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Pleasure in the Eighteenth Century.

Edited by Roy Porter and Marie Mulvey Roberts (New York: New York University Press, 1997. xv plus 273pp. $35.00).

"De gustibus, non disputandum," and pleasure seems as fickle and individualized as taste. Certainly pleasure has no simple definition or universally accepted meaning. Pleasure in the Eighteenth Century recognizes the ambiguities of pleasure and historicizes what may initially seem an ahistorical or even nonhistorical topic. The contributors all accept "that pleasure came into its own in the eighteenth century," when for the first time sensual pleasures came to be viewed as "legitimate, fulfilling and to be encouraged." (pp. 1-2) Obviously none of these authors believes that no one enjoyed him- or herself before 1700. The volume as a whole, however, argues that in the eighteenth century pleasure came to be condoned as a good in itself and viewed as morally valid.

Pleasure takes many forms and this collection addresses several enjoyments of mind, body, and soul. Roy Porter's introductory essay on "Enlightenment and Pleasure" gets the volume off to a rousing start. Porter sketches out how the Enlightenment legitimized a "rational hedonism . . . that the pursuit of pleasure would advance the general good." (p. 17) Eighteenth-century thinkers in championing individualism and stressing rights of self-determination and self-improvement, developed the concept of earthly happiness. The age separated enjoyment from sin and elevated it to a basic human right. Crucial to this evolution from guilty pleasures to permissible, even virtuous, ones were the contributions of those two Enlightenment betes noires - Bernard Mandeville and Thomas Hobbes - who saw prosperity in vice and located the advancement of the commonweal in greed and self-aggrandizement. Porter follows this introduction with an intensely vivid picture of the material pleasures of eighteenth-century consumer society, reminding us of those "Georgian delights" J. H. Plumb described so brilliantly almost twenty years ago. Eighteenth-century people consumed as never before, not only porcelain and calicoes, umbrellas and sets of silver, but also food, drink, sex, spectacles, sport, and culture.

Whereas Porter focuses on the material pleasures of the eighteenth century, the other essays in the volume turn elsewhere: the pleasures of homosociality, the pleasures of opera, the pleasures of "doing good," and the pleasures of terror, for example. With only one exception - Simon Varey's slight article on "The Pleasures of the Table" - the rest of the contributors are far more concerned with what might best be termed the aesthetics of pleasure rather than its experience. To be sure, experience is not totally neglected. Marie Mulvey Roberts's article on homosociality and clubs portrays the pleasures of club-life as, in part, a chance to enter into make-believe worlds and to enjoy the shared satisfaction of good company. Still, this essay (like others in the volume) is marred by a series of "may haves" and "might have beens" that leave the reader quite rightly wondering whether real people ever had such feelings. For example, Roberts suggests that one of the reasons "why men excluded women [from clubs] was that their presence may have inhibited them from finding the female in themselves." (Emphasis mine, p. 75) Similarly, Vivien Jones in her discussion of how to analyze conduct books provocatively suggests that such literature was perhaps read in a manner quite different from what its authors intended. But again we find ourselves in the world of wishful thinking. Jones writes "on behalf of numerous historical readers who, I want to believe, read conduct books more actively and unpredictably, more resistantly, than the texts - and some modern accounts - seem to assume." (Emphasis mine, p. 112)

Other excellent opportunities to explore the worlds of pleasure are missed. E.J. Clery's article on "The Pleasure of Terror" sounds extremely promising: one expects to learn about the delights of fright. And this is indeed how the article begins, with Gothic romance and the "pleasurable" experience of being scared out of one's wits. But Clery quickly moves away from this orientation and toward the "reevaluation of terror in aesthetic theory," eschewing a closer look at "the production and consumption of the terrible." (p. 166) In fact, the article is not much more than a perceptive, if narrow, examination of Edmund Burke's Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757).

The geographical focus is England, and only Porter thinks to justify this choice in terms of England's preeminence as an eighteenth-century consumer society. The choice of pleasures examined is one-sided, and the authors consistently avoid topics that might have offered greater room to explore the experience of pleasure rather than merely its philosophy. What about, for instance, the pleasure of work? Certainly eighteenth-century businessmen were as industrious as they were leisure - and luxury - loving. The joys of combat, too, should not be undervalued whether we are talking about spectator sports (bull-baiting and prizefighting, for instance), the manly art of self-defense, or dueling. The pleasure of display - of clothes, gardens, uniforms, and curiosities - was as satiating and as characteristic of eighteenth-century life as were the satisfactions of the table and the bed. And we should not fail to mention the pleasure taken in success - in business, at court, in empire building. Of course, when broadly defined the catalog of pleasures is unending and one cannot expect every topic to receive attention if a volume of essays is not to swell to gargantuan proportions. What is, however, striking is how few historians are represented here. Historians do not, of course, have a monopoly on the examination of culture. Still, the relative absence of the historical voice perhaps accounts for the curiously flat character of a set of essays more concerned with dissecting the aesthetics of pleasure than documenting its substance and celebrating its abundance.

While it is unfair to suggest that the articles in this volume totally fail to grapple with the experiencing of pleasure, few convey effectively the energy this pleasure-creating and pleasure-consuming society must have generated. The exuberant consumers of Porter's two essays, the richness of the age's entertainments, and even the occasional cruelty and perversity of its pleasures, fade all too rapidly. Little consideration is given to the meaning of pleasure to those who felt it. Likewise the presupposition that supposedly drives the book - that pleasure came into its own in the eighteenth century - is, after the first thirty-five pages, never plumbed in any depth. Nor is there much attempt to understand why the eighteenth century gave birth to the cult of pleasure at all. It is ironic that a book about pleasure can be so bland. When and how did these dreary souls come to replace the enterprising and often raunchy Georgians Hogarth portrayed?

Mary Lindemann Carnegie Mellon University
COPYRIGHT 1998 Journal of Social History
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Author:Lindemann, Mary
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1998
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