Liberal Dilemmas: Liberty or
The Bride of Lammermoor and Redgauntlet
Scott officially endorses the humanitarian sentiments and civilised conduct of his moderate heroes, and evokes Christian principles that supposedly transcend historical conditioning. But his fictions often appear to confirm Hume's view that all rules of natural and civil justice arise 'merely from human conventions, and from the interest, which we have in the preservation of peace and order'. Like his awareness of the limits of historical truth, Scott's implicit recognition that there may be no absolute or universal principles upon which to found social order might suggest a comparison with the views of 'postmodern' liberals such as Richard Rorty, who accepts the absence of such principles without regret, and who willingly gives up any attempt to arrive at an 'accurate representation of the way Nature or Morality really is'.1 But to make this comparison is to expose the historical distance between Scott and Rorty. Scott's scepticism may give rise to some irony, but it does not escape regret, and it is tempered by the understanding that certainty, or the appearance of certainty, is desirable. His romance of disinterested virtue may be offered with a playful awareness of its own fictiveness, in ways that have encouraged critical comparisons with the self-reflexive playfulness of postmodern fiction.2 But it is also usually sustained with enough consistency to allow the suspension of disbelief – that is, to provide the reassuring illusion of a knowable world and a traditional moral world-view.
While Scott usually proceeds as if historical scepticism can be happily integrated with romance, the idea that the modern subject is fundamentally divided surfaces early in his career. As we have seen, in the Marmion epistles, the modern poet's consciousness appears split between a fantasy of lost community (evoked by the naive minstrel persona, attached to memory of the clan) and the dissatisfactions of the civilised present. The division cannot simply be aligned with the 'Caledonian Antisyzygy' that has haunted discussions of Scottish literature since the nineteenth