Promiscuous Listening, Episode 2 Transcript

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Marissa Greenberg (MG): Welcome to Promiscuous Listening, where we take a cue from John Milton’s 1644 tract Areopagitica and its promotion of reading promiscuously to learn from the diversity of voices in 21st century Milton Studies. My name is Marissa Greenberg, and it’s my pleasure to welcome you to my conversations with scholars about the works of John Milton and especially his epic poem, Paradise Lost.  

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MG: Book 2 of John Milton’s Paradise Lost include two memorable extended sequences. The first takes place in pandemonium, where the rebel angels in infernal council debate whether to resume open war against God or to pursue covert guile. The second takes place at the gates of hell, where Satan encounters his progeny, Sin and Death. While there is much to talk about in each of these sequences, today’s podcast focuses on other aspects of Milton’s epic. My conversation today might take a cue from the phrase “his dark materials,” popularized by Philip Pullman’s young adult trilogy His Dark Materials, in book 2 of Paradise Lost refers to the matter and means of divine creation. For our purposes, however, propose another set of references. “His dark materials” invites us to consider the matter and means of Milton’s poetic creation. Milton wrote Paradise Lost in darkness. After several years of deteriorating eyesight, Milton became completely blind. Yet when he turned its full attention to writing an epic about the fall of humanity, he had a wealth of resources on which to draw, including a growing number of books about the places, peoples, and cultures that England encountered as part of its economic and political expansion. Here to talk with us about Milton and disability and Milton and empire is Dr. Amrita Dhar. 

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MG: Let me just begin by asking you to introduce yourself.  

Amrita Dhar (AD): My name is Amrita Dhar. I am Assistant Professor of English at the Ohio State University. I teach my undergraduate classes in the new campus, graduate classes in the Columbus campus. I teach courses in early modern studies, Disability Studies, and migration studies. I’m really interested in how various analytics kind of come together to create meaning such as disability, race, gender, sexuality. The book project I am immersed in right now is on Milton’s blind language, which looks at the workings of blindness on Milton’s blind years poetry. So his Psalm translations, his later sonnets, and of course the landmark achievements Paradise LostParadise RegainedSamson Agonistes. And there onwards I’m moving to a second project which I currently have entitled “Regarding Sight and Blindness in Early Modern English Literature: Crossings of Disability, Race, and Empire.” 

MG: I’m very excited about the first book project having read your article “Milton’s Blind Language.” But the second project sounds especially intriguing because it’s bringing together these different areas of interest that I can see working in really interesting ways, to oversimplify maybe a little bit, because it highlights how even a term like disability doesn’t exist in isolation. It is intersectional: for someone to have a disability or being disabled depending on the language that they’re most comfortable with, it’s necessarily how they live that disability is going to be inflected by issues of race, gender, class. So when we have a figure like John Milton, who, yes, became blind later in life, but was an educated white man, had access to all sorts of networks to make it possible to still write a poem like Paradise Lost. Could you maybe give us a little bit of some examples? Or a description of how your scholarship on unblind language, how you bring that into the classroom, especially if you wouldn’t mind when you’re when you’re teaching undergraduates?  

AD: Oh, yes, absolutely. It actually took me a while to realize that I had always seen the blindness as a point of access for the scholarship and pedagogy, particularly on Milton. You see disability is a strangely accessible topic. For example, and Tobin Siebers talks about this when he writes about to the “ideology of ability” in his book, Disability Theory. He’s talking about himself as white male person. He’s not going to wake up—you’re not going to wake up—as a black female person, but as a white male, able-bodied person, you absolutely can wake up as a white male disabled. And somewhere in any thoughtful ethical engagement with literary study, I think we as readers and students of literature, and this is students of all ages, across backgrounds and across career stages, I think we are aware that able-bodiedness is a deeply contingent condition. This is what I think makes disability such a very accessible topic. Especially in North America, there is a resistance in the classroom, especially in the mixed setting, to talk about race, for example, or even to talk about sexuality. Gender, we are kind of, you know, getting a little bit past that resistance. But disability is a weirdly accessible topic. And I’ve come to realize that I’ve always used it as an access point for discussions of Milton. Just this simple question, you know, how do you do it? You’re writing long before the earliest Braille. This is 10,565 lines of blank verse that has stood up to centuries of criticism and that has been translated and used all over the world. How do you do it as a blind person? And that immediately opens up questions of, well, what does the composition look like? What does the editing look like? What is the scribal practice like? Who’s reading it back to the author for him to listen, so that, you know, that sort of “first fit audience … though few” are the poet’s amanuenses, willing or unwilling, enthusiastic or with household chores in the background. But these are the people in whose voices he first hears his poem in order to edit it, in order to shape it. So disability is that, is that we in for me.  

MG: I had a lot of excited thoughts while you’re talking. One, a good friend and colleague of mine once said, everyone is either already disabled or will be disabled at some point in their lives. There’s also, I think, a sense that the likelihood of having a family member, a close friend that gives, as you say, this point of access is really spot on. And what it leads to is another idea in Disability Studies that the disability isn’t in the person, it’s in the environment. And so Milton’s disability as it were—he changed his environment. So the disability was no longer an inhibitor to his poetic composition. Right? 

AD: Maybe it was an inhibitor; we just don’t know. Maybe he always felt it as an inhibition. We have no way of knowing. But for sure it is something that he—it is something that it informed , that is to say, it became part of the poetics that came out of blindness.  

MG: And that was the third thing that occurred to me as you were speaking when you described how the “first fit audience though few” were his amanuenses, that he was hearing the poem through their voices, reminds us that his body isn’t the only one to be taken into consideration here.  

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MG: If I might switch gears just slightly. You know, you mentioned that disability had always been your point of access to the poem. But in getting to know you, you’ve also shared with me how your personal story, history, how you came to study Milton, and your experiences teaching it, especially in the United States, has also been a factor. If I can pick up one of your terms from earlier, right, your own migration from where you were born to where you teach now via the UK, if I remember correctly, that has also shaped the way you read this poem. Would you mind telling us a little more about that?  

AD: Sure. My first acquaintance with Milton was not in his language. It has in mine, which is Bengali. So translation, not full length translation, but a translation that carries the excitement of the–carries, carries a weird excitement and kind of makes you want to get to the full length, makes you want to get to what is it like in English? And since I had English, I mean, I had to the language, it became a place that I wanted to get to. And then I read it for the first time in an undergraduate class, led by a truly gifted teacher. And I remember reading it really in about a day and a half. I was absolutely drowning in the verse. Just, just overwhelmed by the extravagance of the language. And therefore all the more stunned by the occasional restraint that every once in a while I thought I saw. And I also remember noting, for example, the bit in book 2, you know, where Milton mentions Bengala, the “equinoctial winds / Close sailing from Bengala.” Where I was in Bengala, reading literature Milton writing about my part of the world. And there I was sitting there and just immediately realizing that to Milton, this was foreign. He didn’t fully know what he was talking about it.  

MG: Okay, let’s give our listeners some setup to this moment, this epic simile. It occurs after the infernal debate in pandemonium, at the end of which Satan offers to go seek out this new world where humanity, God’s most recent and beloved creation, might be found and seduced. We’ll see when we get to book 3 that this is a travesty of the Son’s offer to sacrifice himself on humanity’s behalf. But in book 2 Satan has offered to go off into the unknown and find Earth, and after saying, basically says, I will do this, and all the other angels, fallen angels go off and participate in various activities in hell—for such a hellish place, there do seem to be a lot of options—then we get, and so for the students who want to follow along, this is book 2, line 629: 

Mean while the Adversary of God and Man, 

Satan with thoughts inflam’d of highest design,  

Puts on swift wings, and towards the Gates of Hell 

Explores his solitary flight; som times 

He scours the right hand coast, som times the left, 

Now shaves with level wing the Deep, then soares 

Up to the fiery Concave touring high. 

Which is a passage that has often captured my interests to imagine him flying in this huge expanse that is still nonetheless hell. And the ways in which he is this position to as this solitary explore that, I think, as we get deeper into the epic, we find so many foils to that image. This seems so heroic, so brave, and yet it’s in hindsight that we can see how small and painful, how much mental and physical effort, Satan must exert at this moment. But then we get to line 636. Would you mind reading that epic simile for us?  

AD: Sure. 

As when farr off at Sea a Fleet descri’d 

Hangs in the Clouds, by Æquinoctial Winds 

Close sailing from Bengala, or the Iles 

Of Ternate and Tidore, whence Merchants bring 

Thir spicie Drugs: they on the Trading Flood  

Through the wide Ethiopian to the Cape 

Ply stemming nightly toward the Pole. So seem’d 

Farr off the flying Fiend[.] 

MG: Thank you. You mentioned before that you’ve encountered this epic simile for the first time when you were in Bengala. And realized Milton doesn’t know—he had no idea what he’s talking about! Could you explain to us how you knew that Milton was full of, well, he was full of it, in this moment. Not poetically, but in terms of scientific, geographical knowledge or fact. 

AD: You know, I had these two parallel realizations. That he has no idea really of what Bengala is like.  And I also immediately realized, Oh, he must be reading about this stuff. He must be reading his travel literature; he is a well-read man. He is interested in the books coming out. He must be reading about this stuff. And that also immediately opened up all these other glimpses into the social world in which Milton is functioning for me, right, that he’s interested in the book trade, his participating as a reader in the book trade. He’s just really interested in the Royal Society proceedings. He is interested in what travelers and their accounts are saying about worlds well beyond British Isles. And that became therefore a very rich moment. But why did I know, for example, that he has no idea, but there just isn’t someone who has anything to do with Bengal, who talks about the Spice Islands and Bengal kind of together, unless you are in a mishmash of secondhand travel narratives, the way, for example, Purchas or Hakluyt might have been.   

MG: I apologize if this is a reductive question, and if it is, just kind of, you can flip it away. Does that impact your reception of the poem as a whole, right? This moment? Because when we tend to think of Milton and his intertextuality, it’s as this sign of his erudition; his self-discipline, since in so many ways he was self-taught; of his poetic skill, how deeply and tightly intertwined and often very wittingly intertwined he is with the other texts, both classical and contemporary, English and from throughout the continent and possibly beyond. But here’s a moment where Milton’s book knowledge doesn’t necessarily put him in the best of lights. It puts him in the light of someone who doesn’t actually understand fully the implications of what he’s read. It puts him in the position of an armchair imperialist. Has that impacted the way you read the poem as a whole?  

AD: I think so. It just makes him just to human writer who has limits to his knowledge. And he’s not pretending to what he doesn’t know. He’s kind of showing his cards, like, this is what I read and this is what I think I know. And here it is. And now what is weird, what is kind of—what I what I don’t take positively—is that these landscapes are landscapes by simile and by comparison and by analogy, sure, but these are landscapes of hell. And there again, you know, I guess I would just say, well, you know what you’re talking about. I know where I am. This is not. 

MG: I love that. I was going to ask you if this reflects on how Milton is using the epic simile, right? Or adapting that convention. But your point that situating—if we, if we take epic similes out of their context, we do them in the poem into service. And so in the context that this is hell, we get one more insight into Milton’s, and many of his readers, I’m going to venture, their jingoism. 

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MG: I asked Dr. Dhar if she would be comfortable talking about this epic simile in relationship to recent post-colonial scholarship.  

AD: There are scholars who will say that Milton is here referring to the Spice Islands of Indonesia, the Molucca Islands, or the “Moluccas.” There’s another strand of scholarship that says he is referring to with “Ternate and Tidore,” they are supposed to be in what is now known as Papua New Guinea. And I think that the fact that we don’t know is a good indication of how slippery the knowledge was in the 16th century for people in Europe. They didn’t know, I mean, of course, they didn’t know. And they’re kind of glimpsing things. They’re making stuff up and they’re printing stuff. And then people are reproducing the stuff that’s printed, but with fun creations on their own so that now it’s a different narrative. And it’s just a layered thing that is building with very little actual experience. And the actual experience, whatever it is, just by virtue of its own origin and inheritance, a version of white supremacy. So what here is the real in terms of these elsewheres;  there is no way of knowing. And there is something about reading passages like this one attentively that can and should signal to us how slippery the state to “knowledge” is and why there is almost a need to situate them in fabular landscapes of the epic.  

MG: One thing that I think surprises a lot of students is that Milton’s hell is not Dante is, right. Hell is somewhere, but it’s not the center of the Earth. From hell Satan enters the realm of Night and Chaos. Again, where is that? He gets bounced around, right? And by pure chance the winds that buffer him up, until Chaos saying, you know, I had all this territory. God came in, took it away to make your hell, thank you very much, Mr. Satan. So if you want to go and rape and pillage his other new creation, Earth, I’ll tell you exactly where it is. It’s over there hanging by a gold chain off of Heaven. Now, I have in the past asked students to map this. And no two maps look alike. Because this description resists specific knowledge. Even as Milton is building it on the imagery of European imperial conquest, going out into this globe that they have no idea where it ends. They’ve only recently figured out, yeah, it is in fact round, right? We have our reference to Galileo who has seen the moons and so now we have a better understanding of how the Earth situates in the universe, but Milton’s universe doesn’t follow even that scientific logic completely. So I love this idea that even when Milton is making epic comparisons to what is “known,” we are alerted to the limits of knowledge both because knowledge transmission is imperfect, but also because then there’s certain kinds of knowledge, as we get to, right, as we learn by the end of the poem, that are not available to us. 

AD: I think that’s kind of right, you know, I mean, Milton is rife with racisms and orientalisms. But because he is, I mean, he has a tendency to actually think about stuff, he ends up, I think, you know, showing his cards also in these weird moments where, you know, I read this thing and it sounds like this might be evocative for this purpose here in this poem. Here, take this, reader, make of this what you will. And are you failing to imagine the landscape I’m throwing at you? Me too. We don’t fully know where we are. And that is part of the aesthetic experience of the poem.  

MG: I mean, what kind of advice do you give to students when they come across a moment like this, where they’re just like, What the heck is going on here? 

AD: I think the thing that I find myself saying the most is listen for these rustles, where the artifice of the poem becomes evident. And again, since it’s Milton, there is no noise. I don’t think the artifice becomes evident by chance. I think that the artifice becomes evident by design of a poet. And I, I ask them to listen for his rustles. I ask them to take these rustles seriously.  

MG: Certain instruments like a cello that will have what’s called a growl. Where like when you play a certain string, it won’t resonate with the same fullness. It’s almost as if a composer were to write a piece for a particular instrument, knowing it’s going to growl there—is that what you’re suggesting? 

AD: It’s going to meet its own limitedness and it’s going to be made to show its limits. And the place that I see it, I mean, you might not be surprised to hear because I think about sight and blindness, is the Dover cliffs scene in King Lear. What am we seeing? I am showing you theatre as I am mantling it and dismantling it in front of you. Watch.  

MG: Yeah, Milton is working with his medium. I think it does bring us full circle, right, to our discussion of Disability Studies at the beginning, right, of working with the environment.  

AD: This kind of reminds me of something that you said earlier in our discussion of Disability Studies which is that access as Milton has to come to understand as he has his poetry being read back to him, in hearing it read back he is, I think, inevitably made to grapple with what his readers’ comprehension is or has been. And that is tied into his editing.  

MG: Yes, remembering that Milton too was encountering the poem twice, right? Because he claimed that it was sung to him by his inspiring angel at night. And then the next day he would hear it again by whoever was his amanuensis, so…. 

AD: And he of course, also in-between those two, he has to hear it in his own voice. So it’s very layered this composition process, I find fascinating, this layered orality / aurality composition, access, editing into greater comprehensibility. And we talk about the epic as this sort of high poetic form. Yes, it is a high poetic form. No one knows better than Milton that it has a high poetic form. But I think what this epic shares, for example, with The Readie and Easy Way is that it just has to be accessible. There’s just too much at stake. He spent his entire life planning it and is running out of time and life. And he’s already run out of “light of the eyes.” There’s too much at stake. He needs to make sense for all kinds of readers.  

MG: Thank you so very, very much. Again, I really appreciate your taking the time and this has been a lovely conversation. 

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