Adam Kirsch on 'What the hell did Milton mean by that?'
Posed recently in the Sunday Book Review section of the New York Times was the question, "Should an Author's Intentions Matter?" (March 10, 2015), to which Adam Kirsch responded:
No book could announce its author's intentions more plainly than "Paradise Lost." John Milton declared his purpose in the opening stanza: "That to the heighth of this great argument / I may assert Eternal Providence, / And justify the ways of God to men." And that is how "Paradise Lost" was read for the first century and a half of its existence: as a vindication of God's justice. Because the sacred drama of the Fall will conclude with the salvation of humanity through the sacrifice of Jesus, Adam comes to realize that all his suffering is divinely ordained for the best: "O goodness infinite, goodness immense! / That all this good of evil shall produce, / And evil turn to good!" [But the Romantics] opened the same poem that pious Christians had been enjoying for generations, only they discovered something surprising: The hero of the poem is not Adam, or . . . [the Son], or God himself, but actually Satan, the incarnation of evil. Because all the other characters act out of obedience to a divine plan, they can't be said to possess the characteristics of heroism - boldness, daring, pride. Only Satan, who acts in opposition to God, has those traits, and as a result, he gets the best speeches - as when he declares, after he is hurled into hell, that "All is not lost; the unconquerable will, / And study of revenge, immortal hate, / And courage never to submit or yield" . . . . Yet how could it be that Milton, . . . a deeply pious Christian and who explicitly said that his poem was meant to promulgate Christian truths, was actually . . . [exalting Satan]? This could be possible only if the author was not actually the master of his own intentions. Perhaps Milton was ensnared by the false piety of his own time, and it took the antinomian insight of the Romantics to liberate him - to make him the poet of revolt that he secretly wanted to be all the time . . . . The idea that readers could know an author's intentions better than . . . is, of course, deeply destabilizing to our usual ways of thinking about literature. If a text can mean anything the reader wants it to mean, then why read it in the first place? Isn't literature supposed to help us achieve contact with other minds, rather than trapping us in a hall of mirrors, in which we can see only our own distorted reflections? Surely there must be limits to a text's interpretability . . . . [O]f course there are . . . . [b]ut the history of literature shows that, in practice, what an author believed . . . has no real sovereignty over later readers' interpretations. Indeed, one way of defining great literature is that it allows itself to be endlessly reinterpreted.Reinterpreted, yes, but within limits, I say. Am I right? Milton is - for instance - surely no heretic! His poem may take imaginative flight, but it is surely grounded in orthodoxy, it is surely entirely and completely orthodox.
Except that it isn't.
Milton rejects the Trinity, does not present the Holy Spirit as having personhood, and believes the Son to have been begotten at a point in time and therefore not present with the Father from eternity. If Milton was thus open to hiding such beliefs in plain sight, might he have equivocated on his intention to "justify the ways of God to men"? The term "justify" has more than one meaning - consistent with Milton's common use of dual meanings - and Milton's God is not particularly likeable. He's not even "likeable enough."
But do take note that Milton in this scenario is still "the master of his own intentions" and knows those intentions better than his readers, even better than his small group of fit readers - "Fit audience . . . though few" - who must themselves labor hard to see what he specifically meant. Kirsch thus limits interpretive possibilities in saying that Milton's exaltation of Satan to heroic stature "could be possible only if the author was not actually the master of his own intentions."
Speaking of intentions, Kirsch overstates Satan's unique status as intentional rebel in saying that "all the other characters act out of obedience to a divine plan." Milton's Eve, for instance, intentionally rebels. She is tempted to do so by Satan, of course, but the choice is her own. If Eve is following God's plan through rebellion, then so is Satan. Conversely, if Satan is disobeying God's plan, then so is Eve.
Such is my reading, anyway.