• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

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, 2) a display of George Washington icons, 3) a sample of European images for the continent of America (from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries).

These neatly overlapped. America, as allegorized in the Four Continents scheme of the seventeenth century, shows up in the Roman chariot driven by George Washington; and the apotheosis of Washington could be compared with that of Napoleon in the Detroit-Paris show. Napoleon is called back from the pyramids by a distraught “France,” and American Freedom bids farewell to Washington as he returns to the plow of Cincinnatus.

These riches were offered on fairly austere terms. Most scholars had to bed down in the linked Eero Saarinen colleges, Morse (for those traveling alone) or Ezra Stiles (for those with mate and/or children)—they were let in at night, out in the morning, by student turnkeys who also turned the tables on their elders, eying the singles toward their separate doors. The roster of those attending was a “Who’s Who” of eighteenth-century studies, and let people put faces to many names from the card catalogue. Logistics were admirably handled by Professor Georges May, the host for the Congress, who had to cope with nearly 1,000 participants, roughly a fourth from abroad. Each afternoon groups sorted themselves out toward seven or so different panel sessions, with up to eight papers in each session. The published proceedings are expected to run to six large volumes, over twice the bulk from the last Congress (at Nancy). Meeting places were widely scattered, on a crazed map dictated by the presence of air conditioning. This made it hard or impossible to shop around for single papers. Once you dashed through the rain, or slogged through heat, to one site, you were probably committed for the afternoon.

A philosophe returned to this study of his prime might wonder why, with such an army of dix-huitiemists on hand, the Congress did not make a revolution, rather than footnote one. The Encyclopédie itself would have felt on easy street with the resources of just one Yale “factory”; and a modern Diderot would not trouble himself with the daily life of a proto-Diderot two centuries back. Both speakers at the opening ceremonies obviously felt the need to justify this huge effort in terms beyond the anti-quarian. Lester Crocker, outgoing president of the International Society for Eighteenth Century Studies, gave his epigrams an appropriate balance, comparing philosophes with the new left: “The first were reformers who brought about a revolution; the second may be revolutionaries who bring about reform.” He also compared the eighteenth-century myth of the bourgeoisie to Marx’s myth of the proletariat, and said the time had come to live without myths. The philosophes were models in so far as they attacked old myths; but only warning figures in so far as they erected new myths themselves, like the myth of Nature or of Nature’s laws.

That was like a red flag waved at the next speaker, Peter Gay, for whom the Enlightenment is a norm used in judging everything else. Gay attacked three kinds of “gravediggers” who reinter the eighteenth century in the very act of unearthing it: 1) the embalmers (many of them, clearly, working in Yale’s factories): 2) the distorters, who try to find the seeds of modern totalitarian thought in the eighteenth century (everyone knew he was thinking of Crocker’s own book on Rousseau); and 3) the discouraged, who have simply lost the nerve or will to keep working at the Enlightenment’s unfinished agenda.

Gay was warmly applauded, especially by older members present. It is odd. He praises the philosophes for their attack on Biblical fundamentalism; but he has become a fundamentalist of the Enlightenment. Anything good, it gave us; if anything the philosophes say suggests this is not the case, then they must be interpreted in increasingly complex rescue efforts of exegesis. It reminds me of a passage in Gay’s own book on the Enlightenment. Kart had attacked Herder for going back beyond the classical era in his search for the beginnings of history: “The review is a touching moment in the history of the late Enlightenment: the representative of a great but aging movement faces the representative of a new dispensation, refusing to believe that change is progress….”

There was a generation gap at the Congress, as in most places these days. René Wellek finished an interesting paper (on the Enlightenment’s) fear of the price to be paid for progress) with an unrelated denunciation of the modern world for its lack of clear standards. One of his more famous colleagues at Yale whispered, “That is so beautiful I cannot bear to stay and hear the attacks on it”—and he left. He was right, of course. All the questions were aimed, with increasing animosity, at Wellek’s concluding remarks, not at the heart of his address. What standards would he impose today? (“That would take another lecture.”) What, for that matter, was so good about the taste of a century that wept over Chatterton, Ossian, and Young? (“That is just eighteenth-century sentimentality.”) Grumbling after the talk partially defined those groups that would go at each other on the last big night, fighting this year’s mandatory struggle over things like the representation of women in the slate of officers. After the first day, an Australian said, “Have you noticed that all those giving talks to the plenary sessions in the morning are over sixty? They are the enemy.” They. Les autres.

Moi is a great upholder of standards—the self-sufficient man. His hero is Diogenes masturbating in his tub. Each day at a certain time he takes a walk, plays with ideas on a specified bench (like another kind of man flirting with the day’s first streetwalkers), and goes to watch “the wood pushers” at their game of chess in the Café de la Régence. It is a daily minuet, across a Paris dance floor as well marked for him as the chessboard he oversees. Moi paces out afternoon ruminations by the Seine; his mind flirts decorously with the edged lights and shadows of late day. The world dims a bit, but is more defined, as the light gives everything a shadow-double, chessboard-chequering the world into a pattern. Standards are imposable.

It was a master stroke of Alvin Epstein, the Moi of Yale’s repertory theater production, and the dialogue’s director, not to stage Le Neveu in the obvious literal place, in the café amid silent chess players. The play shows us Moi as he is writing up the dialogue His bed is a rumpled altar, bright-lit deathbed out of David—with a huge dark painting, a third-rate Raphael, as its headboard. It is flanked by carved columns. Moi is disposed between them, composing his memories of talk with Lui. That quaint nephew exists only as Moi gives him inky life on the page. The man of reason is in control, creating his own foil in the remembered debates of late day, so he can answer him.

Much of the Congress would fray out into argument about the very meaning of Enlightenment. Who were the truly enlightened? Gay, in his lecture, referred lightly to George Orwell as “a later philosophe.” He could find a philosophe in the twentieth century, but some panels had a hard time finding philosophes in the eighteenth century. If Kant’s critique was the ideal toward which the Enlightenment was striving, then few reached that high plateau. Should men be called philosophes just because they addressed the same “contemporary” issues of their day? That would make Dr. Johnson as much a philosophe as Diderot.

These questions posed themselves several times in the panel on the Scottish Enlightenment. Was Lord Forbes of Pitsligo a proto-philosophe simply because he came between Pascal and Hume, and registered some of the pressures making from the one to the other? Yet he was a defender of the Old Cause. More to the point: James Beattie was a foe of Hume on his own ground—did that make him a shadow-philosophe, a corrective to be incorporated, not merely an antiphilosophe? In other sessions, analogous problems arose. Were the philosophes more enlightened, or less, than their later rivals, the idéologues? Was enlightenment better advanced by the économistes or by physiocrates? And it was pointed out that the unenlightened—Blake, Johnson, Linguet, Rochester—often saw life with more clarity or compassion than their “philosophical” opponents. At times in the Congress the Enlightenment seemed to be darkening, talk by talk, toward nearly total eclipse.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print