Sunday, October 20, 2013

18th-century reflections

My immersion in the philosophes and the 18th century, in preparation for the conference on utopia in British Columbia, was so intense that I found it difficult to concentrate on any one aspect to post a blog about. Turgot, Condorcet, Diderot were racing around in my head. Having returned from the Pacific Northwest, however, I find it high time that I make an attempt to write regularly. But, first, some views of the conference.

That is me, dispensing jewels of wisdom to the audience. It was not an academic gathering, but instead drew many individuals from the Northwest and further afield who traveled with some difficulty to hear seven people talk about utopia. Sointula is on Malcolm Island, which in turn is off the coast of Vancouver Island, and it was via two planes and a ferry that I reached it. (The map of Vancouver Island above shows Sointula in the far upper-left corner, so you can see that it was not quite a direct flight from the Northeast.) The population is small (about 700), but the conference was organized and run by the most impressive corps of volunteers that the paid staff of the MLA could not match. I was very impressed with the attendees, all of whom showed a thirst to learn about the Sointula adventure (read more at that link) and about utopia, past and present.

Chuck LeWarne
Among the speakers was Chuck LeWarne, from whose books on Puget Sound and Washington state utopias I have learned much. In the corner of utopian settlement he has explored, he has shown how America has been a place of constant re-invention (see, for instance, this book by Chuck), something the 18th-century philosophes could hardly have imagined. Anyone who has read my posts on world literature will know why I think this is the case: capitalism and the free market seem to encourage people to constant novelty. In my last post I mentioned that Turgot had found novelty to be the basic human passion, one that impelled the innovators of history to break out of the rut of tradition and custom and propel humankind on its path to perfection. For Turgot and for many 18th-century philosophes, this passion was not envisioned in "embodied" terms, for instance, in the rise of fashion or the importation of new products to France, such as tea and coffee. It was an intellectual construct, like Reason.

Sointula library and museum
Where I stayed
Since my essay on Bodmer appeared (Goethe Yearbook, vol. 20), I have been struck by something that I only treated in passing in that essay, namely, the concept of novelty or "das Neue." Joseph Addison had included novelty in his analysis of the sublime, but Bodmer rejected it in that connection because novelty was concerned with the ephemeral and not, as as did the beautiful and the great in nature, with essential aspects of human nature. I use the latter term in full realization that its existence is now objected to in some quarters. Novelty is of course the deity that presides over the modern, no-holds-barred market. Before the 19th century utopia was limited to intellectual speculation, to literary works, but global trade and commerce allowed people to see themselves in a new light. Thus, the emigration to the Americas in that century of people wanting to create a "new" life.

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