Carnal Rhetoric: Milton's Iconoclasm and the Poetics of Desire [NOOK Book]


In recent years, New Historicists have situated the iconoclasm of Milton’s poetry and prose within the context of political, cultural, and philosophical discourses that foreshadow early modernism. In Carnal Rhetoric, Lana Cable carries these investigations further by exploring the iconoclastic impulse in Milton’s works through detailed analyses of his use of metaphor. Building on a provocative iconoclastic theory of metaphor, she breaks new ground in the area of affective stylistics, not only as it pertains to ...
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Carnal Rhetoric: Milton's Iconoclasm and the Poetics of Desire

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In recent years, New Historicists have situated the iconoclasm of Milton’s poetry and prose within the context of political, cultural, and philosophical discourses that foreshadow early modernism. In Carnal Rhetoric, Lana Cable carries these investigations further by exploring the iconoclastic impulse in Milton’s works through detailed analyses of his use of metaphor. Building on a provocative iconoclastic theory of metaphor, she breaks new ground in the area of affective stylistics, not only as it pertains to the writings of Milton but also to all expressive language.
Cable traces the development of Milton’s iconoclastic poetics from its roots in the antiprelatical tracts, through the divorce tracts and Areopagitica, to its fullest dramatic representation in Eikonoklastes and Samson Agonistes. Arguing that, like every creative act, metaphor is by nature a radical and self-transgressing agent of change, she explores the site where metaphoric language and imaginative desire merge. Examining the demands Milton places on metaphor, particularly his emphasis on language as a vehicle for mortal redemption, Cable demonstrates the ways in which metaphor acts for him as that creative and radical agent of change. In the process, she reveals Milton’s engagement, at the deepest levels of linguistic creativity, with the early modern commitment to an imaginative and historic remaking of the world.
An insightful and synthetic book, Carnal Rhetoric will appeal to scholars of English literature, Milton, and the Renaissance, as well as to those with an interest in the theory of affective stylistics as it pertains to reader-response criticism, semantics, epistemology, and the philosophy and psychology of language.
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Editorial Reviews

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"This is an exciting book to read. Cable’s Carnal Rhetoric is one of the foremost statements concerning the ‘theory’ of affective stylistics and the contribution that it provides to our understanding of Milton’s writings and, by implication, the writings of others. By positing a sensory, emotional, and affective theory of metaphor and figurative language, Cable strikes out in a radically new direction in Milton studies."—Albert Labriola, Duquesne University
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822382409
  • Publisher: Duke University Press
  • Publication date: 2/28/1995
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • File size: 2 MB

Meet the Author

Lana Cable is Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York, Albany.

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Carnal Rhetoric

Milton's Iconoclasm and the Poetics of Desire

By Lana Cable

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1995 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-8240-9



* * *

Toward a Theory of Creative Iconoclasm

The argument of this book proceeds on a genial confidence in the rewards to be gained by taking Milton's metaphors seriously and even literally. This is not to say that a sufficient account of a given metaphoric passage can be derived from semantic analysis of its components. Rather, this argument holds that when John Milton compares moderate Episcopal ministers to cooling stewpots whose rising lukewarm scum "gives a vomit to God himself," we accomplish little by asserting that what Milton really means is that the Almighty prefers ministers of strong religious conviction. Such a reading seeks metaphor's "meaning" everywhere but in our experience of the image itself—the reading turns away from the metaphor (in this instance, with apparent embarrassment) rather than dealing with it. In the next chapter we will take a closer critical look at Of Reformation's iconoclastic image of God sick in the kitchen. But for the moment, I wish simply to propose that the analytic process we set in motion when we seek the real meaning of metaphoric passages is flawed from its inception. Metaphor is not about "meaning." If we consider how metaphor is used and what it does, we find that its proper milieu is not meaning but affective resonance.

As my phrase "experience of the image" suggests, this study values and uses interpretive procedures derived from reader-response theory—but with significant qualifications. Ordinarily, reader-response treats "meaning" as that which is actually composed by affective resonance, as opposed to the traditional idea that meaning gives rise to affective resonance. As Stephen Greenblatt reminds us, it is indeed "impossible to take the 'text itself' as the perfect, unsubstitutable, freestanding container of all of its meanings." But the interpretive theory on which such an account of literature is based demands a radical dislocation and redefinition of "meaning" (from its traditional home in the text to a new one in experience) that burdens the reading experience itself with a presumption of endlessly reverberating epistemological implications that it does not necessarily have. If we make such a radical dislocation, intellectual responsibility demands that we ask, "In the shift of meaning from text to experience, what exactly happens to the meaning of 'meaning'?" And the way out of that quandary, as Ogden and Richards demonstrated with great erudition and irony seven decades ago, is to recognize that neither philosophers nor other seekers after wisdom should entirely be trusted with the pursuit of "meaning," for the simple reason that the term is inaccurate. Rather than a shared enterprise, pursuit of "meaning" actually consists of a miscellaneous grab bag of inquiries and concerns whose proper domains emerge only when they are given their right names: intention, value, referent, emotion, symbol, and so forth. Today we might extend and refine Ogden and Richards's list of meanings for "meaning," but we would be unwise to completely ignore or forget their precept.

It may be just such critical amnesia that underlies the misunderstanding to which reader-response criticism seems peculiarly subject. If literary "meaning" is a construct of cultures and readers rather than of texts, if "meaning" is truly no other than what "happens ... in the interaction between the flow of print (or sound) and the actively mediating consciousness of a reader-hearer," then the reductive interpreter of reader-response theory may logically conclude that there is nothing in any reader's responding consciousness that cannot be claimed as what the literary work "means"—regardless of how variously a culture's or the reader's own mediating skills may happen to be constituted. Thus, to such an interpreter, the literary text can "mean" anything or everything or nothing. This charge has been leveled against structuralist and poststructuralist analysis in general, but the charge more properly should be seen as a reaction against the reductive maneuvers of injudicious deconstructionism—overly hasty renderings of the deconstructionist theory of apprehension that concludes no text can have a fixed meaning. In its popular formulation, reductive deconstructionism's rhetoric of effacing the text (and consequently the author) sets the stage for effacing the entire experience of literary art as well.

Reductive deconstructionism's zero-sum game results from a relentless implementation of what I take to be a casual (though polemically exploitable and therefore potentially vicious) oversimplification of theory, what amounts in practice to a twofold semantic mistake: the uncritical substitution (1) of the term "meaning" for "the reading experience" and (2) of the term "text" for "interpretation of the text." In the present argument, some distinctions will therefore be maintained by the following expedients: first, I will use the term "text" to refer only to the work that the literary artist produces—not the reader, not the reading experience. Next, for the reader's experience or interpretation, I will use "experience" and "interpretation"; and for the reader, the term "reader" will be used. When we turn to the case made by Areopagitica, on the other hand, Milton's own evolving conception of the reader as a self-constituting vital text will be seen to have invigorated these terms for him in such a way as to fuse readerly activity with the iconoclastic impetus that itself constitutes, as I argue in the present theoretical chapter, the only true "meaning" of metaphor. The term "meaning," however, has come increasingly to operate, for literary criticism in general and for discourse on metaphor in particular, as an epistemological red herring. For that reason, I limit the term "meaning" to as narrowly unambiguous a circuit as I can. When possible, I avoid the term altogether. My reasons for avoiding it—indeed the term's near expendability for a study in affective theory—will become apparent as we proceed.

Meanwhile, I wish to affirm that I am deeply sympathetic to arguments that assume the primacy and centrality of the work of art itself in the artistic experience. My own iconoclastic theory of creativity, indeed, makes and depends upon that very assumption. Also, though neither theory of meaning nor metaphor theory as such is the subject of this book, my analytical procedures throughout reflect the difference between what happens when we pursue the "meaning" of Milton's metaphors and what happens when we explore their affective dimension. A sufficient account of the latter requires that we understand Milton's polemical vehemence as integral to his creative thought. Toward that end, therefore, the interpretive model provided by the present chapter's theory of creative iconoclasm will explore Milton's rhetoric on a level of affective immediacy that places his arguments in a revealing new light.

First, however, explication of the theory itself is in order. This entails a temporary backing off from critical engagement with Milton's writing. But the analytic structures generated by the present theoretical chapter will help to reveal the internal dynamics of creative iconoclasm, a philosophical and artistic predisposition that is usually ascribed to Milton without examining the complex nature of the thing ascribed. Let me begin with a critical hypothesis that for analytical purposes I will treat as axiomatic. I suggest that in the nuances of the metaphoric process itself must lie the outlines of the activity—the operative principles—of the creative imagination. To discover these outlines requires, not surprisingly, an iconoclastic action: the dismantling of certain prevailing conceptions of metaphor and the way it works. I will start by examining certain critical fallacies in our customary assumptions about metaphor, fallacies that derive from the fact that metaphors "show" (the iconological fallacy) as well as "tell" (the semantic fallacy).


Since the verbal icon is an aspect of language, critical analyses of metaphor have a built-in linguistic bias that is often poorly fitted to metaphor's iconic activity. This bias is language's semantic habit. In metaphor discourse, the semantic habit can lead to reductive interpretation according to a pattern I will call semantic fallacy. Questions of "meaning" are intrinsic to language, indeed are language's raison d'être. But questions of "meaning" are not necessarily the raison d'être of metaphor. The kinds of questions we routinely ask of metaphor can be asked of nonlinguistic arts, but when we ask them, the art forms themselves tend to subvert and expose the semantic expectations inherent in our linguistic bias. What does Baryshnikov's second leap in the "Romeo and Juliet Pas de Deux" mean? What does the double bass solo in Mahler's Symphony No. 1 in D mean? What is the meaning of those yellow and blue swirls in Van Gogh's night sky? What does that hint of anise in the ragoût mean? What is the meaning of the patchouli scent in the temple ceremony? Such questions can be asked, but unless they are formulated in a fairly specialized context that anticipates specific technical responses (the second leap cues Baryshnikov's partner to start her spin; I thought I'd try anise because I ran out of cumin), their implicit semantic expectations make the questions seem naive, vague, or pedestrian. Rarely would such questions strike us as opening to critical insight into the work of art, because they so obviously ignore the affective dimension—the sensory experience of the dance movement, or of the musical or painterly or gustatory or olfactory detail. Moreover, we know that none of these affective experiences in art can be accounted for with simple analytic formulas: dance may be defined as rhythmic bodily movement, but an identical leap accomplished by the body of an animated cartoon figure—or for that matter by that of another dancer, even if a better one—would not have the same effect as watching Baryshnikov do it. Indeed, watching Baryshnikov do it a second time would not have precisely the same effect as the first, even if the identical balletic movement were to be duplicated on film and viewed sequentially. Art's affective dimension (artistic affect) implicates not just the artwork but also the sensibility of the one who experiences it—the viewing, listening, tasting, scenting, tactilic, affective perceiver. The affective dimension of literary art cannot, of course, be neatly separated from its discursive and thematic dimension. But where sensory and emotional affect in art can be distinguished at all, it can be seen to operate according to its own exigencies, the first of which is that artistic affect strives not to "mean" but, as MacLeish put it, to "be"; and second, that its "being" will never fully yield to doctrinaire analysis.

For the nonlinguistic arts, assumption of these principles is commonplace. Yet when it comes to accounting for the art of metaphor, we narrow our view, subjecting verbal plasticity to the logical rigor of discursive analysis, as if discursive analysis were language's only legitimate function. This is the semantic fallacy. In an interview, fiction writer Anne Beattie once remarked on the apparent unwillingness or inability of critics to perceive the strictures they impose on the verbal medium by their own semantic expectations:

If they look at a Ray-o-gram by Man Ray and they see the objects there, if they see the compass and the doll and the paper clip and so forth, ... people are willing to feel at ease on some level, and look at that clutter and come to their own conclusions. But if they saw the same details spread out through a narrative, they would want to know, "Exactly why did you put them there?" ... But how else do you create texture? There's a world out there—how would you keep the world out?

Metaphor's task of building its own world, of keeping other worlds out or inviting them in according to artistic need, requires that it draw on at least as broad a range of sensory experience and perceptive engagement as does any other art, even drawing heterogeneously on other complete art forms (as in our Miltonic paradigm's sardonic invocation of the art of cooking). Yet because metaphor is a verbal medium, we tend either to rigidify its artistic statement by semantic expectation (what does it mean?), or we relegate whatever there is in metaphor that does not clearly or unambiguously "mean" to an anomalous realm of poetic mystery (what it means cannot be put into words—either you get it or you don't).

Apart from having roots in linguistic bias, the semantic fallacy in metaphor inquiry is cultivated by an Aristotelian tradition that sees only rationalist discourse as capable of cognitive validity. To such discourse, sensory evidence may be admitted, but only as a source of information, of literal as opposed to figurative significance. Figurative language is treated in the Poetics as epistemologically deviant and therefore cognitively inferior. From the rationalist hypothesis follow several inferences. The very notion of a purely rationalist discourse posits a noetic realm of apprehension, understanding based on intellect alone, without reference to sensory and emotional experience. The materials of a purely rationalist discourse, then, would be selected from only those linguistic categories whose affective dimension is lacking or is no longer arousing to us—theoretical abstractions, for instance, or mathematical concepts, or language stripped of all sensory or emotive capacity. But the assumption that there can be such a thing as purely rationalist discourse leaves unexamined questions: How can even a mathematical concept be formulated without some sensory frame of reference (e.g., spatial relationships)? And what guarantee is there that the formulative language, however seemingly nonsensory, may not arouse an affective response in a perceiver? Even apparently nonsensory language depends on a linguistic construct of "dead" metaphor; and even the "pure rationalist" is somehow aroused by that which he deems purely rationalistic. Perceptual arousal is no more or less than the vital link between perception and response to stimulus: cessation of perceptual arousal would be cessation of perceptive life. However grossly or subtly it may be defined and experienced, perceptual arousal is fundamental to intellectual activity—there can be no "noetic" perception without it.

Intellectual grasp free from sensory reference or affective response is thus a contradiction in terms. This is borne out by recent philosophical discussions of metaphor that focus on the truth-bearing capacity of language. Implicit in this theoretical inquiry is the question with which William K. Wimsatt closes The Verbal Icon: "What is the formula by which we shall recognize the metaphoric capacities of language and the moral importance of valid linguistic expression without surrendering our conception of truth as a thing beyond language, without yielding to the lead of the idealistic symbolists, the ritualists, and the mythmakers?" The conception of truth as a thing beyond language remains, in contemporary metaphor theory, substantially intact; but inquiry into what goes on when rhetoric constructs what feels like truth has added an ontological dimension. Gestures toward idealistic symbolism, ritual, and mythmaking still abound, but these are not fully yielded to. Similarly, judicious formulations like "truth-effect" and "truth-claim" moderate the practical demands made on "Truth" without denying legitimacy to the perfectionist aims of those who inquire into or aspire toward it. As the processes of logical thought, of cognition, and of understanding are found to be inseparable from affective language, metaphor theorists frame their accounts in affective terms that do not affirm, yet also carefully do not disallow, an ontological concept like absolute truth.

This ontological balancing act in theory is necessitated, of course, by the parallel balancing act of poetry. Milton's invocation of the Heavenly Muse is perhaps the most famous testimony to the delicacy of that balance: "Hail, holy Light, offspring of Heav'n first born,/Or of th'Eternal Coeternal beam/May I express thee unblam'd?" Embracing poetry's paradoxical demand to express the inexpressible, Milton's phrases anticipate the careful scrutiny by metaphor theory of the interaction between claims of inspiration and manifest evidence of art. This involves examining the relations between not only linguistic tenor and vehicle (Richards's still fully current terms), but also between the abstract and the concrete in experience and feeling. Such a broad-based examination implicates multiple levels of consciousness in a perceptive and representational field roughly circumscribed by Empson's broad definition of "ambiguity." Typically, metaphor is seen no longer as a mixture of disparates, or as a comparison between them, but as a psychic tensional process of response to disparates that involves subverting, suspending, sacrificing, or even destroying the ordinary direct reference of language in order to assert a greater truth that conventional reference would deny.


Excerpted from Carnal Rhetoric by Lana Cable. Copyright © 1995 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

CONTENTS Acknowledgments Introduction 1 Metaphor and “Meaning”: Toward a Theory of Creative Iconoclasm 2 “Shuffling up such a God”: The Rhetorical Agon of Milton's Antiprelatical Tracts 3 “Was she thy God?”: The Coupling Rhetoric of the Divorce Tracts 4 “The image of God in the eye”: Areopagitica's Truth 5 “Unimprisonable utterance”: Imagination and the Attack on Eikon Basilike 6 Samson's Transformative Desire Notes Index
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