Criticism 44.2 (2002) 189-193
[Access article in PDF]
Curiosity: A Cultural History of Early Modern Inquiry by Barbara M. Benedict. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2001. Pp. ix + 311. $45.00 cloth.
At the outset of her new book, Barbara M. Benedict characterizes her study as an exploration of "the representation of curiosity, of curiosities, and of curious people" (1) in England in the eighteenth century. She sells herself a bit short. As her book amply demonstrates, "curiosity" is less an idea about which one makes representations than a cultural activity. Curiosity is inquiry itself. Benedict is much nearer the mark when, in her conclusion, she says that her book has explored "how English culture negotiates the subversiveness of asking and the lawlessness of the intellectual ambition to know more" (245). "Negotiates," whether or not it is precisely the right verb, is at least a verb and thus captures the sheer dynamism of the activity of curiosity. As does, in fact, Benedict's book itself. To be sure, the book has a good deal to say about how the curious—virtuosi, novelists, journalists, impertinent women, collectors, connoisseurs, and so on—were represented. But its real value lies in its documenting how thoroughly England became a culture of inquiry in the eighteenth century and in its detailing the complex, often vexing and obscure ways curiosity pursued its objects.
From the beginning of the period, curiosity was prized, and it became more and more so as the century advanced, in part because it was associated with an empirical bent of mind, in part because new social opportunities and a new commercial culture answered to curiosity's desire for novelty and for the personal, intellectual, and moral development that curious people claimed they sought. Yet, even as it became increasingly esteemed, it always had an air of menace. In its restless exploration of new realities, curiosity was dangerous, subversive. It undermined the status quo. By definition, it was motivated by a discontent with what one knew or with what one was. Its essence was ambition.
Curiosity and curious people were ridiculed and revered, praised and denigrated, and often they were both praised and denigrated at once. Conservatives, who saw inquiry in many of its modern manifestations as a threat to traditional values, portrayed curious people as violating fundamental standards; as seeking to establish power over others; and as usurping public meaning for their own private use and pleasure and for their own prestige and advancement. Others eagerly embraced curiosity as a way of sanctioning their pursuits. Scientists and virtuosi, to take the most obvious examples, espoused a curiosity they defined as a disinterested search for the truth. But journalists also rallied under this banner of curiosity; they, too, were hungry for knowledge, and like the scientists, just as disinterested, or so they claimed. And, of [End Page 189] course, those who wrote novels—whose very name registers the breathless pursuit of the new that animated curious authors and audiences alike—justified their activity by appealing to curiosity.
And so, curiosity was seen as potentially both heroic and subversive. While one might want to ridicule a particular expression of curiosity, he would be careful of dismissing curiosity root and branch. It simply had too much prestige as a cultural value. On the other hand, one wouldn't want to embrace curiosity uncritically. It was touted by too many people with too many agendas, many of which were disreputable, unacceptable, or downright stupid. For these reasons, inquiry came to have a "competitive dynamic" (154) in this period: one tried to delegitimize certain forms of curiosity by representing them as degenerate (allied with gossip, sexual inquisitiveness, mindless spectacle) and to legitimize one's own projects by claiming that they were driven by the search for truth, the desire for social reform, and so on. Benedict never lets us lose sight of the fact that throughout the period, the meaning of curiosity was defined, contested, re-defined, its boundaries drawn, disputed, and redrawn, as inquisitive people engaged in a struggle over what the correct aim and proper objects of...