Wednesday, February 21, 2007

On Milton's 'Identity'

Fellow Cambridge Students' Epithet for Milton
(Image from Wikipedia)

Someone posed a question on the Milton List about 'Queer' readings of Milton, which naturally (or unnaturally?) led to questions about Milton's 'identity' -- that loaded essentialist term.

This led the discussion into the Foucauldean territory, where we queried (sorry) labels, raising distinctions between identity and acts -- did the pre-Modern mind conceive of a homosexual identity, as opposed to distinct, same-sex acts?

Sodomy, for instance, was recognized in the Medieval world as a sin, and the sodomist was one convicted of the crime of that unnatural act, but did an act of sodomy indicate a sodomist identity? Unclear.

Some scholars argued, however, that that Ancient philosopher Plato would have understood the distinction between the 'normal' pederasty practiced between an adult, aristocratic male and a young male, in which the former also instructed the latter in the masculine virtues required of a grown man, and a different sort of male-on-male sexual relations in which a grown man would accept the role of an 'effeminate' partner and would be recognized as what we today call "homosexual" -- whatever Plato might have chosen to call it.

And so ran the discussion, ranging over Modern, Medieval, and Ancient times . . . eventually leading to a consensus that we were all in general disagreement.

Someone then raised the 'innocent' question as to whether or not Milton had smoked.

This led the scholars to various recollections of evidence that Milton might have indulged but that he was no regular smoker, with no remains of even a smoker's pipe among the belongings mentioned in his estate, in his writings, or among his friends.

The Canadian expert on Milton, John Leonard, also added his own recollection:
I have a recollection that one of the early lives (I don't remember which one) makes reference to Milton's "drinking tobacco," and I am fairly certain that Christopher Hill cites this in his *Milton and the English Revolution* as evidence that Milton knew how to have a good time (again, I don't have the reference, but maybe someone else will).
Interesting that the English of Milton's time called it "drinking tobacco" rather than smoking tobacco -- so maybe we should be asking if Milton was "a drinker"? Or should we not even think about such labels? For on this point, Leonard remarks:
We should be cautious, however, of calling Milton "a smoker." Although the word did exist in the sense "smoker of tobacco" (OED cites this sense from 1617), it may be doubted whether it specifically designated a person's *identity*, and so it did not amount to a constitutive component of early modern high modernity, which is to say, in part, a contributing concept to the distinctly modern organization of knowledge. Moreover, the early modern period did not have a term for NON-smoker, so even "smoker" (which it did have a term for) was meaningless. The smartest scholars will therefore be content to say that Milton might have engaged in occasional smokaditical acts.
Who says that scholars lack an ironic sense of self-deprecating humor?



At 6:26 AM, Blogger A.H. said...

Queer readings of Milton? Given that a "queer" reading presupposes a political stance (as opposed to a "gay" reading) I would have thought that this was unlikely: Milton never intended such readings. A "gay" reading? Possibly. There is the tantalising joke by Diodati, to Milton, that they should avoid the sin of Sardanapalus (I think): sodomy and indulgence. Certainly, the exchanges between the two young academics show a certain Platonic fire; also an irritiating heterosexual posturing (as a blind to what is being written), but the evidence is circumstantial--even the "Lady" term. I can't see much that would come from this line of enquiry. What thinkest thou?

At 8:47 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I don't know what to think about it. I hadn't even known of the distinction between a 'queer' reading of Milton and a 'gay' reading.

One can always look for 'evidence' of what we now call 'the homosexual' or 'the homoerotic' or 'the homosocial' or the whatever, but the past is another country, and they often expressed themselves in ways that carried different meanings then than now. Here in South Korea, seeing two men touching hands, for instance, is not unusual, and it usually has nothing to do with homosexuality.

Indeed, the American cultural practice of maintaining physical distance between males probably makes more evident who is a homosexual (or so it just now occurs to me).

But what do I know. I'm an incorrigible heterosexual...

Jeffery Hodges

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