“Not but by the Spirit understood”: Milton’s Plain Style and Present-day Messianism
Feisal Mohamed, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
In his 1900 book on Milton, Sir Walter Raleigh famously described Paradise Lost as being no less a great monument for being a monument to dead ideas, a fin de siècle suggestion that its religion would be irrelevant to the modern age while its formal achievements would continue to be prized. How optimistic that view now seems. Our century seems to be giving new life to Milton’s ideas: it is one where his prophetic project carries a good deal more currency than does his poetic one.
But of course for Milton these are not separable projects. He develops a poetics fundamentally at odds with an ideological aestheticism, with its presupposition that the concerns of the artifact remain internal and that musical beauties can be enjoyed for their own sake in the way Raleigh recommends. This is apparent in his use of a plain style at those moments in Paradise Lost closely expressing prophetic enlightenment, as evinced especially in the language of God the Father and in the Abdiel episode. He thus develops a public language fundamentally at odds with the notion of a public sphere. In this regard he resembles that strain in post-Enlightenment thought concerned with identifying transcendent truths, whether that of Hardt and Negri, or, most recently, of Slavoj Žižek’s Defense of Lost Causes, which in its own words is ‘unashamedly committed to the “Messianic” standpoint of the struggle for universal emancipation.’ We learn from reading late Milton that such Messianism inevitably adopts a sectarian worldview rather than a liberal notion of consensus. ‘Nor number, nor example’ will prevail upon the sectarian whose ‘constant mind’ is single; for such individuals justification lies beyond this world and hope resides in the promise of a Totality to come.
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