The Civil War and the Importance of Historical Theory

The monument to the 54th Massachusetts in Boston, MA. 300,000 African Americans joined the Union Army, and many historians credit the change in Union strategy in 1864 to this development.

he American Civil War has always lingered in the hidden caverns of american nationhood, whether it be in the way we understand the Civil Rights Movement as a continuation of the 19th century conflict, or in the hushed reverence we give to the Gettysburg Address in our English classes. As the country presently puts its foot down one more time on the issue of the confederacy, the climactic event of the american national experience has surged into the popular discourse of the day. As a student of the conflict and a member of an organization that seeks to preserve the physical memory of the Civil War, I looked on these developments with excitement.

Mirroring the conflict itself, my excitement was met with a somber recognition that it should never have taken a terrorist attack to elicit this debate. The fault is not with those who have recently come to advocate for the destruction of confederate imagery on our nation’s buildings, I applaud them, the fault lies instead with our retelling of the event in our history classrooms and on the pages of history journals and popular historical publications. In an era where enrollment in history classes is plummeting and where the importance of an institution for the study history is being doubted by “program prioritization” at universities across the country, the events in Charleston offer a grim and terrifying reminder of the importance of the way we study history at the academy and the ways we write about it in our publications.

For the better part of the 20th century, the Civil War was portrayed as a tragic failure to compromise that broke apart old army college buddies and houses across the country. Amidst the slaughter of hundreds of thousands towards the defeat of slavery (sorry – “state’s rights,” and “union” according to Shelby Foote and Gary Gallagher, respectively) a few “authentic geniuses” (2) emerged to seek what sanity they could in this cataclysmic struggle. Happily, the social history movement of the 60s and 70s attacked the great man romanticization that dominated Civil War historiography, but there is still more work to do. In Ken Burn’s massively popular documentary, for example, the army of Northern Virginia was called “the greatest army in the history of world.” (3) Later in the series, Shelby Foote was inexplicably allowed to say that the two “authentic geniuses” of the war were Abraham Lincoln and Nathan Bedford Forest. If only the South Carolina Senate could vote to make putting those two names next to each other illegal.

This idea of “authentic geniuses” is a good one to frame a short discussion on how the way in which we have depicted the Civil War (the historiography we have utilized in studying it) at the academy and in popular media has stunted our national discussion on the continuing relevance of the Civil War. Implicit in such a discussion is the fact that history is important, and the work we do at the academy with it has significant impact on people living right now.

Foote said WHAT?!

Shelby Foote’s assertion that the author of the Emancipation Proclamation and the First Grand Wizard of the Klu Klux Klan are both geniuses is not as out of place as you might think in the historiography of the Civil War. Ronald Maxwell’s Gods and Generals, a major motion picture, portrays Stonewall Jackson as a deeply religious man who actually liked black people (4). The film’s predecessor, Gettysburg, decided to portray Pickett’s Charge, a battle in which thousands were gunned down in an insane frontal assault ordered by the equally mystical Robert E. Lee, as a a quirky reunion between confederate general Lewis Armistead and union general Winfield Scott Hancock – two old West Point pals.

This odious great man theory, or an approach to history that sees the actions of heroic individuals as central rather than the political struggles of millions, serves a specific purpose in that paralyzing historiography of the Civil War that social historians righteously attacked. When a conflict of millions for the liberation of millions is reduced to the heroism of a handful of men, the political content that defined their decisions to fight for the union or confederacy is lost in a haze of personal traits that serve only to make the event theatrical.

For example, Bruce Catton claimed in his book A Stillness at Appomattox, that Union soldiers saluted Robert E. Lee as he rode off into the sunset, having butchered 300,000 of their friends. Later historians of the event have found no evidence for this, and the anecdote has generally been written off as pure falsehood. The falsehood is reflective of much of what we find in the above mentioned movies and similar popular histories – the deep political divisions between confederate and unionist, the disagreement on whether it was righteous under the lord to own another man, whether it was economically fair to do so, whether the declaration of independence and the founding ideals of the United States of America should include all men – are lost in a dramatized great man narrative that supposes that these divisions would be dropped as soon as the bullets stopped flying. Nathan Bedford Forest and Abraham Lincoln would reconcile, the confederate flag and the american flag could fly simultaneously – all because the great men who fought this war held within their hearts magnanimous mercy, forgiveness, and mutual respect.

The move to vanquish politics under the smoke and mirrors of great men is a clever one, as through the ripples the Civil War sent through society grew a growing radical sentiment for a more generalized liberation and a radical stomping out of confederate ideology. By robbing the conflict of this political content, the nascent american myths could endure – compromise is the american way, republican democracy can cure all social ills, and peaceful protest is the way to true change.

But as current events prove so magnificently, the political content at the heart of the Civil War and in the hearts of the men and women who fought in it, can be hidden no longer. The social history of authors such as James McPherson have begun to turn the page in Civil War historiography, but the historiography of eras past still propagates the idea that confederate ideology holds no political content and is merely a reflection of personal identity (a direct product of the depoliticization described above). In opposition to this group has grown a new generation of union soldiers, armed not with rifles but with climbing equipment, picket signs, and keyboards. Our historiography must nurture the sentiment that the Civil War was a fundamentally political struggle in which millions of people made a deliberate decision to fight for freedom and to fight for slavery. That same choice is now before us.

American history as a field has always been dominated by exceptionalist and great man ideology. Yet just as the political movements of the 60s and 70s created an environment for challenging and reevaluating those dominant methods, modern historians must react to the events unfolding on our streets and upon the glow of monitors across the country. Our history can unfold this much obfuscated conflict, and show that in an era not so long ago Americans fought for the liberation of the mistreated and enslaved for political, religious, and economic reasons. In such a message holds the catalyst for a national reckoning, where studious eyes find a political truth in the dim and flaring lamps of an every growing camp (5).

(1) Excluding James McPherson’s The Battle Cry of Freedom, which is an excellent text that garnered well deserved acclaim and popularity.
(2) To use Shelby Foote’s terminology
(3) I wish I was joking.
(4) Roger Ebert was right when he said it’s a movie only Trent Lott would enjoy.

(5) See: Battle Hymn of the Republic:
I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps,
They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps;
I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps:

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The Importance of the Thirty Years War in Literature and Politics

The Spanish tercio stands depleted during their defeat at the hands of the French at the Battle of Rocroi, 1643

Few sometimes may know, when thousands err. – John Milton, Paradise Lost

hen a young John Milton sat down to write Latin poetry in his dormitory at Cambridge in the mid 17th century, many themes catalyzed his pen to put words to paper. Yet a preeminent anxiety in the formative Latin poetry of the young puritan was  the cataclysm he observed from across the English Channel (1). As his own government meandered in defending its supposed Protestant allies and advocated for peace, the Protestant armies of Denmark, Bohemia, and Sweden were progressively turned back and crushed by the catholic powers in Spain and the Holy Roman Empire. James I even failed to send troops to save his own son-in-law, Frederick V, when a catholic host annihilated his dwindling host at the Battle of White Mountain.  All of this impressed deeply on Milton and his revolutionary generation; the feudal order had waged war against the estates (the growing middle class) in light of a failing legal system in the Holy Roman Empire, leaving millions dead and the core rivalries and contradictions of society unsolved. It was but years after this era that the axe fell on Charles I and a transatlantic tradition of republican resistance to monarchism was born.

In a time before Cromwell, Paine, and Robespierre, there was this most unfortunate era; where the dying feudal order rife with contradiction brought on the wings of political paralysis the deaths of millions. An era where the core contradictions of society where not dealt with but subverted by emergent nationalism (secular and non) and imperial ambition. The damage was worst in Germany, where the population would vote the war as the most devastating in the country’s history in the 1960s (2*). In many ways, the roots of 19th and 20th century German nationalism were first sewed in the disastrous fragmentation of Germany after the Peace that ended the Thirty Years War (the Peace of Westphalia).

Despite these long reaching consequences, the war is but an afterthought for even scholars of the early modern period. Like World War I, the Thirty Years War draws less attention than its more substantive ancestors. As James Joyce proved in Dubliners (perhaps too well for some readers), paralysis can be just as meaningful as great leaps forwards and backwards. In the perilously fixed limbs of German society in the mid 17th century we find precedent for the keenly militant tone of many of our most treasured early modern authors such as John Donne, Andrew Marvell, and John Milton; and I will argue that to ignore the Thirty Years War is to shut out a major avenue for understanding their work. What’s more, in the history of the Thirty Years War we find remarkable similarities to our own time (some of which I will cover below) and equally remarkable warnings against the problems of imperialism, abstraction, and dedication to aged constitutional provisos.

It it for this latter reason that I have taken a break from writing my thesis (fleeing like Frederick V from the Catholic League, in other words) to write this on the 2nd anniversary (to the day) of Waiting for Putney. In that time, we’ve reached over 110 countries and collected tens of thousands of unique readers. I certainly did not expect the late night, caffeine-induced sermons about Cuba and Milton that began this blog to lead where it has, and I thank each and every reader for their attention and thought. Like a good puritan, I will celebrate this milestone by ruminating on the near collapse of western civilization and the ways in which said collapse mirrors our own time.

The Thirty Years War in Literature:

John Donne

Literary scholars of 17th century British literature find themselves in the uncomfortable position of reading literature only years apart that is rapturously different. This has resulted in the quite awkward “long 18th century” which includes the literature written during the rule of Charles II and James II. This rapture in literature was caused chiefly by the English Revolution, but the war that ravaged Europe in the time leading up that fateful struggle left indelible marks on the literature of canonical writers from Donne to Bunyan. In many ways, the necessity of the awkward “long 18th century” was brought about by the militancy and violence that loomed in the fearful caverns of British thought leading up to the English Revolution, and the Restoration’s delightful (or utterly repulsive, as it is for this author) flight from themes of religious ideology, the question of legitimate political violence, and the prospect of universal truth is a direct response to these themes transported from Europe’s tragedy to all the kingdoms of Christendom. Here, we will look at the work of John Donne to find the threads of war that separate so profoundly early and late 17th century British literature.

The specter of war in British literature can perhaps be seen most profoundly in the work of John Donne. Writing well before the English Revolution, John Donne put pen to paper in those troubling years in which the German crisis became generalized to include all the powers of Europe (the late 16th and early 17th centuries). Throughout Donne’s work we find repeated attempts to synthesize the two ever-splitting protestant and catholic factions. Scholars have justifiably attached this theme to Donne’s own struggle with conversion from Catholicism to Anglicanism but his textual attempts to bring together these factions reflects a more generalized reflection on their failure to do so as Europe descended into war. “Death, Be Not Proud” and “Meditation XVII,” two of his most famous works, both reflect a desire that extends beyond the merely personal or national  to unite the warring churches of Christ. Both are written after his conversion to Anglicanism (the former a Holy Sonnet, the latter part of his much celebrated Devotions upon Emergent Occassions) (3), and both are written (~1620 and ~1623 respectively)( 4) right as the Thirty Years War emerged as a major international conflict. Let us first look at “Death, Be Not Proud” as it was written right as the Thirty Years War broke out. The poem ends,

And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell;
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die. (Death, Be Not Proud)

The all-important “we” in the second to last line anticipates Donne’s later focus on depicting the universality of Christians and humans in general. Of note, this universality is built here on the back of a condemnation of martial force and the chivalric nationalism that accompanies wars to this day. This general fear of war created by the temporary truce between the Dutch and Spanish was a tinder box in the minds of Europeans – and Donne here remarks that Death is itself a slave to fate that dwells in war and sickness. This idea of slavery to fate and war reflects the writings of thinking men across Europe at the time, highlighted in great detail in the opening chapters of C.V. Wedegewood’s chronicle of the war. War seemed inevitable, but all wanted to avoid it. This is repeated in Spanish, German, and English literary circles. In 1620, a year after top catholic officials had been thrown out of a three story window into a pile of crap (literally), Donne here strives for reconciliation and warns against the appeal of religious war. Donne hopefully declares that death and war will die in the face of an eternal life given by Christ. It is a hope he will quickly lose as the war in Germany became more violent.

By the year 1623, the Bohemian protestant state had been crushed by the Hapsburgs and in the very year Christian the Younger (a protestant) was defeated at the cost of nearly 13,000 casualties at the Battle of Stadtlohn. We see the events of the exponentially multiplying war on Donne in his famous Meditations. In one of his most famous moments of prose, Donne writes in Meditation XVII,

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee. (Meditation XVII)

Far from the confident declarations of the previously cited sonnet, Donne here replaces hopefulness with a universal sorrow. Ever clever with his language, Donne even fits in the term “continent,” almost certainly a reference to the events occurring “on the continent.” He continues to assert that each and every death, the bodies washed away by the tens of thousands in Germany  make “Europe (the) less.” As the bell tolled for thousands of men fighting for religious freedom, profit, and nation, Donne defiantly, if not hopefully, asserts that the war that presently rocked Europe lessened all the parties involved. This change in Donne’s tone, from one of hopeful declaration and persuasion to defiant and universal sorrow at the loss of Catholic and Protestant alike is elucidated with greater detail by the events of the Thirty Years War. Donne’s dealings with Catholicism had certainly ended by this time, but he still found himself deeply entangled in the questions that tore Europe apart.

Donne’s interaction with these themes that were anathema to restoration writers is but an example of how the Thirty Years War fractured the short 17th and long 18th centuries. In our understanding of the literature of this time period, the importance of the Thirty Years War and the intellectual environment it created cannot be overstated. To read Donne, Marvell, Milton, Winstanley, and Bunyan without an understanding of their view of the European cataclysm from across the Chanel is to read Hemingway and Fitzgerald without rendering the effects of the First World War. Let us turn now to some of the similarities to be found between our era and this tragic one, and endeavor to point out some of the pedagogical remedies for that paralysis to be found in studying the history of the era.

Constitutions and the Abstraction of Conflict:

The Surrender of Jülich, by Jusepe Leonardo (1635).

One of the more striking qualities of both the Thirty Years War and the English Revolution is that the revolutionaries and warriors in each case attempted to hold to ancient constitutions and traditions while massacring each other in heinous numbers. When Ferdinand (the Holy Roman Emperor to be) infringed upon Protestant privileges in Bohemia, they had retaliated by throwing his officials out a window. When the Bohemians went to the Protestant Union (a group of protestant German princes put together for self-defense) to ask for money and support, the Union was horrified at the Bohemian’s violation of the ancient ways of the Holy Roman Empire. Ferdinand headed the state that supposedly was controlled by these various documents, but he cared less about its provisos than his supposed enemies. While liberal Lutherans condemned the actions of radical Calvinists in an effort buy clout with the catholic institutions of power, the Hapsburgs imprisoned and killed both groups.

This confusion and political moderation born of an attachment to aged documents originating in the era of Charlemagne certainly reflects similar developments in the United States. While constitutional rights are thrown out the window by a growing surveillance state and an increasingly violent police presence across the country, leftists and rightists alike urge a return to the Constitution’s promised rights. This idea that present failures in governance are due to a corruption of some core set of rights or national values (German and American, respectively) dominated 17th century German politics. The problem with this rendering in both eras was the supposition that this set of rights and values were born in universal time. “German Values” in the 17th century were the same as the values of Arminius (the Germanic general at the Battle of Teutoburg Forest) and Charlemagne; and “American values” in the 21st century are the same as the values of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton. When new variables were introduced (the protestant reformation, and the derivatives economic collapse of 2008) , the aging legal documents of each country came under fire. In both cases, the battle was fought in the courts, and in both cases, the results were disastrously inconclusive. 

In Bohemia, the protestants urged Ferdinand to adhere to the “Letter of Majesty” in which Rudolf II (the former Holy Roman Emperor) had promised them equal rights to practice their religion. As the militantly catholic Ferdinand began his campaign to dissolve the provisos of this letter, the case was taken to several courts across the Empire. Different verdicts were given, allowing Ferdinand to continue with his campaign while legal confusion prevailed. This lead to the militant action in Bohemia (the aforementioned defenestration), which was in turn condemned by protestants as previously mentioned. So the courts of the Holy Roman Empire ensured both militant retaliation and the recreation of the conditions that would replicate violence through paralytic moderation and adherence to outdated legal codes.

In the United States, the failure of courts to convict those responsible for the economic collapse, the War in Iraq, and those responsible for police violence created a similar sense of militancy that erupted most notably in Ferguson and Baltimore. These acts of militancy, just like that of the Bohemians, was condemned by their supposed comrades on the left and right. These activists must seek legal recourse, claimed the moderates, to a problem rooted in legal ineptitude and paralysis. Thus we see a self-replicating cycle that spins on the axis of assuring violence by legal failure and then condemning it. German intellectual circles spun on this circle while thousands of men, women, and children were butchered on the battlefield and in besieged cities. This cycle is not self-sustaining, though, and as war escalated in the mid 1620s, leaders endeavored to obfuscate constitutional precedent by the abstraction of conflict to an almost ludicrous degree.

As war escalated and moderates hurried to justify it, governments and leaders needed the constitutional organs to raise money and armies. The Hapsburg dynasty had long tasked the emerging bourgeoisie with funding its armies against Ottoman invasions, and when the dynasty asked for money to fight protestants the burghers were less than willing to cooperate. To mitigate outrage, leaders used mercenaries to an unprecedented degree. Battles of the Thirty Years War were not uncommonly fought by Spaniards (ostensibly ruled by the Hapsburgs) fighting for the French against the Hapsburgs who fielded an army of Dutchmen. In the Jülich succession crisis of the 1610s, for example, France, Spain, and the Hapsburgs all fielded mercenary armies to secure a tiny parcel of land close to the ever-warring low countries all because the leader of the tiny nation of Jülich passed away and a quarrel over who was to succeed him (and what religion that person would be a part of) erupted. Just what each individual soldier was fighting for was deeply ambiguous. In reality, kings and emperors alike were using the funds of the state for personal empowerment and political maneuvering for themselves and their families. This was a fact not lost on the emergent bourgeoisie, and the enslavement of feudal aristocracy to this set of political principles would be paid back in part at Whitehall, Yorktown, and the Bastille.

Thus the supposed guardians of the ancient German values violated them consistently and hid it through the abstraction of conflict through mercenaries and feigned religious and national fervor. In our era, conflict is abstracted in numerous ways. Armies are relatively small in number, and mercenaries are commonly used by the US and its allies in the middle east. A physical abstraction is also a luxury afforded the american ruling class. In any case, a movement for a radical remaking of the German state textured with the realities of the day may have prevented thirty years of war. Instead, moderates clung to ancient traditions as the ruling class violated them for personal gain at the cost of millions of lives. This question of the ruling class being disparate from moderate elements that continually tried to court them brings us to perhaps our clearest lesson from the Thirty Years War.

Mitigation and Synthesis:

Mercenaries put civilians to the sword (that randomly adult looking baby isn’t going down without a fight) in Sebastian Vrancx’s “Soldiers Plundering a Farm During the Thirty Years War.”

The chief lesson of the Thirty Years War for us today is one that teaches us how we should construct our movements for change in systems paralyzed by unchecked ruling classes and failing justice systems. In Germany in the 17th century, much like 21st century America, political movements cling to constitutional precedence and endeavor to find ways to best mitigate the failures of the economic system of society. Coming to the end of the Thirty Years War should help us understand where such politics lead, and should also give us a gloomy warning that holds hope in its recognition.

The end of the Thirty Years War is perhaps why it is not studied to a great degree. The outcome of so much death was essentially total ruination and utter paralysis with almost no positive outcomes. Yet as I mentioned before, in the paralysis of Germany we find potential salves for that paralysis that as we have seen is so similar to our own. As Kings and Emperors sent thousands to their deaths, a growing sense of distrust in central government understandably blossomed in war-ravaged Germany. This lead to the utter fracturing of Germany in the Peace of Westphalia (5). Small principalities were split into several land grants the size of central park in New York City. This way, reasoned German intellectuals, the privileges promised to Protestants that started the war could be secured so long as they found a neck of the woods that was sympathetic to them or had a Protestant prince.

This desire for decentralization is extremely prevalent in modern american politics. After the economic bailouts and fraudulent wars in the middle east, a profound apathy underlies a distrust in governance that is matched only in the Civil War era in American history. This relationship of failed constitutions and the growth of a desire for decentralization is a dangerous one, as the history of the Thirty Years War can teach us. In the aftermath of disastrous decentralization, Germany became an economic backwater reversed only with the growth of nationalism and militarism in the early and mid 19th century. When Germany finally came together it partook in two World Wars and was the home of unprecedented nationalism and centralization.

The problem then as it is now is not with central government. It is instead, as it was then, rooted in the failure of resistance movements to seek synthesis and not merely mitigation. By shackling the protestant cause to aged documents, resistance movements in the Holy Roman Empire were unable to reach the universality John Donne so desired. Instead, protestants were stuck in a cycle of courts and alliances that continually failed them and lead to their utter destruction at the hands of the Spanish and Austrian Hapsburgs. In the United States, topical activism attached perilously to appeals to the ethics of the government officials and the documents by which they rule prevents a more universal critique of the capitalist system.

Modern activists must not fall for the Hapsburg lie that courts and representative diets can fully amend the contradictions of society and must equally avoid the diffusion of ruling class “justice” systems. We must instead follow in the footsteps of the bourgeois revolutionaries who succeeded in dissolving the paralysis of late feudalism left in the wake of the Thirty Years War. In England, America, and France, revolutionaries changed the question from one of constitutional precedence to one of “cruel necessity” (6) and the new life of an unburdened, revolutionary state (7). Like them, we must seek the contradictions of our day and find syntheses, imperfect as they be, for them. By seeking synthesis and shifting the questions of political resistance away from aged constitutional precedent and legal mitigation, we can achieve what the Bohemians and Germans could not. We can finally declare with John Donne that “death,” the deaths Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, and so many others, “thou shalt die.”


(1) Lewalski’s biography of Milton

(2) The general facts expressed in this post are taken from Peter Wilson and C.V. Wedgewood’s histories of the event. I recommend them both.

(3) The title itself suggests his interaction with something beyond the merely autobiographical.

(4) Dates for Donne’s work are disputed, but both of these dates I secured from my Norton Anthology. Generally, these dates seem to be in the ballpark from my outside research.
(5) Germany after the Thirty Years War is, in my scholarly opinion, the first example of splatter painting.

(6) By legend, Cromwell said this after seeing Charles I’s body

(7) I’m mirroring Robespierre’s language in his famous declaration that Louis must die so that we (France) can live.

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The Hughes Edition of Paradise Lost and Interpretive Editing

Nothing political to see here, carry on.

“-producing editions is one of the ways we produce literary meaning” -Jerome McGann,  The Textual Condition

hen I first read John Milton, I was a sophomore in college at DePaul University. In that early survey course that set me on my current literary path, we used Merrit Hughes’ Complete Poems and Major Prose as our text. I still have the edition and it has an almost totemic quality for me, being the first edition through which I was able to meet Milton in the process he highlighted in Areopagitica. In subsequent undergraduate semesters I would place the book in a plastic bag to protect it from my commute, and I sheathed it with care in bubble wrap when I moved away from home. In those early years of my study of literature, the nature of the edition and its extensive footnotes (that often take up more than half the page) were beyond my consideration. The professor for the course would often derive interpretation and explicit understanding from the footnotes, and I for many semesters of study thought nothing of the theoretical implications of the footnotes or the presentation of Milton’s work in the Hughes’ edition. They were there to help me objectively understand what was going on in a very allusive text written many centuries ago, and nothing more.

In defense of my naivety, such oversights are common with my students in first year composition. Books are often treated as intrinsic items dropped without interference from the intellect of the divine author, perched atop the throne of authorship with a fist planted on a thoughtful chin. In an era where reading is declining, many students feel that if they have found it in a book it must be true simply because they went to the trouble to procure and skim the damn thing. Even amongst literature students, we often only consider editorial concerns in spectacular cases such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or Henry James’ Daisy Miller when two substantially different editions of the same text exist.

Yet the way editors such as Merrit Hughes frame texts with paratextual footnotes, end notes, prologues, epilogues, introductions, and indexes fundamentally alters how we as readers interact with a text. We will read a postmodern novel differently if the introduction is written by Toni Morrison and engages with the dynamic of race in the novel just as we will read a Renaissance text differently if it is neatly filed under a section titled “Tracts” in an anthology. The frame we put around a text is central in the creation of the boundaries of genre and criticism by which we understand literature (1). I am not here to suggest that we should shatter these boundaries and reach for a euphoric, true understanding that transcends editorial limitations. I am instead here to advocate, with Jerome McGann, that these boundaries must be understood and openly acknowledged as fundamentally interpretive and not a mere question of objective understanding. Understanding the editorial heuristics used in the creation of a book (not a text) is critical not only in understanding texts as products of a “living intellect” (2) but also understanding literary criticism in general as a richly diverse field with many heuristics.

Specifically in the Hughes’ edition of Milton’s work, we find footnotes and editorial structure that favors a very specific reading of Milton by exclusion more than by dubious inclusion. This is useful in our understanding of editorial work as hermeneutical, as the move to exclude key insights in favor of others is fundamentally interpretive and  dependent on a critical choice. Throughout the edition, we find a consistent favoring in Hughes’ footnotes of Shakespearean and classical allusions. As we will see in two key portions of the epic, Hughes ignores critical interregnum allusions in favor of occasionally convoluted classical or Shakespearean explanations. A reader who has read my blog to any measurable degree (3) will know that I personally favor political criticism and a Marxist heuristic when criticizing literature, yet as highlighted above it is not that Hughes’ has made an interpretation that is the problem. The problem lies in the nascent acceptance of footnotes and other paratextual information as something that does not fundamentally alter the way we understand a text. When we look at the Hughes’ edition of Paradise Lost, we find the opposite. A distinct reading of the epic is encouraged, and another is discouraged.

Satan laments his editorial pigeonholing.

Book II is perhaps the most famous book of the entire epic, as the reader is shown via three speeches by leading demons the political dynamics of the Satanic citadel of Pandaemonium. The beginning of Book II is commonly studied for its display of what Milton establishes as faulty rhetoric and reasoning as the epic progresses. Interestingly, Hughes gives almost no political background in the footnotes for the three speeches that so intimately interact with the politics of both the Monarchy and the Long Parliament.

This can be seen most clearly in Satan in his sections of Book II.  In the first lines of Book II Satan is depicted as sitting on a “Throne of Royal State” to which he was raised by “merit.” Hughes makes a footnote of this, but instead suggests a connection to Spenser’s description of the throne of Lucifera, incarnate pride. Of course, Spenser derived his own depiction of a throne which he described as adorned by “a cloth of state” from English experience. Rather than alluding to what many college students will be ignorant to in the description of the throne as a symbol of everything wrong with the English Monarchy both spiritually and with regards to secular political formations, Hughes chooses to allude to a Spenserian reference to classical myth. The throne is fundamentally an idol, which was critical to Milton and his generation’s religious attacks on the institution of Monarchy. This is, certainly, worth at least mentioning with a footnote to denote to a reader that Milton is making a specific political reference.

Such cases are not cherry picked, however, as Hughes continues to lead the reader into a classical interpretation of the epic. Later in Book II, Satan is described as rising from his throne in the following terms,

with grave [ 300 ]
Aspect he rose, and in his rising seem’d
A Pillar of State; deep on his Front engraven
Deliberation sat and public care;
And Princely counsel in his face yet shon,
Majestic though in ruin: sage he stood [ 305 ]
With Atlantean shoulders fit to bear
The weight of mightiest Monarchies; his look
Drew audience and attention still as Night
Or Summers Noon-tide air, while thus he spake.

Hughes footnotes the section, but suggests again that Milton is referring to the myth of Atlas as relayed by Spenser. Hughes here ignores a rather clear reference between Milton’s work – a rare and profitable critical insight. In Eikonoklastes, a critical text for any who wish to understand the way Milton constructs Satan’s character, Milton refers twice to “pillars” in the context of being covered in the gold of fabricated zeal. The concept of fabrication is key, as on the very same line Milton uses the concept of an engraving – an undeniably artificial metaphor. What’s more, what is graven on Satan’s face is taken directly from Eikonoklastes.

These were not some miscarriages onely of Goverment, which might escape, but a universal distemper and reducement of law to arbitrary power; not through the evil counsels ofsome men, but through the constant cours & practice of all that were in highest favour: whose worst actions frequently avowing he took upon himself; and what faults did not yet seem in public to be originally his, such care he took by professing, and proclaiming op’nly (emphasis is mine), as made them all at length his own adopted sins. The persons also when he could no longer protect, he esteem’d and favour’d to the end; but never, otherwise then by constraint, yeilded any of them to due punishment; thereby manifesting that what they did was by his own Autority and approbation (4)

Clearly, the insights from Eikonoklastes, something written by Milton himself, are critical to understanding the nature of the artifice Milton is describing here. It is not merely an artifice as can be discerned by reading what is objectively happening, it is an artifice based specifically in kingly lucre and pomp. In such a rendering, this section becomes central in understanding Satan as the catalyst in the demonic councils’ evil. Just like Charles I, Satan is making through open proclamations his sins the sins of everyone present. These insights are judged as less important than a Spenserian reference to classical myth.

Such an interpretive move has impacts beyond its point of origin. In Book III, compassion “appears” on Jesus’ face in a direct comparison to the graven care of Satan. The latter suggests an active display while the former is of a divine nature. Where Satan is a “pillar of state,” an image Milton previously in his career associated with gold, Jesus rises from no throne and engraves nothing but what is of his true nature. It is fairly important to realize that Satan is associated promptly with material wealth, falseness, and idolatry as well as the classical and Spenserian characters Hughes is keen to highlight. That is what is at the heart of Paradise Lost, the synthesis between classical and worldly failings and the hopeful look towards something new with “providence” as our guide.

The Hughes edition, as I alluded to at the beginning of this piece, has a special place in my heart and it is in many ways a very effective edition for a certain kind of reading of Paradise Lost. Yet, as I have endeavored to show here, critics as well as students need to be aware of the fact that editions and all the paratextual information they hold are not inert. Editions, especially for undergraduates reading texts with substantial and occasionally cryptic (to the modern reader) allusions, are key in the construction of literary meaning. The Hughes edition of Milton’s epic offers a lot of information for the potentially ignorant, yet it ignores other rather obvious insights from the world of Milton’s politics. This is fundamentally an interpretive move, and must be understood as such in order to accurately understand texts as something to be interpreted and not merely understood. Reading texts like Paradise Lost should be considered as walking from Eden with a guide of editorial providence and a myriad of choices to make, yet it is too often portrayed as the great satanic lie – that one item holds the key to everlasting knowledge.


(1) Jerome McGann highlights this dynamic with skill in his book The Textual Condition, which I recommend to anyone interested in the editorial shadow cast on literary criticism.
(2) Milton, Areopagitica
(3) Or even read the “About” page


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Filed under Editing, Footnotes, Historiography, Hughes Milton, Jerome McGann, Merrit Hughes, Milton, Paradise Lost

The Center Cannot Hold

Forward to a bright future of ..forward…ness

Not long ago I sat in a Medieval History course at my undergraduate institution. That day’s topic was the Spanish Inquisition, and we had prepared by reading a chapter in our textbook that highlighted the glory of Al-Andalus, the terror of the inquisition after its fall, and the merciful harboring of Muslims and Jews within the Ottoman Empire by Sultan Beyazid the Second with an executive order for their protection. Ottoman failures aside, I expected that day to participate in a lecture condemning religious hatred and The Inquisition of the Catholic Church. As the professor began, she asked us what our impressions of The Inquisition were, and we responded as we should have – torture, executions, and repression. She glibly and triumphantly retorted, “the truth is somewhere in the middle.” As I caressed the red spot on my forehead from the rude onslaught of my palm, the professor went on to highlight in great detail  the “real” Spanish Inquisition where material conditions made certain events inevitable and out of the control of the people who committed the crimes. Such is the danger, it must be said, of “the middle.”

One who traverses academia will be all too familiar with the promised land known as “the middle.” In the mystical land known as “the middle,” all ideas come to wine and dine in extravagant intelligence pageants displaying opulent intellectual fairness and nonpartisan reason. The middle isn’t just the promised land of academics, of course, but the society at large. Children are taught the value of every opinion, college students are put through endless peer (sic) review, “movements” of detached reason against supposed frothing at the mouth religious individuals have cropped up(1), our very own President is praised for his nonpartisan approach to immigration (2), and “across the isle” became a failed rallying cry for national unity in spite of political differences.

A Whig American historian will tell you that “moderation” is part of the American spirit, as American as civilian collateral damage and a hard day’s work. Never mind the 600,000 soldiers who died in the middle of the 19th century, the atomic bomb(s), or the millions of slaves brutally beaten into service – the true american way is fancied to be taking two extremes and bringing them to an agreeable middle. Mythos, fictional as it is, has impact. It is for this reason that we must discuss here the danger of the middle intellectually and politically. At our universities and in our departments, through postmodern middle-worship, we have marginalized ourselves into the disagreeable position of borderline pointlessness (which, come to think of it, our postmodern practitioners are probably perfectly happy with). Politically, we have paralyzed ourselves into believing the critical contradictions of society can be navigated by mutually agreeable compromises. As current events illustrate with crystal clarity, this is not always the case. While we at the university and at the capitol building search for an agreeable intellectual middle, thousands are butchered for naught but their born identity, millions are homeless in a nation with millions of empty domiciles, and violence rages across urban environments gripped with systemic oppression and hopeless employment situations.

Like William Butler Yeats in his anthologized “The Second Coming” (3) we must conclude that in our age of extremes “the centre cannot hold.” Unlike William Butler Yeats, we needn’t feel like a falcon without a boss. We need only to do the truly hard work, the work of recognizing the radical nature of our social maladies and the radical nature of the solutions to these problems. If we can do this, Yeats’ “rough beast” will be of our own making – its origins at the very least not mysterious as they were to Yeats and his generation of the Great War.

Being Unbiased and Other Pipe Dreams

“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” -Karl Marx, Eleven Theses on Feuerbach

There is a deep held belief in academia that to reach the promised land of the middle, we have to be “impartial” and free from “bias.” We must first address this before we can establish how this and the middle itself has lead to an utter marginalization of the academic fields. Naturally, the supreme unbiased arbiters of all things reasonable, arch-enemies of the barbaric analysis of Marxists, (4) first to the front line of the historical specificity battle, need to understand the origins of their own analytical method of unbiased critique.

I know a time when capitalism didn’t exist seems nearly impossible to imagine, but in the revolutionary years of the 1640s and 1770s, an approach based on detached reason was in fact rebellious. The grandly named Enlightenment set the stage for these approaches. Enlightenment thinkers from Milton to Jefferson endeavored to “justify the ways of god” (5) in the former case and declare the natural rights of  well off white men in the latter case. Of import, these narratives always reached for nature and detached observation or explanation of the state of things on earth presently. This is Enlightenment thinking. Even the devoutly religious Milton endeavored to define an English “nature” in his History of Britain. The conditions of earth justified god or elucidated the natural rights and qualities of man. Through “unbiased” observation of history and nature, Early Modern thinkers justified their actions in a discourse opposed to the impersonal dedication to feudal monarchs. Milton in his famous Areopagitica portrays himself as a mere messenger of history, spending page after page on histories of Greece and Rome.

I think most postmodern critics will notice quite clearly the true bias behind both thinkers and many Early Modern thinkers who endeavored to pursue social science (Hobbes, for example). Yet, this search for “unbiased” analysis continues, in spite of its historical invalidity. What’s more, by even picking this critical heuristic (the goal of unbiased and impartial analysis), one has already become biased towards Enlightenment notions of the critic. Our critical methods,  to put the point most frankly, are social and thus political. Postmodernism’s rejections of metanarratives is biased towards the conditions of the late 20th century; an age of extremes and the failure of big men and big ideologies. Marxism is biased towards analyzing the heightening of class division in eras of unrestricted capitalism (the 19th century, for example). The point here is that you have to chose. You cannot be impartial and apolitical. The very means by which you endeavor to achieve impartiality are themselves tied to historical, social, and political conditions. Give it up. We are biased creatures. We must chose a method we believe to be true, and we must defend and propagate it (6).

Now, the fact that human thought inherently suggests bias is no reason to condemn all of humanity as degenerate louts who bit the apple. Rather, our ability to chose and advocate are redeeming and distinct qualities. By removing these qualities from our theory (theory is one of the few things that trickles down these days), our departments and courses have been robbed of their intellectual meat. Departments have preached impossible impartiality and have removed the true fruit of the work we love – developing and integrating schools of thought to help us better understand -and change- the world. We have been reduced from active participants in our world to mere passive observers seeking one arcane truth over another. We have, in short, marginalized ourselves.

Scholars could tell you what a certain word means in a sentence from 1634, but they would genuinely struggle with telling you why any of this is important. This is a direct product of seeking “the middle” via an impossible impartial and unbiased approach. We have robbed our books, historical events, and social phenomena of our own participation in them. Paradise Lost is an elaborate theological trap for unbelievers. Life during the Bubonic Plague of the 14th century wasn’t that bad. The Battle of Verdun was actually waged by generals who tried their best with what they had. Yes, all of these are actual opinions I have heard in the classroom and read on JSTOR. The madness has to stop. We are not unbiased and cannot be. We all use derivative heuristics and radical assertions of uncompromising truth. Put the bias back in theory, abandon the quest for the middle, and you put the person back in theory; and in doing so, you make our fields potentially relevant to anyone instead of a group of 15 people on any given Saturday at the local library.

Reality is Annoying:

Outside of academics the glorification of the middle is rampant and, quite frankly, incredibly dangerous. As we look on, thousands of Palestinians are killed by Israeli super weapons for firing rockets that only killed Nazis (in 1943) with massed fire that Hamas does not have. Yet, when the truth is so very clear to anyone who would look, many still hold to the glorification of the middle. John Kerry, after receiving a punitive phone call from Washington for suggesting carpet bombing civilian areas was maybe a bad idea, presently preaches the necessity of both sides to “come to the table.” In such a situation, it seems amazing for anyone to suggest middle ground, but it is quite common if one is to traverse the sulfurous pit that is comments sections on articles about the conflict in Gaza. In politics, even more so than in academia, the center cannot hold. It always falls back to one way or the other.

Similarly to Yeats feeling of powerlessness, many onlookers looking for moderation in Palestine conclude that both of the warring sides are to blame, that a solution between the two sides is impossible, and quite oddly that the two sides will always hate each other (7). This is the dangerous and potentially deadly side effect of seeking the middle in situations that require something more. This is not an unprecedented phenomena. The great compromise of  1850 lead to the bloodiest war in American history. Neville Chamberlain was a true intellectual and compromised with Nazi Germany. England urged the Holy Roman Empire to talk it out with its rebellious protestant princes, which was followed by a pithy period of war lasting thirty years. Alexander II freed the serfs in the Russian Empire. The founding fathers decided, in good faith, that an African slave was only 3/5 of a person, which itself lead to the aforementioned “great compromise.”

The fact is, societies have critical contradictions that can be solved only by the radical road. Compromise and “the middle” only prolong these contradictions. Would it truly be better, you ask, to have waged the Civil War in 1850? Yes, yes it would have, for a number of reasons. Contradictions must be solved and not avoided, for by avoiding them through the moral detachment of the middle and compromise, one only prolongs the festering of that synthesized contradiction; which is a circumstance that hardly bequeaths moral supremacy. Instead, such a position suggests a true indifference to the suffering of others so long as we may uselessly grasp for stability. Let history be your guide. When contradictions arise, they must be addressed with force and radical means, not with bills and edicts that side-step the issue. Solutions can be difficult and far from moderate. Reality is like that – our tasks are sometimes difficult. That does not change the fact that we must do them.

This overwhelmed powerlessness many feel, the anxiety that Yeats felt when he looked at a world in ruins, is not all that surprising when we see that our international community and ideology is based chiefly around the quest for the middle. If the UN cannot find a solution to the slaughter in Gaza, what hope do we, the people, have? We must conclude with Yeats, in such a rendering, that we are powerless in the creation of the new “beast” from Bethlehem that is our future. As alluded to above with regards to academic theory and its detached pointlessness, when we make ourselves observers we truly are powerless to fashion that beast. When we seek the middle in situations that have none, we make ourselves impotent.

Our world and ourselves need not be this way. As highlighted above in both academics, history, and politics, the center cannot hold – and that’s a good thing. Our world is rife with contradiction, our classrooms and departments full of troubles and challenges. By attempting to remove bias and reach a transcendent analysis, we have made ourselves incapable of analyzing our world as it stands. We have removed ourselves from our world, and in doing so, removed what drives us to speak (8). As John Milton once remarked on writing, when a deep desire for truth is matched with a deep desire to express it, all other things fall into their places (9). When many begin to abandon the middle in favor of a true analysis of the critical contradictions of our society and the potentially radical solutions to them, and are further catalyzed to speak of such things, then, certainly, “the centre cannot not hold,” and a future of our own making from Bethlehem will “come round at last.” (3)

(1) Query “New Atheism” for more information, or take a look at this atrocity (
(2) Nonpartisan meaning partisan if by reality we are judging.
(4) For effect:
(5), line 26
(6) “Must” doesn’t imply that we do not already do this, whether we deign to admit it or not.
(7) The world began in 1946, if you were wondering.
(8) Postmodern discourses often stress the importance of finding voices.
(9) Milton, “An Apology for a Pamphlet”

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Filed under Academia, Barack Obama, Democratic Party, Moderates, Politics, Republican Party

Reappropriating the Bourgeois Revolutions

“We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” -Tom Paine, Common Sense

here is a rather unfortunately amusing predicament a student of bourgeois revolutions will notice upon first foraying into online research databases for primary documents. The databases you frequent, and are in many cases forced to use, hold  a noticeable connection to modern libertarianism and whig liberalism. Revolutions of peasants and merchants are now revolutions of only ingenious merchants; of Locke and Hobbes, and not Lilburne or Winstanley. A professor and I were in one particularly odious case forced to print off John Milton’s Eikonoklastes (in which Milton defends tyrannicide and lampoons the historically stagnant) from the “Online Library of Liberty” (a collection of scholarly works on individual liberty and free markets, as the header proudly proclaims), much to our own perturbation.

One finds this elsewhere, as the popularly published and circulated history of the American revolution is extraordinarily conservative and deterministic with some notable exceptions such as Zinn and Linnbaugh, amongst others. A statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest (the first grand wizard of the Klu Klux Klan) stands proudly in Memphis, but there is only one statue of Tom Paine (author and catalyst of American revolutionary nationalism) in the United States in a small New Jersey town. The peasant rebellions subsequent to the American victory are a mere footnote in history textbooks, only glossed over in most junior high and high school level history courses while the story of George Washington and an unlucky cherry tree endures in cultural memory (in spite of its relationship with truth).

Consistent with the bourgeoisie’s own narrative of its historical finality, the fire of the 17th and 18th centuries has been turned into a stone buttress holding up modern capitalist mythos of free enterprise and personal liberty. To such gentrified narratives, Milton’s Areopagitica is a treatise exclusively on modern freedom of speech and the press, the Leveller’s Agreement of the People is merely anticipatory of american radicalism, the Diggers are an insignificant minority, the English Revolution (sorry, the English Civil War) a battle to get rid of an ineffective and catalytic king (Russel), and the Ranters didn’t even exist at all!

The gentrification, or revision as author James Holstun calls it, of the bourgeois revolutions is a two-way street, however, with many leftists rejecting the revolutionary legacy of the English Revolution (for Cromwell and Ireland), the American Revolution (for slavery) and the French Revolution (for  the “Reign of Terror” and Napoleon). Such an ideological decision plays into the hands of modern counterrevolutionaries who endeavor to appropriate revolutionary history.  The history of class struggle and warfare, even if the victors are the left’s contemporary enemies, is by right (not divine, of course) the area of Marxists and Marxist critics. There is no doubt that the bourgeois revolutions advanced through crippling dialectical contradictions (between liberty and slavery, for example), and Marxists must never let bourgeois theory escape from these historically objective contradictions. Such an activity, however, requires an appreciation of the movement of these revolutions down class lines and their ultimate failure to fufill their most radical goals; requiring mass repressions of radical peasants and workers in each case.

At the heart of historically highlighting the bourgeois revolutions is the central thesis of a modern Marxist approach – revolutions are what change history. Mass movements of people, not singular heads of government, forge in the fire of violent upheaval the existing social order. The Bourgeois revolutions do not suggest the eternal triumph of the bourgeoisie, as many mainstream critics and historians have sought to prove through historical revision and post-modern diffusion, it is, instead, proof of the universality of class struggle; the power of the working classes, and the greater trend of humanity towards the democratization of production. To write off the bourgeois revolutions as historically necessary and inevitable is not only lazy Marxist analysis but it also silences the voices that actively fought against both feudalism and emergent capitalism. To ignore the struggles of peasants and workers in an era before developed capitalism and Marxism is to rob ourselves of a rich history and context for the establishment of our current struggles and dynamics. It is to chain Marxist analysis to the material conditions of the 19th century, an idea Michael Foucault and other post-modernists have endeavored to  establish for several decades; and an idea we must continue to oppose.

Let us then appropriate in this essay, as the bourgeois revolutionaries did in their revolutions, history. Just as Milton would highlight the democratic “nature” of the English people in Saxon times, let  us tell a history that leads to an understanding of these revolutions developed for many decades by Marxist historians across field and era. An understanding that renders the revolutions as a crucible where revolutionary anti-capitalist voices erupted from anti-royal struggles and were violently silenced by emergent capitalist states; revealing, in turn, the true nature of modern capitalist states and mythos.

Armed with Book and Lance: England and the Danger of Peasant Power

 “For the army are acted by their own principles; they are an army that  understands themselves.” -John Saltmarsh, A Letter from the Army, on the New Model Army

Perhaps the most obvious positive outcome of the bourgeois revolutions was the destruction of the feudal mode of production and the states that supported it. In England, in spite of the ultimate failure of the Commonwealth, the bourgeoisie continued to reign supreme into Restoration England, orchestrating the dubiously titled “Glorious Revolution” when fears of James II tolerance of Catholicism was used to bring about liberal reforms. England had become, as author J.G.A Pocock alludes to in his recommendable book The Machiavellian Moment, a society where economic stability was tied to political stability, where stability was tied to the prosperity of all; a convenient ideological strand given the frightening upsurge of peasant consciousness and resistance during the interregnum.

There are two things of import in highlighting this ideological turn in the restoration era bourgeoisie in England. First, the feudal economic system was undone. No longer did a King hold the leash of a parliament, long, short or in between; parliament now held the leash of King and Queen; rather tightly, as the Glorious Revolution illustrates. Second, the economic stability of capitalist England was tied to political stability (read Pocock’s chapters “Court, Country and Standing Army” and “Virtue, Passion and Commerce”) to nurture the later blooming English fear of chaos caused by violent revolution, manifested in Alexander Pope’s rational exultation of inaction in his Essay on Man, Samuel Butler’s lampooning of puritan revolutionaries in his Hudibras, rabid anti-Jacobin tracts, and fearful early-Victorian tracts on continental upheaval (1848). Just what had happened in England during its revolution to elicit such fearful sentiments from the triumphant bourgeoisie and their culture? That, in our effort to render the bourgeois revolutions as class wars alight with ultimately snuffed out peasant consciousness, is worth answering.

The English Revolution is remarkable for its firstness in executing a king, and paradoxically, the revolution’s fairly conservative goals. The poetry of Andrew Marvell and John Milton (Marvell’s Horation Ode, Milton’s 16th Sonnet) reflect a deep anxiety with the violent revolution that killed 100,000 in a nation of five million. The political developments of the period (the Presbyterian parliament, the general unpopularity of the commonwealth government, and the ultimate betrayal of the military in the Restoration) show a keen conservative discomfort with what the revolution had uncovered; notably an English heritage of peasant revolt and consciousness, found politically in 1381 and even in literature in Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene.

The Commonwealth government, despite its enemies’ accusations, advocated itself for fairly conservative measures. Cromwell, and his fellow Grandees (landed gentry and other nobleman of the New Model Army, of which Cromwell was one, who opposed the agitators at Putney) advocated for very little past greater representation and parliamentary autonomy. That’s not to say, however, that radical and future-looking rebel voices didn’t emerge. In fact, the English Revolution is remarkable for the level of dialogue modern readers can find, be it through the Clarke Papers (which record, by quote, the Putney Debates) or the political tracts of Winstanley, Lilburne, Milton, Presbyters, Grandees, Fifth Monarchists and beyond, all of which survive to this day.

These tracts were read by an ever-diversifying populace. When John Milton was born in 1608, approximately 30% of the population in England could read, by the time he died, in 1688, nearly 50% of the society could read. What is the function of this change? Put simply, revolution and puritan egalitarianism (two connected concepts, no doubt), and what Jurgen Habermas would call the public sphere. Gone were the days of Latin texts read by only a handful of souls deciding the fate of an entire nation. In revolutionary England, working class New Model soldiers read and circulated texts, arguing with each other on points of organization, terror, and agitation. These texts, of course, were written in the vernacular. They were printed by the hundreds and thousands with ease. Political consciousness in peasants, women (see: Lucy Hutchenson, Anne Trapnell) and urban proletariat soared. Bibles were read by everyone in a pike battalion and everyone in a parish. The same anti-slavery verses that would so attract radical African slaves to the old testament worked unfiltered through the minds of revolutionary puritans via the Geneva Bible.

Of course, this consciousness and ideology wouldn’t be worth very much if it was not itself conscious of its own potential for realization. This potential was elicited, rather unwittingly, by the Grandee officers who gave the same peasants who had rebelled in 1381 pikes and muskets to do battle against the King. The New Model had, by its very own organization and revolution in military leadership and command, toppled one of the most powerful monarchs in the world. This experience, as James Holstien highlights with precision in his chapter “New Model Soviets” in his book Ehud’s Dagger, garnered a previously unseen level of political, communal consciousness. At Putney, a debate between New Model radicals and Grandees, battalions elected there very own agitator to represent their interests. Agitators verbally acknowledge in the debates that they speak not for themselves but for their troops. This, fundamentally, was revolutionary democracy. Without the legitimacy of state and constitution, New Model soldiers struggled against what they saw as Grandee betrayal.

Predictably, Cromwell and Ireton (a frequently quoted Grandee from the Clarke Papers) responded to these agitator’s cries for universal suffrage with accusations of anarchism and banditry. Cromwell retorted to Rainsborough, the oft quoted agitator, by claiming, “No man says that you have a mind to anarchy, but that the consequence of this rule tends to anarchy, must end in anarchy.” Ireton condemned the leveling ideology at the meeting by asking, “by what right may I not take your property?”

These responses to peasant power, in letter and musket, is anticipatory of the universal repressions of peasants and workers subsequent to each major bourgeois revolution. Critically, we see a keen tension between what the bourgeois revolutions produced as bi-product and what they were prepared to procure politically. Elevated consciousness in the peasants and the wars they were willing to wage to bring together ideal, both religious and political, and reality, posed a grave danger to the triumphant bourgeois state of England. It is for this reason that repressions occurred, and that even through restoration and glorious dynasty change, the bourgeoisie continued to reign supreme in England; in stability, profit, crushing urbanization, and growing inequality.

We must never silence the voices of these agitators because they are inconvenient to our analyses, both left and right. The bourgeois revolutions were not simply anti-feudal, inevitable struggles born of inherent contradiction, nor were they wars for universal freedom and liberty. In between lies a world of both Grandee and Agitator, where both parties battled, and the latter lost. This battle and its belligerents are not insignificant. In the battle, many aspects of modern bourgeois democracy and the mythos that supports it were forged. The martial metaphor, as will be elucidated, is apt indeed.

A Republic of Burned Letters

“-no man hath a right to an interest or share in the disposing of the affairs of the kingdom… that hath not a permanent fixed interest in this kingdom.” -Ireton, Putney

The battles and its ultimate outcome is worth stopping upon, to illustrate how the failures of the bourgeois revolutions to meet their revolutionary ideals can be used as a catalyst in understanding the dominance and weaknesses of modern bourgeois mythos.

I had previously mentioned Jurgen Habermas’ concept of the public sphere and highlighted then only the core and mostly well-respected movements of his theory; chiefly that in Early Modern Europe you see the emergence of a republic of letters (not his term, but a popularly used one) in which textual voices discoursed over vast geographical distance critical problems and issues in society, philosophy, and so on. What many Marxist critics notice upon reading Habermas (a Frankfurt Marxist himself) is that the idea is too glorified, that Habermas believes too strongly that this system actually worked in any measurable amount.

I do not dispute the idea of the public sphere (obviously, having used the concept previously), but I do agree with other critics that Habermas’ vision of it is too idealized. The public sphere functioned down class lines, and was, as alluded to above, working in a society where only half of the population knew to read and write. We must guard cautiously against dubiously claiming the public sphere was anything more than an inter-bourgeois mode of critique and debate. Clearly, as we will revisit and hash out below, many voices in emergent bourgeois society were crushed utterly and violently.

In England, many leveling New Model soldiers refused to go to war in Ireland, earning them jail and expulsion from the army. The Diggers, lead by Gerrard Winstanley, numbering only 50, were attacked by hired thugs of landed gentry (on whose land they lived on the outskirts of) and were eventually dissolved forcefully by Thomas Fairfax and Commonwealth soldiers, with their crops torn out, their hovels burned, and their common buildings torn to the ground. Radical preachers were thrown in prison by a parliament preaching religious freedom. Licensing of texts continued in spite of John Milton’s famous protestation Areopagitica. Perhaps most famously but least importantly, Christmas was cancelled due to peasant revelry and the associated sinning.

Clearly, this was a society much to John Milton’s liking; a society where a privileged, intellectual few men made the decisions for an entire nation, and not a society were millions discoursed on national policy free from repression. What we see in England is, as Pocock is right to trace, republican governance in the true Roman and Greek sense; as Vladimir Lenin was astute to point out, freedom for wealthy men, and not plebs, lest we find ourselves in tyranny (or anarchy, as Cromwell suggested at Putney). Indeed, this was, explicitly, what Milton and many other Commonwealth intellectuals (such as Marvell) advocated for. The rule of the rich was universally preferable to the rule of the emotional and chaotic “thralls” (as Milton called the working class in his Readie and Easie Way).

As many recent scholars have been right to point out, the American revolutionary generation inherited much from its English younger brother. Ben Franklin reflects in his autobiography reading Milton’s political tracts in his grandfather’s library. Tom Paine quotes Milton’s Satan in Common Sense, and Lilburne was widely read. Interestingly, the repression of emergent peasant radicalism was not transcended by a purely temporal shift forward (as a Whig historian might suggest). We see in the Whiskey Rebellion and more particularly Shay’s Rebellion, opposition to the failure of even the Constitutional (as opposed to the confederated) government to achieve the aims of revolutionary peasants and workers met with violent repression instead of an open republican hand or even a concession like the tribune or plebeian council.

In France we find an extremely similar story. The sans-culottes, essentially rioting urban proletariat, were originally used and championed by the Jacobins and their leader Maximilian Robespierre. It was the sans-culottes who most vigorously defended the “terror” against reactionaries and enemies. When Robespierre was executed himself and the Directorate rose to supremacy, the sans-culottes were repressed violently as remnants of a chaotic and tyrannical period. Those two words associated with peasant power should be familiar to you at this point. The offspring of Greco-Roman republicanism shared its deep fear of true democracy and the crucible of plebian control.

“The secret in freedom lies in educating the people, whereas the secret of tyranny is to keep them ignorant.” – Maximilien Robespierre

In total, studying the true, if often not recounted, nature of the bourgeois revolutions; in their deep fear of true democracy and in their brutal repression of emergent peasant power, we find a fruitful theoretical avenue for understanding the formation of modern bourgeois states and their mythos. A Marxist will be eager to use the simple fact that the bourgeois revolutionaries never attempted to provide true democracy or freedom. They never sought to hear the voices of every citizen, and this is flagrantly obvious with the tangential study of bourgeois repressions of peasant movements in each major revolution found above. In spite of capitalist mythos of unlimited freedom and a republic of letters, the history of the revolutions alone (to say nothing of imperialism) proves these to be completely false and even never explicitly desired by the founding fathers in each case.

Given what we have highlighted above, we must refute both whig and crude marxist renderings of the bourgeois revolutions that leave them a lifeless husk of nebulous progress and inevitability. What we find in a true study is quite the opposite – a period alight with bloodshed, rebellion, revolutionary discourses, and tyrannical bourgeois republicanism; where each tract and battle titled the scales of history. Critically, we find in the bourgeois revolutions as an almost unintentional bi-product the empowering of peasants past what the bourgeois leaders were comfortable with. We see peasants and urban proletariat waging war against capitalism as well as feudalism, and forming their own independent organizations with their own representatives.  Their voices are important for us now, in light of whig history coming from both left and right, we find in history that the contradictions of capitalism have not moved an inch. From 1640 to today, from Lilburne to Hampton, the bourgeoisie maintains its deep fear of a people’s tyranny, repressing violently any who would suggest something more; any who would suggest for true universality and not the universality of Rome and Athens, who would endeavor to fulfill the true promise of the revolutionary movements in England, France, and America. Such is the function of the bourgeois state from its inception as we have seen above, but in the history of its forging, what we have endeavored to reappropriate to the history of class struggle, we can find in their own deeds the means for procuring an end of true, universal “liberty, equality, and fraternity.”

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On Marxist Literary Criticism, Its Problems, and Its Value

A Marxist does not have to spend much time in academic, literary circles before they receive the “anti-marxist eye roll.” This eye roll is usually catalyzed by the usage of cobwebbed-covered terms such as “proletariat” and “bourgeoisie” or perhaps, if the perpetrator is feeling daring, “class conflict.” Postmodern academia, like the Victorians to the Romantics, wants nothing more than to distance itself from “the red decades” where titans from the Frankfurt school, French philosophical and economic discourses, and the Communist Party Historians Group in the United Kingdom made significant advances in the fields of history and literary criticism.

It is a process with a historical precedent – we make the dominant discourses of the day concrete through an interaction with its negative; we mock the Romantics for their idealism, and we castigate the Victorians for their racism and imperialist attitudes. As the latter example proves, this process is not always in error. Dialectical advancement in thought is a necessary and often fruitful endeavor, but for this process to move forward beneficially, it must be based on accurate depictions and renderings. This, sadly, has not been the case for modern Marxist literary criticism, and the purveyors of a bastardized Marxism are diverse in politics and theory.

For too long have postmodern ideologies used Marxism as a crutch for their synthetic construction of antithetical ideologies. For example, Michael Foucault claimed proudly, “Marxism exists in nineteenth-century thought as a fish exists in water; that is, it ceases to breathe anywhere else,” suggesting inexplicably that postmodern discourses are free from the chains of history. (4) Of all the anti-Marxist lingo that floated and floats around 20th and 21st century universities, this one is worth stopping upon as it is the root of many others. There is a deeply held belief that, as alluded to above, Marxism is “outdated.”This seems like a rather dubious accusation coming from departments still proudly teaching Russian Formalism and New-Criticism, two aged, if not sometimes useful, critical schools; and that is to say nothing of the present admiration of digging up obscure classical documents that our favorite early modern authors must certainly have read in Renaissance studies.

That’s not to say postmodern critics are the only ones castigating and co-opting Marxist literary theory. There is a distinct feeling on the left that theory, and even more so for literary theory, is for “academics.” Marxist literary critics are seen by many leftists as a bunch of less significant Althussers running around from journal to journal stringing five-dollar words together into a generally unintelligible mass of intellectual ego stroking. This is partly true, and party our fault. The pressures of making a living in academia are partly to blame, but that is the subject for an entirely different article. In this abbreviated medium, I shall explore the accusations that Marxism is outdated, historically dependent and abstract, and offer, with the help of Friedrich Engels (the first Marxist literary critic), some avenues for movement between abstract and real.

History and Propaganda:

The perceived crudeness and historical particularity of Marxism, as alluded to above by Michael Foucault, is a two-fold problem. For one, the idea supposes any ideology is not “crude” in terms of its relationship with the historical epoch in which it was created and resides. For another, many Marxist critics have indeed been crude in their analyses; seeking propaganda over truth, or, as critic Gaylord Leroy wrote, “seek(ing) songs of social significance” (3). The former can be unraveled by a peripheral study of history and theory, and the latter can be undone by an analysis of Marx and Engels’ very own vision of literature and criticism.

The postmodern love of accusing all other forms of literary criticism as being “outdated” or tied to limiting and historically specific metanarratives is one of the foundational aspects of their critical method. Lyotard, one of the first writers to identify “the postmodern condition,” elaborates, “Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives[. ..] The narrative function is losing its functors, its great hero, its great dangers, its great voyages, its great goal. It is being dispersed in clouds of narrative language-” (8). Lyotard goes on in his canonical The Postmodern Condition to lump essentially all past human thought into the “metanarrative” camp. Marxism, a materialist strain, was particularly guilty. An ideology dependent on a progression towards communism, a conclusion based upon the implementation of the grand critical method of class struggle, was surely vanquished; dispersed into the netherworld of narrative and discourse.

However, we need only consider postmodernism’s own place in history to reject its authority (or should I say metanarrative?) on the issue of historical dependency. It’s quite peculiar that a critical method so vitriolically opposed to Marxism and even New-Historicism should suppose itself to be free of the chains of history. Indeed, a rejection of societal metanarratives is uniquely and keenly suited for our present historical epoch, sitting but a decade after “an age of extremes” as Hobsbawm would call it. The 20th century, and the modernist ideas that defined it, was a crucible of war, genocide, poverty, contradictory ideologies, states, and globalization. It is not so surprising that theorists would, in reaction to the tail-end of this age, reject the grand narratives of society. The very construction of postmodern thought, through its chief purveyors, was done through a specific rejection of not only Marxism but also the myths of bourgeois progress.

This inherently suggests that such ideology does indeed have fruitful uses, namely the rejection of capitalist notions of the individual and unlimited progress. We should read it as a reaction to the collapse of modernity and its ideology in the fires of the 20th century, just as we should also read Marxism as a reaction to the heightening of contradiction in heightening capitalism in the 19th century. We should not think that since we have escaped the confines of a particular historical epoch that birthed both, for we are certainly no longer in the same historical conditions that procured Lytoard and Derrida, that the contributions of both schools are no longer valid.

In use, the contrary is true. It is a critical method’s interaction with its historical epoch that lends the most use-value to contemporary readers and implementers. In seeing a theorist interact with his or her specific historical circumstances, we see his or her method in action. We are able to, as John Milton would say in his canonical Areopagitica, discourse with the author and their historical moment. We, perhaps most importantly, are able to substantively look at theory in relation to the material world, and judge freely on its merits and pitfalls in the divergent historical circumstances of today and tomorrow. It is the historical specificity of a critical method that lends the theory a long historical shadow. Ultimately, to tie history to a school of thought is to only add to its richness for contemporary readers. To strive for ahistorical thought as many postmodern critics have, is to rob not only Marxism but also their very own critical method of much of its intellectual meat.

With this in mind, we can look in the mirror and ridicule those marxist critics that fail in this important task of presently implementing historically specific theory. For Freidrich Engels, the job of literature was to portray society, that is, a historically specific and identifiable one, realistically. Engels meant “real” denotatively; a marxist novel portrayed the relations in society exactly as they existed, an inherently challenging act. It was for this reason that Engels’ favorite author was Balzac, a political reactionary. For Engels, the marxist seeks realism at all costs. Engels elaborates,

“I think however that the purpose must become manifest from the situation and the action themselves without being expressly pointed out and that the author does not have to serve the reader on a platter — the future historical resolution of the social conflicts which he describes. To this must be added that under, our conditions novels are mostly addressed to readers from bourgeois circles, i.e., circles which are not directly ours. Thus the socialist problem novel in my opinion fully carries out its mission if by a faithful portrayal of the real conditions it dispels the dominant conventional illusions concerning them, shakes the optimism of the bourgeois world, and inevitably instils doubt as to the eternal validity of that which exists, without itself offering a direct solution of the problem involved, even without at times ostensibly taking sides.” (Engels, Engels to M. Kautsky)(2).

Thus, the author needn’t concern him or herself with “taking sides” or “serving” marxist analysis on a platter to the reader. This is as true for critics as it is for authors. Marxist critics should avoid at all costs taking a critical stamp to every text or event, but seek instead to unravel the social reality of the text. We need, in short, to avoid propaganda and seek analysis. The previously quoted Gaylord Leroy elaborates on a useful marxist analytic method, “The critical principle involved is that symbolic form should not be assigned to a closed and self-relating universe of meaning; it should be derived from social reality (as represented in the work), and that social reality should be recognized as primary” (3). Thus Marxist criticism must seek this second reality, one that is dialectically attached to our primary reality but fundamentally made different through individual synthesis and authorial creation. Attached to this is the foundationally Marxist concept that the individual, like the theory that sprouts from his hands, mouth and mind, is historically specific.

In short, our job as critics and as authors is to seek the social realities of a text using the critical methods of Marxism and apply them sensitively to history, time and place. Engels elucidates,

“Failing to comprehend the ‘external circumstances’ and ‘class grounds’ for the development of the new, she (Kautsky) creates heroes that are ‘incarnations of a principle’… prepared models of ideal new people, standing outside society- Not analyzing the real live forces of social development Kautsky ardently strives for the ‘new’ principles my means of declarations, standarized propaganda.” (5)

We must analyse the “real live” forces at work within a text, and not bring into it fabricated notions and Marxist buzzwords and instead take the synthesized, historically specific method of Marx, Engels and others, and apply it to our specific historical moment or the specific historical moment of the text and the person who wrote it. Marxist literary criticism cannot be effective in using lazy analyses and crude class reductionism on texts that would be better served with an Engelsist elucidation of the real social relations at play within the text. We must stand inside of the society of the work and author, and in doing so, move from abstract to “real,” as defined by Engels.

From Abstract to Real:

Having considered postmodern critiques of Marxist literary theory and the school’s own faults, it’s high time we analyzed the notion that literary theory is a useless academic endeavor offering little to no value to a leftist movement. I will not argue, for reference, in defense of the liberal arts or humanities at large; as that is a job better left for an LAS administrator. I will, instead, argue for the relevancy of literary criticism in the collective consciousness of the left.

The notion that the study of literature is a “petty bourgeois” (who knew shop-keepers had such an interest in literary criticism?) or “academic” endeavor that is largely useless to the left and working people is a prime example of the “crude Marxism” highlighted above. It supposes that the arts (of which literature is but one part) and criticism of the arts has no use to a working person which is a ridiculous claim. Literature impacts the consciousness of those who read it, with very little doubt. On this issue, Engels agrees, writing,

“The economic situation is the basis, but the various elements of the superstructure — political forms of the class struggle and its results, to wit: constitutions established by the victorious class after a successful battle, etc., juridical forms, and even the reflexes of all these actual struggles in the brains of the participants, political, juristic, philosophical theories, religious views and their further development into systems of dogmas — also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles and in many cases preponderate in determining their form.” (Engels, Engels to J. Bloch)(1).

As Mariela Castro, daughter of Vilma Espin and Raul Castro and member of the Cuban Communist Party said in a talk she gave in Havana in 2013, “-revolutions cannot transcend the minds of revolutionaries.” This, essentially, is the point Engels is making. A revolution is undoubtedly a class war, but a class war is fought by warriors – each with a consciousness interacting with varying discourses, religions, and politics (to use Engels’ examples). Literary theory is but a part of the consciousness of part of the revolutionaries, but the effect is substantive in both revolutionary movements and the establishment of revolutionary states. In Cuba, for example, Nicolas Guillen inspires an urban renewal project in the streets of Havana. Maxim Gorky’s socialist realism had material impacts on the Soviets’ conception of themselves and the ideal.

In summary,revolutions are indeed class wars, but they are fought by people influenced by their society. Engels castigated the bastardized Marxism that renders economics as the only catalyst in revolution in his letter to J. Bloch, writing,

“According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. Other than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. Hence if somebody twists this into saying that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, senseless phrase” (7).

Engels’ word choice is convenient (or manufactured?) for our point. When we reduce revolutions and the people who fight them to pawns in a game of class chess, we move from the real to the abstract. Literary theory practiced correctly and grounded in Marxist ideas of society and the real can and has had substantive effects on revolutionary societies. Thus, Marxist literary criticism is not abstract as many leftists suggest when partaken by a careful and sensitive practitioner, but the opposite. It is a catalyst of real thinking, an illuminator of those troublesome facets of the societies of today, yesterday, and tomorrow.

When we truly look at Marxist literary criticism and its supposed weaknesses, its historical specificity as a weakness, its crudeness, and its supposed uselessness to leftist movements, we find the opposite is true in each case. We find instead historical specificity as a mark of effective criticism for modern implementation, its crudeness a product of bastardized and lazy readings, and its supposed uselessness a product of an incorrect rendering of true abstraction.

As Marxist critics in a critical world that seeks to annihilate history and reduce texts to microcosms of the untouchable intellect of its author (or even its reader), the important task of finding Engels’ reality falls to us. To our various eras and literary movements we must seek that primary reality in the secondary reality of literature, avoiding with care a propagandist approach. Our job, as Engels suggests, is to find the tendrils connecting those primary and secondary realities and bring them to the fore; and in doing so, we proactively, if not explicitly, advocate for change in both.

Works Cited:









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Scars of Thunder: Walter White, Satan and the Material Roots of Remergent Miltonic Theodicy

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*Breaking Bad spoiler warning. Turn back now if you have not finished the show.*

“Mr. White, he’s the devil” -Jesse Pinkman, 5.12

As Breaking Bad came to its climactic conclusion, much dialogue occurred on at what point one could consider the series’ protagonist, Walter White, “gone.” At what point, many wondered, does Walter recede into Heisenberg? Some, as it has become clear to me upon traversing the enormous world of Breaking Bad social media, held out hope for Walter deep into the fifth season and even after the season had ended.  After all the violence, domestic and otherwise, some still supported Walter as a vigilante against omnipotent force, one with “unconquerable will” and the “courage never to submit or yield” (PL. I.). Of course, these famous lines were used to describe the prideful Arch-Fiend of Milton’s Paradise Lost  as he gazed over his host of rebellious demons, thrown flaming through the ethereal sky into the burning pits of Hell.

Much like Milton’s epic, Breaking Bad was pedagogically involved with its audience from the start. Walter and Satan in their first appearances to us are vulnerable and courageous, warriors against fate made to feel deep regret at the plight soon to be and presently being suffered by their family and comrades . First impressions, as they say, are important.These first images, of Walter pointing a gun at arriving police in his underwear and Satan lamenting the pain and disfigurement of his once beautiful friend, attach themselves to our imaginations with an anchor of precedence. These original images residing in the heads of viewers and readers serve as a point of comparison for every contradictory piece of information we will discover, explicitly and interpretive, in both show and epic. This contradiction is a function of theodicy; the catalyst with which the ways of god and evil are textually reconciled. 

Theodicy, a text that seeks to “justify the ways of God to man,” as Milton put it, and more generally, explain the existence of evil in a universe with a God, was a form popular in Early Modern Europe. Theodicy’s popularity at the time is seemingly a historical singularity, born of the interchange between an Enlightenment desire to explain the machinations of man and nature and a Protestant urge to render an omnipotent and distant god. Certainly the Early Modern theodical projects to reconcile these two things are no longer as apt as they were then. How, then, can the two theodical projects be compared in any way? How can Breaking Bad be considered a “Miltonic” theodicy, if it was born in such disparate historical circumstances? We can begin to find the answer, an answer rooted in the two periods’ fundamental yet obfuscated similarity, in what each story uses as a catalyst for its core crises.

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Milton’s and Gilligan’s catalyst in the dialectical exchange that is theodicy is choice. Evil exists because we have the power to chose, a power inherent in possessing consciousness, a power that takes us to the highest summit and the deepest pit, depending. Choice is the solvent both  Milton and Gilligan apply to the fundamental theological and ideological impasse of a good man turned to abject evil. Choice is at the center of each work, as both anti-heroes consciously ponder their choices in light of personal and social limitations. Satan, in his memorable lament at the beginning of book IV, remarks,

“Nay curs’d be thou; since against his thy will
Chose freely what it now so justly rues.
Me miserable! which way shall I flie
Infinite wrauth, and infinite despaire?”(PL. IV. 71-74

Satan’s inner torment is said by some critics to separate the reader from our once heroic warrior, yet to this critic, the tragedy of his character becomes crystallized in this scene of weakness.  Indeed, many Breaking Bad fans celebrate Walter’s journey to “take control of his life,” to, in effect, chose as Satan does in the face of known consequences. Satan elucidates the relationship between his choices and their inevitable consequences, and the outcome tempers his heroic nature and tempers, more importantly, the power of choice in the epic. This unhappy lineage of choice is the precise relationship Walter comes to have with his own choices. Satan has chosen poorly, and his initial choice has limited him to but one choice; infinite wrath or infinite despair. Walter comes to a similar conclusion as Satan, to face what will come with courage and malevolent darkness to ease his woeful condition (PL. IV). Walter remarks before his climactic and character changing battle with Gus Fring, “I’ve made choices. I alone should suffer the consequences of those choices, and those consequences, they’re coming.” (4.12). The fatalistic acceptance of consequences contrasts starkly to Satan’s heroic and rousing speeches and Walter’s once innocent desire for choice, typified by his early expression, “But, what I want, what I want, what I need, is a choice. I feel like I never actually make any of my own, choices, I mean. My entire life, it just seems like I never, you know, had a real say, about any of it.” (1.05)

So we see that choice is central in each epic, but more importantly, that choice in both is refracted through a lens of past choices. These past choices are themselves refracted through a foreknowledge of concrete consequences, consequences bred of a break with society, heavenly and non. Satan breaks with angelic hierarchy, and Walter breaks with civil law to ease their “suffering” (PL. IV) born of a tragic flaw (pride in both cases). The consequences, as each character predicts, come down upon them with tremendous effect. Satan writhes as a deformed serpent for all eternity, and Walter fades into his feared death as a look of relief emerges from his disheveled features. Such is the price for waging war against omnipotent force.

Of note, this bringing of destruction from a combination of personal choice from within and environmental consequences from without brings to the fore the crux upon which both stories move to their grander underlying narrative. It is where choice meets society that both show and epic connect across time and place, where they illuminate the same human struggle in Milton’s time and in our own; and that struggle is the power of the individual to battle the “omnipotent force” of a perceived unjust society.

It is here that we must make the distinction between the show and epic, as the former urges the viewer to oppose this unjust society and the latter urges the reader (as Stanley Fish highlights brilliantly) to see how just society falls to the ignorant and the prideful. They are, ultimately, different sides of the same coin. Where Gilligan endeavors to elucidate the fallen ideals of a society, Milton highlights the fall itself and the conditions upon which its occurrence was understandable and “justifiable.” Critically, both anti-heroes fail in their efforts. Their failure, itself a contradiction of that first image we are given, is pedagogical; a pedagogy deeply involved with the material conditions of a fallen society surrounding both epic and show.

To that point, in both Milton’s society and ours, irreconcilable contradictions erupt every day. The value of a hard day’s work and outsourcing, the american dream and growing static unemployment, the value of the individual and skyrocketing medical costs, puritanical destiny and counter-revolution, the eternal rule of the saints and Charles II, the Areopagus and the hangman. Satan attempts to solve these contradictions, but he goes about it in the wrong way and fails, just as Walter does. Both epic and show, in short, exist to navigate and illuminate these contradictions and counsel us through the pedagogical, theodical process of plotting the course of one who breaks free from the shackles around them, only to contradict this with their inevitable re-shackling under the mounting pressure of consequence. Each’s course is a failed one, and in our, the readers, traversing of this path, lies a profound message. We are to, like our grandparents Adam and Eve, walk forth from this failure. Yet each tale counsels us to walk a different path, the course of which is only ours (with a little help from providence, literary and non)”to choose” (PL. XII 647).

So we return to choice. A fitting way to end, as is it choice that moves both epic and show to their own tragic and satisfying endings. In its use of Miltonic theodicy in secular American society, in its reappropriation of Miltonic choice (a tempered choice) and Miltonic renderings of man and society, Breaking Bad and its creator Vince Gilligan have achieved something extraordinary in modern television and fiction at large. As Milton did for his fallen Restoration readers, Gilligan reminds us of our ultimate power to choose. The power is ours to choose against Walter and Satan, to choose against their creation and rise to power, to choose against their torments.

Our sympathy for each character is nothing to be ashamed of (as some Miltonists are a little too eager to suggest), but rather it is to be rendered as the beginning of an understanding of both show and epic’s true purpose. We admire Walter and Satan’s courage and bravery, and we admire their battle against unjust societies and hierarchies (in the case of Milton’s epic certainly a product of an increasing secular interaction with the work). We admire their ability to choose. In their failure and their incorrect choices, we discover the power residing in the text of Paradise Lost and the movements of Breaking Bad. It is a power that resides there because it resides in both author and reader; it is the power to chose a path, together not alone, where a Walter or a Satan would never have come to be.

Further Reading on Milton’s Satan and the Theodicy of Paradise Lost: (If you like Breaking Bad and haven’t read Milton, read Paradise Lost!)

Carey, John. “Milton’s Satan.” The Cambridge Companion to Milton. Ed. Dennis Richard Danielson. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989. 160-74. Print.

Danielson, Dennis. “The Fall and Milton’s Theodicy.” The Cambridge Companion to Milton. Ed. Dennis Richard Danielson. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989. 144-59. Print.

Fish, Stanley Eugene. Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1997. Print.

Hill, Christopher. “Paradise Lost.” Milton and the English Revolution. New York: Viking, 1978. 354-412. Print.

Rogers, John. “The Political Theology of Milton’s Heaven.” The New Milton Criticism. Ed. Peter C. Herman and Elizabeth Sauer. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2012. 68-84. Print.

Von Maltzahn, Nicholas. “Milton’s Readers.” The Cambridge Companion to Milton. Ed. Dennis Richard Danielson. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989. 236-52. Print.

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Filed under AMC, Breaking Bad, Jesse Pinkman, Literature, Milton, Milton's Satan, Paradise Lost, Satan, Theodicy, Walter White