Green Wigs? Ecology and the Long Eighteenth Century

Elizabeth Blackwell, ‘The Clove, Carophyllus aromaticus’. Plate 338 from volume 2 of Blackwell’s A Curious Herbal, Containing Five Hundred Cuts, of the Most Useful Plants (London, 1739). (Historic Maps Collection, Dept. of Rare Books & Special Collections, Princeton University Library.)

Without a doubt, the Restoration era always exceeds students’ expectations. Students arrive with images in their heads of powdered wigs and royal ceremonies; they leave savoring the frankness, liveliness, and relevance of playwrights Aphra Behn, Susan Centlivre, George Farquhar, and John Dryden (All of Love and Amphitryon especially). Generic expectations circumscribe and limit.  But as Dryden describes, poets capture an idea or image in language and activate the senses their readers, creating a pulsating conduit between them and the objects represented. Dryden insists that his aesthetic forms, in his case heroic drama, initially obtrusive, merge with what he depicts. In the period after the Restoration of Charles II to the English throne, the ‘care and labour of Rhyme is carry’d from us, or at least drown’d in its own sweetness, as Bees are sometimes bury’d in their Honey.’ Literary forms serve as porous borders that foster interaction and vibrancy, melting into the things they represent once this exchange has been activated.

How did literature overcome what had become stale Renaissance constructs and respond to contact and exchange across the Americas, Africa, and Asia? The premise of Nature and the New Science is that natural systems shape poetry, philosophy, geography, and politics. After the era I define, writers increasingly fix nature as something to be sought rather than always and everywhere an ambient condition of human life. But from 1665-1726, nature operated as the medium through which the British sought the unknown, interpreted contact with others abroad, and allowed them to explore the self and adapt to new political and economic realities.

Because so many aspects that define our contemporary world took root in the period, the study of the long eighteenth century remains paramount to understanding seemingly intractable problems as well as institutions we’ve grown to cherish. A few examples include: Western conceptions of the East, global interdependencies, the lives of servants and women, treatment of indigenous people, and the (still) undervalued contributions of women writers. We often characterize the era as charting the ‘rise’ of large-scale processes – the rise of the nation-state; the rise of the novel; the rise of the modern subject; the rise of democratic republicanism, the rise of capitalist economies – obscuring the originary conditions of these movements. In this book I am concerned with the literature that remains in dialogue with various processes, phenomena, places, and beings.

Various initiatives encourage cross-fertilization across academia, governmental organizations, and industry. My own university is in the process of uniting its Colleges of Arts and Sciences into one unit, giving me the opportunity to create interdisciplinary classes like ‘The Literature, History, and Science of Spaceflight’.  The period under discussion can serve as the lingua franca, enabling increased dialogue among academic units. It is a commonplace to point out that in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century disciplinary silos were nonexistent, but what remains understudied is how different areas of study remain tethered, how they need one another to define themselves.

I should know. Earning degrees in both Aerospace Engineering and English and working at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at CU-Boulder and, later, at Stanford University on satellites called QuickSCAT and Gravity Probe B, I viewed engineering and English as complementary disciplines. Likewise, the ‘New Science’, which emerged in the seventeenth century, promised to illuminate natural phenomena through the use of reason and special instruments, encouraging detailed inquiries into physical systems. The methodology resembles the practice of close reading a literary text: life appears when one appreciates the minutia. At the same time, the practitioners of the New Science recognized the object of study was inseparable from the device through which one grasped it, as did those who sought innovation in poetic form.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu.

While receptivity to their surroundings unites the authors studied here from Margaret Cavendish and Milton to Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and Daniel Defoe, the book observes a gradual diminishment in the writers’ attunement to natural processes as a means to discernment. They succumb instead to constructs of national identities characterized by borders and attendant socio-economic systems. Behn, for instance, ties technology to its capacity to intertwine people and sites rather than displace them, and for Dryden, the kinship between the English and nature enabled circum-oceanic travel. But by the end of the period I trace, only auditory sensations (the haunting cries of animals) remind Robinson Crusoe of vestigial affiliations among all beings.

In the Anthropocene, we struggle with the effects of how human activity changed the climate and environment. Conceptualizing the world through natural systems will not directly reverse rising oceans and carbon dioxide levels. The literature from the period, however, remains vital in that it reminds us that we cannot compartmentalize environmental degradation. It links human and natural systems, helping to perceive this crisis and to reconcile the separation between the two that led to it.

– Denys Van Renen

The above post is reblogged from Liverpool University Press. The author, Denys Van Renen, is Associate Professor of English at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. He is the author of ‘The Other Exchange: Women, Servants, and the Urban Underclass in Early Modern England’ and co-editor of ‘Beyond 1776’. He has a critical edition of Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals forthcoming.

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Around the ‘Commentaire historique’

Voltaire Sesostris

End of ‘Lettres véritables’ and beginning of Sésostris in Commentaire historique sur les œuvres de l’auteur de La Henriade (Basle, 1776). Bodleian Library, University of Oxford: VET.FR.II.B.1997.

This summer the Voltaire Foundation team have been building up to the publication in September of Voltaire’s Commentaire historique, presented for the first time since its initial publication in 1776 with its dossier of ‘lettres véritables’ and the allegorical poem ‘Sésostris’ serving as a kind of postscript. This work, considered Voltaire’s final masterpiece, spans volumes 78b and 78c of the Complete Works. We have also put online a series of short articles aimed particularly at first-time readers of the Commentaire historique to highlight some of the various postures adopted by its chameleonic author over the course of the text.

We decided to focus on the keyword ‘legacy’: how did Voltaire want to be remembered? The Commentaire historique sees him creating a dossier of historical documentation to memorialise his life. The third-person narrator of Part 1 claims to have just found these letters from Voltaire’s correspondence and proceeds to give a preamble about the philosophe’s life before presenting the letters for posterity. It is as if Voltaire were imagining a historian from long after he has been forgotten, rediscovering this dossier and learning about his remarkable achievements for the first time. Marie-Hélène Cotoni calls it ‘le brillant curriculum vitae qui va lui servir d’introduction’, but it could just as easily be described as a social media profile designed to survive beyond its author’s death.[1] It presents the reader with a heavily doctored version of Voltaire’s life, neatly cropped with just the right filters applied so that some parts are foregrounded while others are obscured. The first of our articles, ‘Voltaire’s legacy under threat’, examines why Voltaire undertook this exercise in brand management.

We then take a tour around three personas that Voltaire chooses to highlight over the course of the Commentaire historique, starting with ‘Voltaire le voyageur’. The text places special emphasis on the philosophe’s tour of Europe during his younger years, visually presented by our annotated map that attempts to trace his voyages as described in the narrative of Part 1 and the letters of Part 2. It is not an easy job, as Voltaire has a tendency to flit from place to place over the course of one sentence without specifying when he arrived or left a particular city or country. He presents himself as a man on a mission, never tiring and always on the move. Furthermore, the religious connotations of this mission become apparent when we take a look at the particular countries he visits and those he avoids.

Voltaire nu by Pigalle Musée du Louvre

Voltaire nu (1776), by Jean-Baptiste Pigalle. Musée du Louvre.

While he is very active in his younger years, the narrator does not shy away from the fact that his journey is almost over. ‘Voltaire le vieillard’ is a second persona that looms large in the Commentaire historique, representing a man coming to terms with his own mortality as he approaches death. This persona is perhaps best summed up by Jean-Baptiste Pigalle’s statue of ‘Voltaire nu’, which testifies to the fact that even in iconography, the philosophe continued to stir up controversy. You can read more about the statue and its relevance to the text in our second article, ‘The statues’

The inclusion of the epistolary dossier with the Commentaire historique shows that Voltaire recognises the importance of his status as a letter writer. The presentation of ‘Voltaire épistolaire’ through these letters is, however, far from un-doctored. The repeated insistence on veracity and authenticity is couched in irony and there is ample evidence that these letters may be heavily edited or even forged. The third of our complementary articles, ‘The letters’, therefore addresses the letters themselves and attempts to answer some of the questions readers might have when making their way through Part 2 of this work.

At times contradictory and frequently perplexing, the Commentaire historique is a rewarding text to decrypt and really hammers home some of the essential lessons Voltaire teaches his readers in many of his earlier works. We find ourselves putting these lessons into practice, forever looking for ulterior motives, questioning the author’s authority and resolving to take nothing we read at face value.

– Sam Bailey

[1] Quoted by Nicholas Cronk, ‘Introduction’, in OCV 78b, ed. Nicholas Cronk (Oxford, 2018), p.1-87 (p.83).

Voltaire on death

The following post is reblogged from Oxford University Press. The author, Alyssa Russell, is a marketing manager at OUP on the Global Online Products and Academic/Trade teams.

Voltaire, the French Enlightenment writer, historian, and philosopher, wrote over 20,000 letters during his lifetime. One can read through his letters to learn more about his views on democracy and religion, as well as the soul and afterlife. The following excerpts from his letters show how his thoughts and ideas about death and the soul evolved over time.

Death, by Aufray de Roc'Bhian

‘Death’, by Alphonse Édouard Enguérand Aufray de Roc’Bhian. (Public domain via The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Voltaire first brushed with death in December 1723. At the young age of 29 he contracted smallpox. In a letter written to Louis Nicolas Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, baron de Preuilly in December 1723, Voltaire reflects on the previous days and his few regrets:

“[I] made my confession; and my will, which, as you will readily believe, was exceedingly short. After that, I calmly awaited death: only regretting that I had not put the finishing touches to my poem and to Mariamne, and that I must part from my friends so soon.”

He recovered from this bout of smallpox, but, as was indicative of the time, was quite incorrect about the nature of the disease, stating in the same letter:

“Smallpox is, in a simple form, merely the blood ridding itself of its impurities, and positively paves the way to more vigorous health.”

In 1726, Voltaire’s sister Catherine Arouet died. Quite shaken, he muses on death in his letter to Nicolas Claude Thieriot:

“Life is but a dream full of starts of folly, and of fancied, and true miseries. Death awakes us from this painful dream, and gives us, either a better existence or no existence at all.”

Almost 10 years later, in 1735, Voltaire muses on what the soul is in a letter to René Joseph Tournemine. The letter marks an important point in his intellectual development:

“[M]atter itself does not perish. Its extent, its impenetrability, its need to be delimited and to be located in space, all that and a thousand other things remain after our death. Why should not what you call soul also remain? It is certain that I know what I call matter only by some of its properties, and those very imperfectly. How then can I assert that omnipotent God has not been able to give it the faculty of thought?”

He later admits:

“I am very far from believing that I can assert thought to be matter. I am equally far from being able to assert that I have the slightest idea of the nature of what is called soul.”

Jumping ahead to August, 1769, Voltaire has been ill and is contemplating his own death, in this letter to Gottlob Louis von Schönberg, Reichsgraf von Schönberg:

“Yes, sir, it is true that I have been very ill. But that is the common lot of old age, especially when one has always had a feeble constitution: and these little warnings are the stroke of the clock to tell us that soon we shall have passed beyond time.”

He next introduces an interesting perspective of death: that animals benefit from not knowing it is coming:

“Animals have a great advantage over human beings: they never hear the clock strike, however intelligent they may be: they die without having any notion of death: they have no theologians to instruct them on the Four Ends of animals: their last moments are not disturbed by unwelcome and often objectionable ceremonies: it costs them nothing to be buried: no one goes to law over their wills: but in one respect we are greatly their superior — they only know the ties of habit, and we know friendship.”

Thirty-five years after previously writing down his thoughts about the eternal soul, Voltaire muses how it’s not known whether or not the soul lives on, in his letter to Frederick William, Prince of Prussia, November 1770:

“It is very true that we do not know any too well what the soul is: no one has ever seen it. All that we do know is that the eternal Lord of nature has given us the power of thinking, and of distinguishing virtue. It is not proved that this faculty survives our death: but the contrary is not proved either. It is possible, doubtless, that God has given thought to a particle to which, after we are no more, He will still give the power of thought: there is no inconsistency in this idea.“

Even if we do not know whether the soul lives on, Voltaire pragmatically advises that it is the best course of action to always do right:

“In the midst of all the doubts which we have discussed for four thousand years in four thousand ways, the safest course is to do nothing against one’s conscience. With this secret, we can enjoy life and have nothing to fear from death.”

On May 26, 1778, Voltaire wrote his last letter. Death is clearly on his mind; the letter, written to Trophime Gérard de Lally-Tolendal, chevalier de Lally-Tolendal, is comprised of only one sentence:

“The dying man returns to life on hearing this great news: he tenderly embraces M. de Lally: he sees that the King is the defender of justice: and he dies content.”

Voltaire died four days later at the age of 83.

– Alyssa Russell