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Contexts and Comparisons Chapter 6 - 17th & 18th Century Works 


Metaphors Old and New

In addition to the traditional classical models, a wide array of new models informs the literature of the early modern era. The Scientific Revolution provided a range of mechanical metaphors that displaced or modified the organic metaphors of an earlier time. For instance, the universe, as we have seen, was thought to resemble a watch; if it still could be compared to a living thing, like a garden, the garden tended to be formal, like the famous seventeenth-century gardens of Versailles, or the so-called English gardens of the eighteenth century, less obviously manicured than those at Versailles, but no less carefully arranged. Pope begins his Essay on Man by beckoning the reader to wander through a "mighty maze," and calls "the human scene" first a Wild and then a Garden, "not without a plan." This typifies the idea of nature that prevailed in the Enlightenment: abundant but controlled. An ancient symbol of paradise, the garden plays a central role in Voltaire's Candide as well, but typical of the age again, more as a place for sober work than mindless play.

Cataloguing and Documenting Knowledge

Many popular new literary forms testify to the eighteenth century's reverence for facts. The explosion of scientific knowledge first gave rise to new institutions of learning, like the Royal Society of London for the Improving of Natural Knowledge, founded in 1662. It also led to the creation of novel scholarly disciplines, like botany, zoology, and archeology, that sought to impose categories on masses of recently discovered information. The resulting mania for cataloguing and documenting data, fostered by improved printing technology, triggered a series of innovative intellectual projects. In France, Denis Diderot (1713-1784) and Jean-le-Rond d'Alembert (1717-1783) enlisted the foremost thinkers of the Enlightenment in producing a 17-volume Encyclopédie dedicated to codifying the contributions in science, technology, philosophy, and political theory that were literally changing the face of the world. Before this project could be completed, Louis XV (r. 1715-1774) had censored it, but the work continued despite the official ban. In short order, across the English Channel, another set of scholars set about producing the Encylopedia Britannica, to be followed in the next century by the Encylopedia Americana, as national pride and intellectual ambitions fed each other.(1)

The first circulating libraries in Europe were founded during the eighteenth century, and as literacy grew, so did a desire to promulgate standards of correct usage. In 1746, Samuel Johnson contracted to produce a dictionary, a project which required nearly ten years to review every previous effort to codify the English language. His monumental two-volume Dictionary of the English Language (1755) does much more than normalize spelling and syntax; a remarkable work of history and imagination as well, sensitive to the changing connotations of words in different eras, the publication shows that Johnson knew how inadequate unbending rules could be. As a scholarly editor, for instance, he rejected the neoclassicists' desire to "correct" irregularities and impose rigid laws of dramatic construction on Shakespeare's plays.

Literary Genres and the Limits of Reason

One distinctive feature of the literature of the Enlightenment is the frequency with which authors appeal to the era's respect for information by casting their fictions as pseudo-documents. Partly this practice seems to reflect changes in the reading public. Added to the traditional elite, upper-class males who viewed literacy as a natural birthright, were many new readers who learned to read for serious, often religious, purposes; the Protestant Revolution in particular had made individuals feel that they ought to read the Bible for themselves. Did readers trained to regard literacy as a sacred responsibility have to be tricked into reading for pleasure? Whatever the reason, eighteenth-century writers habitually present their works of fiction as transcriptions of fact. Voltaire, for example, prefaces Candide with a note declaring it a translation "from the German of Doctor Ralph." Gulliver distinguishes his "faithful history" from the "strange improbable tales" of other travelers. The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), by Goethe (see Chapter 7), begins with a note in which an "editor" commends to the reader's attention a collection of the title character's correspondence to a friend.

Typically, works of literature pretending to be factual and rational documents subvert the age's enshrinement of fact and reason. More often than not, their authors choose these genres in order to demonstrate that the quest for rational solutions to all problems could be foolish, if not downright dangerous. Like Molière or Johnson, they honor reason not because of its power, but paradoxically, because they fear its weakness. Knowing the terrible consequences of passionate excess, they turn to reason as the only hope for restraint, all the time aware of reason's limitations. Voltaire, a foremost advocate of rational planning, for example, delights in portraying human irrationality in a work like Candide. Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) takes a darker view of human nature in A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland from Being a Burden to Their Parents or Country, and for Making them Beneficial to the Public, the very title of which foreshadows its parodic view of the social sciences. Swift's proposer, who offers without a qualm a horrifying solution for Ireland's problems, betrays the inhuman potential of untempered rationalism in his enthusiastic embrace of a methodology without a moral core.

A Modest Proposal also attacks the colonial pretensions of England which had practiced them in Ireland, the land of Swift's birth, for centuries. Evenhanded in his criticism, Swift castigates both the landlords who exploited the Irish economy and peasantry without granting either economic benefits or political independence in return and the Irish populace which lacked the discipline to function in its own best interests.

Travel Literature

In Gulliver's Travels (1726), Swift extends his satire, using one of the most popular of the new literary genres to attack head-on science and the worship of reason. The voyages of the Renaissance explorers opened up new territory to the colonizing ambitions of the European powers. The voyages of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries often incorporated a new empirical dimension, sometimes with scientific research in mind, but always demonstrating the increased importance of skilled, rational observation.

One of the most remarkable eighteenth-century travel narratives, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African (1789), is the autobiography of a freed slave. An enormously popular work that went through several editions, Equiano's book details his travels through the Mediterranean, the Arctic, and Central America. Having been sent to sea rather than consigned to work as a slave on a plantation, Equiano acquired a marketable skill that eventually made it possible for him to buy his freedom and campaign for the abolition of slavery. In his narrative, like Swift's Gulliver, or the protagonist of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719), Equiano reports to the audience left at home on the adventures he has undergone and the strange sights he has seen. Perhaps sensitized by his own complex identity as a Europeanized African and a freed slave, Equiano writes with tolerance and understanding of the different worlds he visits.

By contrast, the narrators of many satiric travel fictions tend to be culturally narrow. Through the myopic perspectives of their voyagers, writers like Swift or Voltaire wittily, sometimes bitterly, force their readers to consider their own limitations. Like all satirists, they need audiences responsive enough to recognize the ironies and multiple meanings in their works, to grasp that the strangely resonant descriptions a Gulliver or Candide offers in fact mirror and criticize their own flawed cultures.


As in the case of the travel narrative and the scientific report, the choice of the familiar letter to assert the documentary status of fiction bears witness to an important development in eighteenth-century Europe. If the creation of new kinds of fiction presupposed a growing level of general literacy, the frequency with which letters provide the vehicles for fiction indicates how wide-spread the ability not simply to read but also to write had become (see the discussion of Samuel Richardson's Pamela, Chapter 8, Passage for Study--Women's Voices in the Novel), and how broad and reliable the networks of communication of the day were. In our technologically advanced times, a letter can take weeks to get from Staten Island to the Bronx; yet many epistolary novels of the eighteenth-century assume such frequent and regular delivery of mail that important plot developments are calculated to reflect the early receipt of an important letter.

Moreover, these letters traveled reliably over relatively long distances. Two of the century's most significant compilations of letters, one fictional, one actual, bridge the traditional divide between East and West. In 1721, an eventual contributor to the French Encylopédie, Montesquieu (1689-1755), began his literary career with a dazzling and original work, the Persian Letters. Through the correspondence of his principal letter writers, two Persian tourists in France, Montesquieu reflects both on French manners and government and on the Islamic world. At the same time, a brilliant young woman married the British ambassador to Constantinpole, and as Lady Mary Wortley Montague (1689-1762) wrote a series of letters about her experiences in Turkey from 1716 to 1718. Although the letters themselves were not published until after her death, she is famous for having returned from Turkey with information about preventing smallpox by inoculation, a dramatic instance of the debt European civilization owed to the Islamic world.

The Fascination with the East

Interest in the Near East generated a range of scholarly investigations typical of the Enlightenment. In 1651, Johann H. Hottinger published his Historia Orientalis, followed in 1697 by Barthélemy d'Herbelot's Bibliotheque orientale, an alphabetically arranged compendium of facts principally focusing on Arabic, Persian, and Turkish life. The preface to d'Herbelot's two-volume work was written by Antoine Galland, whose French translation of the tales of A Thousand and One Nights was soon to become the rage of Europe (see Chapter 4, Passage from A Thousand and One Nights). In the increasingly secular environment encouraged by Deism, Christians seemed readier to look closely at the Muslim world; they certainly felt safer about doing so, for by the early eighteenth century, the West had succeeded in fending off serious military threats mounted by the Ottoman Turks in a number of Central European locations, including Budapest and Vienna.

These two cities at the heart of the Hapsburg Empire, which at its height embraced most of the European countries where the Islamic presence had been particularly prevalent, also nurtured the development of classical music.(2) Although music is the least representational of the art forms, since it does not mirror "reality" in image or word, Western classical music nevertheless reflects the Eastern influence on Austro-Hungarian culture in the frequent stylistic marking, alla Turca. This term usually indicates the presence of syncopated rhythms, a minor key, and instruments like bells and cymbals, all features of Turkish music. Similarly, the texts of many operas directly describe encounters between the Christian West and the Islamic East. Probably the best known of such work is Mozart's Abduction from the Seraglio (1782), which has two Turkish characters, one a comic villain, and one a Noble Turk who magnanimously frees a Spanish lady whom he has held captive when he realizes that she does not love him.

A corollary to the Noble Savage, an untutored embodiment of native human goodness in an Edenic Golden Age that Europeans had idealized from medieval times, the figure of the Noble Turk emerged in the early eighteenth century in literature (Candide, for example, offers responses to both stereotypes) and art as well as in music. Both the Noble Savage and the Noble Turk project European fantasies of control onto representatives of alien cultures which Europeans deeply feared.

A contemporary critic sees the application of intellectual habits that developed in the European Enlightenment as one aspect of what he calls Orientalism,(3) by which he means the way Europeans have used art and scholarship to reduce the complexity of other cultures, primarily Islamic and Oriental, to suit their own set of values. According to this view, one legacy of the eighteenth-century's worship of reason has been the West's tendency to disparage other worlds as "primitive" or "exotic," as childlike, sensual, or wild (see Chapter 10, Communities of Modernists).


(1) The Encyclopedié itself had been intended as an answer to an early English effort, The Chambers Encyclopedia, which it surpassed in every way.

(2) Neoclassical art, architecture, and literature must be distinguished from classical music, because no audible evidence of ancient music exists. Two Austrians, Franz Josef Hayden (1732-1809) and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91), the major composers in the classical stye, worked within classical principles of balance and formal variety that they inherited from Baroque music, dominated by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), rather than from antique models.

(3) Edward W. Said, Orientalism (New York: Pantheon, 1978).