An interview by Hélène Palma with Professor Elizabeth DUROT-BOUCE, a specialist of 18th-century English literature, about her latest book Emily philosophe ou le goût du plaisir : à l’ombre des Lumières, roman gothique et roman libertin, Rennes : TIR, 2017.
H. P. : One really striking aspect of your book is the way it highlights how Enlightenment thinkers, such as Swift or Voltaire, were aware of the limits of human understanding and human perceptive senses. Should one infer from this that the age of Enlightenment, far from the typical representation of an optimistic period, was already experiencing the doubts which led to Romanticism?
E. D-B: The Enlightenment traditionally features as “the season of Light”, an age of refinement, delicacy and gallantry, when Reason would reign supreme and dispel the shadows of superstition. It certainly was, but such a postcard picture is incomplete and fragmentary. That period should be also regarded as “the season of Darkness”, an age full of contradictions and paradoxes when secrecy would prevail. No brief summary can do justice to the diversity of enlightened thought in 18th-century Europe. That era of intellectual revolution, when man boasts he has mastered his environment and lords it over his future, is in search of novelty. The intellectual frenzy, the craving for change, the rebellion against despotic reason, all derive from intrinsic insubordination without which no serious thought could have developed. In his essay “What is Enlightenment?” (1784), Immanuel Kant describes it simply as freedom to use one’s own intelligence. The Enlightenment is less a collection of thoughts than a process of changing sociabilities and cultural practices. The transformation of the intellectual climate of the age is certainly not simply a shift to a more rationalistic outlook. Indeed the age of reason is also the age of sensibility, whose champions stress the power of the passions and senses as much as the mind. In the Enlightenment, passions are officially recognized, legitimized, and restored at the same time as human nature: they become the driving force behind every action, the spur for all creation. I challenge the main view that the secularization associated with the Enlightenment inescapably led to the decline of wonder. I rather identify the eighteenth century with the beginning of the fictional marvelous, a marvelous defined by its integration with realism, and the reinvention of wonder. The need for the fabulous finds its expression in the revival of hermeticism and occultism, coinciding with the development of illuminism. In the so-called “Age of Reason”, a feeling of dissatisfaction with the present state of society and nostalgic longing for a golden Age set the stage for new literary forms laying emphasis on sensitiveness. The Gothic novel expresses the rebellion of emotion and sentiment against the narrow-mindedness and prejudice of reason, and denounces the tyranny of common sense. Illuminism is a response to the need for the supernatural and imagination because reality turns out to be unsatisfactory. Occultism arises from a surfeit of materialism as a reaction against excessive rationalism. The rejection of arid science reinvigorates intuitive mysticism. The age of Enlightenment is also the golden age for esoteric secret societies and the theme of light can also be found in Masonic initiation rites to indicate access to knowledge. Illuminism can be considered as the result of excessive Reason and the alleged age of Reason witnesses the awakening or revival of numerous mystical movements as though Enlightenment were made of irrationality as much as of rationality. As a matter of fact, supernatural forms of enchantment never really died out in the Enlightenment: enchantment certainly vanished from the natural world but it secretly seeped and settled into other spheres, plainly becoming secularized.
With Gothic novelists questioning the confidence of their age in the rational faculties of man, terror of uncertainty amplified from this new distrust of reason that challenged the very notion of reasonable action and of the “Identity of consciousness”. In Gothic fiction the boundless depths of the mind are represented in the text itself as an abysmal cavern, a terrible womb-tomb at whose mouth a terrified maiden stands paralyzed and bewildered. Edgar Huntly, Brown’s protagonist, boasts that “passage into new forms, overleaping the bars of time and space, reversal of the laws of inanimate and intelligent existence had been [his] to perform and witness”. Such a revolutionary experience points to the loss of identity and the inability to find or recreate one.
H. P.: Your book insists that Montesquieu, Swift, Voltaire but also Sade favoured a relativist approach to manners and mores, especially through works based on the report of a fictitious foreign witness who could be surprised or even shocked by European traditions. Isn’t such cultural relativism somewhat surprising at a time when the Enlightenment values extolled by Locke or Kant promoted universalism?
E. D-B: The term “Enlightenment” did not come into use in English until the mid-18th century with particular reference to French philosophy, as the equivalent of the French term “Lumières”, a plural which reveals multiplicity and diversity, but also relativity. Enlightened man is referred to the relativity of each mind, at the expense of ancient theological and political beliefs. “I see differences everywhere, but also proportion”, says Micromégas, Voltaire’s Sirian. All is difference, therefore all is relative and all we know is subjected to the frailty of our senses and our instruments; but all is proportion therefore relations can be subjected to measures and laws. From Montesquieu’s Lettres persanes (Persian Letters) (1721) to Voltaire’s Micromégas (1752), via Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726), everything is suitable to remind man of the relativity of things and viewpoints. It is present in many guises, cosmological, political, epistemological, and moral. Man occupies an intermediate position between the infinitely great and the infinitely little. The interplay between greatness and littleness, proximity and distance, the desirable and the forbidden, male and female, animal and human, is present in the 18th-century novel. The indictment of aristocratic manners, the issue of the inequality between human races, the question of the relativity of our customs and habits figure prominently in travel literature. It is a short step from relativism and changing viewpoints to questioning traditional order: irony, satire, shifting viewpoints upset the world order and society. Resorting to an alien observer and commentator makes it possible to criticize traditional practices and beliefs and oppose superstition, prejudice and abuses. Moderation, temperance, tolerance, observation teach man the way of wisdom. Voltaire uses irony and mockery to fight and slay the opponents of Enlightenment where Swift had used satire in his Gulliver’s Travels. And I think such relativism is far less authoritarian, indeed totalitarian, than distorted or misused universalism since such ideas will inevitably promote tolerance, understanding and respect for diversity and friendship among peoples and nations. In his 1790 Critique of Judgment Kant insists on how vital it is to empathize with other people and “to think oneself in the place of another [by] putting oneself into others’ viewpoints.”
How can one open up to the other and attain the notion of mankind? How is it feasible, Kant asks, to produce some common sense, starting from difference and discord? The first requirement is “using one’s understanding without guidance from another” i.e. getting rid of prejudice and superstition. Such is Kant’s definition of Enlightenment, as he claims in his celebrated answer to the question: “What is Enlightenment?” (1784): “Sapere Aude! “Have courage to use your own understanding!”–that is the motto of enlightenment”. Now this is a necessary but not sufficient condition. Coming to a consensus implies “thinking into” and “feeling into” the vision of other persons. It means rising above one’s subjective and particular opinion and considering one’s own judgment from a universal viewpoint. The only thing required for such enlightenment is total freedom to use one’s own understanding. Consideration for the others’ opinion aims at a broader and thereby fairer universalism. Don’t forget that emphasis is laid on the individual and the rights of man, held to be universal, valid in all times and places, pertaining to human nature itself. Individualism is one of the philosophical duties of the Enlightenment whose outlook is humanist. Man is man’s purpose.
Enlightenment is a dynamic process and as Kant himself acknowledges, “If it is now asked, ‘Do we presently live in an enlightened age?’ the answer is, ‘No, but we do live in an age of enlightenment.’” Rousseau also believes in man’s perfectibility though not in his progress, since a great deal is still lacking for men to release themselves from immaturity.
H. P. : Eighteenth-century Europe was fascinated, as you brilliantly show in your book, by scientific experiments, especially gas explosions and phosphorus illuminations (p. 54) : can it be suggested that such enthusiasm for scientific activities was in fact deeply irrational, as if the Enlightenment’s promise of rationality’s triumph over obscurantism and superstition had always only been a mere illusion ?
E. D-B: Bringing together scientific activities and irrationality may seem daring while in fact I think it does capture how ambiguous this age of scientific and philosophical ferment and effervescence was. The age of Enlightenment was also the age when reflections, experiments and theories about light and its propagation were carried out by Newton, Lavoisier et al. The Enlightenment vision could be cursorily summed up as Science, Reason, Progress and the Promise of a Better Future. For the first time, science became a central piece of public discourse. Until then, much of what is now considered scientific inquiry was pursued by a relatively small group of academics whose writings did not enjoy widespread circulation. But of course such popularity also attracted charlatans, quacks and impostors of all kinds. The novel of “Terror and Wonder” developed in an atmosphere saturated with optics and such new ways of acquiring knowledge as mesmerism, phrenology or pathognomony, optical experiments and oracular techniques, as well as Robertson’s phantasmagoria shook the faith in the world order and blurred the borderline between reality and illusion, overlooking the limits between the possible and the impossible.
Though this may probably sound provocative I do think the spirit of the Enlightenment is after all hostile to Reason or at least excessive reason and rationalism. Even though of course the aim of the Enlightenment Project has been to fight superstition and obscurantism and release man from his enslavement and immaturity, contrary to the conventional picture of Enlightenment man as an adult individual who has managed to emerge from “alien guidance”, man has not yet thrown off the yoke of immaturity. What is more he never will but can only strive to do so. Kant himself sensed it when he stated that we do not presently live in an enlightened age but in an age of enlightenment. As a matter of fact, the words used in English (Enlightenment) and in German (Aufklärung) point to a process and an evolution, not a final result.
I am simply convinced that the philosophers of the Enlightenment were well aware of what human nature was / is like, i.e. imperfect, limited, and inconsistent, and they harboured no mistaken belief about the progress of men. At the end of the 18th century the Lockean model in which all ideas derive from sense impressions was undermined by the Gothic novelists and Charles Brockden Brown in particular who in Wieland (1798) shows through Carwin’s ventriloquism how unreliable and complex the sensory apparatus is. This questions Locke’s optimistic epistemology and the Enlightenment rationalist philosophy to warn readers of the danger of prejudice and overconfidence in the reliability of their senses. Once you deviate from rationality, you are more prone to superstitions and the supernatural. Gothic novelists demonstrated how treacherous and risky sensitiveness can prove, denaturing imagination and leading it astray from reason.
H. P: Your book highlights the momentous part played by Nature in the 18th century: Nature became Locke’s role model and the very source of his universal law but it was also, in Sade’s thought, an a priori justification for any form of perversion: how can one account for the Enlightenment thinkers’ lack of awareness in front of the potential danger of such a cult of Nature?
E. D-B: Any blind cult-like worship is potentially and eminently dangerous. The emphasis laid on Nature and the momentous part it was awarded came no doubt as a reaction in order to unfetter man and release him from his former chains and restraints. To be sure danger will arise whenever some (like Sade) take this logic to a ridiculous extent: should evil be praised and extolled simply because it is a natural phenomenon? Sade argued that desire is a natural phenomenon and therefore is wholly justifiable, no matter how violent or depraved, for it has come from nature. Nature has justified all sexual depravities by implanting sexual appetites and desires in man. By establishing rules which prevent man from indulging in his desires mankind is offending nature. Simone de Beauvoir stresses that Sade’s sexuality is not a biological matter. It is a social fact. Sade rejected the idea of submission. According to him, the prejudices against sodomy, incest and sexual perversions only aimed at destroying the individual by imposing upon him a stupid conformism. Libertine novelists aimed at setting up natural ethics based on fostering man’s vital instincts instead of repressing them.
The return to Nature, to the pastoral, getting back to a healthier way of life, was advocated by some thinkers as the best cure against the damages of sophisticated urban life. Nature, as experienced in the countryside, was seen as life-giving, free from the complexity and corruption of city life, sometimes connected with images of the Garden of Eden, a place where life was simpler and purer and its inhabitants lived more closely to each other, nature and God than their urban counterparts. There was a yearning for a “golden age” when people lived together in harmony with nature. We should bear in mind that philanthropy was widely spread at the time. Jefferson also used the motif of the pastoral for ideological and political purposes. In his Notes on Virginia (1785), he pictured America as a sort of Virgilian pasture, a land that could serve as the setting for a successful pursuit of happiness. This text exudes intense hope and optimism, with the many topographic details giving a solid basis for utopian dreaming. In Jefferson’s time, what symbolized American aspirations was the image of a green garden expanded to the scale of a continent. Such was the ideal landscape of the republic, the pure land of agrarian simplicity. Under the regenerating influence of this natural new world, Europeans could be reborn as better creatures. But this myth of an eternal revival is transient, as Fitzgerald so felicitously puts it, “for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder”. This nostalgic feeling inseparable from the pastoral can be interpreted as symbolizing frustration and regression, the outcome of deeply-rooted dissatisfaction. It is thus perfectly fitting that the Gothic, expressing dissatisfaction with reality and challenging the rational norms of its time, should have also taken root in America.
H. P. : French scientist Emilie du Châtelet, when confronted with the sexism of her male colleagues, chose to dress as a man rather than denouncing misogyny. Of course, she should be understood, as you insist, in the context of the time and not be judged through our anachronistic criteria. Yet there were 18th-century women, often far less educated than Emilie du Châtelet, who did raise the issue of male-chauvinism: how can one account for such a contrast in their respective reactions?
E. D-B: I don’t think she can really be charged with lacking political awareness since she vindicates her rights as a woman and a scientist, claiming to be judged on her own merits, for instance in a famous letter to Frederic II. She knows how exceptionally gifted she is but she also acknowledges her limitations and is not blind to the opposition of an essentially male scientific community. That’s why she becomes a translator, out of humility and necessity but mainly because she wants to be of service to her contemporaries. You only have to look at the superb engravings she selected to illustrate her « institutions de physique » (the book she wrote in 1740 in order to explain the laws of physics to her children) to realize how dearly she holds transmission of knowledge. With this education work she intends to present scientific knowledge to the largest number of people. Besides she is a true and authentic scientist whose sole purpose is to circulate “her” Newton’s theories, which is far more important to her than advocating the cause of women. I feel certain that had she decided to stand up for women, given her intelligence, dedication and great working power, she would no doubt have achieved her ends.
According to me this is more a matter of an individual’s attitude and behaviour. Émilie du Châtelet benefited fully from the advantages of an exceptionally liberal and thorough education for a girl at that time and above all she was the darling child of her overindulgent father, which improved her confidence and self-esteem and encouraged her ambition. Strengthened by such a powerful conquering feeling, nothing could seem impossible to her. The exceptional freedom of her unconventional education inspired boldness and disregard of prejudices together with curiosity, non-conformity and independence of mind. Moreover, she was an aristocrat and the feeling that she belonged to the elite, the privileged classes, fostered a feeling of superiority and distance towards others. For instance, Madame de Graffigny relates in her letters that Emilie only looked after her guests at night, after spending the whole day working in her cabinet and/or with Voltaire. Though she did not listen to gossip and never spoke ill of her contemporaries, she didn’t evince any empathy or sympathy for her peers. So it may be rather out of self-centeredness and lack of consideration for others that she did not campaign for women’s rights. I suppose she simply was not really interested in granting other women the opportunities she had been fortunate enough to enjoy. And she devoted all her time to “her” Newton and was not to be distracted from that superior task.
H. P.: The Counter-Enlightenment movement and its proponents led to a violent patriarchal backlash for 19th-century women, who were forced back into their homes as wives and mothers. Would you say that the quasi-systematic elimination of the mother figure in gothic novels, which you identity as ‘syndrome de la mère morte’ has to do with this patriarchal phantasm, dead mothers being unable to protect their daughters who are therefore left at the complete mercy of their tormentors?
E. D-B: Mothers are notoriously absent from the scenery of Gothic novels – as is also the case in many 18th-century novels –, having died or been secretly confined. The motif of a character’s live burial, which has come to be a common Gothic device in the 1790s, can be analysed as an epitome of female existence at the time. Cases of wives imprisoned in their homes or in madhouses are not infrequent during the eighteenth century and in Gothic novels innumerable are the wretched discarded wives imprisoned in unhealthy loathsome vaults, visited at midnight by a servant or by their spouses with a scanty allowance of food (when that food does not happen to be poisoned). In fact, rather than the absence of the mother, what features here is the spectral presence of the absent mother (the dead mother syndrome), a spectral figure symbolizing the issue of female identity the heroine has to face. Now according to Lacan’s famous “mirror stage,” after the child has inaugurated the structure of otherness by first seeing himself/herself as reflection, he/she is doomed to seek in the other a confirmation of his/her self. Lacan, following Melanie Klein, sees that other as usually the mother (the primary caregiver): she is an image the infant identifies with, and this imago is established as an Ideal-I towards which the subject will perpetually strive throughout his or her life. Without the presence of her mother, the heroine cannot develop her own identity and in Radcliffe’s novels, when the heroine eventually finds her mother, this discovery matures her into individuation. Literally, repressed mothers do return at the end of some novels; the secret that emerges from the forbidden area of the castle is therefore the powerlessness of women. Radcliffe often tells the same story of the victimized heroine, disowned and disavowed, who seeks her dead-undead mother in the labyrinthine vaults and corridors of a castle or an abbey, fleeing at the same time the erotic aggressive lust of a father figure. The resurrection of the mother (usually rescued from confinement in a highly suggestive subterranean vault) symbolizes the heroine’s rebirth, leading to the creation of her own female self, to maturation and individuation. Radcliffe’s novels can thus be read as an attempt to challenge patriarchal structures and disrupt the ideology of the docile and delicate female. They show how the Gothic novel can present a fantasy of female power. Her novels gain greater power as they allow repressed female sexuality to come close to the surface. In Radcliffe’s romances, the repressed element of feminine sexual desire returns although it is never explicitly stated. The feminine principle Radcliffe proposes as a counter to male domination is an ideal femininity that challenges and rejects the abuses of patriarchal power and embodies a male/female alternative to ruthlessness and violence. The Radcliffean heroine develops from the proper maiden to the defender of women’s rights, functioning as a role model for women of her time who were yearning for consequence.
Of course it should be remembered that the shadows we perceive in that fiction (of class anxiety, gender conflicts and domestic oppression) are the effect of the writer’s unconscious, what happens in the process of the writing, rather than disguised social and political polemic. Nonetheless they are evidence enough of “the spirit of the age”, a clue to the many forces that are at work, a sort of gauge of the general moral circumstances. Like the libertine novel, Gothic fiction is characterized by transgression: transgressing the bounds of reality, crossing the social and aesthetic limits, even defying natural laws, the Gothic is a mode that questions stability, both individual and societal, and can be read as an expression of dissatisfaction with reality. The female readers enjoy the thrilling dizzying seduction of Gothic fiction, where heroines can experience the same adventures and perils as male heroes have long lived in novels and romances. The Gothic heroine is somehow the female equivalent of the picaresque hero.
H. P: You depict the heroines of libertine and gothic novels as women – from Sade’s androgynous ladies playing with male desire to gothic novels’ young maids who, though vulnerable, try to take control of their own destinies—rebelling against almighty patriarchy. You regard this as evidence that 18th-century transgressive literature was part and parcel of the ideological revolution of the Enlightenment. Yet, how can one account for the fact that erotic literature, in order to challenge the authority of institutions, targeted women of power rather than men, as shows this pornographic booklet, Fureurs utérines de Marie-Antoinette, femme de Louis XVI(1791)?
E. D-B: With its criticism of moral authorities and its moral revolt, the libertine novel can be connected with the political violence of the Revolutionary period and the tone of moral outrage expressing contempt for a totally corrupt Establishment was of course also typical of the pornographic and anticlerical libelles that contributed to undermine monarchical authority. Thus the pornographic libelles staging Marie-Antoinette’s supposed profligacy feature the Queen as an allegory of nymphomania (Fureurs utérines de Marie-Antoinette, femme de Louis XVI. La mère en proscrira la lecture à sa fille Au Manège et dans tous les bordels de Paris, 1791). Libertinism and the revolutionary fever in the late 18th century can be seen as a two-fold effort to release the same energy, liberating fermenting ideas. Those venomous libelles did contribute to desecrate monarchy. The figure of power was/is intrinsically masculine and in those pornographic libelles where Marie-Antoinette symbolizes corrupted royal authority, she is represented as an androgynous figure who gets the better and takes hold of her male partner, as is felicitously illustrated in a 1793 engraving entitled Vie privée libertine et scandaleuse de Marie-Antoinette d’Autriche…(« L’Agilité de Marie Antoinette fit pour cette fois culbuter le héros, qui alla tomber rudement sur la porte vitrée ») or who deceives her royal spouse who has passed out from drinking too much in L’Autrichienne en goguettes [sic] ou L’Orgie royale (1789). This Amazon strikes people’s minds with her male qualities of strength and cunning but above all because her unnatural behaviour challenges the existing gender economy. She openly and consciously rebels against the traditional gender role of women and transgresses gender boundaries by such an unbearable heinous reversal of values and subversion of frames of reference.
H. P.: In like manner, you insist that libertine literature challenged clerical authority especially through attacks on such institutions as convents. But again, why are nuns, for example with novel Vénus dans le cloître ou la Religieuse en chemise (1683) by L’abbé du Prat, the quasi-exclusive targets of these attacks? Isn’t such a bias the sign that the Enlightenment not only never really questioned, but eventually reinforced the traditional patriarchal system?
E. D-B: Even though I have not made an exhaustive estimate of the targets, I trust men and women are fairly and equitably mentioned in those anticlerical attacks. The perverted abbess, the vicious nun, the indecent bawdy priest, the lewd fornicator are so many stock characters that are to be found in English Gothic novels as well as in French libertine novels. Eroticism turned into a weapon for the service of political protest. Since Abbé du Prat’s La Vénus dans le cloître ou la religieuse en chemise that was first published in 1672, extensive and voluminous anticlerical literature had exposed the clergy’s licentiousness. The walls of the convent serve as a metaphor for sexual taboos: hiding behind the repression, inside there is unleashed erotica, which grants the convent as a seat of vice and corruption a central position in Gothic fiction and in libertine literature. The mere allusion to a monastery in a title guaranteed the book’s success, as the potential reader was almost certain to find at least two levels of transgression: sexual and religious.
Now nuns being a key target of those attacks might be accounted for by two arguments: scenes of Sapphic love fascinated the voyeuristic male-reader and offered a higher register of lurid sexual excess as lesbian relationships amounted to the supreme sexual transgression, violating both the tradition of female passivity, the prohibition of sex outside marriage, the vows of chastity required by the Church and the taboo of same-sex relationships. So I wouldn’t consider this possible bias as supporting the traditional patriarchal system even though these novels can indeed be read as a way to comfort the (male) reader that transgressing gender boundaries is condemnable. Certain it is that the monastic libertine novel hailed female sexual independence by showing scenes of resistance to patriarchal constraints, particularly through masturbation and homo-eroticism, but such default practices were resorted to as dull substitutes for male partners. Most gothic novels happily end with conventional heterosexual marriages, seemingly fitting the rigid patriarchal system while quietly challenging it. The heroine’s final acceptance of the traditional gender role is made solely to comfort the (male) reader that transgressing gender boundaries is condemnable. In Radcliffe’s novels in particular, propriety eventually (unfortunately?) clouds the revelations of the author’s imagination. Yet I feel certain this is but sham, contrived to circumvent censorship, and the (female) reader who is good at reading between the lines can and will identify and enjoy the “inter-diction”. Thus Radcliffe managed to make her novels acceptable by seemingly fitting in the rigid patriarchal system, inventing as she did a set of conventions within which “respectable” feminine sexuality might find expression, as Cynthia Wolff demonstrates.
H.P.: Would you agree with the idea that late 18th-century literature, and more particularly the gothic novel, which you end up depicting as ‘en rupture avec les valeurs essentielles des Lumières’ (p. 234), corresponds to the early stages of what Isaiah Berlin and Zeev Sternhell respectively call Counter-Enlightenment and Anti-Enlightenment?
E. D-B: The entire quotation stresses the contrast or even the downright opposition between the excesses and unrestraint of late 18th-century literature and the temperance and balance extolled by the age of Enlightenment. In an age usually associated with rationality, this literature is pervaded with emotion, sentiment and passion reign supreme and the supernatural is given a prominent part. In fact, we are coming back to the initial point discussed at the beginning of this interview, to wit the interplay between credulity and skepticism, the Enlightenment and illuminisn, and the coexistence of a rationalist movement and fascination with the occult.
The essential tenets of Enlightenment are reason, moderation, symmetry, order, rejection of superstition, liberty and a spirit of rebellion. Late 18th-century literature is a product of the Enlightenment and it couldn’t have been published and written at any other period since it is impregnated with the longing for liberty and the spirit of rebellion that led to the French revolution. It denounces the tyranny of an antiquated patriarchal system, passes judgment on societal structures and manners, discusses customs and traditions, and questions family relationships. Disclosing women’s subversive desire for significance, it nudges its society and culture over the threshold of the modern, tilting it irrevocably away from old patterns of life toward the world we know today.
The question arises of what has become of the promise of that glorious movement. What is left of the Enlightenment promise? As above-mentioned, Kant draws a seminal distinction between an age of enlightenment and an enlightened age. The Age of Enlightenment, regardless of how you define it, is a constant hope that we hold before us. It is both a promise of our destiny and a warning from our past. It is the desire to better ourselves. It is a reminder to ourselves that we are expected to grow continually and move forward discovering new truth and meaning in the world around us.
In the Enlightenment an infinite socio-cultural revolution broke out that led to new ways of looking at the world, to new perspectives closely focussing on the individual. Experiencing a crisis of values, a crisis affecting society itself and the values on which it was founded, that era broke with past traditions and beliefs, everything previously set in tradition was questioned and replaced by new concepts. The Enlightenment imposed the idea that the individual’s duty is to gain a better and fairer understanding of himself, foregrounding Freud’s theory. It proved an extraordinary development that enables us to envision what is going on within the mind much more accurately and thoroughly than we used to. Psychoanalysis has a complex relationship with Enlightenment thought and its liberating ideals; it has shown that the quest for self-determination is also a personal matter, that it does not so much hinge on the relationship between the individual and society as more essentially on the relationship one has with oneself. Unquestionably the Enlightenment philosophy and Freudian theories have undermined the foundations of an outdated world, tearing down the edifice of patriarchal dominion. By questioning traditional hierarchies both operated as a driving force of democratization, opening up infinite vistas into the depths of the human psyche. As Tzvetan Todorov claims, we cannot ‘go back’ to the Enlightenment today but we should not reject it as revolutionaries and anti-humanists tried to during the last century. I agree with his insistence on the need for a rebirth of the Enlightenment to preserve its heritage while at the same time subjecting it to a critical appraisal. For in criticizing the Enlightenment, he says, we remain faithful to it. As things now stand, we still have a long way to go before men can be or can easily become capable of using their own reason correctly in moral, political, religious matters without outside guidance. Twenty-four centuries after Socrates, two centuries and a half after Kant, we badly need to re-learn the lesson.