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Eighteenth-Century Studies 38.2 (2005) 381-385
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Re-enchanting the Enlightenment with Thinking and Unthinking Fictional Machines
Eighteenth-Century writers did not limit themselves to portraying the world as a clock, or to admiring the ingenious automata engineered by the likes of Vaucanson, they also mastered the art of building fictional machines: textual agencements designed to "change the common way of thinking"—as the editors of the Encyclopédie famously purported to do—and ultimately to shape Western modernity. The two books reviewed below shed an important light on this crucial dimension of the French Enlightenment. In The Wild Girl, Natural Man and the Monster, Julia Douthwaite cleverly brings together texts that are rarely read in light of each other. Chapter 1 is devoted to some of the accounts left of the discovery and "domestication" of "wild children." Even if Peter of Hanover, Marie-Angélique Leblanc, or Victor de l'Aveyron have become quasi-celebrities of Enlightenment historiography, Julia Douthwaite manages to provide a very rich, concise and suggestive synthesis of the stakes raised by their "treatment" in the documents of the period. As could be expected in light of her previous book—the highly-recommended and universally praised Exotic Women: Literary Heroines and Cultural Strategies in Ancien Régime France—the author finely dissects the various dimensions of the staging of alterity at stake in such writings at the intersection [End Page 381] of so many dividing lines (Civilized/Savage, Human/Animal, Mind/Body, Male/Female, etc.).
Chapter 2 (devoted to the motif of the animated statue found, among others, in Condillac and Bonnet) and chapter 3 (devoted to idyllic fictions of education, like those proposed in Rousseau's Emile, Beaurieu's L'Élève de la nature and Du Laurens' Irmice) are both located at the nexus of such intersections. Whether the writers observe the "sub-human" (represented by the wild child) or whether they portray the "human" (in their thought-experiments and narratives), the reader is led to visit the way the Enlightenment (in its French and British incarnations) produced a vision of mankind that was to shape the mind of the following centuries. The notion of "vision" is crucial here, since Julia Douthwaite calls on the finer tools of textual analysis to help us see how such texts have constructed a powerful imaginary, within which we still largely operate today. Chapter 4 moves on to analyse some of the real-life experiments that attempted to translate into practice the fictional and theoretical views proposed by Rousseau in Emile. As can be expected, raising the rational child within the constraints of reality was significantly less "idyllic" than fictionalising his ideal development. Hence a series of tragicomic failures, leading to criticisms of Rousseau, and to a rewriting of his theoretical narrative. The same "rewriting" is at the core of the fifth and last chapter, which contrasts the "utopian politics" fuelled by the hopes for "perfectibility" and "regeneration" at the time of the French Revolution with the "dystopian fictions" revealing the ugly side of modernity in novels by Edgeworth, Fenwick, Révéroni Saint-Cyr and Sade. As the result of their project of improving mankind, the Man-making machines dreamt by the Philosophes ended up producing monsters (Frankenstein), mad scientists (staged in Révéroni's Pauliska) and immoral abusers (to whom Sade would associate his name). In presumptuously attempting to tame the wild child of Nature, the Enlightement's perverse modernity (here again to draw on Pauliska's subtitle) only produced a wilder still, and much more dangerous, Beast: a Beast that will eat its own children during the Terror, de-humanize them during the industrial (and bio-genetic) revolution, undermine all of...