Academic journal article Essays in Literature

From Insufficiency to Imaginary Mastery: The Illusory Resolve of the Miltonic Subject

Academic journal article Essays in Literature

From Insufficiency to Imaginary Mastery: The Illusory Resolve of the Miltonic Subject

Article excerpt

The libidinal tension that shackles the subject to the constant pursuit of an illusory unity which is always luring him away from himself, is surely related to that agony of dereliction which is Man's particular and tragic destiny. (Lacan SRE 16)

The liberty and sovereignty of the humanist subject are everywhere theorized and celebrated in Milton's canon. Always when we read Milton we are reminded of the individual's capacity to exercise reason and free choice, to proceed with independence and deliberation, to depart from what one might call the voices and powers of others (including custom, tradition, law). Implicit in his lifelong preoccupation with freedom is Milton's characteristic discrediting of those choices and actions that are structured, necessitated, or determined by forces not under the subject's control - forces both outside and inside the self. Milton is thus always critical of the sudden, rash, or hasty turn that issues out of received opinion or inward turbulence, established custom or servile fear; he is wary of the sharp resolve that is precipitated from "[p]assions, [d]esires, and [f]ears" (Paradise Regained [hereafter PR] 2.467), "terrors, voices, prodigies" (PR 4.482) - the forces over which the Son seems easily to "rule" (PR 2.466), forces from which the Son seems altogether free.

In The Readie and Easie Way, then, those impetuous Englishmen "choosing" to recover monarchy, and believed by Milton to be acting out of received opinion and fear, are said to be "returning precipitantly" to "captivitie" (YP 7.450; my emphasis); in his review of the "choice" of a King in A Declaration, "precipitate counsel" is set against the much preferred "mature Deliberations [which] continued and extended till the third day" (YP 8.447; my emphasis); in Of Reformation, anticipating the judgment the future would pass on competing efforts to reform the Church, Milton praised those "whose calme, and temperat connivence could sit still and smile out the stormy bluster of men more audacious and precipitant," of men whose "rash and heady approches" would seek to assail "the impregnable situation of our Liberty and safety" (YP 1.596-97; my emphasis). The opposition between satanic rashness or precipitancy and Christ-like calm or liberty (which Milton would pose again, and in remarkably similar terms, in PR) is implied as well in the Areopagitica. In this polemical tract, there is the concern that "we [who would license the press] in the hast of a precipitant zeal, shall make no distinction, but resolve to stop their mouths, because we fear they come with new and dangerous opinions, as we commonly forejudge them ere we understand them" (YP 2.567; my emphasis). Clearly, the critique of precipitant action - of sharp, fearful, often repressive resolve - is an unmistakable Miltonic signature accompanied regularly by a celebration of the liberty and self-sovereignty of the individual subject.

Indeed, the experience of being driven, transported or, as in Satan's case, hurled headlong(1) in any direction due either to external or internal force - due (that is) to "a double tyrannie, of Custom from without, and blind affections from within" (YP 3.190) - is for Milton neither the expression of human virtue (goodness or power) nor the necessary mode of human action. Instead, the sudden precipitant turn is the sign of an unfortunate and unnecessary absence of right reason, self-knowledge, deliberate and deliberated choice, an unfortunate and unnecessary absence of the freedom and mastery Milton believed available (at least in theory) to the human subject. Such a belief is evidently grounded in the oft-repeated doctrine that the human being is "sufficient" not only to stand (as the God of Paradise Lost [hereafter PL] so insistently claims) but also "to judge aright" (as the orator of Areopagitica maintains [YP 2.511]) - "sufficient" to make choices and assume positions that are uncompelled, undetermined, unprescribed. Thus, Donald Guss's provocative comparison of Milton and Habermas, which supports many of the claims of traditional Milton scholarship, observes that the Miltonic subject may proceed freely - out of inward conviction rather than compulsion, out of voluntary assent rather than prescription or force. …

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