Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Devil's Party or Not

My friends and I get in fights about Milton occasionally. (/nerdalert) There are basically two readings of Milton. William Blake felt that Milton was “of the devil’s party without knowing it” — that in writing Paradise LostMilton lost control of one unruly character named Satan. Stanley Fish instead argues that Milton was fully in control of his work and that the seductiveness of Satan is part of the story’s message.

It's really a question of how much power do you attribute to an author and how much to the reader. When I argue with my Milton fan-friends, I find myself pulling away from attributing too much genius even to a genius like Milton; when I argue with my science-oriented friends, I find myself pushing them to think that "yes maybe Moby Dick is a symbol for something other than a whale." Everyone falls somewhere along the spectrum, and everyone falls somewhere different depending on how much they like -- or understand -- the work and the author in question.

If you're a writer, how do you think of yourself?  Do you believe that everything that goes into a work is part of your design? Or do you find yourself surprised by how a work carries you along, beyond your original intentions?

If you're a reader, how do you read books you like? Do you tend to notice fine details, considering them to be signs of their careful attention? Or do you tend to notice those moments when the seams start to show, where the photographer's hand gets in the way of the lens?

Don't get me wrong: I love the Satanic parts of Paradise Lost, perhaps better than any other parts. Sometimes I like a writer better for being seduced by their own writing; sometimes I like a writer best for losing control.

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