Response to James Holstun

Christopher Kendrick

 

     James Holstun's comments on my essay are characteristically generous, perceptive, and stimulating. I find myself wanting to respond to three things in them.

     1) The questions he asks in his last paragraph about the historical relation of nonconformity to capitalist development are good ones, which I only wish I could answer. It might be worth noting here, though, a general (as opposed to a historical) assumption that I mean to be making: namely, that most versions of Christianity are sufficiently complex that they could be made to "open up into", or could for a while at any rate serve as ideological supports for, several variants of capitalism, and of socialism too for that matter. (Meanwhile, more speculatively, the relative transparency of social relations in communism, should that ever be attained, would surely eventually render the "big father" fiction unnecessary; Bloch's understanding of [pre-Unitarian] Socinianism as a figure for the godless religion of communism seems compelling to me.) I would also note here, what I probably don't sufficiently stress in the essay, that I take Paradise Regained to be casting Quakerism as the most exemplary kind of nonconformism -- a debatable interpretive move on Milton's part which nonetheless would have made obvious sense in its moment (a moment that would have lasted no longer than some way into the 1680s).

     2) Holstun tactfully disagrees with the generosity of my reading of the late Milton's politics; he says, for example, that Milton "just didn't get" the point of Moses Wall's comments on the pernicious effects of the persistence of copyhold. It's certainly true that one doesn't find Milton talking about the plight of the agrarian poor, as Wall does in the letter Holstun quotes, nor does one find him directly talking the language of improvement either, as Wall is also doing there. But isn't this to say (to be unkindly concise with respect to Wall) that Milton never committed himself to the particular kind of incoherence Wall exhibits, in wanting a stable society of small freeholders, i.e. a just and peaceable capitalism?; if such a society has ever existed (and I doubt it, though late sixteenth-century England and the mid-nineteenth-century United States are two of the most often mentioned examples), it has proven unable to defend itself against its own dynamic. As for the republican proposal made in The Ready and Easy Way, which is admittedly rather ghastly if one understands it as the best constitution Milton had it in him to produce (or in other words as a constitutional "utopia"), and unappealing even if offered as "the best that can be hoped for, or that might be made to work, now" -- well, it seems to me likely that it should be taken in the latter way, as a stopgap. The single thing that was most responsible for the English ruling classes wanting the monarchy back in the late 1650s (even at the price of sacrificing the constitutional revolution of the early 1640s) was the refusal of Cromwell's army to disband, and the subsequent periods of direct Army rule, or intervention, in the counties. Milton's ready and easy way would seem trained on this grievance. (Holstun is certainly right, though, to suggest that if I am mistaken about this, and Milton's "true utopia" is an upper gentry rather than a nonconformist one, then it casts some doubt on my entire reading of Paradise Regained.)

     3) Holstun comments that, though he likes the analogy of the poem's relation to Quakerism and the improving context to the double alibi structure of jokes, he doesn't "get the joke"; and goes on to say that he doesn't see how "the opposition between labor and land models the relation between the son and the father in Milton's theology". Far be it from me to have argued that the poem is a joke, or is meant to be funny; my point is rather that it might almost be (if I suggested that there is something inherently funny about a double alibi, I was wrong to do so; it's rather, according to Freud, the joke's release of repressed motives that makes for laughter, though presumably such sudden release in itself need not always and everywhere issue in the action of laughter either). My closing statement about how Milton depended on economic discourse to model his understanding of the divine is meant to put my minimal case; the idea is that the poem understands the source of Jesus' divinity partly by evoking a homology with the vexed question of the value of land. So Petty, I note, solved the question of land's value by coming up with the labor theory of value, yet wasn't up to his solution, and went on thinking of the value of land in traditional ways (e.g., as provided by Nature). In the same way, Milton's poem emits a Socinian solution to the question of the Son's efficacy -- asserting that he redeems as mere man -- but is not entirely up to this answer, continuing to invoke the Father's assistance and his status as god. Or more exactly, the poem instates this incoherence as a solution by discovering, in its insistent georgic dimension, a homology with the discourse of improvement. (Claude Levi-Strauss' writing on mythology is one authority for the notion that ideology can make sense of social contradictions by putting one insoluble problem in analogic relation to another; "modelling" may seem a rather strong word for the work of arrangement involved.)

 

 

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