Frances Sendbuehler
Université de Montréal
GEMCS Conference -- Rochester, NY, Saturday, November 5, 1994.

I would like to dedicate this paper to the memory of Bill Readings, for whom the longer version this paper was originally written.

Silence as Discourse in Paradise Lost

It is arguable that silence as a form of discourse occupies a space even more vast than intertextuality does, due to the limitlessness and endlessness of silence and all that silence can imply. Silence is silence itself, and it is meaning without language; silences canbe meaningful, just as language can be without meaning. Michel Foucault, inThe History of Sexuality, places the advent of the repression ofsexuality, through silence, in the seventeenth century. According toFoucault, there is much to be said about silence and its value as asubstance with meaning; Foucault argues that the invention of silence isresponsible for a whole new mechanism of power within established structures, and perhaps, within the structure of a new way of understanding. Foucault reminds us that, as a society, we speak verbosely of our own silence (and sexuality), and take great pains to relate in detail the things we do not say. (Foucault 8).

But it is not those silences that of which we speak so verbosely that I wish to discuss here; rather, it those silences within meaning and meaning within silences that lend an importance to the structure of Milton's poetry that require examination. Within this discussion of the important effect of discourse and silence, and silence as discourse, weneed to prepare the ground with a few definitions. Discourse can be defined as: `To pass from premise to conclusion'; To hold discourse; to discuss a matter; To speak or write at length on some subject; to tell,narrate, or relate.

"Discourse" is invoked by Foucault as a term for an exhaustive representation; that, therefore, leaves no gaps or silences. What has brought Foucault to a discussion of repressive silence is the transformation, in the seventeenth century, of sex into discourse: "sex was taken charge of, tracked down as it were, by a discourse [as in the authority of a language] that aimed to allow it no obscurity, no respite" (Foucault 20), and:

This scheme for transforming sex into discourse had been devised long before in an ascetic and monastic setting. The seventeenth century made it into a rule for everyone. It would seem inactual fact that it could scarcely have applied to any but a tiny elite; the great majority of the faithful who only went to confession on rare occasions in the course of the year escaped such complex prescriptions. But the important point no doubt is that this obligation was decreed, as an ideal at least, for every good Christian. An imperative was established. Not only will you confess to acts contravening the law, but you will seekt o transform your desire, your every desire, into discourse.

(Foucault 20-21)

If we take the use of the word `discourse' as situated by Foucault and include his use of the word `silence', this frame becomes an exhaustive representation that situates us within Foucault's silence of sexual discourse. For Foucault, this discourse-- which silences sexuality in favour of sexual representation -- is meant to fill all the gaps and silences that have been created within and without discourse. Silence, then can be defined as: the fact of abstaining or forebearing from speech or utterance -- that is: muteness, reticence, taciturnity; the state or condition when nothing is audible; the omission of mention, remark, or notice in narration; and the failure to communicate or reply in speech or narration.

If discourse is an exhaustive representation that silences by leaving no gaps or silences, it says everything and so leaves nothing more to be said. Silence is, then, in possession of meaning. Thus it can be seen that we are now dealing with two forms of an exhaustive representation: discourse that silences, and silence that discourses.

This interrelation is most complex; I hope to unravel this complexity a little with a discussion of the use of silence as a form of discourse and its opposition to language within the context of a political, gendered discourse within Milton's Paradise Lost. In treating silence as gendered, I will argue that silence must be as heavily gendered as is voice in the use of language; the implication being that silence and speech can have a different weight, meaning or value depending on whether it is awoman or a man who is speaking or silent.

This leads me to a discussion of the resultant "traditional" masculinist and mostly misogynist treatment of Miltonic critical discourse that results from the gendering of voice and the interpretation of that gendering. Silence as a form of discourse, then, derives its substance from the use of the definitions of discourse and silence and from Michel Foucault's discussion of the transformation of sex into discourse. If Foucault, then, defines discourse as a way of speaking that aims atexhaustive representation that leaves nothing unsaid, I want to try to understand how Milton seeks to achieve a total representation by bringing silence itself within the circuit of discourse.

In Paradise Lost, Milton seeks to achieve a remapping of the silence/discourse relationship through a literary enactment/retelling of Genesis 3:7. I assert that Milton often uses what we might call a"discourse of silence" within this poem as a profound statement, albeit a silent one. The question to be addressed here, then, is the qualitative and quantitative differences between silences: "good" silence and "bad" silence -- "good" silence being that which implies meaning, or something which is inherent in the substance of the passages: "His words here ended, but his meek aspect / Silent yet spake,and breathed immortal love" (PL III. 266-7). Christ must not simply speak about truth as an object of discourse or the truth of God (a silenttruth), but he must also `speak true' -- be the truth he speaks.This meaning is so fully present, as we might expect of the Father's Word, that it does not need articulated language in order to express itself. Milton's point seems to be the expression of exactly this: that language is inadequate to express all he has to say, and so he has created within the structure of this poem many elements that speak of silence.

Within the context of silence as a form of discourse hinted at withinParadise Lost, Mary Nyquist's "Textual Overlapping andDalilah's Harlot-Lap"(1986) becomes relevant as she examines the issues of lack and textual overlapping, but neglects the issue of silence-- an issue that is potentially crucial to the understanding of the texts she examines, as is a discussion of the gendering of voice and silence in relation to other silences within her text. Nyquist's silences (or lapses) allow us to explore more profoundly some of those passages where silence is in play.

Nyquist, Foucault, and Milton discuss different kinds of silence which are affected by the intersection of gender and voice: Milton's "good silence" represents both self-sufficiency -- Eve's naming of the flowers -- and the profound communicative silence that is typified by Christ's being able to remain silent while speaking. This existence of a good silence is in opposition to Foucault's repressive silence -- that of sexuality to being a silent object of discourse. By extension, the threat of muteness would be the threat of repression, the silence that represents that which Milton cannot say, or that which is coded as a language of sexuality, but still cannot be said.

We can see that silence as a form of discourse is as difficult aconcept as intertextuality is for Nyquist; the boundaries of human speech are nearly endless, and so the boundaries of silence can also be appreciated as vast and unapproachable in their "undefined discursive space", a term Nyquist uses in reference to intertextuality. The poetics of silence are refined constantly by changes and shifts within language; what is not said is refined by what is said. Silence and intertextuality are as equally slippery as laps, lapses, and absences.

Nyquist says that: "it is the discovery of loss that is supposed to be the ground of meaning, making possible a recognition of the ideal value of that which has unwittingly been lost" (Nyquist 345, my emphasis) and that: "representation of lack or loss can only but affirm the hierarchically ordered polarity of the sexes" (345, again, my emphasis). If it is the "discovery of loss" that is the ground of meaning, why does she not discuss silence as representative of that loss? Such a discussion would facilitate an exploration of the "ideal value" that has been lost, as would a discussion of the role of silence within the polarity of which she speaks. This recognition of loss is, of course, central to any interpretation and subsequent discussion of the Fall. Milton presents the reader with this loss, the Fall, through a discourse containing an intricate, repressed silence -- that repression being representative of the patriarchal interpretation of this passage. Nyquist argues quite rightly that value or meaning can only be recognized after its loss. She then points out that discourse becomes possible as something that speaks about a hidden or lost object, thus repressing what it explains. Nyquist uses the Samson simile for comparative purposes, but neglects the impact that silence carries within the scene. A discussion of repressive silence would have expanded Nyquist's article in favor of the feminist argument. Because of her (unintentional) silence, I would suggest that it is possible to conclude that Nyquist's reading of these two poetical pieces is accidentally misogynistic, quite contrary to her attempt at a feminist interpretation of Milton and her striving for anécriture féminine within her own text.

This silence seems to be a lapse, a silence of misunderstanding whichrefuses to touch the boundaries of her own work in the sense that it is silence that she ignores -- or overlaps -- in her discussion of Paradise Lost and Samson Agonistes. Her discourse is fundamentally preoccupied with the fact there is something missing, yet she seems to miss that it is a Miltonic silence at every turn, in every passage, that speaks so as to prevent her own discourse from reaching a point of completed meaning, however speculative that meaning might be. In her examination of the scene of the Fall, Nyquist misses the repressive silence -- a silence that speaks of fallen sexuality -- and she also misses the muteness of Eve and Adam that indicate just how profoundly impossible it is for them to speak about what it is they have lost. This impossibility is further underscored, when, within the next few lines of the passage Adam and Eve do finally attempt speech, we find that all they are capable of is bickering.

I would like to speculate that Mary Nyquist arrives at an accidentally misogynistic reading because she misreads the silences inherent within the two pieces she examines. Nyquist says that: "the text, is also, unambiguously, the product of an institutionally dominant masculinist critical interpretation" (Nyquist 342, my emphasis), and then she proceeds to examine the ambiguous passage of Paradise Lost that contains the scene of the Fall by filling in the silences with the voice of patriarchy. On one hand, she asserts that there is no actual misogynistic voice grounded in the text, yet she presents critical interpretations that cannot but give the voice of patriarchy an important (albeit historical) weight (Nyquist 344). This is done by her quoting of John Knott in the `traditional' comparison of Adam and Samson that asserts that "Milton confirms Eve's guilt by comparing her with Dalilah". Knoxthen comments: "And as any reader of Samson Agonistes knows, Milton's insult is worse than calling Eve "whore" since it implies that her treachery is directed against God as well as Adam" (John Knott, Jr. Milton's Pastoral Vision, 124). She continues that: "It is Knott who in his text actually calls Eve `whore', and who complacently assumes with his reader that in both Samson Agonistes and in this simile Miton is engaging in representing a betrayal." This is but one example of patriarchal voice that Nyquist uses within the body of her text to fill in the silences she perceives.

I would assert the possibility of a misogynistic interpretation of Nyquist's article on the strength of the fact that she seems to deliberately efface the very early feminist readings of Milton in her statement that all previous readings of Milton are the result of a heavily masculinist influence that have been so pervasive over the last three centuries as to completely obliterate possible feminist interpretations.

This raises the question of "What is Milton doing in the 17th C and how is it in conflict with patriarchal appropriation in subsequent centuries?" Milton comments strongly on repression within his silences: his passages, particularly that of the Fall, seem to say that silence or the non-verbal communication of a concept as part of the communication of an idea -- the use of the poetics of silence in much the same manner as ause of allegory or metaphor -- is a part of life between men and woman asmuch as it is a part of literary usage. Silence cannot exemplify any openness in communication, which seems to something that 17th C critical discourse picked up on; for example, the feminist-oriented discourse discussed by McColley and Wittreich. Milton's comments seem to be indirect conflict with patriarchal appropriation in subsequent centuries as he seems to state that the silences of discourse in the scene of the Fall is the general state of affairs in a repressive situation. This hints at an understanding of repression -- that repression is derived from and exemplified by silence. This, of course, has both religious, gender, AND political implications.

Joseph Wittreich, in Feminist Milton, and Diane McColley, in Milton's Eve deny that only a masculinist and misogynist critical discourse has taken place over the past three centuries. Wittreich uncovers a feminist-oriented discourse in effect from the time of Milton's death until approximately 1750 -- a discourse that became obscured and altered as masculinist critical discourse took hold and quite deliberately attempted to efface feminist interpretations of Milton. He explains that this filling-in of silence with a patriarchal intonation is not an automatic reflex -- the question of what silence means is open.

Diane McColley, whose thesis is "an effort to extricate Eve from a reductive critical tradition, as Milton sought to redeem her from a reductive literary and iconographic tradition" states that:

" All of Eve's speeches and actions, except the Fall itself and its direct results, body forth talents, virtues, and graces developed freely through the inspiriting and refining joys, liabilities, perplexities, hazards, and opportunities of experience; and all are applicable to the lives of the "fit audience" that Milton was addressing and creating."

(McColley 4)

It is possible to read into this passage, then, not only the possibility of the creation by Milton of a voice for Eve, but an indication of Milton's understanding of Eve's voice and silencesas something other than those (male) voices and silences already presented.

Wittreich argues that Milton was not fundamentally misogynistic in his presentation of female subjects, but rather that seventeenth- and eighteenth-century readings and misreadings tended to patriarchally reinterpret Milton for women. This appropriation of female voice is so pervasive that it is almost impossible to approach Milton in the twentieth century without believing fully in what now appears more clearly as a falsely misogynistic reading of Milton. Patriarchy, in its fashion, dominated discourse about Milton until it was the only voice left to beheard. Contemporary critical discourse, according to Wittreich, drowns out not only the voices of feminists, it effaces even their silences. Thus, our paying attention to silence as an element of discourse is something that feminists of the twentieth-century could utilise within their own discourse. If, as Wittreich says, this repressive and therefore silencing critical discourse had taken place so early on in the history of the interpretation of Milton, then this assertion should be an important accompaniment to subsequent feminist readings.

Since religious and political repression was at its height, it would be simple to speculate on the thousands of things Milton was alluding to but simply could not say -- sex and sexuality being the most obviuosly repressed subjects of all. The repression of women and women's voices inthe seventeenth century is a subject that is far too huge to encompass in this short paper. However, the simple statement of fact that a suppressionof voice was (and still is) obvious is enough to reinforce my suggestion that we consider the possibility that Milton was not saying everything about women, sexuality, religion and politics. Perhaps he desired the privilege of writing over that of having his head separated from his body.

That language and silence become gendered within the paradox of language without meaning and silence as discourse underscores the necessity of regarding all discourse as gendered. If language as the Father's Word is the only valid language, the only language with importance, then the seduction of Eve is more than the serpent telling Eve to eat the fruit ofthe tree of knowledge, it is Eve learning that there is a language that is other than the Father's Word. This existence of a language other than the Father's Word hints that there might also be a language that is female, other, and that it can be just as meaningful as male language.

The idea of language is, to Eve, just as seductive as the fruit that the serpent convinces her to eat. This seduction is transferred into the desire for and the gaining of a voice, but perhaps it is even more than a desire for voice. Satan's seduction -- the seduction of the idea of language -- can be seen as a desire for control, control that would seemto be Eve's in the gaining of a voice. The seduction of Eve, therefore, happens on many levels -- not simply that of transgressor against the Word of the Father, but as having a desire for a control of language equal to that of Adam; equal in the need to communicate, equal in the weight of words and silence.

Milton's use of both repressive silences and good silences reinforce the stress placed on the Father's Word, but it could also be that Milton requires some effort of the reader to examine the silences in the text more closely for what those silences cannot say due to the limitations of language. The language of woman, and so of feminist discourse, is plainly not the same as language influenced by the Father's Word, it is rather something that is so slippery that it has no definition -- it has no substance that can be named, simply because for so many years of masculinist and misogynist discourse, the language of women has not been something of value. It is the silence in and of discourse, a meaning within language -- but yet meaning without language-- that is the most important aspect of the poetics of silence.

Works Cited