Yale Enlightened

Merde,” says Moi. He has just spilled ink over his manuscript, his nightgown, his bedclothes. The instrument of his control over words is running wild across the laundry. Trying to describe a rebellious acquaintance (Lui), he finds the very ink rebelling, disturbing his neat white repose among the sheets (and the sheets of paper). Unwrapping bed-cerements from himself, he must stumble up and into a defensive posture. One does not lightly recall Rameau’s nephew. So, at last, the dramatization of Diderot’s Neveu de Rameau began, in the sweltering common room of Jonathan Edwards College at Yale. It had been delayed, rained out, moved indoors, cut from three to two performances. But it was the great triumph of a greatly interesting week.

New Haven is generally ugly, but never more so than in summer. It manages to have the look of a factory town without actually being one. It is soggy with nearby water, yet it must be fled to reach relatively uncontaminated bits of Sound. To make things worse, the week of July 13-20 began in the trail-off of a long summer rain. “Pluvio, sempre pluvio—sempre! sempre!” an Italian lumière muttered as he overtook me in the mid-day darkness and stood under an awning. Yet Yale was still the obvious place for the fourth International Congress on the Enlightenment—the first one held in America. To students of the eighteenth century, it is a factory town, whose dark scholastic mills turn out volume after volume of the Walpole papers, Boswell papers, Franklin letters, and Johnson publications. Yale has consigned much of its twentieth century, whole careers of its old and young men, to repeating the eighteenth century comma by comma. The Enlightenment’s “acres of typography,” whose republication Carlyle described in 1833 as not “within computable distance of completion,” are now at least computable, if not completable.

Some of the raw material from the “factories” was put on display in the Beinecke Library—e.g., Boswell’s letter trying to get Voltaire as interested in his (Boswell’s) soul as Dr. Johnson was. The only messy page in these cabinets of neat calligraphy was by a painter—Joshua Reynolds’s “character” of Samuel Johnson. In the Sterling Library, one could look at some of Benjamin Franklin’s letters and at what was probably his own electrostatic machine. There were ancillary exhibits of eighteenth-century calling cards, playing cards, coins, bookplates, and scientific instruments (“philosophical apparatus,” as they would have been called).

In the art school, the great Trumbull collection of colonial and federal paintings was available (e.g., Peale’s portrait of William Buckland against a classical façade, showing the ideal he followed rather than the kind of buildings he put up). The Boston Museum of Fine Arts, within easy striking distance, was showing Copley’s best American portraits and a dazzling display of silver work by the Reverses (père et fils). The Metropolitan in New York had, by happy accident, three exhibits of interest to those at the Congress: 1) two-thirds of the huge Detroit-Paris show of revolutionary-era paintings from France,…

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