It should be obvious by now that one of our objectives at The South Asian Idea is to encourage engagement with ideas. If we do not learn to look at different sides of an issue and debate the merits of alternative positions we would be contributing to the rise of intolerance and jeopardizing the future that has begun to look promising, at least for some, in economic terms.
It is in this context that we were delighted to chance upon a column by Professor Stanley Fish in which he discusses how Milton is used in the West to foster critical thinking.
More than anyone else, Milton captures the disjunction between the way things are and the way they should be. It’s the combination of amazing poetry and an insistence on principle. Rather than being employed for its own sake, the poetry is always in the service of ideas and moral commitments, and it is always demanding that its readers measure themselves against the judgments it repeatedly makes – judgments about the nature of virtue, about the proper mode of civil and domestic behavior, about the true shape of heroism, about the self-parodying bluster of military action, about the criteria of aesthetic excellence, about the uses of leisure, about one’s duties to man and God, about the scope and limitations of reason, about the primacy of faith, about everything.
Milton’s poetry never lets you relax. [It] is at once exhausting and exhilarating. Milton’s poetry is good to think with. It’s a good workout. You feel really great and fit when you’ve finished. Maybe that’s what he meant by the ‘fit reader.’
In fact it is this quality of the poetry – its issuing of challenge after challenge -– that makes it so teachable to undergraduates – students who were in a class only because it fulfilled a requirement or because it was given at a convenient time, students who assumed that they were going to be either bored or made to feel inadequate by an impossibly allusive verse written in an alien, Latinate language. And then, on about the third or fourth week, these same students were fully engaged, arguing with the poetry and with each other about everything under the sun and a few things above it. No matter what the students came in believing or disbelieving, no matter how hard they tried to remain detached, they were drawn in, and once drawn in they were absolutely hooked.
All of this was predicted in 1674 by Samuel Barrow who said to the future readers of the poem, “You who read “Paradise Lost”… what do you read but everything? This book contains all things and the origins of all things, and their destinies and final ends.” How did the world begin? Why were men and women created in the first place? How did evil come into the world? What were the causes of Adam’s and Eve’s Fall? If they could fall, were they not already fallen and isn’t God the cause? If God is the cause, and we are the heirs of the original sin, are we not absolved of the responsibility for the sins we commit? Can there be free will in a world presided over by an omniscient creator? Is the moral deck stacked? Is Satan a hero? A rebel? An apostate? An instrument of a Machiavellian and manipulative deity? Are women weaker and more vulnerable than men? Is Adam right to prefer Eve to God? What would you have done in his place? Wherever you step in the poetry, you will meet with something that asks you to take a stand, and when you do (you can’t help it) you will be enmeshed in the issues that are being dramatized.
After reading a Milton poem you want to sit down and discuss the ideas and imperatives he has thrust at you…. The questions posed by the poetry are few, a finite set, but the ways of answering them are infinite, and because they are the ultimate questions, we want always to be returning to them. Sure we’ve heard them before, but we haven’t quite got it right, so we’re eager to give it another try.
What a wonderful way to read Milton and what a creative way to use poetry to open the mind to the big issues of the times seeking new answers to old questions that never really go away.
There is no reason why we cannot use Ghalib in the same way in the subcontinent. We would welcome comments from teachers and students who have looked at Ghalib, or other poets (Iqbal certainly comes to mind), in this perspective.
The italicized sections of the text are excerpted from the column by Professor Fish but are not necessarily direct quotes.
The South Asian Idea now has a series on Ghalib along these lines. It can be accessed here.