- Curiosity: A Cultural History of Early Modern Inquiry
The history of curiosity is a subject that has recently become ripe for inquiry. It is a sensation that is becoming increasingly important to intellectual history and the histories of science and the law because curiosity formed a foundation upon which ideas were created. Barbara Benedict describes one aspect of this sensation in her book, Curiosity: A Cultural History of Early Modern Inquiry. This cultural study does not describe curiosity or curious individuals, but rather how curious individuals were perceived.
Readers will appreciate the forthright way in which Dr. Benedict reveals her plan to describe the perception of curiosity in England between 1660 and 1820. She begins by announcing that her project is to depict how and why curious individuals became objects of (mostly) negative curiosity. Good books are based on good questions and the question that Benedict asks and answers here is an excellent one. Employing Foucault (p. 9) she sets out to understand curious individuals not as the subjects that biographers have so often described, but rather as the objects of curiosity. Employing Habermas (p. 9–10) she recognizes the growth of consumption and the increasing ability of individuals to interpret for themselves. This combination enables her to interpret her texts in order to describe how curious individuals were interpreted. Thus nexuses are drawn throughout the book between patterns of consumption, monstrosities, and appetite (both literal and figurative) as signifiers of the threat that curious individuals posed to established cultural norms.
Her method is to “employ literary representations” largely using “conservative literary culture” (p. 1 and 2). Though she employs ephemeral sources including newspapers and trial records, “canonical literature” is particularly important to this study. For Benedict these works are “cultural documents of a particularly rich, wrought, and thoughtful kind [meriting] a different kind of close analysis from documents meant to be read quickly and without irony.” (p. 23) In short they provide a window through which early modern perceptions of curiosity may be captured.
Benedict also assists the reader by defining her subject. For her the practices of curiosity include “gossip, an unregulated exchange of an unverified information that commodifies others; hoarding, usury, and idleness, conceived as vicious kinds of acquisition that feed off society for personal gain; occult investigation, the pursuit of prohibited information about life beyond, before, or after death; [End Page 771] and the public assertion of professional identity, the colonization of values by self-defined experts.” (p. 2) Though this rather amorphous definition includes acts and opinions that historians might not normally think of as “curious,” the breadth allows Benedict to make a thorough argument about the perception of curiosity.
Readers will be pleased to find that Benedict has divided this rather broad subject into positive and negative perceptions of curious individuals. Though she occasionally refers to laudatory depictions of curiosity, she emphasizes throughout negative observations about the individuals who succumbed to this impulse. For Benedicts’ largely elite subjects/objects curiosity was a destabilizing compulsion that confused boundaries of identity, and in particular those boundaries between humans and beasts, men and women, and art and nature. Benedict’s study nicely complements Marjorie Swann’s recent Curiosities and Texts: The Culture of Collecting in Early Modern England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001), a work that focuses on more positive uses of curiosity and its employment in transcending boundaries between the elite and popular classes. According to both authors curiosity was a means to question and create identities in a period of change.
Though both Benedict and Swann are literary critics, Benedict places a greater emphasis on the interpretation of canonical texts. Fortunately as literary criticism Benedict’s book stands on its own merits. Throughout she analyzes and interprets both well-known authors like Jonathan Swift, Daniel Defoe, and Alexander Pope, and more obscure writers including Aphra Behn, Delariviere Manley, and Bonnell Thornton. In every instance she is able to discover negative reflections on curiosity where untrained readers would not. Thus a curious scientist is portrayed in the poem The...