Lana Cable. Carnal Rhetoric: Milton's Iconoclasm and the Poetics of Desire. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1995. x + 231 pp. $19.95. ISBN 0-8223-1573-4.
Jim Daems
University of Wales, Bangor.

Daems, Jim. "Review of Carnal Rhetoric: Milton's Iconoclasm and the Poetics of Desire." Early Modern Literary Studies 4.2 (September, 1998): 16.1-5 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/04-2/rev_daem.html>.

  1. In a long first chapter, Cable situates her work within current metaphor theory and reader response criticism while developing an "iconoclastic metaphor theory of 'carnal rhetoric'" (2). Cable examines the "affective level of linguistic immediacy" which Milton, as an essentially iconoclastic writer, "grants cognitive validity" (1-2). This focus on the iconoclastic impulse allows her to devote close attention to the sensory dimension of language that the rational analysis of metaphor theory so often evades. This is Cable's "treatment" for what she terms the semantic and the iconological fallacies of metaphor theory: the first grants cognitive validity to only rationalist discourse, and the second tends to stress the visual in metaphor theory. Milton, she argues, wants to tap into his readers' transformative desires through the interplay of iconoclasm and imagination, a "dynamic clash of destructive and constructive energies" (4), yet this process is trapped within a rhetoric that desires transcendence but is mindful of its mortality. Milton's readers, then, are to bear "fervent witness" to his iconoclasm and shake their complacency in reified images, the mistaken belief that treats "representations of truth as truth itself" (158). Cable proceeds to apply these insights to a selection of Milton's work, with a focus primarily on the prose, and states that she will take "Milton's metaphors seriously and even literally" (9). But, while acknowledging the power of Milton's metaphoric passages to overwhelm his more rational, temporal argument, Cable's analysis of the affective stylistics of Milton's iconoclasm is, itself, drawn away from some of the key issues and contexts that those passages overwhelm, leading Cable into some problematic binaries that overcompensate for what she sees as a too rational bias in metaphor theory.

  2. This is due, in part, to Cable's quick acceptance of Milton's self-representation of his literary career and the work of the left hand, in which Cable sees Milton's "disgruntled aesthetic sensibilities" (56). Prose, then, is situated in a more mundane, temporal realm from which metaphoric truths must be liberated by the iconoclast. This binarism of literal-figurative, and its accompanying binary of prose-poetry, is evident in the book's final chapter which turns to the poetry, Samson Agonistes, as the most consummate expression of Milton's iconoclasm. Cable's point that Milton, in the antiprelatical tracts, requires an other in order to construct polarities through which he can "propel his rhetoric toward a vision of Truth" (83) is a wonderful insight, yet her own book, to a certain degree, downgrades the temporal, polemical context in order to propel her own analysis of the iconoclast's affective language.

  3. Binaries also, perhaps understandably, pose a problem in the chapter on Milton's divorce tracts. Cable argues that Milton's carnal rhetoric, figured in his ideal images of harmonious coupling, becomes an idol itself, but her attempt to rescue these tracts from the gender binary that this process involves are not entirely successful. Cable recognizes that the "deprecation of the sensory and visible in aesthetics discourse makes a sexual inference . . . that further explicates, and even exposes as invidious, the critical theorist's impulse to keep ideas sacrosanct" (21-2). Yet her argument contra Patterson's reading of the Eros-Anteros myth does not escape the gender binary any more than does Milton's tract by asserting that "a more dependable set of alternatives is made available by the tradition that aligns ideas with soul or spirit, and images with body or flesh," thereby erasing the "conflictual difference" of gender (108). Are these alignments themselves not traditionally gendered?

  4. The chapters that examine Areopagitica and Eikonoklastes raise some interesting points in regards to how an icon invested with affective resources becomes an external means of tapping into the transformative desires of a readership. Again, this notion, while bearing some similarities with Achinstein's work on the revolutionary public sphere, demonstrates Cable's belief that the reconstruction of consciousness is entwined with the iconoclastic impulse which links writer and reader. Cable's examination of Areopagitica, however, reveals most distinctly how her focus on affective language carries her away from the polemic. If, as Cable asserts, "oppression of the imagination is the most dangerous effect of ideology" (136), why then, in a discussion of the tract's relation to the self-authorizing subject, is there no discussion of censorship and subjectivity such as we find in the work of Kendrick and Barker?

  5. The argument, like Milton's career in the familiar developmental model that culminates in the final dramatic poem, is finally figured in Samson, "who shatters every sign he has been using to secure imaginative conviction of God's will" by stripping away "everything that is not God" (179). The insights that Carnal Rhetoric provides into the iconoclastic impulse are certainly provocative, yet, for the materialist critic, the relentless desire of the iconoclast to disrupt images and reconstitute ideas tends to efface the material conditions which both prompt and restrict both the iconoclast's and the reader's imaginative resources.

Works Cited

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at EMLS@UAlberta.ca.

1998-, R.G. Siemens (Editor, EMLS).

(TC, LH, RGS, 10 September 1998)