Tuesday, July 15, 2008

John Milton and missed opportunities

John Milton
Still living among us . . .

The Miltonist Stanley Fish writes a "Happy Birthday, Milton" greeting in a recent issue of the New York Times. The piece is an entry from Fish's NYT blog, Think Again, this one a piscine report from the great big London bash for John Milton:
I am writing from London where I am attending the Ninth International Milton Symposium which also marks John Milton's quatercentenary. (He was born December 9, 1608, and died in 1674.) In a sense it's just a big birthday party for a big birthday, although none of us is likely be honored by a party at which some 200 people from all around the world give papers celebrating our achievements, either during our lifetimes or after we have been dead for centuries.
That sesquipedalian word "quatercentenary" means "quadricentennial," which means "a quadricentenary event or celebration," and "quadricentenary" means "a 400th anniversary or celebration."

In short, 2008 is the 400th anniversary of John Milton's birth.

I had hoped to attend, but I missed my chance because as with many things in my life, I've been late to the party . . . or, as in this case, missed the party entirely. I had offered a paper topic but made the mistake of proposing something that I'd already published on . . . and received this reply:
Thank you for your proposal ('Milton's Tree of Knowledge: Why "Sacred" Fruit?') for the Ninth International Milton Symposium, to be held under the auspices of the Institute of English Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London, 7-11 July 2008. Both the readers thought that your proposal did not differ substantively from previously published work and hence was ineligible. I therefore very much regret to say that the Academic Steering Committee has not accepted your proposal.
This was the response to my proposal, which had itself been late (September 21, 2007) but within the extended deadline:
I would like to apply (rather late) to present a paper at the Milton Conference next July. Here is my proposal:
Milton's Tree of Knowledge: Why "Sacred" Fruit? John Milton has Adam describe fruit from the tree of knowledge as "sacred fruit" (Paradise Lost 9.924), which raises three questions. (1) Does Adam express Milton's own view? Answer: yes, but whether Adam shares Milton's understanding of two sorts of sacredness remains unclear. (2) What might "sacred" mean here? Milton seems to mean not the dynamic power of holiness but the holy as pure and set apart, whereas Adam's view on this point remains unclear. (3) Would the fruit remain sacred after being taken? Milton portrays the fruit as no longer sacred after its plucking but as "unhallowd" in the strong sense of being imbued with a force of impurity, a point that Adam fails to recognize. An excursus on chaos and evil follows after these points and argues that chaos is not intrinsically evil, for it is not intrinsically impure, but also that it can be misused for impure, evil purposes.
This is based on my work in biblical studies and taken from a paper that I have published in a Milton journal in Korea, but I will revise it for the conference. I apologize for being late, but I wasn't sure if I could afford the trip. However, I decided that since I might not be living for the 500th anniversary of Milton's birth, then I ought to apply this time.
I suppose that the two mistrustful readers who thought that my "proposal did not differ substantively from previously published work and hence was ineligible" just didn't believe my promise to revise my ideas, but why should they, for they didn't know me?

I therefore missed a once-in-a-lifetime chance, for I certainly won't be around for the 500th anniversary . . . unless I live to be over 150! Even the 450th anniversary is beyond me. I might live to see the 425th anniversary, coming right up in 2033 . . . if I still have anything to say about Milton.

At any rate, Stanley Fish is enjoying himself, going around listening to various papers and asking the gathered scholars "Why?":
This is a gathering not of Milton fans (although the attendees are that, too), but of Milton professionals, that is, of people who read Milton for a living. Why do we do it? What sustains our interest over the length of a career?
I ask myself the same question . . . and give an answer similar to that of the scholars, who went on to note their experience of teaching Milton, as Fish reports:
Any number of conference-goers reported the same experience -- students who were in a class only because it fulfilled a requirement or because it was given at a convenient time, students who assumed that they were going to be either bored or made to feel inadequate by an impossibly allusive verse written in an alien, Latinate language. And then, on about the third or fourth week, these same students were fully engaged, arguing with the poetry and with each other about everything under the sun and a few things above it. No matter what the students came in believing or disbelieving, no matter how hard they tried to remain detached, they were drawn in, and once drawn in they were absolutely hooked.
I, too, was hooked -- and yes, as a student, way back in the 12th grade. My English class read Book 5 of Paradise Lost, and I still recall having been fascinated by Eve's dream of an 'angelic' being who offers her fruit from the tree of knowledge. For some reason, we read only that, along with the story of Satan's later, successful temptation of Eve, but nothing else. I didn't learn the story of Satan's fall and of his 'heroic' attempt to recoup his losses and strike back at heaven until many years later. I don't even recall reading Paradise Lost in university, but I always intended to return to it and read the entire poem from beginning to end. My chance finally arrived in 2001, when I accepted a position in the English Department of Hanshin University and needed to find a research field. I chose Milton and have published on his great poem every year since then.

I was therefore greatly disappointed to miss out on the quatercentenary, but I suppose that this missed opportunity is my own fault, another instance in this life pattern of mine. I envy, though not in the bad sense, those whose missed opportunities can be made up, as with the case of commenter Arnold Silverman, who has finally -- in his older years, I take it -- read Milton's magnum opus:
I dove into the bottomless sea of this wonderful work without what I believed the imperative, prerequisite classical education. A business major, Rutgers never required me to take those courses (on reflection, at this late stage of my life, a lost opportunity). I had a difficult time at first. I found myself visiting annotations more than the text. However, once acclimated to the flow and intensity of this work of works, I was gripped into journeying through one of the greatest and most moving reading experiences of my life.
Not everyone concurs with Silverman. Milton has always not only aroused great passion but also raised great opposition. A certain 'anonymous' reacts to Fish's report from London:
I hate Milton. I usually try to give every writer a second chance but every time I return to Milton (from high school to college to graduate school), I just hate him all the more. The one author I truly cannot stand.
And then . . . there are those, like the oddly named Lampwick, who'd like to hate Milton, but can't:
It's a wonderful poem, but it's all lies; every bit of it, on every side.
At least Mr. Lampwick didn't pass up the opportunity to read and . . . well, 'appreciate' Milton. I suppose that Lampwick's experience of aesthetics trumping ethics is the counterpart to an experience that I once reported on.

But I don't agree that Milton's "wonderful poem" is "all lies," and I'd really have liked to have found myself in the pleasant company of a couple hundred other people celebrating Milton's achievements.

But since I had nothing new to say, I'll just say happy birthday, Mr. Milton. Sorry to have missed your party.

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At 10:24 AM, Blogger Jessieroo said...

Hello! In doing some searching for "Jeffery Hodges" for a project on eugenics I am doing, I happened upon your blog. I was wondering if you, by chance, did any studying at Michigan State University?



At 10:34 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Jessie, thanks for the query.

No, I never studied at MSU. Does another "Jeffery Hodges" actually exist? I wonder if he encounters mispellings due to the "-ery" ending in "Jeffery." I endure the indignity nearly every day, but you got my name right. Thanks.

Now, I'm curious how my name -- or some other poor "Jeffery" -- got associated with eugenics.

Anyway, while I have studied at various places -- Baylor University, Berkeley, Tuebingen, and a few other schools -- I can't include MSU among these.

Are you an MSU student?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:24 PM, Blogger Jessieroo said...

I am an MSU student. I'm completing a thesis on female involvements in the Michigan eugenics movement and "the other" Jeffery Hodges happened to complete both Masters and Doctoral theses on the eugenics in Michigan at MSU. I want to ask him some questions about his primary resources--but he seems to be rather elusive.

Unrelated, but I am an aspiring historian of science myself and will be applying to doctoral programs this fall. I haven't really considered universities west of the Mississippi, but how did you enjoy your experience at UC Berkeley?

Thanks for your help!

At 9:50 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Jessie, Berkeley was long ago now, and I was one of the few in history of science at the time, so I was treated well despite being a difficult individual. I look back on my time there with some chagrin, sorry that I didn't make more of the program.

I loved being close to San Francisco, however, and made the most of that.

Wherever you go, be sure to do good, hard work, keep a good attitude, always offering help, and make connections. All of this will be to your benefit when you start looking for jobs.

I'm too asocial, difficult, and snarky, so I still struggle to maintain a position. Character is destiny, I guess, but at least I'm still friends with John Heilbron.

Good luck.

Jeffery Hodges

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