Poetics of Incertitude
In Paradise Lost and the Seventeenth Century Reader (1947), Balachandra Rajan looks to earlier critics: "In order to know what a book on Milton is trying to do, [End Page 650] it is useful to know what previous books have done . . . I am therefore presenting a summary . . . of those aspects of Milton scholarship which are specially valuable as a background to this book" (9). That is Herman's approach in his introduction, but with a twist, offering an assured critique of narrow thinking he asserts has shaped the interpretation of Milton's work, particularly Paradise Lost. That poem is the main subject of a carefully reasoned, provocative book exploring the political, theological, and gender-based contradictions in Milton's writings, specifically "anomalies" (11) of the epic that critics across a spectrum of perspectives, Herman claims, have labored erroneously to resolve or have willfully ignored. Modeling his argument about the "rules governing the interpretive community of Miltonists" (6) on Thomas Kuhn (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions ), Herman examines the circumscribed "paradigm" of "acceptable . . . criticism" that has "largely" shaped "Milton studies until very recently, and which continues to hold great sway"; a body of interpretation controlled by "three propositions," that "Milton is a poet of absolute, unqualified certainty; Paradise Lost coheres; [the] critic's task is to make the poem cohere" (7).
Herman's survey, titled "'Normal' Interpretation and the Protocols of Milton Criticism: Or, How the Interpretation of Milton Really Works," leaves no doubt about its targets; Herman selects to devastating effect "some representative examples from recent, canonical pieces of Milton criticism" (8) by Stanley Fish and, among others, Michael Lieb, Diane McColley, Christopher Hill, and Regina Schwartz, juxtaposing Kuhn's comment that "Normal science . . . often suppresses fundamental novelties because they are necessarily subversive of its basic commitments" (6) against, for example, C. S. Lewis's remark that his Preface to 'Paradise Lost' (1961) is designed to "prevent the reader from ever raising certain questions" (7).
A champion of William Empson's "usually reviled" (20) Milton's God (1961), Herman forswears Fish's "view of Milton as a writer 'without either contradiction or tension'" (7–8), a perspective shared by "a great many Miltonists" (7), noting that Barbara Lewalski "omits any mention of Empson in her otherwise magisterial The Life of John Milton" (2000), and that Milton's God is even absent from "her exhaustive bibliography" (184, n. 86). Instead, following recent critics such as John Rumrich, Victoria Silver, Michael Bryson, and particularly Joseph Wittreich, who have "engaged seriously" (20) with Empson's analysis, Herman focuses on the "thematic importance of the inconsistencies within" the poem (11) and proposes a "poetics of incertitude" as the defining characteristic of Paradise Lost.
Herman's Milton is a writer unsettled from previous political, theological, and patriarchal certainties "in large part from a failure of the English Revolution" (21). His argument is persuasively detailed in seven chapters that focus with equal analytic skill on Milton's rhetoric, his religious and political views, and the biographical and historical circumstances that shaped Milton's views of women and marriage.
Central to Herman's conception of Milton is an idea of "The Miltonic 'Or'"; he cites the "omnipresence" (43) of the word or in the epic (where earlier Albert C. Labriola had "proposed that 'all' constitutes 'the essence of Paradise Lost'" ) [End Page 651] to demonstrate that "Milton conceives of his narrative in terms of choice" (44), arguing that Milton's poetry and prose are structured by "unresolved choices" of opposites, as in "L'Allegro" and "Il Penseroso." Herman outlines with lawyerly precision anomalies in Paradise Lost earlier critics have blurred, and he offers a convincing explanation of how Milton's "epic similes . . . lead the reader" to a narrative "aporia" (21). But this rhetorically exciting analysis is limited by perhaps necessary inconclusiveness, for Herman does not offer enough insight into Milton's possible motive for creating this deadlocked debate between choices. Herman writes, "I...