Saturday, November 16, 2013

Surprised by Fish

The Titans in Hell, by Gustave Doré
Public Domain
A while back, I wrote a quick post addressing some of Stanley Fish's broader claims in Surprised by Sin, quite possibly the most influential secondary resource for Milton's Paradise Lost. I've had a little bit of time to actually get into the text of late, so I have new discoveries and new contentions with some of the claims therein.

Overall, Fish makes some really intriguing points and corrects (perhaps too giddily) a number of flaws in theories then prevailing among Miltonic scholars. As a whole, though, I still wonder if Fish misinterprets the Satan character, despite his clear focus on his necessity in helping the reader to understand his own condition. I've been working to prove basically that same point but from the perspective that Milton's Satan figure should be interpreted not as the Biblical adversary but as one of many varying degrees of human depravity or fallenness. Fish certainly makes a number of claims that support this, but I feel like despite his insistence that Milton's objective is to "educate the reader to an awareness of his own condition," he is still fails to comprehend the Arch-fiend's existence as a degenerate condition of humanity.

In the first chapter of Surprised by Sin, Fish comes out directly and says that "[f]or Milton, all history is a replay of the history he is telling, all rebellions one rebellion, all falls one fall" (35), and yet as far as I've read, nowhere is Fish willing to draw a clear comparison between humanity and Milton's Satan figure. If, as Fish proposes, all falls are one fall, all rebellions one rebellion, can't the fall of man and the fall of Lucifer be seen as aspects of the same decline? Fish asserts himself that "sin is a matter of degrees," and maybe the problem is that I just haven't read enough of the book yet to see the full development of Fish's ideas, but it only makes sense that the fallenness of man and the fallenness of the Satan figure could be justifiably compared (12). I think Milton holds to this same idea as well, considering the fact that portions of his description of the man's fall directly mirror those directed toward Lucifer in the Book of Isaiah (cf. PL IX.900-901 & Isa. 14.12). It seems almost unconscionable that Fish could make so many explicit claims as to "the personal relevance of the Arch-fiend's existence" without realizing at least some degree of reciprocal humanity in Satan (22). What offends more, though, is that even in those moments when Milton most clearly accentuates Satan's humanity, underscoring his inner grief in contrast to his outer shows of confidence, Fish asserts that these are rather attempts to unsettle the reader and chide him for having given in to the rhetoric of the Enemy. While his explanation is, perhaps, more convincing than others which had come before, it still grossly misinterprets possibly the most sympathetic moments of the entire work and so distances the reader from an authentic understanding of the role of the Satan figure within Paradise Lost.

Fish rightly proposes that much of the meaning in Paradise Lost is to be derived from a keen awareness of the reader's relation to Adam--from an acknowledgment of one's own fallenness (29). However, Fish misses out on the opportunity to reveal even more significant connections in the relationships of mankind to Eve and to the Satan figure. In so limiting his perspective to not only a patriarchal view but also to a rigidly archetypal interpretation of character, Fish neglects potentially the most dynamic of characters within the epic and fails to acknowledge the importance of nearly half of the work's narrative action and reflective content.

Fish, Stanley. Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost. 1967. Cambridge: Harvard U P, 1997. Print.

No comments:

Post a Comment