American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (ASECS


Narratives of Enlightenment: Cosmopolitan History from Voltaire to Gibbon by Karen O'Brien; Reconstituting the Body Politic: Enlightenment, Public Culture and the Invention of Aesthetic Autonomy by Jonathan M. Hess Review by: Mary Caputi Eighteenth-Century Studies, Vol. 34, No. 1, Poetry and Poetics (Fall, 2000), pp. 138-141 Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press. Sponsor: American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (ASECS). Stable URL: . Accessed: 25/09/2012 12:03
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diverse works as the Cenotaph of the Last Stuarts (1817-19) and Venus and Mars (1816-22). Johns examines many of Canova's most important sculpted works and projects in the context of the categories of genres to which they belong, each of which had its own aesthetic definitions and boundaries. In the category of mythological sculpture, his nuanced reinterpretations of Cupid and Psyche, the Three Graces, Hercules and Lichas, and Theseus and the Minotaur are particularly fine. His examination of Napoleon as Mars the Peacekeeper in the genre of mythologized portraiture, to take but one prominent example, and his study of funerary sculpture, especially the tombs of Clement XIII and Clement XIV as well as that of Maria Christina of Austria, shed new light on these major monuments. The chapters on Canova and France offer a wealth of new material and an innovative explanation of the problematics of the French reception of Canova's works. The final chapter, which examines Canova's role in returning works of art to Italy that had been confiscated by Napoleon, provides the first detailed account and political analysis of this successful mission which reveals the sculptor's great diplomatic skills. Much is revealed in this chapter about the developing concepts of modern European nations and what constitutes nationhood. Draper and Scherf,Johns, and West not only address an important lacuna in art historical studies, each demonstrates the fecundity of the area for further study, leading the way for continued work in this fascinating and growing field.

MARY CAPUTI, California State University-Long Beach

Karen O'Brien. Narratives of Enlightenment: Cosmopolitan History from Voltaire to Gibbon (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997). Pp. 249. $59.95 cloth. Jonathan M. Hess. Reconstituting the Body Politic: Enlightenment, Public Culture and the Invention of Aesthetic Autonomy (Detroit: Wayne University Press, 1999). Pp. 286. $39.95 cloth. Politics and art seem to occupy mutually exclusive spheres. The former is embroiled in the vagaries of social life, caught up in debate, deliberation, and strategy in ways that often expose our crassest impulses. Art, on the other hand, appeals to the more refined sensibilities, and at first blush appears divorced from the harsh realities of public life. Indeed, artistic expression seemingly dwells in an aesthetic sanctuary unsullied by the unpleasantness of everyday life, its flourish having no overlap with the struggle for power. Yet as O'Brien and Hess demonstrate, art and politics are in fact connected at the deepest level, intertwined in such a way that the division separating political battleground from aesthetic sanctuary proves false. Each of these texts examines the interplay between politics and art against the backdrop of eighteenth-century Europe, whose groundswell of enthusiasm over Enlightenment principles presumably lent cultural cohesion to the continent's varied nationalities. Yet both O'Brien and Hess demonstrate how eighteenth-century European culture experienced the limits of community. Indeed,



on their reading of events, a shared European identity animated by a common purpose and a collective mission was never a lived reality, only a desired objective found more readily in narrative and rhetoric than in everyday life. It was as much the by-product of imagination as of reason and philosophical argument. Both O'Brien and Hess thus explore the inventive, rhetorical dimensions of Enlightenment culture, whose cosmopolitanism often worked against itself by undermining, rather than supporting, a cohesive European identity. And it is the freedom of artistic license that helps underscore these limits of community, demonstrating the contrived, fictitious nature of a movement known as the "Enlightenment" which nevertheless claims several unifying themes. However, despite these similarities, the two authors examine the entanglement of politics and art in very different ways. O'Brien, for instance, gives a meticulous and original reading of the highly porous boundaries between history and literary criticism, disciplines that can at times be indistinguishable despite claims to the contrary. With great aplomb, Narratives of Enlightenment offers a convincing testimony to the manner in which imagination, interpretive play, and the latitudes of narration are as much a part of "history" as they are a poem or a novel. Did a common European culture exist in the eighteenth century, one that bound the distinct nationalities together in a shared consensus? Is it possible to speak of a widely held sensibility that drew nations together, or is that sensibility a fiction, a narrative creation which, helping to confer irony, existed largely in the minds of such literati as Voltaire, Hume, and Ramsay? The effort to answer these questions effectively, and to prove the tenuousness of European cohesion, showcases O'Brien's talents as a historian, a literary critic, and a writer. Throughout her book's roughly two hundred and fifty pages, O'Brien delves deeply into the writings of prominent Enlightenment intellectuals with a view toward demonstrating the close relationship between historical account and literary creation. She scrutinizes with care the work of Voltaire, David Hume, William Robertson, Edward Gibbon, and David Ramsay, always highlighting the intervention of literary criticism into historical narration. In her analysis of Voltaire, for instance, O'Brien examines "the neoclassical poetics of history" in which the latter's interests in theater, philosophy, metaphysics, and history are amply given play. It is his conflation of artistic panache and intellectual insight that gives rise to Voltaire's unique voice, that brilliant, often incredulous voice whose witty repartee and sardonic humor came to typify the charm of eighteenth-century France. And since the name of Voltaire is by now synonymous with eighteenth-century French culture, his preeminence helps dramatize O'Brien's argument regarding the Enlightenment's ultimately narrative structure. Conversely, in her analysis of Hume, O'Brien emphasizes the latter's predominantly sentimental response to various historical figures, a response that engages sentimentality as a means of reading and indeed producing historical narrative. Hume's account of English history, O'Brien tells us, is about the chemistry of personalities and the idiosyncrasies of human relationship far more than it is about facts, dates, treatises, and battles. Hume's attention to the interpersonal thus garners him room for interpretive maneuver, affording him emotional perspective and psychological insight such that his writing of history becomes "his own unique form of historical cosmopolitanism ... accepting the constraints of narrative, and so ... [bringing it] into dialogue with other literary forms" (58). Hume's "sentimental infectiousness" thus takes note of Charles I's dedication to family and faithfulness to friends; it dramatizes James II's concerns during his political demise not about his sense of betrayal by the English people, but about



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the feelings of his daughter Anne. On O'Brien's account, then, Hume indulges his scholarship to the point of rewriting history, embellishing, redefining, reinterpreting the given players in ways that confer upon them entirely new persona. He sways his readers' emotions to the point of dismantling a received opinion, simultaneously illustrating the tenuous nature of historical narrative-with its "bizarre energies of enthusiasm"-and the ease with which public opinion can be manipulated. O'Brien's sustained attention to irony and humor makes this somewhat difficult book a pleasure to read. For as she unmasks "those reassuring stories which nations tell to themselves," she highlights the fabulist side of political narrative, the side that forever reminds us that national identities, like those of individuals, need some measure of ironic distance. And recognizing the limits of community is surely a worthwhile project, for it helps vitiate the dangers of an overserious, overzealous national identity. Jonathan M. Hess examines these same issues from a quite different perspective, nevertheless arriving at a similar indictment of the Enlightenment's stated cohesion and unified purpose. In Reconstituting the Body Politic, he scrutinizes the politics of eighteenth-century aesthetic autonomy, the creation of art for art's sake whose (supposed) opposition to political life gave aesthetics a privileged vantage point from which to critique its surrounding culture. Sensitive to the stated ends that such autonomy was intended to serve, Hess is nevertheless skeptical of the autonomy that art had supposedly gained. For, in theory, the aesthetic realm had extricated itself from absorption by the public sphere; it was now free of politics and could indulge its most maverick impulses. Yet, Hess asks, was not the need for such autonomy itself driven by the desire to critique and subvert the prevailing political order? Is not the very act of freeing the aesthetic realm an act that is politically charged, for the need for autonomy surely presupposes a political agenda. "Rather than seeing the concept of aesthetic autonomy as an escape of withdrawal," Hess writes, his own project "reads the concept of autonomous art as an attempt to construct the aesthetic as an alternative mode of political agency, a privileged sphere of autonomy within the political" (27, italics mine). Art, in sum, performed the role of critiquing the Enlightenment as much as it embellished, enriched, or expanded it. In making this case, Hess separates himself from any theoretical position that presupposes firm boundaries between aesthetics and politics. He carefully traces the emergence of artistic autonomy during the Enlightenment, focusing especially on Immanuel Kant's Critique of Judgment, "What Is Enlightenment?," and a seminal essay by Karl Philipp Moritz published in the newly founded journal Berlinische Monatsschrift. He views this creation of aesthetic autonomy as necessarily linked to the founding of a public culture not wholly indebted to the mandates of church or state. Presenting aesthetic autonomy's emergence in these terms subsequently allows Hess to engage the writings of Aristotle, Friedrich Schiller, Walter Benjamin, and Jiirgen Habermas, authors who proffer a variety of opinions on the question of what role art can and should play. One wonders, incidentally, why Theodor Adorno's work is not included in this study, given that the revolutionary potential of autonomous art was so central to his reflections on modern culture. Regardless of the venue taken, however, Hess always returns to the central paradox that animates the very notion of aesthetic autonomy: that this creation of eighteenth-century European culture, far from being immune to Enlightenment politics, held as its raison d'etre a desire to critique that very movement, and to expose the limits of its generalizing, universalizing claims. "Indeed,



as paradoxical as this might sound," he writes, "the essential feature of aesthetic autonomy is not its own" (244). Aesthetics are enmeshed in politics, he concludes, and were thus abetted in the eighteenth-century project of critiquing the Enlightenment's cohesion. Both Hess and O'Brien offer new insights into the emerging modern world of secular humanism. They prompt us to consider the relationship between art and politics in a new light, one that underscores the limits of the Enlightenment community as it highlights the interplay between rhetoric and fact. Indeed, these texts contribute amply to reconfiguring the hackneyed impression most of us have of the Enlightenment (at least in the West). If we have been taught to revere this movement as a resounding success thanks to its unified themes, common purpose, and political savvy, these two works present this movement more as an open question, an ambitious idea whose realization as lived historical reality would at best be problematic. In destroying our hackneyed impressions, then, these studies encourage a more seasoned, mature reading of this seminal era. And what a pleasant way for us to mature, by contemplating the refinement, the luxury, the wit-and, of course, the politics-of eighteenth-century aesthetics.

FRANCO ARATO, Genova-Italy

Alberto Beniscelli. Feliciti sognate. II teatro di Metastasio (Genova: I1 Melangolo, 2000) Pp. 184. L 25.00. Lorenzo Da Ponte. Libretti viennesi. A cura di Lorenzo della Cha, 2 vols. (Milano-Parma: Fondazione Pietro Bembo-Guanda, 1999). Pp. lxvi + 1850. L 150.00. Maria Augusta Timpanaro Morelli. Per Tommaso Crudeli nel 255 anniversario della morte, 1745-2000 (Firenze: Olschki, 2000) Pp. viii + 120. In the English extract of his autobiography published in New York in Lorenzo Da Ponte (who at that time was seventy and would eventually die 1819, in America, almost a nonagenarian) remembered with nostalgia and pride the years of his almost uncontested success in Vienna, London, Milan and Prague: "I am willing to attribute the continuation of this success to the excellence of the music, and to agree with you that my verses are nothing but a vehicle to the notes; but at all events, these notes could not exist without this vehicle: and this vehicle is a property to which I have an exclusive claim, for which I can say, in common with the composers, "We made those operas." However, the querelle about authorship and supremacy of music or poetry in the eighteenth century soon became a fashionable subject for plots of the opera buffa. The most famous of such intermezzi or one-act operas is perhaps Prima la musica e poi le parole, written in 1786 for the music of Salieri by one of Da Ponte's rivals in Vienna, Giambattista Casti. In the three works under review, Da Ponte, in Lorenzo della Chi's edition of the Vienese libretti, Beniscelli and Morelli, using other noteworthy examples, depict the opera that is staged behind the scenes, replete with personalities, controversy and rivalry.

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