When Louis Sebastian Mercier issued his Moral Fictions in four volumes in 1792, he prefaced it with an explanation of moral fiction:
When I entered into the deceiving career of letters, a little more than twenty five years ago, all the new authors, my confreres, made heroides, or composed moral stories; the heroid served as a the young poet’s preliminary study for tragedies. But this rhymed monologue did not have a long vogue; the narrow frame appeared too fussy, and soon became insipid. However, the moral story maintained itself for a longer period – or, to change my terms, from the form to the character, it is still pleasing, and will always please in its variety, when to the painting of the motile nuances of our ridiculous traits it joins the durable colors and gentle precepts of a moral without pendantry. Besides, the moral story has enriched the French scene with a crowd of interesting and novel situations. A number of authors, entirely lacking in invention, have borrowed from it dramatic subjects that have been crowned, more or less, with success.”
Of course, Mercier was well aware, in 1792, that the conte morale had spawned a sort of pornographic shadow. Ivan Bloch, the sex historian, claims that the literature of pornography, in the 1790s, overwhelmed, in sheer volume, all other types of literature. Certainly much of that pornography was didactic. Sade is the most famous example, but this kind of thing runs back to the seventeenth century combination of frondiste pamphlet and libertine philosophy. In the 1740s, for instance, Therese Philosophe became an underground best seller by alternating the successively more raunchy adventures of a sweet last cast among horny monks and the nymphomaniac pious – scenes that were generally consciously written to produce a tableau, a picture, as though the text, like some out of control caption, faced the standard engravings with which these books were illustrated – with the precepts of volupte and anti-clericism, taught by the monk or the priest or the guide in those rare moments of detumescence.
Mercier takes the view, here, that moral fiction is about debuting as a writer. We take this as a sign that we should not compartmentalize the discourses of pleasure and pain, or the philosophical investigation of the passions, by some test of genre and systematicity. We shouldn’t just look to, say, Condillac to understand the unfolding of sensualism. Which is why we want to compare two texts – one being Mercier’s Where is Happiness? and the other, Diderot’s entry on the Passions in the Encyclopedia – since both texts turn on the notion that, somehow, our passions aren’t free – which leads to the paradoxes developed in Mercier’s short story of an Egyptian king who a pleasure island decrees, in the hopes of spending ten days, with his court, in pure and uninterrupted happiness.
But before I do that, let me say something about ‘sensualism’.
There is a tradition in the history of philosophy – codified, in the nineteenth century, by Paul Janet - that tells the following story to help us separate the baroque seventeenth from the enlightened eighteenth century: in the seventeenth century, Descartes and even Hobbes is still mixing up a metaphysical analysis of ideations and passions with a physiological one. Even as the Cartesians were supposedly setting their face against the Galenic orthodoxies of the Academy of Medicine in Paris, they were still caught in the humoral paradigm (the subject of a fascinating good book by Noga Arika, the passions and tempers ). So even in the Passions of the Soul, Descartes still leaves the basic framework in place, simply inversing some of the standard Galenic values. While for the humoral school, the subjective viewpoint is wafted up to the brain by animal spirits, like fairies or familiars, and distributed to the various kingdom organs of the body by transmutable fluids, in Descartes vision it is distributed from the brain, with the pineal gland being the palace of ultimate enchantment, where spirit transubstantiates into body. The body below the skin, is conceived of as the landscape of an Arthurian romance, in which our goodly passions and ideas embark upon obscure heroic quests that take them from the liver to the heart to the brain, those three dark kingdoms, or vice versa. By the seventeenth century, this lively, obscure body, the kingdoms under the skin, had already been exposed by Vesalius, and the bloodstream of it was about to be navigated by Harvey. And like the cartographic shock given by the discovery of the New World, the philosopher doctors tried, at first, to parry the shocks of anatomy with the same system and another level of complications. But this system of philosophic physiology broke down.
The result was not the abandonment of philosophical speculation about the ideas, but instead, in good Hegelian fashion, the overcoming of a discourse that had become too hybrid, too saturated by themes originating from too many disciplines in Locke’s radically simplifying gesture. Locke wrote in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding that he ‘shall not at present meddle with the physical consideration of mind; or trouble myself to examine wherein its essence consists; or by what motions of our spirits or alterations of our bodies we come to have any sensation by our organs…”. All at once, philosophy was freed. The subjective point of view could now be pursued in terms of itself alone. Retroactively, one could even read this moment back into Descartes. Thus philosophy shook off the material dross of medical speculation.
Whether in fact the subjective point of view could be thought of in terms of itself alone was contested in the Enlightenment – it was an aspect of the struggle with epicurean materialism. However, LI will now dim the lights on this background and return us to – the Egyptian king.