Heroic Narratives of Quest and Discovery
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Configurations 6.2 (1998) 223-242



Heroic Narratives of Quest and Discovery

Mary Terrall


In the Enlightenment, what came to be known as the Scientific Revolution was usually touted as the work of great men illuminating the darkness of superstition and authority with the light of reason and experience. 1 As d'Alembert told it, the work of his intellectual forebears prefigured the full glare of enlightenment: "[These] great men, lacking the dangerous ambition to strip the blindfolds from the eyes of their contemporaries, prepared from afar, working in silence and darkness, the light which would illuminate the world little by little, by imperceptible degrees." 2 The metaphor of light brought with it the language of vision, and discovery was represented as a process of bringing the dark corners of the world out into the light of reason. Great men had the ability to show others how to see, by illuminating and displaying. The new science of the moderns, assimilated and appropriated by Enlightenment thinkers, had replaced words with things, and authority with reason and calculation, based on the direct experience of nature. The men cast as founding fathers of this science--Galileo, Descartes, Bacon, Locke, Newton, sometimes Leibniz--were not always admired uncritically, but they were applauded for dispelling the fog of previous error. They were, in fact, portrayed [End Page 223] as forerunners of the Enlightenment. Even in hotly contested debates over concepts like gravity or vis viva, the founding fathers escaped the vicious attacks reserved for contemporaries, since they had not had the advantage of living in an enlightened age. So when Cartesian physics was maligned, Descartes himself escaped censure, as when d'Alembert reminded his readers: "The genius that [Descartes] displayed in seeking out a new, albeit mistaken, route in the darkest night was his alone. Those who first dared to follow him into these shadows at least showed courage; but there is no longer any glory in losing one's way following [Descartes's] path once it has become light." 3

Descartes's accomplishment was to mark a trail through a dark labyrinth. The metaphor of seeing is here compounded with the metaphor of moving through uncharted territory. Descartes's confrontation with philosophical authority took place in the safety of his study, but d'Alembert represents it here as a physical exploration of the unknown. Descartes's greatness and glory derive from his courageous challenge to darkness; d'Alembert's image also shows how the first tentative path was superseded by a different, and now clearly visible, road to natural knowledge. Where, then, were philosophers to find glory in the century after Descartes, once the initial illumination of darkness had been achieved? Physical exertion and exploration came to be associated with discovery and understanding, and played an important part in establishing scientific reputations. A few men of science, looking for glory as well as truth, cultivated literally the character of intrepid explorer that d'Alembert used figuratively to describe Descartes. In their own discovery narratives, these Enlightenment men of science portrayed themselves as heroic followers of the great men of previous generations, and especially of Newton. They did so through accounts of a kind of focused exploration of nature that combined physical effort and daring with mathematical and instrumental prowess. Their firsthand stories were then incorporated into a heroic account of the scientific adventure and discovery that fed into grand narratives of the progress that follows from courageous battles against ignorance. These narratives are all implicitly gendered, and the expedition accounts I will be analyzing in this paper raise the question of how such representations of discovery and exploration applied gendered categories to the practice of science and to the construction of histories of science.

Travel provided a supplement to the cerebral means of pursuing truth, a strategy adopted by men who journeyed, with their instruments, [End Page 224] far from the cosmopolitan centers of learning. This is a kind of subplot of the canonical large-scale narrative of cumulative enlightenment told by d'Alembert, Condorcet, and their intellectual descendants down to our own century. The characters in this particular subplot gain knowledge and...