Linda Gregerson ~ University of Michigan
Samson and the Scattered Nation

Two decades ago, in what is still an indispensable book on Samson Agonistes, Joseph Wittreich argued that Milton's dramatic poem is the story of moral backsliding rather than redemption, and furthermore that in this pessimistic trajectory it conforms to the original intent of the Book of Judges. In other words, far from celebrating a personal and national triumph, the Samson story in both biblical and Miltonic instantiations takes as its central theme "the ruin of a whole people" as figured in the ruin of an individual. Despite the counter-arguments of the so-called redemptionist criticsm, Wittreich's analysis seems to me to have stood the test of time very well. I would only propose we alter our angle of vision by a degree or two and consider the underlying Samson plot to be not, or not only, the tragedy of a chosen nation and a representative hero repeatedly falling away from their God, but the tragedy of two nations fighting over a single geographical place. The drama's challenge to interpretation lies not in the fact, pace Fish, that it escapes moral evaluation altogether but rather in the bluntness with which it reveals how utterly moral evaluation depends upon place, otherwise known as point of view. From within a certain nationalist perspective, the destruction of the Philistine temple is a triumph. From outside that perspective, it is monstrous. The point is neither that Milton's hero ought to be construed by an anachronistic and inflammatory epithet (the "terrorism" agitation of a few seasons ago), nor that he ought to be reclaimed by right reading for the history of faith, but that the "common humanity" to which one critic appeals for guidance (John Carey), and to which we must all eventually refer ourselves, may chillingly withdraw itself from the realm of self-evidence.