Sunday, 20 October 2013

The Dark Side of the Enlightenment

'The reading of any work of literature becomes richer and more intelligible when conducted against the background of the intellectual climate in which it was created, but for the period of the Enlightenment the historical "background" is often indispensable. First in preparing to write the book and then again while actually writing it, I spent several years pursuing such apparently disparate topics as alchemy, epistolary culture, Renaissance Egyptology, Jansenism, Pietism, the spread of Freemasonry in France, and the rise and decline of the literary salon. I say "apparently" disparate because one at length discovers in the period of the Enlightenment, as of course in other historical periods, some convincing overarching unities.'

Medievalist John V. Fleming explores The Dark Side of the Enlightenment in his recently published book at at the educated general reader. He 'chose the title The Dark Side of the Enlightenment, which is meant to be goo-humored as well as lighthearted, for probably obvious reasons. It seems rather catcy. It plays against the flattering idea of intellectual and spiritual illumination that gave birth to the word "Enlightenment," as well as its principal European equivalents, the French Lumières and the German Aufklärung. Since the period of the Enlightenment witnessed, among other things, a remarkable efflorescence of occultism and mysticism, and since such topics occupy much of my attention, the title seemed to me not merely appropriate but inevitable.'

The subtitle alludes to wizards, alchemists, and spiritual seekers in the Age of Reason, including convulsionists, the Rosy Cross, the Freemasons, and Cagliostro. The latter 'performed feats of clairvoyance ranging from the humdrum (locating mislaid peices of property) to the sensational. The empress Maria Theresa, the mother of the French queen, died on November 19, 1780. It is about eight hundred miles from Vienna to Paris. Ordinary carriage travel might be as slow as thirty miles a day, and even the fastest express relay couriers would require upward of a week. Cagliostro, newly arrived in Strassburg, had quite publicly (and daringly) predicted her death to Cardinal Rohan, with whom he had already ingratiated himself. "He even foretold the hour at which she would expire," writes Madame d'Oberkirch. "Monsier de Rohan told it me in the evening, and it was five days after that the news arrived."'

Fleming also provides a substrate of what alchemy was about, a subject nowadays hard to penetrate, but at the time still part of the intellectual context: 'Literary and iconographic evidence alike attest to the very widespread cultural diffusion of alchemical ideas and images throughout the Enlightenment period. It is true that among many thinkers, alchemy had a musty and medieval whiff about it. Yet insofar as there was a "popular" idea of a scientist, it found its expression in the image of a learned man laboring amid his exotic implements with their exotic names. In the year 1700 almost anybody interested in "the advancement of science" was likely to have an interest in alchemy; and even as experimental science developed during the eighteenth century, the alchemical dream remained vivid for many scientists.'

The Dark Side of the Enlightenment is published by W. W. Norton & Company. The cover is taken from a painting by Pietro Longhi.

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