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ELH 67.4 (2000) 905-924

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On Authorship, Sexuality and the Psychology of Privation in Milton's Paradise Lost

Katherine O. Acheson

What sublime sense of one's own being can survive the grotesquerie of confronting origins?

--Harold Bloom 1

There's a voice that sounds like God to me
Declaring that your body's really you . . .

--Leonard Cohen 2

Certain recent criticism of Renaissance literature has focussed on what Harry Berger, Jr. calls the "confusion of literary and erotic motives." 3 Given this criticism, we might presume that Milton could and likely did conceive of authorship as having an essential relationship to sexual ideology, desire, even conduct. Further, given the agon of this relationship as it is represented in much Renaissance literature, particularly in devotional poetry, we might anticipate that it would be characterized in Milton's works by tendentious irresolution, ideological instability, and rhetorical "extravagance." 4 For the most part, however, when sexuality and authorship are mentioned together in Milton studies, sexuality is subordinated, cleanly, to ideologies of authorship. 5 Some Milton criticism reverses this structure, and subordinates the figuration of authorship to ideologies of gender and sexuality. These inverse, but coupled, subordinations are particularly pronounced in discussions of Milton's Muse, who is critically viewed as either the emblem and echo of the author who transcends sexuality, and all other earthly matters, or the servant and supplement of the author who models his identity on modes of patriarchal authority. 6 In this paper I would like to depart from these traditions and sketch two distinct, but related, representations of the relationship between sexuality and authorship in Paradise Lost. In the first, the divine author is enabled, by his submission to the law and by [End Page 905] the inspiration he thereby receives, to make the moral distinctions for his readers between good and bad sexuality, and between good and bad authors, himself included. For this problem and its solutions in Milton's Paradise Lost, the book of Proverbs contains the seeds, for in that work the problems of moralizing and identifying right sexual conduct are conflated with the problems of living the faithful life, and of receiving divine counsel and inspiration. In book 9 we find the second relationship between sexuality and authorship which I would like to discuss, for there the problems of the erotics of authorship enter the drama of the poem and become part of its action. The temptation of Eve by Satan is both sexual and authorial, but the marking of similarities and differences between good and bad sexuality, and good and bad authorship, which have been so assiduously rehearsed prior to this point, is urgently threatened in the temptation scene by the possibility of the collapse of the difference between good and evil. The potential for this collapse is figured in the erotics of the temptation, through which Eve becomes the "strange woman" of Proverbs and Satan is, momentarily, made "stupidly good," which "excites" him to greater evil. 7 This threatened collapse can be seen in the tropological form of the relationship between good and evil: in book 9, what has hitherto been and will be again the ironic relationship becomes chiastic or even oxymoronic. I argue, in conclusion, that the relationship between these two forms of authorship can be seen in terms of the rhetorical, theological, and poetic resonances of the term "privative," and suggest that the critical desire to fix the meaning and status of Milton's authorial identity through subordination is produced by the experience of becoming the privative reader this author requires.

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Milton's choice of the personification of Wisdom from Proverbs as his figure of authorial inspiration in the invocations and preambles to books 1, 3, 7, and 9 of Paradise Lost is an obvious place to situate claims about the relationship between sexuality and authorship in the poem, as the Proverbial Wisdom (or Sophia, to use her Greek name) is traditionally both sexually attractive and inspirational to the divine poet. In Proverbs she rejoices, for instance, that her "delights were with the sons...


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