Science Hasn’t Been This Politicized Since 1676

King Charles II depicted as the President of the Royal Society.

On April 22, a vast cohort of scientists and their allies descended on Washington to take part in the DC March for Science. Researchers and educators, academics and civilians, town and gown, stood together to “express their fealty to reason, data, and, above all, the scientific method,” as a recent New Yorker article put it. Striking back at a Administration that has openly denied scientific consensus on issues such as climate change, even going so far as to purge scientific data from government servers, scientists marched against what seems to many like a sudden and shocking politicization of science.

The experts don’t get to tell us what the facts are, the new Know-nothings say, and so dismiss inconvenient truths as nothing more than the ideological impositions of a liberal elite. In response, the marchers planned less a day of protests than a public witnessing for the core values of objective truth, empirical inquiry and peer review. The event they planned would be something like a cross between a protest rally and a science fair, where researchers set up tents and hold teach-ins about just what it is that they study and why it matters to the public. Organizers intended to put pressure on politicians to heed scientific expertise, but they were also looking to put on the kind of show that would win back both the hearts and the minds of America. Nevertheless, there was handwringing among some scientists who feared the march would “trivialize and politicize the science” and turn scientists into just “another group caught up in the culture wars.”

As the Pacific Standard has rightly pointed out, we should not be so quick to assume that science has never been and shouldn’t be politicized. The scientist as a non-partisan figure is a cold war innovation, Francie Diep points out, born of a time when the government began investing heavily in university science programs, and when there was leverage in taking the position that “scientific ideas were apolitical and value-neutral.”

But there’s a much longer and complex history here. In fact, modern science as we understand it — the empirical study of natural phenomena, the accumulation of experimental facts that lead to hypothetical explanations, in short, the scientific method — was the product of a late 17th century controversy about the value of experimental knowledge. Early modern debates bout the reliability of science and the trustworthiness of the scientist are remarkably similar to the controversy we find ourselves in today. Few of us realize that in its very moment of emergence, modern science had to invent the concept of scientific objectivity in order to prevent it from being strangled in its cradle by scoffers.

It’s jarring to learn that the earliest criticisms of science are coming back to the fore today. In the Post-Truth, Post-Trump world, scientists fear that their hard-won expertise is not being respected anymore, while skeptics delight in calling bullshit on their claims to objectivity. Scientists point to data sets, experimental controls, and peer review, while deniers will say that science can be little more than a flim-flam: a dog-and-pony show that tries to dazzle us with data while pushing an ideological agenda.

It’s like its 1676 all over again.

I have only to draw the curtain, and to show you the world” cries the proselytizing Philosopher in Bernard Fontenelle’s best-selling work of popular science, Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds. This frontispiece illustration to a 1686 edition pulls back the curtain on the thrilling spectacle of an infinite universe.

For at least a generation, scholars of history, sociology and cultural studies in the emergent interdisciplinary field of Science Studies have been exploring the struggle to define science as a discourse of empirical truth. Of particular relevance to the March For Science is a body of work that reminds us of early modern science’s debts to spectacle, theatricality and performance: the modern fact had to be fabricated through the making of experiments, and those facts had to be witnessed and verified by experts in order to be approved as such. Early science really was a kind of performing art, subject to regimes of stagecraft that reverberated across the laboratory, the lecture hall, the anatomy theater, and the public stage.

This kinship was not lost on their early scientists’ contemporaries in the playhouse, which used that powerful platform for the shaping of public opinion to interrogate the new science and its radical new claims about the nature of knowledge. Indeed, the way that eighteenth-century plays depicted scientists had a massive influence on contemporary debates over the role that experimental science was to play in modern life. The new science got terrible press until it could establish itself as objective, reasonable and disinterested. But the theater shaped the very form that science itself was to take. By disciplining, and ultimately helping to legitimate, what was then called natural philosophy, the eighteenth-century stage helped to naturalize an epistemology based on self-evident facts that one need only see to believe. However, in oder to do this, scientists had to make recourse to elements of spectacle and performance that proved difficult for them to square with their need to present their work as objective, “apolitical and value neutral.”

A Shining Instance of the Scientific Method

Frontispiece portrait from a 1738 edition of Boyle’s collected Works.

To put some flesh on the bones, as it were, of this history I am trying to sketch, I need to tell the story of this man.  This is Robert Boyle, pictured here a few decades after his death, in the frontispiece illustration that appeared in a posthumous edition of his Works. The youngest son of the Earl of Cork, one of the wealthiest men of the seventeenth century, he was an aristocrat by birth but a scientist by calling. This unmarried, deeply pious son of extraordinary privilege spent his life “addicted to natural philosophy” as he memorably put it, and he was a key patron and prime mover of the Royal Society, one of the earliest scientific organizations. Indeed, Boyle was England’s most eminent virtuoso, a fashionable term adopted by Boyle and his colleagues that highlighted their supposedly selfless and virtuous dedication to the pursuit of pure knowledge.

His considerable achievements are remembered to this day in Boyle’s Law, that fundamental relationship between the pressure, temperature and volume of gases that we all learned in high school. A first-rate experimentalist, Boyle conducted foundational research into the nature of the physical world. In this frontispiece portrait, we can see to the right his chemical forge: Boyle’s work as a ”skeptical chemist” helped re-found the ancient practices of alchemy as rational modern chemistry. However, it is the apparatus on the left that we should linger over. This is an image of his celebrated airpump, and in light of the revolution it sparked in matter theory, it’s not too much to call this device the particle accelerator of the 17th century. Indeed, in his epochal New Experiments Physico-Mechanical (1661), Boyle used his airpump to overturn the ancient assumption that a vacuum could not exist in nature. He was able to contrive one under that glass dome, and in doing so discovered previously unknown properties of air — that it had weight, and that these material properties gave the air what he called “spring.”

Keeping that airpump in mind, let’s shift the scene to the night of February 15, 1672, when Boyle’s well-earned sleep was interrupted by an assistant who burst into his bedroom with some surprising news. A kitchen servant, upon going into the larder, “was frightened by something Luminous that she saw.” Intrigued, the natural philosopher leapt into action: “I presently sent for the meat into my Chamber,” he later wrote, “and then I plainly saw, both with wonder and delight, that the joint of meat did in diverse places shine.”

Boyle didn’t get much sleep that night. Instead of going to bed, he launched into an hours-long series of experiments and observations on the shining slab of flesh, right there in his bedroom. In the eight-page letter he eventually published in the Philosophical Transactions, the house publication of the Royal Society and the first scientific journal in history, Boyle relates no less than eighteen distinct matters of fact, such as:

  1. a) the neck of veal glowed in upwards of twenty different areas, most of them no bigger than a man’s fingernail;
  2. b) the “more resplendent spots” were sufficient to read by. Boyle happened to have a copy of the Philosophical Transactions by him, and he could make out a few letters on the title page;
  3. c) the light emitted was generally “a fine greenish blewe,” kind of like glowworms;
  4. d) it did not emit heat, as affirmed by the touch of a bare hand, as well as by the application of “a seal’d Weather glass”;
  5. e) no one could smell “the least degree of stink”;
  6. f) the wind was out of the southwest that night, blustery and warm, air pressure was 29 3/16 inches of mercury, the moon past its last quarter;
  7. g) the light was extinguished in pure alcohol, but water would not quench it.

Other articles published that month presented new astronomical calculations, reviewed a recent book of “curious voyages”, and a described a “singular kind of Mushroom” whose “Milky Juice, [is] not to be endur’d upon our tongues.”

Just think about what it would have taken — in terms of time, effort and expertise — to amass this register of facts. But let’s also consider what filter, if any, Boyle placed on his research. You get the sense that Boyle believes literally every single detail could be relevant, and so he omits nothing that fell under his gaze. And why should he? Naturalists like Boyle cultivated exquisite states of affective enthrallment in spectacular natural phenomena as part of their scientific practice.

Yet the standard critical story about the emergence of modern science sounds very different notes. Mostly, we hear about the modesty and probity of early scientists, and the care they took to produce what we now recognize as scientific objectivity. Perhaps the most influential account of early experimental science, Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer’s Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life (1985), explains how natural philosophers carefully performed and re-performed their experiments in semi-public assemblies until all those present arrived at a consensus about the findings. They then wrote up their experiments in often excruciating detail so that absent virtuosi could “virtually witness” the new facts and thus give their approbation to new discoveries. They deliberately restricted themselves to empirical accounts of the bare matters of fact that their experiments produced, thereby avoiding the paralysis of theoretical arguments. And, crucially, they adopted gentlemanly codes of behavior that dictated how one ought to make truth claims, and indeed, who gets to speak the truth in the first place.

These forces combine to give birth to what were then absolute novelties in human history: the fact that speaks for itself, and the scientist who is merely its objective witness. And vouchsafing the two great innovations of early modern experimental natural philosophy — self-evident facts and scientific objectivity — was a new kind of man, a figure Shapin and Schaffer call the “modest witness.” Boyle, with his prolix, cautious experimental reports, with his dazzling new scientific instrument, and especially with his unimpeachable gentlemanly ethos, was of course their paragon and exemplar.

My own research seeks to trouble that story just a little bit. Once you read just a little outside the lines of the texts that 20th century science has deemed canonical — Boyle’s airpump experiments for example — we encounter scenes of experiment that seem very far from modesty or objectivity.

After all, in the case of the shining veal, Boyle postponed his sleep for what must have been hours, working through the night, mostly in the absolute dark, making painstaking observation after observation: inspecting, rubbing, sniffing, measuring, and defacing the raw and bloody neck of a calf that, on the sudden report of a servant, is whisked out of the larder and summoned to his bed-chamber. Instruments and contraptions are gathered from all parts of the house, data is recorded, trials are performed, and then re-performed, and a scrupulous account is produced. All of this makes me ask, what if the signal legacy of experimental science was not the modest witness’ modesty, but rather the irrepressibility of his witnessing? What if the scientist’s absolute dedication to observation betrays not a rational and ascetic erasure of self-interest, but rather a highly unstable, affective immersion in the spectacle of facts?

Riveted “both with wonder and delight” (his words), Boyle is a witness to something above and beyond bare modesty. Indeed, when Boyle reveals, at the end of his report, that he had to curtail his experiments upon learning that his niece was on her deathbed, the sudden and terrible news proves to be no real impediment at all. He writes of being “hastily called up before day[break]” with the news of her “gasping” condition, which he says left him “too much affected…to leave me any time for Philosophical entertainments.” Yet in the next breath he reports one last matter of fact about the specimen. Finding that it continued to shine the next morning. “Only this I took notice of, because the observation could not cost me a minute of an hour.” But it’s not simply that Boyle couldn’t help himself from making one last experiment before domestic responsibilities called him away. In fact, the entire experimental narrative was written the morning after the activities of the night before.

Such an absorption in the spectacles of science is entirely expected from someone who kept his eyes shut tight as his assistant refitted the airpump by candlelight, so as to not compromise his night vision….Or from someone who, in another set of experiments on a luminescent gemstone, reported that he went so far as to “take it into bed with him, and hold it a good while upon a warm part of his naked body.” Indeed, the scene of experiment is a fraught space, full of surprise and wonder and potentially unruly affect, where the experiments and experiences remain a perpetual lure for the imagination.

In their influential account of the origins of modern science, Wonders and the Order of Nature 1150–1750 (1998), Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park have argued that wonder, and the so-called “strange facts” that preoccupied early naturalists, was disciplined out of natural philosophy over the course of the long eighteenth century. But we shouldn’t be so sure that Boylean wonder was chiefly prized for, and necessarily lead to, a more rational and curious analysis of spectacular experimental phenomena. Indeed, that is precisely the impression Boyle’s contemporaries got, judging from a highly influential and long-lived satire of natural philosophers that first appeared on the stage in 1676.

Eager Spectators in the Theater of Experiment

A View of the Dorset Gardens Playhouse, where Shadwell’s Virtuoso was staged.

The London playhouses were powerful sites of cultural mediation. They satirized trends, made political statements, insulted public figures, and set fashions. Accordingly, over the course of the long eighteenth century, there were dozens of plays featuring crackpot scientists, sketchy doctors, randy anatomists, doltish antiquaries, and shifty projectors peddling questionable technologies (sort of the early modern equivalent of flash-in-the-pan start-ups). But the play I want to bring into view is The Virtuoso, which was a major success for author Thomas Shadwell in the style of the hard, satiric comedy favored in the Restoration.

The play itself is a conventionally-plotted sex comedy. The misguided scientist Sir Nicholas Gimcrack and his foolish friends attempt to keep his two young, rich and beautiful nieces out of social circulation. The impecunious Gimcrack wants power over their purses, while his friends want access to their persons. The pleasure-loving young rakes Longvil and Bruce must chisel their way into Miranda and Clarinda’s affections while extricate themselves from the sexual advances of Lady Gimcrack, Sir Nicholas’ neglected wife, who spends all her time trying to cuckold him abundantly.

As delightful as all this sounds — and this play really is a lost gem — the real draw of Shadwell’s play was the new kind of fool that Gimcrack is. The “virtuoso,” in Shadwell’s telling, is fatally distracted from his proper duties as a husband, a guardian and a citizen by his useless experiments. The play’s popularity derived from how effectively it diagnosed and demolished this new species of idiot. Indeed, the play has retained a long hold on our imaginations even if most of us are unfamiliar with the source. Shadwell’s anti-hero served as a touchstone for critiques of scientific credulity and insignificance throughout the Enlightenment — a satiric “Will of the Virtuoso” was published in the Tatler a full 34 years after the play premiered. In fact, Gimcrack is the point of origin for the stereotype of the nerd scientist, hopelessly befuddled by his narrow interests, who is socially and romantically clueless for all his vanity. The precise antitype of the mad scientist (who finds his origins in Victor Frankenstein), the ghost of Gimcrack is still very much with us, as anyone who’s ever caught a rerun of The Big Bang Theory can plainly see.

Hooke’s Micrographia afforded astonishing new perspectives on previously invisible phenomena. For some, this showed God’s awesome providence and the triumph of man’s reason. For others, it betrayed an almost pathological obsession with the mean, the lowly, the filthy, and the useless.

We know that contemporaries identified a number of satiric targets in Shadwell’s fool.  Some recognized a vicious and personal lampoon on Robert Hooke, Boyle’s former lab assistant and the author of Micrographia (1667), which created a sensation with its astonishing images of the sub-visible world.

When he finally saw the play after being needled about it by frenemies, the terse account in Hooke’s diary suggests a public humiliation of the most acute kind: “Damned Dogs. Vindica me Deus. People almost pointed.” But Hooke wasn’t the only recognizable scientist parodied and insulted in the play. The play is full sharp satirical jabs at many prominent members of the Royal Society. There are blood transfusion jokes aimed at Thomas Coxe and Edward King. There are inept astronomy jokes at the expense of John Wilkins. There are quack doctoring jokes at the expense of Jan Swammerdam and Thomas Willis. Some of the best jokes are saved for Robert Boyle himself: he comes in for a roasting when Gimcrack boasts of having weighed — and bottled — air from all over England. Oh yeah, and I probably mention that Gimcrack claims to have read a Geneva Bible by the light of a rancid leg of pork.

Shadwell’s satire goes far beyond personal insults and jokes about scientific obsessiveness and credulity, though. More than anything else, the play criticizes the virtuosi for their unmindful absorption in the objects of their curiosity, and the utter disregard they show for what the real-world applications might be. In what is probably the play’s most well-remembered scene, the young suitors ask to meet Gimcrack in his laboratory — strictly for the lulz, of course. When Longvil asks, “Were it not possible to have the favor of seeing this experiment?” he seems to suggest that the virtuoso himself is a kind of experiment staged in the theater’s laboratory of human nature.

And so, at the gallant’s request, the moveable screens obscuring the Dorset Gardens’ discovery space slide back, and the audience peeps in on a remarkable scene. The stage directions read:

 Scene opens and discovers Sir Nicholas learning to swim upon a table; Sir Formal and the Swimming Master standing by.

In a trice, the scene moves from a pleasant English garden to the close confines of the natural philosopher’s cabinet, “his laboratory…where all his instruments and fine knacks are.” There, Gimcrack is revealed, high and dry on a table, gravely pantomiming the motions of a frog swimming in a basin before him, with his fellow virtuosi earnestly coaching him along.

With this scene, the players have staged in Dorset Gardens another type of performer on another type of stage: a virtuoso caught mid-experiment in his laboratory, showing off for his friends in the theater of the natural philosophy. In staging what is specifically called Gimcrack’s “physico-mechanical excellencies” — deliberately echoing the title of Robert Boyle’s foundational air-pump experiments — Shadwell seems determined to paint early scientists as utterly neglectful of the world at large. What Boyle might say is a healthy objectivity — a pure focus on experiment, and a dedication to following a research program no matter where it leads — Shadwell unmasks as pure folly.

Ultimately, the experimental form of life lived by Boyle and other Fellows of the Royal Society valorized a mode of spectatorship that encouraged early scientists to abandon themselves to spectacle. Early modern science positively required an affective enthrallment to facts. So despite the considerable effort to portray natural philosophers as modest witnesses — and Enlightenment science as rational and systematic — what was in fact required was not a modest witness but an eager spectator in the theater of experiment.

Science as Political Theater, Then and Now

When American scientists and their allies gathered on the National Mall, they faced down an anti-science polemic, and an array of cultural forces responsible for it, that should not strike us as unprecedented. If anything, science is reckoning with a return to its origins as a highly politicized, culturally suspect practice. The scientists and their allies who marched needed to reassert their credibility even as they sought to recapture the imagination of our nation. If history is any guide, the folks lining up behind science will need to carefully weigh their methods. Reconverting the American public into eager spectators of science will have to be done in a way that scientists can simultaneously be seen as objective, rational, empirical, and credible.

The piece appeared previously at Medium and Quartz.

“Looking for the Longitude”

Screen ShotLongitude was a hot topic in eighteenth-century Britain.  What we might perceive now as a niche, and perhaps rather uninteresting, navigational problem, was then crucial to finding a means of accurately measuring longitude at sea as Britain’s trade and naval aspirations expanded.  Supported by very large award monies from the government, the search for a solution became a subject of national discussion, ridicule, and social relevance appearing in every conceivable type of source from newspapers and novels to prints and paintings.

My research looks at that plethora of paper materials, which had to be navigated on land by any person putting forward a potential solution, before it would ever be trialed at sea.  The questions, conversations, jokes, diagrams, and drawings in which Georgian men and women referenced longitude become visible in precisely the sorts of digital databases and collections that The 18th-Century Common seeks to showcase.  It is the ability to search these sets of materials that makes visible the kinds of throwaway references to longitude that would otherwise be almost impossible to locate, stimulating further research in physical collections.

Digital resources, furthermore, allow us to begin to reconstruct the patterns of production as well as the use and reference in texts and images that physical collections can obscure.  My recent project with the Paul Mellon Centre’s innovative online journal, British Art Studies, has begun to think about what possibilities this might offer.  “Looking for the Longitude” brings together a series of images and commentaries to consider how people experienced the longitude debate in eighteenth-century London, using as a starting point an engraving from William Hogarth’s famous series, A Rake’s Progress.  A pirate version of the image, done from the copyist’s memory of the original painting in Hogarth’s studio, offers the opportunity to examine what the copyist remembered and altered.  Marshaling a selection of texts and images that circulated at the time serves to show how such materials would have affected what this copyist, and other viewers, saw in Hogarth’s engraving.  It allows us to construct a period eye.

This was also a particularly London story, however, tied to a group of metropolitan locations that shaped production and consumption of text and image.  Each of my longitude images is therefore located on an interactive map and enhanced by commentary from a group of expert contributors, ranging across histories of art and science.  They consider the significance of the urban setting, bringing into play a further circle of materials and texts.  Over the course of 11 days in June 2016, these appeared as part of a daily Twitter tour that you could, and still can, follow around the British capital.

My hope is that this digital project serves to reconstruct a sense of the rapid production and discussion, the buzz and fervor, that surrounded the longitude problem in the eighteenth century; and that in combining digital collections with digital publishing it makes the case for what such platforms can achieve.

What the Abyssinian Liar Can Tell us about True Stories: Knowledge, Skepticism, and James Bruce’s Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile

James Bruce by E. Topham.  Etching, published 1775.  NPG D13789.  National Portrait Gallery, UK.  Used under Creative Commons Limited Non-Commercial License.

James Bruce by E. Topham. Etching, published 1775.
NPG D13789. National Portrait Gallery, UK. Used under Creative Commons Limited Non-Commercial License.

In 1773, James Bruce of Kinnaird returned to Europe after a decade of travel and study in North East Africa and Abyssinia (present-day Ethiopia).  Initially, the knowledge he brought back with him was favorably received by notable figures like the great naturalist the Comte de Buffon, Pope Clement XIV, King Louis XV, and Dr. Charles Burney, ethnomusicologist, composer, and father of author Frances Burney.  But as time went on, the public began to grow suspicious of some of his stories, such as his claims that he had eaten lion meat with a tribe in North Africa or that Abyssinian soldiers cut steaks from the rumps of live cows, then stitched the cows up again and sent them out to pasture.  As Bruce became a target of satirists and critics including Horace Walpole, John Wolcot, and Samuel Johnson, his standing in the European intellectual community began to slip.  Walpole, for example, circulated a commonly cited anecdote in which, during a dinner party, one of the guests asked Bruce if he saw any musical instruments in Abyssinia.  “Musical instruments,” said Bruce, and paused—“Yes I think I remember one lyre.”  The dinner guest then leaned to his neighbor and whispered, “I am sure there is one less since he came out of the country.”[1]

Despite having been dubbed the “Abyssinian liar,” Bruce always stood by his word, and in 1790, he published a sprawling, five-volume narrative of his journey in an attempt to satisfy those whom he claimed, “absurdly endeavoured to oblige me to publish an account of those travels, which they affected at the same time to believe I had never performed.”[2]  He titled the work the Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile because locating the source of the legendary river had been the primary purpose of Bruce’s journey.  He always maintained that he was the first European to have achieved that goal, even though contemporary translations of Portuguese travel narratives indicated that Jesuit missionaries had made it there first, and even though subsequent explorers would point out that he had traveled only to the source of the Blue Nile (Lake Tana in present-day Ethiopia), not the source of the much longer White Nile (Lake Victoria in present-day Uganda).  Nevertheless, the Travels was a bestseller, and the first printing sold out in 36 hours.  His tales influenced literary figures like Frances Burney, who wrote about Bruce’s visits to her childhood home in her journals, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whose dulcimer-playing “Abyssinian maid” in Kubla Khan was likely inspired by engravings of the court women who were enormously influential to Bruce’s knowledge of the region.  Although it did little to repair his reputation at the time, his work contributed significantly to Western knowledge about Eastern Africa, and examining how the narrative sits on this paradoxical point between success and failure can tell us much about how knowledge and truth were culturally defined in the eighteenth century, during a time that laid the foundations for our own understanding of such concepts.  In particular, Bruce’s situation highlights the way that heterogeneity of storytelling can come in tension with the singularity of truth, and how narratives that resist synthesis can reveal important information about what it means for something to be a true story.

Although the Nile was Bruce’s main objective, as a polyglot, diplomat, artist, and amateur scientist, he imagined advancing all areas of learning, and in many ways he succeeded.  He recorded detailed descriptions of the people, architecture, and landscape from all across North East Africa.  He mapped star patterns and recorded geographical coordinates for navigators and astronomers.  The engravings and samples of plants and animals he collected were invaluable to antiquarians as well as scholars of botany, zoology, and medicine.  He recorded a thorough history of Abyssinia’s monarchy, wrote about the Ethiopian Orthodox church, and brought the Codex Brucianus back with him—a gnostic manuscript that contained one of the first copies of the Book of Enoch circulated in Europe.  He contributed to Dr. Burney’s History of Music.  Perhaps his most significant contribution to Western scholarship is his documentation of Abyssinian court life at the beginning of Ethiopia’s “Era of the Princes.”  He recounted extensive details about Emperor Tekle Haymanot II; about Məntəwwab, the commanding Dowager Empress of Ethiopia who had ruled as regent for several decades; about her clever and ambitious daughter Wäyzäro Aster; and about Aster’s extremely politically influential husband, the kingmaker Ras Mika’el Səḥul.  Although Bruce’s tone is often characterized by a sense of European exceptionalism when he writes about the court, the power and intelligence of these individuals is evident, as is Bruce’s obvious respect and admiration for them—particularly the women, to whom he often refers as his closest friends and allies in the country.

But if Bruce contributed to all these advances in Western knowledge, and his narrative was so widely read, why did Britain’s reading public latch onto a few seemingly unbelievable details rather than the wealth of valuable information he brought back with him?  After all, it was assumed that all travelers told some tall tales, yet Bruce seems to have received more than his share of scorn.  The answer to this question illustrates the fact that eighteenth-century knowledge was extensively influenced by narrative techniques.  Despite common assumptions that mid-to-late eighteenth-century natural philosophy automatically equated eyewitness accounts with factuality, whether or not such an account was considered trustworthy still depended a great deal on how its story was told.  Samuel Johnson, for one, accused Bruce of not being a “distinct relator,” meaning that Bruce was often more interested in telling a raucous tale of heroic self-aggrandizement than in delivering objective geographical and ethnographical reports.[3]  When Bruce did include specific details, they occasionally seemed too far-fetched to be possible, such as the aforementioned live steak incident, or his claims that Abyssinians ate their beef raw.

The skepticism over Bruce’s description of Abyssinians eating raw beef reveals a second reason why his narrative wasn’t always taken seriously:  it didn’t square with people’s preconceived notions of what Abyssinia was like based on other representations of the region such as Johnson’s Rasselas, translations of Portuguese and French travel narratives, and even stories of Prester John’s land (a Christian country since the fourth century, Abyssinia had been considered a possible location of the legendary Christian kingdom amid the heathens since the Middle Ages).  According to these portraits, Abyssinia was a civilized if foreign nation, not a place where the elite would eat uncooked flesh like “savages,” even though raw beef blended with oils and spices in fact was, and still is, an Ethiopian delicacy.  In fact, the very inconsistency between details that eighteenth-century readers found barbarous and Bruce’s flattering descriptions of his friends in the Abyssinian court was a particular point of contention for one anonymous 1790 reviewer.  He writes,

To a philosopher, the greatest inconsistency of all, is the discordant picture of Abyssinian manners.  That nation is described as barbarous and ignorant in the greatest degree, as totally unacquainted with every country but their own; as liars and drunkards . . . yet, of Mr. Bruce’s Friends, some discover such discernment and force of mind, and some of the women display such delicacy of sentiment and elegance of behaviour, as would do honour to the most civilised nations.[4]

This perceived lack of coherence may have been a significant reason why Bruce’s Travels have largely been cursed to obscurity in spite of their initial popularity—seemingly contradictory stories exist side-by-side both inside the text in terms of Bruce’s descriptions and outside the text in terms of its reception history.  As the above reviewer intimates, it is hard to get a handle on what the narrative—and thus what Abyssinia—is all about because our “philosophical” heritage trains us to equate inconsistency with falsehood.  But this multiplicity is perhaps the most compelling reason for paying attention to the Travels now.

Bruce’s narrative is still the primary source of much of our knowledge today about east Africa during the mid-to-late eighteenth century.  For one, understanding how such knowledge was produced can help us understand its limitations.  Returning to the text, we are reminded that Bruce’s subject position as member of the eighteenth-century British gentry necessarily influenced the way he wrote about the non-European cultures he came in contact with.  As such, proto-colonial discourse and British exceptionalism shaped much of what he saw and wrote about, and paying attention to these aspects reminds us that no knowledge is ever entirely neutral.  Yet, the Travels are not reducible to these limitations—returning to the text can also open up how we think about how such knowledge was gathered.  Take, for example, Bruce’s admitted debt to the women of the Abyssinian court for enabling his mobility both through the court and the kingdom itself. Bruce’s impressions of Abyssinia’s politics and even its geography may be as much a product of their worldviews than they are of his, and his text offers an opportunity to consider how such seemingly marginalized figures in the eighteenth century as African women may have in fact played a significant role in shaping Western knowledge.  He similarly relied on his native guides and Gondar’s Greek and Muslim populations for much of his information not only about the city but also the surrounding countryside, not to mention the scholars, writers, and travelers—European, African, and Arabic—who paved the way for Bruce’s achievements long before he ever set foot on African soil.

In a 2009 TED talk, the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie spoke about the danger of the single story, about the incompleteness that results when we—like the anonymous author from the Monthly Review—seek homogeneity from representations of people and places rather than opening ourselves up to the many narratives that comprise both our pasts and our presents.[5]  While Bruce and his paradoxical narrative may seem just a vestige of the past, from an era when the fields he helped advance—from geography and anthropology to theology and more—had not yet reached their full maturity, revisiting his story can help us reconsider how the production of European knowledge about the world may have in fact been a global affair.  In spite of Bruce’s tendency to characterize himself as a solitary, intrepid traveler standing alone at the head of the Nile, from the Scottish traveler to his English critics, his Continental supporters, and his African friends, Bruce’s narratives bear the marks of the fact that modern knowledge has always been shaped by how multiple stories of the world are told and by the many people who have a hand in their telling.

Further Reading:

J.M. Reid, Traveller Extraordinary:  The Life of James Bruce of Kinnaird.  London:  Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1968:  310.

Charles Withers, “Travel and Trust in the Eighteenth Century.”  L’invitation au Voyage:  Studies in Honour of Peter France.  Oxford:  Voltaire Foundation, 2000:  47-54.

Paul Hulton, F. Nigel Hepper, and Ib Friss, Luigi Balugani’s Drawings of African Plants:  From the Collection Made by James Bruce of Kinnaird on his Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile 1767-1773.  New Haven:  Yale Center for British Art, 1991.


[1] As cited by Arthur A. Moorefield, “James Bruce:  Ethnomusicologist or Abyssinian Lyre?”  Journal of the American Musicological Society 28.3 (1975):  503.

[2] James Bruce, Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile.  Vol. 1.  London, 1790:  iii.

[3] James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson.  London, 1827:  243.

[4] The Monthly Review, from May to August, Inclusive.  Vol. 2.  London, 1790:  188.

[5] Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “The Danger of a Single Story.”  TED Talks.  Web. 29 Jan. 2015.  <>

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.




Language and Enlightenment

We might have grown skeptical about our cultural legacy, but it is quite natural for us to assume that our own cognitive theories are the latest word when compared with those of our predecessors.  Yet in some areas, the questions we are now asking are not too different from those posed some two or three centuries ago, if not earlier.

One of the most topical questions in today’s cognitive science is the precise role of language in the brain and in human perception.  Further disciplines, such as anthropology and evolutionary biology, are concerned with the emergence of language:  How is it that homo sapiens is the only species possessing such a complex syntactic and semantic tool as human language?  What is the relationship between human language and animal communication?  Could there be any bridge between them, or are they of categorically different orders, as seems to be suggested by Noam Chomsky’s views?

Such questions stood at the very centre of a fascinating debate in eighteenth-century Europe.  From Riga to Glasgow and from Berlin down to Naples, Enlightenment authors asked themselves how language could have evolved among initially animal-like human beings.  Some of them suggested some continuities between bestial and human communication, though most thinkers pointed to a strict barrier separating human language from vocal and gestural exchange among animals.  In broad lines, this period witnessed a transition from an earlier theory of language, which saw our words as mirroring self-standing ideas, to the modern notion that signs are precisely what enables us to form our ideas in the first place.  Such signs had, however, to be artificially crafted by human beings themselves; after all, natural sounds and gestures are also used by animals.

According to various eighteenth-century thinkers, this transition from natural communication to artificial or arbitrary signs was the prerequisite for the creation of complex human interrelations and mutual commitments—in short, the basis for the creation of human society as we know it, with its political structures, economic relations, and artistic endeavours.  In this sense, the language debates in eighteenth-century Europe highlighted a crucial problem in Enlightenment thought:  how to think of the transition from a natural form of life (frequently conceptualized as a ‘state of nature’) to an artificial or man-made social condition (usually referred to as ‘civil society’).  Language was a much more significant topic in Enlightenment thought than hitherto suggested.

Furthermore, the idea that all distinctive forms of human life are based on artificial signs has been regarded as a main tenet of the Counter-Enlightenment, a relativistic and largely conservative movement which Isaiah Berlin contrasted to a universalistic French Enlightenment.  By contrast, I argue in my book, Language and Enlightenment:  The Berlin Debates of the Eighteenth Century (Oxford University Press, 2012), that awareness of the historicity and linguistic rootedness of life was a mainstream Enlightenment notion.

This last point means that even if the eighteenth-century discussions of language and mind were quite similar to ours, particular nuances and approaches were moulded by contemporary concerns and contexts.  The open and malleable character of the eighteenth-century Republic of Letters is found in a wide variety of authors:  Leibniz, Wolff, Condillac, Rousseau, Michaelis, and Herder, among others.  The language debates demonstrate that German theories of culture and language were not merely a rejection of French ideas.  New notions of the genius of language and its role in cognition were constructed through a complex interaction with cross-European currents, especially via the prize contests at the Berlin Academy.

Theory of Mind, Cognitive Cultural Studies, and Eighteenth-Century Literature

Theory of Mind, Cognitive Cultural Studies, and Eighteenth-Century Literature

Eighteenth-century writers are preoccupied with describing and representing the human brain in the process of interpreting, understanding, and evaluating its own thoughts and the thoughts of others.

Science Hasn’t Been This Politicized Since 1676

Science Hasn’t Been This Politicized Since 1676

On April 22, a vast cohort of scientists and their allies descended on Washington to take part in the DC March for Science. Researchers and educators, academics and civilians, town and gown, stood together to “express their fealty to reason, data, and, above all, the scientific method,” as a recent New Yorker article put it. Striking back at a Administration that has openly denied scientific consensus on issues such as climate change, even going so far as to purge scientific data from government servers, scientists marched against what seems to many like a sudden and shocking politicization of science. It’s like its 1676 all over again.

“Looking for the Longitude”

“Looking for the Longitude”

Longitude was a hot topic in eighteenth-century Britain. “Looking for the Longitude” brings together a series of images and commentaries to consider how people experienced the longitude debate in eighteenth-century London.

What the Abyssinian Liar Can Tell us about True Stories: Knowledge, Skepticism, and James Bruce’s Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile

What the Abyssinian Liar Can Tell us about True Stories: Knowledge, Skepticism, and James Bruce’s <em>Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile</em>

In 1773, James Bruce of Kinnaird returned to Europe after a decade of travel and study in North East Africa and Abyssinia (present-day Ethiopia). Initially, the knowledge he brought back with him was favorably received by notable figures like the great naturalist the Comte de Buffon, Pope Clement XIV, King Louis XV, and Dr. Charles Burney, ethnomusicologist, composer, and father of author Frances Burney. But as time went on, the public began to grow suspicious of some of his stories, such as his claims that he had eaten lion meat with a tribe in North Africa or that Abyssinian soldiers cut steaks from the rumps of live cows, then stitched the cows up again and sent them out to pasture.

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

Agency and Anxiety: On Marie-Hélène Huet’s <em>The Culture of Disaster</em>

Disasters permeate the daily news and saturate our consciousness. This, as Marie-Hélène Huet proposes in a new book, is the way of the modern world.

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

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

Megan Gallagher interviews Daniel Lewis, Curator of the Huntington Library’s exhibit, entitled Beautiful Science: Ideas that Changed the World.

Cultivating Philosophy in the Epicurean Garden

Cultivating Philosophy in the Epicurean Garden

The physical garden was to Sir William Temple and other Epicureans a reflection of one’s mental landscape, and in the best of all possible worlds, one would stay in the garden–a position that Voltaire would later and more famously endorse in Candide. Like seventeenth-century definitions of wit, Temple’s philosophy of the garden expresses a balance of judgment and fancy, those gendered faculties of the mind, and an appropriate blend of reason and passion. The act of gardening for Temple was the practice of freeing the self from the disordered passions, unavoidable but capable of being subdued like wild weeds. One needs only a patch of earth, a shovel, and a life of the mind.

“The Good Things Above”: The Commercial Modernity of Vincent Lunardi

“The Good Things Above”: The Commercial Modernity of Vincent Lunardi

In mid-October 1784, two major London newspapers dedicated the poems that were a regular feature on their final page to a set of comic meditations on a unique fashion trend that had developed shortly after the first-ever human flight in England the month before.

Poetry of Attention in the Eighteenth Century

Poetry of Attention in the Eighteenth Century

Margaret Koehler’s Poetry of Attention in the Eighteenth Century (Palgrave, 2012) makes a case for the relevance of eighteenth-century models of attention, suggesting that earlier accounts of cognition can be just as extensive, precise, and applicable to diverse realms of human experience as 21st-century theories.

Diagrams of Emotion: Hogarth’s Blush and Maori Tattoos

Diagrams of Emotion: Hogarth’s Blush and Maori Tattoos

Thomas Willis (1621-1675) thought there were two equal and opposite impulses at work when a person blushed, a modest retreat and an aggressive advance. In his book on mimicry, Dazzled and Deceived (2009), Peter Forbes has argued that all systems…

Erasmus Darwin and the Threat of Materialism

Erasmus Darwin and the Threat of Materialism

In his two-part medical treatise, Erasmus Darwin—physician, scientist, and inventor—anticipates his grandson Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory by making a series of startling suggestions.

Cognitive Science and the Humanities in 18th-Century Studies

Cognitive Science and the Humanities in 18th-Century Studies

“This is your brain on Jane Austen…” What role should developments in cognitive science play in humanities research?

Cultivating Philosophy in the Epicurean Garden

Denham Place, Buckinghamshire.  Unknown artist, 17th century, British.  Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

Denham Place, Buckinghamshire. Unknown artist, 17th century, British. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

In the late seventeenth century, the philosopher Epicurus and his garden made a comeback in England. Natural philosophers looked to his arguments about atomic swerve to understand the cosmos, and translations of Lucretius’s On the Nature of the Universe, the primary classical source for dissemination of Epicurus’s ideas, went through multiple English translations by a diverse group of enthusiasts, including, among others, the Puritan, Lucy Hutchinson; the Restoration court writer and poet laureate, John Dryden; the diarist, John Evelyn; and the most prolific of the translators, Thomas Creech, praised by Aphra Behn for making Lucretius available to English readers.

At the center of Epicurean philosophy lies the garden, a symbol for Epicurus’s philosophical ideal of ataraxia, or tranquil pleasure. It is perhaps not surprising that the tumultuous years of civil war and regicide (1640s); the Restoration (1660); plague (1665); fire (1666); and several wars with the Dutch (1650s-70s) would have produced renewed interest among the English in Epicurean philosophy, which argued for retreat from chaos and politics, always unstable, whether in ancient Rome or late Stuart London. The seventeenth century was perhaps a good time to stay in one’s English countryside garden and tend the roses.

Sir William Temple’s essay, “Upon the gardens of Epicurus, or, of gardening in the year 1685,” offers practical advice and best practices for growing plants in England and describes other gardens around the world. In Temple’s world, virtuous philosophy cultivates virtuous vegetation, and Temple is most interested in the nutritious and sweetest fruits with the greatest health benefit. He takes particular interest in the natural plants that counter poisons. The perfect garden provides the simplest nourishment, which Temple advises is the best diet, cautioning the reader against too much meat and wine. We might do well to follow some of his advice today.

The physical garden was to Temple and other Epicureans a reflection of  one’s mental landscape, and in the best of all possible worlds, one would stay in the garden–a position that Voltaire would later and more famously endorse in Candide. That is, if duty–a Stoic ideal of virtue–didn’t intervene. An important statesman, Temple negotiated the Triple Alliance, taking an active role in Charles II’s government until he followed Epicurus’s advice and retired to his own garden. He praises retirement as a philosophical mode in his “Upon the gardens,” and he defends Lucretius from detractors who attacked him for atheism. One of the ancients, Lucretius rightfully belongs among the ranks of Homer, Virgil, and Horace, classical writers revered in the period. Lucretius, Temple argues, was no more or less pagan than they were and deserves equal admiration.

Members of the Royal Society took Epicureanism seriously in their investigations of the body and soul. Temple, however, disliked natural philosophy. In “Upon the gardens,” he does not endorse Lucretian atomism to understand the body or the soul. The era saw tremendous advances in medicine, including Thomas Willis’s discovery of the cranial nerves, still called the “Circle of Willis,” and debates about the operation of the ‘animal spirits,’ those invisible forces thought to flow through the nerve pathways and link a higher with a lower soul. The eclectic physician and natural philosopher Walter Charleton, among others, connected the animal spirits to Lucretian atomism. Temple thought this was not the business of mankind. We might hear Alexander Pope’s Great Chain of Being swinging off in the distance.

Temple most admired Lucretius’s arguments for retreat into a natural space where even the poorest of humans might experience the noblest of tranquil virtues, thereby rivaling or surpassing kings in the simple acts of growing, weeding, planting, and reaping. Though a Royalist, Temple makes a subtle argument in his “Upon the gardens” for the equality of mankind. In other essays, he advocates for peace over conflict, lauding the virtues of a well-functioning government over the glory of war. This in a period that saw England’s greatest imperialistic expansion and many English translations of epics. Temple suggests the inferiority of Homer and Virgil, who depict epic deities with the worst human qualities enacting the basest schemes against mortals, to Lucretius, who argues against their existence. Though at other times sounding strongly Christian, Temple here seems to endorse Lucretius’s ideas, which led some critics to accuse him of atheism.

The idea of Epicureanism as a state of virtuous tranquility or simple living has not survived in popular understandings of the word “Epicurean.” It became associated with a pleasure ideal followed by Charles II’s court libertines, who misused the term in writing about their sensory pleasures. It was precisely these sorts of pleasures that Epicurus and Lucretius discouraged their followers from pursuing. They argued that it disrupted the mind and caused unhappiness, frustration, and depression. Lucretius spends an entire book (Book 4)–which Dryden translates in Sylvae–in On the Nature of the Universe in dissuading humans from sexual promiscuity along with other excesses, including gluttony. Ironically, a Google search of the term “Epicurean” will yield more results for food, wine, and kitchen products than it will for anything Epicurus or Lucretius valued–friendship, moderation, and gardening–all pursuits cultivating virtue and the life of the active body and mind.

That is not to say that Epicurus or Lucretius disavow all sensory pleasures, and the garden Temple describes is abundant with procreative purpose. He genders certain plants as strong and masculine and describes the eroticism of the plants, redefining the idea of sensuous experience in an age when debauchery still ruled the court. In Temple’s garden, all sorts of pleasures await the senses. Birdsong ravishes the ears; fruits tantalize the eyes and noses; the texture of plants and fruits roughen, nuzzle, or prick the skin; and exotic oranges, ripe cherries, and perfect apples sweeten the tongue. Temple’s Eden is an erotic space where Adam and Eve once played and “worked” happily together. These organic pleasures are subtle and require finely tuned senses rather than the baser ones the notorious rake, John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, refines in his poetry.

The film The Serpent’s Kiss (1997, directed by Philippe Rousselot), is set during the reign of William III in 1699 and dramatizes some of Temple’s ideas. A Dutch landscape gardener, Meneer Chrome (actor Ewan MacGregor) arrives to the English countryside to design a garden for a pretentious would-be gentleman, Thomas Smithers (actor Pete Postelthwaite), who desires a garden for his vain and adulterous wife, Juliana (actress Greta Scacchi). The daughter of the house, Anna, who renames herself Thea (actress Carmen Chaplin), opposes the planned garden and seems to command the wind to destroy it. She filters her world through the lens of Andrew Marvell’s poetry, wanting only the wild natural world to fill her senses. Her parents’ lifestyle seems to drive her mad, and her father nearly has her committed, treating her “unnatural” obsession for the outdoors as a form of madness requiring several tortuous treatments. She eventually elopes with the gardener, literally throwing out her poetry book. Both Meneer and Thea/Anna embrace the idea of a natural Edenic world and an uncontrived life.

Though Temple rejects the vanity that Smithers and Juliana represent, he saw the patterned garden as an expression of reason, anticipating the magnificently complex gardens of the eighteenth century. Like seventeenth-century definitions of wit, Temple’s philosophy of the garden expresses a balance of judgment and fancy, those gendered faculties of the mind, and an appropriate blend of reason and passion. The act of gardening for Temple was the practice of freeing the self from the disordered passions, unavoidable but capable of being subdued like wild weeds. One needs only a patch of earth, a shovel, and a life of the mind.

“The Good Things Above”: The Commercial Modernity of Vincent Lunardi

John Francis Rigaud, Captain Vincenzo Lunardi with his Assistant George Biggin, and Mrs. Letitia Anne Sage, in a Balloon (1785).  Oil on copper.  19 x 14 inches (48.3 x 35.6 cm).  Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.  B1981.25.532

John Francis Rigaud, Captain Vincenzo Lunardi with his Assistant George Biggin, and Mrs. Letitia Anne Sage, in a Balloon (1785). Oil on copper. 19 x 14 inches (48.3 x 35.6 cm). Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection. B1981.25.532

In mid-October 1784, two major London newspapers  dedicated the poems that were a regular feature on their final page to a set of comic meditations on a unique fashion trend that had developed shortly after the first-ever human flight in England the month before.  The first, “epigram on some young ladies wearing garters, inscribed with the name of the aspiring Mr. Lunardi,” signed by “W. de W.,” was typical in linking the aerial adventures of Vincent Lunardi, the previously unknown Italian who had woken up famous after ascending in the balloon, to his more earthly attractions:

When Lunardi, unpinion’d, first soar’d to the skies,

Huzza’d by the foolish, admir’d by the wise,

The Ladies all gaz’d with amazement and fear,

And from many bright eyes dropt the pitying tear;

The pitying tear he had when on high,

And from every fair bosom the heart-heaving sigh.

Now, clasping the thigh of each beautiful Miss,

He has soared within sight of the regions of bliss.

Alas!  Should he lose his inflammable air,

The fears would return of each languishing fair,

Who hope he will rise like the Lark or the Dove,

His affections still set on the good things above.

(October 13, 1784, Morning Chronicle)

Figured as both an object of desire and a desiring subject, Lunardi’s inscription on ladies’ garters recast the sublime prospect of aerial views in the parodic terms suggested by the frisson of sexual voyeurism.  Amidst all of the excitement in the weeks following the flight, this was clearly a joke worth overdoing.  A poem which appeared on the same day on the final page of the Morning Post, this one signed by “G. S. C.,” entitled “On Seeing Lunardi’s Name Stamped on a Pair of new Garters, purchased by a Lady,” concluded that however dangerous Lunardi’s travel “upon the air’s uncertain tide”:

I own I envy when I see

Him twin’d about Maria’s knee;

The height of joy is surely this

To have in sight the realms of bliss.

Three days later, another squib in the Morning Post, this one simply entitled “The Garter,” played on the same now-familiar double entendre:

As the high-tow’ring Eagle flies

Majestically through the skies,

So did the brave Italian soar,

Aerial regions to explore:

And when he came

To earth again,

Each British dame,

To crown his fame,

Below her knee, or round her thigh,

His dear enchanting name did tie;

And shew’d the bold advent’rer more

Of Heaven than e’er he saw before.

It is possible to make too much of these sorts of poems, which were only ever intended as the sort of lighthearted humour worthy of the back page of a newspaper, but collectively, they (and the fashion trend itself) dramatized the multiple ways that the rich but often turbulent connections between ideas about science (and more broadly, a commitment to the pursuit of knowledge in all its forms), commerce, and “the oceanic rumble” of everyday life were mediated by allusions to sexuality as an expression of both the buoyant spirit of innovation and the darker sense of transgression that were central to Britain’s experience of commercial modernity (De Certeau 5).  As John Brewer has argued, efforts to forge a vision of Britain as a polite nation in which commerce was inseparable from emergent forms of sociability were unsettled by “the palpable intrusion of impulses – notably sexual passion and pecuniary greed – which were Rabelaisian and commercial and which undercut the claim that culture [or science] could and should be impartial, disinterested, dispassionate, and virtuous” (341).

If an account of Lunardi’s entrepreneurial efforts offers a history from below of the labyrinth of pressures and opportunities which constituted late eighteenth-century culture, comic references to “the good things above” and the persistent sexualization of ballooning references generally highlights the shaping force of the passions within this social and economic order.  Lunardi was a leading target for these sorts of ironic sexual puns, but this line of humour was also true of a broad range of responses.  An essay in the European Magazine gravely warned that, not only would “every nunnery” be “like a pigeon-house, with ladies like flocks of doves flying to and fro,” a situation which must inevitably lead to various “sad accidents,” but closer to home, “a young lady has nothing to fear from a flight from her chamber-window and back again, if she should not chuse to extend the trip to Scotland” (1785: 7: 84).  The Air Balloon, A New Song linked ballooning, sexual promiscuity, and questions of cultural legitimacy by posing the question, “Should a child begot while they’re up in the sky. . . .  To what parish on earth would the bantling belong?”

Lunardi’s flight might well have been hailed as cause for national celebration, the kind of extraordinary achievement that would enable “Neglected Science” to “raise [. . .] her head again,” as a more laudatory poem in the Morning Post suggested, but these various responses were also a reminder of the unsettling extent to which the hybridizing effects of commerce had blurred the distinctions between these different realms – the world of the mind and the body, enlightenment and fashion, science and sexuality, innovation and transgression (Oct. 1, 1784).  If ballooning seemed to many observers to be a uniquely powerful symbol of Britain’s modernity (Thomas Carlyle would call it the “Emblem of much and of our Age of Hope itself”), these sorts of responses circulated as an equally striking index of the Rabelaisian nature of this social order (42).  Or to put this in slightly different terms, Lunardi’s prominence as a figure of both scientific progress and satirical fun was due in part to the ease with which he could be invoked as a symbol of the discursive ecology that helped to render Britain’s modernity intelligible.  And what may have enabled him to play this role most suggestively of all was the fact that he was foreign.  In an age when the future itself often seemed foreign, Lunardi’s alterity offered an uncanny reminder of the radical ambivalence inspired by the “uncertain tide” of commercial modernity.

For his satirists, the fact that Lunardi was Italian only heightened the tendency to associate him with an irrepressible but potentially wayward sexuality.  Love in a Balloon, which appeared in the Rambler’s Magazine on 1 November 1784, depicted Lunardi aloft embracing a female passenger (figure 1).  “Ah Madame it rises majestically,” Lunardi exclaims.  “I feel it does Signeur,” she answers, while on the ground admiring male spectators exclaim, “Damme he’s no Italian but a man every inch of him.”  Lunardi’s gallantry might infuse his exploits with a romantic rather than a scientific edge, the print suggested, but at least it was England’s women to whom he was attracted.  He was not, it turned out, quite so Italian after all.  This particular pun was not restricted to Lunardi though.  Dent’s British Balloon, and D– Arial Yacht (figure 2), which satirized Jean-Pierre Blanchard’s second ascent in England, at which the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Devonshire presided, recycled the same joke.  The Prince, locked in a scandalous aerial embrace with the Duchess, exclaims, “it rises majestically,” to which the Duchess replies, “Yes, I feel it.”  Watching from the ground beside the Duke of Devonshire, who complains of a headache, Lord John Cavendish announces, “His H—., no doubt, being a lover of the Science, will make some curious Experiments.”  Lord Byron may have been creative, but he was hardly original in his comment about the reasons for a love-struck Don Juan’s contemplation of “air-balloons, and the many bars/To perfect knowledge of the boundless skies”:  “If you think ‘twas philosophy that this did,/I can’t help thinking puberty assisted” (1: 92-93).

If satirical cartoonists were predictably attuned to the suggestive connections between ballooning and promiscuity, and more broadly, between the pursuit of knowledge and an endlessly shifting and vaguely defined play of desires (or between philosophy and puberty), their other important insight was the ease with which ballooning could be invoked to comment on a range of other social and political issues.  The inclusion of the Prince and Duchess of Devonshire in Dent’s British Balloon, and D– Arial Yacht reflects this tendency to extrapolate from more straightforward depictions where ballooning featured as an object of sport and ridicule in its own right to satires where it stood in as an icon for political controversies.  Predictably, the primary target was the doomed Fox-North Coalition.  Dent’s The Political Parachute, A Coalition Experiment (figure 3) and E. Dachery’s The Coalition Balloon, 1784 (figure 4), which showed Fox and North being dragged by the neck by ropes hanging from a balloon, both offered complex political commentaries, the gist of which is summed up by Dent’s inscription:  Death Blow to the Hopes.  The Loss of Public Confidence, not restored by misleading the public opinion, and overthrowing the Propositions by gross inconsistency.”  Three other 1784 prints, all by different artists, used balloon images to lampoon George III’s absolutist ambitions.[1]

In some ways, it was precisely this semiotic elasticity – the ease with which ballooning could mean so many different things to different people across a range of contexts – that made it so open to skepticism.  Ballooning’s endless adaptability on a symbolic level reinforced its power to evoke the fluidity of a commercial society generally; its very ubiquity amongst these sorts of satires (many of which played on the idea of ballooning as a “bubble”[2]) made it an easily recognized symbol for all manner of foolish or unstable or disreputable behaviour in a social order where the very concept of value had floated free from its epistemological foundations.

If ballooning was, as Carlyle would suggest, the “emblem” of its age, it was in part because the physicality of the balloons themselves – simultaneously powerful and unguidable, scientifically ambitious and visually luxuriant, monumental and hollow – converged so suggestively with the endless range of incongruous activities, cultural domains, and symbolic registers within which ballooning flourished.  The tensions between these various phenomena resonated with a much broader sense of the problems and possibilities of a highly commodified age in which the pursuit and dissemination of knowledge had become increasingly subject to pressures which unsettled the very idea of what counted as genuine knowledge or legitimate modes of dissemination.  An interest in science, critics often worried, had been eclipsed by a love of spectacle.  If their popularity reduced them to so many “philosophical playthings,” balloons circulated across the range of activities and venues which made up the world of fashionable sociability in ways that unsettled this distinction (Walpole 25: 542).  As the wily Valet de Chambre in John Burgoyune’s The Heiress explained,

Nothing so easy as to bring every

Living creature in this town to the window:  a tame

Bear, or a mad ox; two men, or two dogs fighting;

A balloon in the air – (or tied up to the ceiling ‘tis the

same thing) make but noise enough and out they come.  (10)

None of the anxieties about the cultural “noise” of modern life that haunted the rage for ballooning during its early years – the unnerving overlap between the pursuit of knowledge and a craving for novelty, the impossibility of fostering a polite public culture (even one oriented towards scientific investigation) in ways that managed to keep its distance from the disruptive spectre of popular interest, the convergence between philosophy and puberty or polite sociability and Rabelaisian impulses, and the underlying problem of the hybridizing influence of commerce that ran through all of these concerns – none of these would have been lost on critics in the day.  But neither was the undeniable power of the aspirations which also ran throughout these various elements of the balloonomania.  However exasperating these aspirations might have been to some critics, they remained part of D’Alembert’s “effervescence of minds,” an expression of the age’s interwoven imperatives towards intellectual curiosity and fashionable indulgence, enlightenment and opportunism (qtd. Clark 7).


In recent years, the air ballooning craze of the 1780’s has been celebrated by historians such as Michael Lynn and Richard Holmes as a compelling example of the radical interfusion of those social and intellectual domains whose connections have been obscured by our inherited disciplinary divisions:  between science and what was becoming known as “culture,” the pursuit of knowledge and the transformative power of commerce, politically charged evocations of an emergent public sphere and worries about the turbulent impulses of popular culture, ideologies of polite sociability and the relentless contingencies of fashion.  Lynn’s suggestion that ballooning, with its endless public venues, mass audiences, scientific claims and commercial opportunities, appearances in literary texts, and fashion spin-offs in everything from ladies’ hats to men’s shoe buckles, was “the popular science par excellence,” underscores just how thoroughly ballooning’s ubiquitous appeal circulated across these supposedly distinct social practices, discursive registers, and intellectual domains (Lynn, Popular 12).  It also suggests the impact of endless barely remembered and sometimes only briefly successful cultural producers whose collective impact was a key element in the diffusion of new ideas.  Robert Darnton’s insistence that we need to pay more attention to “the low-life of literature . . . who failed to make it to the top and fell back into Grub Street” applies just as strongly to historians’ growing interest in the “process of commodification and popularization” that science underwent in the eighteenth century “as more and more individuals sought to acquire some knowledge of scientific activities and as more and more people entered public debates on science,” a trend which manifested itself in a proliferation of “shops, fairs, private lecture halls, and other public locations [which] created spaces for scientific appropriation and purchase” (Literary 16; Lynn, Popular 2, 3).  These developments were never unproblematic.  For critics of Britain’s social order, the itinerant showmen who attracted crowds with their dramatic use of air pumps and electrical gadgets were intellectual imposters who draped themselves in the false dignity of scientific instruction in order to hide their lack of any rational purposefulness.  “Electricity happens at present to be the puppet-show of the English,” Charles Moritz declared after his 1782 journey, “Who ever at all understands electricity, is sure of being noticed and successful” (88).  But in recent years, historians of science such as Jan Golinski, Larry Stewart, and Lynn have offered a more generous version of the popularizing efforts of a group of “middling savants” who were dedicated to gaining an audience for these topics, and of the nature of the audience who flocked to see them (Lynn, Popular 3).[3]  As Golinski has argued, these more recent approaches have been less focused on the Enlightenment as a grand narrative or distinct realm of ideas than on the many “little enlightenments” which characterized the transmission and reception of scientific ideas (Clark 27).

For Richard Holmes, whose book The Age of Wonder is adorned by a striking illustration of one of the Montgolfier brothers’ balloons, the ballooning craze was evidence of his broader argument that we are mistaken in assuming, as we have often done, that the Romantic period was characterized by a sense of the separation and even mutual animosity between the realms of literary and scientific thought.  For Holmes, this period was animated by a “scientific revolution, which swept through Britain at the end of the eighteenth century,” an argument which runs directly against the grain of our own inherited characterizations of “Romanticism as a cultural force [which was] intensely hostile to science” (xv).  Far from experiencing these as mutually exclusive and often hostile ways of seeing and being in the world, people living in this age viewed the world around them in ways that were nurtured by their interconnections.  Most fundamentally, Holmes argues, they were united by a shared sense of “wonder” or almost reverential curiosity for the world around them (xvi).

These accounts of the late eighteenth century have been especially important because of the extent to which they anticipate the increasingly relational focus of our approaches to cultural history generally.  In both our theoretical discussions and our critical practice, we have tended to emphasize the crucial formative influence of connections between various relations of cultural production and consumption (authors and readers, artists and viewers, performers and audiences), between the material realities and specific institutional contexts of these relations and the forms of symbolic capital which energized them, between the stubborn physical realities of books and other cultural objects and their endless signifying potential, between the scientific aspirations that we associate with Enlightenment thinkers and the bustling commercial world in which they were rooted, between aesthetic ideologies of creativity and more worldly forms of entrepreneurial ingenuity, and across different literary and visual forms.  Our emphasis has been on both the highly mediated nature of these relations and on the two-way flow of this traffic of influences:  the integral role of audiences in shaping ideas of cultural worth, not after the fact but as a crucial element in the productive process.

The risk in emphasizing the formative influence of these connections, however, is the tendency to reinscribe our accounts of them within a Whiggish narrative of social progress that implicitly valorizes the mutually nurturing force of these relations without adequately registering the influence of the anxieties that they also aroused.  Descriptions of the “balloon influenza,” the “air balloon fever,” the “present rage,” the balloonomania,” and “the aerial phrenzy,” implied suspicions that the extremity of the public’s response reflected the unhealthy nature of modern nations’ vulnerability to excesses that were also part of commercial modernity (MP October 19, 1784; MP September 11, 1784; Seward 11; Walpole 25: 596; London Unmask’d 137).  My argument is not with Holmes’ struggle to free us from the distortions of the historically anomalous disciplinary bounds that we have too often imposed on the past, especially in our understanding of the relations between what would become known as science and culture, or with his even more important hope that “with any luck we have not quite outgrown” this age of wonder, both of which are important and convincing interventions (xvi).  But there is a danger that in making the case for this convergence we align ourselves with a progressivist model that underestimates the intensity of the anxieties which also attended these questions, and which saturated debates about both science and literature, as well as their intersections.

Ironically, given Holmes’ title, throughout the eighteenth century these tensions manifested themselves in strikingly acute ways in the word “wonder.”  In Rambler No. 137, Samuel Johnson dismissed “wonder” as an “effect of ignorance. . . .  Wonder is a pause of reason, a sudden cessation of the mental progress” (3: 72).  For many eighteenth-century critics, the very word “wonder” seemed to smack of all that was most dubious about the commodification of knowledge.  Pamphlets such as The Age of Wonders:  or, a farther and particular Discriptton [sic] of the remarkable, and Fiery Appartion [sic] that was seen in the air, on Thursday in the Morning, being May the 11th 1710.  Also the Figure of a Man in the Clouds with a drawn Sword; which pass’d from the North West over towards France, with reasonable Signification thereon (1710) played on an occult fascination with supernatural mysteries that flew in the face of any rational spirit of critical inquiry.  Jonathan Swift reacted to plans to establish a national bank of Ireland in the wake of the South Sea crisis with a series of pamphlets including two entitled The Wonderful Wonder of Wonders.  Being an Accurate Description of the Birth, Education, Manner of Living, Religion, Politicks, learning, &c. of Mine A—-se (1722) and The Wonder of all the Wonders, that ever the World Wondered (1722).  The controversial overtones associated with an appeal to the public’s love of wonder gained an increasingly satirical edge in the years just prior to Lunardi’s flight when it became associated with the notorious scientific lecturer or (many critics insisted) charlatan, Gustavus Katterfelto, who had himself enjoyed brief but intense popularity in the early 1780s, whose seemingly endless newspapers ads promised, “WONDERS WONDERS, WONDERS AND WONDERS.”[4]  In “The Grand Consultation,” George Canning mocked “That wonderful wonder, the great Katterfelto!”:  “To see how great must be the rage,/ The wonders of this wond’rous age!”  It was, as London Unmask’d put it, a “world of wonders” in which “novelty never ceases,” a “wonder-working age, in which invention seems to be on the rack to produce such curiosities as surpass whatever have gone before” (46, 135).  It may well have been the age of wonder, but in a far less dignified or purposeful sense than Holmes’ argument implies.  As Brewer and Roy Porter have argued, “one of the historical tasks of what we may loosely call the Enlightenment was to forge new sets of moral values, new models of man, to match and make sense of the opportunities and obligations, the delights and dangers, created by the brave new world of goods” (5).  If ballooning was “the popular science par excellence,” it was also a vivid example of both the challenges and the potential responses that were a central part of this task (Lynn, Popular 12).


Whatever they thought of ballooning, no one doubted its impact.  “Balloons occupy senators, philosophers, ladies, everybody,” Horace Walpole proclaimed (25: 449).  “It is fashionable to speak of balloons,” the Morning Post agreed.  “My Lord speaks of balloons – my lady speaks of balloons – Tommy the footman, and Betty the cook speak of balloons – yea, and balloons shall be spoke of.  The sprightly Miss talks of nothing but inflammable air” (September 30, 1784).  “The term balloon is not only in the mouth of every one, but all our world seems to be in the clouds,” declared a 1785 book titled London Unmask’d (137).  Lunardi’s flight, on September 15, 1784, attracted an estimated 150,000 spectators, “the windows and roofs of the surrounding houses[,] scaffoldings of various forms and contrivances . . . crouded with well dressed people” (Lunardi, Account 26-27 [incorrectly numbered 34-35]).  The Post reported that “St. Paul’s Cathedral took the advantage of Lunardi’s Balloon excursion, by raising the price, which used to be only twopence for going to the top, to two shillings, and both the galleries had a great number of spectators, many of whom in the stone gallery fell down the recesses and broke their shins, as they were walking round and gazing at the Balloon” (Sept. 23, 1784).  The flights themselves were doubled by elaborate indoor displays, such as the spectacle that Betsy Sheridan witnessed when she  visited the Pantheon to see Lunardi’s balloon during a trip to London in October 1784.  There she saw Lunardi’s balloon “suspended to the Top of the Dome,” carrying “Lunardi, and his poor fellow travelers the Dog and Cat” who had accompanied him and “who still remained in the Gallery to receive the visits of the curious” (24).  “The Pantheon seems to have become the fashionable lounging place for all the beauties in town,” the Post noted the same month as Sheridan’s visit.  “The attractions are considerable:  The magnificence of the building, the suspension of the Balloon and Gallery, and tho’ the last, yet seemingly not the least in admiration, Lunardi’s paying his respects to the chearful crowd for their friendly attention” (October 3, 1784).

The enthusiasm for ballooning had extended from science to show-business and in England, no one rivalled Lunardi, either in the extraordinary public response which his flights aroused, or, closer to the ground, in the skill with which he manipulated the narratives of these achievements in order to maintain the public’s interest.  An article in the September 16th  edition of the Morning Post (which Lunardi included in his swiftly published account of the flight), insisted that

every Englishman should feel an emulation to reward him; for uncertain as the good to be derived from such an excursion may be thought, yet it becomes the nobleness of our nature to encourage them.  Discoveries beyond the reach of human comprehension at present, may by perseverance be accomplished.  Emulation and industry are a debt which is due to posterity, and he who shrinks from innovation is not his country’s friend.  (46)

A column the following day echoed this sentiment.  “Wednesday the sublime, and bold flight of Lunardi, engrossed the whole of every conversation, not only in the metropolis, but its environs, at a considerable distance” (MP Sept. 17, 1784, p. 3).  Weeks after the fight, Lunardi attended the theatre “with a party of Ladies, apparently vying with each other in shewing him attention and respect . . .  the House in general hailed his appearance with a continued tumult of applause” (MP October 8, 1784).[5]  His fame inspired everything from a new style of hat dubbed “the Lunardi” to a new shade of fabric named “Lunardi maroon,” but his greatest achievement may ultimately have been the seamlessness with which he fused these aspects of his career, as an aeronaut and an author who complemented his flights with rapidly published accounts, a self-styled Enlightenment hero advancing the boundaries of knowledge and a tireless self-promoter, a figure of ostentatious sensibility and a clever marketer, on display in his balloon in the Pantheon “paying his respects to the crowd.”

Nor was Lunardi reticent about the scale of the public’s interest.  As his flight passed overhead, Lunardi noted in his An Account of the First Aërial Voyage in England, the King and Prime Minister interrupted a meeting with other “great officers of state” to watch the air balloon’s progress through telescopes (40).  Their willingness to suspend the serious business of government in order to witness the most dramatic event of the day was understandable, Lunardi suggested.  Elsewhere in London, a jury which had been reflecting on the case of “a criminal whom after the utmost allowance for some favourable circumstances, they must have condemned,” had  “acquitted the criminal immediately” when the balloon appeared, in order that they might be free to watch (39).  So great was the interest of the spectators, Lunardi recounted, “that the things I threw down were divided and preserved, as our people would relicks of the most celebrated saints” (39).  Another publication recorded that a woman who recovered one of the dropped items only to have it “seized and torn to pieces by the populace,” declared “with streaming eyes and wringing hands . . . that the loss of her husband or one of her children would scarcely have given her more affliction” (Mr. Lunardi’s 10).  The September 17th Morning Post reported that “Mrs. Saunders, widow of an upholsterer of that name, who formerly lived in Goodge-Street, was so terrified at the downfal of his oar, which she took for a human body, that she was suddenly taken ill, and in spite of all medical assistance, expired early yesterday morning.”[6]  Lest Mrs. Saunders’ death be thought to tarnish his achievement, Lunardi hastened to add that he had been counseled by a Judge “not to be concerned at the involuntary loss I had occasioned; that I had certainly saved the life of a young man” (the criminal who had escaped almost certain conviction when the jury caught sight of the balloon) “who might possibly be reformed, and be to the public a compensation for the death of the lady” (39).

Lunardi’s advertisements for his display at the Pantheon, which appeared daily in leading newspapers such as the Morning Post and the Morning Chronicle alongside ads for competing flights and balloon-exhibits, books, hastily-assembled plays featuring ballooning references, and offers from balloon-makers (a favourite sideline of umbrella makers), exploited the full range of advertisers’ rhetorical strategies and special features.[7]  Portraying himself as an Enlightenment man of feeling moved by the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings in an ad for his balloon exhibit at the Pantheon, Lunardi insisted that “he would think himself deficient in every sentiment of gratitude, were he not, from the effusion and overflow of his feelings, to pour forth his thanks in the warmest manner” by providing people with the opportunity to attend his display at the Pantheon (MP November 24, 1784).  “Mr. Lunardi is peculiarly happy in having lately experienced, that the attachment of the Public to him is in unison with his feelings and particularity to this Nation,” another ad for his exhibit at the Pantheon proclaimed (MP May 5, 1785).  This emotional reciprocity between an Enlightenment man of feeling and the nation which had embraced him, which found its clearest affirmation in the steady flow of paying customers to his exhibit, was a persistent theme.  Insisting that “Mr. Lunardi has nothing more at heart than to gratify the public curiosity in the most ample and satisfactory manner, and that to disappoint the general expectation in the smallest particular, would be inexpressibly repugnant to the sincere and grateful feelings he entertains of their past favours,” yet another ad hastened to deny rumours of an imminent flight, and to announce that his exhibit at the Pantheon would remain open, having “spared no pains or cost to render it elegant and magnificent to the eye, and to blend in the numerous parts of his machinery, the ornamental with the useful” (MP March 26, 1785).  Adopting a tone of patrician benevolence, a series of ads promised that he would not be distracted by the “encreasing degree of favour and encouragement” he was receiving “from a generous public” from forgetting “the feelings of humanity, but would as much as possible be instrumental to the relief of indigence and distress,” proof of which was his plan to open the Pantheon on the following Thursday evening “for the purpose of raising a charitable Fund, to be distributed among necessitous Persons, and Families whose situations have been properly certified and authenticated” (MP November 13, 1784).

However much he may have presented the exhibit at the Pantheon in terms which reinforced his scientific credentials, it was also distinguished by the pressures of fashionable sociability.  Having stressed his gratitude “to a generous and intelligent people, to whom he is bound by obligations which he never can forget, to the latest hour of his life,” Lunardi announced that he would mark the imminent closure of his balloon exhibit at the Pantheon (in order to prepare for another flight) with a grand final night combining “his Exhibition” with

a ball on the said night, at which nothing shall be wanting to render it elegant, brilliant, and accommodating.  In addition to the lights of the lustres, part of the Dome will be illuminated.  The best Bands of Music that can be acquired for Minuets, Cotillons, and Country Dances, and every other particular that can tend to the entertainment or gratification of the company, shall be provided and attended to, under the management of two Gentlemen who have taken upon themselves to regulate the ceremony of the night with due and proper decorum.  (MP November 24, 1784)

A masquerade at the Pantheon three months later was similarly “elegantly illuminated and embellished with the appendage of Lunardi’s balloon” (MP February 9, 1785).  Yet another masquerade four months later combined decorations “representing the Grand Saloon of the Doge of Venice, decorated and ornamented in the most elegant taste” with “the balloon, [which] will likewise be suspended, with the Gallery and the whole of the apparatus” (MP June 6, 1785).  Other ads promised the combined attraction of the balloon with “the musical child,” a prodigy who “will perform from Two o’Clock till Four, and though but Nine Years of Age, will take off several of our first Performers, and will Sing and Play at sight” (MP April 21, 1785).

Lunardi’s published descriptions of his various flights reinforced this orientation to the world of fashionable sociability by portraying himself as a man driven far more by his own unique brand of emotional intensity rather than by a spirit of rational inquiry.  Even when “tottering on the brink of a total disappointment, I would not relinquish sensibility for the empire of the world!,” Lunardi insisted in his account of his frustrations when a subsequent flight was delayed:  “Without sensibility, fame, riches, glory were empty sounds!” (Five 23).  Adopting an intimate tone licensed by the epistolary format of his Account of the First Aërial Voyage in England, which was structured as a series of letters to his “Guardian” and “best and dearest friend” (1784), Lunardi dwelt upon “the extremes of elevation and dejection” which had marked his struggles to become Britain’s first aeronaut.  “I am at this moment overwhelmed with anxiety, vexation and despair,” he confided after learning that a competitor, “a Frenchman, whose name was Moret,” was determined to beat him in his quest to perform the first flight in Britain.  A conflict with the manager of the Lyceum, where he had been exhibiting the balloon, left him with a deep sense of “fatigue, agitation of mind, and that kind of shame which attends a breach of promise, however involuntary” (24).[8]  In a letter written on the eve of his flight, his competitor Moret having failed and the obstacles which threatened his plan surmounted, Lunardi wrote:  “Behold me, – I was going to say – but I should be extremely sorry you were to see me, exhausted with fatigue, anxiety and distress, at the eve of an undertaking that requires my being collected, cool, and easy in mind” (25).

Having triumphed over adversity, Lunardi’s comments on the voyage dwelt more on his emotional resurrection than on the flight itself:  “All my affections were alive, in a manner not easily to be conceived; and you may be assured that the sentiment which seemed to me most congenial to that happy situation was gratitude and friendship.  I will not refer to any softer passion” (34).  The letters which covered his journey depicted him drinking a bottle of wine and eating chicken; caring for his fellow passengers, the cat and dog whom tens of thousands would view on display in the balloon in the Pantheon; and writing “dispatches from the clouds” (36), “pinning them to a napkin” and “commit[ting] them to the mild winds of the region, to be conveyed to my honoured friend and patron, Prince Caramancio” (34).[9]  Not all of his missives would have descended so lightly.  Having “emptied [his bottle of wine] to the health of my friends and benefactors in the lower world” (34), he “likewise threw down the plates, knives and forks, the little sand that remained, and [the] empty bottle, which took some time in disappearing. I now wrote the last of my dispatches from the clouds, which I fixed to a leathern belt, and sent towards the earth” (36).[10]

Mr. Lunardi’s Account of his Second Aerial Voyage from Liverpool, On Tuesday the 9th of August, 1785, offered an even more melodramatic version of this narrative of the trials and ultimate triumph of a man of feeling.  Written as two letters, composed before and after his flight, Lunardi bared his soul about the hardship of having to wait for a change in the weather.  Afflicted with “the most poignant Distress” at “the full Wretchedness of my Situation,” he waited “like a prisoner, who, expecting his Deliverance, anxiously counts the Moments till the happy Hour arrives, destin’d to restore him Nature’s first, best, Gift, Freedom!” (9).  It was, he admitted, a desperate predicament, but perhaps one that all heroes must ultimately struggle with:

Sleep flies to the humble Cottage, and seals the Eye-Lids of the unambitious Peasant; on his Straw-Bed he slumbers happy, without a Care to break his Repose!  what an enviable Condition!  yet my Soul was never form’d to enjoy it:  often have I said I will seek Peace in Retirement; but the glittering Phantom Glory, has darted across my Path, and I have pursued it as eagerly as ever!  It is a false Light, an Ignis fatuus, that leads me into many a melancholy Situation:  and yet perhaps To-morrow’s Dawn will see me following it with redoubled Ardor.  (13)

Fortunately for Lunardi, his suffering was to be relieved.  Improved weather conditions having enabled him to undertake his promised flight, his second letter depicted “such quick Transitions of Grief Rage, and Joy as have quite shook my Frame:  I have been in a most horrid Situation!  but, thank God, it is now over; and the Ladies and Gentlemen of Liverpool flatter me that I have given sufficient Proofs of Courage” (18).  Refining on his previous self-image as a prisoner, Lunardi likened his reversal of fortune to “a Pleasure equal to that of a condemned malefactor who is reprieved at the Place of Execution!” (18).  His Account of Five Aerial Voyages in Scotland, in a Series of Letters to his Guardian, Chevalier Gerardo Compagni (1786)  repeated this now familiar narrative of abyssal despair, “surrounded as I am with distress and perplexities, and tottering on the brink of a total disappointment,” succeeded by ecstatic triumph (23).  Far from attempting to maintain the rational poise that one might associate with a man of science, Lunardi emphasized his own “flighty” nature (10).  If satirists revelled in the sexual overtones of Lunardi’s fame, this may have been in part an extension of Lunardi’s equally persistent description of himself as a man of extreme sensibility.

This penchant for emotional revelation, which dwelt on his inner turmoil as a melodramatic spectacle in its own right, was never easily separated from a more calculating sense of commercial opportunism.  However noble the motivations driving Lunardi’s search for funding may have been, science, sensibility – his own as well as his spectators – and commerce had become closely entwined in his ongoing aeronautical career.  Fusing a display of feelings (“the full Sensations of my Soul”) with entrepreneurial flare, Lunardi’s Account of his Second Aerial Voyage from Liverpool depicted himself drinking wine (though he was unable to eat, “so much was I affected by the Agitation of my Spirits a few moments before my ascension”) and sending off letters to those below (22).  This time his letters were more carefully crafted “Proposals” entitled “A CARD from the SKIES,” a copy of which he included in his Account.  In it, he

presents his best Compliments to his Terrestrial Friends; and begs leave to inform them, that, fired by Emulation and the love of Glory, and delighted with the Scenes upon which he now looks down, he wilt enlarge his BALLOON, and make an ærial Voyage, from Liverpool to the Isle of Man, provided the Ladies and Gentlemen will raise a Subscription sufficient to defray the expences of such a Journey, (150l.) before Friday next.  (23)

For Lunardi, the commercial aspect of these endeavours was simply an English fact of life, “where the diffusion of wealth through the lowest ranks renders the whole nation the general patron of useful designs” (Account 7).  His exhibits at the Lyceum and then the Pantheon could bring no disgrace to his endeavours since these would only be adding to “the innumerable exhibitions, which are always open in London, and which are the means of circulation, convenience, information and utility,” including the Royal Academy where “the first artists in the nation, under the immediate protection of the King, and incorporated into an academy, exhibit their pictures yearly” for an admission price of one shilling (Account 6).

Lunardi’s popularity, however, was as brief as it had been intense.  By January 1786, The European Magazine could already refer to “the then fashionable rage for ballooning” two years earlier (13: 7).  Lunardi, sensing that the winds of public interest had shifted, had already moved on.  The July 1787 European noted Lunardi’s “experiment of his new invention for preserving persons from drowning.  He launched himself in at Westminster Bridge, and passed down the river, through Black-friars, and also London bridge, at nearly the time of low-water” (1787: 12:77).  Few people in the age were more adept at understanding and manipulating these connections between commerce, science, and fashionable sociability, but as the brevity of his fame also suggests, few careers better demonstrate the vexed nature of these shifting relations.  For his critics, it was a happy irony that Lunardi should have made his first ascent from the Artillery Ground, adjacent to Bethlehem Hospital, or Bedlam as it was better known.  “The figures of Phrenzy and Melancholy at [Bedlam’s] gate are celebrated throughout Europe,” Lunardi mused, “Which of these allegorical beings the people have assigned as my patron, I have not learned” (Account 27).  The lesson of Britain’s commercial modernity, and of ballooning itself, was that it could be hard to distinguish.


Figure 1:  Love in a Balloon.  Engraving, from the Rambler’s Magazine, 1784.

Figure 2:  British Balloon, and D– [Devonshire] Arial Yacht.  Engraving, by W. Dent, 1784.

Figure 3:  The Political Parachute, A Coalition Experiment.  Engraving, by W. Dent, 1785.

Figure 4:  The Coalition Balloon, 1784.  Engraving, published by E. Dachery, 1784.


[1] Rowlandson’s A Peep into Friar Bacon’s Study (1784), Colling’s The Golden Image that Nebuchadnezzar The King had set up (1784), and W. Humphrey’s Solomon in the Clouds!! (1784).

[2] See, for instance,  prints such Elizabeth Henrietta Phelps’ Stock Exchange (1785) and Dent’s 1791 print, Bank Transfer, or, A New Way of Supporting Public Credit.

[3] See, for instance, Jan Golinski, Science as Public Culture:  Chemistry and Enlightenment in Britain, 1760-1820 (Cambridge:  Cambridge UP, 1992), Larry Stewart, The Rise of Public Science:  Rhetoric, Technology, and Natural Philosophy in Newtonian Britain, 1660-1750 (Cambridge:  Cambridge UP, 1992), and William Clark, Jan Golinksi, and Simon Schaffer, eds., The Sciences in Enlightened Europe (Chicago:  U of Chicago P, 1999).

[4] For an account of Katterfelto’s career, see Barbara Benedict, Curiosity:  A Cultural History of Early Modern Inquiry, 210-215.  Benedict aligns Katterfelto with both performing animals and the rage for air ballooning as instances of the contested state of modern knowledge.  See also Richard Altick, The Shows of London, 84-85; Fiona Haslem, From Hogarth to Rowlandson:  Medicine in Art in Eighteenth-Century Britain, 202-214;  Eric Jameson, The Natural History of Quackery; and Henry Sampson, A History of Advertising from the Earliest Times, 403-405.

[5] A series of at least twelve watercolour paintings by George Woodward, several of which depicted Lunardi’s various ascents, conveyed the visual magnificence as well as the heroic aura of the early flights.  These can be viewed on-line at the Debryshire County Council website.  My thanks to John Barrell for this source.

[6] Describing the loss of the oar (a common piece of equipment in early balloons) in his Account, Lunardi similarly reported that “a gentlewoman, mistaking the oar for my person, was so affected with my supposed destruction, that she died in a few minutes” (39).

[7] For advertising in this period, see John Strachan, Advertising and Satirical Culture in the Romantic Period.  (Cambridge:  Cambridge UP, 2008); Nicholas Mason, Literary Advertising and the Shaping of British Romanticism (Baltimore:  Johns Hopkins UP, forthcoming); and Paul Keen, Literature, Commerce, and the Spectacle of Modernity, 1750-1800 (Cambridge:  Cambridge UP, 2012), Chapter 6.

[8] Eager to negotiate a more profitable arrangement for himself after more than 20,000 people had flocked to see the balloon, the Lyceum’s manager had locked the balloon up until Lunardi agreed to pay a better share of the profits than they had previously arranged.  Lunardi eventually recovered the balloon with the assistance of the police.

[9] An ACCOUNT of MR. CROSBIE’s ATTEMPT to CROSS the CHANNEL in a BALLOON from DUBLIN, JULY 19, 1785, offered a strikingly similar account of aerial travel:  “My mind, that was hitherto voluptuously fed, made me inattentive to the cravings of my appetite, which at length grew rather pressing, and, with my pen in one hand, and part of a fowl in the other, I wrote as I enjoyed my delicious repast” (qtd. European 1785: 8: 133).

[10] Sending down communications was a favourite pastime of balloonists.  In his account of a flight from London on 16 October, 1784, Jean-Pierre Blanchard recorded sending a letter “to a friend in London” by means of a pigeon which he took with him:  “The bird flew away; and, after making some turns in the air, appeared to fly towards the capital, where indeed she arrived with my letter the same evening” (17).

Works Cited

The Age of Wonders:  Or, a Farther and Particular Discriptton [Sic] of the Remarkable, and Fiery Appartion [Sic] That Was Seen in the Air, on Thursday May the 11th 1710. Also the Figure of a Man in the Clouds with a Drawn Sword; which pass’d from the North West over towards France, with reasonable Signification thereon.  London:  Printed by J. Read, 1710.

The Air Balloon, A New Song.  London, 1785.

Bockett, Elias.  All the Wonders of the World Out-Wonderd [sic]:  In the Amazing and Incredible Prophecies of Ferdinando Albumazarides.  London, 1722.

Byron, George Gordon, Lord.  Don Juan.  Austin:  U of Texas P, 1957.

Canning, George.  “The Grand Consultation.”

Clark, William, Jan Golinksi, and Simon Schaffer, eds.  The Sciences in Enlightened Europe.  Chicago:  U of Chicago P, 1999.

De Certeau, Michel.  The Practice of Everyday Life.  Trans Steven Rendall.  Berkeley:  U of California P, 1984.

Golinski, Jan.  Science as Public Culture:  Chemistry and Enlightenment in Britain, 1760-1820.  Cambridge:  Cambridge UP, 1992.

Holmes, Richard.  The Age of Wonder:  How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science.  London:  Harper Press, 2009.

Keen, Paul.  “The ‘Balloonomania’:  Science and Spectacle in 1780s England.”  Eighteenth-Century Studies 39.4 (2006):  507-535.

—.  Literature, Commerce, and the Spectacle of Modernity, 1750-1800.  Cambridge UP, 2012.

London Unmask’d:  Or the New Town Spy.  Exhibiting a Striking Picture of the World as it Goes.  London:  William Allard, 1785.

Lunardi’s Grand Aerostatic Voyage Through the Air.  London:  Printed for J. Bew, J, Murray and Richardson and Urquhart, and R. Ryan, 1784.

Lunardi, Vincent.  An Account of the First Aërial Voyage in England, in a series of Letters to his Guardian, Chevalier Gherardo Compagni.  London:  Printed for the author and sold at the Pantheon; also by the publisher, J. Bell; and at Mr. Molini’s, 1784.

—.  An Account of Five Aerial Voyages in Scotland, in a Series of Letters to his Guardian, Chevalier Gerardo Compagni, Written Under the Impression of the Various Events that Affected the Undertaking.  London:  Printed for the authors and sold by J. Bell, Bookseller to his Royal Highness The Prince of Wales, and J. Creech, Edinburgh, 1786.

—.  Mr. Lunardi’s Account of his Second Aerial Voyage from Liverpool, On Tuesday the 9th of August, 1785.  London, 1785.

Lynn, Michael R.  Popular Science and Public Opinion in Eighteenth-century France.  Manchester, UK ; New York:  Manchester UP, 2006.

—. The Sublime Invention:  Ballooning in Europe, 1783-1820.  London:  Pickering & Chatto, 2010.

Mason, Nicholas.  Literary Advertising and the Shaping of British Romanticism.  Baltimore:  Johns Hopkins UP, forthcoming.

Stewart, Larry.  The Rise of Public Science:  Rhetoric, Technology, and Natural Philosophy in Newtonian Britain, 1660-1750.  Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992.

Strachan, John.  Advertising and Satirical Culture in the Romantic Period.  Cambridge:  Cambridge UP, 2008.

Swift, Jonathan.  The Wonderful Wonder of Wonders.  Being an Accurate Description of the Birth, Education, Manner of Living, Religion, Politicks, learning, &c. of Mine A—-se.  London, 1722.

—.  The Wonder of all the Wonders, that ever the World Wondered.  London, 1722.

Walpole, Horace.  The Correspondence of Horace Walpole.  Ed. W. S. Lewis.  London:  Oxford UP, 1961-83.

Diagrams of Emotion: Hogarth’s Blush and Maori Tattoos

Thomas Willis (1621-1675) thought there were two equal and opposite impulses at work when a person blushed, a modest retreat and an aggressive advance. In his book on mimicry, Dazzled and Deceived (2009), Peter Forbes has argued that all systems of natural mimicry, whether functioning as camouflage or warning, follow the same basic pattern of modest retreat and obtrusive truculence.  Using the pictorial tools of analysis offered by William Hogarth, I discuss the relation of blushing to tattooing by comparing Sidney Parkinson‘s drawings of tattooed Maori heads (1773) first with Hogarth’s diagram of a blush, and finally with Titian’s Diana and Actaeon, hoping to suggest with a reasonable amount of plausibility that these all belong to the patterns of mimicry discussed by Forbes.

In one of the most testing passages of Hogarth’s The Analysis of Beauty (1753) he attempts a theory of three-dimensional viewing by asking us to suppose a hollow sphere.  He invites the reader to imagine that the sphere is observed from two positions, from the outside where the surface appears convex, and from the inner where it will seem concave.  By having an eye placed at some distance from the object and the other sitting at the centre of it we shall obtain, he promises, “the true and full idea of what is called the outlines of a figure.”  If we habituate ourselves to this combination of a real and imagined position vis-a-vis the things we presently see, he promises we “will gradually arrive the knack of recalling them . . . when the objects themselves are not before [us],” so that not just spheres, cubes and pyramids but even the most subtle or irregular shapes will be as present to the fancy as if they were still in front of us (Hogarth 1810:  44-5).  In staking this claim Hogarth flies in the face of one of the central tenets of empiricism, namely that an object and our impression or idea of it are entirely different.  Thomas Reid was adamant about the “unphilosophical fiction of images in the brain” because it was axiomatic with him that “no sensation can resemble any external object” (Reid 1997: 121, 176).  His conclusion concerning what he calls the “geometry of visibles” is precisely the opposite of Hogarth’s:  “The geometrician, while he looks at his diagram, and demonstrates a proposition, hath a figure present to his eye, which is only a sign and representative of a tangible figure . . . and that these two figures of have different properties, so that what he demonstrates of the one, is not true of the other” (Reid 1997: 105-6).   The imagined position of the eye at the centre of a scooped out egg, for example, is a figment adding nothing to our visual knowledge of the whole shape.

I labour this point because it is important for two reasons, first because it illustrates a significant difference between the sensationism of empiricists such as Hobbes, Locke, and Reid, and the Epicureanism of thinkers such as Walter Charleton and Thomas Stanley in the seventeenth century and David Hartley and Joseph Priestley in the eighteenth who believed, like Hogarth, that there was an immediate and intimate relation between the impression of a thing and the idea we have of it.  Like Lucretius, their chief source of Epicurean materialism, these philosophers believed that there was no firewall protecting the mind or soul from the bombardment of the senses by light and sound.  Indeed, Lucretius believed that every sensation arose from the print made by traces of the actual object, whether it was its film or effigy lodging in the eye, its effluvia entering the nose, or its reverberations penetrating the ear.  The idea of a thing was therefore continuous with its material reality, it was not a sign or a symbol fashioned by the mind.   Lucretius believed that sight, for instance, was something like a motion picture, with a succession of images emitted at great speed from the object striking the retina to give us not the illusion of shape, colour and motion but the immediate print of it (Lucretius 2006, 279-97; iv, ll. 26-268).

Figure 1: from The Analysis of Beauty by William Hogarth

Figure 1: from The Analysis of Beauty by William Hogarth

The second important reason for emphasising these rival epistemologies is that it gives us some sense of what is at stake when in the Analysis Hogarth arrives at the topic of light and colour, and begins to consider how they affect his three-dimensional approach to volume and depth.   Pre-eminent in the artist’s palette, he says, is flesh-colour, which in portraiture moves between the extremes of black and white via the bluish tints around the temple and the rosy flush on healthy cheeks and lips.  It is here that he tackles the nature of the blush, making an extraordinary attempt at a diagram with a black and white line drawing (Figure 1).  Now there are three points I want make about this image.  The first and simplest is that it attempts to circumvent the limitations of copperplate by treating it as if it were an acquatint, using shading to suggest variations in colour.  Second, since there is no possibility of suggesting a blush on a woman’s cheek by means of cross-hatching without making it look like a bruise, Hogarth presents his blush as if it were a photographic negative, reversing the values of black and white so that a very faint thinning of the ink over the cheek can suggest the blush, while the whiteness of the lips stand for red.  Thus he exploits (he says) the natural gullibility of the eye, an organ easily imposed upon and which, if it were not controlled, would show us things double and upside down (177).  Third, he is adapting his technique of 3D inside/outside vision not for a sphere or an egg but for the face.  He has told us that the skin is composed of two envelopes.  There is the outer cuticle that is as transparent as isinglass, and “would show the fat, lean and all the blood-vessels, just as they lie under it” (187) if it were not for the inner cutis which, although it is opaque, is constituted of fibres whose coloured juices and meshes determine the individual complexion.  In some young women, he says, “the texture is so fine . . . that they redden, or turn pale, on the least occasion” (188).   Somehow Hogarth has managed in this diagram of a face to install an inner eye, capable of locating a lightening of the concave interior of uniform blood-red just in those places where, on the convex outside, red would be most on display against the surrounding white.

We call this a diagram, but it is not the sort of structure Reid is thinking of in his geometry of visibles, because instead of establishing a decisive difference between the thing itself and the formal outline that represents it, it is doing the opposite by insisting, perhaps rather awkwardly, on their coincidence.   In some important respects this kind of diagrammatic experiment conforms to the insights about Hogarth’s art which John Bender began to analyse in his essay “Matters of Fact: Virtual Witnessing and the Public in Hogarth’s Narratives” when he talked about his facticity as a kind of staged realism.   Far from schematising the relation between the spectator and the object, this staging (Bender argued) restores the possibility of a first encounter’s immediacy–perhaps beyond the zone of comfort, for he quotes Jean Rouquet to the effect that Hogarth’s vision “corresponds too closely to the objects it represents” (Bender 2012: 59; Rouquet 1746: 2).  In his recent book The Culture of Diagram, Bender and his co-author Michael Marrinan study this proximity of vision to object by turning to the function of correlation that the non-perspectival organisation of diagram encourages.  By dividing the sight-lines up between different points, the artist makes it possible for the viewer to assemble the different parts in a new configuration, and in effect to initiate a cognitive event (Bender and Marrinan 2010: 74).  They single out Hogarth’s “Satire on False Perspective” as an exemplary lesson in diagrammatic correlation because of its overlay of `fractional visual fields’ that challenge the assumptions of one-point perspective by situating in the eye in a grid of rival viewing positions.

Such a challenge is not just practical or technical; it is also affective.  Bender and Marrinan write, “Hogarth’s humour erupts at the juncture where the fixed, mathematically governed focus of classical linear perspective meets the curvature of physical eyes and their continuous scanning motion” (Bender and Marrinan 2010: 63).  And what this humour produces they call “the effect of disequilibrium called amusement” (63).  The affective element in games of visual disruption is much enhanced when the object is a blushing face, for the lines of it are easily understood as indices of temperament or emotion, lowered eyelids and the face turned away and so on, but when they are reinforced by a colour directly expressive of timidity, joy, anger, arousal, or shame then the impact is greater.  And when that colour is perceived as it were from the inside rather than the out, disequilibrium makes room for affect.  It is not too far-fetched then to venture the claim that Hogarth’s tiny outline of a blush turned inside out is in fact a diagram of emotion.

Figure 2: "Moko" Maori facial tatoo.  Sidney Parkinson, from Hawkesworth's Account of Some Voyages (1773).

Figure 2: “Moko” Maori facial tatoo. Sidney Parkinson, from Hawkesworth’s Account of the Voyages… (1773).

Twenty years after Hogarth published the Analysis, the British public was treated to further examples of this diagrammatic art in the shape of Sidney Parkinson’s two portraits of Maori from the Poverty Bay region of Aotearoa/New Zealand’s North Island, published in John Hawkesworth‘s An Account of the Voyages and Discoveries in the Southern Hemisphere (1773).  These show two very different types of facial tattoo.  One is called moko (Figure 2), composed of whorls and scrolls typical of Maori carving on the finials of meeting houses and the stern-posts of canoes, often framing an ancestral figure or poupou; the other is called puhoro (Figure 3), which bears a remarkable resemblance to Hogarth’s diagram (Figure 1) .  It is a much freer design of volutes and lines derived from the decorative art on the rafters of buildings, known as kowhaiwhai.  The history of puhoro as a facial tattoo is difficult to tell, since by the early 19th century it seems to have been reserved exclusively for thigh ornament; whereas moko very soon after contact became the exclusive design for the face.  Very quickly one observes that moko is an ornament inscribed on the surface, like ink on paper and not, like puhoro, making its way through the ink in the manner of Hogarth’s blush.  Done by chiselling the charred black of candlenut into the subcutanenous layer of the skin, moko was a visual challenge intended to emphasise the contours and furrows of the countenance, particularly those that come into play in grimaces of aggression and fury.  It is also worthwhile pointing out that a moko was unique to each individual and was commonly supposed to reveal a shorthand genealogy as well as the identity of the owner, rather like the heraldic devices on the shields of knights at arms.  Many of the chiefs who signed the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 did it with their moko.  So as well as the emotions incident to the close encounters of battle, this kind of tattoo was the cicatrice of an exceedingly painful set of incisions in the flesh, the perpetual demonstration of a fearful glory, or mana, connecting each hero to his ancestors by means of a design carved into his memory as well as his skin.

Figure 3: "Puhoro" Maori facial tattoo.  Sidney Parkinson.  Hawkesworth's "An Account of the Voyages..." (1773).

Figure 3: “Puhoro” Maori facial tattoo. Sidney Parkinson, from Hawkesworth’s Account of the Voyages… (1773).

Puhoro on the other hand, being seen in negative with white lines defined by a shaded ground, seems much more discreet.  If moko is the sublime, a powerful emission of energy outwards, associating the surface of the skin with the external ornaments of buildings and canoes, puhoro is the beautiful, belonging to the inside of houses, and in some sense the interior of persons.  What the nature of this interior might be is best approached via the idea of tattoo as an affective diagram.  To early European visitors moko seemed not hard to work out:  it was designed to disturb the symmetry of the face, fixing it in a glare that would be frightful in war–at least this was the opinion of Joseph Banks on Cook‘s first voyage, and of J.R. Forster on his second.  Neither of them however was able to view the phenomenon dispassionately:  Banks found himself revolted by faces rendered “enormously ugly,” but at the same time he was fascinated by “the immence Elegance and Justness of the figures in which it is form’d” (Banks 1962: 2.213-4).  It prompted Forster to remember the other side of the affective spectrum, for these carved masks of rage reminded him of the scars left in the foreheads of Polynesian women who cut themselves in order to exhibit in the blood streaming down their faces the reality of their grief for dead relatives or departing friends (Forster 1996: 347).  The most extensive analysis of aggressive disruptions of symmetry in Polynesian art is Nicholas Thomas’s essay “Kiss the Baby Goodbye,” where he explores the implications of objects, whether tattooed, carved or painted, which come too close to their viewers and throw them off guard.  “Like erotica, these artifacts have effects which are indexed in a viewer’s body, which precede and supersede deliberate reading . . . unstable patterns would disempower people and empower others” (Thomas 1995: 101, 99).   So it is mobile and haptic; it means to constitute a physical event for whoever looks at it.  Thomas suggests that the bulges and bends of Sepik and Asmat shields, accentuated by the designs carved and painted on them, exhibit a palpable instability and a pulsing energy–energy analogous, I’d suggest, to the humour that erupts in Hogarth’s “Satire on Perspective,” except that the latter is a diagram of amusement, and these are diagrams of dismay.

Of Parkinson’s tattooed faces, Bernard Smith remarked that they showed no emotion (Smith 1985-87: 1.34-43), and there are perhaps two reasons for that.  The first is that in drawing a facial tattoo a conflict inevitably occurs between the outline of the face and the structure of the design, since that was what was intended by it.  The second is that the conflict is palpable, an effect of the proximity of face to viewer that floods the shared space with energy:  the face is not showing emotion in the sense of representing it, it is causing it to happen.   But how exactly does it do it?  Is it simply by the hydraulics of power, sucking it out of the viewer and storing it in the object being viewed?   Banks is certainly repelled by tattoos, but he is also attracted by them; and in the process of a visual dialectics Bronwen Douglas calls countersigning (Douglas 2005, 51) it is evident that the energy transmitted by a tattoo, lodged in the body when the tattoo was made, is expelled and then returned to it via the body it affects, whether the impulse is provided by revulsion or fascination.   In this respect the link between moko and the aesthetics of the sublime grows stronger, for Longinus noted not only that it struck the auditors or viewers like a blow, leaving them prostrate and in the condition Kant calls Hemmung, but that it was soon followed by a surge of power he called Ergiessung, and Longinus “transport,” when the projected force is rebounded upon the projector, and the victim feels suddenly like the aggressor (Longinus 1739: 14).    Like any challenge, then, moko is an incitement to fight; it is not meant to terminate in the paralysis of the enemy.  It is both the menace of violence and the expectation of it, a weapon and a shield, the trace of blood spilt and the promise of more to flow.


Figure 4

Blood has a milder but still dynamic function in puhoro, where force is not projected so much as apprehended.  As if positioned in a blood-red interior, the inner eye encounters another eye outside that may be wishing to see more than it should.  Its lattice of white perpendicular white lines and transverse volutes, showing up against a darkened or blushing skin, acts like a fan or jalousie to obstruct one option of the viewer and to encourage another.  It obstructs whatever advantage might have accrued from seeing a face reacting to the surprise of being seen, and it encourages the intrusive eye to enjoy its own curvature, and to indulge the scanning motion that is its natural rhythm.   According to Nicholas Thomas kowhaiwhai above all Maori designs figures the motion of things and amuses the eye by inviting it to roll from one optical complexity to another (Thomas 1995:  103-4).

Figure 5: Gunboat HMS Kildangan in dazzle camouflage, 1918.  Imperial War Museum, London.  Printed in Forbes, Dazzled and Deceived.

Figure 5: Gunboat HMS Kildangan in dazzle camouflage, 1918. Imperial War Museum, London. Printed in Forbes, Dazzled and Deceived.

If tattooing owed anything to forms of mimicry in the natural world, then moko would belong to those dazzle patterns of snakes that advertise their venom with loud bands of yellow and red (Figure 4), a technique adapted during the second world war to confuse measurements of the heading and speed of warships while proclaiming very distinctly their deadliness (Figure 5).  Puhoro on the other hand would belong with the arts of camouflage that make nakedness look like something else, such as those butterflies that simulate leaves, and spiders that get by in life by pretending to be bird-droppings (Figure 6).

Figure 6.  Photo by Flickr user ToddinNantou.

Figure 6: Photo by Flickr user ToddinNantou.









Figure 7: Titian, 'Diana and Actaeon', 1556-59 © The National Gallery London / The National Galleries of Scotland

Figure 7: Titian, ‘Diana and Actaeon’, 1556-59 © The National Gallery London / The National Galleries of Scotland

The swirl of energy around the variety of positions charted by adaptive mimicry, what Roger Caillois calls “sculpture photography” (Forbes 2009: 135) and we have been calling 3D affective diagrams, provides the drama one of Titian’s greatest pictures, Diana and Actaeon (Figure 7), painted in the mid-sixteenth century and recently the inspiration of a new three-part ballet called Metamorphosis: Titian 2012, first performed in London in at the Royal Opera House in the summer of 2012.   While hunting in the forest Actaeon stumbles on Diana’s pool, and sees her naked; the goddess is outraged, and is about to fling water in his face that will turn him into his own quarry, a deer.  Of the many artists attracted to this scene, Titian is one of the few to have shown Diana blushing, and almost I think the only one not to show Actaeon with horns growing out of his head. We can see that her blush organises what we might call the diagram of the whole picture, for with the exception of Diana, her black companion and the nymph peering from behind the arch, all the other faces are unlit or half-shaded, as if each is ashamed at having caused the figurehead of chastity to be caught in her bare skin by a man.  Whatever erotic charge might have been in store for Actaeon has backfired, and so we find him engaged in two contrary motions at once, coming forward to look and going back to hide.  Diana herself is engaged in the same awkward manoeuvre, lifting a veil and an arm to conceal her face while at the same time seeming to wind herself up for the throwing of water.  So at either side of the composition a pulse of inward/outward movements is in play that renders the two main figures quite awkward, for Actaeon’s feet seem to be going in a different direction from his torso and his head, contributing to a total effect of what might have been wonder in a painting by Poussin but here looks like extreme uncertainty.  The swivelling of Diana’s body is not at all sinuous, for the leg being dried by her attendant throws it out of balance, while equivocal position of her upper body makes her head look as if it were borrowed from a smaller person.  Her well-lit blushing face, shadowed by the black one alongside, condenses the alternatives set out in the picture at large between the aggressive dazzle of red laid on white, and the recessive possibilities of shade.   Here white emerges from the dark ground of the black woman’s face as if in mimicry of a blush–just like Hogarth’s diagram and Parkinson’s rendition of puhoro.

The woman staring from behind the column quadrates the picture, for while at either side the drama of attraction and repulsion is being played out, there is another occurring on the transverse axis that connects the peering half-hidden nymph on the inside to the spectator on the outside.  Her gaze is directed diagonally at Actaeon suggesting that ours is directed at parallel angle towards Diana, implicating us in Actaeon’s erotic shock.  At an exhibition at the National Gallery mounted to coincide with the performance of the ballet Metamorphosis, this picture was hung by the artist Mark Wallinger near a side room where visitors could look through a peephole into a cabinet where a real naked woman was taking a bath.  Asked what he was aiming at, Wallinger replied, `to make the viewer a little uncomfortable.’  Let me end with a quotation of Thomas Willis, a close affiliate of those Epicureans I began by invoking, on the dual pulse of the blush

Concerning this Passion [of shame], ‘tis observable that when the Corporeall Soul being abashed, is enforced to repress its Compass, she notwithstanding being desirous, as it were to hide this Affection, drives forth outwardly the Blood, and stirs up a redness in the Cheeks. (Willis 1683, 54).

He suggests the blush veils the shame, but insofar as it is directed outwards against a likely witness, it belongs to what he calls the power of dilation or emanation, when the soul “erects and stretches out it self beyond measure’ in its desire to `enlarge the Sphear of [its] Irradiation” (Willis 1683: 45).  The vital energy that animates the blush of anger is mixed up with the blood that signals the contraction of the soul’s compass.  One blush is looking to camouflage itself from an intrusive gaze, the other to dazzle the eye that has presumed to look where it shouldn’t; but the energy they draw upon is the same. In Diana and Actaeon, in Hogarth’s diagram from The Country Dance, and in moko and puhoro tattoos, the same double pulse of energy is in play.  In all three the action of looking and the response to being seen are distributed in three dimensions, so that even the viewer’s eye is implicated in a set of visual contingencies that Lucretius would have called an event.



  •  Joseph Banks  1962, The Endeavour Journal of Joseph Banks, ed. J.C. Beaglehole, 2 vols., Sydney: Public Library of New South Wales and Angus and Robertson.
  • John Bender  2012,  `Matters of Fact:  Virtual Witnessing and the Public in Hogarth’s Narratives,’ in Ends of Enlightenment, Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  •  John Bender and Michael Marrinan  2010, The Culture of Diagram, Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  • Bronwen Douglas  2005, “‘Cureous Figures,’ European Voyagers and Tatau/Tattoo in Polynesia, 1595-1800,” in Thomas, Cole, and Douglas eds., Tattoo.
  • Peter Forbes  2009, Dazzled and Deceived, New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
  • John Hawkesworth ed.  1773, An Account of the Voyages and Discoveries in the Southern Hemisphere, 3 vols., London: W. Strahan and T. Cadell.
  •  William Hogarth  1810, Analysis of Beauty, London: Samuel Bagster
  •  Longinus  1739,  On the Sublime, trans. William Smith, London: J. Watts.
  • Lucretius (Titus Lucretius Carus)  2006, On the Nature of Things, trans. W.H.D. Rouse, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  •  Thomas Reid  1997, An Inquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense, ed. Derek R. Brookes, University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.
  • Bernard Smith and Ruediger Joppien  1985-88, Art of Captain Cook’s Voyages, 3 vols., New Haven: Paul Mellon Center for British Art.
  • Nicholas Thomas  1995,  `Kiss the Baby Goodbye: Kowhaiwhai and Aesthetics in Aotearoa New Zealand,’ Critical Inquiry 22 (Autumn 1995), 90-121.
  •  Nicholas Thomas, Anna Cole, and Bronwen Douglas eds.  2005,  Tattoo:  Bodies, Art and Exchange in the Pacific and the West, London: Reaktion.
  •  Thomas Willis  1683,  Two Discourses concerning the Soul of Brutes, trans. Sam. Pordage, London:  Thomas Dring.

Erasmus Darwin and the Threat of Materialism

Henry Fuseli, Drawing for the Frontispiece of Erasmus Darwin’s “The Botanic Garden.” Alternate Title: Flora Attired by the Elements. Graphite on slightly textured, cream laid paper. Sheet (sight): 8 3/4 x 6 3/8 inches (22.2 x 16.2 cm). Inscribed on back in graphite: “Fuseli evidently drew this and A. Smith engraved it / The engraving being published June 1st 1791 by J. Johnson. / St. Pauls Churchyard.” Watermark: Britannia. Yale Center for British Art, Gift of Lowell Libson. B2007.2

A Digest of “‘Mere Matter’:  Causality, Subjectivity and Aesthetic Form in Erasmus Darwin.”  Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net.  No. 56 (2009).  <>.

Allison Dushane, University of Arizona


In his two-part medical treatise Zoonomia (1794-1796), Erasmus Darwin—physician, scientist, and inventor—anticipates his grandson Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory by making a series of startling suggestions:

…would it be too bold to imagine, that in the great length of time, since the earth began to exist, perhaps millions of ages before the commencement of the history of mankind, would it be too bold to imagine, that all warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament, which The Great First Cause endued with animality, with the power of acquiring new parts, attended with new propensities, directed by irritations, sensations, volitions, and associations; and thus possessing the faculty of continuing to improve by its own inherent activity, and of delivering down those improvements by generation to its posterity, world without end!  (Zoonomia, Part I, Section XXXIX.IV.8)

In a single passage, Darwin undermines a creationist perspective on the earth’s history, links the development of all animal and human life to a single “living filament,” or speck of matter, and suggests that the ongoing activity of that matter itself, without the active guidance of an outside force, is responsible for the continued generation of the moral and physical universe.  He later incorporated these ideas into long epic poems that made him one of the most popular poets of the 1790s.

However, in the late-eighteenth century, particularly in the years surrounding the French Revolution, such evolutionary ideas were even more controversial than they are today.  The conservative publication British Critic condemned Darwin’s evolutionary theory, and the Anti-Jacobin or Weekly Examiner, established in 1797, singled out Zoonomia for censure and published two poems that attacked Darwin’s work in parody, labeling him as an atheist, a Jacobin, and a materialist.  His friend and collaborator Joseph Priestley, a scientist and dissenting minister best known for the description and naming of oxygen, also aroused controversy through his materialist ideas and faced much harsher treatment:  in 1791, a riotous mob burned his papers and scientific instruments, driving him to emigrate to America.

What did it mean to be labeled as a “materialist” in eighteenth century Britain?  Or, to put it another way, why was—and is—materialism perceived as threatening?  Why did Darwin’s poetry in particular draw such negative attention?  The answer is philosophical as well as political.  The public perception of materialism was shaped by the systems of several prominent philosophers of the French Enlightenment.  For example, LaMettrie, upon surveying the work of the emerging field of physiology, concludes his 1748 Man a Machine with the invitation to “conclude boldly that man is a machine, and that in the whole universe there is but a single substance differently modified.”  Likewise, the Baron D’Holbach begins his 1770 Systeme de la Nature with the declaration that “man is the work of nature:  he exists in Nature:  he is submitted to her laws:  he cannot deliver himself from them; nor can he step beyond them even in thought” (13).  These images of a man-machine imprisoned by natural laws haunted writers who otherwise embraced the potential they saw in the Enlightenment project for human progress through a scientific program based on reason, observation, and experiment.

Darwin’s ideas, however, were more dynamic, proposing that each individual is at once a product of the ongoing processes of nature on a microscopic level and a contributor to the ongoing development of nature on a macroscopic level.  In Zoonomia, he looks to the “improving excellence observable in every part of the creation” as evidence for the “idea of our present situation being a state of probation, which by our exertions we may improve, and are consequently responsible for our actions.”  His ideas were threatening, not because they suggest that the human is only a cog in a machine, but because they propose that the human self is neither given nor stable, but an ongoing work in progress.  Darwin’s version of materialism points to the limits of individual human agency and overturns a conception of human life as the center of the universe.

James Gillray, “New Morality; -or- the Promis’d Installment of the High-Priest of the Theophilanthropes, with the Homage of Leviathan and his Suite.” 1798. Paper. AN943289001 © The Trustees of the British Museum. Department: Prints & Drawings. Registration number: 1868,0808.6762 (Note:  At the center of the image, a man standing behind the cornucopia has a basket of plants on his head, and each plant sprouts a bonnet-rouge.  This is labeled ‘Zoonomia or Jacobin Plants’).

Darwin’s first major literary publication in 1789, The Loves of the Plants, was written to illustrate the Linnaean system of classification, using heroic couplets, the conventions of epic, and references to history and mythology to animate the adventures of a host of personified plants.  The Loves of the Plants became Part II of his longer project, The Botanic Garden, when an edition bound with Part I, The Economy of Vegetation, came out three years later.  His posthumously published The Temple of Nature more explicitly developed his evolutionary ideas.  What makes Darwin’s poetry fascinating isn’t necessarily the fact that the verse focuses on scientific subject matter.  Rather, it is the work’s extensive prose “Philosophical Notes” that link the images and actions in the poem to the work and writing of contemporary scientists, inventors, and artists through extensive citation and commentary.  His poetry, which aims to “enlist the Imagination under the banner of science,” is explicitly aimed at educating—and exciting—the poetry-reading public about scientific discoveries.  For example, consider this passage depicting the origins of the universe through something like a proto-big bang theory, for which Darwin came under attack for its early vision of an evolutionary and self-sustaining nature:

Astonish’d Chaos heard the potent word;—
Through all his realms the kindling Ether runs,
And the mass starts into a million suns;
Earths round each sun with quick explosions burst,
And second planets issue from the first;
Bend, as they journey with projectile force,
In bright ellipses their reluctant course;
Orbs wheel in orbs, round centres centres roll,
And form, self-balanced, one revolving Whole.  (Economy, Canto I, lines 103-114)

In Darwin’s footnote to this passage, he muses:  “We can have no idea of a natural power, which could project a Sun out of Chaos…of the power of which under immeasurable degrees of heat, and compression, we are yet ignorant” (1.1.105n).  Despite that basic ignorance of nature’s power, which comprises a part of the threat of materialism, Darwin proceeds to narrate nature’s processes in tandem with an account of man’s efforts to understand and harness them for human ends.

In 1798, the Anti-Jacobin published James Gillray’s political cartoon, The New Morality, which features a group of radical politicians and literary figures marching to worship at a temple of French ideas.  It depicts Darwin in the mob along with Priestley, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Thelwall, William Godwin, and Mary Wollstonecraft, and it also references The Botanic Garden with the image of a basket of anthropomorphized riotous plants.  The Anti-Jacobin also published a long poem, “The Progress of Man. A Didactic Poem,” which attacks dynamic matter theories like Darwin’s, aiming a parody squarely at the above passage:

Whether some great, supreme o’er-ruling Power
Stretched forth its arm at nature’s natal hour,
Composed this mighty whole with plastic skill,
Wielding the jarring elements at will?
Or whether sprung from Chaos’ mingling storm,
The mass of matter started into form?
Or Chance o’er earth’s green lab spontaneous fling
The fruits of autumn and the flowers of spring?
Whether material substance unrefined,
Owns the strong impulse of instinctive mind,
Which to one centre points diverging lines,
Confounds, refracts, invig’rates, and combines?
Whether the joys of earth, the hopes of heaven,
By Man to God, or God to Man, were given?
If virtue leads to bliss, or vice to woe?
Who rules above? or who reside below?
Vain Questions all—shall Man presume to know?  (1-17)

A footnote accompanying this passage urges the reader to see “Godwin’s Enquirer; Darwin’s Zoonomia; Paine; Priestley, &c.&c.&c.; also all the French Encyclopedists.”  The author of “The Progress of Man” conflates materialist thinking with radical political and religious thinkers while calling into question the validity of any intellectual enterprise that dares to question the origin and accepted order of the universe and the place of human life within it.   Specifically, he dismisses poetry as a fitting medium for such inquiries, insisting that not only does “Man” have no business dealing with such matters, but also that poetry is a particularly presumptuous medium for doing so.  Ironically, however, the Anti-Jacobin’s attack on materialist thinking, and the popularity of Darwin’s poetry more generally as a medium for disseminating scientific ideas to the public, only underscores the significance of literature for thinking through matters of “Chaos” and “Chance,” of “Matter” and “Man.”