The Enlightenment has been subject to an odd and schematic misreading over the past ten years. The colonialist mentality that appears at the end of the period, and that takes a very sharp and harsh look at enlightenment figures has been moved backwards in time, and the sharp and harsh look well nigh forgot. This reading derives from taking Kant’s notion of the enlightenment as a sort of official goodhousekeeping seal on the whole enterprise, thus skipping over, specifically, the disagreements that were expressed with Kant’s whole philosophical stance by his contemporaries, such as Lichtenberg, and more generally, the reality of enlightenment literature and its preferred forms over the period from, say, the Glorious Revolution to the French Revolution. LI doesn’t want to get into Kant’s bent for universalist prescriptions here, but simply note how odd it is that no justification seems to be needed, lately, for reading the Enlightenment through Kant’s essay on the Enlightenment. We suspect that an essay of a certain length and clarity that can easily be taught and anthologized will have an effect on the teaching of intellectual history that it might not have had within intellectual history.
LI thinks that the lineaments of any particular past are deposited under other pasts – that our assumption that our current routines are somehow the end result of all past processes, and as such so easily projected backwards as to give us an inlet into the sort of secret rationality at work in the historical process, will bump up against too many accidents, disasters, contingencies and false images to be of use as a valid measure. It will soon be wrecked by facts. And even the starting point is jinxed – for, in fact, assumptions about our own times are provisional, limited, and subject to the massive and inescapable bias of vanity and p.o.v.
My own bias is to fish in the torrents of time for certain images – to try to describe their destinies – and to rescue their essential oddness. There is a nice phrase of John Aubrey’s, who ends his ‘brief life’ of the ‘celebrated beautie and courtizane”, Venetia Stanley, with a description of the monument her husband, Kenelm Digby, erected to her, which was looted during the English civil war. Aubrey writes:
“About 1676 or 5, as I was walking through Newgate-street, I sawe Dame Venetia’s bust standing at a stall at the Golden Crosse, a brasier’s shop. I perfectly remembered it, but the fire had gott-off the guilding: but taking notice of it to one that was with me, I could never see it afterwards exposed to the street. They melted it downe. How these curiosities would be quite forgot, did not such idle fellows as I am putt them down!”