Fish 2001

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Fish, Stanley. "Driving from the Letter: Truth and Indeterminacy in Milton's Areopagitica." How Milton Works. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2001. 187-214.

"In short, the argument against licensing, which has always been read as an argument for books, is really an argument that renders books beside the point: books are no more going to save you than they are going to corrupt you; by denying their potency in one direction, Milton necessary denies their potency in the other and undercuts the extravagant claims he himself makes in the passage with which we began. Whatever books are, they cannot be what he says they are in those ringing sentences -- the preservers of truth, the life-blood of a master spirit, the image of God." (195)
"The image here is one that will loom larger and larger: it is of a truth that is always running ahead of any attempt to apprehend it, a truth that repeatedly slips away from one's grasp, spills out of one's formulations, and escapes the nets that for a moment promise to catch it. Here that net is the tract itself, which is at this' moment disqualifying itself as a vehicle of the truth it wants to convey; but at the same time and by the very same process, it is playing its part in the fashioning of another vehicle, one more able to bear the inscription of the Holy Ghost's pen. That vehicle is the heart of the reader, who is the direct beneficiary of the Areopagitica's failure, or, to be more precise,of Milton's strategy. That strategy is one we have been tracking from the beginning of this chapter: it involves encouraging the reader to a premature act of concluding or understanding, which is then undone or upset by the introduction of a new and complicating perspective. As we have seen, this happens not once but repeatedly, as the reader is first allowed to assume that the point at issue is the purity or impurity to be found in books, and then is told that the content of books (or any other object) is a thing indifferent relative to the purity or impurity already in persons, and finally (or is it finally?) is reminded that all persons are congenitally impure ("we bring impurity much rather") and that therefore the problem must be entirely rethought. The result is, of course, disorienting, but it is also salutary, for in the process of being disoriented the reader is provoked to just the kind of labor and exercise that is necessary to the constitution of his or her own virtue." (204)
"In the Areopagitica we are continually being driven from the letter, first from the quite literal letter of books, and then from the letter as represented by the history of Athens and Rome, and then from the letter of a comforting, but finally too comforting, Scripture ("to the pure all things are pure"). Of course all of these letters, along with others that could be instanced, are provided by the Areopagitica itself, which also provides the arguments that make them momentarily attractive; so that one of the letters the tract is driving us from is itself, as we are not allowed the comfort and false security of sticking to or with any of the formulations it presents in what is finally a self-canceling sequence." (206)

"driving from the letter" is a process without end; "the temptation to substitutde for the innumerable and inconclusive acts that make up the process by which the self is refined and purified some external form of purification that can be mechanically applied" (208)

"knowledge and truth are not measurable or containable entities, properties of this or that object, characteristics of this or that state, but modes of being, inward dispositions, conditions of a heart always yearning for new revelations" (211)

  • the scattered body of truth is not external, but is ourselves -- in finding the pieces, we are producing ourselves
  • not "Seek and ye shall find" but "Seek and ye shall become"
"Ironically it is only by permitting what licensing would banish -- the continual flow of opinions, arguments ,reasons, agendas -- that the end of licensing -- the fostering of truth -- can be accomplished; accomplished not by the external means that licensing would provide, but by making outselves into the repository of the very values that licensing misidentifies when it finds them in a world free of defiling books." (212)

reader is to become a "living oracle"