Tag Archive | 18th century

Rethinking Colonialism: The Post-Bourgeoisie in Mars

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Almost three hundred years have passed by since Daniel Defoe represented the colonizer’s experience embodied in the enlightened bourgeois Robinson Crusoe in 1719. Remarkably, these three centuries have seen the process of decolonization and the birth of post-colonialism. Robinson Crusoe is widely considered the first bourgeois novel: the detailed reproduction of the domestic realm in an unknown, untamed space stands for the expression of the settlement of a new social class, and culture: the bourgeoisie. Robinson Crusoe not only strives to reproduce his domestic space with its rooms and functions, or collection of objects, but he also reproduces its domestic rituals around food and eating, time marking, and especially, the writing of the self in a diary.

Robinson Crusoe is no less formidable for being a representation of a process of domestication of foreign lands, strongly attached to an imperial era. Enlightenment, and its strong belief in education and reason, carries with itself the responsibility of knowing the world, and sharing with it the glories of the Age of Reason. The relationship between Enlightenment and the bourgeoisie is especially seen through the importance of free thinkers and the raise of liberal professionals. Colonization and  cultural imperialism are well understood in this context.

Surprisingly, a film such as The Martian (2015) finds a wide and massive reception in an era when post-colonialism have shown the shames of colonization for decades. The ‘complex’ of the white man being charged with a shameful responsibility, cannot however stop him of feeling admiration in front of a potentially new era of colonization: the conquest of space. The Martian presents a new Robinson Crusoe, a man lost in Mars, a hostile land, who strives to survive through the colonization of this new space. The lost astronaut indeed domesticates this land through his technological devices and knowledge, as well as Crusoe did until being saved by his compatriots. What this film puts into question is the still present culture of colonization and the ‘white man’.

Let us go a step further: what if in this new planet the ‘white man’ finds a new being? What if it happens to be a being pretty similar to himself? Would then be so difficult to imagine our discussions on this new man’s soul? His inferior, or superior culture? Would we strive to impose him our education system? Taking a new form, curiosity for the unknown and anxieties of conquest merged into a new direction, relegating decades of critique, and showing, perhaps, that little has changed in this born conqueror?

Narratives of Domesticity

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It is commonly forgotten that the bourgeoisie was not born in France, neither in England, but in the Netherlands; it was not born in the 19th C. but as early as the 17th C., but as usual small countries and ‘rare’ languages fall in oblivion. Witold Rybczynski, a Scottish architect living currently in Canada, has a wonderful book which just fall in my hands some days ago: Home: A Short History of an Idea (1986). This book is a little jewel written by a humanist architect, what can be called a mini version of Philippe Ariès huge work.

Rybczynski approaches the idea of home historically, since its birth until nowadays. The concept of home different from that of house was born in the bourgeoisie, as such, it conforms the values of the former which, clearly, remain until today. The author has a wide knowledge on history and the arts, and he continuously provides artistic and literary examples of his statements. The one I wish to focus on in here is his comparison between 17th C Dutch paintings and Jane Austen narratives.

Rybcznski shows the first representations of domestic space in Dutch paintings to exemplify the first idea of domesticity and privacy, arguing how ‘there was one place, however, where the seventeenth-century domestic interior evolved in a way that was arguably unique, and that can be described as having been, at the very last, exemplary […] In short, at a time when the other states of Europe remained primarily rural […] the Netherlands was rapidly becoming a nation of townspeople. Burghers by historical tradition, the Dutch were bourgeois by inclination’. However, the Dutch 17th C has not left bourgeois literature as has done the 19th C in other European countries, instead it left pictorial representations of domestic space:

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The above painting by de Witte in 1660 is not only a domestic painting but it also contains the bourgeois topic per excellence: adultery. One can carefully see a man hidden in the bed of whom Rybcznski introduces an explanation, hence a narrative, and a domestic narrative. This painting is thought of as domestic space, wanting to englobe the whole of the home in the depiction of several rooms. The woman playing the piano with half-open curtains, the daylight suggesting a non-orthodox hour for intimacies as the owner of the house might be working, the clothes untidily left on the chair: all that narrates a story. Like him, and other contemporary painters, Jane Austen, a century later, ‘single-handedly invented, and brought to perfection, what could be called the domestic genre of novel-writing, the literary equivalent to the seventeenth-century Dutch school of interior painting’. This comparison between painting and writing is very interesting, and they show the same social and class frames in two different moments and times. This historical difference confirms domesticity as bourgeois topic: Austen belonged to the late 18th C. new English bourgeoisie, the concept of home landed to Enlgand, which was also heir of Dutch tastes in interior design.

Austen scenes are typically feminine; women present the whole narrative perspective, it is a world conformed indoors and managed by women and their topics. Love and marriage, as well as real estate, are favorite talks in the drawing or tea room (and it might be reminded that the so tea British tradition came from the Netherlands in the 17th C.). As Rybcznski says, Austen’s plots are simple, no big tragedies or dramas are told, but she has become a national figure, why? Apart from Austen’s deep insights in the human heart, it is indeed a sense of domesticity what her texts bring out: home sweet home, the British nostalgia for quiet familiar and well-being scenes.

The creation of the Angel of the House

The-First-Kiss-of-Love-La-Nouvelle-HeloiseJulie, ou la nouvelle Heloïse is a Rousseaunian work of 1761, a novel of these, a fictional work which aims to be witness of its author’s ideas. Rousseau is not a simple character: if it is true he is an enlightened it is also true that he had his particular ideas very different from some of his contemporaries as for example, Voltaire. Rousseau exalted reason but also feeling, criticized religious dogmatism and praised virtue to an heroic degree. Julie is an idea, a model, it is indeed a female perfection: what a woman should be. No less important is, I think, what joins the name of Julie, la nouvelle Heloïse, not very considered by its critics, as far as I know, but something I intend to insist on. Rousseau had no need to call his novel as he did, it may very well be called only Julie without implying a change in the text as it is all based on her and its aim is, as I said, to show us Julie’s perfection. But he did make a reference to the story of the medieval lovers, Heloïse and Abelard, and this fact will not leave me rest till I find why. Up to now, I consider the possibility that Rousseau, as enlightened, intended to create the woman of virtue, born in the 18th century as a reply to Heloïse, a woman of the medieval age, that is, for Rousseau, an obscure and catholic period. If Heloïse succumbed to Abelard’s seduction being, Rousseau would say, perverted and, as he actually said, dishonest – I guess for being faking her religious feelings all her life -, Julie is the new Heloïse: chastity, virtue, reason and honesty are her adjectives, which, of course, may be those of the Enlightenment according to Rousseau.

And here it is: the angel of the house. Julie has a limitless heart full of goof feelings, she  is full of virtue marrying her father’s candidate against her will and being able to love her ‘lover’ chastely; but she will also love her husband eventually being an impressive wife and mother. The text dedicates a part to describe how Julie manages the house, every single detail is in her mind, and this house is, indeed, as heaven. But all that was not enough for Rousseau, Julie dies saving her son’s life, and as her husband notes, she is la martyre de l’amour maternel. Even after her death, it is possible to feel her spiritual presence in the house, that is, as an ever present angel. Victorians will love this female expression, and we see how Victorian critics need to repetitively talk of the angel of the house, something which will die at the turn of the century with Modernism. But before that, I think Flaubert already puts in danger this glorified creation of the woman; and I think that a very interesting point. Some critics say Flaubert to be a proto modernist, some even dare to affirm he is a modernist, I do prefer the first option. One of the moments in Mme Bovary where it is possible to see this path towards Modernism is the moment of her death. Emma like Julie dies in bed, but unlike Julie the description of her body is terribly realistic – and a great piece of modern art . If Julie does not loss her perfection while dying, Emma does, indeed one can see the putrefaction of her body, her decay. Is this decay not the the end of the angel of the house and the advent of the new woman? May not the difference between the two dying bodies be the expression of one type of woman and the other?

To finish, I wish to note that if Rousseau presented a new Heloïse against Heloïse, one was real, not the other. Heloïse was a real woman with a real story, Julie did not exist: the angel of the house was a creation which filled for years and years an idea of femininity: Julie is never angry, never does wrong, never feel weak, never falls into temptations, she always wins her passions, and always remains happy.

I am definitively Heloïse.