Unworking Milton: Steps to a georgics of the mind

Abstract

Traditionally read as a poem about laboring subjects who gain power through abstract and abstracting forms of bodily discipline, John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667, 1674) more compellingly foregrounds the erotics of the Garden as a space where humans and nonhumans intra-act materially and sexually. Following Christopher Hill, who long ago pointed to not one but two revolutions in the history of seventeenth-century English radicalism – the first, ‘the one which succeeded[,]… the protestant ethic’; and the second, ‘the revolution which never happened,’ which sought ‘communal property, a far wider democracy[,] and rejected the protestant ethic’ – I show how Milton’s Paradise Lost gives substance to ‘the revolution which never happened’ by imagining a commons, indeed a communism, in which human beings are not at the center of things, but rather constitute one part of the greater ecology of mind within Milton’s poem. In the space created by this ecological reimagining, plants assume a new agency. I call this reimagining ‘ecology to come.’

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Although Morton claims ‘the ecological thought’ is only thinkable in modernity, he makes an exception in the case of Milton, writing: ‘Milton achieves the ecological thought in form as well as in content’ (Morton, 2010, 23).

  2. 2.

    For an account that traces the authorship and print production of Gerard’s Herball within the context of a ‘European Republic of Letters,’ see Harkness (2007).

  3. 3.

    Foucault (2005, 16) enjoins labor (askesis) and eros as ‘the two major forms in Western spirituality for conceptualizing the modalities by which the subject must be transformed in order finally to become capable of truth.’ For a related account of spiritual askesis that centers on early modern lyric, see Martz (1954).

  4. 4.

    For an account of ‘the indistinct human’ as an internal condition of Renaissance humanism, see Feerick and Nardizzi (2012, 1–12).

  5. 5.

    For a compelling argument against reading Milton as a ‘Puritan poet,’ see Martin (2010).

  6. 6.

    As Kuzner argues (Kuzner, 2009, 106), critics who read Milton in light of Habermasian public sphere theory (see, for example, Norbrook, 1999) tend to neglect that Milton intertwines ‘ostensibly public and ostensibly private spaces and behaviors … whose separation permits Habermasian forms of modern, public selfhood to emerge.’

  7. 7.

    By ‘Unworking Milton’ I refer to Jean-Luc Nancy’s idea of ‘the community of unworking.’ See Nancy (1991).

  8. 8.

    Drawing on a tradition of pre- and early modern vitalist thinkers including Epicurus, Lucretius, Thomas Hobbes and Baruch Spinoza, Bennett (2010, 62) posits a ‘vital materialism’ that is neither naive (governed by a spiritual force) nor mechanistic. Although not a focus of her study, this conception of vitalist agency bears a striking resemblance to the seventeenth-century ‘vitalist moment’ detailed by Rogers (1996, 8–9), in which ‘the figure of autonomous material agency’ provided a range of political radicals, including John Milton, with theoretical alternatives to both Calvinist and mechanist forms of determinism.

  9. 9.

    This ecological approach departs from the place-based and phenomenological ecocriticism of critics such as Hiltner (2003) and instead aims at the uncanny or out-of-place (unheimlich) nature of Milton’s oikos. For a trenchant critique of place-based ecology, see Heise (2008).

  10. 10.

    For an account of the explosive atemporal power of the ‘now’ in medieval and postmodern timeframes, see Dinshaw (2012).

  11. 11.

    On the Derridian inflection of ‘ecology to come,’ see Morton (2007, 6).

  12. 12.

    Given my emphasis on life practices of the self, this essay could very well have been titled ‘Steps to a Pastoral of the Mind.’ I persist in the generic attribute of georgic so as to avoid the too easy relegation of all that is pleasurable to the side of pastoral, while leaving untainted all that concerns physical moderation to the side of labor.

  13. 13.

    In their ‘Introduction’ to Milton’s Major Works ([1645] [1667] 2008, xv), Goldberg and Orgel write that in the revolutionary times of the 1630s and 1640s, ‘to take charge of circumstances that were not always in his control, Milton described himself as both feeling and appearing younger than he really was.’

  14. 14.

    For an extended treatment of Milton’s alimentary poetics, see Schoenfeldt (2000).

  15. 15.

    My suggestion that Eve’s narcissism threatens to dissolve subject and object into an ecological assemblage of forces departs from critical assessments that try to redeem Eve’s role from an anti-feminist tradition bent on characterizing her as a figure of wantonness and seduction (see, for example, McColley (1983, 4). My reading instead explores the seductive possibilities for human and nonhuman assemblage opened up by Eve’s narcissistic entanglements. In Milton’s ecological vision, seduction and perversion are integral to the Garden; queering ‘human’ relations is what gardens do.

  16. 16.

    For an account of how early modern natural history developed a ‘science of describing’ that took the description of nature as an end in itself, thus rejecting the medical rationale of earlier naturalists, as well as the economic rationale of later ones, see Ogilvie (2006).

  17. 17.

    On the applicability of Derrida’s definition of pharmakon to ecological practice, see Stengers (2010, 28–41).

  18. 18.

    See Morton (2010, 41), who translates the irreducible otherness of Derrida’s arrivant as ‘strange stranger.’

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Swarbrick, S. Unworking Milton: Steps to a georgics of the mind. Postmedieval 7, 120–146 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1057/pmed.2013.40

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