Touching the Text: Reading Pleasure in the 18th Century
What did it mean to interact with a book in the 18th century? Materialist texts show how information moves from print and image to idea and imagination. How can we re-imagine the personal and philosophical relationship between the reader’s body and the ‘body’ of the text?
Kate Devine, a graduate student in Hanna Roman’s spring 2016 “Rethinking the Enlightenment French Novel” class, discusses how we can imagine the relationship between the reader’s body and the body of the text in eighteenth-century literature in the Morris Wachs Collection. What do contemporary materialist theories, many of them explained or enacted in these texts, of reading tell us about what happened when the reader interacted with the text.
The Encyclopedia of Diderot and d’Alembert was one of the major achievements of the Enlightenment. Comprising more than 60 volumes, this collaborative work sought to “change the common way of thinking." (Diderot) This particular image was included in the volume dealing with anatomy and brings up the question of the relationship between the physical and the metaphysical, between body and mind. In what ways, physical and emotional, does the body of the reader interact with the body of the text and vice versa? How can we trace the link between idea and reality, concrete and imaginary?
This image was included in the Encyclopedia volume on anatomy and demonstrates one example of a set of pathways throughout the human body. This brings up the question of how the 18th century thought information entered and then was conveyed throughout the body. With this in mind, in what ways did the relationship between the body of the text and the body of the reader get conceptualized?
This image, from the Encyclopedia volume on anatomy, illustrates an enlightenment conception of the human cardiovascular system. The 18th century saw a far more in-depth understanding of these physical pathways throughout the body beginning to take shape. Considering these advancements, we can consider how the knowledge of the inner workings of the physical body might have effected the conception of how other, metaphysical information, was conveyed.
This image figures in the Encyclopedia volume on anatomy and illustrates an enlightenment conception of the senses. Senses were thought to represent a physical gateway to the soul, bringing in and circulating sensory information. Taking this into consideration brings up the question of how the body of the reader was thought to interact with the body of the text, and vice versa. How does the text enter into the reader’s body and how then does it act upon his or her soul? How does the relationship between these two bodies, the body of the text and the body of the reader, enact itself both physically and metaphysically?
In this image we see an anatomical drawing of a human heart which figured in the anatomy section of the Encyclopedia. Certainly, this diagram of a heart contrasts with the idea of the heart as we find it in literature. What, then, is the relationship between the physical heart and the metaphysical heart? How is the notion of a physical heart acted upon by the idea of a romantic heart? If we consider that the human body, as well, exists simultaneously on two planes at once—a mental one and a physical one—questions are raised as to how these can exist separately and in what realms we see them begin to overlap.
This preface to the three stories that follow explains the reasons for their compilation. They are intended for “les homes de goût” or “men of good taste” and represent “a very diverse garden” of ideas which will act as a “remedy for boredom” for those philosophers who need the opportunity to become young again, to laugh. This, the author tells, us, is rare, and gives us an example of how, despite the seriousness of intellectual pursuits, books can also offer a form of divertissement and pleasure for those who lead otherwise serious lives. Therefore, in order to bring mental pleasure, the author proposes that these stories will stimulate physical pleasure, revealing material connections between body and mind.
It’s the season of love, of “jouissance” or of pleasure seeking. This is a poem about enjoyment, an appeal for amusement, specifically physical or sexual connection: “mille baisers au matin; | Le long du jour et mille encore, | Mille encore à son déclin” which translates to “[a] thousand kisses in the morning |[t]hroughout the day and a thousand more | [a]t its end another thousand.” The poet offers an eloge to happiness with all of its “charms” and proclaims that tears should be shed if anything acts as “le censeur de nos plaisirs” or “the censorship of our pleasures.” In this way we begin to understand how important it is to pursue not only intellectual pursuits but also physical ones for, as the author tells us, we will eventually bid adieu to “tous les biens de la vie” or our worldy goods and be left only that which we enjoyed.
The ladies of Paris get a lighthearted if also biting critique in this poem, the author of which seems to view them as somewhat paradoxical beings. They are “so sweet, so spiritual” (“[s]i douces, si spirituelles”), yet no more faithful to their lovers than to their husbands. He refers to them as a ring that, as it circulates through society, everyone puts onto his finger (“chaqun met à son doigt”) but announces that one would be crazy to give it a second thought (“[b]ien fou qui s’en ferait scruple”). The important thing for this narrator is the physical pleasure, neither the morality of infidelity nor the complications of emotional love figure in this poem that promotes seduction.
Sophie is the pinnacle of a classic beauty, fresh and pale, comparable to a swan, yet she is a mischievious, clever woman (“friponne”/ “maligne”). When the narrator collects “burning kisses” (cueillir de baisers brûlans”) she suddenly becomes inert and is likened to “un marbre lisse” or smooth marble. But this does not stop our narrator from idolizing her and becoming “animated” as he touches her (“je m’anime en le touchant”). Once again, physical interaction is glorified, still the lack of response on Sophie’s part is something that frustrates the narrator demonstrating the contrast between desire and reality. She is like pure milk, he tells us, but drinking this milk kills desire: “Yes, my mistress is agreeable | a pure colored milk; | But alas! For this drinkable milk | the thirst kills my desire.”
The 18th century lauded faithfulness to reality, or verisimilitude, just what this story lacks, (“sans vraisemblance”) an irreverent announcement considering it’s importance at the time. The narrator, Frère P.J Discret N*** (a pseudonym), wants to “titillate the taste of his readers” in hopes his story will please them—he does not purport any intellectual or moral merit. The verb “tâter” means to titillate but also to touch, allowing us to imagine how the text might literally touch the readers as if the text flowed off the page, into the reader’s eyes to impress themselves upon the nerves of his or her brain. Despite the religious background described in the first pages, as the story begins to unfold we realize it is not one of high religious merit, but of lust and desire.
The narrator desires physical fulfillment; his love cannot merely be nourished by tiny favors. This valorizes the act of lovemaking above a philosophical ideal: “I spent three months sighing at the feet of my lovable conqueror. By degrees I obtained tiny favors, my love desiring a more solid fuel.” He finds higher philosophical love, promoted as being noble, laughable: “I therefore ignored what the philosophers put forth in their writings, that it was necessary to love simply for the pleasure of saying it and that it was odious to expect that a beautiful [woman] would offer any physical proof of her feelings. I ignored this, I tell you, and now that I know it, I laugh at this sort of wisdom that Plato and the others found, for it never really existed except in theory.”
Here, the narrator describes Nanette: “[a] small corset pressed her tiny waist…the sudden movement [of her throat] drew all eyes.” He watches her voyeuristically, painting a vivid picture part by part: her arms, her foot, her leg represent a beauty that “would have given new charms to Venus.” Simultaneously, he employs verbs related to the physical act of touching: “press,” “cover,” “strike,” “feel,” words that come off page and literally press themselves against the reader, transmitting the narrator’s sentiments to both the reader's mind and body. The act of seeing and of imagining touch brings the narrator to life, renewing him: “a fire burned in my veins; I felt my my eyes come alive, and I became a new being.” Perhaps, the reader as well feels a similar response, vicariously living through the text.
This book demonstrates the interaction between the mind and the world, and the way humans perceive of an interact with their physical environment. These texts combine the two, demonstrating how different bodies interact with one another as well as demonstrating a contrast to the physical pleasure evoked by the other texts. Here, the author offers a warning to the reader, stating that this text will not offer amusement nor peak much interest—the author’s goal is not to “seduce,” merely to “write in good faith.” Here, “good faith” implies honesty, or a balance between outside and inside, between moral and physical. Instead of insisting on the sensual and the almost oblivion like effects of physical pleasure demonstrated in some of the other texts, this book seeks to act solely on the metaphysical body of the reader.
Here, the author offers an introduction to follow his warning, stating that he desires to relocate the natural guide to his sentiments (“je cherche à retrouver le guide naturel de mes sentimens”). He states that his actions are determined by either a “purely physical impression, an initial feeling” (both being “almost involuntary”) or the “memory of a chain of reflections given by experience and habit.”He will discuss the role of sensations and their relationship to morality in the section entitled “Morale des sensations.”
This text demonstrates how morality and sensation interact with each other, specifically with regard to pleasure. “The first moral principle is to very carefully avoid the dangers of habit” the author proclaims. “No matter how distracting the charm of any present sensation […] you can destroy it with [the memory] of multiple past sensations.” Our wisdom/learned experience(“sagesse”) depends on the “intensity of our memory and the vividness of our imagination.” We are dependent on our memory of older physical sensations in order to combat these dangerous new ones with all of the “combined force of sentiment and reason.” This alliance is an interesting one, for it intertwines the physical “jouissance” with a mental “jouissance” just as it combines memory, imagination and the present while the text itself acts as a go-between and a guide for how to live healthily and wisely....
The spine and cover of this book lack embellishment, therefore the cover page is the first indication of its contents. The book is composed of “The Philosophical letters of Mr. de V***” (François-Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire), “with multiple other new and gallant pieces from different authors.” While Voltaire was one of the most well-known philosophers of the time he was also known for his affairs, about which he frequently wrote sarcastic poetry. Several of these poems figure in this collection, effectively juxtaposing the highly moral and metaphysical subject matter found in Voltaire’s "Letter Pertaining to the Soul" (“Lettre sur l’âme"), for example, and the less academic subjects of love, lust, loss which are addressed elsewhere throughout the book.
The caption to this image “virtue measures happiness” demonstrates the 18th century’s conception of the relationship between virtue and happiness, while simultaneously raising questions about the relationship between the physical and mental in general, body and soul. While previously held to be separate, in the 18th century, the mind and the body were being recombined in interesting, provocative ways. Philosophically, you cannot separate the physical from the mental with regards to pleasure—words; sentiments and actions therefore become fluid, indistinguishable. What happens when physical pleasure and ideas flow together? How can this be morally dangerous?
In the 18th century the relationship between the reader and the text, the owner and the library was unique. Often binding their own books and or writing title pages and tables of contents themselves, those who owned books had a closer relationship with them, actively participating in their construction. This is evident in this copy of Montesquieu’s Persian Letters as the owner made extensive notes on this cover page, continuing the text and its ideas in his own hand, adding a quote by Montesquieu on the second. This demonstrates the way in which the text and the reader or owner of the text become fluid, as the text acts upon the reader so does the reader act upon the text.
This letter, from one of the main characters, Rica, to a Jewish doctor, delves into the power of a book to act on the reader. Rica describes a scenario where a man suffering from acute insomnia is prescribed reading, in this case, dense theology, by his doctor. The son of the sick man begins to read the book aloud and everyone listening immediately feels an effect. By page 2, the son is mumbling and the entire family is weakened, eventually even the insomniac. The doctor returns and believes everyone to have taken opium. Yet, this is not the case—they have been “transported by joy” and indicate the book as the catalyst. We see therefore how a book can have a physical effect, the body of the text enters the bodies of the readers and transports them, physically as mentally.
This text is a letter written by Rousseau to “Christophe de Beaumont, Archbishop of Paris” responding to the archbishop's condemnation of Rousseau’s diest ideas which proposed that certain characteristics of God could be understood through human intellect. Rousseau thought that individual experience took prescience over written tradition and that the relationship between man and God necessitated no intermediary except reason and contemplation. After fleeing France, Rousseau responds, defending tolerance and freedom of thought. Should moral, philosophical and religious ideas be kept separate from actions? How can we reconcile the freedom to think with the freedom to feel? Does writing a thought make it more legitimate or perhaps more dangerous because it then is capable of acting upon its reader as it has acted upon its conceiver?