me and the enlightenment 1 – 11/27/16

Friends of the unreal —

Well, here we are. The unreal is upon us, and has become fact. Barring a miracle, a surprising recount, an indictment, or an unforseen force majeure, Donald Trump ascends to the presidency.

Alot is being said and has been said about the Founding Fathers, our “national character,” “who we are,” “our values,” and so on. But, what are those values exactly? What did the framers of our early documents care about? What did they themselves read? What writers and thinkers did they encounter?

I’ve got the answer for you. They encountered — directly or indirectly — some pretty remarkable, and often remarkably strange, complex, and controversial writers.

They encountered the writers whom I studied and wrote about for 20 plus years, when I was a working professor at the University of California, Riverside. These are the writers of the Anglo-European Enlightenment.

These writers often get something of a bum rap, for being the harbingers of “Reason” with a capital R, and consequently being more boring than the whimsical 19th Century with its focus on the novel and on high Romanticism.

But I have always loved 18th Century literature. It’s a crazy, chaotic, wild century that culminates in the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Haitian Revolution, and more. Its writers put forth the ideas that we are grappling with right now — ideas that are not politically conservative, but the opposite: feminism, civil rights, equality, cultural relativity, and religious tolerance among them.

Sidebar: Feminism is NOT a 20th Century invention. It did not just spring up out of the brains of Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. It is not a 19th Century invention either. Take a look at a little book that Mary Shelley’s mother dashed off in her spare time.  wrote:

Likewise, the arguments in favor of the equality of human beings regardless of their race and gender are not new, although they are (apparently) still radical.

And open access to information?  Guess what?  That grand ancestor to wikipedia is also an 18th Century invention. It’s called the Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (Encyclopaedia, or a Systematic Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts, and Crafts), and you can read sections of it here.

So much happens in the 18th Century: the newspaper and the magazine begin to truly circulate, pornography gets written, professional chess players play demonstration games, the theater invents something called “domestic tragedy,” which is the basis for contemporary dramas, including soap operas. It’s the beginning of the world as we know it, despite the wigs and big dresses and breeches, and — if you are a fan of OUTLANDER — kilts (yup, that’s the 18th Century too).

But the reason I love the literature of the Enlightenment is personal.  My love starts — my former students won’t find this surprising — with Voltaire.

Finding the unexpurgated Voltaire, to be exact, when I was a student at Nightingale Bamford School for girls in New York City. The person who found it? My friend Kathy. We were in the 9th grade, and we were struggling through some French book called Candide. Gosh, was it boring. Until Kathy found a translation of it in English.

“This book is CRAZY!” she whispered to me. “Look.”

To be continued.

in the meantime, read this repeatedly banned book  for free here:


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