The Unfinished Enlightenment

The Unfinished Enlightenment: Description in the Age of the Encyclopedia

Joanna Stalnaker
Copyright Date: 2010
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    The Unfinished Enlightenment
    Book Description:

    In The Unfinished Enlightenment, Joanna Stalnaker offers a fresh look at the French Enlightenment by focusing on the era's vast, collective attempt to compile an ongoing and provisional description of the world. Through a series of readings of natural histories, encyclopedias, scientific poetry, and urban topographies, the book uncovers the deep epistemological and literary tensions that made description a central preoccupation for authors such as Buffon, Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, Diderot, Delille, and Mercier.

    Stalnaker argues that Enlightenment description was the site of competing truth claims that would eventually resolve themselves in the modern polarity between literature and science. By the mid-nineteenth century, the now habitual association between description and the novel was already firmly anchored in French culture, but just a century earlier, in the diverse network of articles on description in Diderot and d'Alembert's Encyclopédie and in the works derived from it, there was not a single mention of the novel. Instead, we find articles on description in natural history, geometry, belles-lettres, and poetry.

    Stalnaker builds on the premise that the tendency to view description as the inevitable (and subservient) partner of narration-rather than as a universal tool for making sense of knowledge in all fields-has obscured the central place of description in Enlightenment discourse. As a result, we have neglected some of the most original and experimental works of the eighteenth century.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6234-4
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Figures
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xi-xiii)
  5. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiv-xvi)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 1-28)

    In 1788, Louis Sébastien Mercier traced the twelve volumes of his Tableau de Paris, a sprawling description of Paris and its social mores, to an identity he had forged in his childhood. In the last volume of this late eighteenth-century best seller, he recounted his memories of a dancing teacher whose appearance and manners were so hilarious that the ten-year-old Louis Sébastien would describe him to his young friends whenever he wanted to make them laugh. “In the evening,” he wrote, “I made for my comrades the description of M. Cupis from head to toe; without him I wouldn’t have...

  7. Part I: Natural Histories

    • 1 Buffon and Daubenton’s Two Horses
      (pp. 31-67)

      George-Louis Leclerc de Buffon’s Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière (1749–89) was initially conceived in far more modest terms than its eventual thirty-six volumes, which included theories of the earth, reproduction, and man, twelve volumes on quadrupeds that combined comparative anatomy with studies of animal habits and habitats, nine volumes on birds, five on minerals, an anthropological account of racial and cultural diversity, and one of the first historical accounts of the earth’s transformations over time.¹ Although our knowledge of the work’s origins remains sketchy, Buffon appears to have started his project intending merely to write a descriptive catalog of...

    • 2 Bernardin de Saint-Pierre’s Strawberry Plant
      (pp. 68-96)

      Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre is best known today as the author of Paul et Virginie (1788), a pastoral novel set in the exotic context of the Île-de-France (present-day Mauritius) and replete with purple prose, gushing sentimentalism, and dark undertones regarding the treatment of African slaves in the French colonies. With this work alone, Saint-Pierre might well have earned his reputation as one of the first great describers in modern French literature.¹ The novel is stuffed with concrete (yet florid) descriptions of the island’s flora and fauna, based largely on Saint-Pierre’s travelogue, the Voyage à l’Île de France (1773).² What is...

  8. Part II: Encyclopedias

    • 3 Diderot’s Word Machine
      (pp. 99-123)

      The description of artisanal machines and techniques was central to Denis Diderot and Jean d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie (1751–72) from its inception. In his 1750 “Prospectus,” Diderot characterized the articles on the mechanical arts as the most difficult and unprecedented part of the project: “Perhaps never before have there been so many difficulties joined together, and so little assistance to overcome them.”¹ While the full nature of these difficulties will only become apparent by the end of this chapter, a few major points can already be outlined here. First, unlike the sciences and the liberal arts, the mechanical arts stood, according...

    • 4 Delille’s Little Encyclopedia
      (pp. 124-148)

      In his portrait of Jacques Delille, one of the most eminent poets and translators in Enlightenment France, the romantic critic Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve characterized the descriptive genre practiced and theorized by Delille as a failed poetic project.¹ Despite the overwhelming popularity of descriptive poetry in the eighteenth century, this critical judgment has persisted into our own time: no scholarly or popular editions of French descriptive poems are currently available, and only a few of the original editions are accessible through the Bibliothèque nationale de France’s digital library. In his introduction to an anthology of French eighteenth-century poetry, which includes only...

  9. Part III: Moral and Political Topographies

    • 5 Mercier’s Unframed Paris
      (pp. 151-187)

      More than any of the writers discussed thus far, Louis Sébastien Mercier incarnates the figure of the Enlightenment describer. As already noted, he explicitly identified himself as a descripteur, tracing the genesis of his twelve-volume description of Paris and its social mores, the Tableau de Paris (1781–88), to his childhood love for description.¹ His identity as a describer was inseparable from the metaphor of painting as writing that surfaced frequently in his work: in the Tableau de Paris, he noted: “I held nothing but the brush of the painter in this work”; and in his dictionary of revolutionary neologisms,...

    • 6 Description in Revolution
      (pp. 188-210)

      Mercier published the last volume of his Tableau de Paris in 1788, just one year before the Revolution he later claimed to have prophesied in 1771 in his best-selling futuristic novel, L’an 2440. Ten years later, in 1798 or 1799, he published his account of revolutionary Paris, Le nouveau Paris. Although Mercier presented this work as a companion piece to the Tableau de Paris, he emphasized the tremendous gulf that separated the old Paris from the new. He also suggested, significantly for an author who had previously eschewed autobiography, that in the space of that turbulent decade, he himself had...

  10. Conclusion: Virtual Encyclopedias
    (pp. 211-218)

    One way of concluding this book would be to trace the literary heritage of Enlightenment descriptive practices into the nineteenth century. One might show, for example, how Honoré de Balzac looked to Buffon as a model for his encyclopedic compendium of social types, writing in the preface to his Comédie humaine: “If Buffon made a magnificent work by attempting to represent in one book the whole of zoology, wasn’t there a work of this kind to be made for society?”¹ Or one might evoke the “big work” on Le nouveau Paris that Charles Baudelaire claimed to be preparing in a...

  11. Bibliography
    (pp. 219-232)
  12. Index
    (pp. 233-240)