Saturday, August 3, 2013

John V. Fleming's "The Dark Side of the Enlightenment"

John V. Fleming, a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, taught humanistic studies at Princeton University for forty years. He is the author of The Anti-Communist Manifestos: Four Books That Shaped the Cold War.

Fleming applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Dark Side of the Enlightenment: Wizards, Alchemists, and Spiritual Seekers in the Age of Reason, and reported the following:
“The episode of the Convulsionists was necessarily political.”

I suppose that is the crystallizing sentence of page ninety-nine of The Dark Side of the Enlightenment–a page that, while perhaps falling slightly short of the distilled brilliance of page ninety-eight or the mellower wisdom of page one hundred, nonetheless achieves a useful transition in my account of the celebrated medical miracles at the Parisian church of Saint-Médard in the 1730s. The observation that our politics often become convulsive would be a cliché; I hope there is more originality in the claim that convulsions can be political. The convulsions in question on page ninety-nine were the strange bodily spasms, promiscuous writhings, and alarming holy rollings characteristic of the beneficiaries of the miracle cures effected at the tomb of a recently defunct deacon.

The chapter on the Convulsionists, in which the ninety-ninth page happens to fall, is one of two dealing with the annoying persistence of supernatural extravagances in the Age of Reason. The book as a whole has the ambition of broadening the reader’s view of the European Enlightenment by drawing attention to what I good-naturedly call its “dark side”. Students of the Enlightenment have generally preferred the carefully trimmed lawns and geometrical parterres of its intellectual garden, but if you are in search of the best mushrooms you may have to stray out into the weeds.

Other chapters include accounts of the Rosicrucians and their self-appointed mission of “the reformation of the whole, wide world” and of the complex social and intellectual role of Freemasonry, which spread through the elite centers of eighteenth-century Europe with astonishing speed. One chapter deals with the three principal occult pastimes of the enlightened—alchemy, magic, and kabbala.

I am one of those who continue to think that the indispensable part of history is story. About half the book, accordingly is given over to the biographies of two remarkable figures in whom the complexities and irresolutions of the Enlightenment are vibrant. “Count” Cagliostro, magician to the rich and famous, is one of history’s better-known con men. I claim he was more than that. The reader will perhaps never before have encountered Julie de Krüdener—whom I describe as a combination of Danielle Steel and Mother Teresa. Here is your chance to meet her.
Learn more about the book and author at John V. Fleming's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue