back to original page

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

TOWARD A NEW AGE

The attraction for the childlike, the exotic, and the wild was not limited to encounters with the East, however. In the development of such tastes we see the first surges of Romanticism. As previously suggested, the elevation of reason among the most sophisticated thinkers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries never implied a simple-minded denial of passion; indeed, by the end of the century, passion, or feeling, the more popular term by then, nearly had been rehabilitated.

Major religious changes precipitated this new receptivity to the emotions, known as "sensibility" in English, sensibilité in French, and Empfindsamkeit in German. At the same time that Voltaire and Diderot were scorning religious superstition and enlightened thinkers were counselling toleration for philosophical reasons as well as for social peace, a wave of religious enthusiasm(1) and revivalism swept through England and America carrying the rural and urban poor into Methodism, founded by John Wesley (1703-1791), and evangelicalism. In addition, throughout the eighteenth century, religious mysticism remained powerfully present in the mentality of high and low alike in Central Europe.

Even in the countries primarily associated with the rationalism and economic and political individualism of the Enlightenment, a cult of feeling and domesticity gained strength. Art and literature took new turns, mirroring this shift. The gothic novel, a new fictional genre that pursued nightmare visions of sexual and emotional excess, supplanted fantasies like Candide and Gulliver's Travels and their preoccupation with social organization and research programs. Rather imprecisely named for the Goths, Germanic tribes who symbolized the anti-classical barbarian onslaught of the "Dark Ages," gothics were horror stories like Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto (1764), set in a thirteenth-century castle plagued by an ancient curse. The success of Walpole's novel triggered a spate of similar thrillers and led to a reevaluation of medieval literature. Old folk ballads soon acquired such glamor that aspiring poets imitated what they took to be the wild, impassioned style of a pre-rational age.

In the visual arts, the late eighteenth century is simultaneously the era of France's Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), whose paintings of explicitly classical scenes were enormously influential, and of Spain's Francisco Goya (1746-1828). The title of an etching from a series Goya produced in 1796-98 explains where the eighteenth century seemed to have led: The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters. Like the Swiss-English artist Henry Fuseli (1741-1825), Goya created a visual style of nightmarish distortion that gave the lie to the dream of rational balance that had transfixed the eighteenth century.

Footnotes

(1) The varying definitions of "enthusiasm" in Johnson's Dictionary indicate his own uneasiness in the face of what the word representd: "(1) A vain belief of private revelation; a vain confidence of divine favour or communication." Johnson feared "(2) Heat of imagination; violence of passion; confidence of opinion" as much as he may have admired "(3) elevation of fancy; exaltation of ideas."