- Voluptuous Philosophy: Literary Materialism in the French Enlightenment
When most of us think of eighteenth-century French materialist philosophy, terms such as provocative, passionate and seductive do not generally come immediately to mind. However, in Voluptuous Philosophy: Literary Materialism in the French Enlightenment, Natania Meeker proves that this reputedly rather impenetrable subject is much more alluring than one may initially expect. With an approach more like an ambitious analysis of the history of ideas than a traditional, critical interpretation of literature, Meeker offers a new perspective on Enlightenment materialism that combines studies of natural science with analyses of literary forms. Her book provides a creatively nuanced interpretation of classic materialist theories and focuses on the idea of substantive, corporeal pleasure as the defining factor in readers’ sensory and intellectual engagement with texts.
Grounding her investigation of literary materialism in Lucretius’s famous De rerum natura, a poem that provides an Epicurean view of the study of matter, Meeker reads Enlightenment literary texts by such authors as Julien Offray de La Mettrie, Jean-Baptiste de Boyer d’Argens, Denis Diderot, and Donatien Francois Alphonse de Sade as responses to Lucretius’s notion that “materialism has its origins in an explicitly poetic rendering of the visible and invisible world” (6). Meeker is interested in how these modern authors either did or did not accept Lucretius’s positing of matter as a poetic substance based on the idea that both matter and poetic discourse are figural. Her analysis relies heavily on Lucretius’s idea of voluptas: a corporeal pleasure created by discursive figure that can transform readers intellectually by stimulating them physically. Recognizing that the notion of voluptas was highly debated among French Enlightenment materialists, Meeker hypothesizes that two diverging types of materialism emerged during the century. Tracing the development of this split, she divides the authors of her study into two groups: the first, which includes Sade and La Mettrie, embraces the Epicurean philosophy of intellectual transformation of readers through discursively produced delight (voluptas as such); and the second, which includes Diderot and d’Argens, recognizes the corporeal effects of figure but seeks to encourage the “successful representation of rational thought as enabling an objective or neutral [End Page 968] knowledge—one not irredeemably tangled in fictions” (8–9). Meeker’s ultimate goal appears to be an analysis of the preliminary formulation of the autonomous Kantian subject by those Neo-Lucretian, Enlightenment authors who conceptualize man as capable of acting and thinking freely, unbound by any “determinist mechanism” (1).
Meeker aptly begins her tale of pre-Kantian materialism with a first chapter that discusses her benchmark text, Lucretius’s De rerum natura. This chapter focuses on the resurgence of interest in the poem in eighteenth-century France that was sparked by the appearance of several modern French critiques and translations. Meeker suggests that “renewed interest in the project of translating De rerum natura corresponds to a significant change in the way the act of reading becomes envisioned, during this period, as itself fundamentally dematerialized” (19). In other words, in the latter half of the eighteenth century, materialist thinkers appear no longer to be interested in the transformative power of the induction of substantive pleasure in De rerum natura. The chapter discusses four texts dating from the mid-century and later that all emphasize this growing disinterest: Polginac’s Anti-Lucretius, a text that seeks to oppose Lucretius but that actually reinforces the idea of the power of figures in transforming the substance of the self, and La Grange’s, Panckoucke’s and Le Blanc de Guillet’s translations of De rerum natura that all emphasize the tension between the limitation imposed upon the reader by the experience of bodily pleasure and the freedom to fully apprehend the nature of the body that is obtainable only through a purely intellectual involvement with the text. At this point, Meeker sets the stage for a discussion of the “self-possessed reader”(57) that must necessarily be accompanied by the decline of voluptas.
Chapter 2 approaches the topic of libertine...