Saturday, March 8, 2014

Book Review: The Dark Side of the Enlightenment

(This review is also posted on
Cover of The Dark Side of the Enlightenment: Wizards, Alchemists and Spiritual Seekers in the Age of Reason, by John V. Fleming
I got this book because I have an abiding interest in science, in the history of science, and in the history of various wider cultural backlashes against science. (I am a STEM/humanities dual degree holder, and came of age in Kansas during the most recent "Evolution Wars," so that's why that sort of thing interests me. How could it not?)

That's kind of what I thought The Dark Side of the Enlightenment would be --- an exploration of counter-trends to the Enlightenment ideals of rationality and empiricism. And, to an extent, it is; the author is a medievalist, not an Enlightenment historian or a historian of science, and he makes the very interesting claim that the "occult" pursuits mentioned in the title were of a piece with the more widely known, and celebrated, empirical investigations of that era.

(This is not the first time I've encountered that idea, but John Fleming does a very good job of making the case for it. His training as a medievalist works to his advantage here, because he can trace the medieval roots of both Enlightenment science and Enlightenment "magic.")

But the thing that was most counter to my expectations was that this book wasn't really the kind of history I was expecting -- one that dealt with places, events, ideas, trends, and in which individual people appeared briefly, like rocks in a streambed, subtly changing the water's flow and then quickly passed by -- no, this was more like a series of long, detailed biographical sketches.

The people and groups he chooses to profile are: Valentine Greatrakes, an Irish country gentleman who became famous for miraculously curing people of scrofula by touching them; a small French Jansenist sect that venerated a churchyard where a Jansenist deacon who was thought to have been able to heal people during his lifetime was buried, and who were struck with shaking fits when they visited his grave; Alchemists; Kabbalists; Freemasons; Rosicrucians (who these people were wasn't entirely clear to me! They don't seem to have been an order or a club so much as any people, anywhere, who were interested in discovering things? So I'm not sure who wasn't a Rosicrucian?); Count Cagliostro, who was actually a Sicilian named Giuseppe Balsamo, who went all over Europe founding Masonic lodges of his own "Egyptian" rite, and who was imprisoned in the Bastille because Marie-Antoinette believed (unfairly) that he had participated in a scheme to defraud her that is remembered today as "The Affair of the Diamond Necklace"; and the very interesting Julie de Krüdener, a Latvian noblewoman who first became famous in pre-revolutionary Paris's literary scene, where she befriended lots of people who are still famous today, like Chateaubriand and Madame de Staël, and who later in life converted to Pietism and achieved further fame (or notoriety) as a sort of itinerant preacher. Most amazingly, she became convinced that Napoleon Bonaparte was the literal Antichrist, and that it was her special duty to stop him.

This is all very interesting, and also very well written; Fleming can be very funny. But what I thought was most admirable about his treatment of all these eccentric historical figures is how much he seems to respect them. No one is a fraud or a charlatan in this book, even when what they purport to be doing is physically impossible. Cagliostro in particular he seems to feel it his duty to rehabilitate, because Thomas Carlyle once called him the King of Liars. Fleming does his best to convince us that Cagliostro was not a liar, nor particularly mercenary; that he seems to have been a genuinely nice person, a loyal and honest person, and perhaps a bit too trusting. He is similarly gentle with Julie de Krüdener. Lots of people have written her off as a frivolous, selfish, self-aggrandizing adulteress and social climber. Fleming does not deny the things she did to give people this impression, but he also tries to give us the full context of her actions, and to tell us how she saw things. He sees her as a woman of intense emotion, whose marriage could not give her everything she needed, and who did really love the men she had affairs with. He also does an admirable job of connecting her earlier "worldly" behavior -- her seeking out the literary salons like a flower follows the sun, and also her affairs -- to her later religious conversion, saying that both phases of her life follow logically from her florid emotionality and her need for an outlet for all those emotions. We are sympathetic to men whose devotion to Art, or to Principle, lead them to abandon their duties to family and community; why, besides sexism, would we not extend a woman the same benefit of the doubt?

My only complaint with this book was that it ended too soon; it cuts off abruptly after explaining how Julie de Krüdener reached the conclusion that Napoleon was the Antichrist. We are not shown how it affects the rest of her life. What did she DO with this astonishing information? Did she preach against him on street corners? Did she abandon all other pursuits, to devote her life solely to denouncing him? This sounds like a life-changing revelation, but we don't get to see how, or if, it did change her life! We're just left hanging.


Anonymous said...

I read "The Dark Side of the Enlightenment" myself, and enjoyed it, though I think I was a little disappointed when it turned out to be a series of biographical sketches, when I was assuming it would be more of a straightforward history. But it was still interesting and entertaining.

There was actually another book, published around the same time as this one, called "Solomon's Secret Arts: The Occult in the Age of Enlightenment" by Paul Kleber Monod, and it's more of a broad, wide-ranging history -- which is probably more in the vein of what you thought this book was going to be like. I don't think I liked it as much as "The Dark Side of the Enlightenment," but it was useful for learning the broader historical background.

Lindsay said...

Oh, thank you, Anonymous! I will keep that title in mind.