Comp Lit 480: The Mirror of Enlightenment


Here, as promised, is a larger photograph of the members of the Mirror of Enlightenment seminar. There is Isabelle Laitem, who is a native speaker of French but also knows Latin and Greek. There is Eve Therrien, who grew up in Quebec and is double majoring in French and Comp Lit. There is Cristina Carvalhiero, who is triple majoring in Spanish, French, and Portuguese, and who is fluent in all three. There are Christine Shramek and Ashley Johnson, who studied in Paris and still sometimes dream in French. There is Paula Hentea, fluent in both French and Romanian, who is majoring in Philosophy but sometimes comes over to take the odd English seminar. There are Meg Kameda and Winnie Hamrah and Christine Camacho, able to discuss Humean scepticism or Voltairean irony with equal ease in either French or English. There are Valerie Jewett and Rob Young and John Davies and Chris Treglio, English majors who have known from their earliest days that students of  English literature who do not know languages other than English read in a darkness of their own choosing. And there is Mia Zequiri, fluent in Albanian and Serbo-Croatian and a mathematics major who does not, bless her, believe in any fatal division between C.P. Snow's "two cultures." Praise them (as cries the company when Frodo and Sam have awakened from their slumber to be led out onto the greensward)  praise them with great praise.

Below, the original course description --

This is Mme de Warens (or, to give her the name by which she was known to the neighbors, Louise-Eleonore de La Tour du Pil, Baronne de Warens), who is known to every reader of Rousseau's Confessions. She is the lady who, when Rousseau was wandering around the countryside in restless dissatisfaction as a young man, took him in and gave him food and shelter while he was doing the reading that led to his Discours sur les sciences et les arts and his Discours sur l'inegalite, which made him immediately famous. Both these works were conceived at Les Charmettes, Mme de Warens' farmhouse in Savoy, which also got famous as a result. The Oxford Dictionary of French Literature says that Mme de Warens was a woman of "easy morals," but the English are notoriously stuffy about these things. She may simply have been outgoing.

We will be reading Rousseau, and meeting Mme de Warens, in The Mirror of Enlightenment (Comp Lit 195:480:02), a course open to French majors, Comparative Literature majors, and English majors who read French at an advanced level of competence.

During the 18th century England and France gazed back and forth at each other across the English Channel, each seeing in the other a version of something they feared or desired about themselves. (I've taken the phrase "mirror of Enlightenment" from a French scholar named Roger Caillois: what I mean is the way France and England as "imagined communities" each saw a reflection of themselves in what they thought was the other nation.)

To an important degree, the intellectual epoch we call the Enlightenment was brought about by what might be called this process of "creative illusion." So, for instance, Voltaire's Lettres anglaises, written about his visit to England in 1726-29, was really a powerful unspoken critique of a France he saw as being ruled by religious dogmatism, intellectual intolerance, and an unyielding royalist absolutism in politics. In the same way, Montesquieu's admiring account of the mixed or balanced orders of the English constitution in L'esprit des lois was an important impetus in the movement towards radical political ideas eventually leading to the French Revolution.

On the other side of the Channel, the long warfare fought by such major writers as Pope and Johnson against what they saw as the "freethinking" tendencies of French intellectual life (rationalism, scepticism, atheism) would culminate in Burke's impassioned denunciation of French radicalism in Reflections on the Revolution in France. The point of the course will be that all such writers, imagining that they were describing the other nation, were really writing about a feared or desired idea of their own society.

No background in 18th-century French or English literature or history will be assumed. (I'll "lecture" occasionally to fill in the intellectual and political background as painlessly as possible.) Among the French writers we'll be reading are: Bayle, Fontenelle, Montesquieu, Voltaire, Diderot, and Beaumarchais. English writers will include: Dryden, Pope, Bolingbroke, Hume, Gibbon, Johnson, Goldsmith, Burke, and Thomas Paine.