Portrait of the XVIIIe century, by Daniel Loayza
The XVIIIth century from memory? Which words first spring to mind? Brain power, perhaps? This was of course the age of the ‘salon’ where the art of conversation was honed to perfection. Less well known is that it was also the era in which the concept of mystification was born (read the astounding work by Reginald McGinnis called Essai sur l’origine de la mystification). A time of elegance, libertinism, sensuality and refinement (Talleyrand knew this only too well: « Anyone who didn’t experience the 1780s has missed out on the pleasures of life » – hard cheese for us then!). An era marked by the Enlightenment, philosophers, and islands (Defoe and Marivaux), new romantic and theatrical archipelagos embracing imaginary experiences dealing with the state of nature and the nature of society. A time for experimentation. When it comes to islands, Great Britain and Newton (who died in 1727) are all the rage and Voltaire’s Lettres Anglaises is their prophet (he is also the first to mention Shakespeare in France). How many of our contemporaries know that Newton wasn’t just a brilliant mathematician and physicist but also Master of the Mint and in this capacity had several counterfeiters executed? In its wake, the XVIIIth century – a Golden Age for calculation – also saw a leap in modern economic thought processes. While Leonhard Euler demonstrated one of the most exquisite mathematical formula (equating zero to a combination of four basic numbers: two irrational (unending digits) and an imaginary – logarithm to base e (natural logarithm), i being the imaginary unit, π being pi – an equation that sets equal to zero), Bernard Mandeville was pondering the relationship between private vices and public benefit in his Fable of the Bees; the School of Physiocracy was attempting to root the production of all true wealth in the soil; the Industrial Revolution was starting in Great Britain, leading to the reflections of Adam Smith. Revolution?… In 1780, English textile worker John (or Ned) Ludd reputedly broke two stocking looms in a fit of rage against the relentless march of technology. But was he just existing? That same decade Pastor Cartwright invented the first power loom. Eighty years before this event, his compatriot Thomas Newcomen invented the first successful atmospheric steam engine, paving the way for James Watt’s improvements. Revolution?…For celestial bodies for sure, but not just them. If gravity is universal, the laws of nature are as valid on earth as they are in heaven and as a consequence, mechanical technology is about to take over the world. Materialism is extending its empire. Lavoisier discovers oxygen, creating the foundations of chemistry; La Mettrie ponders the world of man-machine as Maupertuis contemplates the physical Venus. Universality: the XVIIIth century is also a great era for Law and Reason. Justice must no longer be a simple matter of habit and authority but also of principles. And if Nature is universal, we must trust in the universality of humankind enunciated in the form of a Declaration of Human Rights. Revolution?… In 1753 polymath Pierre-Augustin Caron invents a new clock mechanism – a bonus for machines. Ennobled under the name of Beaumarchais thanks to the purchase of a post he goes on in 1777 to launch the Société des Auteurs et Compositeurs Dramatiques – a bonus for law; he invests in publishing and stationery – a bonus for the economy; he rounds off with something for the mind – one of greatest dramatic success stories of the century: The Crazy Day or the Marriage of Figaro, performed on the 27th April 1784 in the presence of Marie-Antoinette herself in a brand new theatre (since named the Odeon Theatre). Its hero denounces those who have « bothered to be born but do nothing more since that event », a tirade that inspired Mozart to pen an aria full of rage, humour and insolence: Se vuol ballare, signor contino…, performed for the first time at Vienna’s Burgtheater in 1786. For those with an ear cocked, something is beginning to crack in the fabric of society at the end of this century… Four years later Beaumarchais is a member of the Paris Commune – but that doesn’t stop him from escaping the scaffold. Revolution? The XVIIIth century is the century when the word itself ceases to designate the circular closure of time upon itself: henceforth, if there is a return to principles, it is in view of a liberal re-foundation open to all movements of History. The liberty of the XVIIIth century is both the springboard and fuel of modernity.
Daniel Loayza is a professor of Classics, a translator (from Ancient Greek, English and German) and a playwright. Also, he has been the president of the Commission nationale d’aide à la création de textes dramatiques since 2014.