Passion in the Age of Enlightenment

By:
Dr. Anne-Marie Feenberg-Dibon
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Postmodernist thought launched an all-out attack on the Enlightenment tradition, ironically in the name of Enlightenment values of human freedom and justice. Such attacks ignore the fundamental contribution, i.e., what Kant defined as Sapere Aude, dare to know, i.e. the critical appraisal of reality. Refuting the supposed opposition of reason and emotion, in texts by Diderot, Laclos and Goethe the representation of passion thwarted, misunderstood, leads to scathing critiques of society.

In Diderot's dialogue, The Supplement to the Voyage of Bougainville, the Tahitian natives live in blissful sexual freedom, which is starkly contrasted with the frivolous and destructive passions of Europeans, resulting from the irrational sexual repression imposed by religion, and codified in civil laws. Long before Freud, Diderot argues that sexual repression makes humans into miserable neurotics. Diderot's dialogue is a fierce indictment of religious institutions and a repressive legal system, and a plea to include human sexuality as a worthy part of human nature, freed from dangerous restrictions. In Les liaisons dangereuses Laclos uses passion to show the perversity of a decadent class. Valmont's strategic feigning of passion succeeds in creating real passion in Madame de Tourvel. Both are destroyed, Madame de Tourvel when she realizes the depth of Valmont's treachery, Valmont, ironically, when he himself falls victim to real passion.

Goethe's The Sufferings of Young Werther, explores the nature of passion. Werther commits suicide when he realizes he cannot live without his beloved. Does Werther descend into madness as a result of his passion, or is his despair due to his inability to find a place, either professionally or emotionally, in the stultifying conformism and emerging bourgeois respectability of German society?

These texts seem to propose that for human life to be harmonious and include passion, society has to change.


Keywords: Passion and Literature, The Enlightenment, Subversive Critique
Stream: Literature, Literary Studies
Presentation Type: Paper Presentation in English
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Dr. Anne-Marie Feenberg-Dibon

Associate Professor, Department of Humanities, Simon Fraser University
Canada


Ref: H05P0334