What Stanley Fish Learned from Milton

When someone once accused Lionel Trilling’s politics of being “always in between,” Trilling replied that “between is the only honest place to be,” and Fish would assent to that. The conundrums of human living are too multiform and intractable to be pondered by the dichotomies of left or right, liberal or conservative. For Fish, we are all of us fallen, Adams and Eves bumbling through the postlapsarian cosmos. Original sin is real but not in the way Christianity would have you believe: We are fallen in the guarantee of our human imperfectability, our pathetic inadequacy at the utopian task (utopia, remember, literally means “nowhere”). In The Trouble With Principle (1999), Fish writes: “The main thing I believe is that conflict is manageable only in the short run and that structures of conciliation and harmony are forever fragile and must always be shored up, with uncertain success,” and all you have to do is peek at your own life—your marriage, your friendships, your workplace—to see the oppressive accuracy of that.

via www.newrepublic.com

This belief–that conflict is eternal and reconciliation is fleeting–can be traced back to Paradise Lost. Satan is a far more engaging character than God. The reader hopes Milton leads us to the order of God's grace, but the shock of the poem is how much we're seduced by Satan's irresistible chaos along the way.

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