Abstract and Keywords
This introductory chapter sets up the ensuing discussion of Milton's poetics of ineffability by defining the precise use in this study of such terms as ‘ineffable’, ‘numinous’, and ‘apophatic theology’, and distinguishing conceptually between mystical discourse that talks about an ineffable subject by demonstrably failing to talk to ‘about’ it, and the poetic discourse of Milton that pretends to actually talk about an ineffable subject, while actually talking around it. The chapter then provides a brief overview of the book as a whole.
SI ILLUD EST INEFFABILE QUOD DICI NON POTEST, NON EST INEFFABILE QUOD VEL INEFFABILE DICI POTEST.
If what cannot be spoken is unspeakable, then it is not unspeakable, because it can actually be said to be unspeakable.
(Augustine, De Doctrina Christiana)
Wenn man sich nicht bemüht das Unaussprechliche auszusprechen, so geht nichts verloren. Sondern das Unaussprechliche ist,—unaussprechlich—in dem Ausgesprochenen enthalten!
If only you do not try to utter what is unutterable then nothing gets lost. But the unutterable will be—unutterably—contained in what has been uttered!
(Ludwig Wittgenstein, Letter to Paul Engelmann, 9. 4.1917)
Confronting the inexpressible and the unsayable is a commonplace of human experience. Every day of our lives we experience those moments when language fails us; when ideas, emotions, or mental images—those things which fall under the nebulous category of meaning—are mis-transmitted, misinterpreted, or simply passed over in silence in the processes of human communication. Finding the words to describe an idea, an image, or an emotion is not only the greatest obstacle to human (p.2) language but also the greatest challenge for its art. Like any other pervasive phenomenon of human experience, the ineffable has long played a major role in both Western and Eastern philosophies and theologies and the literary discourses which have arisen and continue to arise from within and without, against and about, these traditions.1 As I will argue in this study, the struggle with ineffability in many ways defines Milton's triumphs as a poet and goes to the heart of the central critical debates to engage his readers over the centuries and decades. Granted, such a declaration sounds positively trivial when we consider the ubiquitous nature of ineffability as silent presence in all human affairs: might we not say the same of any other poet or artist? Indeed we may, and many critics have done so in relation to numerous other authors and thinkers, ranging in time and cultural contexts from Dante to Paul Celan. It is not only the concept of the ineffable as such, however, which attracts the critic's interest in any given author's treatment of this concept, but rather the uniqueness of the personal, cultural, intellectual, and historical moment which shape a given poet's understanding and literary engagement with the ineffable, whether it is conceived, as in Milton's case, within Christian Neoplatonic traditions of religious and metaphysical ineffability, or in other overlapping configurations.
- Words, after speech, reach
- Into the silence. Only by the form, the pattern,
- Can words or music reach
- The stillness, as a Chinese jar still
- Moves perpetually in its stillness.
- (T. S. Eliot, ‘Burnt Norton’)
It is clear, then, that in talking about Milton and the ineffable I need to define the exact terms I am concerned with as precisely as possible, as well as the intellectual-historical forces which shaped those terms. Depending on how we understand the relationship between language, meaning, and the world around us, the ‘ineffable’, as a concept, can mean many things. Our modern, post-Freudian understanding of the term is primarily psychoanalytical. Certain experiences, particularly those associated with intense emotions such as love, terror, or religious ecstasy, do not lend themselves to literal description. Such experiences belong to conceptualizations that often slip into metaphors that signify, or ineffably point to, what Lacan for example terms ‘the real’. Like Roman Jakobson, Lacan uses metaphor in the sense of the structure of substitution (as distinct from metonymical displacement), not as a (p.3) formal instance of language; the unconscious, in other words, is not a text in which there are metaphorical expressions but a locus in which some representations (or memory-traces) are not allowed by the pleasure principle to be translated into conscious representations and hence are substituted by something else. The ineffable ‘real’ for Lacan is that which exceeds words (the signifier, the symbolic), and needs to be excluded from the symbolic so that signification might become possible. As one of the English translator of Lacan's Écrits explains, the ‘real’ is used in Lacan's system adjectivally to describe ‘the ineliminable residue of all articulation, the foreclosed element, which may be approached, but never grasped: the umbilical cord of the symbolic’.2 Alternatively, there is the deconstructive, competing Derridean understanding of ‘ineffability’ as the negative non-presence, or the absence of meaningful transcendental constructs in the endless play of signifiers upon other signifiers. Derrida's ineffable is that which extends beyond the text and beyond the range of what is capable of being processed by the structures that produce textual meaning. The famous statement from Of Grammatology, ‘il n'y a pas de hors-texte’,3 registers Derrida's sober recognition that in matters of signification only the text matters, and that anything thought to exist outside the text is a virtual projection made from within it.
None of these modern (or post-modern) definitions, however, would have necessarily made any obvious sense to Milton, who believed resolutely in the immutable truth of the Bible and the existence of God, and who worshipped at Plato's logocentric altar. Milton could never conceive of ineffability outside Christian logocentric discourse and the transcendental, hyperbolic order on which it depends. Peter Hawkins and Anne Schotter, co-editors of Ineffability: Naming the Unnamable from Dante to Beckett (New York, 1984), provide a very plausible distinction between modern and pre-modern notions of ineffability in their introduction:
If the ineffable is that about which nothing truly can be said, perhaps (to borrow a line from Wallace Stevens's ‘Snowman’) we can differentiate between (p.4) ‘the nothing that is not there and the nothing that is’—between what we may call a ‘negative’ ineffable and a ‘positive’ one. Although it has many secular manifestations, the latter is most fundamentally a religious notion, one which acknowledges the great gulf fixed between the divine and what human beings can think or say about divinity.4
Although very useful as a starting point, the implied distinction here between a ‘negative’ and a ‘positive’ ineffable along the lines of religious belief and modern secularism can be misleading. For the pseudo-Dionysius and his Christian Neoplatonic heirs, for example, what would be meant by ‘positive’ in this sense already contains its own dialectic of negative–positive expression, since negation leads the mind up a ladder of mystical ascent towards an ineffable understanding of that which is absolutely positive, or deemed existent. Similarly, although ostensibly worlds apart, Lacan's theory of the ineffable, for all its impact on secular post-modernism, is profoundly ‘positive’ since Lacan's ‘real’ is precisely what is (at least until Lacan's later teaching) outside the text, or manifest in the text in the holes in sense. For Derrida, on the other hand, what is outside the text is neither negative, nor positive, but simply absent—it lacks ontology in any sense whatsoever. It is true that a number of scholars and critics have attempted to show in recent decades that Derrida's theory of deconstruction actually rhymes with negative theology in significant ways. John Caputo, for example, in his influential The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida, asserts that negative theology, like deconstruction, ‘is a deeply affirmative irruption…a passion for the impossible, for trespassing and transgression’.5 However, as Shira Wolosky clarifies in her rebuttal of Caputo and those who would seek to rescue Derrida ‘not from, but for theology’, ‘Derrida does not contest [the] mutual implication of negative and positive theology. Indeed, he explores it, but in doing so he questions the escape of negative theology from ontology. Negation does not in itself guarantee such an escape, does not necessarily deontologize theological structures.’6 Rather, the unutterable telos of negative theology for Derrida is not ‘existent’, but (p.5) merely a self-emptying discourse which testifies to what it cannot say—a postscript, as it were, to eviscerated presence.7
The crux of this unfolding paradox rests in the idea of an ontological presence which is accepted, as a matter of religious faith, to be radically ineffable. Hawkins and Schotter's use of the term ‘positive ineffable’ to describe the solemn silence which ensues in the presence of ‘an overplus of being’ derives from Rudolf Otto's canonical essay, The Idea of the Holy. In it, Otto memorably supplies a series of elegantly argued (though not infallible) terms to account for the various psychological elements of religious experience. Of particular influence is Otto's discussion of the ‘numinous’ and its attendant religious feeling of the ‘mysterium tremendum’. According to Otto's formulation, the ‘tremor’ or ‘fear’ a religious mystery excites can manifest itself in a variety of ways, but always in the presence ‘of that which is a mystery inexpressible and above all creatures…the term does not define the [mysterious] object more positively in its qualitative character. But though what is enunciated in the word is negative, what is meant is something absolutely and intensely positive’.8 Or, to cite Derrida's inverted atheist point of view, ‘if there is a work of negativity in discourse and predication, it will produce divinity’.9 The distinction between a ‘positive’ and a ‘negative’ ineffable, therefore, is helpful as a starting point to clarify the terms with which this study is most concerned. To the extent to which the ‘positive’ ineffable is associated with belief in a transcendental reality that may be deemed existent, and the ‘negative’ ineffable with the denial of such reality, it could be argued that this study is mostly concerned with religious notions of ‘positive’ ineffability as opposed to secular, predominantly modern, ‘negative’ ones. My use of the term ‘ineffable’, therefore, is confined to its religious theist uses which, while in themselves potentially having recourse either to positive or negative expression, ultimately proceed from the axiomatic assumption that God exists and that his existence is something about which nothing can be said using ordinary language, except through negation. After all, while there are many subtle (p.6) and unsettling manifestations of ‘negative’ ineffability in Milton's work, as we shall see, none of these negative irruptions can be rightly identified, for example, with Nietzsche's outright contempt for the limits of human speech,10 or, for that matter, with the disembodied voice of, say, Beckett's The Unnameable.11
However, the question of whether or not it is at all possible to say anything meaningful in ‘ordinary’ language about that which is existent yet ineffable asks finally what an ‘extra-ordinary’ use of language might be; and, more critical to this study, did Milton find a way to talk about the ineffable without actually talking about it. A common trope of traditional apophatic theology (that is, negative theology which moves away from speech and is therefore, using the Greek term, apo-phatic) is to pretend to be talking ‘about’ the ineffable God while actually talking around the subject, because to really talk about God as he is in himself—that is, not about how he might appear to us, but how he really is—would be, of course, impossible: God as he is in himself is designated only by deep, meaningful silence.12 There are, however, many ways (p.7) of talking around a subject and they do not all involve the more familiar gesture of humbly falling silent. My main argument is this: Milton engages with a rich apophatic tradition which tells him quite precisely what can and cannot be said about that which is traditionally considered ineffable, and he nevertheless tries to find creative ways to talk not just around the subject, but around the problem of ineffability altogether. In his classic book Beginnings: Intention and Method, Edward Said remarks, almost in passing, that to read Paradise Lost ‘is to be convinced, in Ruskin's phrase, of the idea of power: by its sheer duration and presence, and by its capacity for making sense despite the absence [of a lost Paradise] at its center, Milton's verse seems to have overpowered the void within his epic.’13 Said's ‘void’ in this case is not the shifting void of deconstruction—at least not intentionally—but the void left behind when fallen, logocentric man is divorced from the infinite beatitudes of divine ontology and is left only with its remote dream. The most challenging aspect of my argument, therefore, is to explore how Milton's verse indeed seems to ‘overpower’ the void of ineffability at the centre of his major poetry without actually doing so. Milton, I argue, only ever wants to be seen to say the unsayable without actually saying it, and without once sacrificing either intelligibility or the sense of mystery which authorizes such intelligibility. This surely sounds impossible, but it is precisely out of the sheer impossibility of these propositions that Milton's poetry assumes its shape and power.
One potential approach to this study could have been to engage with Milton's poetry and implicit metaphysical ideas directly with little by way of exordium or prolegomenon. Milton, however, wrote his poetry at a crucial juncture in Western intellectual history, when central theological, metaphysical, and literary concerns were being reshaped and refocused with astonishing force. As a teleological poet, Milton struggled within and against a large variety of interrelated religious, philosophical, and literary traditions even as he mapped his unique (p.8) vision of the world, its origins, and his own place within it. The idea of the ineffable, which can be glossed as a proper concern for the limits of speech when confronted by the unsayable that nevertheless needs to be said, is silently present in all of the intellectual traditions which shaped Milton's poetics. C. A. Patrides once noted that Milton ‘used traditional ideas in such a way that they were transformed into seeming novelties’;14 this is also true of Milton's treatment of traditional apophatic imagery and concepts, except that in this case there is nothing ‘seeming’ about the resulting novelty. I will argue that Milton's approach to the very notion of ineffability was uniquely novel for its time. Milton was responding in his art to a crisis about ineffable presence and mystery in both Reformation thought and Christian humanism and was forced to reposition his poetic voice within the apophatic tradition in ways which radically challenged its conventional literary decorum and semiotic codes. To focus only on Milton's poetry, therefore, would have left half the story untold, and the story of ineffability—notwithstanding all the paradoxes involved—needs to be told if Milton's initial defiance of sacred silence and final surrender to its interior promptings is to be placed in its suitable historical and intellectual context.
The first two chapters provide the necessary historical and intellectual background for my ensuing analysis of Milton's treatment of the ineffable in his poetry. I do not claim in these two chapters to outline an exhaustive historical survey of philosophical and theological traditions concerned with the problems of ineffability; such an attempt far exceeds the scope of this study and in any case would have detracted from the literary focus on Milton's poetry.15 Rather, I have chosen to highlight important intellectual milestones in Western thought that are most relevant to understanding Milton's subsequent literary engagement with ineffable presence in the context of Christian Platonic (p.9) humanism and Reformation theology. The first chapter examines a number of key stages in the development of speculative ideas about the ineffable, from the Exodus account of Moses's prophetic appointment by the burning bush, through Greek and early Christian philosophical reflections on the logos, to late medieval philosophical theology and its attempts to formulate a semiotics and grammar for and about divine ontology.
Following chronologically from the first chapter, the second chapter explores the radical changes in the intellectual presence of ineffability in Western thought following the rise of humanism and the impact of religious reform. It seeks to demonstrate how the notion of the ineffable ceases in the period to be merely speculative and, in the processes of Renaissance and Reformation, becomes a temporal source for profound individual empowerment but also religious anxiety and intellectual dissent. I develop my argument here in stages by surveying and analysing the permutations of thinking about ineffability in the Renaissance Neoplatonic philosophy of man, in the philological practices of Erasmian humanism, and in Reformation debates about the use of signs and metaphors in the operation of the logos in scripture and sacrament. The final section focuses specifically on the English Reformed landscape, and sets the scene for the analysis of Milton's early poetry by considering the impact of these ideas on some of Milton's godly contemporaries and the emerging English Protestant preoccupation with the motions of interior sacredness, holy silence, and the language of election. The overriding narrative of the first two chapters, therefore, is one of continual struggle against silence, whether in metaphysical speculations about divine ontology, or an active, socially responsible religious life which seeks to engage with God's revealed word and its promise of redemption for the fallen world. The second chapter in particular thus aims to highlight emerging Protestant anxieties about the inevitable dislocation of the ineffable in Reformed discourse, while looking ahead to Milton's consequent attempt to emancipate this idea from the clutches of emerging orthodoxies on either side of the Reformation divide.
The purpose of the first two chapters is not to reconstruct a teleological blueprint of specific textual sources which Milton may have read and therefore drew on in his thinking about the ineffable, but to establish a sufficiently detailed context for an examination of the ways in which a man of Milton's learning and religious-political disposition would have (p.10) responded to this idea and its underlying literary implications in seventeenth-century England. Although I frame the problem of ineffability in broadly speaking historical terms of ‘Renaissance’ and ‘Reformation’, my subsequent critical approach to Milton's poetry is not in the least ‘historicist’. My focus is on Milton's intellectual engagement with an abstract philosophical-theological, and finally literary, problem which, although having inevitable political and historical implications in some narrow contexts, ultimately yields its literary significance in a broader, speculative discussion about the limits of language and representation. Be that as it may, I am well aware that the claim to novelty in Milton studies is a notoriously difficult one, and I make no such claim in what follows beyond offering a fresh perspective from which to re-examine a familiar subject. Milton's struggle with the ineffable, especially in Paradise Lost, is hardly a new topic for the critic. His theories of accommodation and biblical hermeneutics, as well as his idiosyncratic brand of Reformed theology have all been analysed in minute detail. The theme has also been more glancingly touched upon by the countless critics who have analysed Milton's elevated style, his view and use of language, his love of music and use of musical metaphors, and the structure, symbolism, and argument of Paradise Lost. Other contextual studies, especially those by William Kerrigan, Joseph Wittreich, and Michael Lieb, have established the importance of prophecy, the visionary, the sacral, and the numinous in Milton's poetry, not to mention his intellectual indebtedness to a seemingly never-ending catalogue of religious, philosophical, and occult ideas.16 The reader will note, however, that I call this study Milton and the Ineffable and not, for example, Milton and the Ineffable God. Although much of the ineffable character of Milton's poetry derives from the intrinsically numinous character of his subject, I am not directly concerned in this study with the numinous per se, but with the formal problems of ineffability such a numinous presence poses to a devout thinker who wishes to compose poetry about and around its experience. In other words, if Michael Lieb analyses at length Milton's ‘poetics of deity’,17 I wish to complement that analysis with an examination of Milton's ‘poetics of ineffability’, (p.11) which is not quite the same thing. Lieb's study offers a primarily theological analysis of Milton's poetic imagery of God and of the discursive relationship between theological and poetic vocabularies in Milton's imagination; my study seeks to analyse the crisis of mimesis in relation to apophatic discourse which Milton inherits from the humanist-Protestant traditions and attempts to resolve creatively in his poetry and theological thinking. The precise objective of the first two chapters' selective history of the ineffable, therefore, is to demonstrate that by the time Milton enters this history, the theological and philosophical assumptions associated with the idea of ineffability were unsettled by intellectual and religious conflict. As I will show in my ensuing analysis of Milton's poetry, such unsettling of the intellectual assumptions about the ineffability of transcendental subject-matter allowed him finally to accommodate the elusive presence of the numinous in his art in ways which set his mature poetry apart from traditional formulations of ineffable rapture in Judaeo-Christian theology and mysticism before his time.
After a brief reconsideration of Milton's well-documented impatience with, or even fear of, ineffable mystery in more general terms, I begin my analysis of Milton's poetry in the third chapter by examining the shape and development of his prophetic and pastoral voices in Poems 1645. I focus in particular on the elusive presence of ineffable mystery and rapture in the ‘Nativity Ode’, ‘The Passion’, ‘At a Solemn Music’, A Masque, ‘Lycidas’, and ‘Epitaphium Damonis’, in the order they appear in the volume. I explore the difficulty Milton faced as a young devout Protestant, still unsure of his own radical ideas, in resolving the conceptual contradiction between his religious belief in the power and perspicuity of words, and his desire to capture that which is beyond words in rapturous poetic flight. I argue that Milton of the 1620s to 1640s sought to create an imaginary and ultimately unstable space where the vatic poet briefly sheds his shackles of sin and begins to soar beyond the reach of human language.
I continue to pursue this theme in the fourth chapter, in my analysis of Paradise Lost, where I examine the dislocation and elaborate diffusion of ineffable presences in the monist materialist universe of the poem. Beginning with the famous invocation to holy light in the opening of Book III, I analyse the various poetic gestures Milton uses to assert his putative ability to say the unsayable while simultaneously allowing the poetic imagery and tone of the invocation to suggest that such feats are (p.12) merely imagined and are not in fact available to the humbly fallen, though inspired, poet. This naturally raises important questions about the precise function of metaphor and allegory in the poem. While the inspired poet allegedly accommodates hidden vistas to his fallen readers using analogies and metaphors, the evoked universe of the poem consists only of luminous matter and literal truths. The materialism of the universe in the poem and of the poetry itself, I argue, is a metaphorical consequence of Milton's attempt to contend with the imperatives and limitation of ineffability. The result is a contradictory but poetically powerful theory of monist accommodation which allows Milton to preclude ineffability and deny that accommodation need ever take place where he is concerned, even as he reintroduces a sense of ineffable loss and mystery on the level of poetic feeling by pointing out that, where the fallen reader is concerned, the resulting vision of Heaven and a lost Paradise is distinctly accommodated. This leads to a more detailed analysis of what I term ineffable ‘speech effects’ in the poem, where Milton first deploys and then subverts apophatic imagery in the process of evoking the otherworldly and indeed alien character of divine, angelic, demonic, and prelapsarian speech. Such growing dissonance between what words literally and plainly say and their aural and affective impact, I argue, conditions the reader of the poem to believe that what should be understood literally in the poem, especially when God speaks, is in fact radically ineffable. This strategy finally allows Milton to invest the objectified idea of the ineffable—deployed in the poem adjectively as an attribute of divine effluence—with an ethical dimension, where speechlessness can become a form of absolute punishment when the fallen creature is ejected from God's kingly presence. This idea links up with the poem's sustained meditation on the ineffable encounter with the divine as an interiorized spiritual experience, where God's creatures, whether they are fallen angels or fallen man, must contend with the emerging silence that is the consequence of divine loss. Such an experience can only confirm the irredeemable devils in their sinfulness and state of divine privation, but for Adam and Eve it signals the path for repentance and ultimate redemption.
This naturally leads then into the fifth and final chapter, in which I turn to the 1671 volume of Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes. Here I analyse the crisis of apophatic discourse at the heart of the poet's subjectivity, when modes of spiritual interiority surrender to ineffable (p.13) silence at the expense of voice and meaning. Whereas in his early poetry and Paradise Lost Milton tries to find the words or poetic imagery with which to capture the presence of the ineffable without once falling silent, I argue that Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes are reflective and meta-poetic in that they explore the potential failure or success of this process for the vatic-sacral poet contemplating redemption for humanity. In these two oddly comparable poems about the merits and limits of individual Christian heroism, Milton finally confronts the ineffable mystery at the heart of the Protestant election and regeneration narrative. In doing so he offers his readers seemingly two very different, yet in fact congruent, didactic, and intensely dialectical reflections on the nature of interior holiness and what it takes to secure salvation and redemption for the individual, if not for his nation.
(1) Scharfstein, Ineffability, discusses at length the many conceptual links and echoes between formulations of apophasis in Western and Eastern religions and philosophies. See also the essays by D. G. Jones, Harold F. Coward, Joseph Epes Brown, and David W. Atkinson in Blodgett and Coward, Silence, the Word and the Sacred.
(2) Écrits: A Selection, trans. A. Sheridan, p. x.
(3) ‘There is nothing outside of the text.’ French original embedded in the English translation, Spivak, Of Grammatology, 158.
(4) Hawkins and Schotter, Ineffability, 1–2
(5) Caputo, The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida, 27
(6) Wolosky, ‘On Derrida's “How To Avoid Speaking: Denials” ’, 264.
(7) Franke, On What Cannot Be Said, i. 446
(8) Otto, The Idea of the Holy, 12–13 (italics original to the text)
(9) Budick and Iser, Languages of the Unsayable, 4–70, at p. 6
(11) For a good reflection on the presence of ineffability in Beckett as it relates to Wittgenstein's Tractatus see Bruce Kawin, ‘On Not Having the Last Word: Beckett, Wittgenstein, and the Limits of Language’, in Hawkins and Schotter, Ineffability, 189–201. See also Kane, The Language of Silence, ch. 5, and Wolosky, Language Mysticism, 91–134.
(12) For a discussion of the ‘about’/about distinction in the context of ineffable mystery see Cooper, The Measure of Things, 285–9. Cooper argues that mystics do not necessarily violate the ineffable by speaking ‘about’ it because in fact they only ever talk about their experience of failing to talk about it. He then qualifies this, however, by also pointing out that mystical utterances are not necessarily descriptive or assertive in the first place. This would fit with Denys Turner's seminal re-evaluation of mystical theology in The Darkness of God, where he shows that all ancient and medieval mystical writings in the Western tradition are, in essence, non-experiential to begin with. As Turner elucidates, apophatic theology does not in itself constitute a spiritual ‘experience’ but is rather a critique from within normative language-driven piety of that piety. According to Turner, therefore, thinkers like Rudolph Otto misread the apophatic tradition by seeking to fill its perceived experiential vacuum with ‘the plenum of the psychologistic’ (Turner, The Darkness of God, 259).
(13) Said, Beginnings, 280
(14) Patrides, Milton and the Christian Tradition, 5
(15) For reasons of scope and argumentative focus, several key thinkers and contributors to the idea of ineffability in Western religion, philosophy, and literature before Milton are conspicuously absent from my survey: Eriugena, Meister Eckhart, Dante, and Wycliffe are the most glaring omissions, though their absence was deemed necessary to make room for thinkers more relevant to my immediate argument about Milton. For a comprehensive survey of the apophatic tradition from Plato to Derrida in all its aspects see the introduction and critical essays in William Franke's impressive two-volume anthology, On What Cannot Be Said: Apophatic Discourses in Philosophy, Religion, Literature and the Arts.
(16) The list of the studies I have in mind here is too long to include in a footnote; I refer to each of them at the appropriate places in this study.
(17) Lieb, Theological Milton, 127