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Serge Soupel, Kevin L. Cope & Alexander Pettit, eds., The Enlightenment by Night. Essays on After-Dark Culture in the Long Eighteenth Century

New York, AMS Press, 2010, ISBN 978-0-404-61470-6
Jeffrey Hopes
p. 364-367
Référence(s) :

SOUPEL, Serge, Kevin L. COPE & Alexander PETTIT, eds. – The Enlightenment by Night. Essays on After-Dark Culture in the Long Eighteenth Century. New York: AMS Press, 2010. 479 pp. ISBN: 978-0-404-61470-6

Texte intégral

1This compendious volume proposes essays on the theme of night and darkness in what is a very long, and entirely British and Irish, eighteenth-century, stretching as it does from Rochester to Wordsworth. Some of the darkness is literal, as in David S. Reay’s and Jean-Paul Forster’s comments on the impact of street lighting in the capital, or H. J. K. Jenkins’s account of the dangers of night-time to North Sea colliers. Gerald J. Butler describes how William Herschel’s empirical probing of the heavens was matched by his interest in the empirical exploration of human nature in novels. Yet what makes the theme of special interest to the eighteenth-century is its relationship to the metaphor of enlightenment, one which, unlike that of the “Dark Ages”, was self-consciously attributed to the period in the wake of Newtonian optics and physics.

2On one level, this relationship can be one of opposition, darkness being both the pre-condition for any fiat lux and a constant threat to the light of reason. This opposition underlies Florence Lautel-Ribstein’s attempt to rescue Rochester from the “protracted night” to which the Enlightenment condemned him. Pope is unsurprisingly the matrix for such a dialectic as Allan Ingram demonstrates in his study of The Temple of Fame where, as in The Dunciad, the ordered harmony of the heroic couplets contrasts with the darkness and disorder they sometimes describe. Daniel Defoe seems to stand with one foot in the sea of witchcraft and superstition and the other on the dry land of modernity, as Yannick Deschamps shows in his carefully researched essay on the author’s occult writings. Anne Berton studies Mary Shelley’s ambivalent representation of the “Dark Ages” as both effectively dark and an age of chivalry, though by 1823 we are of course into a post-Ivanhoe world of medieval romanticizing. Things were simpler earlier on when the dastardly nocturnal deeds of Ann Radcliffe’s Gothic novels gave way to clarification as the sun came up, but Hélène Dachez shows how Matthew Lewis modifies formula by making night a time of both mystery and éclaircissement. Kevin L. Cope also qualifies the Popeian orthodoxy as he delves into the literature of the subterranean, including speleology and graveyard poetry, where depth and science conjoin. Kevin Barry’s study of the Molyneux question – what does a blind man who suddenly recovers his sight experience? – and the various Irish responses it elicited, goes even further in reversing the trope altogether, the disorienting trauma coming from the eruption of light into a familiar world of darkness. Barry develops this philosophical conundrum into the stimulating hypothesis of a specifically Irish counter-enlightenment generated by the searing torchlight of the Protestant ascendancy. Swift’s place in this scenario remains controversial, but Dirk F. Paßmann and Hermann J. Real’s essay on A Tale of a Tub certainly concludes that the way Swift’s narrator simultaneously exemplifies Hobbes’s attacks on Catholicism and extols the values and practices the philosopher condemns, imply that the Reformation did not bring light but “a chronicle of the descent of Night on Christianity” (449).

3Yet, as Kevin L. Cope and Alexander Pettit remark in their foreword, what most characterizes night in these essays is activity and general busyness. Pettit’s own essay explores the way “conservative” pornographic writing operates a “nocturnalizing of sexual non-conformity” (132), while Bärbel Czennia, in another stand-out essay, opens up the technical, symbolic, metaphorical, aesthetic, and political dimensions of eighteenth-century fireworks, dimensions which enable her to qualify and elaborate the metaphor of enlightenment itself: “an age of spectacular illuminations as well as of obscurations, of productive and destructive heat, of intellectual progress and sudden relapses into superstition and barbarism” (60-61). Andrew Varney points to the way in which narrative, the flipside of scientific treatises, often concentrates events into hyper-active nights. Joseph Andrews and Tom Jones are two of the texts he cites, and Jean Dixsaut corroborates this view in his entertaining account of Fielding’s night imagery. Pictorial representations of night also emphasize activities such as reading (Elisabeth Détis) and scientific experiments (Muriel Adrien on Joseph Wright of Derby). Hogarth’s Night from Four Times of Day would seem to suggest that it was well-nigh impossible to get a good night’s sleep in London, but of course there was little interest in artistic or literary depictions of people asleep in their beds.

4Night comes most fully into its own as a source of revelation and knowledge in its own right, upstaging the metaphor of enlightenment in a double movement of ecstatic spatial distension and deeply concentrated interiority. Patrick Menneteau describes William Blake’s stance against both orthodox religion and Enlightenment reason and his vision of light and night as a permanent dichotomy inherent in both man and God. Menneteau’s Jungian reading of the poet seeks to transcend this dichotomy by declining to use a critical hermeneutics based on precisely the Enlightenment values that Blake rejects. His essay is littered with wonderful quotations. Probing into the outer limits of the longest possible eighteenth century, Jens Martin Gurr highlights (if that is the right term) those “spots of time” which initiate the crucial epiphanies and reversals of Wordsworth’s The Prelude, episodes which invariably take place at night, constituting so many nocturnal conversions to anti-Enlightenment views. Edward Young, whilst never rejecting a reason which was the bedrock of his religious belief, also saw night as a time, and a space, of revelation, of inward reflection and of moral and spiritual elevation. As with Blake and Wordsworth, night is associated with the sublime and the creative imagination in opposition to Pope’s denunciation of nocturnal anarchy and chaos. Brean Hammond explores the way the two poets drew apart following the publication of the Essay on Man, while John Baker, an ever-sensitive reader of Young, shows how he challenges “the metaphor of light as the privileged expression of this reason in the Enlightenment period” (417). Young’s night has its own, starry, lights, and reveals what the over-exposed brightness and bustle of day conceals.

5In his Afterword, Serge Soupel goes as far as to suggest that darkness, including its concomitant lunacy, was a national characteristic in opposition to the pretensions of the nation of the Roi Soleil. Certainly, this was what many French commentators thought, though it is not hard to unearth similarly sombre facets of French literature and culture in the eighteenth century. Be that as it may, this collection provides ample evidence that night was not simply the obligatory enemy of Enlightenment reason, but a source of inspiration and revelation in its own right.

6This is a handsomely produced volume which in places would have benefited from more rigorous editing. The quality of the essays is variable, but there are enough outstanding contributions to make this a significant contribution to Enlightenment (?) studies.

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Jeffrey Hopes, « Serge Soupel, Kevin L. Cope & Alexander Pettit, eds., The Enlightenment by Night. Essays on After-Dark Culture in the Long Eighteenth Century », XVII-XVIII, 70 | 2013, 364-367.

Référence électronique

Jeffrey Hopes, « Serge Soupel, Kevin L. Cope & Alexander Pettit, eds., The Enlightenment by Night. Essays on After-Dark Culture in the Long Eighteenth Century », XVII-XVIII [En ligne], 70 | 2013, mis en ligne le 01 août 2016, consulté le 19 février 2018. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/1718/558

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Jeffrey Hopes

Université d’Orléans

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