Nancy Armstrong and Leonard Tennenhouse on John Milton's 'Fall' of Language
I'm recovered from the Frantic and Lunatic New Year Holiday Trip and am again ready to post entries on Milton, so I'm returning to the putative fall of language that I broached earlier. Today's blog post concerns a long quote from Chapter 4, "The Work of Literature," of the The Imaginary Puritan: Literature, Intellectual Labor, and the Origins of Personal Life, depicted above, by Nancy Armstrong and Leonard Tennenhouse, who discuss the effect of sin upon Satan's language:
- 104 -There are some interesting points worth reflecting upon in this long passage, but the money quote is the following:
Milton . . . strips the defeated angel of almost all the powers he possessed as part of an elite community, leaving only his eloquence intact. To represent the viewpoint of someone excluded from that community, Milton again draws upon Renaissance poetry -- the Petrarchan lyric. In this verse form, the aristocratic woman symbolizes a lack -- the blood the courtier does not possess, the community into which he cannot gain entry, the property and power to which he has no title. Gazing at his mistress only intensifies the courtier's awareness of what appears to be a metaphysical distance separating him from her. Burning with the desire for his patron's power and tormented by envy of those who do enjoy that bounty, Satan speaks the language of such a courtier. The splendor of Eve's body and the erotic pleasure that she and Adam experience simply inspire a more grandiose version of the same kind of longing that found its way into Petrarchan verse:Sight hateful, sight tormenting! thus these twoIssuing from Satan's mouth, the clichés of courtier rhetoric take on a refreshingly literal meaning. The choice of such Petrarchisms to express the most profound resentment that could be felt toward divinely ordained patrilineage is an important one, especially since Milton gives this language such an important role in his version of the Fall.
Imparadis't in one another's arms
The happier Eden, shall enjoy thir fill
Of bliss on bliss, while I to Hell am thrust,
Where neither joy nor love, but fierce desire,
Among our other torments not the least,
Still unfulfill'd with pain of longing pines.
With God's military victory over Satan, their political struggle is hardly over. From Milton's perspective, it has really just begun. The battle within the elite community becomes a battle over the signs and symbols of political power -- the Edenic landscape and the human body. The battle ultimately detaches these symbols from their creator, putting meaning itself in question. Although it presupposes a source outside the elite community, the poetry of lack and longing observes the same ideological imperative as poetry written in gratitude for aristocratic generosity. Capable of acknowledging but one source of power, Satanic rhetoric does nothing to overturn God's authority-- nothing, that is, until that rhetoric
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begins to operate in and through a woman. In this regard, Milton's poem seems to share the Royal Society's view of eloquence as the fall of language from an original state of purity where meaning was immanent in words and words mirrored things. He indicates such purity by eliminating the distinction between Eve's body and its reflection in the pool as well as between that image and her self-conception. As God explains, "What there thou seest fair Creature is thyself" (IV, 468).
This conflation of sign, meaning, and referent constitutes precisely the kind of iconicity that Milton destroys by means of the Fall. Its disintegration begins as Satan whispers in Eve's ear "discontented thoughts / Vain hopes, vain aims, inordinate desires" (IV, 807–8). He tells her a story of a tree that would require her "utmost reach" and how all the creatures "with like desire / Longing and envying stood" around the tree (IX, 591–93). He claims he enhanced his own position by "vent'ring higher than [his] Lot" (IX, 690). Such is the power of his language that it induces Satanic longing, and Eve imagines that forbidden knowledge will do as much for her: "render me more equal, and perhaps, / A thing not undesirable, sometime / Superior" (IX, 823–25). As the fruit fills her body with a common, garden variety of desire, she ceases to embody aristocratic value and becomes the unruly woman, leveler of hierarchies. Once she has "Greedily ... ingorg'd without restraint," Eve is "hight'n'd as with Wine, jocund and boon" (IX, 791–93).
38. William Kerrigan and Gordon Braden, in The Idea of the Renaissance (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989), pp. 191-218, offer an account of Milton's use of Petrarch in the early poetry and in Paradise Lost.
39. For a discussion of the ideology of this form, see Leonard Tennenhouse, "Sir Walter Ralegh and the Literature of Clientage," in Patronage in the Renaissance, ed. Guy Fitch Lytle and Stephen Orgel (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981), pp. 235-58, and Power on Display: The Politics of Shakespeare's Genres (New York: Methuen, 1986), pp. 30-36.
40. Arthur F. Marotti, "'Love is Not Love': Elizabethan Sonnet Sequences and the Social Order," ELH 49 (1982): 396-428, discusses how envy and desire provided the language for place and advancement in such poetry.
41. It is particularly appropriate that this language follows what Barbara Keifer Lewalski has described as Milton's parodies of "a major topos of the romance mode -- the hero's adventure in a Garden of Love." Paradise Lost and the Rhetoric of Literary Forms (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985), pp. 70-71.
(Nancy Armstrong and Leonard Tennenhouse, The Imaginary Puritan: Literature, Intellectual Labor, and the Origins of Personal Life, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992)
Milton's poem seems to share the Royal Society's view of eloquence as the fall of language from an original state of purity where meaning was immanent in words and words mirrored things . . . . This conflation of sign, meaning, and referent constitutes precisely the kind of iconicity that Milton destroys by means of the Fall. (Armstrong and Tennenhouse, The Imaginary Puritan, page 105)Does Milton, however, actually conflate "sign, meaning, and referent" in the prelapsarian garden? Are there no puns, no wordplays prior to the Fall? And if "sign, meaning, and referent" are conflated before the Fall, what are we to make of this:
Evil into the mind of God or ManIf the prelapsarian referent of the word "evil" is conflated with the sign "evil" itself and its meaning, then evil would hardly seem to come and go into one's mind without leaving taint. Even briefly to consider an evil would be to allow that evil itself, not just an abstract expression for it, access to one's mind. But perhaps Armstrong and Tennenhouse simply mean that a word corresponds to its referent, and only to its referent, in the prelapsarian world and have simply expressed themselves badly in our postlapsarian era. Perhaps the fall of language thus means nothing more that the corrupt use of language, as evidenced by faulty postlapsarian talk of prelapsarian conflation.
May come and go, so unapprov'd, and leave
No spot or blame behind (PL 5.117-119)
But what about wordplay. Does it not occur among the unfallen?