Thoughts from my study of Horror, Media, and Narrrative

Posts tagged “F.R. Leavis

Not so Much a Teaching as an Intangling

Not so Much a Teaching as an Intangling

Stanley Fish




Fish, S. (1967). Surprised by Sin. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.




Fish is associated with the concept of “interpretive communities,” a concept that suggests that a reader’s response to a given text is shaped by subjective experience. Although Fish would argue that no single reading of a text exists, the concept of interpretive communities suggests that, based on experience, a particular reading of a text is likely to be more salient than others. In the case of Milton, Fish often points to the way in which a reader is influenced by Christianity.


Although trained as a medievalist, Fish had no formal training in Milton studies when he began teaching a course in the subject at the University of California, Berkeley. Fish’s book, Surprised by Sin, was important in the field of Milton studies as it attempted to reconcile the divide that had formed between schools of thought that venerated Milton (e.g., William Blake and Percy Shelley) and those that disparaged him (e.g., T.S. Eliot and F.R. Leavis) by suggesting that the difficulty that readers experienced when reading the poem was not evidence of a failing on the part of the author but rather a strategy by Milton to help the reader better grasp the subject matter.[1]




In “Not So Much a Teaching as an Intangling,” an excerpt from his book Surprised by Sin, Fish utilizes a reader-centered approach in order to argue that Milton’s diction in Paradise Lost was designed to arouse a measure of self-examination on the part of the reader that could be traced back to dissonance between expectation and experience on the part of the reader. Here we begin to see a strategy that juxtaposes the successes/failures of the poem with those of its author—a contrast to Formalism and Structuralism which would not have directly engaged with such issues. In particular, Fish focuses on a rereading of the way in which Milton’s poem seems to qualify itself, arguing such an action is not a weakness of Milton but instead a deliberate effort on the part of the author to dislocate the reader and cause him or her to question an initial reading or interpretation.


As example, Fish introduces lines 292-294 of Book I in order to illustrate the way in which a reader’s initial understanding might be subsequently challenged:


His spear, to equal which the tallest Pine

Hewn on Norwegian Hills to be the Mast

Of some great Ammiral,[2] were but a wand.


Fish writes that a reader’s instinct here is to compare a spear and a pine in terms of their physical similarities as objects and, while this is one way in which to understand a notion of “equal,” it is not, ultimately what Milton intends. Presented with the rather unique problem of navigating between concreteness and grandeur, Fish writes that Milton structures his words this way so that “we are relieved of the necessity of believing the image true, but permitted to retain the solidity it offers our straining imaginations” (201).


One point of criticism here is that although Fish advocates for interpretative communities and a viewpoint grounded in readers’ responses to texts, Fish’s analysis gestures toward acceptance of a singular reaction that resolves the elements of Milton into a particular understanding of the text. Fish, then, is focused on readers but does not go so far as to allow for multiple readings/responses that would appear in postmodernism and suffers criticism by individuals like philosopher Martha Nussbaum who comments on the tendency of Fish to resist conflict in his analysis. Additionally, of particular note is the way in which the ideal reader evidences a Christian sensibility, which is only relevant if one is considering the likely audience for Milton’s poem when he initially wrote it.[3]


Fish’s larger point with this example, however, is to suggest that Milton’s aim is to gesture toward a reality that is beyond the range of normal human experience and perception. Fish argues that traditional similes are tied to a time and a place and that the subject matter of Milton’s poem exists outside of these boundaries, which means that the reader’s sense of lack or inadequacy is crucial for Fish as it speaks to the emotions that Adam and Eve experienced as they sought something just outside of their grasp.


In his analysis Fish also attempts to develop a distinction between two types of argumentation in Paradise Lost:  rhetorical and logical. Aligning the first with Satan and the latter with God, Fish seems to create an either/or binary that is particularly focused on displaying the inadequacies of the reader for reasons previously discussed. On page 209 Fish writes:


“The reader who fails repeatedly before the pressures of the poem soon realizes that his difficulty proves its major assertions—the fact of the Fall, and his own (that is Adam’s) responsibility for it, and the subsequent woes of the human situation…The reader who falls before the lures of Satanic rhetoric displays again the weakness of Adam, and his inability to avoid repeating that fall throughout indicates the extent to which Adam’s lapse has made the reassertion of right reason impossible.”


Although Fish argues for the productivity of the self-realization that results from a confrontation with one’s failings, the underlying assumption here is that rhetoric is present to mislead the reader. It is, however, unclear whether Milton himself would have supported a similar opposition between rhetoric and logic as his writings in Of Education seem to indicate that both were intended to be used in conjunction with one another.

[1] Milton’s poem has also been traditionally polarizing with battle lines being drawn around how one responded to the depiction of Satan.

[2] Interestingly, provides the following definition:  An obsolete form of admiral. “The mast of some great ammiral” –Milton.

[3] See, for example, “And [Milton’s} readers who share this Christian view of history will be prepared to make the connection that exists potentially in the detail of the narrative” (208).