“Mr. Fish himself is surely an orthodox traditional Christian.”

The title of this post comes from Oberlin professor W. Arthur Turner’s otherwise unremarkable 1969 review of Stanley Fish’s critical masterpiece, Surprised by Sin. It is not hard to see why Turner thought what he did, since the thrust of Fish’s book was to defend Paradise Lost’s coherence and clarity as an Orthodox Christian text against the claims of those (most famously and remarkably, William Blake and William Empson) who had insisted that the text actually revealed God as a manipulative, illogical monster.

Fish’s book, which more or less inaugurated reader-response criticism, took the then-novel line of attributing many of the text’s apparently difficult moments (in which Satan seems appealing, or God mistaken, or the action absurd) to Milton’s pedagogical inclinations. The poem constantly tempts its readers to read it wrong, and then it pulls them up short. By doing so, it confronts us repeatedly with our own fallen state, and it helps us to reject our fallen intuitions.

But, of course, Mr. Fish was not, and is not, theologically orthodox or Christian (“traditional” is a trickier word). By all appearances, he is a lackadaisical Jew (a term I mean just descriptively). To the reader who knows that, the book’s persistent, closely argued explication of the orthodox Milton is a source of wonder, just as it was a source of error to Professor Turner.

Put simply, what drives a person to write such a book? The question is especially acute in an age in which academic studies wear their generative commitments on their shoulders (which I largely think is a good thing). In part, the answer might be academic ambition, Fish’s career being marked, as he says others have said, by “a succession of acts of hubris.” In part, it might be that Fish’s real commitment, all along, was to the validity of reader experience as a subject of literary criticism. That’s what the preface to the second edition insists upon, asserting as it does that the evidence marshaled about Milton’s specific designs on the reader is secondary to the general critical principle that understanding reader experience is central to understanding literature. And then there’s the Stanley Fish who writes, “To the question ‘of what use are the humanities?’, the only honest answer is none whatsoever,” who conceives of humanistic enterprise as an end unto itself. In which case, maybe the point is just he thought his reading of Milton was right. These are all teleological readings of Surprised by Sin, to be sure, in the light of the continuation of Fish’s career.

I’m not terribly interested one way or the other as to the explanation. Mostly, I’m thinking about Turner because I find myself leaving the Eden of Jewish learning and studies, in which scholars’ commitments are, if not explicit, at least pretty easily inferable. As I return to reading and writing about texts at more of a remove from my own practice and values, I’m heartened by what Professor Turner’s amazing leap reveals about Surprised by Sin. The book testifies to the scholar’s ability to transcend genuinely his pre-existing ideas and accurately reproduce an alternative world-view. (If not, I hasten to add, necessarily Milton’s—since whether Fish is correct remains controversial—then at least the orthodox reader of Milton.)  Someone could have thought Mr. Fish to share CS Lewis’s theological convictions. Better still,  Fish in fact defends Lewis’s reading better than Lewis, in his delightful but not completely satisfying Preface to Paradise Lost, ever could. That’s a thing of beauty, one of the austere compensations for a critical distance from your subject. 

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