I have a bit of time before work starts, and I wanted to address a few things I thought worth mentioning. They essentially pivot around notions of multiculturalism, dualism, non-dualism, and poetry analysis.
First, multiculturalism. Near the end of our discussion, when we started to talk about the difference between Christian humanist interpretations and Romantic interpretations, Geoffrey mentioned that of course there were people who were Christian humanists who interpreted PL in a certain way, and we should sort of play in the gray area between such interpretations and the more Romantic, even Gnostic ones argued for by Shelley, Blake, Empson, Bloom, et al. (Geoffrey, please correct me if I am misrepresenting your views.) This, to me, seems to represent the egalitarian postmodern view - every theory is relevant, but there are no evaluations made, no qualitative distinctions. After Geoffrey pointed this out, I said something about qualitative differences in interpretation - that some interpretations of texts are better, closer to the text,than other interpretations. This would seem to be a commonplace - a child’s interpretation of Hamlet does not come close to an adult’s interpretation - the adult’s interpretation is closer to the actual text, what is happening in the text, than the child’s. This should be obvious. But, when we talk about Christian humanists and Romantics, it’s a bit more slippery. Why is the Romantic interpretation, which I am arguing for, closer to the reality of the text than the Christian humanist?
I think it has to do with dualism and nondualism. Chistian humanists are essentially dualists - they believe in “spiritual warfare,” in which the demonological element of the world fights the spiritual, or however it is phrased - the war between good and evil. I confess that I find this hopelessly dualistic and ultimately unhelpfully confounding and confusing. Healthy forms of Gnosticism, (we can argue that the Romantic poets were Gnostics, although I would have to do more research here, it is just a hunch - Blake can definitely be read this way) are non-dual. Books like A Course in Miracles. which is thoroughly Gnostic (and, I’d argue, healthy and sane), argue that the phenomenal world itself is an illusion created by the ego, the self-sense that thinks it is separate from God - but that this ego is itself illusory, unreal. That is why the book can be summed up in the idea that “Nothing real can be threatened, nothing unreal exists, herein lies the peace of God.” When we are dualists, the truth is not really true - it is a battle over the truth, between Satan and God, let’s say. Non-dual forms of Gnosticism do not have this problem - they claim that the truth, God, Spirit, what have you, is true, and the world, the phenomenal world, is an illusion. Therefore, there is no dualistic contradiction, no sense wrangling endlessly over the whole “how could God have caused cancer, or the Holocaust, or evil?” These arguments become completely pointless in the healthy Gnostic view. I realize I am going pretty far-out here, but go with me for a second.
What does this have to do with PL? Why is the Gnostic reading better, stronger, than the Christian humanist? I would argue that PL, as a vision formed out of Milton’s imagination, represents a form of gnosis - knowledge, revelation. That is why I think it has endured for so long - otherwise it would have been forgotten long ago. I don’t know how to reconcile this argument with the details of Milton’s theology, which I know little about. But PL seems to me to be authentically visionary; non-dual Gnostic readings of it, I would argue, are closer to the spirit of the text, to what is actually happening in the epic poem, as it was written and as it was and is read now. That’s the argument I’ll hazard rn.
One more thing: John mentioned at some point that we should abandon theories and just experience the poem itself. While I applaud the sentiment, I confess I am a bit skeptical of this idea. When I was an undergraduate and taking my first class in reading poetry, our professor had us read a textbook about poems, and in one chapter, I remember vividly, there was a diagram of a bird, with its various parts broken down. The author of the textbook pointed out that many people would argue that to analyze the parts of the bird would make us experience the bird in a diminished way somehow, take away from the immediate suchness, the aesthetic reality, of the bird. But the author, whose name was John Frederick Nims, pointed out that those interpretations are themselves theories about reading, and that those theories are probably not really right. He then said that, the more we analyze poems, like anything else, the more we appreciate them - the more the complexity and depth of the poem meets a complexity and depth of thought and feeling in us. It is impossible to view the world without a theory about the world. What we actually think essentially show us the world we see. Thought and perception, in other words, are very tightly enmeshed. For these reasons, I think we should definitely talk about theories regarding poems. We should also of course experience the poems. But to say that we can read a poem shorn of theory, to me, seems somewhat misleading, fwiw.