Monday, October 07, 2013

Professor Dr. Martin Kuester - Milton's Prudent Ambiguities

Gift Book from Professor Kuester

A fellow Milton scholar -- Professor Dr. Martin Kuester, of the Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik, at Philipps-Universität Marburg, in Marburg, Germany -- sent me a copy of his book Milton's Prudent Ambiguities: Words and Signs in His Poetry and Prose, which I have now read and responded to:
Dear Martin,

Your book -- Milton's Prudent Ambiguities: Words and Signs in His Poetry and Prose -- arrived last week, on Wednesday (I think), and because I had a lull in my grading and editing, I used this time to read it, and have in fact just finished it only minutes ago, though the acuity of my reading may have been impaired by some pain medication I've been taking since Wednesday for major dental work.

I am especially interested in your view on what the seventeenth-century reformers of language meant by a direct correspondence between word and thing. (I note in passing that the Hebrew term davar means both "word" and "thing.") By "thing," did they mean something like a material object? Or rather anything at all? Whatever was meant, would the word for a thing be a name, i.e., a noun? I find this puzzling. While nouns might constitute the largest category among the parts of speech, they are a minority in most sentences. The previous sentence, for example, has only six nouns out of nineteen words -- and none of them, for that matter, naming material objects. Furthermore, words in a sentence have logical and grammatical relations to each other, a feature ignored by the reformers' emphasis upon the word-thing correspondence.

I appreciated your point that Milton does not consider ambiguous language solely postlapsarian, but notes its prelapsarian, Edenic uses. The difference, I agree, depends upon the intention of the speaker. My own formulation of Milton's distinction in Paradise Lost has for some time been that of a prelapsarian ambiguity that enriches language usage and a postlapsarian ambiguity that impoverishes language usage, e.g., between teaching and deceiving.

My own story, The Bottomless Bottle of Beer, is similarly concerned with linguistic ambiguity -- as you will have of course noticed if you've had a chance to read it -- but we can leave that discussion to another time.

Finally, thank you very much for the gift of your book. It focuses directly upon a central interest of mine and has enriched my linguistic understanding.

Best Regards,

Jeffery Hodges
In rereading my own email, I see an ambiguity (how ironic!) in my reference to "a postlapsarian ambiguity that impoverishes language usage." I didn't intend to imply that Milton saw no postlapsarian continuation of "a prelapsarian ambiguity that enriches language usage"! That unintended but possible reading of my distinction between two ambiguities might account for Professor Kuester's expressed agreement with only the prelapsarian part of my formulation in his reply to my email:
Dear Jeffery,

I somehow doubt that seventeenth-century language theories are the ideal cure for toothache. ;-)

I think I would go along with your formulation about prelapsarian ambiguity. Of course, prelapsarian ambiguity in teaching would be part of the godgame the Father plays with Adam and Eve.

I haven't thought about the relationship between words and things (Augustinian to 17th century) for quite some time (and unfortunately my Hebrew is non-existent). The word/thing distinction, as you state, does not take into account quite an important part of spoken and written language and seems to look at nouns only. But as I understand it, some of the 17th-century "linguists" would still believe in a "monolithic" universe (at least before the Fall). That is what I guess Swift is satirizing in his desciption of those scholars who want to simplify life by getting rid of words in Gulliver's Travels.

As for the Bottomless Bottle, I enjoyed it very much with the literary allusions of which I certainly did not catch all. And there are certainly godgames played at various levels. A pleasure to read.

Best wishes,

I responded to this email by asking permission to post Professor Kuester's remarks, to which he graciously agreed:
You can use my reply (to your Milton question or to the Bottomless Beer Bottle?). No problem either way, although my formulations may have been somewhat ad hoc. Some of the "linguists" in the 17th century would probably have believed in re-instating a prelapsarian state through "science" and linguistic reform, others through faith.
The scholarly world can be a very generous one to inhabit, as I've learned by experience, having received several free books from scholars all over the world. Such generosity should be reciprocated, especially if the book is good, so I heartily recommend Professor Kuester's book to Milton scholars and others interested in seventeenth-century ideas on the reform of language.

And thank-you, Professor Kuester, for your further words of explanation on seventeenth-century linguistic reform and for your permission to post your emails here on my blog -- and also, of course, for your kind words on my novella!

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At 2:12 PM, Blogger dhr said...

In his long poem "Il Mondo Creato" (The Creation of the World), published in 1592, that would become a source to Milton, Torquato Tasso mocked the Greeks because they employed great skills just to invent new words -- useless ones, in his opinion. That is a clear example of Freudian projection, as he himself, like Milton later, loved to build an experimental language precisely because the meaning of the universe continually eludes us.

At 3:08 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Ha! They call me deluded, but the meaning of the universe hasn't continually eluded me! Simply, no one understands me when I explain that the meaning lies in its recursive structure, or as Milton said: "@*%##%*@! I can't get this one line to rhyme! If only poetry need not rhyme!"

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:52 PM, Blogger dhr said...


At 4:08 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

You laugh, but one day, I shall have the last laugh!

Jeffery Hodges

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