Wednesday, February 1, 2012

To what extent do the texts of the Enlightenment use nature as a critique of society

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Brenda Elson U771 TMA 07 A06

How do Enlightenment texts use the idea of ‘nature’ in their critiques of society and/or culture? Discuss with detailed reference to three texts.

In answering this question I shall be referring to visual depictions of still life and natural scenes when discussing how Diderot used nature as a critique of society. In Wollstoncraft I will be using Natural law and Human Nature when discussing how she used Nature as a critique of society and culture. In The Creation I shall be using life in natural surroundings, enviroment, to describe how Haydn responded to the desire of Society. I hope to show how Diderot and Wollstoncraft criticised society and culture traditions and desired cultural and social reform respectively whilst Haydn rather than criticising, actually responded to European society’s taste in using nature to paint sound pictures. I hope to show explicitly the critiques in extracts of the texts.

Diderot’s Salon 1765 was written very amusingly for Grimm’s La Correspondance Litteraire, In 1765 the social society in France was in the grip of a new culture that embellished the idea of morality, however the very superficial morality did not compare to the meaning of morality used by Wollstonecraft. The emotional, frivolous morality that Diderot seemed to be caught up in was measured by who cried the most or to what extent individuals fainted or suffered the vapours.

Diderot starts this article with an enlightened quote, “His thinking does not result in smoke after a flashing fire, but in the light emerging from the smoke” (Texts II p.70) perhaps explaining that his commentary was not purely in sympathy with the current mode. He writes in his introduction “I allowed time for an impression to come to me, to enter me. I opened my soul to their effects I allowed myself to be penetrated by them” (TextsII p.6B). This perhaps is a criticism of the little respect given by the bourgeoisie who would have skirted the exhibition only stopping at the more salacious paintings such as Baudouin’s Girl scolded by her mother the subject of which they would have identified with. It portrays a young girl caught by her mother with her clothes in disarray with a view of her lover, the perpetrator, escaping up the stairs rearranging his own clothing and it was indicative of French society at this time.

The way in which Diderot criticised this culture using nature was to stress which paintings managed to penetrate him to his soul. When reading the Salon it is extremely apparent that Diderot was praising Genre, domestic scenes and still life paintings categorised as lower genre by the Royal Academy in Paris, history paintings were the highest genre. The painters that Diderot praised were not known as history painters or Appointed to the Court as was Boucher. Of the painters Diderot promoted in his article, Chardin was the most surprising and Diderot wrote that it was not the subject, although he did praise the fruits of Nature i.e. fish and fowl etc., but Chardin’s technique in colour and light that he thought was perfect. The painter Boucher was heavily criticised for repetition, again criticising the preferences of the high bourgeois society.

Chardin was trying to raise the genre of Genre and still life painting probably based on his liking for the Flemish painters, domestic scenes. By 1765 he was painting Still life and using everyday household subjects such as a kitchen table laid out with fresh fowl and fish or a garden seat laid out with fruit of various types. Diderot’s writing in response to a Chardin still life was almost lyrical “ How eloquently they speak to the artist. How much they tell him about the imitation of nature, about the science of colour, about harmony. How the air circulates around these objects the light of the sun does not better harmonise the disparities of the beings on which it shines” (Texts II p.77). About Boucher he wrote, “The degradation of taste, of colour, of composition, of characters, of expression, of line has followed step by step the corruption of murals” Texts II p.7. Diderot used emotive words to show the reader that he disapprove of the current taste of the Parisian Society. Of Chardin’s low genre The Scullery Maid 178 Diderot writes “Chardin can show a kitchen with a servant girl bending over a barrel…but notice how accurate the action of the servant is, how her dress delineates the upper part of her figure and how the folds of this petticoat delineate all that is below” and of Boucher’s, society favoured, fantastical, allergorical and unnatural Jupiter transformed into Diana in order to surprise Callisto he writes mockingly “… he is in profile, he is leaning over Callisto’s knees; with one hand he is trying to gently push aside her underclothes; that’s the right hand. His left hand is fondling her chin. Now there’s two hands well occupied” (Texts II p. 74). It is very clear that Diderot is criticising the social culture of the day and their standard of taste.

Mary Wollstonecraft’s The Vindication of the rights of women was first published in 17. It is a direct criticism of the way in which society has manipulated women and discusses the ways in which women can elevate themselves to a more equal position with men. In Chapter II she discusses the prevailing opinion of a sexual character and writes that the women “are told in their infancy, and taught by example of their mothers, that a little knowledge of human weakness, justly termed cunning, soft-ness of temper, outward obedience, and a scrupulous attention to a puerile kind of propriety, will obtain them the protection of man” (Texts II p.40). This passage sums up the effect culture, such as that implicitly described in Diderots Salon 1765, affected women. Wollstonecraft’s argument is based on the human nature that she asserts is endowled in the same proportions to man and women by nature. It is only the lack of education allowed to women by society that prevents them from being “permitted to turn to the fountain of light, and not forced to shape their course by the twinkling of a mere satellite” (Texts II p.41). Here she concedes that women are able to learn to reason but not to the degree that would allow them equal status to men. Until society changes it’s philosophy on women’s education nothing can be achieved in the persuasion of women that “the regal homage which they receive” (Texts II p.4) from men that is “so intoxicating” (Texts II p.4) is an illegitimate power which is obtained by degrading themselves. They must “return to nature and equality” Texts II p.4 if they wish to live normal and happy lives. What she means is that if their development was left to nature and their education was equal to that of men they would be able to reason for them selves and live satisfying useful lives. She blames the current inadequacies in women on “kings and nobles” who are not enlightened by reason and who are afraid to depart from their “gaudy hereditary trappings” (Texts II p.4).

Wollstonecraft blames Rousseau’s philosophy, among others, for the artificial weakness affected on women making them more useless to society. She writes that the “random exertions of a sort of instinctive common sense, never brought to the test of reason prevents their generalizing matters of fact � so they do to-day, what they did yesterday, merely because they did it yesterday” (Texts II p.4). She likens women to soldiers and writes soldiers are “sent into the world before their minds have been stored with knowledge or fortified by principles” (Texts II p.4) again intimating that both are not allowed to develop to their full potential as nature intended. She criticises the culture in Paris and shows to what extent it abuses human nature “riches and hereditary honours have made ciphers of women to give consequence to the numerical figure; and idleness has produced a mixture of gallantry and despotism into society, which leads the very men who are the slaves of their mistresses to tyrannize over their sisters, wives, and daughters.” (Texts II p.4).

She asserts that if the female mind is strengthened by enlarging it, women would not suffer from blind obedience and would not be kept in the dark.

Rousseau she quotes declares that “a woman should never, for a moment, feel herself independent, that she should be governed by fear to exercise her natural cunning, and made a coquettish slave in order to render her a more alluring object of desire” (Texts II p.44) Her answer is “What nonsense! When will a great man arise with sufficient strength of mind to puff away the fumes which pride and sensuality have thus spread over the subject!” (Texts II p.44).

She has criticised the nobility, and the bourgeois for the failure of society to allow women to grow up and form the reason formed by the human nature that nature bestows on the male and female infant. She ends this chapter by saying, “Brutal force has hitherto governed the world, and that the science of politics is in its infancy, is evident from philosophers scrupling to give the knowledge most useful to man that determinate distinction” (Texts II p.47), perhaps a criticism of the Philosophie Rousseau.

In the middle of the eighteenth century whilst in the audience at an instrumental musical concert a prominent critic, writer M De Fontenelle cried out “Sonata what are you trying to tell me?” (Texts 1 Sonata p.) He was frustrated that the music did not paint an imaginary picture for him. His comment depicts the general mood of devotee to music at that time.

Another quote from an article in the Encyclopdie titled Instrumental sums up what the prominent critic wanted “The composer would do well always to keep ion mind the idea of some person, some situation or some passion and to concentrate so completely on this idea that eventually he seems to hear speaking the very person who is in the situation” Texts I p. ) . French society in the mid to late eighteenth century wanted instrumental music to paint a sound picture of natural surroundings in the same way artists painted landscapes. Up till then music virtually had no meaning to the audience other than the technical aspect, unless is was accompanied by words. In Germany musicians developed the Crescendo and in Mannheim they developed smaller sound rises in music known as ‘rockets’ which departed from the usual echo type of music formed by loud music echoed by soft music usually achieved by separating the instruments and having the softer music produced from a distance.

D’Alembert wrote, in his discourse on music in the Encyclopedie “music speaks at the same time to the imagination and to the senses and by 1751 music was becoming a kind of discourse or language displaying various feelings and passions. Society wanted music that provided feelings of pleasure or distress through hearing in the way objects provide it through sight.

To achieve this D’Alembert suggested the musician picks out the sound in nature that produces the required emotion and duplicates the sound with music, and this is exactly what the music of The Creation does. It creates D’Almberts ‘sound picture’

Haydn wrote the music of The Creation following a visit to London where he heard Handels Massiah. His reported response to this was that he would have to go home to Germany and learn to write music that would “produce appropriate feeling” this may implicitly tell us that no musician in Germany was using nature to create music with meaning. Vivaldi wrote The Four Seasons, which along with other pieces created the conventions for music depicting Nature. These were known by the time The Creation was heard.

The Creation was first performed in 171 and embodies all that the French Philosophies desired of music earlier in the century. It imitated nature using descriptive music accompanied by oratory sourced from Milton’s Paradise Lost. The systematic form Haydn used of presenting each day of the creation was also in line with ‘Enlightened’ views. Each piece of descriptive music pertaining to nature be it elements of weather, vegetation or animal is wrapped in recitative music and Massiah type music.

Based on the book of Genesis the opening cord is very loud. perhaps discordant, and represented chaos and is followed by music representing the various weather elements during the first days. Rain is depicted by melodic lines that descend the notes are evenly spaced and continuous to give the impression of raindrops. Hail is represented by shorter notes to give the impression of faster and heavier drops while snow is written as single notes separated by rests to give the impression of floating. The music representing the lion sounds similar to a roar while Haydn uses peaceful slow music to represent Cows in a rural pastoral setting. As a critique of Society Haydn can be demonstrated as responding to society’s requirements as far as painting musical pictures, using poetry, systematically, in a very ‘Enlightened’ way. To use the words of the oratorio to describe the period “…and the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep…And god said Let there be light and there was light… and God divided the light from the darkness” and so The Creation responded to the desires of European society and the French Philosophies.

Diderot used sentiment, emotion and instinct and spoke of natural, simple pictures that moved him as opposed to the much admired but untruthful to nature allegorical fantasies of societies favourite Boucher. While Wollstoncraft criticised French societies human nature for the inadequacies of French women in her time.


The Creation Text 1 The Enlightenment

Diderot’s Salon 1765 Text The Enlightenment

The vindication of the rights of women Wollstoncraft Texts The Enlightenment


The Creation Text 1 The Enlightenment

Diderot’s Salon 1765 Text The Enlightenment

The vindication of the rights of women Wollstoncraft Texts The Enlightenment

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