- Inventing Eastern Europe. The Map of Civilization on the Mind of the Enlightenment, and: Kaunitz and Enlightened Absolutism 1753–1780, and: The Landed Estates of the Esterhazy Princes. Hungary during the Reforms of Maria Theresia and Joseph II
The Enlightenment has been variously defined in connection with philosophical rationalism or the practice of criticism. This protean expression of European culture, however, [End Page 456] could be interpreted as well in terms of a prevailing mental attitude, an intense curiosity, an urgency for new discoveries, an expanding horizon of factual knowledge shared by all those who might be considered its exponents and followers. It was this motivation, channeled in the production of novel forms of knowledge in the domain of the human and natural sciences, that drew the outlying parts of eastern and southeastern Europe into the vision of the Enlightenment. Awareness of the unknown acted as a stimulus upon understanding to fit the newly discovered into conventional schemes of interpretation. This is how “Eastern Europe” as a construct of an expanding geographical and cultural imagination came to be “invented” by the Enlightenment to replace that older division between South and North associated with the Renaissance.
The regions, cultures, and peoples beyond the familiar space of northwestern Europe, the Europe of the Enlightenment, were different. Difference, then as it does now, usually shocks at first sight, at the initial contact. A need to understand and to level out differences and idiosyncrasies in terms of familiar cognitive frameworks arises and sets the context for understanding through constructs and inventions. Thus the elaboration of a perspective on Eastern Europe tells us more about Western Europe’s understanding of itself than about the peoples and cultures of the eastern half of the European continent. Western Europe, under the spell of the Enlightenment’s theory of progress, conceived of itself as the hive of civilization, surrounded by a wider world of backwardness, barbarism, and savagery. In this scheme of things, Eastern Europe occupied an intermediate ground between barbarism and civilization, striving to approximate the West’s models of Enlightenment.
In a far-ranging work of imaginative scholarship Larry Wolff recreates the mental process of the West’s construction of the East through an extensive travel literature that pointed to the exoticism and “otherness” of the eastern half of the continent; through cartography and the treatment reserved for the regions beyond Hungary in the geographical literature of the Enlightenment; and through the emergence of the new human sciences of ethnology and cultural anthropology which attempted to “people” Eastern Europe by pointing to the peculiarities of its inhabitants’ manners. A lot of this “evidence” was pure fantasy, but this serves well the author’s main argument about the imaginative process that led to the setting up of Eastern Europe in eighteenth-century minds. The author insists, convincingly I think, that the division between West and East has persisted with remarkable tenacity in European thought and can explain recurring prejudices and preconceptions that perpetuate fractures and oppositions, both real and imaginary, in the European world. A frequent inability of the West to understand what is going on in the East is, according to Wolff, connected with the resilience of this Enlightenment heritage.
Political theory had a considerable hand in all this. Voltaire’s and Diderot’s Russia, Rousseau’s, Mably’s and Marat’s Poland illustrate the West’s patronizing attitude, which the East in its turn cherished, encouraged, and applauded. Gibbon, Herder, Fichte, and Mozart also make substantial appearances in the book’s cast of characters. What I found most attractive, however, was the utilization of sources mostly neglected by scholars working on Western Europe, texts such as those by Ruhliere, Hauterive, Jean-Louis Carra and Boscovich, which...