ISSN: 1086-6523


Rushdy, Ashraf H. A. The Empty Garden: The Subject of Late Milton. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1992. xvii + 515 pp. $49.95. ISBN: 0822937190.

Reviewed by Ken Simpson
July 26, 1996

    growing number of Miltonists, including Joan Bennett, Laura Knoppers, and Gary Hamilton, have begun to revise the view that Paradise Regained represents Milton's retreat to political and religious quietism. Countering Frederic Jameson's claim that the late Milton is "post-political" because of his "inward turn," these Miltonists read Jesus's interiority as a denunciation of the Restoration church and the political culture which supported it. In The Empty Garden: The Subject of Late Milton, Ashraf Rushdy continues this emphasis on the politics of Paradise Regained, calling it a "stridently anti-monarchist tract" (118), but his interest is not in uncovering specific parallels between the poem and other political works by Milton and his contemporaries, although he does this often and well; his interest is in the political/religious culture founded by Jesus in Paradise Regained and rejected by Samson in Samson Agonistes, a culture of Christian liberty which will colonize the "empty garden" with "spiritual readers" who have self-knowledge.

    Rushdy, the 1671 volume is Milton's representation of his own self- knowledge too, reached as early as 1654 and reiterated here in binary form. Sonship or servanthood, subjectivity or subjection, freedom or idolatry, Jesus or Samson--these are the choices faced by the readers of Milton's last poems. As with all binaries, these are not choices at all, for Jesus embodies the self- rule which must precede cultural renewal in the future while Samson, like post- Restoration England, remains an unredeemed failure enslaved to egoism and ignorance. The comparatively short analysis of Samson Agonistes will disappoint some as will Rushdy's zealously anti-regenerationist reading of the play; however, these shortcomings are more than made up for in the account of Paradise Regained as a visionary poem attempting to form its readers into the subjects of the renewed culture which it proclaims.

    argument is diffuse though. This is especially true of Section One where Rushdy explores the idea of the subject. Taking the customary detour through critical theory to prove that Milton was sophisticated, Rushdy stops at Lacan's psychoanalysis and Althusser's Marxism before arriving at Milton's contemporary, Thomas Hobbes, and the conclusion that for Lacan, Althusser and Hobbes "subjects are always already subject to something, whether to the unconscious or the ideological state apparatus or the absolute sovereign"(72). As it turns out, this detour has been useful; the ubiquitous "always already there" is exposed as an obnoxious authoritarian trope. Milton, on the other hand, imagines the subject as "being-toward God" and capable of freedom through the exercise of reason and self-regulation.

    narrative cultural model which emerges from Milton's concept of the subject is based on three kinds of self-knowledge: the perceptual, in which the subject is distinguished from everything that is "other"; the cognitive, in which the subject is seen in relation to other subjects; and the rhetorical, in which the subject is inseparable from its representation of itself. Rushdy demonstrates each type in a brief analysis of Paradise Lost. Adam achieves perceptual self-knowledge ( VIII, 257-71), but cognitive self-knowledge is lacking because he fails to grant Eve the same subject status he enjoys (97) and because he makes himself a subject to his desire rather than a subject of love for God. The third form of self-knowledge is outlined by Michael when he advises Adam to act as if in God's presence (PL XII, 562-63). For Rushdy, Michael identifies selfhood with representation of selfhood. This seems particularly strained, especially when Rushdy infers that to represent oneself as being saved is the same as being saved (102). Even if the theological inference is flawed, his fundamental point is an important one: since deeds and words must be added to knowledge, knowing must be caught up in the play of representation to some extent. This rhetorical form of self- knowledge is anticipated in Paradise Lost but never realized, for it is Jesus of Paradise Regained who embodies it perfectly. Until he comes, the garden is empty.

    contrasted the scientific models of the subject in Lacan, Althusser and Hobbes with Milton's narrative model, in Part Two Rushdy turns to meditation and hermeneutics, two ways of acquiring self-knowledge explored by Milton in Paradise Regained. With the first section of Part Three, these are the strongest parts of the book as Rushdy moves carefully from close textual analysis to seventeenth-century contexts and his broader themes, leaving behind the theoretical abstractions that paralyze Part One. Perspectival shifts in time and space as well as Jesus's reading of himself parallel similar movements in meditative theory and allow Milton to create "something like an angelic perspective" for the reader in the induction to Paradise Regained (I, 1-253) (151). This is a crucial part of Rushdy's argument because these "spiritual readers"--those who live Christian liberty--will inhabit the "empty garden" of the future.

    formal parallels between meditative theory and the induction of Paradise Regained may be too sweeping to be convincing. This is not the case with Rushdy's discussion of the "hermeneutic combat" which most critics now agree constitutes the central action of the poem. Here Rushdy offers a twofold solution to the vexing problem of "the identity test" of Jesus by Satan. Since Jesus plainly reveals his identity early in the poem, how does Satan maintain his ignorance in the face of the obvious? Rushdy explores seventeenth- century skepticism, its positive forms enacted by Jesus, Mary and the disciples, and explains that Satan embodies the most corrosive form of doubt--the sin against the Holy Ghost (Matt. xii, 32). By denying the Holy Spirit, Satan becomes carnal and obdurate; he remains obstinate despite undeniable evidence of Jesus's identity, using doubt as a hermeneutic principle to undermine everything Jesus stands for. Satan's wilful ignorance continues during the pinnacle scene too, for even as he falls "his understanding of the Incarnation is limited to external facts" (216), his mind closed to the divine.

    also contributes to Satan's confusion. In response to Satan's "carnal questions" Jesus gives "enigmatic answers" designed to reveal the absence of the Spirit in the questioner. Rushdy could have made better use of the divorce tracts to illuminate Jesus's hermeneutic and pedagogy of the Spirit in more detail as Hugh MacCallum has elsewhere ("Jesus as Teacher in Paradise Regained," English Studies in Canada, XIV, (June 1988), pp. 135-51); nevertheless, Satan's lack of self-knowledge and Jesus's enactment of the kingdom within is obvious enough. For Rushdy, the choice facing the reader at the end of the poem is "either to become a subject of that kingdom or to become subject to it. The process is either to accept the Spirit or to reject it"(274).

    the concluding section of The Empty Garden, Rushdy turns from the methods of acquiring selfhood to Milton's representation of his own self- knowledge "in the interstices of the 1671 volume" (274). Building on a series of illuminating contrasts between Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes, Rushdy proposes that Milton's late political thought is located beyond the endings of each work: in the tragedy, Israel is poised to accept the yoke of kingship and slavery; in the brief epic, Jesus is poised to announce the new kingdom which will liberate mankind. As early as 1653-54, Milton came to the realization that "political revolution . . . will not succeed until the ethical conditions are right"; therefore, "Samson's act . . . is like Cromwell's; it frees Israel for a time" (397). Rushdy considers the "sheer parallelism" between two works to be "one of the least effective ways of reading Milton's political allegory," arguing that "formal parallels," "discursive habits" or "gestures" (repeated four times in one paragraph) must be discovered to properly see the "political allegorical level" (378-79). The most convincing evidence of Milton's self-inscription in the 1671 volume, however, comes in Rushdy's analysis of autobiography in Paradise Regained and the "Second Defence" and the sphinx images in Paradise Regained, Eikonoklastes, Pro Populo Anglicano Defensio, and Pro Populo Anglicano Defensio Secunda. The late Milton is found to be rather early, as the contrasts between Jesus and Samson, subjectivity and subjection, sonship and servanthood are really "seeds of sufficient determining" (YP II, 679) planted by Milton in 1653-54.

    self-knowledge represented by Milton "between" Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes--that self-government is the key to liberty--is the basis for Rushdy's discussion of Milton's "dialogical counterpart" in the 1671 volume--Thomas Hobbes. Here again sheer parallelism makes such a contrast plausible. Even though Milton could have had Samuel Parker in mind as easily as Hobbes, the differences between Hobbes and Milton on church, state, individual, and family are worth pointing out because Milton's systematic opposition to Hobbes in every case can hardly be arbitrary. By reorienting politics to the personal in Paradise Regained, Milton shows how a new political/religious culture can be founded in the wilderness of the Restoration. The brilliantly suggestive title of Rushdy's book indicates what has been lost; it also anticipates what can be found in the future. Jesus represents the "beginnings of the collective church" (352) which will be filled with those who choose sonship and subjectivity rather than servanthood and subjection.

    is an insightful, challenging, at times exasperating book. The problem is that it tries to do too much: the presence of "the feminine" in Paradise Regained is acknowledged but not developed; the claim that, for Milton, the crucifixion was unnecessary for salvation is made but not investigated thoroughly; Milton's conflation of sonship and servanthood is glossed over in a footnote and Jesus's "kenosis" (self-emptying) is not mentioned at all. Finally, if Rushdy is correct in suggesting that Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes form the readers Milton wants the future to welcome, then he has inadvertently resolved the "crisis of affiliation" caused by the poet's "faint desire for a community of faith" and his "inability to accept the institutions forming such a community" (ix). By using his texts to shape the readers who will fill the garden, Milton transcends the "church of one" and begins a church whose space is the imagination and whose ritual is the music and poetry of the text, supplanting dogma with dialectic and the sermon with narrative, poetry, and vision.

    the need to "prune these growing plants" there are also "manifold delights" in The Empty Garden. Most importantly, by showing that the 1671 volume is politically and religiously charged, Rushdy should finally put to rest all notions of Milton's quietism. In this alone, setting aside its many excellent specific readings, The Empty Garden makes an important contribution to our understanding of Milton and his poetry of the Restoration.

    Ken Simpson
    University College of the Cariboo
    Kamloops, British Columbia,

Library of Congress Information

Author:        Rushdy, Ashraf H. A., 1961-
Title:         The empty garden : the subject of late Milton / Ashraf
                  H.A. Rushdy.
Published:     Pittsburgh : University of Pittsburgh Press, c1992.
Description:   xvii, 515 p. ; 24 cm.
LC Call No.:   PR3588 .R86 1992
Dewey No.:     821/.4 20
ISBN:          0822937190
Notes:         "A Milton studies monograph"--Jacket.
               Includes bibliographical references (p. 441-506) and
Subjects:      Milton, John, -- 1608-1674 -- Criticism and
Control No.:   92009975