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Imperfect Sense:
The Predicament of Milton's Irony
Victoria Silver

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Chapter I



Caught as we are between possibility and mortality, irony remains a quintessentially human expression that, without platitudes, conveys the perplexity of our condition. This is especially the case when irony is taken to the extremes of absurdity or extenuation, since these manage to ridicule that most fundamental of human dogmas, namely, our pretension to something grander and finer than mere animal existence. For even as irony expresses the rueful if distinctive impulse to reflection or consciousness of ourselves as creatures, our very attempts at that perspective tend to leave us lost in Swiftian loathing at the unangelic thing we find, in terror of what looks like our own bestial futility. Of course, absurdity has always inspired such revulsion at our creatural nature, designed as it is to deliver us from the rational delusion of human preeminence. Yet more tacitly or more insidiously, so do the endless placating, temporizing, casuistical rounds we make in the opposite direction, invoking 'mere humanity' to excuse our seemingly invariable failure to improve ourselves. I mean the unctuous irony of rationalization, when we devote all our ingenuity to the task of avoiding thoughtfulness, and whose point is how we debase and betray our peculiar intelligence in thus refusing responsibility for what we have made of human being.

But intelligence, however it is expressed, remains our obligation as creatures, and the one quality capable of rendering this existence meaningful, memorable, artistic in the ancient sense. And for the most part, we invoke irony both more kindly and scrupulously to assess just this intelligence, in the desire to better if not transcend human nature as we find it, and at the same time to acknowledge the finitude of the creature on which human vanity appears doomed to founder. That is why irony and drama show such an entire affinity for each other, because drama is the mode of representation most completely capturing not just the sense but the intimate sensation of this tension integral to human being--between our aspirations and our actualities. When Aristotle says that epic, like tragedy, is a mimesis or imitation of an action, he is distinguishing this dimensionality that attends any populated, diversified account of our experience: it is the genius of drama as an expressive mode to imagine and depict the human predicament much like we undergo it, projected as the perpetually latent meaning that fugurative persons must encounter and negotiate--forever latent because forever contingent upon the humanly inevident and incalculable train of motive and circumstance. For no matter how resolute or pointed, drama makes for an uneasy, restless literature just as irony does an uneasy, restless meaning.

These observations may seem entirely superfluous to Paradise Lost, which is not a drama, at least in the conventional sense, and whose idiom is explicitly cast as a justification, which we generally take to mean a positive assertion of truth--God's ways being truth, as Milton reminds us. Understandably, then, critics both friendly and hostile to what his speaker relates about the loss of Eden and all our woe have supposed the poem to be anything but dramatic or ironical, incapable of surprise or self-criticism. With ever more sophistication and nuance, they have tended instead to read it as symbolic and propositional--a poetic tractate if you will; and it is this supposition which ensures that there isn't much middle ground of opinion where Milton is concerned, with the readers of the poem either vindicating or condemning what it more or less figuratively asserts, and loving or hating its author accordingly. Without seeking to exonerate Milton of what he says there (although it will inevitably appear that way), I would like to show that Paradise Lost is both dramatic and ironical in some perhaps surprising and self-conscious ways. Yet I also want to suggest that this is why there are, broadly speaking, two Miltons to be found in Milton studies and why people tend to evolve such exclusive and opposed ideas of them. It is telling, I think, that we never get so exercised over what we presume to be Shakespeare's notion of things (unless we are George Steiner or Wittgenstein). But then, Shakespeare's meanings are dramatical and, as such, too oblique and manifold to give indelible offense. But Milton and his poem have been offending someone or other for more than three hundred years.

Needless to say, this project of arguing Milton's irony is by no means incidental to yet one more reading of Paradise Lost, which I will give in a somewhat episodic fashion, the better to explain how the dramatic and ironical aspects of the poem are created not so much despite, but because we know the outcome of the story. For irony not only causes there to be two Miltons; it is the reason that there are two Gods in Milton's poem--one tedious and repellant, the other unremittingly if only vicariously delightful, and both the source, or rather the occasion, of some extraordinary poetry. In relating the two--Milton with Milton's God--I am of course enlisting William Empson, without whose book I could not proceed.1 For as one admiring critic has described Empson's place in Milton studies, his offense was "to take seriously and to force us to take seriously the idea that Milton truly thought that God's ways needed justifying, that this was a hard, not an easy thing to do, and that a case could also be made for the other side."2 And Empson's triumph, like his Milton's, was "a triumph of the will, a work of extraordinarily perverse dedication"--"to try to keep us from thinking that Satan's grandeur can be easily dismissed, or that God's goodness can be easily cleared."

I would like to take up our understanding of Milton where Empson left off--with the uneasy significance of Paradise Lost and that perdurable human need to justify God's ways--and will begin by stating the obvious: that we usually undertake to justify something only when we suffer an injustice, by which I mean an incoherence, a challenge or conflict in our experience of the world. For whether or not they go by that name, our religious commitments tend to respond not to our ease but to our difficulties with things, on those occasions when the ordinary would seem to behave not just extraordinarily but wrongly--defying reasonable expectation and eluding that mastery of our circumstances to which we presume. Crises like these make us fearful but also reflective, self-conscious, moving us to pursue the justification, the right conceiving or ordering of such experiences, precisely because we cannot as creatures tolerate the uneasiness left in their wake. So rather like Lord Macaulay's Francis Bacon, or Hugo von Hofmannsthal's Lord Chandos, we make an enduring scandal of the discovery that the familiar remains unknown or perhaps unknowable at its core, because we dearly want to assume that human expectation and human understanding are one and the same, when they are not. Indeed, our human predicament is chronic, ineluctable surprise at the discrepancy between these dimensions of our experience, which we are obliged daily to witness as expectation outstrips understanding even in the smallest things. This aspect of being human is what irony enacts for us. And while there is something really wonderful and hopeful about the fact that we are always learning what we do not know, yet as thinking and time-bound creatures, we are unable to leave our existence to what feels like chance. So we worry it endlessly, which is why we are also religious.

Yet when we think about religion at all these days, we do not tend to regard it as an account of humanity's inveterate uneasiness in the world. We are most inclined to suppose that it is some sort of positive, exclusive representation of what we cannot see or prove, that is, the absolute nature of things as it affects us in this life--a metaphysical statement variously credible, variously mythic or symbolic, to which we adhere devoutly or thoughtlessly in some degree of "implicit faith." Seen in this narrow, prejudicial way, religion is indeed ideology, a perverse frame of thought by which we situate ourselves in the world to hopeful and ruinous effect, precisely because we refuse to distinguish our religious notions from the truth. For as the rationalist bias runs, truth is the sole prerogative of science and its emulators, which is one reason why Marx and Freud insist on calling their explanations of our predicament by that name, although they address the human subject no less evaluatively than religion or philosophy, and no more rigorously or systematically. But as anthropologists have kept reminding us in recent years, there isn't an essential difference between "civil" and "savage" modes of thought--between "science," "religion," and "magic" so-called. Their distinction is real, but it must be argued in other terms than axiomatic truth, and not in such a way as to bolster once again the delusion of one's superiority over the other.

Be that as it may, most humane sciences are religious in one undeniable respect, namely, that their concern lies with the obscure causes of our condition. For even when we dignify human being by making our own effects the grand object of inquiry, there is the lurking suggestion that our study aims to repair something gone awry with our world--something that still keeps us poised and uncertain here. In different respects, Empson's writings and Milton studies in general could be said to acknowledge this congenital need for reparation, each wanting to dispel their own discomfort at what they read, as well as any injustice this uneasiness may have promoted toward its ostensible cause. Mind you, I am not suggesting that the offense we take at what Milton or Empson argue in itself justifies or refutes what they say. I want only to ensure that the difficulty their ideas or language poses does not lead us to restrict our criticism to the authors alone. For it should also make us reflect on the sources of uneasiness in ourselves: that is, we should not only be scrutinizing what we suppose to be Milton's justice or Empson's truth, but in turn what exactly it is we expect these things to be and with what justification. Of course, such self-consciousness is irony's art; and in Paradise Lost it compels us to consider not simply what John Milton thinks is right and true, good and just (as though this were something perfectly feasible to know in itself), but equally to reflect upon what we ourselves assume them to be and how it is that we continue to be surprised by sin. Empson takes some pains to make this fact clear--that critics have always felt thrown back upon themselves by Milton's poem, for the simple reason that it has the temerity to represent God. And representing God, we feel, entails nothing short of asserting God's own truth (although, if we look again, Milton himself never quite proposes that for his poem). It is as if Paradise Lost were to say, without preface or apology: this is the nature of deity and the essential order of things, this the shape of history, this the nature of man and particularly womankind, this the extent of knowledge we should seek, this the type of polity to which we should conform. Because the poem is almost inordinately intellectual, looks as though it were defining universal order, and relies upon a primal religious myth to do its business, we respond to Paradise Lost not as we would to art or fiction or any such self-mitigating expression, but as though we were in the presence of a philosophical proposition--a truth claim.

In its tendency thus to confound our ideas and expectations, the poem a little resembles its great source in the Judaic scriptures, about which Erich Auerbach has remarked that they too seem to make an exclusive, "tyrannical" demand that we accept their world as objectively, irrevocably the case for us.3 In other words, by the very nature of their subject, we are bound to read the scriptures as though they legislated our universal condition as human beings, not just their own meaning or the status of believers. And Auerbach describes our trepidation and reluctance in the face of such perceived coercion with a political metaphor Samuel Johnson would appreciate--someone who dreaded Paradise Lost as he would God Almighty; that is, Auerbach observes that the Judaic scriptures "seek to subject us, and if we refuse to be subjected we are rebels" to the truth about ourselves.4 We get something like this impression from Milton's poem--that there is a comparable stake in his justifying, that his truth allows us no choice but submission or offense because of what we assume him to be doing with it. In 1757, William Wilkie anatomized this offensiveness of Paradise Lost from a position to which we are perhaps less alive nowadays:

This art [of epic poetry] addresses itself chiefly to the imagination, a faculty which apprehends nothing in the way of character that is not human, and according to the analogy of that nature of which we ourselves are conscious. But it would be equally impious and absurd to represent the deity in this manner, and to contrive for him a particular character, and method of acting, agreeable to the prejudices of weak and ignorant mortals. In the early ages of the church, he thought fit to accommodate himself, by such a piece of condescension, to the notions and apprehensions of his creatures: but it would be indecent in any man to use the same freedom, and do that for God, which he only has a right to do for himself. The author of Paradise Lost has offended notoriously in this respect; and, though no encomiums are too great for him as a poet, he is justly chargeable with impiety, for presuming to represent the Divine Nature, and the mysteries of religion, according to the narrowness of human prejudice: his dialogues between the Father and the Son; his employing a Being of infinite wisdom in discussing the subtleties of school divinity; the sensual views which he gives of the happiness of heaven, admitting into it, as a part, not only real eating and drinking, but another kind of animal pleasure too by no means more refined: these, and such like circumstances, though perfectly poetical and agreeable to the genius of an art which adapts every thing to the human mode, are, at the same time, so inconsistent with truth, and the exalted ideas which we ought to entertain of divine things, that they must be highly offensive to all such as have just impressions of religion, and would not choose to see a system of doctrine revealed from Heaven, reduced to a state of conformity with heathen superstition.5

Wilkie's objections to the poem raise a problem more fundamental to its undertaking than the anthropomorphism of Milton's God, or the notorious materiality of Milton's heaven. For they concern the very place of imaginative art in his kind of religion, where almost any human expression of the scriptural deity cannot but transgress against its prohibition on graven images: that is, we are idolatrous not only in presuming to give a face to the hidden God of Isaiah, but also because we ineluctably make that face like our own, inasmuch as all human representation is drawn from human understanding. And poetry as the idiom most deliberately iconic not only misconceives but flagrantly violates this theological decorum. Implicitly, as Wilkie sees it, the only seemly language for divine things is theology's own--abstract, allusive, and honorific. Nor is he the only critic to think so, since readers from Alexander Pope to David Daiches have bemoaned Milton's tactlessness, his lack of grace or sublimity in representing the God. Indeed, if nothing else, Wilkie's distaste for Paradise Lost proves that, for a long time after Milton wrote, the world remained a religious if not a theopathic place, with a deeply reverent sense of how divinity and divine things should be depicted. Yet Milton himself was no folk poet, no religious primitive. So we ought to find it disconcerting that someone of his sophisticated piety would reduce God Almighty to a character in a poem, much less expect us to see deity in the peculiar figure of the Father, who would seem to succeed only in proving Dryden's suspicion that Milton must have been on the side of the devil. Then again, who but John Milton would ever have presumed to do such a thing, as Walter Raleigh remarks: " 'This man cuts us all out, and the Ancients too,' Dryden is reported to have said. But this man intended to do no less, and formally announced his intention. It is impossible to outface Milton, or to abash him with praise."6

Never mind that, like nature itself, Raleigh suggests Milton can do nothing in vain, even when he appears to be suborning the one true God to his version of truth. Such egotism only reinforces our impression that Paradise Lost intends to subject us, since unlike Wilkie but entirely like Milton himself, we are disinclined to separate his poetic from his theological decorum and are thus unable to extricate Milton's art from his religion. So we associate the great argument of Milton's poem with the speeches of Milton's God, yet are appalled at what ensues for us as readers when we do so, since Milton's God has the effect not only of making his truth unpalatable but also of rendering its justification injurious, intolerable. I need hardly mention that once Empson renewed this question of the poem's difficulty, Stanley Fish, Joseph Summers, Northrop Frye, and Arnold Stein more or less immediately took it up by examining the reflexive character Milton gives his images in Paradise Lost. But neither they nor Empson were the first to try to reconcile readerly disdain with consummate artistry in his case: Samuel Johnson's Life of Milton was there before them.

More than almost anyone before or since, Dr. Johnson has the uncanny ability to say, without flinching or digressing, whenever Milton's poem strays into the difficult--or what Johnson himself prefers to call the peculiar, the outrageous, or the implausible.7 That is because Johnson as a critic possesses something like an innate decorum of ideas, a normative sense of how the good and just, the right and true, ought to appear to us. Yet he observes this instinctive classicism in a manner wholly unlike Addison, whose rage for Miltoniana made him the poet's posthumous impresario, not just his apologist. But if Dr. Johnson is devoid of the latter's suavity and self-consequence, not to mention his graciousness (in the sentimental picture of Addison honoring the poet's memory by relieving an indigent Milton daughter),8 that is because John Milton genuinely disturbs him, with the result that the Life is acute, even febrile in its sensitivity to its subject and so endlessly if wrong-headedly perspicacious: "Bossu is of opinion that the poet's first work is to find a moral, which his fable is afterwards to illustrate and establish. This seems to have been the process only of Milton: the moral of other poems is incidental and consequent: in Milton's only it is essential and intrinsick. His purpose was the most useful and the most arduous; to vindicate the ways of God to man; to shew the reasonableness of religion, and the necessity of obedience to the Divine Law."9 Johnson evidently departs from Empson in thinking that Milton's "essential and intrinsick" moral is made perfectly clear and obvious to us, an effect created by what he (and many critics after him) describes as a stringent, calculated, almost syllogistic economy of poetic meaning--not a jot or tittle of verse free from the task of justifying God's ways to us. And this should interest us, for Johnson finds Paradise Lost a thesis-ridden poem, which may partly explain his sense of its "arduousness," not simply for the poet but for the reader, neither of whom are permitted anything in the way of diversion from its great and painful argument. In Paradise Lost, he tells us, we get no gratuitous or at least unencumbered flights of imagination; we have withheld from us the delights of sheerly voluptuous verbalizing; and (anticipating Eliot) we are obliged to forego the pleasures of any passion which is not rational.10

What with such an implacable argument, and such a remote and repulsive subject as deity, divine law, and the precipitance of human corruption and death, it is hardly surprising that Johnson would be moved famously to remark that no one ever wished Paradise Lost longer than it is: "Its perusal is a duty rather than a pleasure. We read Milton for instruction, retire harassed and overburdened, and look elsewhere for recreation; we desert our master, and seek for companions."11 Johnson apparently feels about the poem the way Adam and Eve do the Lord's curse: namely, as an indictment operating upon him like necessity. And in such excruciation he speaks for many subsequent readers, who see Milton in Milton's God not so much for what the Father says in condemning his creatures as for how he says it--ruthlessly, intractably, inhumanely. Implicitly, Johnson says that we are oppressed by the poem in a fashion not unlike the way Milton in his blindness notoriously oppressed his daughters; that is, we too are placed in involuntary servitude to an obsessive, domineering text which repels our sympathy, if not our entire understanding.

Such readerly durance is the effect Johnson analyzes when he says that the poem's argument is not circumstantially discovered but rather imposed ineluctably upon us, in a relentless amplification of human sinfulness. Seen this way, Paradise Lost is scarcely suitable reading for someone of Johnson's poignant and melancholy temper. Yet is Milton's argument really the bitter pill he feels thus obliged to prescribe to us, or does Johnson actually recoil at his own interpretation of the poem? The latter must be true to some extent or other--that despite Milton's supposedly Draconian mastery of his poem's meanings, the dreadfulness of the argument that Dr. Johnson bravely, stoically approves is at least partly the work of his own critical art. Yet I would contend that this sort of displaced, vicarious authorship of Paradise Lost by its readers occurs with such strange consistency as to render it a notable literary phenomenon, one worthy of attention and scrutiny. For how could it happen that an argument so patent and tendentious, so doctrinaire and exacting, is susceptible of the utterly unMiltonic meaning Johnson chooses to give it? Let us allow for the moment that Milton was unlikely to part company entirely with those religious and political opinions to which he devoted the most public portion of his writings through the 1670s, and which, as he considers them true, he associates with the revelation of his God. Let it also be allowed that he intends Paradise Lost to perform the work of right understanding or justification of its readers that Milton had declared from early on to be the office of poetry. Yet despite these probabilities, Johnson's version of Milton's life and text manages selectively to convert Paradise Lost into a pusillanimous palinode, a recantation for its author's career as an advocate of dissent, republicanism, and regicide. For by Johnson's own account, it was a career spent in the poet's flagrantly defying the more natural and decorous, and presumably kinder and gentler, order of human things which the divine institution of monarchy ordains for us--an outrage Milton perpetrated upon the state and his betters, among his peers, in his home and within his writings.

Moreover, as a high churchman and a royalist, it is Johnson's joke that the person thus coercing daughters and readers alike is a noisy but not a very notable libertarian who tyrannizes over almost everyone, with the sole exception being his copious indulgence of himself. Indeed, in the Life, the only real latitude shown to others is exercised not by Milton but by sundry royalists and Charles II especially, who at his restoration forbears to prosecute the poet equally for his manners and his crimes, even as that artful traducer of God and king tries to slink out of justice's reach. And when Johnson gets down to reading Paradise Lost itself, he predictably finds the same generosity expressed by that "Supreme King," the title Johnson prefers for Milton's God, who elects to restore an unworthy humanity in a fashion altogether reminiscent of the Stuart noblesse oblige just celebrated. Taken altogether, the Life succeeds admirably in showing us a Paradise Lost upholding that divine yet reasonable authority, that beneficent paternal power exercised by monarchs toward their subjects, which Milton had slandered in his tracts apparently to his ultimate regret, repenting thoroughly in his own life where his Satan would not. And no doubt because he is a great and subtle classicist, inexorably defining the universal canon of value, Johnson effectively bypasses the peculiar embarrassments of the dissenting poet in favor of God the transcendent king and rational epitome: that is to say, God in a kind of immaculate conception vicariously begets all decorum, truth, and beauty in Dr. Johnson's Paradise Lost--vicariously, because Johnson makes the "moral sentiments" of the poem original to the supernal author of Genesis, and so exempt from the taint of Milton's nonconformist views.12

It follows that whatever Johnson finds good about the poem, he finds good about English monarchy and the Anglican God, such that the poet becomes their virtual amanuensis. And what he condemns in the conduct of the poem is what he predictably abhors in Milton himself, which is that willful idiosyncrasy and self-indulgence, that want of proper deference to the authority of nature and custom, and--although Johnson can almost bring himself to applaud its effects--that "uniform peculiarity of Diction, a mode and cast of expression which bears little resemblance to that of any former writer, and which is so far removed from common use, that an unlearned reader, when he first opens his book, finds himself surprised by a new language."13 For reasons not entirely distinct from the classical unity of aesthetic, moral, and political value, Johnson allocates to Milton all blame for his poem's perversities and innovations, while praising Genesis for its sublimity and truth, from which (he concludes) piety alone prevented the poet's deviating. It is Milton's personal flaws which create Paradise Lost's errors of expression, although these are not so grievous as to mar irretrievably the poem and its putative moral; only the man is beyond the pale (as Eliot concurs). But man and text are clearly a source of unease for Johnson, compelling him to reconcile the poem's indubitable achievement with his aversion to its author. For when they are kept inseparable in the way Milton most probably intends (given all the autobiographical excursus linking his political to his poetic professions), then Paradise Lost constitutes a real threat and affront to Johnson's ideas--precisely because he supposes Milton to be offering up God's own truth. Of course, this enthusiastic presumption on Milton's part would be nothing if the poem he wrote weren't itself too considerable an object to be dismissed by someone of Johnson's taste and intelligence. But as it stands, the sheer marvelousness of Paradise Lost requires him to engage in some vindicating of his own.

So he sets about saving the appearances of Milton's poem in order that its stature lends legitimacy to neither the regicide nor its author's theological opinions nor Cromwellian policy more generally, but instead proves the necessity of obedience against Milton himself, whose incorrigible dissent from the decorous and the true is used to separate the poem from the poet's errors. And while Johnson thus diverts the ingenious artistry and vast intellectual apparatus of Paradise Lost into the service of a conforming God and king, in the same breath he damns Milton himself for a lifetime of practices "founded in an envious hatred of greatness, and a sullen desire of independence; in petulance impatient of controul, and pride disdainful of superiority."14 And with this lesson for the attentive reader: that John Milton in life offers a truer fable about human presumption than even Paradise Lost, as someone whom study never made pleasant or wise, whose justification of God's ways recoils back upon himself, and whose fixed and unrelenting mind could not preserve him from self-contradiction, or what is worse, impudence.

I offer Samuel Johnson's unease with the poem and his attempts to obviate his discomfort for a number of reasons, first if not foremost because his version of Paradise Lost flies utterly in the face of that self-justification to which we usually regard Milton as bound by the fact of the Stuart restoration in 1660. Read in this light, the poem can still be understood as a sort of roman a ` clef, but in a different sense than Dr. Johnson intends. As Alisdair MacIntyre has had occasion to put the case--and with as little sympathy as Johnson himself could wish--this different vindication entails a Milton "who does not have to justify the ways of God to man in general, but has to reconcile the hidden fact that God rules with the manifest fact that Charles II rules and the saints do not."15 In thus ridiculing what he presumes to be Milton's professed intimacy with eternal providence--that is, given the poet's failures in the way of merely ordinary prediction--MacIntyre reasserts the anomaly which our own contradictory readings of Paradise Lost nicely expose. For how is it possible that a poem whose argument Johnson and others critics regard as so blatantly, unforgivingly manifest, could produce such conflicting accounts of its purpose and significance?

Notwithstanding the lengths to which critical invention can go, the answer, I think, is twofold. On the one hand, we are variously inclined to identify the poem's predicament with its author's disappointments--loss of Eden with the demise of Cromwell, Independency, and the promise of commonwealth--given Milton's fondness for intruding his own circumstances on our notice whatever he might happen to be talking about at the time. (This is of course to overlook the fact that Milton's epic argument appears to have been in the making for twenty years or more.) On the other hand, this mutual project of justification conducted by Milton and Milton's God permits us to presume that Paradise Lost represents figurally what its author would have us take as the truth about particular personal and contemporary events. In other words, it tells us how we are supposed to view not only universal providence but also the specific history in which Milton took part. Encouraged by such motives as well as Milton's frequent topicality of expression, we come to expect from the poem an allegory of Milton's own position, even where as critics we may refrain from casting the allegory in those precise terms. But as literally an alternate or "other" sort of meaning from the usual sense we give words, allegory can neatly accommodate the apparent necessity of justifying Milton's own loss and failure, as it can equally fulfill our expectation that Paradise Lost expounds a positive and universal truth about human relations with the divine. For it is perfectly possible to speak at once figurally and exactly about the world: such is logic's own imperative, as well as the aesthetic fault which the last two hundred years of criticism have found with allegory as an expressive mode. But our readiness to detect such autobiography does not require that Milton himself adopt a transparently allegorical and supposedly inferior poetic: indeed, there is a pronounced and somewhat excessive resistance to reading more than a few sections of Paradise Lost in this way.

Instead, the allegory of the poet's private justification is largely kept interpretive by his critics, a significance discreetly argued off Milton's page, not on it, as though the poet had adopted a new and uncharacteristic reserve about the parallels between his own predicament and what he writes. And once dislodged or liberated from its evident sense by this allegorical potential, Paradise Lost can be made available to any number of exclusive and extreme constructions of Milton's argument, which it has sustained over the years no less handsomely than it does Johnson's version. Out of respect for the poem or at least its reputation, other readers than Johnson have felt compelled to edit, ignore, displace, and allegorize whatever comes between the meaning of Paradise Lost and their preferred understanding of it, especially if they too are made uncomfortable by what it seems to say, or what its critics claim for it. Taking Dr. Johnson as a precedent, this can result in critics addressing only as much of the poem as suits their own ideas of truth. (Johnson's refusal to follow Milton into heaven, while a decorous omission, has the interpretive advantage of leaving the supreme king and his dubious speeches unexamined and unchallenged.)16 The "essential and intrinsick" moral of Paradise Lost can then freely project the widely diverging ideas and interests of its readers, with interpretation serving as a blind for the poem's real difficulties and Milton himself assuming the protean and frequently apologetic guise of Thomist, Cabbalist, aristocrat, Cartesian, sectarian, post-structuralist, Platonist, animist materialist, Ramist, Kantian, and so forth. The sheer variety and volubility of Milton's transformations again force us back upon his poem's peculiar distinction: namely, its perplexing amenability to the vagaries of interpretation, despite our presumption that it tells a positive, unequivocal truth.

But if allegory can effectively bowdlerize the sense of a text, the presumption of irony can just as easily deracinate it, since irony argues an ambivalence or instability of meaning with something like the same metamorphic effect as allegory, and very likely the same ulterior motive--our desire not to be made uneasy by the order of truth Milton is thought to assert in Paradise Lost. Thus the critic may undertake to reconcile or oppose the poem's ostensible argument by referring it to extrinsic forces superior to Milton's own intention and control, and for that matter, his readers'. I mean logical, psychological, historical, cultural, economic forces maneuvering subliminally or symbolically within the text to orchestrate its contradiction. Yet after Dr. Johnson's fashion, this is once more to divide the express argument of Paradise Lost from its "essential and intrinsick" moral, and thus to exonerate or damn Milton and whatever sense of the poem we find difficult or offensive. Given their promiscuous use, these two figural modes may seem to differ little from each other, in that they both discount the evident meaning of an expression to implicate another order entirely of significance and understanding.17 Moreover, each trope depends upon some anomaly or incongruity attending that expression to alert us to its presence, and so resolve the seeming incoherence of meaning that initially signaled this new, unexpected sense. Yet if allegory expands the possible meanings of a text, irony tends to make us reflect upon the phenomenon of polysemia itself, not so much perplexing the significance to which we presume--the proper work of allegory--as the conditions contriving to foster any such presumption: where allegory complicates the sense of what we read, irony criticizes the very ways we are accustomed to make sense at all. As Kenneth Burke observes, such sophistications of meaning are frequently the product of highly conventional cultures, where every person can detect the slightest deviation in usage: then equivocality is more apparent that real, a function of certitude, not its opposite.18 Irony becomes witty antithesis--a superior conversance with what is taken for truth, which in turn promotes a certain freedom or fluency with received ideas, as well as a special dignity of understanding for the ironist not unlike that which the hierophantics of allegory can bestow. And Milton's critics often assume this dignity, as allegorists disclosing the occult meanings of Paradise Lost, or ironists sophisticating or confounding its apparent sense.


But it is also the case that irony and allegory can express the human difficulties of meaning without purporting to resolve them by contradiction or hermetica. Tragedy, for example, does this when it represents an action at once symbolic and self-reflexive, where mimesis gets its force not from the depiction of fatal events as such, but from how humanity conspires with the nature of things to make them so for us. The art of tragedy lies in rightly representing a problem, that is, how the train of contingency and misunderstanding can transform what is humanly right, just, and true into fate, catastrophe, suffering, evil. As Vernant and Vidal-Naquet observe:

The tragic consciousness of responsibility appears when the human and divine levels are sufficiently distinct for them to be opposed while still appearing to be inseparable. The tragic sense of responsibility emerges when human action becomes the object of reflection and debate while still not being regarded as sufficiently autonomous to be fully self-sufficient. The particular domain of tragedy lies in this border zone where human actions hinge on divine powers and where their true meaning, unsuspected by even those who initiated them and take responsibility for them, is only revealed when it becomes a part of an order that is beyond man and escapes him.19

Yet the very activity of this representation and its sympathetic impact on the audience argues against the tragic dilemma as our own necessity. These narratives are enacted not because they are humanly ineluctable but because they can be made to be, if we are not brought to a better understanding of what it means to be human--of the actual predicament in which we collectively find ourselves. The Delphic dictum "know yourself" does not enjoin us to individualism but to an acknowledgment of our common nature and, as Werner Jaeger observes, how we are circumscribed and confounded by our mortality.20 He then comments that a delimited human being is a religious recognition even as human suffering is a religious problem, which is to say that the understanding commanded by the Delphic god and proffered us by tragedy delineates the extreme boundaries of rationality, where explanation and transcendence are brought not simply to an impasse but to an insuperable conflict. But an antagonistic god is not their only conclusion: our misconceived humanity is the other. For the hubris or outrageousness of the tragic protagonist offends not only against a jealous deity, but against the human nature whose predicament it neglects as well. Tragic excess arises from this neglect, which Homer understands as "thoughtlessness," "recklessness"--an obliviousness to the implications of one's choices. Indeed, the person who acts out of hubris is no less mad than the one suffering from ate--insanity or delusion; in what they do, they both express the human paradox of pursuing the good and true only to create the most profound disorder.

Of course, just knowing the tragic myth makes possible a different fate for audience as against protagonist. It places us in an ironic relation to the choices we see enacted, kept by that single prohibitive knowledge from simply assimilating the spectacle--as we might very well do were the protagonist's predicament ours. Yet through the power of myth and mimesis, it is almost made our own, since these at once conceptual and expressive arts engage us with the action in such a way as intimately to grasp the appeal--the seemingly indubitable rightness, justice, beauty--of those choices. Thus the tragic action simultaneously immerses us in and protects us from the misunderstanding in which we ourselves participate as human beings, and tragedy itself becomes a justification not entirely unlike the legal or logical variety. For it too proposes to restore the audience to truth--to a right understanding of our world. But where logic assumes that this justification has a single, definitive, and (formally) necessary sense, and where positive law lays claim to its evidence and conclusiveness, tragedy does not do away with our difficulties. Instead, it locates justification in the acknowledgment and understanding of conflict itself. No less than philosophy in Plato's sense, tragedy is psychagogia, a leading of the soul by which actors and audience alike are justified, insofar as we can be brought by a certain order of representation to admit the human nature which, in all its irreducible complexity, both ennobles and condemns us. But the sense of this understanding is neither single, positive, necessary, or self-evident, since it consists in a circumstantial appreciation of the conflict we ourselves foment. This is to say nothing more than that tragic meaning is dialectical, as we all know: it does not belong to one or other of the positions--sceptical or rhapsodic--in which the action places us but in the relationship between the two, as a proper account of human being.

To that extent, right understanding in tragedy has an affinity with Wittgenstein's much-maligned statement in the Investigations that philosophy "leaves everything as it is" (PI p.124).21 Certainly, this is Martha Nussbaum's point when she takes as an epigraph to her own discussion of tragedy the following comments from Zettel, which may serve to clarify this typical remark:22 "the difficulty--I might say--is not that of finding the solution but rather that of recognizing as the solution something that looks as if it were only preliminary to it . . . This is connected, I believe, with our wrongly expecting an explanation, whereas the solution of the difficulty is a description, if we give it the right place in our considerations. If we dwell upon it, and do not try to get beyond it. The difficulty here is to stop."23 Rather than seeking the solution in a fix or cause, Wittgenstein would have us find it in describing the dilemma itself: this is "solution" understood as elucidation--resolving a problem into its constituents and their relations, the better to understand what the conflict entails, with the goal as full and circumstantial a representation as possible.24 We make this description a solution when we use it to grasp where we actually stand--what is "natural" to this position, by which Wittgenstein tends to mean integral to our condition as human beings. He sees the practice of meaning as fundamental to humanity in just this way, but also peculiarly indicative of its character--an aspect of our existence exemplary of the whole. That is why, in the Investigations, he goes on to argue that "Philosophy may in no way interfere with the actual use of language; it can in the end only describe it. For it cannot give it any foundation either" (PI p.124).

But, as he says, the rub is that our peculiar misunderstanding of language keeps us from stopping there, because we persist in trying to regulate how words mean in a manner wholly incongruous with the ways they actually work. Indeed, the rationality we like to cultivate effectively blinds us to our own behavior, aggravating by its solutions the crisis of meaning it has already fomented in our usage--a compound confusion Wittgenstein calls being "entangled in our own rules" (PI p.125). And as Stanley Cavell has shown, the self-imposed contradiction that inevitably arises between our "natural" practice and our "rational" theory gives scepticism its fateful impetus and tragic outcome, where we are condemned to suffer the perpetual insufficiency not just of human meaning but of human being to our affected notions of truth. Wittgenstein would have it that we cannot escape this endlessly repetitive doom until we get "a clear view" of the situation promoting it, and he argues that philosophical representation ought to supply that view in describing the modalities of human meaning. For such a description properly done would show us in turn how our analysis is not simply inconsistent but incommensurate with our usage, thus exposing the self-disguised entanglements of our ideas:

A main source of our failure to understand is that we do not command a clear view of the use of our words.--Our grammar is lacking in this sort of perspicuity. A perspicuous representation produces just that understanding which consists in 'seeing connexions.' Hence the importance of finding and inventing intermediate cases.
  The concept of a perspicuous representation is of fundamental significance for us. It earmarks the form of account we give, the way we look at things. (Is this a 'Weltanschauung'?)
  A philosophical problem has the form: "I don't know my way about." (PI p.122-23)

Again, these "perspicuous representations" do not supply causes or foundations for our verbal habits, in keeping with one sense of justification as implementing a rigorous formal procedure or criteria for conceptual practice. Instead, "description" treats the variable activity of meaning as something precedent to our understanding--a congenital attribute of human being ultimately groundless, seemingly arbitrary and abhorrent to scepticism on that precise account. For philosophical scepticism argues that our expressions cannot be meaningful until they are properly rationalized, which of course it performs by adducing a set of criteria oblivious and so antipathetic to the circumstances surrounding their use. And its insistence on fulfilling these criteria succeeds only in obfuscating, to the point of paralyzing, an otherwise effectual if necessarily imperfect human practice of making sense.

Yet in analytic scepticism's obdurate refusal to accept any order of meaning but the one it imagines, Wittgenstein recognizes a profound human preference and expectation of how things should mean, encouraged by a symptomatic misreading of language's own myths. For the sceptic assumes that language simply and directly states what is the case with words, never suspecting that an altogether different operation of meaning obtains not only in human usage but in human grammar--in the very way language organizes its elements and idioms. To probe this entirely captivating but obtuse expectation, which is not limited to philosophical scepticism alone, the Investigations orchestrates a virtual anthropology of our semantic beliefs, customs, and behaviors. Or as Wittgenstein himself puts it: "What we are supplying are really remarks on the natural history of human beings; we are not contributing curiosities however, but observations which no one has doubted, but which have escaped remark only because they are always before our eyes" (PI p.415, my emphasis). So his "natural history" attends to just those familiar but unexamined circumstances of human meaning which rationalism blithely ignores, in order to gain the "clear" but equally "instrumental" view he recommends. For "What we call 'descriptions' are instruments for particular uses": "Think," he says, "of a machine-drawing, a cross-section, an elevation with measurements, which an engineer has before him" (PI p.291).

Given the scope of the crisis scepticism more engenders than anticipates, jeopardizing not only the integrity but the viability of human meaning, Wittgenstein advises us first to secure this "instrumental description" of our usage before we try to proceed in any direction. Needless to say, the Investigations has already been engaged in representing it; for the descriptive kind of justification Wittgenstein advocates consists in such an "instrument," where right understanding refers not to any one formal protocol of meaning but to an account of the circumstances obtaining when we actually engage in that activity. Or to put the difference another way, this "description" in no way revises the vexed conditions of human meaning; it revises how we think about them. So while it may appear "preliminary" to the problem in the way Wittgenstein warns, that is because the description itself resolves the human issue, if not the human predicament of meaning which scepticism feels so acutely and so tellingly misconceives. And it does so by disclosing another coherence and viability to our practice than that expected, much less allowed by the rational paradigm scepticism assumes only to explode by its own analysis, chronically scandalized by the obstinate fact that language does not behave as it should. And the anthropology of the Investigations is designed precisely to effect this revelation, being comprised of an open-ended series of reluctant discoveries and astonishing encounters in which we are invited to see the oddities and incommensurables of our familiar assumptions of meaning. More particularly, Wittgenstein's speaker enacts for us the rationalist mythology our culture invents and to which it now appears strangely enthralled, in the process elucidating the human actualities of signification which we enthusiastically suppress. Thus in the ordinary-made-fantastic landscape of "intermediate cases," we discover the unexpected novelty of slabs, beetles in boxes, boiling pots and the aroma of coffee; tribes that ascribe pain solely to inanimate things and pity dolls, that only think aloud, that function entirely without the idea of a human soul; lions that recognizably yet unintelligibly talk, parrots conversing when there is a God around; simple line drawings that behave altogether eccentrically. Each event pictures an aspect of our verbal practice or our misunderstanding of it, so as to enact Wittgenstein's account of meaning and its moral entailments--especially the cost in human terms of our fond ideas.

It follows that the configuration given these conceptual events implies a certain mentality or subjectivity ("the form of account we give, the way we look at things"), self-alienated from its own expressive nature, unable to find its way about yet convinced that the confusion lies not in its own assumptions and procedures but instead in the incorrigibility of human being. For the speaker addresses his "perspicuous representation" to the sceptic's immense and recalcitrant disappointment in the world, to both dispel the confusion and alleviate the suffering attending it. As Wittgenstein observes, "The problems arising through a misinterpretation of our forms of language have the character of depth. They are deep disquietudes; their roots are as deep in us as the forms of our language and their significance is as great as the importance of our language" (PI p.111). This is not to suggest that the human predicament exemplified in language is essentially tragic in nature, but that it can be experienced as a tragedy--the consequence of approaching language in a particularly insistent way (the way language invites by its own self-portrait). Insofar as we persist in both denying and misprising how language practically works, so we will continue to find the world it creates a disturbing, even unconscionable, place.

So the "perspicuous representation" which the Investigations gives is a parabolic action involving speaker, sceptic, and reader, as well as a justification in tragedy's manner. For it also aims to dramatize the nature of our perplexities about meaning, and not to discount them--on the contrary, by profoundly imagining these confusions, to understand and express scepticism's indignant doubt. In his preface, Wittgenstein adopts (not altogether inadvertently) a Miltonic idiom to convey his dubious hopes for text and humanity together, and almost as an afterthought, his dislike of being misrepresented by any words other than his own: "It is not impossible that it should fall to the lot of this work, in its poverty and the darkness of this time, to bring light into one brain or another--but, of course, it is not likely" (PI vi). There is thus some relation between the occasion moving him to publish the Investigations in 1946 and what the text itself contains, which is not an answer or solution to those circumstances but an account of them. As he says, "I should not like my writing to spare other people the trouble of thinking. But, if possible, to stimulate someone to thoughts of his own" (PI vi). In this justification, we do not end in the firm possession of truth as if it were a positive and portable property; we are offered instead a picture of language that might eventually conduce to truth, that is, if we can unlearn our conceptual habitus and live without the appealing idea of meaning's lapidary precision and luminous simplicity.

The Investigations treats this philosophical conflict as a mimesis--indeed, the representation of a conceptual passage that Wittgenstein himself has made, but that he ascribes recursively to the speaker and his sceptical interlocutor, much as Milton does both with that anomalous epic voice and the Satan of Paradise Lost. Again I return to the point Cavell makes decisive in his own work, with both Wittgenstein and tragedy: it is these tacit protagonists who perform "long and involved journeyings" from opposed yet sympathetic positions; they who project and traverse the ideational "landscapes" comprised of the text's remarks; they who face each place's unexpected yet reorienting inhabitants (PI v). And in the manner of every protagonist, the vicissitudes of their travels--"over a wide field of thought criss-cross in every direction"--and their responses to what they find implicate not only the peculiar purpose of their journeying, but also the larger human predicament for which this exploration stands. As in parable, the process is therapeutic as against conclusive; surprise is the only eventuality that the text provides, for there is no end. Instead, we are simply left with the predicament the Investigations ingeniously engages, in the hope that the twists and turns of reading will allow us to understand it anew. I must add that Wittgenstein does not expect his allegory of thwarted assumptions and disconcerting revelations punctually to reconcile us to his version of human affairs; for the sceptic's tragedy clearly distinguishes between listening and understanding--again, like scriptural parable. On the contrary, the Investigations does not attempt formally to vindicate the human conditions of meaning; but it describes their difficulty in such a way that we may be enabled to say, with Wittgenstein's speaker, if not his sceptic, "Now I can go on."

Even as this expression captures the vantage of our first parents as they slowly, elegiacally descend from Eden into the open world, so I will argue that Milton provides just such an instrumental description--a justification by parable--of human meanings in Paradise Lost: indeed, such a description inheres in all his writings. And I make this argument not only, like Wittgenstein, to link the contradictions holding sway in the field to the way we read Milton's words. I do it because the idea of meaning and the idea of deity have always been mutual and mutually entangled, especially for scripturalists like Milton himself and the Protestant reformers, Luther and Calvin. There is something precisely perspicuous for Milton in Wittgenstein's own debt to Luther, both conceptually and in his resonant term "grammar," which is owing in no little part to the latter's 1535 lectures on Galatians.25 There Luther talks about theology entailing a new and special kind of grammar; and Wittgenstein himself famously observes in the Investigations that "Essence is expressed by grammar," for "Grammar tells what kind of object anything is. (Theology as grammar)" (PI p.371, 373). Of course, the point that grammar expresses "essence" is an ironical one, since Wittgenstein holds that we are incapable of knowing anything essentially. Indeed, "essence"is what Thomas Hobbes would call "an idol of the brain," a figure or expression out of which we conjure an entity. He ascribes this conceptual confusion originally to the idolatrous gentiles, who "did vulgarly conceive the Imagery of the brain, for things really subsistent without them, and not dependent on the fancy; and out of them framed their opinions of Daemons, Good and Evill; which because they seemed to subsist really, they called Substances; and because they could not feel them with their hands, Incorporeall."26 Afterwards, he continues, this "pagan" pathology of meaning infected the Jews in their Diaspora and, with the rise of Aristotelianism, was communicated through the distortions of scriptural commentary to the credulous modern world. Hobbes can accordingly attribute the civil and intellectual crimes of scholastic philosophy (both Catholic and Protestant) to the same hapless abuse of words that confounded the ancients: the abundant propagation of mental figments which are given a demonic because objective existence. So, at the very end of Leviathan, he consigns the lot to "The Kingdome of Darknesse," a conceptual miasma of course nominally inhabited by phantasms, idols, images, figures--in Hobbes's canon, things that are not.

However one regards Hobbes's version of the causes of the British civil war, the role he gives this idolatrous propensity in Leviathan anticipates Wittgenstein's comparable concern that we are forever wanting to treat abstract terms as though they signified substantives of the same order as bodies in space.27 From different positions, both Hobbes and Wittgenstein argue that we habitually misconceive this species of word, and in a way detrimental to more than verbal sense. Indeed, for Hobbes, our perverse usage goes a long way toward explaining how the Presbyterians could claim England honorifically for the scriptural God, though really for themselves. In religion, Luther would say this delusive objectifying arises from the suppressed fact that "God" and "truth" or "meaning" (for him, the theological kind) are res non apparentes, things that do not appear as such, after Hebrews 11:1: "faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen."28 And the difficulty peculiar to res non apparentes is that their inevidence surreptitiously signifies more than mere invisibility: it implicates a kind of existence ineffably distinct from those things which mediate this incommensurable life to us. For if such an alien dimension to the world can only be known and understood according to its mediations, at that same time those mediations cannot signify as they seem to do since they are invariably antipathetic to their subject. Indeed, religious language in Luther confounds us like language more largely does in the Investigations: we assume an easy correspondence, an evident continuity of kind between an expression's familiar and religious usages, where Luther argues there is none. Religious invisibilia, he insists, must be understood in an unaccustomed fashion if they are to make any sustained sense, a circumstance we only discover when--in our world, in the scriptural text, or in the relations we argue between them--we experience deity's self-revelation as incongruous, conflicted, contradictory, unjust.

For Luther himself, such an event was fomented by a phrase of Paul's--"the righteousness of God"--which he had been taught to understand as the righteousness by which deity punishes the wicked: "For in [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, 'He who through faith is righteous shall live' " (Romans 1:17). Despite Luther's passionate religious commitment, these words engendered in him only an equally violent despair since he had no felt conviction that, with all his pious labors, he was adequate to this God's acceptance. What with the intensifying sensations of his own spiritual futility, Paul's words had the perverse effect of making him hate the blind and brutal God to whom, it would seem, he had all but unaccountably devoted himself:

I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God, and said, "As if, indeed, it is not enough, that miserable sinners, eternally lost through original sin, are crushed by every kind of calamity by the law of the decalogue, without having God add pain to pain by the gospel and also by the gospel threatening us with his righteousness and wrath!" Thus I raged with a fierce and troubled conscience. Nevertheless, I beat importunately upon Paul at that place, most ardently desiring to know what St. Paul wanted.29

Simply put, Luther's anger and despair arise from his inability to tolerate the received meaning of the phrase "righteousness of God." For he cannot reconcile with his own experience, his own sense of what is right, the sort of justice deity imposes on humanity in this understanding of Paul's words. Indeed, he finds the "truth" scripture would seem to propound humanly unintelligible, since the phrase so construed works not to assuage but to exacerbate our suffering as "miserable sinners." Implicitly, this is the consequence of pursuing a certain clarity or precision for deity's self-expressions: that is, the scholastic exegetes of scripture handle its language as though each word meant in a void, without any regard either for the context of statement or for their reading's human viability--an approach wholly at odds with the stated intent of the gospel, as Luther complains. Thus a conflict arises between the sense obliviously assigned Paul's phrase and the morality, the justice of that meaning, where the actual effect of the verse countermands its supposed claims: in short, the existential incoherence of Romans precipitates in Luther a crisis of faith. And just as that crisis has both grammatical and psychological symptoms, where a given reading is productive only of the most extreme mental anguish (anguish so extreme and overwhelming that it becomes a formal element of Luther's theology), so does its solution:

At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, "In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, 'He who through faith is righteous shall live.' " There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, "He who through faith is righteous shall live." Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates. There a totally other face of the entire Scripture showed itself to me.30

The appalling incongruity of sense with experience moves Luther to attend to more than the phrase alone, namely, to the actual circumstances of its use, "the context of the words." And this interpretive maneuver results in a "perspicuous representation," a description which is also a solution in Wittgenstein's manner.

When Luther no longer approaches Paul's words as though their meaning were severally distinguished like the picture of bodies in space--single, discrete, and absolute--the verse has entirely another look for him. It no longer argues an unbearable antagonism between God and humanity, but an affinity achieved in the very act of reading scripture, whose newly intelligible meaning operates circumstantially, contingently, and so surprisingly. For once pervaded by this peculiarly inevident order of divine revelation, the ordinary assumes "a totally other face," which is to say that the Pauline expression gains the human viability it had catastrophically lacked. And this sensation of moving from the conflicted to the meaningful feels salvific to Luther, as if he "had entered paradise itself through open gates." The shift in his religious position is vast and almost beyond words, yet it is an interpretive creation, simultaneous with the sudden onset of the text's coherence and his own relief. For the received reading of Paul's phrase, in its semantic equation of words to things, ignores a critical contingency in the text--"He who through faith is righteous shall live"--and the force of this contingency thoroughly reorders the sense of Romans, in keeping with a certain grammatical usage, the Hebrew genitive:

Thereupon I ran through the Scriptures from memory. I also found in other terms an analogy, as, the work of God, that is, what God does in us, the power of God, with which he makes us strong, the wisdom of God, with which he makes us wise, the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God.
  And I extolled my sweetest word with a love as great as the hatred with which I had before hated the word "righteousness of God." Thus that place in Paul was for me truly the gate to paradise.31

So rather than proposing impossibly to match human to divine value, to trade human actions for God's as though these were commensurate, even fungible, scripture relates through our speech and history the groundless, redemptive movement of the divine toward humanity in a second creation, making us what we are not. Scriptural expressions thus come to signify in a new and extraordinary way a significance which Luther himself undergoes like theophany--the strange yet illuminating force of divine intent in human experience. For by their very incoherence with the usual sense we assume for ourselves and our world, these expressions implicate a meaning at once inevident and inordinate, whose reference is not the nature of God per se but the quality of God's attitude toward us. That reference Luther elsewhere distinguishes as "the will of His good pleasure" in a sense deliberately paradoxical to scholastic usage, as signifying deity's gratuitous, salvific intent in the Christ--"the one and only view of the Divinity that is available and possible in this life" (LW 2:49). In effect, these expressions provide an account of the relation between creature and creator, pictured as a profound distinction in the order of scriptural meaning itself. This is what Luther means by his being "born again": the shift in meaning is felt to be the virtual sensation of faith itself, and thus a palpable revolution--a conversion, that is--in our standing before God.

Moreover, in the moment the text of scripture is reconfigured, no longer terrible but sweetly reassuring to Luther, so deity itself assumes another aspect--this time as a loving God, not a hateful one. Luther's struggle with the sense of Romans, then, does not end in the seeming impasse between religious profession and human experience; for its difficulty and its authority mutually require him to seek a description resolving this incoherence--a justification. And while we might cynically assume the expedience of such justifying--that it will result in an incomplete or opportunistic reading--the opposite actually occurs. Luther's revised understanding takes more rather than less of the text into account, including the fact of its difficulty; nor is the Hebrew genitive a mere device but a real grammatical possibility foreclosed by the restrictive order of meaning on which its interpreters had previously insisted. The point fundamental to this hermeneutical episode is Luther's assumption, in the face of such soul-destroying difficulty, that God's words must be meaningful, must be true. He shares this assumption with Wittgenstein, whose sense of language as a natural and so practical, functional aspect of human being ensures his comparable reluctance either to rest in the contradiction raised by scepticism or to accept its merely arbitrary solution. For both of them, the trial of incoherence is not to be proved against language itself but against its interpreters, who are inclined to refuse any order of meaning that conflicts with their own conceptual customs, no matter the human suffering that ensues. Since human egoism automatically assigns primacy to its notions alone, we must be chastened by contradiction if we are to relinquish them.

But where the problem of meaning lies with us, the marvelous thing about its solution in Luther's account is that we are not led by this difficulty into sophistications like the epicycles of the planets--as Raphael says, building and unbuilding in order to save not so much the appearances as our preferred relation to them. Once the change in our position has taken place, we see this revision as simple in itself. It is because we are infatuated with a single idea of truth that any revolution in our assumptions feels like an arduous and fearful conflict, a challenge to our very being; that is, we want to believe in a certain immediacy, elegance, precision, and self-evidence to our perceptions of the world, because these dignify our position in it. Their quality tacitly reflects the tenor of human understanding and human being, which is why we often fail to notice that what appear to be superb explanations cannot account for the mundane facts of our experience. By exposing the discrepancy between our practice of knowledge and our representations of it, scepticism of course handily dispatches that fond idea of truth. Yet the sceptic frequently persists in the assumption that right understanding must nonetheless have the same qualities thus denied to knowledge "as we have it," in Francis Bacon's wry phrase. Indeed, the sceptical critique itself solicits just these appearances, and for the very same reason--that they commend its analysis and our megalomania. So Luther's historic break isn't with scripture or the God of that text, but with a certain interpretive egoism and conceptual infatuation which dismiss, as an abuse of meaning, whatever does not fit its preferred model. And in banishing any other possibility of significance, it banishes all the world and deity itself from human understanding.

By contrast, the different model of res non apparentes, in which God, truth, mind, faith, significance, and such invisibilia resist our expectations of meaning, requires us to rethink where we stand relative to these things as well as the way we suppose religious experience to signify. We cannot find ourselves reflected in the world in the same way as before, because understanding is no longer held captive to our own inflated demands for significance. Humanity is still the maker of meaning, if only because we must be responsible to our predicament; but that predicament implicates another relationship altogether to this practice, where our ideas are not the end but merely the beginning of understanding. That is why when Luther reads Romans effectually, meaningfully, according to what he later calls scripture's "theological grammar," he is given no transcendent version of human nature, no invisible entity, and no sublimed world. Rather, Romans reveals an unexpected coherence and value in the most familiar things--in the very words we speak. And this occurs because difficulty can lead us to abandon our fixed and ingrained ideas of the way the world or the text, deity or truth, should appear to us. For once thrown back upon our failed assumptions of meaning--as Luther was, as Wittgenstein recommends we should be in such cases--we are obliged by our condition to return again and again to the conflict until, all of a sudden, it acquires another aspect as inclusive of understanding as our previous notions were prohibitive. In apprehending the force of the Hebrew genitive, Luther's sense of "being born again and entering paradise" enacts Wittgenstein's observation that we feel as though we have discovered a new object, a new place, a new physical phenomenon. But what we have experienced is simply the "new sensation" of another grammar--a new way of speaking or looking at our world and ourselves (PI # 400).

In his preface to the 1545 edition of the Latin works, which recounts this crisis, Luther may be said to justify his theology by the parable of his life: we are given a mimesis of a kind, describing the now historic turn or revision in his ideas and actions peculiarly contributing to, if not solely inciting, the events of the Reformation and the establishment of Protestant doctrine. As Lutheran scholarship itself acknowledges, his justifying is retrospective and artistic inasmuch as he intends this circumstantial account of his personal and public predicament to be instrumental for himself and his reader: in effect, it is a way of making sense of the social upheaval in which he and his writings participate. For his variously strident and perplexed responses to these scandalous events surely imply that Luther knows no complacence about the European wars of religion, which last well into the next century. Rather, he feels obliged to account for the fact that the gospel rightly understood does not relieve but seemingly precipitates a conflict of such global dimensions--political, religious, economic, intellectual. In part, the solution at which he arrives is expressed in that paradoxical righteousness, where humanity is justified by no physical or material action but a conceptual and interpretive one--the living practice of sola fides, sola gratia, sola scriptura--which we feel in every aspect of our being, as Luther says about himself.

Yet we cannot see this justification as such, any more than Luther finds the conventional meaning of Paul's words spiritually facile or coherent: on the contrary, the statement from Romans appears incongruous, offensive to him in his malaise--a horridum decretum, to adopt Calvin's ironic epithet. But the existential conflict this meaning promotes moves Luther to pursue what he then profoundly experiences as the letter's proper sense and the alleviation of his suffering. It is necessary to recognize that, in the crucible of his own anguish, he remains conspicuously faithful to the text, adamantly refusing to abandon it or God but insisting on their mutual justification. And this "importuning" of the text, this insistence on its meaningfulness, conduces to the very coherence of which he despaired both in Paul's words and in his own life. That is why, in Luther, neither justification before God nor the paradoxicality of its Pauline description implicates a mystical or transcendental being. Instead, as in tragedy, as in Wittgenstein's philosophy, religious contradiction throws us back upon ourselves in such a way that we are impelled to discover not the wonders of the invisible world, but a revised meaning for the ordinary one which at some point or other we have experienced as intolerably conflicted. So although contradiction is accessory to this new meaning, it does not serve Luther as the basis for some metaphysic or counter-aesthetic. Human conflict and suffering cannot be a value or a good in themselves; nor is their painful reality to be effaced by any religious apprehension of them. That would be grossly immoral. But as its invariable effects, these misfortunes mark the occasions of our chronic misprision of the one true God, whom we want to construe as a palpable entity or transcendent analogue when he exists for us only as an alien and discomfiting sort of meaning that keeps obtruding on our unexamined lives. Since deity's hiddenness represents for Luther the limits of human understanding, we cannot expect to educe a knowledge of God directly from his expressions; we can seek to understand them only within the limits of this constraint. And the constraint places deity in the category of res non apparentes, things which do not appear as such, along with all religious things including the sense of scripture. So Luther insists that even in the incarnate son of God, we do not have an analogia entis to the divine, much less deity per se, but rather the right understanding of God expressed parabolically in the peculiar story of a human life--Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ.

Such an impassable boundary placed on religious knowledge does not allow us to say, This is God, or This is godlike; it enables us only to say, This is how we must go about understanding God's intent. For Luther, our knowledge does not take the form of an axiomatic doctrine of the divine nature, but a circumstantial account of our forever-vexed relations with the absolute--in the scriptural text, in history, in our present lives--whose difficulty works to revise how we take God's revelation: that is, we are brought by contradiction to acknowledge that it does not describe an order of being, one which remains beyond even our attempt at conception. Rather, what these expressions do is to introduce a new dimension and complexity of meaning into our existence; and Luther's theology of justification--"the righteousness of God"--is distinguished by that singular insight.

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File created: 8/7/2007

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