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the vulgar nature of Nature

In 1686, Robert Boyle published the “Free Enquiry into the Vulgarly Receiv’d Notion of Nature”. Michael Hunter and Edward Davis make the claim that this is one of the essential texts of the Scientific Revolution. In their essay on the making of the text, Hunter and Davis quote one of Boyle’s “protégés”, Scottish physician David Abercromby, who wrote: I therefore look upon this work as the new system of a new philosophy which fundamentally overthrows the foundation – namely, Nature – of all views hitherto held in philosophical matters.” [219] Others, of course, have cast doubt on the very idea that there was a Scientific Revolution. Myself, I prefer the term New Learning. Certainly there was an institutional revolution – no longer were the virtuosi independent players, like wandering minstrels and alchemists. The Universities were still stacked with Aristotelians and bloodletters, and the real action shifted to the Royal Society, or the semi Royal academies in France (although in France, this was supplemented by a correspondence culture which formally associated savants which doesn’t have a parallel in England).

We can go all the way back to the Cratylus to find distinctions being made between speakers of the same language. Among the humanists, the distinction between learned speech and vulgar speech was simply a reality – learning was published in Latin – or it referred to an occult jargon that supposedly could be attributed to traditions that went back to antiquity. Antiquity was the truthmaker, to use a fashionable term from contemporary analytic philosophy. But as the New Learning was about casting off the shackles of antique learning, this distinction would no longer do (although, of course, I am working with clear cut lines that were, in actuality, less clear cut than one could tell from the bravado of New Learning’s sages. Respect for the ancients was not so easily overcome as all that).

So when Boyle writes his enquiry, we are faced with a new set of coordinates for separating ordinary speech from “philosophical” speech. Since Boyle was, on his odd days, a corpuscularian, and a round promoter of the Royal society, one might think that he had a sneaking affection for Gassendi’s re-discovery of atomism. In fact, it is the use of ‘nature’ in the Epicurean sense – the vulgar chatter of the esprits forts – against which Boyle shoots many of his arrows.

As pointed out in my post on the total social fact, inquiry into such phenomena must cut across different discursive spheres. Certainly those spheres are more widely separate in modern societies than they are in early modern ones, not to speak of the premoderns. But the reasons for the drifting apart of the divisions of intellectual labor are, themselves, total social facts. In the seventeenth century, the use of the word ‘nature’ in the Universities, in the circles of the libertines, in churches and among the natural philosophers of the new learning was more closely tied together than, for instance, is the use of the word matter today among the vulgar and the physicists – or among economists and sociologists. Boyle’s discussion of ‘nature’, first as used by Aristotle, then as used by the natural philosopher, then as used by the vulgar, exists on the same conceptual plane – or so I would claim – as Theophile’s use of nature in the 1620s. Boyle’s discussion is an attempt to separate those planes, however, within the limits that religion allowed.

So I want to contrast two seemingly disparate texts: Theophile’s Fragments d’un histoire comique – Fragments of a funny story – and Boyle’s text.

PS - this is how Theophile's "novel" begins:

“The ordinary elegance of our writers are approximated in these terms:

“The Aurora, all gold and azure, hung with pearls and rubies, appeared at the gates of the Orient: the stars, shining out with the brightest light, let their pallor be effaced and became, little by little, the color of the sky; animals on the hunt returned to the woods and men to their work; the silence gave place to noise, and the shadows to light…”

And all the rest that the vanity of the makers of books make such a fanfare with, to the applause of an ignorant public.

A discourse must be firm, the meaning in it must be easy and natural, the language expressive and signifying: affections are only softness and artifice, which is never found without effort and confusion. Those petty thefts that are called the imitation of ancient authors, it must be said, are not in our manner. You have to write a la moderne; Demosthenes and Virgil didn’t write in our time, and we can’t write in their century; their books, when they made them, were new, and every day, we make old ones. The invocation of the Muses, for example, of these pagans is profane and ridiculous for us. Ronsard, for the vigor of his mind, and the bareness of his imagination, has a thousand things comparable to the magnificence of the ancient Greeks and Latins, and resembled them better than when he wanted to translate them, and when he pleased himself with counterfeiting them as in that patarcan Cytherea, of the Tymbrean tripod. It seems that he wanted to render himself unknown in order to appear learned, and that he affects the false reputation of a new and bold writer. In these foreign terms, he is unintelligible for a Frenchman; these extravagances only disgust the scholar and confuse the feeble. One calls this fashion of usurping obscure and improper terms a barbarism and crudity, the other pedantry and smugness. For me, I believe that it is Ronsard’s respect and passion for the ancients that made him think that everything that came from them was excellent and to try to glorify himself by imitating them in everything. I know that a prelate, a man of goodness, is imitable by everyone. It is necessary to be chaste like him, charitable and scholarly, if you can. But a courtesan, to imitate his virtue, shouldn’t take up either his style of living nor his dress. One must, like Homer, describe well, but not with his terms nor by his epithets. One should write as he wrote, but not what he wrote. It is a laudable act of devotion, worthy of a beautiful soul to invoke at the beginning of a work the sovereign powers; but the Christians don’t have to do with Apollo nor the Muses, and our verse today, which is not sung on the lyre, shouldn’t be called lyric, no more than the other should be called heroic, because we do not live in the era of heros, and all these monkey sees are neither pleasant nor profitable to the understanding. It is true that the disgust with these superfluities have given birth to another of our vices: for the feeble spirits who the beginning of pilfering has thrown into the métier of the poets, by the discretion they show in avoiding the extreme stereotypes [resdites], already used up by so many centuries, find themselves in a great sterility, and, not being strong enough or clever enough to take advantage of the objects that present themselves to the imagination, believe there is nothing more in poetry than prose matter, and are persuaded that a figure is nothing, and a metaphor, an extravagance. But, as I said, it is day. Thus, these digressions please me, I let my fantasy go, and I do not turn away my pen from whatever thought presents itself. I am conducting an interruptable, diverse conversation here, and not an exact lesson or an oration by the book. I am not scholarly enough nor ambitious enough to try. My book does not claim to oblige the reader, for its design is not that it be read to oblige me and, since it is permitted for him to blame me, permit me to displease him.”


Anonymous said…
LI, that is a hell of a translation of a hell of a passage. Thanks! If there is any justice in the world, your phone should be burning up with calls from publishers pleading for you to translate Théophile. Hmmm, scratch that part about justice, they should be calling precisely because such texts need to heard and read in a happily fucked up world with its smugly happy critics.
Damn, I'm at a total loss for words, that passage is so incredible.


Roger Gathmann said…
Thanks! People don't realize that translation is no picnic. But I have to say, Theophile is not that hard - compared to, say, the probably impossible task of translated Robert Burton into French. It is that natural and easy style, pitting a disparate group of life choices against the style of politesse.

This passage reminds me of the passage in Montaigne that Auerbach examines in Mimesis, the essay in which Montaigne famously writes, about his book and the author, qui touche l'un, touche l'autre. Not that Theophile ever quite reached that far. Montaigne was exceptional in a way that Theophile was not - like all exceptions, Montaigne's an exception to every age. There's no normalizing him.

But Theophile obviously deserves his due.