Sunday, January 30, 2011

Milton and the 'Fall' of Language?

Biohazard Sign
"This biohazard sign
is a completely conventional symbol
with no inherent relationship
to what it represents."
(Image from Wikipedia)

The effect of original sin upon language was a major theme of the West's Early Modern period as the great increase in knowledge sharpened the issue of what one could securely know, and there has been some scholarly debate over whether or not Milton held to some version of a 'fall' of language. I think that he did, but he doesn't seem to have held to a radical version since, as we saw in yesterday's post, he promotes education as a means of repairing the impairment effected by original sin.

The scholar Herman Rapaport, in Milton and the Postmodern (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983), seems to have argued that Milton believed that postlapsarian language was fallen, and he applied postmodern theory -- drawing particularly Ferdinand de Saussure and Jacques Derrida -- to describe what Milton believed. I've not read Rapaport firsthand, however, so I offer a passage from Richard Bradford's 2001 work, The Complete Critical Guide to John Milton, in which Rapaport's views are recapitulated:
The closest that anyone has come to a comprehensive deconstructive survey of Milton is Rapaport (1983). To properly describe, let alone explain, the panorama and complexity of Rapaport's survey would require another chapter: what can be said is that the book regularly involves encounters between Rapaport's perceptions of Derrida and Milton. One of the more accessible occurs at pages 38-41, considering the last two books of Paradise Lost. Here, 'Milton clearly shows how the sin that Adam and Eve commit initiates the Fall of language, causes signifiers and signifieds to break their natural bonds' (Rapaport 1983: 38). 'Signifier' and 'signified' are Saussurean terms; the former referring to the actual, material sign, the word uttered or on paper, the latter to the prelinguistic object or concept that the sign is held to represent. Saussure argued that their relationship is arbitrary and customary, that there is no natural relationship between the two, but that our ingrained familiarity with language causes us to presume that there might be: when we use or think of the signifiers 'mother' or 'father', for instance, they seem innately bound into our particular perception of their signifieds.

Rapaport suggests that in Books XI and XII Milton pre-empts Derrida, albeit within a limiting theological framework. He argues that the Fall causes Adam and Eve to first encounter the arbitrary relation between signifiers and signifieds.
Nature first gave Signs, imprest
On bird, Beast, Aire, Aire suddenly eclips'd
After short blush of morn
(XI, 182-4)
That is to say, things are no longer signifieds but signifiers; things are not archetypes but only copies of archetypes . . . things have faded, and all that remains is their residual semiotic significance.
(Rapaport 1983:39)
Much is implied here. Before the Fall, so Rapaport argues, things, objects and ideas were in some way organically related, almost blended, with their linguistic representations. One of the consequences of the Fall was that language became only arbitrarily related to prelinguistic reality -- which is consistent with the orthodox Christian view that the Fall caused humanity to be denied any proper knowledge of ultimate truth, God. (Richard Bradford, The Complete Critical Guide to John Milton, Routledge, 2001 pages 187-188)
Although I've not found a complete edition of Rapaport online, Google Books offers some help, allowing us to fill out the block quote from page 39 of Rapaport's book:
That is to say, things are no longer signifieds but signifiers; things are not archetypes but only copies of archetypes. It is as if nature suddenly turns into a book and man into a reader or interpreter of the signs written in that book. Things have faded, and all that remains is their residual semiotic significance. (Rapaport, in Milton and the Postmodern, page 39)
Perhaps we should also look at the passage quoted by Rapaport from Milton's Paradise Lost, Book 11, which follows Eve's wish to remain content, though fallen, in the garden:
So spake, so wish'd much-humbl'd Eve, but Fate
Subscrib'd not; Nature first gave Signs, imprest
On Bird, Beast, Aire, Aire suddenly eclips'd
After short blush of Morn; nigh in her sight
The Bird of Jove, stoopt from his aerie tour, [ 185 ]
Two Birds of gayest plume before him drove:
Down from a Hill the Beast that reigns in Woods,
First hunter then, pursu'd a gentle brace,
Goodliest of all the Forrest, Hart and Hinde;
Direct to th' Eastern Gate was bent thir flight. [ 190 ]
Adam observ'd, and with his Eye the chase
Pursuing, not unmov'd . . . . (PL 11.181-192)
Rapaport might be pressing his postmodern analysis here, though I'd have to read his book itself to decide, but there may be something to what he argues. Milton depicts Adam reading the signs of fallen nature and inferring a significant shift in nature's meaning. Moreover, the fact that the signs observed by Adam signify the effects of the first couple's sins might be significant, given the origin of personified Sin's name:
Then shining Heav'nly fair, a Goddess arm'd
Out of thy head I sprung; amazement seis'd
All th' Host of Heav'n back they recoild affraid
At first, and call'd me Sin, and for a Sign [ 760 ]
Portentous held me (PL 2.757-761)
The "Host of Heav'n" are here the fallen angels prior to their expulsion from heaven, and as they observe the 'birth' of Sin, first conceived in the mind of Satan and now bursting forth from his head, they link "Sin" to "sign" in naming the unexpected creature.

In the passage from Paradise Lost 11, then, Milton might again be punning on the relation between "signs" and "sins," such that the signs "imprest On Bird, Beast, Aire" are in fact the sins of Adam and Eve "imprest On Bird, Beast, Aire." As such, given the confusion of sign and sin, perhaps one can argue that Milton believed postlapsarian language to be fallen, with the consequence that the relation between signifier and signified is now arbitrary, ambiguous.

I leave the significance of this for readers to consider . . .

Labels: , , , , , , , ,


At 5:37 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Uh, oh. I'll have to bow out of this discussion now. I'm already way over my head here.

But, what am I going to do while I try to fix my computer! :D


At 5:54 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Well, I'm in over my head, too, and I can only dog paddle . . .

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 6:57 AM, Anonymous dhr said...

This Blog of yours is a gold mine. (So, is it yours or mine???)

I also thought that "Sin" could be a twisted-sounding version of "Son", who is the Logos. Therefore Sin, in her turn, means the fallen logos / reason / language.


Wait a minute. I wrote, "Sin means..."? Hey, here's a funny game: if we say that, in PL, the fallen language "works so and so", are we exactly decribing the process, or not?
IF we do, then it is true that language is fallen, so we cannot describe it!
But, IF we cannot, then it is true that language is fallen, so our description is right!

At 7:02 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

That is precisely Milton's problem . . . but also therefore why he holds that repair is possible.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 12:13 PM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

Jeffery, interesting point.... How central is this "repair" to Milton's project?

Milton as analytic philosopher?

At 12:25 PM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

"orthodox Christian view that the Fall caused humanity to be denied any proper knowledge of ultimate truth, God."

Oh, that's the orthodox Christian view is it? Really? A bit potted, what?

Like Rapport's thesis.

At 12:51 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Carter, I have no firm answers yet. I'm still trying to figure this stuff out.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 1:19 AM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

of course

At 11:07 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Oh, just to be clear . . . I was referring to the query about 'repairing' our nature through education. That was an early position of Milton, so I wonder if he maintained it to the bitter end.

I'm currently out of Seoul, so my blogging will be less intense.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *


Post a Comment

<< Home