Milton after 9/11

The very first volume of the online journal The Literary Magazine contains an intriguing piece on Milton, terrorism and revenge.

Like the call for papers for the Shakespeare Yearbook on “Shakespeare after 9/11,” Neil Forsyth’s article looks at early modern literature from the perspective of our current political context. It is an intelligent and broad-ranging article that pivots on the central crux of the Yearbook’s call for papers: “the more we historicize Milton, place him firmly in his time and place, the less his concerns will be easily seen as ours.”

Forsyth’s article reacts to an earlier piece in the TLS (6 September 2002) in which John Carey compared Samson in Milton’s Samson Agonistes to a terrorist bomber moved by religious conviction to destroy the lives of others. Reactions to Carey’s piece were divided: people were either abhorred at the idea that Milton would have supported terrorism, or were thrilled about Milton’s relevance to contemporary politics.

There are really two camps in critical interpretations of Samson Agonistes, Forsyth writes. On the one hand there are the traditionalists, who argue that Milton saw Samson as a religious hero whose violence against the Philistines was directed by the hand of God. Revisionists on the other hand emphasize the ambivalence inherent in the poetic work, or argue that Milton was not the kind of man to approve of violence. Forsyth argues that it does not matter whether Milton endorsed Samson’s deed. By dealing with revenge at its deepest levels, Milton’s work “gives us tools to think with.”

Because political events change the ways in which we read, it has become possible to conceive of Samson as a suicide bomber, in the wake of the New York, Washington, Madrid or London atrocities. […] Perhaps the parallel seems different to some of us now than it did in 2002 when John Carey first made his case. But the case would never have been worth making if Milton’s poems were not worth reading. What I have tried to show here is why it should be so. The bombs may affect our reading, but the poems may also change or enlarge our feelings about the bombers, once we allow for the parallel. I’m not sure about that. Perhaps it is too soon to say. Certainly the parallel will change how we read the emotion of revenge.

Forsyth in his inspiring analysis thus recognizes that our political context influences our reading of Milton and that, conversely, Milton’s work can also change the way we think about revenge. My only problem with the article is that in order to draw the diachronic parallel, Forsyth has to see revenge itself as a universal human emotion. He implies that revenge “is where we all come from,” and argues that our reading about Samson’s revenge might inspire sympathy with current-day revengers. But as the contributors to Reading the Early Modern Passions (which contains a fascinating contribution on Milton’s Eikonoklastes by John Staines, as well as a reading of the passions in Paradise Lost by Michael Schoenfeldt) have convincingly shown, emotions are historically specific, and are discursively produced, among others by literature itself. Our thinking about revenge, the concept of honour in which the need for retaliation is based, the rhetoric we use (“we’ll smoke ’em out of their holes,” for example), are produced by highly localized cultural discourses.

I particularly enjoy historically contextualized readings of early modern literature that analyse the ways in which literature produces and circulates such constructions. I’m currently reading Diane Purkiss’ wonderful Literature, Gender and Politics during the English Civil War. Purkiss looks at the “political imaginary” of the English Civil War: “the space in which the men and women of the age thought about the events which took place around them, and determined what was and was not possible, what was not thinkable.” The contradictions inherent in the images and rhetoric of the political imaginary in her view explain what revisionist historians of the Civil War period have called irrational political decisions of individual actors in the years before the wars.

Purkiss, too, analyses Samson Agonistes, but reads it in the political context of its time; more specifically, in the context of gendered representations of King Charles I. She shows how the perceived effeminacy of the King in anti-royalist discourse is the chief pretext for rebellion and regicide, since an effeminate ruler is not only unfit to govern, but also threatens to dissolve the masculine identities of his subjects. Her reading of the way in which the literary text functions in the discursive dynamics of its time explains the ways in which revenge is culturally constructed. She demonstrates how the parliamentarians’ revenge on their king was informed by a historically specific discursive dynamics of masculinity and femininity, in which an effeminate king was contrasted to a virile parliament. Purkiss’ reading of Milton, too, could teach us something about the present, but in a different way from Forsyth’s. Purkiss alerts us to the ways in which discursive gender constructs can work to legitimate revenge, both in the past and in the present.

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2 thoughts on “Milton after 9/11

  1. Many thanks for the kind and helpful comments on my article about Samson and Revenge. I agree that circumstances, historical, political and social, shape the expression of emotion, and in some cases even change the nature of the emotion itself. ‘Love’ is notorious for the range of ideas attached to it in different periods, and it has even been argued that it was ‘invented’ by the troubadours. My own work on ‘evil’ has shown a similar development. But it seems to me that, in the case of revenge, the evidence from the ancient world and around the globe implies something rather below the reach of local change. Unfortunately.

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