- Sublimity and Skepticism in Montaigne and Milton
Traditionally, literary and philosophical approaches to the two concepts of sublimity and skepticism have kept them rigidly compartmentalized. James Noggle's brilliant study of the Augustan satirists, The Skeptical Sublime (2001), demonstrated superbly the value of an interrelated approach. In his challenging and provocative book Sedley traces the Renaissance origins of the twin concepts of sublimity and skepticism, arguing that they simultaneously developed and influenced one another. His account of the emergence of sublimity as a function of skepticism stresses its relevance to contemporary debate on the origins of modernity. [End Page 893]
For the uninitiated reader Sedley provides a masterly survey of contemporary American and French critical theory on the sublime, which informs his readings of Montaigne and Milton. He also furnishes an excellent guide to the rise of skepticism in the Renaissance. Copious notes accompany the text, performing the function of a necessary allongeail, given the elegant, terse, and, at times, elliptical nature of the writing. Indeed, Sedley's book is a slender volume whose conclusion, as the author states, could easily have formed the basis for another book.
Sedley justifies his surprising juxtaposition of the two authors by citing Montaigne's importance in the history of Renaissance skepticism and Milton's fame as the first postclassical poet whose poetry was consistently sublime. He then contends that "Montaigne cultivated skepticism . . . in order to produce sublimity. Milton forged sublimity . . . through his encounter with skepticism" (15). Such an essay in comparative literature proposes a model of reading in which critical moments in the works of two great authors are examined in order to explain the sudden appearance of the sublime in response to doubt, to the feeling that human reason, perception, and language cannot comprehend the world of phenomena.
If one selects the critical moments as cleverly as Sedley does, then a work, such as Montaigne's Essais, may be illuminated in a different way. For example, in his first chapter Sedley explores Montaigne's meditation on the ruins of Rome in his Journal de voyage as an illustration of the use of doubt in developing "an alternative discourse of grandeur paradoxically through fragmentation" (16). Recollections of the past survive through the stylistic process of fragmentation: that is, the fragmented recall of ancient authors through citation in the Essais. Although Montaigne's "rien de Rome" may sound the knell of Renaissance humanism, it fashions a new aesthetic category, the sublime. For Rome's true grandeur surpasses all Renaissance accounts of it: the aesthetic experience of eminence derives from skepticism.
Sedley's reading of Milton is much more problematical. In chapter 3 he focuses on the failure of the Lady in Comus to distinguish true impressions from false impressions and draws extensively on a hypothetical Baconian influence to justify his skeptical reading of Comus and Paradise Lost. While Comus may inaugurate Miltonic sublime style, the stylistical and epistemological use of echo hardly qualifies as "a skeptical change that generates sublimity" (86).
Sedley claims in chapter four that Paradise Lost serves as "a blue print for the skeptical construction of sublimity" (17). A new reading of Satan's character depicts him as a doubter who fails to recognize "the sublime potential of doubting" (110). A controversial interpretation of Marvell's encomium sees it not only as setting out the elements of delight and horror that characterize the sublime, but also as using skepticism as an encomiastic strategy.
The conclusion engages in interesting conjectures as to Milton's deep influence upon Burke's Enquiry. Sedley alleges that Kant, in his concept of the sublime, uses the key notions of ruin and fragmentation as a response to infinite grandeur, based on his reading of Pascal's Pensées. And Pascal, of course, was the main conduit of Montaigne's thought in the seventeenth century. [End Page 894]
Certainly Sedley challenges a conventional reading of Montaigne and Milton and makes us reexamine the hidden forces that lie beneath the surface of the text — this skepticism...