Enlightenment research as a vocation

Enlightenment past and present is the September volume in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series. This volume by Anthony J. La Vopa explores the social meanings of Enlightenment discourses in England, Scotland, France, and Germany. This blog post written by Avi Lifschitz discusses La Vopa’s new book, sharing insight into this new publication, its themes, and the introductory essay ‘Finding Meaning in the Enlightenment’.

The Weberian title of this blog post is a fitting tribute to Anthony J. La Vopa, a prominent Enlightenment scholar who has dedicated the last fifty years to the study of what he calls ‘the social history of ideas’ in the eighteenth century. This self-definition might initially conceal the indispensable role of rhetoric, literary genre, and authorial tone in La Vopa’s work on the Enlightenment. As he notes in the introduction to the new collection of his essays, one of his major early insights was that he could effectively ‘derive social meaning from the literary properties of a text’.

The essays collected here do exactly that, covering diverse topics across eighteenth-century Germany, France, and Britain. A new essay on Denis Diderot’s theory of genius joins La Vopa’s classic 1992 article on Jürgen Habermas’s and Reinhart Koselleck’s notions of Enlightenment and its public sphere of allegedly rational debate. Johann Gottfried Herder’s complex relationship with language, print and eighteenth-century readership is discussed next to the peculiar friendship between James Boswell and William Johnson Temple. Kant’s attitudes to sex and marriage are discussed next to an essay on the shifting meanings of enthusiasm (Schwärmerei) from Luther to the late eighteenth century.

Several essays concern methodological issues, from the resurrection of the contextual biography (written on the occasion of La Vopa’s 2001 biography of the young Fichte) to the gender turn in Enlightenment studies, Jonathan Israel’s work on the radical Enlightenment, and the complex interrelations between history, philosophy and literature in Enlightenment studies.

The jewel in the book’s crown is ‘Finding meaning in the Enlightenment’, the introductory essay that serves both as a retrospective stock-taking of the author’s scholarship and as a panoramic overview of Enlightenment studies since the 1970s. This is arguably a modern incarnation of the scholarly autobiographies, or accounts of intellectual development, written by eighteenth-century German professors and clergymen of a Pietist background – a genre so effectively mined by La Vopa over the years.

Indeed, the author applies to himself in the essay some of the questions that have fascinated him throughout his career. Did he follow a calling or a vocation while practising a specific trade, in this case academic teaching and writing on the Enlightenment? How much of his labour, intellectual or otherwise, has been rooted in the unconscious appropriation of a given socio-political habitus? Among other reflections on changing political and social trends from the 1970s to the present, La Vopa focuses on attitudes to higher education. Since the 1980s we have witnessed, La Vopa argues, a steady retreat of humanist ideals in the face of market-based utilitarianism, which has taken its toll on American public universities in particular.

Friedrich Schiller, the Humboldt brothers, and Goethe in Jena.  Engraving after a drawing by Andreas Müller, Die Gartenlaube 15 (1860).

In this respect, La Vopa does not shy away from drawing informed, careful parallels between past and present, based mostly on his book Grace, Talent and Merit (1988), which examined the intellectual and social implications of the career paths open to students from disadvantaged backgrounds in eighteenth-century Germany. The shift from the educational policies of the 1960s to today’s marketisation of academia is comparable, according to La Vopa, to the overtaking of the late eighteenth-century humanism of Schiller and Humboldt by the conservative educational policies of the early nineteenth century.

In both cases, class inequality prevailed, accompanied by a rhetoric that justified exclusions of the disadvantaged from university education even when in principle it implied their inclusion. Two centuries ago, the egalitarian ideals of Bildung and Menschheit were betrayed when ‘a freight of social and cultural capital – the inherited advantages of wealth and family education, including insidious codes of proper speech and manners – became a de facto entry requirement for the new classical Gymnasium, the gateway to the universities.’

This is just one of many intriguing insights in the introductory essay – an example of engaged scholarship at its best. It cautiously situates the Enlightenment in relation to the present without losing sight of diverse contexts, gaps, and discontinuities. The extensive essay spells out a central impulse behind La Vopa’s scholarship: ‘By recovering an Enlightenment field of argument about what education should do, we will not find solutions, but we can at least become more aware that a rich debate has been impoverished.’ This point applies, well beyond education, to all the chapters in this collection. La Vopa conveys here, as in his other publications, a palpable sense of Enlightenment as critique – not only of received ideas and existing structures but also of the writing self and all its habitual predispositions.

– Avi Lifschitz (Magdalen College, University of Oxford)

This post first appeared in the Liverpool University Press blog.

Miscellanies, poetry, and authorship, 1680-1800

Carly Watson, Miscellanies, poetry, and authorship, 1680-1800 (London, 2021).

Today’s miscellanies tend to be compendia of interesting facts or curious trivia – think of Schott’s original miscellany – but three centuries ago miscellanies were at the forefront of literary culture. My book, which is aimed at an academic audience, reveals how miscellanies changed the ways poetry was written, published, and read in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

What is a miscellany?

The word miscellany comes from the Latin miscellanea, meaning a hash of mixed ingredients. The English word has been applied to books since the late sixteenth century, but its meaning as a literary term has changed over time.

In the period that the book covers, the word miscellany was used to refer to books with one author and books containing works by many authors. A miscellany could be any book offering an assortment of shorter works or extracts of different kinds. As the lawyer and writer William King wrote in 1709, it ‘is generally presum’d, that a Miscellany should consist of what the World most delights in, that is, Variety’.

Samuel Lewis, A Deception, c.1780. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, USA. Gift of Max and Heidi Berry. (Wikimedia Commons)

Today, though, the word miscellany is usually used by scholars in a narrower sense, to mean a book containing works by more than two authors. This is the definition used by the Digital Miscellanies Index, a freely available database providing details of over 1750 miscellanies published between 1557 and 1800.

My book argues that we can better understand the cultural importance of miscellanies in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries if we let go of this more limited sense of what a miscellany is. Unlike most other studies of miscellanies in the period, this book looks at both single- and multiple-author miscellanies, showing that miscellanies were a popular vehicle for authors publishing their own writing as well as editors collecting works by many writers.

Putting authors in the spotlight

Hundreds of books called miscellanies, and many more that could be thought of as miscellanies, were published between 1680 and 1800. Why did miscellanies become ubiquitous in this period?

For some scholars, it was because of the changing needs of readers: as more people learned to read, and more books were published, there was a growing market for miscellanies offering handy selections of material from the mass of literature in print.

Miscellany, being a collection of poems by several hands; together with Reflections on morality, or, Seneca unmasqued, edited by Aphra Behn (London, 1685).

My book argues that this is only part of the story.

As well as catering to new readers and reading habits, miscellanies appealed to authors. From the 1680s to the 1730s many leading authors, including Aphra Behn and John Dryden, edited miscellanies showcasing new writing by their friends and contemporaries. For ambitious young authors, publishing in miscellanies was a way of getting their work noticed. For those who might not otherwise have been able to publish their writing, such as schoolboys and young women, miscellanies offered the chance to see their work in print.

It was not just authors editing and contributing to miscellanies who boosted their numbers. Many authors chose to present collections of their own writing as miscellanies, emphasising the variety of the work they produced. My book tells the stories of a number of these authors who deserve to be better known, including the Oxford-based writer Mary Jones, whose miscellany reveals a more diverse œuvre than is sometimes appreciated, and Richardson Pack, an army officer-turned-writer who was inspired by the influential miscellanies of the late seventeenth century.

Understanding what people read

Much of the modern interest in late seventeenth- and eighteenth-century miscellanies has been driven by a desire to find out more about what people actually read in this period. What was in the hundreds of miscellanies that were published? Which authors were most popular?

Mary Jones, Miscellanies in prose and verse (Oxford, 1750).

Using newly available data from the Digital Miscellanies Index, this book reveals the authors who were featured in the most miscellanies in each decade from the 1680s to the 1770s. It is no surprise that the big names of the era – John Dryden and Alexander Pope – are the ones readers were most likely to encounter in miscellanies for much of the period, but from the 1740s onwards earlier authors such as William Shakespeare and John Milton also appeared in relatively high numbers of miscellanies.

This innovative analysis suggests that miscellanies played a more important role than has previously been thought in cementing the canonical status of the great English writers of the past.

Miscellanies, poetry, and authorship, 1680-1800 shows that miscellanies were a vital part of the literary ecosystem of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Most of the poetry published in them has been forgotten, but we can still be entertained and surprised by these multifaceted books, which remind us that variety is the spice of life.

–  Carly Watson

A version of this blog was published by the University of Oxford Department for continuing education.

The ‘Beccaria moment’: revisiting the origins of the modern penal system

Published anonymously in Livorno in July 1764, Cesare Beccaria’s On Crimes and Punishments is at the origin of a remarkable moment in European culture. Translations and commentaries appeared instantly in several languages, and this brief work of some 100 pages gave rise to what Michel Porret has called the ‘Beccaria moment’,[1] referring to the period of intense debate that led to the whole European tradition of penal law being called into question, culminating less than fifty years later in France with the promulgation in 1810 of the Napoleonic Code pénal.

A new book, Le moment Beccaria: naissance du droit pénal moderne, 1764-1810, edited by Philippe Audegean and Luigi Delia (Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment, 2018) allows us to revisit this ‘moment’.

The shock wave caused by On Crimes and Punishments

Persuaded that ‘knowledge is the pre-condition of enlightened consent to the laws, that itself is the condition of liberty’ (Audegean[2]), Beccaria makes his text accessible to a wide readership. He rejects the use of Latin, and emphasises clarity and concision. He brings together, to quote his first French translator André Morellet, ‘the strength of reason and the warmth of feeling’.[3] In so doing, criminal law – which had hitherto remained the private and confidential domain of the legal profession – becomes a public affair. The ‘Milan school’ and the group around the journal Il Caffé (1764-1766) that includes Beccaria have as their declared aim, to quote Pietro Verri, to dispel ‘the fog and mystery that allowed the select few to act with impunity while the greater number remained in misery’.[4]

Allegory of Justice refusing to receive some heads from the hand of a man with a sword, illustration from C. Beccaria, Dei delitti e delle pene. Edizione sesta di nuovo corretta ed accresciuta, Harlem [Paris?], 1766. Public domain. Source: http://gutenberg.beic.it.

The aim of On Crimes and Punishments is to modernise penal law by establishing it on clear, secular, moderate foundations, so as to fight against the abuses of justice: torture, the scaffold, extreme corporal punishment, the confusion between crime and sin, the arbitrariness of the judiciary, the slowness and secrecy of trials. Penal law is to be brought in line with a sense of legality as defined by the social contract, liberty and the equality of man. This revolution, which established the foundations of the constitutional state, causes a shock wave in Europe of unseen proportions.

To speak of the ‘Beccaria moment’ is therefore to recognise that the origins of modern criminal law are to be found not just in the modest pages of the Milanese thinker but in the hundreds of texts and speeches that his pages inspired in the following decades, from Voltaire’s Commentaire and the issuing of the Nakaz by Catherine the Great (1767) to the abolition of the death penalty in Tuscany (1786) and the criminal laws of the young American nation drawn up by Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and John Adams, from the first French penal code of 1791, the product of debates among the Constituants in which the name most often cited was Beccaria’s, to the Napoleonic code and the work of Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832). But the ‘Beccaria moment’ continues in Victor Hugo’s campaign of 1848 to abolish the death penalty, or, closer to our times, in 1981, in the actions of Robert Badinter.

To understand the sources of modern criminal law means taking into account both Beccaria’s book and its interpretations – in Germany, England, France and Italy – thanks to which a new legal structure gradually emerged, and new principles of punishment meant that the legality of punishments replaced the arbitrary power of the courts.

A ‘moment’ that remains modern

Beccaria’s modernity lies in his having reconceived the problem of punishment in the framework of a new conception of politics born in the Enlightenment period and which is still our own: a framework in which the state’s authority is subjugated to the laws protecting individuals. Criminal law is no longer the royal instrument used by the sovereign to guarantee his strength and establish social order, but rather the instrument of citizens to protect and uphold their liberty and safety against public or private violence.

It follows, as the authors show here, that ‘the power to punish is revealed in all its tragic ambiguity’,[5] since it may be necessary, in order to protect citizens from violations that threaten them, to violate the liberty of others and to threaten their dignity and their physical integrity. How to protect ourselves against the excesses and extremes of the laws that protect us? This book demonstrates, if it were necessary, that the ‘Beccaria moment’ remains relevant, and it reminds us of the need today to rethink the principles of the Milanese writer so as to better understand in particular the modern tension between the principles of security and liberal values. It invites us to think about the problems raised by the widespread preventive surveillance of individuals in the name of the ‘security of the state’ at a time when new radical forms of criminality are emerging.

Title page of the original edition of the Napoleonic code of 1810. Public domain.

The ‘Beccaria moment’ of 1764 has clearly passed, yet its aspirations represent unfinished business. In the same way that between the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth, public debate opened up to problems that had not been envisaged by the author of On Crimes and Punishments – in particular the emergence of a new prison regime – his book throws a light today on the present evolution of criminal law, which since the Enlightenment has been a founding and defining element of social order and our institutions. In 2015, Michel Porret elegantly summed up the problem:

As an Enlightened Utopian, Beccaria dreamed of a just city, regulated by constrained force, since excessive punishments encourage brutality in social behaviour […]. Speaking in the language and culture of his times, Beccaria paves the way for the eventual abolition of capital punishment. Today this humane project is enshrined in European democracies. So at a time when certain European gaols resemble more and more the prison hell deplored by John Howard at the end of the eighteenth century, and when populism sees an ethnic element in criminality, fosters social vindictiveness, and in general questions the Enlightenment legal heritage, condemning the State’s role to heal and urging punitive excess in response to problems of security, the generous words of the Italian thinker remain immensely relevant. As if we were still living in the Beccaria moment inaugurated in 1764.[6]

On Friday 12 October 2018, I am pleased to be organising at the École normale supérieure in Paris a round table debate devoted to the book edited by Philippe Audegean and Luigi Delia, in the presence of the authors/editors. Also participating in the discussion are Italo Birocchi (professor of the history of medieval and modern law at the University of  Rome La Sapienza), Manuela Albertone (professor of modern history at the University of Turin), and Denis Baranger (professor of public law at the University of Paris II Panthéon-Assas and deputy director of the Institut Michel Villey).

– Pierre Musitelli, École normale supérieure, Paris
Translated by Nicholas Cronk

[1] Michel Porret, Beccaria: le droit de punir, Paris, Michalon, 2003, p. 116; and Michel Porret and Élisabeth Salvi (eds.), Cesare Beccaria. La controverse pénale, XVIIIe-XXIe siècle, Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2015, ‘Introduction. Le moment Beccaria’, p.15-38.

[2] C. Beccaria, Des délits et des peines, translation by Philippe Audegean, Lyon, ENS Éditions, 2009, p.398.

[3] [C. Beccaria], Traité des délits et des peines, traduit de l’italien [1765], ‘Préface du traducteur’, p.VIII.

[4] Il Caffè, t.I, foglio V, Torino, Bollati Boringhieri, 1998, p.56.

[5] Philippe Audegean and Luigi Delia (eds.), Le moment Beccaria. Naissance du droit pénal moderne (1764-1810), Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment, 2018, introduction, p.4.

[6] Cesare Beccaria. La controverse pénale, p.37-38.

The above post is reblogged from Liverpool University Press.

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.

La comédie de mœurs: perversion du classique ou genre classique?

Pourquoi la comédie de mœurs fleurit-elle de 1680 à 1720? A cette question, l’histoire littéraire répond habituellement en évoquant le déclin de la France dans les dernières décennies du règne de Louis XIV, années de crise spirituelle et économique, favorisant la multiplication des escrocs en tous genres et le délitement des valeurs, à leur tour reflétés dans la comédie.

Pourtant, tous les thèmes de la comédie de mœurs préexistent largement cette période charnière entre les deux siècles, et j’en ai trouvé plusieurs illustrations dans des pièces des années 1630 ou 1640, dont je parle dans mon ouvrage La Comédie de mœurs sous l’ancien régime: poétique et histoire. Au-delà, se dessine même une tradition multiséculaire, remontant à l’antiquité grecque et latine, habituée à faire rire, de façon plus légère ou plus grinçante, d’un ‘aujourd’hui’ méprisable par rapport à un ‘hier’ idéalisé. En restant plus proche de la période charnière mentionnée plus haut, il suffit d’ouvrir les Satires de Boileau pour y découvrir tous les personnages caractéristiques de ce type de pièces: le financier indûment enrichi, le médecin assassin, le laquais parvenu, le procureur fourbe, le noble désargenté et prêt à se mésallier, la coquette.

En changeant de genre, on lit dans L’Histoire amoureuse des Gaules plusieurs scènes dignes de la comédie de mœurs, que Bussy-Rabutin donne pour ‘vraies’, mais qui semblent surtout avoir beaucoup emprunté au théâtre, avant de l’inspirer en retour. Pour ne donner qu’un exemple, on peut mentionner l’épisode de la séduction par l’argent, que Lesage devait avoir en tête en écrivant son Turcaret: le financier Paget, significativement désigné par le sobriquet ‘Crispin’, se fait précéder chez Ardélise par une lettre accompagnée d’une généreuse ‘subvention’, et qui lui ouvre à coup sûr le cœur et surtout le chemin du lit de la belle dame. L’ensemble du roman relève d’une esthétique de la médisance, Bussy expérimentant ainsi, avant les auteurs de la comédie de mœurs, une écriture qui crée un univers littéraire à partir d’une vision a priori, comme un pur exercice de l’esprit. L’enjeu n’est pas de fournir une lecture juste de la réalité, mais de faire illusion, en canalisant le regard du lecteur ou du spectateur uniquement vers les éléments qui confirment la perspective noire posée, sans tenir compte de tout ce qui l’infirme ou la nuance.

Ainsi, il est peut-être plus légitime de voir dans la comédie de mœurs non pas le résultat d’un déclin des mœurs et des goûts, mais la continuatrice d’une pensée classique. Celle-ci reprend à son compte d’anciennes critiques sur la modernité corruptrice, la couple avec la vision chrétienne du monde comme vallée des larmes, et décide de porter jusqu’à ses limites cette lecture sombre de l’humanité, en lui donnant une tournure décidément comique. Mettant au service de la satire son arsenal de types et de procédés, elle élabore une version policée, recevable si l’on peut dire, d’un jeu que l’on avait reproché à Bussy-Rabutin et à Boileau de pratiquer comme une attaque ad hominem. La représentation d’un monde d’où les principes moraux et la vertu ont généralement et définitivement disparu, à tous les échelons de la société, dilue les responsabilités et étouffe le scandale. Avec son côté absurde de neverland, la comédie de mœurs tire la représentation vers la farce. Sur fond d’essoufflement de la machine à caractères de premier plan, elle est certainement apparue aux comédiens comme une alternative de nature à relancer le théâtre et à renouveler le plaisir du spectateur.

Ioana Galleron

La fermentation des Lumières: Le Neveu de Rameau de Diderot

Étrange destin d’un texte: Le Neveu de Rameau est l’une des œuvres les plus fascinantes du dix-huitième siècle français, et pourtant elle n’a été lue que bien des années après sa conception en 1761 et son achèvement, vers 1774, lorsque Goethe a publié, en 1805, la traduction allemande d’une copie manuscrite, que Schiller lui avait communiquée. C’est d’abord dans une « retraduction » que l’œuvre a été communiquée aux lecteurs français, avant qu’enfin un voyageur en rapporte une version plus authentique de Russie et qu’enfin, à la toute fin du dix-neuvième siècle, le manuscrit autographe ne soit découvert dans la boîte d’un bouquiniste, sur les quais de la Seine.


Denis Diderot 1713-1784, par Charles Mazelin (1958). Image WikiTimbres.

Immédiatement, l’œuvre de Diderot a fasciné les plus grands, après Goethe et Schiller, Balzac, Hoffmann, Hegel, Barbey d’Aurevilly, et, plus tard, Aragon, Thomas Bernhardt, Jean Starobinski ou Michel Foucault. Aujourd’hui encore, alors que les interprétations se sont incroyablement multipliées, elle résiste et offre aux lecteurs une séduisante énigme. Philosophes ou littéraires, bien des critiques ont tenté de la réduire sans y parvenir. On la proposait jadis aux étudiants débutants, qui n’y comprenaient pas grand chose. Mais ce premier contact avec Diderot pouvait être déterminant: ce fut le cas pour moi. Je traduisais alors sagement Horace, sans faire le rapprochement avec ce texte, que son auteur nous propose comme une « satire », la seconde d’une série, dont la première, composée en 1773, s’intitule Satire première sur les caractères et les mots de caractère, de profession etc., mais qui s’est arrêtée là.

Comme le philosophe, qui nous raconte sa rencontre avec Jean-François Rameau, nous ne savons quelle réaction adopter devant un personnage amusant, totalement amoral, qui ruine toutes nos certitudes. Les questions qu’il nous adresse n’appartiennent pas seulement à son époque. Ne sommes-nous pas, comme Diderot, confrontés tous les jours aux contradictions entre nos désirs et les exigences de la vie en société, entre les principes généraux de la morale et les lois établies, entre nos exigences d’universalité ou notre pensée de l’homme en général et l’infinie particularité des individus.

Au moment précis où la pensée des Lumières atteint son apogée, elle se trouve confrontée à une critique profonde, qui la mine et la nourrit au plus profond: Rousseau, dès la Lettre à d’Alembert, Voltaire, avec Le Fanatisme ou Mahomet le prophète, Diderot, avec Le Neveu de Rameau, ont instillé bien avant Sade les ferments d’une crise magnifique. Le dialogue entre « moi » et Rameau s’émancipe des règles de la rhétorique et de la dialectique des « entretiens » idéologiques si fréquents aux dix-septième et dix-huitième siècles. Il adopte la marche libre d’une conversation dont les protagonistes ne s’entendront jamais qu’à demi: « Rira bien qui rira le dernier ». Tels sont les derniers mots prononcés par Rameau.

Il est significatif que ce soit la poésie qui vienne ici donner naissance aux idées. Car Le Neveu de Rameau est un texte de la plus haute poésie, dans le sens où on l’entend au delà de toute question de « genre ». Avec lui, comme avec Rabelais, Horace ou La Fontaine, la satire se porte à la hauteur de ces œuvres inépuisables qui remettent en question l’ensemble des représentations du monde qui se sont élaborées dans une société. Avec ce personnage, Diderot met en scène un groupe social, celui de cette « Bohême littéraire », ces « Rousseau du ruisseau » dont parle Robert Darnton. Ces parasites, tigres et fauves au service des puissants et de l’ordre établi, poux ou tiques si on les rapporte à leur véritable importance comme écrivains, révélés par le cynisme de Rameau, donnent une image de l’immense chaîne des dépendances qui unit les faibles aux puissants et ceux-ci à quiconque est plus fort qu’eux ou leur paraît tel. Cette cohorte venimeuse figurerait très bien aujourd’hui celle des hôtes habituels de plateaux de télévision.

‘Dans le café de la Régence, au Palais-Royal, Diderot rencontre Jean-François Rameau’. Dubouchet, graveur; Hirsch, dessinateur (1875). Image BnF.

‘Dans le café de la Régence, au Palais-Royal, Diderot rencontre Jean-François Rameau’. Dubouchet, graveur; Hirsch, dessinateur (1875). Image BnF.

Le neveu est-il un comédien génial mais sans emploi? Un musicien raté? Un Diogène trop conséquent? Ce qui est sûr, c’est que son talent est d’imiter non seulement des personnages, mais des situations et des œuvres d’art, singerie de l’art qui désigne sans cesse l’œuvre absente mais la fait surgir dans l’écriture de Diderot. Une quinzaine de pantomimes, décrites par le narrateur, estomaqué, puis subjugué souvent et parfois ému, indigné mais toujours incroyablement amusé, emportent l’écriture de Diderot au delà de toute figuration vers une étonnante musique: « Que ne lui vis-je pas faire? Il pleurait, il riait, il soupirait il regardait, ou attendri, ou tranquille, ou furieux; c’était une femme qui se pâme de douleur; c’était un malheureux livré à tout son désespoir; un temple qui s’élève; des oiseaux qui se taisent au soleil couchant; des eaux ou qui murmurent dans un lieu solitaire et frais, ou qui descendent en torrent du haut des montagnes; un orage; une tempête, la plainte de ceux qui vont périr, mêlée au sifflement des vents, au fracas du tonnerre; c’était la nuit, avec ses ténèbres; c’était l’ombre et le silence, car le silence même se peint par des sons. » En plein dix-huitième siècle rationaliste, Le Neveu de Rameau ouvre ainsi à l’imaginaire les portes de la littérature.

– Pierre Frantz

Poetry in the digital age: the Digital Miscellanies Index and eighteenth-century culture

For most of us, reading for pleasure usually means getting stuck into some fiction or non-fiction. Poetry is a less common diversion, but we still have an appetite for poems to dip into, to find solace in, to memorise and share. And we can choose from an array of collections that promote poetry as an everyday companion, a form of therapy, and a tradition of national interest. For readers looking for peace of mind, The Emergency Poet: An Anti-Stress Poetry Anthology offers comfort, while the popular twin collections of Poems That Make Grown Men (or Women) Cry present a cult of sensibility for the modern age.

It was in the eighteenth century that poetry collections like these became a staple of literary publishing in Britain. The tradition of printed collections of English poetry stretches back to the sixteenth century, with Songes and Sonettes (1557), an edition of short lyric poems compiled by the publisher Richard Tottel, generally regarded as the foundation of English Renaissance poetry and the most important early printed collection of English verse. But it was not until the eighteenth century that collections of poems by several hands, with prose as a secondary feature, became one of the most common forms in which British readers encountered poetry. Like their modern counterparts, eighteenth-century editors and publishers sought to gain a foothold in a crowded market by targeting specific audiences and promoting the benefits of reading poetry. Some produced didactic collections for young people (Poems for Young Ladies); others pitched their collections to lovers in need of poetic inspiration (The Lover’s Manual); and many more set their sights on a local audience (The Oxford Sausage).

Poems for Young Ladies

Poems for Young Ladies (1767), edited by the poet Oliver Goldsmith.

Collections like these shaped the ways in which poetry was written and read throughout the eighteenth century. Yet until recently relatively little was known about their contents. Thanks to the Digital Miscellanies Index (DMI), this is no longer the case. The DMI provides a searchable record of the contents of over 1,600 collections of poems by several hands published over the course of the eighteenth century. These books are sometimes referred to as anthologies, as most poetry collections are today. But the word anthology, derived from the Greek for ‘a gathering of flowers’, has connotations that sit uneasily with many eighteenth-century poetry collections. Few collections produced in this period claimed to present the best of English poetry, a rationale often seen as characteristic of anthologies (collections that cull the flowers of the poetic tradition). As a result, several scholars, myself included, prefer the term miscellany. Derived from the Latin miscellanea, meaning a ‘hotchpotch’ of foodstuffs, it captures the dominant characteristic of most eighteenth-century collections: variety. A typical miscellany offers a varied feast of poems to entertain readers with varied tastes and personalities.

The DMI was launched in 2013, following three years of development and data collection carried out by a team based at the University of Oxford. Led by Abigail Williams and Jennifer Batt, the project was funded by the Leverhulme Trust. In 2014, another Leverhulme grant set in motion the second phase of the project. One of the aims of this phase, to be completed in 2017, is to harness the data now accessible via the DMI to shed new light on how miscellanies evolved, how they packaged and popularised poetry, and on the habits of their readers. At the same time, we are working with the Bodleian’s Digital Libraries team to develop the DMI into a more flexible and wide-ranging resource, and last month we celebrated a milestone on this road. The thirty-strong audience at Lines of Connection, a conference I co-organised as part of the project, were among the first to see the DMI’s new search interface, which replaces the beta site created in 2013.

The Book of Fun

The Book of Fun (1759), a miscellany dominated by seventeenth-century verse.

The new search platform is much more than a digital facelift for the DMI. It provides access to a database undergoing expansion: the latest version includes new records for miscellanies published between 1680 and 1699, and future updates will extend the DMI ’s coverage further back to Tottel’s foundational Songes and Sonettes. The redeveloped interface also enables users to explore the data in new ways. Keyword and phrase searching is quicker and more extensive with the new basic search function. There is also the option to filter the records using a number of facets, which display and rank the data in ways that suggest key trends and lines of enquiry. For instance, clicking on ‘Poem’ under ‘Content Type’, then selecting the ‘Related People’ facet, reveals a list of almost one hundred of the most prominent authors in the database, ranked according to the number of poems attributed to them. At the top of the list is John Dryden, with around 1,500 poems; the highest ranked French author is Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux, with over 120 poems in English translation (the DMI does not record appearances of poems in foreign languages). Although these figures should not be seen as straightforward indications of popularity, they remind us that many of the most widely read poets of the eighteenth century were those who had been active in the late seventeenth century. In his imitation of Horace’s epistle to Augustus (written 1737), Alexander Pope observed that the verse of his seventeenth-century predecessors was scattered ‘Like twinkling stars the Miscellanies o’er’. The DMI has made it possible to see these stars, and the sky around them, more clearly.

– Carly Watson

Un espace virtuel avant la lettre: la presse littéraire du dix-huitième siècle

Au dix-huitième siècle se développe un nouveau genre d’écrire, le journal, et notamment un périodique spécifique: le journal littéraire. Cette expression, forgée au dix-neuvième siècle, réunit l’ensemble des périodiques dont l’actualité est constituée des ouvrages publiés, consacrés à l’activité de critique des textes et des arts, et qui donnent une place inédite aux lecteurs. Ces journaux vont bouleverser la pratique de la lecture en introduisant le concept de périodicité mais surtout ils vont modifier profondément le rapport à soi et à l’autre.

Pages du Journal des dames, février 1763

Pages du Journal des dames, février 1763 (collection privée)

La périodicité de ces journaux (entre une semaine et un mois) fait naître le sentiment d’actualité, de contemporanéité, d’instantanéité. A l’instar de l’internet d’aujourd’hui, qui nous donne l’impression de vivre les choses, de les savoir en même temps qu’elles arrivent, les lecteurs du dix-huitième siècle se sentent pris dans un tourbillon de nouvelles littéraires et intellectuelles. Dans la mesure où la lecture s’effectue un peu partout, dans les salons, les cafés, chez soi, seul ou en public, la relation à l’espace est elle aussi modifiée. On peut discuter des nouvelles ou au contraire en profiter pour soi. Les distances se rétrécissent grâce à la plus grande rapidité de distribution du courrier et des journaux (les routes et les postes se modernisent), mais aussi parce qu’on est au courant de l’actualité en Europe et même au-delà, comme si la Prusse, l’Angleterre, voire la Chine ou l’Inde étaient plus proches qu’on ne l’avait cru.

Pages du Journal des dames, février 1759

Pages du Journal des dames, février 1759 (collection privée)

Pages du Journal des dames, février 1759

Pages du Journal des dames, février 1759 (collection privée)

Enfin, le journal littéraire facilite les échanges. Il publie des lettres de lecteurs, des correspondances entre savants, des débats et des querelles donnant ainsi l’illusion d’une place publique dessinée dans les pages du périodique. Ces modifications ne touchent qu’une mince partie de la population, la couche socialement aisée et éduquée mais elles vont mettre en branle tout un processus qui s’élargira au reste de la population progressivement.

Mon livre, Le Journal littéraire en France au dix-huitième siècle: émergence d’une culture virtuelle, se concentre sur la formation d’un espace virtuel de communication, sur ses caractéristiques et spécifiquement sur les conséquences de cet espace. Il met en évidence les possibilités de création littéraire et de renouvellement du discours critique par le biais de l’acte de lecture et montre que l’écriture n’est finalement qu’une autre façon de lire.

The salon of the Duke of Orleans

‘The salon of the Duke of Orléans (sitting); he is with his son (standing)’ (Wikimedia commons)

En proposant une autre expérience de l’espace et du temps, qui favorise l’échange et le dialogue, les périodiques littéraires développent, à l’insu de leurs rédacteurs et contre leur gré, l’esprit critique et l’individualité des lecteurs. ‘Chacun y est tout ensemble souverain et justiciable de chacun’ [1] comme disait Bayle. La vérité n’est plus l’apanage des grands, des philosophes et des savants puisqu’on a vu qu’ils pouvaient se tromper, que leur parole pouvait être relativisée. Bien plus qu’un simple apport d’informations, le périodique littéraire, grâce à ses spécificités, renouvelle le rapport au savoir en proposant une vérité relative, valable jusqu’à la preuve du contraire. Il encourage l’expression personnelle des lecteurs, leur pratique du texte, du temps, de l’espace et les plonge finalement dans une expérience d’eux-mêmes.

– Suzanne Dumouchel

[1] Pierre Bayle, Dictionnaire historique et critique, article ‘Catius’, 1720 (3e. éd.).

When the stage meets the page – past and present

Detail from Spectacle Gratis – G. Engelman (source: http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/a/a-history-of-a-night-at-the-theatre/)

Detail from Spectacle Gratis – G. Engelman (source: http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/a/a-history-of-a-night-at-the-theatre/)

In the preface to his tragedy Sémiramis (1749), Voltaire damningly characterized the typical eighteenth-century French theatre as ‘a tennis court with a tasteless set at one end, in which audience members are positioned contrary to all laws of order and reason, some standing on the stage itself with others standing in what is known as the parterre, where they are obscenely hemmed in and crushed, and sometimes surge forward over one another impetuously, as though caught up in a popular uprising’.[1] By contrast, the modern experience of theatre in London’s West End is one of slipping into expensive seats booked months in advance, flicking through a glossy programme, and sinking into reverential silence as the lights dim – always double checking that our mobile phones are switched off, lest we be the unfortunate soul to break the spell.

Where we seek to eliminate distractions in order to immerse ourselves in the story so that fiction becomes reality, our eighteenth-century ancestors were constantly immersed in the reality outside the fiction. Eighteenth-century theatres were a raucous microcosm of city life – a cacophony of catcalls, flirtations, and brawls – with actors on-stage often demolishing the fourth wall with conspiratorial asides to the audience. While Voltaire may have been keen to preserve the purity of his verse by creating a more suitable environment than this ‘tennis court’, other writers fully embraced the exuberant chaos of the eighteenth-century theatrical experience.

Drury Lane Theatre, London – watercolour by Edward Dayes (1795) (source: http://www.britannica.com/topic/Drury-Lane-Theatre/images-videos/drury-lane-theatre-london-the/5296)

Drury Lane Theatre, London – watercolour by Edward Dayes (1795) (source: http://www.britannica.com/topic/Drury-Lane-Theatre/images-videos/drury-lane-theatre-london-the/5296)

In Theatre and the novel, from Behn to Fielding, Anne F. Widmayer presents a fresh way of thinking about the relationship between stage and page at a critical point in literary history: the eighteenth century, when theatre was an established feature of the cultural landscape, and the novel still a nascent and mutable form, far removed from its modern dominance of the literary scene.

The advent of the novel, and its private consumption in the comfort of a study or drawing room, might seem a far cry from the world of the theatre as Voltaire describes it, yet many of the early English novelists – such as Widmayer’s case studies Aphra Behn, Delarivier Manley, William Congreve, and Henry Fielding – were also playwrights, who deployed the dramatic devices honed on stage to highlight the novel’s status as a fictional construct. The conspiratorial aside between actor and spectator was transferred to the private theatre of the reader’s imagination. While we might think of metafiction as a twentieth-century invention, the eighteenth century proves itself once again to have been at the forefront of modernity. With sophisticated playfulness, Behn, Manley, Congreve and Fielding not only created humorous effects but also questioned the capacity of their art to represent reality. Exaggeration and finely tuned irony, create a novelistic play (in all senses of the term) in which readers are invited to participate, questioning the traditional sources of textual authority as they sift through multiple layers of perception, and discover that the narrator has become an unreliable conduit for information – a player in the tale he narrates.

Challenging, and sometimes unnerving, but always engaging, these early novels still defy our assumptions about the novel as a form. Despite evolutions in their nature and status, the eighteenth-century intermingling of drama and prose continues to influence contemporary English writers, as the self-conscious narrator-performer Briony in Ian McEwan’s Atonement (2001) and the metafictional Russian doll narratives of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (2004) illustrate. With critical studies into notions of identity as performance, the legacy of these bold and experimental eighteenth-century writers is likely to continue – the scene is set for a long and fruitful encounter between stage and page!

– Madeleine Chalmers

Theatre and the novel, from Behn to Fielding, Anne F. Widmayer (Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment, Oxford, Voltaire Foundation, July 2015, ISBN 978-0-7294-1165-3).

See also: Roman et théâtre au XVIIIe siècle: le dialogue des genres, Catherine Ramond (SVEC 2012:04, Voltaire Foundation, April 2012, ISBN 978-0-7294-1043-4).

[1] ‘un jeu de paume, au bout duquel on a élevé quelques décorations de mauvais goût, & dans lequel les spectateurs sont placés contre tout ordre & contre toute raison, les uns debout, sur le théâtre même, les autres debout, dans ce qu’on appelle parterre, où ils sont gênés & pressés indécemment, & où ils se précipitent quelquefois en tumulte les uns sur les autres, comme dans une sédition populaire’ [translation my own], in Voltaire, ‘Sémiramis, tragédie’, ‘Dissertation sur la tragédie’, ed. R. Niklaus, in The Complete Works of Voltaire, vol.30A (Oxford, 2003), p.157, lines 424-31.

Candide and Leibniz’s garden

Lucretia and Tarquin, by Simon Vouet.

Lucretia and Tarquin, by Simon Vouet.

Schopenhauer unkindly wrote that the only merit of Leibniz’s Théodicée was that it gave rise to ‘the immortal Candide’.[1] The Théodicée does seem at least to have given rise to the subtitle of Candide, albeit indirectly. In 1737, a review of a new edition of Leibniz’s book in the Jesuit Mémoires de Trévoux dubbed its central doctrine ‘l’optimisme, thus apparently coining the term.[2] Although it could easily have been elsewhere that Voltaire first came across Leibniz’s idea that this is the best of all possible words, and picked up the smattering of Leibnizian terminology that is found in Candide, we know that he dipped into the Théodicée at the very least, since an edition of the work exists to this day in his personal library, and contains several paper markers in both volumes.[3] So he may well have noticed a key passage in its final pages about a man opting for a quiet life and cultivating his jardin. This striking parallel with the end of Candide seems to have been overlooked.

The climax of Leibniz’s Théodicée is a fable that Borges would have enjoyed, and probably did. Pallas Athena appears in a dream to Theodorus, the high priest of Jupiter, and shows him a palace with an infinite number of halls, each of which represents a possible way for things to be, but only one of which shows things as they actually are. The structure is a pyramid with an infinitely large base, and the single hall at its apex is the actual – and best possible – world. In that world, Sextus Tarquinius rapes Lucretia, which, as Pallas Athena puts it, “serves for great things”: it leads to the overthrow of the Roman monarchy and the founding of the Roman Republic.[4] She also shows Theodorus one of the many other halls in which Sextus does not go to Rome and commit his crime. Such a world, we and Theodorus are supposed to agree, is not as good as the actual one, because in it the Roman Republic does not come to be. And what exactly does Sextus do instead in the possible but non-actual world which Pallas Athena shows to Theodorus?

…Il y achète un petit jardin; en le cultivant il trouve un trésor; il devient un homme riche, aimé, considéré; il meurt dans un grande vieillesse, chéri de toute la ville…[5]

In other words, Sextus ends up as Candide would have liked to and Voltaire at Ferney more or less did. If Voltaire knew this passage – though there are surely possible worlds in which he skipped it and others in which he forgot it – we should perhaps see a wink at Leibniz in Candide’s much-discussed closing words.

– Anthony Gottlieb

[1] Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, ch.46.

[2] February 1737, p.207.

[3] Corpus des notes marginales, vol.5, p.298-99.

[4] Théodicée, section 416.

[5] Théodicée, section 415.