What Voltaire Meant When He Said That “We Must Cultivate Our Garden”: An Animated Introduction

“Voltaire’s goal in writing [his 1759 satire Candide] was to destroy the optimism of his times,” says Alain de Botton in the School of Life video above, “an optimism that centered around science, love, technical progress, and a faith in reason.” These beliefs were folly, Voltaire thought: the transfer of faith from a providential God to a perfect, clockwork universe. Candide satirizes this happy rationalism in Doctor Pangloss, whose belief that ours is the best of possible worlds comes directly from the philosophical optimism of Gottfried Leibniz.

The preponderance of the evidence, Voltaire made abundantly clear in the novel’s series of increasingly horrific episodes, points toward a blind, indifferent universe full of needless cruelty and chaos. “Hope was, he felt, a disease,” de Botton says, and “it was Voltaire’s generous goal to try and cure us of it.” But as everyone who has read Candide (or read a summary or brief notes on Candide) knows, the novel does not end with despair, but on a “Stoic note.”

After enduring immense suffering on their many travels, Candide and his companions settle in Turkey, where they meet an old man sitting quietly under a tree. He tells them about his philosophy, how he abstains from politics and simply cultivates the fruits of his garden for market as his sole concern. Invited to feast with the man and his family, they remark upon the luxurious ease in which they live and learn that they do so on a fairly small plot of land.

Voltaire loved to goose his largely Christian readers and delighted in putting the novel’s parting wisdom, “arguably the most important adage in modern philosophy,” in the mouth of an Islamic character: Il faut cultiver notre jardin, “we must cultivate our garden.” What does this mean? De Botton interprets the line in the literal spirit with which the character known only as “the Turk” delivers it: we should keep a “safe distance between ourselves and the world.”

We should not, that is, become overly engaged in politics, and should devote ourselves to tending our own livelihood and welfare, not taking more than we need. We should leave our neighbors alone and not bother about what they do in their gardens. To be at peace in the world, Voltaire argued, we must accept the world as it is, not as we want it to be, and give up utopian ideas of societies perfected by science and reason. In short, to “tie our personal moods” to human affairs writ large is to invite endless misery.

The philosophy of Candide is not pessimistic or nihilistic. A happy, fulfilled human life is entirely possible, Voltaire suggests, if not human happiness in general. Candide has much in common with the ancient Roman outlook. But it might also express what could be seen as an early attempt at a secular Buddhist point of view. Voltaire was familiar with Buddhism, though it did not go by that name. Buddhists were lumped in, Donald S. Lopez, professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies at the University of Michigan, writes at the Public Domain Review, with the mass of “idolaters” who were not Christian, Jewish, or Muslim.

Yet the many Jesuit accounts of Eastern religion reaching Europe at the time circulated widely among intellectuals, including Voltaire, who wrote approvingly, though critically, of Buddhist tenets in his 1764 Dictionnaire philosophique. As the secular mindfulness movement has done in the 21st century, Lopez argues, Voltaire sought in the age of Enlightenment to separate miraculous legend from practical teaching. But like the Buddha, whose supposed biography Voltaire knew well, Candide begins his life in a castle. And the story ends with a man sitting quietly under a tree, more or less advising Candide to do what Voltaire had heard of in the “religion of the Siamese…. Meditate in private, and reflect often on the fragility of human affairs.”

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

An Animated Introduction to Albert Camus’ Existentialism, a Philosophy Making a Comeback in Our Dysfunctional Times

When next you meet an existentialist, ask him what kind of existentialist s/he is. There are at least as many varieties of existentialism as there have been high-profile thinkers propounding it. Several major strains ran through postwar France alone, most famously those championed by Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus — who explicitly rejected existentialism, in part due to a philosophical split with Sartre, but who nevertheless gets categorized among the existentialists today. We could, perhaps, more accurately describe Camus as an absurdist, a thinker who starts with the inherent meaningless and futility of life and proceeds, not necessarily in an obvious direction, from there.

The animated TED-Ed lesson above sheds light on the historical events and personal experiences that brought Camus to this worldview. Beginning in the troubled colonial Algeria of the early 20th-century in which he was born and raised, educator Nina Medvinskaya goes on to tell of his periods as a resistance journalist in France and as a novelist, in which capacity he would write such enduring works as The Stranger and The Plague. Medvinskaya illuminates Camus' central insight with a well-known image from his earlier essay "The Myth of Sisyphus," on the Greek king condemned by the gods to roll a boulder up a hill for all eternity.

"Camus argues that all of humanity is in the same position," says Medvinskaya, "and only when we accept the meaninglessness of our lives can we face the absurd with our heads held high." But "Camus' contemporaries weren't so accepting of futility." (Here the Quentin Blake-style illustrations portray a couple of figures bearing a strong resemblance to Sartre and de Beauvoir.) Many existentialists "advocated for violent revolution to upend systems they believed were depriving people of agency and purpose." Such calls haven't gone silent in 2020, just as The Plague — one of Camus' writings in response to revolutionary existentialism — has only gained relevance in a time of global pandemic.

Last month the Boston Review's Carmen Lea Dege considered the recent comeback of the thought, exemplified in different ways by Camus, Sartre, and others, that "rejected religious and political dogma, expressed scorn for academic abstraction, and focused on the finitude and absurdity of human existence." This resurgence of interest "is not entirely surprising. The body of work we now think of as existentialist emerged during the first half of the twentieth century in conflict-ridden Germany and France, where uncertainty permeated every dimension of society." As much as our societies have changed since then, uncertainty has a way of returning.

Today "we define ourselves and others on the basis of class, religion, race, and nationality, or even childhood influences and subconscious drives, to gain control over the contingencies of the world and insert ourselves in the myriad ways people have failed and succeeded in human history." But the existentialists argued that "this control is illusory and deceptive," an "alluring distraction from our own fragility" that ultimately "corrodes our ability to live well." For the existentialists, pursuit of good life first demands an acceptance of not just fragility but futility, meaninglessness, absurdity, and ambiguity, among other conditions that strike us as deeply unacceptable. As Camus put it, we must imagine Sisyphus happy. But can we?

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

An Introduction to Postmodernist Thinkers & Themes: Watch Primers on Foucault, Nietzsche, Derrida, Deleuze & More

For decades we’ve been hearing about the problem of Postmodernism. I suppose I get, in a vague sort of way, what people mean by this: moral relativism, mistrust of objectivity and scientific, religious, and other authorities, “incredulity toward metanarratives,” as Jean-Francois Lyotard defined the term in The Postmodern Condition in 1979.

Don’t we find much of this radical skepticism in the work of David Hume? The Cynics? Or Nietzsche (a Postmodern ancestor, but also claimed by Pragmatist and Existentialist thinkers)? A problem with blanket critiques of Postmodernism is that the word has never represented a cohesive school of thought (nor, for that matter, has Existentialism).

The term derives from an architectural movement of the 1960s that is, itself, impossible to clearly define since it intentionally grafts together approaches and traditions in experiments that celebrate kitschy excesses of style and that defy narrative coherence. Postmodern architecture gave us modern malls and multiplexes, aiding and abetting late capitalist sprawl. (But this is another story….)

Lyotard certainly fit the stereotype of the Postmodernist philosopher, with his lifetime of socialist activism and theoretical hybrids of Marx and Freud. He gets little credit, though he put the term in circulation in philosophy. Instead, Michel Foucault is often cited as a significant influence, though he rejected the categorization and thought of himself as a modernist.

Many a survey of Postmodern thought, such as this YouTube video series by Then & Now, begins with Foucault. The series covers other thinkers we don't always see put in this box, like sociologist Pierre Bourdieu and 19th century Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky. Nietzsche appears, of course, in two parts, as well as Eve Sedgwick, Jacques Derrida and Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari.

But in many ways, Foucault may be the best place to begin. As professor of philosophy Scott Moore writes:

If postmodernism is understood as a rejection of… an Enlightenment point of view... one that is characterized by a detached, autonomous, objective rationality… then Foucault is surely a postmodernist. Turning Bacon on his head, Foucault affirmed that it is not the case that knowledge is power, but power is knowledge. Meaning, those people who have power (social, political, etc.) always decide what will or will not be counted as "knowledge."

Unlike, however, many later cultural theorists who inherited the cumbersome label, Foucault looked not to the present or the future in his work, but to the past, re-interpreting primary sources from ancient Rome to the post-WWI global economic order, through several different disciplinary lenses.

Then & Now creator Lewis Waller takes a postmodern approach to this series himself. In the video “Detachment, Objectivity, Imagination: A Critique,” he makes a case that Romantic historians like Michelet, Thierry, and Carlyle had a “better understanding of the reality of the historian’s craft than the scientifically minded did.” It’s a contrarian argument that begins with Sir Walter Scott and that may unsettle your preconceptions of what the catch-all term Postmodernism might include.

See more videos from the series above and watch all of them on YouTube. You may or may not feel like you have a better sense of what Postmodernism means in general. If we take it as shorthand for the loss of unchallenged heteropatriarchal power, then it is, I suppose, a problem for many people. If we take it to mean a mode of thought that “problematizes” seemingly simple concepts we mistake for the very structure of reality, then it “is also an attitude," writes Moore, "and it has been most artfully practiced by Socrates, St. Augustine, Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein, and a host of others."

Maybe Postmodernism has appeared in every period of philosophical and literary history. Only it hasn’t always been so… well… so overwhelmingly French, which could have had more than a little to do with its negative reputation in Anglophone countries. Put your metanarratives aside and learn more here.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Orson Welles Narrates Animations of Plato’s Cave and Kafka’s “Before the Law,” Two Parables of the Human Condition

You're held captive in an enclosed space, only able faintly to perceive the outside world. Or you're kept outside, unable to cross the threshold of a space you feel a desperate need to enter. If both of these scenarios sound like dreams, they must do so because they tap into the anxieties and suspicions in the depths of our shared subconscious. As such, they've also proven reliable material for storytellers since at least the fourth century B.C., when Plato came up with his allegory of the cave. You know that story nearly as surely as you know the ancient Greek philosopher's name: a group of human beings live, and have always lived, deep in a cave. Chained up to face a wall, they have only ever seen the images of shadow puppets thrown by firelight onto the wall before them.

To these isolated beings, "the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images." So Orson Welles tells it in this 1973 short film by animator Dick Oden. In his timelessly resonant voice that complements the production's hauntingly retro aesthetic, Wells then speaks of what would happen if a cave-dweller were to be unshackled.

"He would be much too dazzled to see distinctly those things whose shadows he had seen before," but as he approaches reality, "he has a clearer vision." Still, "will he not be perplexed? Will he not think that the shadows which he formerly saw are truer than the objects which are now shown to him?" And if brought out of the cave to experience reality in full, would he not pity his old cavemates? "Would he not say, with Homer, better to be the poor servant of a poor master and to endure anything rather than think as they do and live after their manner?"

Plato's cave wasn't the first parable of the human condition Welles narrated. Just over a decade earlier, he engaged pinscreen animator Alexandre Alexeieff (he of Night on Bald Mountain and and "The Nose," previously featured here on Open Culture) to illustrate his reading of Franz Kafka's story "Before the Law." The law, in Kafka's telling, is a building, and before that building stands a guard. "A man comes from the country, begging admittance to the law," says Welles. "But the guard cannot admit him. May he hope to enter at a later time? That is possible, said the guard." Yet somehow that time never comes, and he spends the rest of his life awaiting admission to the law. "Nobody else but you could ever have obtained admittance," the guard admits to the man, not long before the man expires of old age. "This door was intended only for you! And now, I'm going to close it."

"Before the Law" describes a grimly absurd situation, as does Welles' The Trial, the film to which it serves as an introduction. Adapted from another work of Kafka's, specifically his best-known novel, it also concerns itself with the legal side of human affairs, at least on the surface. But when it becomes clear that the crime with which its bureaucrat protagonist Josef K. has been charged will never be specified, the story plunges into an altogether more troubling realm. We've all, at one time or another, felt to some degree like Joseph K., persecuted by an ultimately incomprehensible system, legal, social, or otherwise. And can we help but feel, especially in our highly mediated 21st century, like Plato's immobilized human, raised in darkness and made to build a worldview on illusions? As for how to escape the cave — or indeed to enter the law — it falls to each of us individually to figure out.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

An Introduction to Jean Baudrillard, Who Predicted the Simulation-Like Reality in Which We Live

Each and every morning, many of us wake up and immediately check on what's happening in the world. Sometimes these events stir emotions within us, and occasionally we act on those emotions, which raise in us a desire to affect the world ourselves. But does this entire ritual involve anything real? While performing it we don't experience the world, but only media; when we respond, we respond not with action in the world, but only with action in media. We have directly interacted, to put it bluntly, with nothing more than pixels on a screen. This condition has pitilessly intensified in our era of smartphones and social media, and though philosopher and sociologist Jean Baudrillard died three months before the introduction of the iPhone, nothing about it would surprise him.

Assembled in an ominous, vintage stock footage-heavy style reminiscent of Adam Curtis (he of The Century of the Self and HyperNormalisation), the half-hour Then & Now video essay above provides an introduction to Baudrillard's ideas, especially those that predicted the world in which we live today, a "hyperreal postmodern" one filled with signs referencing little that actually exists. "In the run-up to the 2008 crash," the narrator reminds us, "the real value of mortgages was hidden under layers of sign value, under deceitful insurance policies and financial ratings based on nothing." On the news, "it doesn't matter what's real. What matters is how it's said, who says it — the perspective, whether it will be provocative enough, whether it will entertain." We live, in sum, in a "postmodern carnival" where  "things like reality TV, Disneyland, and Facebook define our lives."

Baudrillard saw this happening nearly 40 years ago: "People no longer look at each other, but there are institutes for that," he writes in Simulacra and Simulation. "They no longer touch each other, but there is contactotherapy. They no longer walk, but they go jogging, etc. Everywhere one recycles lost faculties, or lost bodies, or lost sociality, or the lost taste for food." He credited Marshall McLuhan, fellow gnomic observer of late 20th-century society, with "one of the defining axioms of postmodern life." When McLuhan declared that "the medium is the message," says the narrator, he saw that "what mattered in this new world was not what was real and material, but what was represented as signs: in short, television, and now the computer screen, has come to dominate social life. Sign production has replaced material production as the organizing principle of political economy."

What would Baudrillard make of a production like HBO's Chernobyl, whose painstaking reconstruction of historical events we previously featured here on Open Culture? What made that show a spectacle, says the narrator, was that "the depiction was more real than the event itself: costumes, props, special effects, and the perfect angle, the Geiger counter mapped onto the score already overdetermined by signs." And so, "in twenty years' time we think of Chernobyl, will we think of the real event, or images conjured by TV studios?" But we need hardly look that far into the future. The very things our screens insist to us are happening in the world right now, far beyond the walls of the homes fewer and fewer of us leave these days — what do we truly know of their existence apart from this digital blizzard of signs? If Baudrillard were alive to hear our speculation about the possibility that we live in another being's simulation, he'd surely point out that we've already created the simulation ourselves.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

John Trumbull’s Famous 1818 Painting Declaration of Independence Virtually Defaced to Show Which Founding Fathers Owned Slaves

Statues of slaveholders and their defenders are falling all over the U.S., and a lot of people are distraught. What’s next? Mount Rushmore? Well… maybe no one’s likely to blow it up, but some honesty about the “extremely racist” history of Mount Rushmore might make one think twice about using it as a limit case.

On the other hand, a sandblasting of the enormous Klan monument in Stone Mountain, Georgia—created earlier by Rushmore sculptor Gutzon Borglum—seems long overdue.

We are learning a lot about the history of these monuments and the people they represent, more than any of us Americans learned in our early education. But we still hear the usual defense that slaveholders were only men of their time—many were good, pious, and gentle and knew no better (or they agonized over the question but, you know, everyone was doing it….) People subjected to the violence and horror of slavery mostly tended to disagree.

Before the Haitian Revolution terrified the slaveholding South, many prominent slaveholders, Jefferson and Washington included, expressed intellectual and moral disgust with slavery. They could not consider abolition, however (though Washington freed his slaves in his will). There was too much profit in the enterprise. As Jefferson himself wrote, “It [would] never do to destroy the goose.”

What we see when we look at the Revolutionary period is the fatal irony of a republic based on ideals of liberty, founded mostly by men who kept millions of people enslaved. The point is made vividly above in a virtual defacement of Declaration of Independence, John Trumbull’s famous 1818 painting which hangs in the U.S. Capitol rotunda. All of the founders’ faces blotted out by red dots were slaveowners. Only the few in yellow in the corresponding image freed the the people they enslaved.

These images were not made in this current summer of national uprisings but in August of 2019, “a bloody month that saw 53 people die in mass shootings in the US,” notes Hyperallergic. Their creator, Arlen Parsa sought to make a different point about the Second Amendment, but wrote forcefully about the founders' enslaving of others. “There were no gentle slaveholders,” writes Parsa. “Countless children were born into slavery and died after a relatively short lifespan never knowing freedom for even a minute.” Many of those children were fathered by their owners.

Some founding fathers paid lip service to the idea of slavery as a blight because it was obvious that kidnapping and enslaving people contradicted democratic principles. Slavery happened to be the primary metaphor used by Enlightenment philosophers and their colonial readers to characterize the tyrannical monarchism they opposed. The philosopher John Locke wrote slavery into the constitution of the Carolina colony, and profited from it through owning stock in the Royal African Company. Yet by his later, hugely influential Two Treatises, he had come to see hereditary slavery as “so vile and miserable an estate of man… that ‘tis hardly to be conceived” that anyone could uphold it.

There were, of course, slaveholding founders who resisted such talk and felt no compunction about how they made their money. But lofty principles or no, the U.S. founders were often on the defensive against non-slaveholding colleagues, who scolded and attacked them, sometimes with frank references to the rapes of enslaved women and girls. These criticisms were so common that Thomas Paine could write the case for slavery had been “sufficiently disproved” when he published a 1775 tract denouncing it and calling for its immediate end:

The managers of [the slave trade] testify that many of these African nations inhabit fertile countries, are industrious farmers, enjoy plenty and lived quietly, averse to war, before the Europeans debauched them with liquors… By such wicked and inhuman ways, the English are said to enslave towards 100,000 yearly, of which 30,000 are supposed to die by barbarous treatment in the first year…

So monstrous is the making and keeping them slaves at all… and the many evils attending the practice, [such] as selling husbands away from wives, children from parents and from each other, in violation of sacred and natural ties; and opening the way for adulteries, incests and many shocking consequences, for all of which the guilty masters must answer to the final judge…

The chief design of this paper is not to disprove [slavery], which many have sufficiently done, but to entreat Americans to consider:

With that consistency… they complain so loudly of attempts to enslave them, while they hold so many hundred thousands in slavery and annually enslave many thousands more, without any pretence of authority or claim upon them.

Jefferson squared his theory of liberty with his practice of slavery by picking up the fad of scientific racism sweeping Europe at the time, in which philosophers who profited, or whose patrons and nations profited, from the slave trade began to coincidentally discover evidence that enslaving Africans was only natural. We should know by now what happens when racism guides science....

Maybe turning those who willfully perpetuated the country’s most intractable, damning crime against humanity into civic saints no longer serves the U.S., if it ever did. Maybe elevating the founders to the status of religious figures has produced a widespread historical ignorance and a very specific kind of nationalism that are no longer tenable. Younger and future generations will settle these questions their own way, as they sort through the mess their elders have left them. As Locke also argued, in a paraphrase from American History professor Holly Brewer, “people do not have to obey a government that no longer protects them, and the consent of an ancestor does not bind the descendants: each generation must consent for itself.”

via Hyperallergic

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

William Blake Illustrates Mary Wollstonecraft’s Work of Children’s Literature, Original Stories from Real Life (1791)

Most of us know Mary Wollstonecraft as the author of the 1792 pamphlet A Vindication of the Rights of Women, and as the mother of Frankenstein author Mary Shelley. Fewer of us may know that two years before she published her foundational feminist text, she wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Men, a pro-French Revolution, anti-monarchy argument that first made her famous as a writer and philosopher. Perhaps far fewer know that Wollstonecraft began her career as a published author in 1787 with Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (though she had yet to raise children herself), a conduct manual for proper behavior.

A hugely popular genre during the first Industrial Revolution, conduct manuals bore a miscellaneous character, inculcating a battery of middle-class rules, beliefs, and affectations through a mix of pedagogy, allegory, domestic advice, and devotional writing. Young women were instructed in the proper way to dress, eat, pray, laugh, love, etc., etc.

It may seem from our perspective that a radical firebrand like Wollstonecraft would shun this sort of thing, but her moralizing was typical of middle-class women of her time, even of pioneering writers who supported revolutions and women’s political and social equality.

Wollstonecraft’s assumptions about class and character come into relief when placed against the views of another famous contemporary, far more radical figure, William Blake, who was then a struggling, mostly obscure poet, printer, and illustrator in London. In 1791, he received a commission to illustrate a second edition of Wollstonecraft’s third book, a follow-up of sorts to her Thoughts on the Education of Daughters. The 1788 work—Original Stories from Real Life; with Conversations, Calculated to Regulate the Affections, and Form the Mind to Truth and Goodness—is a more focused book, using a series of vignettes woven into a frame story.

The two children in the narrative, 14-year-old Mary and 12-year-old Caroline, receive lessons from their relative Mrs. Mason, who instructs them on a different virtue and moral failing in each chapter by using stories and examples from nature. The two pupils “are motherless,” notes the British Library, “and lack the good habits they should have absorbed by example. Mrs. Mason intends to rectify this by being with them constantly and answering all their questions.” She is an all-knowing governess who explains the world away with a philosophy that might have sounded particularly harsh to Blake’s ears.

For example, in the chapter on physical pain, Mary is stung by several wasps. Afterward, her guardian begins to lecture her “with more than usual gravity.”

I am sorry to see a girl of your age weep on account of bodily pain; it is a proof of a weak mind—a proof that you cannot employ yourself about things of consequence. How often must I tell you that the Most High is educating us for eternity?... Children early feel bodily pain, to habituate them to bear the conflicts of the soul, when they become reasonable creatures. This is say, is the first trial, and I like to see that proper pride which strives to conceal its sufferings…. The Almighty, who never afflicts but to produce some good end, first sends diseases to children to teach them patience and fortitude; and when by degrees they have learned to bear them, they have acquired some virtue.

Blake likely found this line of reasoning off-putting, at the least. His own poems “were not children’s literature per se,” writes Stephanie Metz at the University of Tennessee’s Romantic Politics project, “yet their simplistic language and even some of their content responds to the characteristics of didactic fiction and children’s poetry.” Blake wrote expressly to protest the ideology found in conduct manuals like Wollstonecraft’s: “He calls attention to society’s abuse of children in a number of different ways, showing how society corrupts their inherent innocence and imagination while also failing to care for their physical and emotional needs.”

For Blake, children’s big emotions and active imaginations made them superior to adults. “Several of his poems,” Metz writes, “show the ways in which children’s innate nature has already been tainted by their parents and other societal forms of authority, such as the church.” Given his attitudes, we can see why “modern interpreters of the illustrations for Original Stories have detected a pictorial critique” in Blake’s rendering of Wollstonecraft’s text, as the William Blake Archive points out. Blake “appears to have found her morality too calculating, rationalistic, and rigid. He represents Wollstonecraft’s spokesperson, Mrs. Mason, as a domineering presence.”

Nonetheless, as always, Blake’s work is more than competent. The style for which we know him best emerges in some of the prints. We see it, for example, in the chiseled face, bulging eyes, and well-muscled arms of the standing figure above. For the most part, however, he keeps in check his exuberant desire to celebrate the human body. “Only a year earlier,” writes Brain Pickings, “Blake had finished printing and illuminating the first few copies of his now-legendary Songs of Innocence and Experience.” Two of the songs “were inspired by Wollstonecraft’s translation of C.G. Salzmann’s Elements of Morality, for which Blake had done several engravings.”

If he had misgivings about illustrating Wollstonecraft’s Original Stories, we must infer them from his illustrations. But placing Blake’s most famous book of poetry next to Wollstonecraft’s pious, didactic works of moral instruction produces some jarring contrasts, showing how two towering literary figures from the time (though not both at the time) conceived of childhood, social class, education, and morality in vastly different ways. Learn more about Blake's illustrations at Brain Pickings, read an edition of Wollstonecraft's Original Stories here, and see all of Blake's illustrations at the William Blake Archive.

via Brain Pickings

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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