Arianne Baggerman and Rudolf Dekker, Child of the Enlightenment

Arianne Baggerman and Rudolf Dekker, Child of the Enlightenment: Revolutionary Europe Reflected in a Boyhood Diary, translated by Diane Webb (Leiden: Brill, 2009). 568 pp. £89.10 hb. ISBN 9004172696.

In Child of the Enlightenment, Arianne Baggerman and Rudolf Dekker offer an insight into what they term the ‘paradoxical everyday practices of the Enlightenment’ (2009: 332) through an analysis of a diary kept by a young man during the 1790s. Otto van Eck was 10 when he began a daily account of his thoughts and achievements. This was not to be an independent journal in time, but one aspect of a comprehensive disciplinary system initiated by his parents. Otto grew up in the Netherlands as part of an enlightened household. His father, Lambert van Eck, was a devotee of Rousseau, committed to the idea of scientific progress, and active in the Batavian revolution of 1795. Just as his political involvement was motivated by a belief in the perfectibility of the human condition, so his relationship with his son was dominated by a pedagogy that sought to free the subject from corruption through a monitorial regime.

Lambert’s attempt to cure the world of its ills led to bitter disappointment, and in so much this can be taken as a cautionary tale. Before the Batavian revolution had run its short course, many of its initial supporters would be jailed, Lambert amongst them. This imprisonment coincided with Otto falling ill with “‘an inflammatory cold’”, later diagnosed as phthisis, or tuberculosis. Lambert was permitted to leave jail for two weeks to see his son in the last days of his life. He was finally released two months later, by all accounts a broken man, failed by the revolutionary politics, medical advances, and educational theories he believed would allow him to control and ennoble the world around him.

It is to their credit that Baggerman and Dekker resist the temptation to reduce this narrative to one of innocence lost, or indeed innocence gained, demonstrating instead the conflicting demands of freedom and control, hope and disappointment that exert themselves from the first. For example, in the chapter on contemporary theories of literature for children, the standard developmental reading of the field that sees the late Eighteenth century moving ‘from primer to pleasure’ is rigorously questioned. Rather than moving from supervising didacticism to child-initiated enjoyment, the text suggests that ideas of freedom and control are interwoven. Thus, for example, although Lambert divides Otto’s daily reading into ‘required reading’ and ‘reading for pleasure’, with the ‘required reading’ consisting of factual ‘primers’, reading ‘for pleasure’ is not somehow opposed to the monitorial system. It is, rather, ‘required reading “for pleasure”’, observed and regulated. (2009: 163)  In a similar move, the idea that a ‘natural’ Rousseauesque education is somehow opposed to external, social constraint  is problematised through a sustained close analysis of the metaphor of ‘the garden as pedagogical project’ as it appears in Otto’s diary and the writing of Lambert van Eck. (2009: 171-213)  Here the idea of natural growth is only ever as important as systematic cultivation. The belief in natural goodness is tempered by a commitment to order, order always supplemented by the requirement of freedom. Such tensions can be read throughout the text, with Lambert’s philosophy finding that it must integrate an enlightened education based on aristocratic privilege with appeals to universal equality, and the natural, seasonal rhythms of circular time with the linear model required for accurate management.

In this Baggerman and Dekker can be aligned with those that argue for a Counter Enlightenment, with those elements of irrationality and naturalness that might be labelled ‘Romantic’ read not as superseding the rationality and order of the Enlightenment, but constituting a necessary element of it. Despite this there is an active attempt to dissociate such an analysis from the Foucauldian or Post-Structuralist approaches that increasingly tend to accompany such moves. In claiming that their commitment is to the diary of Otto, rather than to any subsequent framework that might be utilised to understand it, the authors state that ‘we decided not to maintain a scholarly distance, nor to approach the manuscript with preconceived notions; instead, we let the diary pose the questions raised by its own world’. (2009: 1) If this has the advantage of freeing up the idea of the Counter Enlightenment, allowing it to be read from a variety of theoretical positions, it also requires a somewhat Romantic notion of a text that can be taken ‘as it is’, liberated from any invasive interpretation. This is a problem in so far as it leads to the implications of some of the theoretical constructions of the human subject that are relied upon by the text remaining unread. For example, when discussing Otto’s reading habits it is suggested that ‘the reader of the diary cannot help feeling that Otto would have preferred to grow up without books. Considering his love of nature and his frequent dislike of the books he was required to read, Otto would probably have been happy with the kind of instruction Emile received from Rousseau’. (2009: 164) Here the authors offer a speculative idea of an Otto who received an alternative education, one in which he was not encouraged to laboriously document his ‘required reading’. This suggests that any result a period of socialisation has on the subject is somehow detachable from it, a move that requires a hard impacted identity existing prior to education seemingly at odds with the model of socialised individuality utilised elsewhere.

Through their engagement with Otto’s dairy, Baggerman and Dekker have produced a detailed, nuanced and highly original account of the Enlightenment, ‘constructed, for a change, from the bottom up’. (2009: 6) The decision not to impose a systematic framework on the text they study contributes to this originality, allowing Otto’s text to be read as a difficult, contradictory work. However, this approach also occasionally leads to conflicts between the competing developmental models acting within Enlightenment thought going unread. The text relies on certain ‘preconceived’ ideas of human subjectivity and growth, even if they remain unacknowledged. Explicit engagement with such ideas might have lead to an even greater sense of the debt owed to enlightened thought.

Neil Cocks, University of Reading

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