Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The 18th Century

There's a span of time, between the Elizabethans and the Romantics, which I loosely call the 18th Century, although it slops over on each side, especially the early side. It's a sort of no-man's land to me. None of my favorite literature hails from it, except possibly Jane Austen's novels. For 150 years the world goes opaque to me. Nothing, from the powdered wigs, to the sterile, correct verse, to the weirdly realistic yet sanitized painting, engages my heart. I don't understand these people. They're engaged in empire and the pursuit of national (not personal) glory. They worship power. They make a religious faith -- they have no other -- of their nationality. It's the beginning of the age of the professional military: the commanders of the 18th Century armies wrote no poems and courted no ladies. Their job was to kill people and appropriate territory: that's all they did, and all they wanted to do.

Now, I've long known that this is a caricature. I know that when I have this impulse to denigrate, it means there's something that I have to learn. The 18th Century has something that it's waiting to teach me: waiting until I'm mature enough to hear it.

My response to the 18th Century has of course something to do with growing up a disaffected American, ashamed of my country, during the Vietnam years. For an American, the 18th Century is first of all the American Revolution. It's the unsmiling George Washington: it's slaveholders and Indian-fighters and chauvinists making declarations about the Rights of Man. The Right appropriated all those powder-wigged, thin-lipped men, just as they appropriated the flag. They got history: we got the future. It wasn't, maybe, as good a deal as it seemed at the time.

So it's time for me to enter into the 18th Century: time for me to actually try to understand these people. I started nibbling at the edges of this when I began reading about Cook and other explorers. It's actually a fascinating time: it's when Europe really met the rest of the world for good and earnest. So I'm going to plunge in and actually do the 18th Century, at last. Wish me luck.

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