- Sublimity and Skepticism in Montaigne and Milton
The title of this fascinating book refers to its four central chapters on "the prehistory of the modern sublime" (134), but Sedley ranges from Longinus to Lyotard and even to Stephen Greenblatt, an "aesthete" who uses "skepticism to create a realm where the origin of literary sensation may remain unlocated and thereby inviolate" (7). Readers who might expect elaborate scholarship that holds everything together are warned in the introduction "that this book is not a survey of the history of the relations between sublimity and skepticism" but "an essay in comparative literature that proposes a model of reading" (16). And because Sedley is not concerned with "influence in the standard sense" (15), he pairs Montaigne and Milton without showing how Milton read Montaigne or even that he read him. In spite of such gaps, or perhaps because of them, there is a sense throughout that important things are being said about "the story of sublimity, the preeminent modern aesthetic category" (153).
That Sedley presents himself as an essayist and admits the fragmentary character of his own project is fitting given his fundamental argument about skepticism and sublimity: "the phenomenon exemplified by the case of Descartes—intellectual industries recycling skepticism and in the process assuming their modern structures—also occurred in the field of aesthetics. The result of the confrontation and absorption of skepticism on these grounds was the rise of the sublime" (14). Whereas humanists who sought to recover and revive ancient culture stood back in admiratio for what had been achieved not only by the ancients but by their own intellectual powers, Montaigne, as we learn in chapter one and chapter two, allowed himself to be overwhelmed by the fragments of history. In the Journal de voyage he sees a "new and extraordinary testimony" (19) of grandeur in the very ruination of the Roman ruins, and in the Essais he uses ruins as models for his own writing. Thus when in "De la vanité" he compares his style to the Roman ruins without mentioning that the ruins are Roman, his "inarticulateness at the climax of a passage about the power of the absence of articulation is not" an "accident but rather his attempt to have his writing perform what it proposes. . . . The ruins emerge here, because Montaigne has invested in them as a way to represent and realize the sublimity of his work, the power [End Page 527] of the Essais to hold together by virtue of the pressure to fall apart" (81). Similar if less successful leaps from theme to style are made in chapter three, "Comus and the Invention of Milton's Grand Style," in which Sedley argues that "Milton relates how he discovered the sublime" in his masque (96). The best evidence for a matrix of doubt and stylistic development in Comus turns out to be the Lady's reference at lines 180–81 to her "unacquainted feet," which "can also refer to poetic feet," and the "tangl'd Wood," which "recalls the woods of past poetry" (99). If too much is made to depend on the Lady's feet and "the grand style of the song" that she sings to Echo in the midst of her confusion (104), too little is made in the chapter on Paradise Lost of the roles played by Milton's heavenly and human characters in contributing to our sense of that poem's sublimity. Sedley focuses instead on the negative example of Satan, who fails to be sublime because his skepticism, which is directed only at others, "is not skeptical enough" (110). It might have been provocative to bring God the Father into the discussion, given his tendency to echo himself in speeches that are or are not sublime because they have everything or nothing to do with doubt. Chapter four closes with a reading of Andrew Marvell's poem "On Paradise Lost," which is shown to be "both praiseful and doubtful because its doubt is what enables its praise" (129).
In the conclusion, Milton...