Tarrying with Chaos: John Milton’s Paradise Lost and the Ethics of Psychoanalysis

  • Paul Cefalu


One would have expected that Slavoj Žižek would at some point turn his gaze on Milton’s Paradise Lost. The above epigraphs, taken from Ž ižek’s The Plague of Fantasies, are concerned with some of the cruxes of Paradise Lost: whether Adam did indeed have sexual relations with that helpmeet, Eve, in Eden, and whether Satan’s diabolical evil is distinct from radical evil in that Satan establishes an all-purpose maxim to pursue evil against the moral law as such. Unfortunately, Ž ižek does not develop these potentially rich notions in relation to Paradise Lost—notions that might have resurfaced in Ž ižek’s later systematic assessments of Christianity: On Belief, The Fragile Absolute, and The Puppet and the Dwarf.3 The following pages offer a reading of Paradise Lost that Ž ižek might have offered had he returned to Paradise Lost in the context of his recent inquiries into God’s fragile absolutism. In his later work, Ž ižek returns again and again to the notion that the Christian God is Other to himself (a subject alienated from the real like any creaturely subject), but breaks through the boundaries of his imaginary “ego” by incarnating himself as Christ.


Moral Evil Paradise Lost Mirror Stage Radical Evil Primary Narcissism 
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  1. 1.
    Slavoj Ž ižek, The Plague of Fantasies (London: Verso, 1997), 15.Google Scholar
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    See Slavoj Ž ižek, The Fragile Absolute, or Why is the Christian Legacy Worth Fighting For (London: Verso, 2000), 92–107; On Belief (London: Routledge, 2001), esp. 79–105; and The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity (Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2003), esp. passim ch. 3.Google Scholar
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    Other Miltonists have tended to acknowledge but circle around Boehme’s possible influence on Milton. George M. Conklin argued, for example, that Milton’s position on the creation, “despite the similarities of Plato, Lucretius, Philo, Eriugena, Servetus, Gerson, Ibn Ezra, Fludd, Bohme, and others is uniquely his and was independently derived from his exegetical conclusions alone.” George M. Conklin, Biblical Criticism and Heresy in Milton (New York: 1949), cited in J. H. Adamson, “The Creation,” in Bright Essence: Studies in Milton’s Theology, by W. B. Hunter, C. A. Patrides, and J. H. Adamson (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1971), 92. See also Adamson, “Creation,” 101.Google Scholar
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    Still one of the most thorough accounts of Milton’s chaos can be found in Walter Clyde Curry, Milton’s Ontology, Cosmology, and Physics (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1957). Yet, given some of these close resemblances between Boehme’s and Milton’s accounts of first matter, Curry perhaps too quickly concludes that, although Milton’s conception of chaos was influenced by Du Bartas and Hermes Trismegistus, “Milton is unusually original in his conception of chaos” (87).Google Scholar
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    Frank Allen Patterson, ed., The Works of John Milton, 14.40–1. In this particular sense, Paradise Lost departs from De Doctrina Christiana, which does offer a gloss on the Hebrew “Ehi,” “I am what I am,” or “will be.” The distance between De Doctrina and Paradise Lost regarding divine self-naming is passed over in Maurice Kelley’s survey of parallels between the two texts, which focuses on eternity, immutability, incorruptibility, omnipotence, etc., but not on the tautologies of Exodus 3:14. Kelly does draw a correspondence between the two texts regarding God’s “unity,” but the parallel seems forced: Kelly suggests that in Paradise Lost, God’s remark, “I am alone/From all eternitie,/For none I know/Second to mee or like, equal much less” (8.405–7), seems to echo De Doctrina’s, “And through all numbers absolute, though One” (8.421). Note, though, that God’s comments in Paradise Lost do not suggest that he is “one” or unified; he states only that he is alone, hierarchically speaking, in power and rank. See Maurice Kelley, This Great Argument: A Study of Milton’s De Doctrina Christian as a Gloss upon Paradise Lost (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1962), 74–75.Google Scholar
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    Lacan understandably approaches the divine tautology with skepticism. In his commentary on Freud’s Moses and Monotheism, Lacan observes that Moses the Midianite “claims to have heard the decisive word emerge from the burning bush, the word that cannot be eluded, as Freud eludes it: ‘I am,’ not as the whole Christian gnosis has attempted to interpret it, ‘he who is,’—thereby exposing us to difficulties relative to the concept of being that are far from over, and which have perhaps contributed to compromising exegesis—but ‘I am what I am.’ Or, in other words, a God who introduces himself as an essentially hidden God.” The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, 1959–1960: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book VII, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Dennis Porter (New York: W. W. Norton, 1992), 173.Google Scholar
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    This is to say that God always “will have been” in relation to his performatives throughout the text. For a good discussion of Lacan’s use of the future perfect and related linguistic distinction between the subject of the statement and the subject of enunciation, see Samuel Weber, Return to Freud: Jacques Lacan’s Dislocation of Psychoanalysis, trans. Michael Levine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 110–19.Google Scholar
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    See, for example, Christine Froula, “When Eve Reads Milton: Undoing the Canonical Economy,” in Canons, ed. Robert von Hallberg (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984). For a more recent Lacanian interpretation of the scene, one that responds directly to Froula’s essay, see Linda Gregerson, The Reformation of the Subject: Spenser, Milton, and the English Protestant Epic (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 148–63.Google Scholar
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© Paul Cefalu 2007

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