The Skeptical Sublime: Aesthetic Ideology in Pope and the Tory Satirists
Oxford University Press, 2001 M11 1 - 288 pages
This book argues that philosophical skepticism helps define the aesthetic experience of the sublime in late seventeenth- and eighteenth-century British literature, especially the poetry of Alexander Pope. Skeptical doubt appears in the period as an astonishing force in discourse that cannot be controlled--"doubt's boundless Sea," in Rochester's words--and as such is consistently seen as affiliated with the sublime, itself emerging as an important way to conceive of excessive power in rhetoric, nature, psychology, religion, and politics. This view of skepticism as a force affecting discourse beyond its practitioners' control links Noggle's discussion to other theoretical accounts of sublimity, especially psychoanalytic and ideological ones, that emphasize the sublime's activation of unconscious personal and cultural anxieties and contradictions. But because The Skeptical Sublime demonstrates the sublime's roots in the epistemological obsessions of Pope and his age, it also grounds such theories in what is historically evident in the period's writing. The skeptical sublime is a concrete, primary instance of the transformation of modernity's main epistemological liability, its loss of certainty, into an aesthetic asset--retaining, however, much of the unsettling irony of its origins in radical doubt. By examining the cultural function of such persistent instability, this book seeks to clarify the aesthetic ideology of major writers like Pope, Swift, Dryden, and Rochester, among others, who have been seen, sometimes confusingly, as both reactionary and supportive of the liberal-Whig model of taste and civil society increasingly dominant in the period. While they participate in the construction of proto-aesthetic categories like the sublime to stabilize British culture after decades of civil war and revolution, their appreciation of the skepticism maintained by these means of stabilization helps them express ambivalence about the emerging social order and distinguishes their views from the more providentially assured appeals to the sublime of their ideological opponents.
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Page cxxviii - Know then thyself, presume not God to scan; The proper study of Mankind is Man. Plac'd on this isthmus of a middle state, A Being darkly wise, and rudely great: With too much knowledge for the Sceptic side, With too much weakness for the Stoic's pride, He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest, In doubt to deem himself a God, or Beast; In doubt his Mind or Body to prefer...
Page cxxxix - God loves from whole to parts : but human soul Must rise from individual to the whole. Self-love but serves the virtuous mind to wake, As the small pebble stirs the peaceful lake ; The centre moved, a circle straight succeeds, Another still, and still another spreads ; Friend, parent, neighbour, first it will embrace; His country next, and next all human race...
Page xciv - But when a man's fancy gets astride on his reason, when imagination is at cuffs with the senses, and common understanding as well as common sense is kickt out of doors...
Page cxxvi - Tis ours to trace him only in our own. He, who through vast immensity can pierce, See worlds on worlds compose one universe, Observe how system into system runs, What other planets circle other suns, What varied being peoples every star, May tell why Heaven has made us as we are.
Page cxxxi - If plagues or earthquakes break not Heaven's design, Why then a Borgia, or a Catiline? Who knows but He, whose hand the lightning forms, Who heaves old ocean, and who wings the storms; Pours fierce ambition in a Caesar's mind, Or turns young Ammon loose to scourge mankind?
Page cxl - The centre mov'd, a circle straight succeeds, Another still, and still another spreads ; Friend, parent, neighbour, first it will embrace ; His country next, and next all human race ; Wide and more wide, th...
Page cxv - The earth shook, the heavens also dropped at the presence of God: even Sinai itself was moved at the presence of God, the God of Israel.
Page lxxxi - One of the final causes of our delight in any thing that is great may be this. The Supreme Author of our being has so formed the soul of man, that nothing but himself can be its last, adequate and proper happiness. Because therefore a great part of our happiness must arise from the contemplation of his being, that he might give our souls a just relish of such a contemplation, he has made them naturally delight in the apprehension of what is great or unlimited.
Page clxxxvii - Calypso once each heart alarm'd, Aw'd without virtue, without beauty charm'd ; Her tongue bewitch'd as oddly as her eyes, Less wit than mimic, more a wit than wise ; Strange graces still, and stranger flights she had, Was just not ugly, and was just not mad ; Yet ne'er so sure our passion to create, As when she touch'd the brink of all we hate.
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