Category Archives: enlightenment

The Enlightenment Run Amok: On Fiction and Truth

Arabella, the heroine of Charlotte Lennox’s The Female Quixote, shares similarities, not surprisingly, with Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote. She views the world through romantic French novels and fully expects adventures around every corner. Why no villains have yet attempted to kidnap her, nor any heroes fought duels to win her heart is one of her life’s big mysteries. Ultimately, she’s set straight on this; heroes are mythical. Villains, of course, aren’t, but in an enlightened society, maybe, just maybe villains will go the way of their heroic counterparts.

After her disillusionment in romance occurs, she asks this question of her scientifically minded doctor:

“The Fables of Aesop, said Arabella, are among those of which the Absurdity discovers itself, and the Truth is comprised in the Application; but what can be said of those Tales which are told with the solemn Air of historical Truth, and if false convey no Instruction?”

The rational doctor admits that the fiction which has formed Arabella’s thoughts can’t be defended–this fiction being of the untrue rather than the true variety. He, therefore, attempts to reform her mind by gently asking her leading questions, such as this one: “How is any oral, or written Testimony, confuted or confirmed?”

Her response is about as reasonable as you’d expect from a girl intelligent enough to read French romances: “By comparing it . . . with the Testimony of others, or with the natural Effects and standing Evidence of the Facts related, and sometimes by comparing it with itself.”

From this answer, I understand that Arabella has a sound mind, along with enough intellect to make a proper study of the facts outside French romance, rather than inside, because those aren’t facts [which we’ve already established!]. By extension, I also know Arabella will eventually concede the truth. Her romance novels don’t parallel the England of her day and age. She was a fool to believe they did–a wise fool, but a fool nonetheless.

While the setting straight, or healing, of Arabella’s mind might be of some relief to other readers, as well as to Arabella’s honorable suitor, Mr. Glanville, I can’t help feeling let down, as though I, as well as the heroine, has lost something beautiful when she realizes that chivalry, adventure, and the divine art of love are fantasies. Although I’m always disappointed in the end of The Female Quixote, I refuse to conclude that Lennox merely meant to instruct society on the type of novels young women ought to read, favoring Richardson over Madeleine de Scudery.

No, the following exchange doesn’t support this interpretation:

The doctor claims that “[Arabella’s] Writers have instituted a World of their own, and that nothing is more different from a human being, than Heroes or Heroines.” Her writers–and yes, he gives Arabella ownership of them–have created their own worlds. They exist as false worlds within false words, and create false notions within minds–especially the minds of young girls.

Arabella gives a frank reply to the doctor: “I am afraid, Sir, that the Difference is not in Favour of the present World.”

I have to agree with Arabella. Two hundred and sixty years have passed since Lennox first published her novel, and our hyper-rational, post-enlightenment society has not yet eradicated villains, even if the heroes have fled from our collective unconscious.

Oh, heroes, where have you gone? I can hear your horses’ hooves pounding through history, only to come to a clattering halt outside the palace of my modern mind.


What is Talent: which is a similar question to What is Truth

A. Leon Miler’s Hop Canyon New Mexico 1886

Nathan Bransford posted this blog rant on low literary aspirations yesterday, and it struck a definite chord with me. We are living in an enlightenment-run-amok world where expertise belongs to anyone, as well as the mighty pen, which is mightier than the sword, or so we’ve been told. It’s true. Information is out there. It’s cheap. In many cases, it’s even free. And we can arm ourselves with it, call ourselves experts on anything.

By the same token, almost anyone can be published, even if publishing means forking up the cash to use a vanity press. In school, our access to information and our ability to express ourselves in words have been likened to power (mightier than the sword, and all that). How powerful, though, are billions of voices all ranting different things? And through all the racket, nobody can be heard. Gone is the idolized expert and, in his place, stands the idol of the individual.

Talent is elusive. I know when I don’t have it. For example, I simply have no artistic abilities at all, and I can claim that with a fair amount of certainty. It’s more difficult, however, to pinpoint talent than to witness the extreme lack thereof. I believe that I’m still on firm ground when I claim that my father is a talented painter. For a start, he has well-honed skills. He mixes his own paint, rather than painting straight from the tube, and primes his own boards, rather than buying pre-stretched canvases. In his younger years, he apprenticed with a master painting restorer.

In addition to all of the above, he has style. The combination thereof, craft and style, must be talent. What a relief it is that I can spot talent! But, wait; in walks your aunt Maude, who wants to rent a space next to my dad’s in the gallery. You’ve told me she has talent; she’s always painting. She’s so creative! When I look at her paintings, though, I see right off that her pigments don’t match. Her painting of a mountain looks like a mountain, I suppose, and the other artist are oohing and aahing over a hummingbird she’s painted.

I shrug. I guess I don’t know what talent is, after all. Aunt Maude has more artistic talent than I have. She can paint things and actually make them look like what they’re supposed to, which I certainly can’t. In the style category, her talent points fall to zero in my opinion, but what do I know? Her execution just doesn’t seem to scream talent, either. Then I start wondering whether my dad is as talented as Rembrandt. Rembrandt clearly had talent. If I were to ask his opinion (my dad’s, not Rembrandt’s–I’m not in the habit of talking to dead artists), he would say it doesn’t matter; he has no idea; only time will tell.

But it does matter. Perhaps it doesn’t matter to my dad because he’s too busy painting, but it matters to our society, which is made up of persons who are stars in their own mini universes. Besides, we don’t want to be wrong. We want to hedge our bets, and so we ask the question, what is truth? Sadly, like Pilate, we don’t want to hear the answer.