May 10, 2012
Milton and the (post)secular (II)
my last post, I pointed to some recent treatments of Milton (and other English poets from the seventeenth century) that argue for his relevance to current debates over religion and secularism. This post picks up on what I take to be the more convincing half of Feisal G. Mohamed's Milton and the Post-Secular Present. Mohamed opens his second last chapter with an epigraph from John Milbank (a theologian who has, more or less, sought to colonize whatever is meant by the term "post-secular"). Milbank's quote rehearses a familiar move in Christian apologetics: the biblical narrative is shown to break with sacrificial violence in favor of an originary peace. In what follows, Mohamed uses Milton's Samson Agonistes to demonstrate the limits of Milbank’s understanding of biblical narrative, a narrative of order and harmony that Western theologians characteristically impose on what they perceive as an arbitrary violence that is always traced back to the Other.
Since John Carey’s much scrutinized article in the Times Literary Supplement in September 2002, “A work in praise of terrorism? September 11 and Samson Agonistes,” Milton’s late work in particular has generated sporadic, often reactionary, debates over the nature of religious violence, past and present. Following the religious violence of 9/11, Carey argued, interpretations of Milton’s poem must avoid condoning Samson's final massacre of the Philistines: Israel’s liberator must either be condemned for his religious violence or be avoided altogether. As Mohamed recognizes, Carey’s polemic is a covert attempt to protect Milton and his liberal legacy from its possible endorsement of terrorism, its association with religious violence. One might expect Mohamed to emphasize the ethical ambiguity of Samson’s final act; instead, he argues that Samson is a hero of faith who shows that, with the imposition of uniformity by the state church, Milton has come closer to the “far left wing of Reformed religion.” There is little doubt, in other words, that Milton comes out on the side of Samson. Mohamed’s evidence for this is based on two authorial decisions that characterize the poem. First, the representation of violence in Samson Agonistes is passed over quickly or, at best, described ambiguously, with a host of natural metaphors. Second, there is little or no remorse for the Philistines on the part of the Hebrew chorus, which immediately celebrates Samson’s “miraculous slaughter.” Because of the limited account the Milton chooses to include in his poem, “We are never allowed to forget . . . the victims’ status as Philistine political elite and the attendant association of this class with the oppression of Israel” (103). For Mohamed, the value of Samson Agonistes lies in the way that it retains and represses this ethnic violence. Equally important for contemporary readers is the characterization of Samson as a hero of faith, whose experience of the divine impulse is inaccessible. Unlike Milbank’s claims to Christianity’s original purity, Milton frustrates our attempts to narrate Christianity in such a harmonious manner; with Milton, he writes, echoing Walter Benjamin, we become aware of the barbarism that underlies all civilization.
Mohamed’s last chapter continues his discussion of terrorism by focusing on the silencing of Samson at the conclusion of Milton’s poem. Rather than following the account of Judges, where the captive Samson cries out for God’s assistance in his revenge on the Philistines, Milton obliquely describes Samson’s as bowing his head “as one who pray’d, / Or some great matter in his mind revolv’d” (1637-8). Some critics have suggested that this instance evacuates Samson of his divine status, thus leaving readers with an ambiguous hero, but Mohamed suggests the opposite. With this silencing of Samson, he writes, Samson is removed from the sphere of human motivation. In the same way, the Israelites insist that their hero’s death is not a suicide but an “accident,” which allows him the identity of a martyr. For Mohamed, however, these distinctions, which tend to distance the religious violence of Milton’s time from that of our own, “are the distinctions typical of religious violence, which distances its martyrs from motives of personal vengeance and emphasizes their divine calling.” We thus witness “a consonance with the culture by which those attacks are immortalized” (121). If Milton can remain commendable for the way his poetry effects interpretive ambiguity, it is because of the parallels it draws with modern terrorism. The performative violence of Samson Agonistes, which strains against Restoration triumphalism, unsettles the illusory peace of the nation even while it affirms the progress of human liberty.