Friday, July 23, 2010

Words not seen, tears not shed

The other day some posts I had written in an older version of Blogger were rendered unreadable by a software upgrade which removed all the paragraph breaks. I stayed up all night restoring the breaks. When I went to bed it was 7 AM and broad daylight, and the mynah birds who nest in the crawl space under my roof were rehearsing their morning croaks and coos and whistles and bill-clacks. To them my missing blank spaces didn't matter. When I woke back up at 10, I belatedly realized that at any time my restored text could disappear again. To the rest of the universe, too, my missing blank spaces didn't matter.

A few days before that event in my nightlife, the conservative thinker Glenn Beck, whose specialty is crying on TV, stood up before a live audience in Salt Lake City and announced that he is going blind. Then he cried.

John Milton took his medical news a little differently. He probably wrote Samson Agonistes about his own blindness, and he certainly wrote three sonnets about it. Here's one of the sonnets, "To Mr. Cyriack Skinner Upon His Blindness."

Cyriack, this three years day these eys, though clear
To outward view, of blemish or of spot;
Bereft of light thir seeing have forgot,
Nor to thir idle orbs doth sight appear
Of Sun or Moon or Starre throughout the year,
Or man or woman. Yet I argue not
Against heavns hand or will, nor bate a jot
Of heart or hope; but still bear vp and steer
Right onward. What supports me, dost thou ask?
The conscience, Friend, to have lost them overply'd
In libertyes defence, my noble task,
Of which all Europe talks from side to side.
This thought might lead me through the world's vain mask
Content though blind, had I no better guide.

One difference between this performance and Beck's is that there's a continuity between Milton's words and his medium. Milton is writing in words, about words and for words. But the medium of the TV performer Glenn Beck isn't really TV. Before the camera, Beck takes on the pretext persona of an old-fashioned professor, lecturing with an old-fashioned blackboard. But the blackboard isn't his medium either -- or at any rate it isn't the medium of his language. No; the tearful announcement of a personal misfortune, as if that mattered per se, is a speech in the language of Facebook. That language is a tiny lingua franca consisting only of a single phrase: "ME ME ME ME ME, per se." It isn't even a sentence, because it doesn't have a verb to make it a statement of doing, being, or occurring. It's only a pronoun: ME.

As to my vanished blank spaces between paragraphs, I've been caring about them as if they were destined to outlive me. But the medium of Blog reminds me that it too is reserved for the language of ME ME ME ME -- a verbless language which after all has to be as ephemeral as Glenn or I. Undoing, unbeing, un-occurring, both Glenn and I live only in the intervals between words, and the intervals will soon enough reappear between other people's words. Ubi est Lou Dobbs?

But Milton's language is another matter. Between those words there are no tears.

2 comments:

pcsherman said...

Do you know where I might find a list of Milton's words online?

Jonathan Morse said...

One old edition of a Milton concordance is downloadable at

http://ia600305.us.archive.org/15/items/concordancepoeti00braduoft/concordancepoeti00braduoft.pdf