Agency and Anxiety: On Marie-Hélène Huet’s The Culture of Disaster

“Vue du Port de Marceille prise de l’Hotel de Ville Dessine du temps de la peste en 1720.”  National Library of Medicine.

“Vue du Port de Marceille prise de l’Hotel de Ville Dessine du temps de la peste en 1720.” National Library of Medicine.

Disasters permeate the daily news and saturate our consciousness.  Hurricane Odile bludgeons Mexico’s Baja peninsula.  An Ebola outbreak literally plagues Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone.  Ukraine’s eastern regions are torn between Kiev and Moscow.  An earthquake rattles Japan’s still-shuttered nuclear plants—and its nervous population.  This, as Marie-Hélène Huet notes in The Culture of Disaster (University of Chicago Press, 2012), is the way of the modern world.  As she demonstrates in this new, relatively brief, and quick-paced work, what has changed is not the frequency nor the severity of disasters (even if certain kinds, such as nuclear meltdowns, were unimaginable in earlier ages).  Rather, what is decidedly modern is our reaction to such events, whether they be human-made or natural.  The Culture of Disaster traces not the earth-shattering occurrences themselves but, rather, their aftermaths.  The author’s primary concern is thus the experience, rather than the cause, of disaster.

A professor of French at Princeton University, Huet focuses on disasters that either occurred within France or, as in the case of the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755, reverberated within France’s most illustrious circles, primarily during the long eighteenth century.  The Lisbon earthquake is often taken as the first great “modern” disaster by historians and eighteenth-century scholars, in part because of the exchange it provoked between Voltaire and Rousseau on the nature of divine providence.  Huet argues, however, that we misunderstand why the Lisbon quake opened modernity.  It was not important because it inaugurated the rational discourse that would eventually replace fearful reactions governed by religious beliefs or superstition—that trend can be found in earlier periods.  Rather, the quake inaugurated the period in which we still live, what we might call the “Long Enlightenment.”  Then and now, humans embrace rationality and seek the mastery of the natural world.  However, “each natural disaster,” Huet writes, “challenges both the mastery that was our goal and the political system that was put in place to serve such a purpose” (7).  The modern world may be disenchanted, but it is still unpredictable and unsafe–as unresponsive to our administrative commands as it was to our prayers.

More frightening even than the Lisbon earthquake were the epidemics that decimated families and destroyed social order, such as the plague that struck Marseilles in 1720.  Because the science of disease (its prevention, communication, and treatment) was debated but poorly understood, officials fought over how to police diseased bodies and sick populations.  Huet outlines a particularly fascinating clash between those who believed the plague to be an epidemic, spread through the air and thus best avoided by fleeing the city and other susceptible areas, and those who believed it a contagion, requiring its victims to be confined and even condemned to their city block or home in order to limit the disease’s spread.  These positions took on liberal and conservative political valences, and Huet draws her reader’s attention to the parallel between this understanding of contagion and later conservatives’ treatment of revolutionary rhetoric as ideas “carried with the speed of winds, spread like thunder and lightning, invading countries, forcibly affecting the people exposed to them – almost subjecting them – to the uncontainable power of new thoughts” (59).  This politically informed rhetoric of plague would continue to play out through the cholera epidemics of the nineteenth century in both Europe and the United States.

Central to the culture of disaster that Huet outlines is the increasing interiorization of the catastrophic experience, whereby “the sense of living through disastrous circumstances became interiorized as a unique form of individual destiny” (10).  Yet this emphasis on the individual experience of disaster also blurs Huet’s focus, for we tend to believe that we live in world-historical times, and it is only by acknowledging the truth of this ‘fact’ retroactively that the “disastrous circumstances” come to the fore.  If the book has a weakness, it is that the disaster topos is occasionally overwhelmed as Huet recounts the details of, for instance, Rousseau’s treatment of negative freedom or Gilbert Romme’s attempts to revise the French calendar and clock.  The narratives themselves are so engaging that it can be difficult to see how they connect to Huet’s larger claims about a culture of disaster.  These particular cases, grouped with the story of Chateaubriand, sit uneasily in the book’s middle section.  Perhaps the argument that “the history of man’s freedom . . . is also one one of disastrous consequences” is simply too complex to be made in a mere fifty pages in which Huet volleys between Rousseau, Kant, Romme, Robespierre, and stoicism (112).  Fortunately, The Culture of Disaster quickly regains its focus.

Huet’s treatment of Chateaubriand and the cult of the dead that developed in the wake of the revolution is one of the book’s finest chapters.  Though the Victoriansobsession with death and mourning has been well documented, the post-revolutionary period had its own morbid tendencies.  Huet notes in particular the obsession with overflowing graveyards and the burial and reburial of charismatic leaders (133).  Chateaubriand, a minor aristocrat who paid his living expenses by selling the rights to his memoirs so that they would be published immediately upon his death, was just the melancholy soul to dwell upon the many tombs to populate his adopted city of Rome.  Indeed, he titled his life story Memoirs from Beyond the Tomb. For the conservative loyalist, the execution of Louis XVI meant he would live “through a dead history as a long and fully interiorized disaster” in which the dead continued to speak (145).  Chateaubriand’s own disaster was to be more valuable dead than alive and to serve as a voice for a dead political cause for the duration of his life.

The post-mortem life of the dead also characterized one of the most gruesome disasters of the early nineteenth century, the sinking of the Medusa under the command of an incompetent captain.  The sinking itself was tragic (and likely avoidable), but what followed was ghoulish:  150 survivors spent two weeks on a rudimentary raft, many dying of dehydration, starvation, or by being crushed under other bodies.  Those who did survive to be rescued—a mere fifteen souls—chose to throw the weak overboard and resorted to cannibalism.  Five died shortly after their rescue.  Using a survivor’s written account, Romantic painter Théodore Géricault produced one of the most powerful and noxious works in the history of art, The Raft of Medusa (Le Radeau de la Méduse).  For Huet, the tragedy of the Medusa demonstrates the consequences of the human’s encounter with the inhospitable extremes of the natural world, as do Jules Verne’s novels of polar exploration.

Verne was prompted by Edgar Allan Poe’s tale, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, but perhaps even more so by Captain Sir John Franklin’s lost expedition.  (One of Franklin’s two ships was recently discovered on September 7, 2014).  Of the 128-man crew, none survived—search parties for Franklin served as the basis for Verne’s own arctic tales.  For Huet, Verne’s stories revel in the precarious world of extremes.  His emphasis on optical illusions serve to underscore what she perceives as the “fragmenting” effect of disasters, where the senses are unreliable guides to events beyond ordinary comprehension.  Yet though we have imperfect tools to do so, Huet persuades us nonetheless that “our culture thinks through disasters” (2).  The work of The Culture of Disaster to illuminate “changing conceptual structures” of our disaster-saturated culture suggests both that accounts of modernity’s disenchantment are overstated and that enchantment is perhaps more ominous than generally believed (13).

“An Unknown Arc into the Future”: An Interview with Daniel Lewis, Curator of Beautiful Science: Ideas that Changed the World

Joseph Wright of Derby, Philosopher Giving a Lecture on the Orrery.  ca. 1768. Oil on canvas. 17 5/8 x 23 1/2 inches (44.8 x 59.7 cm).  Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

Joseph Wright of Derby, Philosopher Giving a Lecture on the Orrery. ca. 1768. Oil on canvas. 17 5/8 x 23 1/2 inches (44.8 x 59.7 cm). Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

Have you ever wanted to look through Galileo’s telescope, compare Hooke’s illustrations in Micrographia to the specimens he depicted, or turn through the pages of Diderot’s Encyclopédie with your own hands?  Or to see a first edition of Vesalius’ On the Fabric of the Human Body, Descartes’ Discourse on Method, and Franklin’s Experiments and Observations on Electricity, preferably without having to travel from library to library?  Within the Huntington Library’s exhibition, Beautiful Science:  Ideas that Changed the World, these and many more objects are on view and clamor for your attention.  Opening in 2008, the exhibition is beautifully in tune with the recent resurgent interest in Enlightenment and Romantic science, most notably with the success of Richard Holmes’ The Age of WonderI recently visited Beautiful Science for a tour with its curator, Daniel Lewis, as a student of the California Rare Book School.  I later interviewed Lewis about the curatorial choices facing him in developing Beautiful Science and his goals for the exhibition.  Below is an edited version of our emailed conversation.


Beautiful Science grew out of an enormous donation of the “Burndy Library,” 67,000 volumes of books and manuscripts from the Dibner family, which then drove you back to the Huntington’s own history of science collection.  What was the shape of that collection?


The Huntington’s history of science collections, as they existed before the arrival of the Burndy, were substantial.  A small handful of items were on display in the “New Worlds” section of the Main Library Exhibit Hall, but there was nothing like a public history of science exhibit presence before the arrival of the Burndy collection from the Dibner family.  Enlightenment science, however, was certainly of great interest in the research side of things at the Huntington.  We are one of the world’s great repositories for early modern British history, and the history of science, medicine and technology has been an important aspect of scholarly investigations for at least a quarter-century.


There’s a real emphasis in the exhibition on engaging the senses – visitors are invited to look through replica microscopes, reenact experiments with light, and open stoppers to sniff medicinal herbs.  Was there something about the material you were displaying that invited this particular approach?  Was there any resistance to it?


I wanted very much to find a way for visitors to engage in a very low-level tactile fashion with the exhibit — what I call “interactive light.”  I didn’t want people to misunderstand the exhibit to be a science center.  There’s nothing for people to jump up and down on; nothing to throw or no mild electrical shocks to receive.  It’s a library exhibit, above all else, and almost everything in the exhibit is designed to reinforce this.  But that doesn’t mean we didn’t want to engage people with the olfactory, the tactile, and the experiential.


Speaking of the exhibit’s tactile quality, you have on display an original volume of Diderot’s Encyclopédie, which visitors can sit down and page through at their leisure – a truly rare event!  How in the world did that happen?


One of the most common requests I get when doing show-and-tells for visitors and potential donors, is, “Can I touch that?”  The answer is usually no — but I wanted people in an exhibit setting to understand what old paper felt like — its long fibers, its soft, pliable nature, its smell, and any other characteristic that people wanted to investigate (non-destructively!).  So I located an eighteenth century work — old enough to be made from old cotton rags, rather than more modern wood-pulp paper — that was very common.  Diderot’s Encyclopédie was printed in large numbers, and we have three pristine sets — and I thought it an appropriate use for the work to be put on public display.


Do you see Beautiful Science as intervening, or taking a stand, in any particular curatorial or pedagogical disputes?  What do you think the public duty of an institution like the Huntington ought to be in the communication or preservation of ideas?


In some ways, Beautiful Science is a love letter to beauty and science.  It doesn’t particularly critique the very numerous things that science has not done well, or scientific knowledge that has been submerged for various reasons, nor does it make comment on, say, the horrors of modern warfare that science has made possible.  But that kind of critique wasn’t my goal for the exhibit.  The goal really was to show the different ways that science could be beautiful, simply put.  I think if I took any obvious pedagogical stance, it’s that there’s an immediacy to original library materials that can’t be replaced by the digital or the analog facsimile, and that to be in the presence of books is to see the power of big ideas that can be widely distributed over space and time.


You mentioned during my visit that an exhibition catalogue is in the works.  What particular considerations does the catalogue require?


I’ve been creating the catalog as a superset of the exhibit — it has the same major themes and subthemes, but I’ve stretched my legs a bit to show other items in the catalog for which there was no physical room in the brick-and-mortar exhibit.  The catalog will also contain considerably more text.  Books are different creatures than exhibits, as there are no time constraints on a “visit” to a printed catalog in the way there usually are in an exhibit setting.


The exhibition’s rooms each have their own theme: astronomy, light, medicine, and natural history.  If you were to add a fifth room, what area would you pick?  Are there some alchemy and chemistry holdings in the wings?


I’d have a room full of dusty computers.  NOT!  I suppose I’d like to have a section on civil and military engineering — both great strengths of ours.  Applied science is a beautiful thing.


It struck me when I visited that Beautiful Science was remarkably accessible – that it would be equally appealing to school kids, folks seeking shade while wandering the Huntington grounds, and eighteenth-century enthusiasts.  How did you go about striking a balance?


I stared at my computer screen until beads of blood appeared on my forehead.  Writing label text that’s sufficiently brief, not overly self-involved or navel-gazing, accurate, accessible, and reasonably eloquent is a very difficult task.  I’m probably most proud of the text in the exhibit; I conceived and wrote it all myself.


What would you say is the importance of remembering the outmoded ideas on display — the models of the universe we know are incorrect, the animals we know don’t exist (I’m looking at you, manticore)?


I think those things reinforce an idea that I make explicit on my title wall text as you walk into the exhibit:  that we’re on an unknown arc into the future, and that our ideas about the physical world are likely to change, be stood on their head, and then change again.


Are there any particular items that the eighteenth century enthusiasts should be on the lookout for?


Sure, plenty.  I suppose my favorites are the early notions of transmutation or fixity of species — the concept that we live in an evolving natural world was actually more widely considered than people give early natural philosophers credit for.  But you do have to reach further back before that period to get a more modern view, ironically.


A silly question, but if you were to choose a single favorite historical item on display, what would it be?


That’s a tough one, akin to “which of your children do you love the best?”  Three leading candidates:  Gersdorff’s 1517 Fieldbook of Wound Surgery¸for its dramatic and bloody renderings of medical assistance; or Darwin’s 1859 On the Origin of Species, for its world-changing views of nature; or the early nineteenth century French natural history manuscript — untitled — by a trio of French illustrators about whom very little is known.  The illustrations are absolutely breathtaking. 

Daniel Lewis is the Chief Curator of Manuscripts and the Dibner Senior Curator of the History of Science and Technology, at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. He is also a Research Associate Professor of History at Claremont Graduate University and a faculty member at the California Rare Book School.


Further Reading: 


Benedict, Barbara.  Curiosity:  A Cultural History of Early Modern Inquiry.  Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 2002.


Blom, Philipp.  Enlightening the World:  Encyclopedia, The Book That Changed the Course of History.  New York:  Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.


Dolnick, Edward.  The Clockwork Universe:  Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World.  New York:  Harper Collins, 2011.


Dugatkin, Lee Alan.  Mr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose:  Natural History in Early America.  Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 2009.


Hamblyn, Richard.  The Invention of Clouds:  How an Amateur Meteorologist Forged the Language of the Skies.  New York:  Picador, 2001.


Holmes, Richard.  The Age of Wonder.  New York:  Vintage Books, 2008.


Hoskin, Michael.  Discoverers of the Universe:  William and Caroline Herschel.  Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 2011.


Jardine, Lisa.  Ingenious Pursuits:  Building the Scientific Revolution.  New York:  Random House, 1999.


Moore, Wendy.  The Knife Man:  Blood, Body Snatching, and the Birth of Modern Surgery.  New York:  Broadway Books, 2005.


Porter, Roy.  The Greatest Benefit to Mankind:  A Medical History of Humanity.  New York:  Norton Books, 1999.


Ridley, Glynis.  The Discovery of Jeanne Baret:  A Story of Science, the High Seas, and the First Woman to Circumnavigate the Globe.  New York:  Random House, 2010.


Shank, J.B.  The Newton Wars and the Beginning of the French Enlightenment.  Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 2008.


Shapin, Steven and Simon Schaffer.  Leviathan and the Air-Pump:  Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life.  Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 2011 [1985].


Stalnaker, Joanna.  The Unfinished Enlightenment:  Description in the Age of the Encyclopedia.  Ithaca:  Cornell University Press, 2010.


Stott, Rebecca.  Darwin’s Ghosts:  The Secret History of Evolution.  New York:  Spiegel and Grau, 2012.


Withers, Charles W.J.  Placing the Enlightenment:  Thinking Geographically about the Age of Reason.  Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 2007.