The age of lightness

12-04-2019 12:04

Le petit-maître et la dame en l’air, engraving, c.1780 (source: Bibliothèque Nationale de France).

France is a light-hearted nation… This classical common belief is echoed repeatedly throughout the eighteenth century and bears witness to the deep axiological, scientific and ethical upheavals which this volume explores. By analysing the importance of, and issues at stake in, these transformations, the articles gathered within tell the story of another age of Enlightenment: the story of an age of lightness.

Lightness is at the crux of how the French eighteenth century represents itself both in contrast with previous centuries and through parallels between European nations.

The notion of lightness therefore constitutes an essential paradigm of the historiography that developed immediately after the French Revolution. The intellectual heirs of the eighteenth century do not only find in this period an age of reason, progress, Enlightenment and citizens’ rights; they also feel, at times, contempt, at other times, nostalgia for the alleged lightness of its mores, the futility of its taste or the frivolity of its childish ways. Between the industrious bourgeoisie of the nineteenth century exploiting the voluptuous representations of fêtes galantes and the fascination of our own twenty-first century for the delightful frivolity of Marie-Antoinette’s era, the eighteenth century in its lightness has never lost its charm. Yet, crucially, it also challenges the progressive narrative of the history of reason and usefulness in the definition of the very values on which our community is built.

(Attr. to James Gillray), Politeness, c.1779, hand-coloured engraving (source: the Trustees of the British Museum).

It is therefore particularly revealing to analyse the concepts and values associated to the notion of lightness in the eighteenth century. Such an approach yields breakthroughs in understanding why, and to what extent, this idea of lightness has been related to the French national character in general as well as, more particularly, to its eighteenth century.

Le Siècle de la légèreté: émergences d’un paradigme du XVIIIe siècle français offers an interdisciplinary perspective that bridges multiple fields of study related to the question of lightness. The fifteen chapters deal with paintings, morals, sciences, political history, literature and technology as well as economics. Together, these articles reveal the complexity of the notion of lightness in the eighteenth century by proposing not only new and original analyses of well-known sources (Hogarth, Fontenelle or Voltaire) but also discoveries of texts and objects less often studied (such as La Morlière, le Père Castel, Octave Uzanne, carriages or perfumes).

Richard Newton, British servants with Honesty and Fidelity against French servants with Perfidy & Impudence (detail), 1795, hand-coloured etching (source: Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection).

The critical and historiographical approach taken by this collection challenges preconceived notions and other prejudices, and unveils the national, diplomatic and at times existential concerns which contributed to the construction of the representations of eighteenth-century France. Far from proposing yet another traditional thematic approach, this volume offers the analysis of an endogenous and problematic paradigm around which multiple visions of humanity and of the world are articulated; it aims to offer a contribution to the renewal of eighteenth-century studies. Whilst it transforms how we look at a key moment in the construction of modernity, it also lays bare the sources of the fascination exerted by the French eighteenth century.

– Jean-Alexandre Perras (Institut d’études avancées de Paris) and Marine Ganofsky (University of St Andrews)

The above post is reblogged from Liverpool University Press. Marine Ganofsky and Jean-Alexandre Perras are co-editors of ‘Le Siècle de la légèreté: émergences d’un paradigme du XVIIIe siècle français’, the April volume of Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment.

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