Friday, March 5, 2010

Thomas Kavanagh's "Enlightened Pleasures"

Thomas M. Kavanagh, the Augustus R. Street Professor of French and department chair at Yale University, is the author of Dice, Cards, Wheels: A Different History of French Culture.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Enlightened Pleasures: Eighteenth-Century France and the New Epicureanism, and reported the following:
My page 99 focuses on how contemporary critical reactions to the works of the painter Fran├žois Boucher exemplify the French Enlightenment’s defining celebration of pleasure while foreshadowing the shift in values that would lead to pleasure’s condemnation. Charles-Nicolas Cochin may have been nothing less than ecstatic before what he describes as Boucher’s ability to capture “the flesh of Apollo and of these women in all their tenderness and delicacy.” For Denis Diderot, however, Boucher’s celebration of painting as an art evoking pleasures that speak directly to the senses would prompt his prim condemnation of him as a “man who has everything, except truth.”

The truth in whose name Diderot damned Boucher has nothing to do with the quality or verisimilitude of his images of embodied beauty. What Diderot demands of painting instead is the moral truth he so admired in Greuze’s vignettes of secular piety and familial virtue. For Diderot, a painting was far less an image that spoke to the eye than the encapsulation of a narrative that reformed the soul. Diderot’s discomfort with Boucher’s frankly materialist and sensationist esthetics of pleasure would assume a far broader and more virulent cultural form in the religion of sentiment ushered in by Rousseau’s Julie. That novel’s extolling of sentiment as the foundation of truth, virtue, and morality would relegate Boucher’s direct address to the senses as an espousal of the corrupt, the jaded, and the inhuman.

This opposition between sensual pleasure and sentimental happiness is crucial to the eighteenth century. Pleasure was private and personal; happiness will be public and collective. Pleasure involved an esthetics of the senses; happiness will impose an ethics refashioning the individual as citizen. Pleasure prompted a narrowing of consciousness to the delights of the senses; happiness will expand the consciousness of each to the welfare of all by enlisting the citizen within the morality of the common good.

Enlightened Pleasures challenges the prevailing interpretations of eighteenth-century France as a preparation for the Revolution. It argues instead that the literature, philosophy, and art of the period set the experience, refinement, scientific study, and multiplication of pleasure at the center of its cultural agenda. This new Epicureanism provided the impetus for a new epistemology, a new ethics, and a new esthetics. Knowing the world, experiencing pleasure, and creating beauty became the complementary components of a materialist cosmology, a secular morality, and a sensationalist esthetics. The Revolution abolished this age of pleasure as the Terror imposed a new and virulent religion of civic happiness sanctioned by the general will and enforced by the state.
Learn more about Enlightened Pleasures at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue