The Milton Bash(ing) Continues...
I mentioned yesterday that some scholars on the Milton List were angered by Charles McGrath's article in the New York Times: "Milton Regained: A Helluva Party" (September 25, 2008). Some objected to the Arthur Kirmss sculpture, The Testament of the Poet, for depicting Milton with his tongue sticking out. I was merely puzzled by this aspect of the sculpture until Terrance Lindall sent me the artist's own explanation:
In The Testament of the Poet, Milton’s tongue is outstretched in a gesture of humility derived from a traditional Tibetan bestowal of greetings to strangers. For the artist, this is an unforgettable gesture of humble testimony to one's own frail humanity. In this way, the work demonstrates the great poet’s vulnerability that he "extends" to us, so all may see the words directly upon the poet's tongue. What is composed and engraved there reveals the sculptor's apotheosis of Milton: "In nature's halls those who wait will reach the sky and rise up to the mountain where they will see the river burst forth from the rock." For Milton, "They also serve who only stand and wait." This waiting is the long pause before the burst of inspiration.The artist's wife, Ellen Brody-Kirmss, posted this explanation on the Milton List for other scholars to read. Some scholars thought the artist's Tibetan allusion overly obscure, so the art expert Stan Parchin posted his view on the matter, claiming that art is also intended to teach us something new. James Rovira maintained his objection that the allusion was too obscure, but Feisal Mohamed argured that Milton scholars in particular shouldn't object to obscurity in works of art. I posted a response:
In defense of the Tibetan allusion in the Milton sculpture by Arthur Kirmss, Stan Parchin wrote:I hope that I'm also not impeached for my views. I suppose that I'll soon find out, but for the time being, I'll take vicarious enjoyment in the Williamsburg Art and Historical Center's "Grand Paradise Lost Costume Ball," a great Milton bash that ought to be in progress just about now."You know, Arthur's Tibetan articulation of Milton's tongue is PURE ARTHUR. I didn't know that, too. Isn't that the whole point? To teach the viewer something s/he didn't know?"Jim Rovira replied:"I'm not sure that visual symbols work that way. It seems to me that icons only work as a visual language capable of teaching if the viewers share enough context to immediately understand the symbols."Jim, you're correct that most of us probably missed the Tibetan allusion. I missed it -- and instead found myself reminded of that iconic photo of Einstein sticking his tongue out. I wonder if Kirmss had this in mind as well. Also occurring to me was an image of a Maori warrior sticking his tongue out. Was Kirmss also thinking of this sort of thing? Be that as it may, I find myself again agreeing with Feisal:"It seems odd that readers of Milton would object to an obscure allusion, and to its reference to a non-Western culture. Among its many ambitions, Paradise Lost aspires to be the first epic that is truly global in scope."We can't really fault an artist for being obscure, especially since those of us who love and study Milton's writings also probably enjoy the layers of meaning, many of these obscure until we shine a light upon them.
For instance, I was unaware of the possibility that Milton's 'apple' was really a peach until Robert Appelbaum drew my attention to it last summer on this very list. If Robert is right, then Milton's allusion in PL 9.851 to a fruit that "downie smil'd" was truly obscure for about 300 years . . . until Robert noticed it.
So let's not peach artists for being obscure.