MLQ: Modern Language Quarterly 63.2 (2002) 263-266
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A Cultural History of Early Modern Inquiry
Curiosity: A Cultural History of Early Modern Inquiry. By Barbara M. Benedict. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001. ix + 321 pp.
Curiosity: what a wonderful subject! The word itself is inherently ambiguous, denoting the mental stance of a subject or the status of an object. Barbara M. Benedict demonstrates the steady interchange between the two. Examining attitudes toward and representations of curiosity during the "long eighteenth century" (roughly 1660-1820), she explores shifting assignments of value and evolving convictions about the propriety and significance of searches for knowledge.
The story Benedict tells relates both repetitions and shifts in cultural assumptions about curiosity, long considered a mark of dangerous human presumption (think of Pandora, think of Eve) yet also associated with the praiseworthy search for scientific knowledge and, increasingly, with the acquisition of artistic artifacts and historical relics. As the eighteenth century progressed, collectors amassed ever-expanding assemblages of ancient statuary, architectural fragments, and archaeological trivia, given value by the fact of their collection.
Perhaps even more characteristic of the period, and clearly of great interest to Benedict, was the attention paid to human curiosities, from Mary Tofts, alleged to have given birth to fragments of cats and many rabbits, to the Monster of the 1790s, who roamed London streets stabbing women in the thigh. The eighteenth century generated the Cock Lane Ghost, which testified about a putative murder; the case of Elizabeth Canning, who claimed to have survived for a month on a penny mince pie and a single loaf, defending her virtue in a bawdy house; and the Bottle Conjurer, a performer who claimed the ability to disappear into a bottle of normal size. The century produced innumerable sideshow specimens: dwarfs and giants, beings of ambiguous sexuality, a man with a fashionable woman's head growing out of his stomach. It encouraged balloon expeditions and fictional explorations like those of Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver. Fiction and fact alike supported the faith that the world was a wonderful place, full of . . . well, curiosities. [End Page 263]
The record of such happenings holds considerable interest in itself, and Benedict reports each bizarre phenomenon with zest and absorbing detail. Even without interpretation, the data of curiosity, as this book defines it, would make good reading. But Benedict has much interpretation to offer as the basis of her material's significance. She sees the map of curiosity as a footprint of the age. At the root of her argument is the contention that in English culture curiosity figures "as the mark of a threatening ambition, an ambition that takes the form of a perceptible violation of species and categories: an ontological transgression that is registered empirically" (2). A long tradition establishes the link between curiosity and ambition, but the early modern period, Benedict claims, provides representations of the desire to know that are expressed by curiosity "as a passion that turns the inquirer into either a savior or a monster, for both trample the conventions of nature, culture, and society" (3). Curiosity may figure as activity or as identity. Always latent in its representations is a single, large question: "Are inquirers masters of their curiosity, or does their curiosity master them?" (3).
A curious piece of workmanship is intricate, elegant, and novel. A curious man or woman belongs to an intellectual elite. Both exemplify the idiosyncratic, hence the dangerous. But human beings can also be labeled "curious" because of their visually perceived strangeness: they possess "behavioral or physical traits that seem to violate accepted norms of use" (3). Small wonder, then, that curiosity can epitomize either value or valuelessness, can be ambiguous in functioning as in definition.
Benedict pursues a roughly chronological course, examining (with varying degrees of detail) relations between curiosity and empire, curiosity and travel, curiosity and social class, curiosity and the detective novel, and, especially, curiosity and commerce. The physical artifacts of curiosity inevitably became commodified as collecting spread from the social elite to the newer moneyed classes...