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The Progressive Poetics of Confusion in the French Enlightenment

John C. O'Neal

In The Progressive Poetics of Confusion in the French Enlightenment, John C. O'Neal draws largely on the etymological meaning of the word confusion as the action of mixing or blending in order to trace the development of this project which, he claims, aimed to reject dogmatic thinking in all of its forms and recognized the need to embrace complexity. Eighteenth-century thinkers used the notion of confusion in a progressive way to reorganize social classes, literary forms, metaphysical substances, scientific methods, and cultural categories such as taste and gender.

In this new work, O'Neal explores some of the paradoxes of the Enlightenment's theories of knowledge. Each of the chapters in this book attempts to address the questions raised by the eighteenth century's particular approach to confusion as a paradoxical reorganizing principle for the period's progressive agenda. Perhaps the most paradoxical thinker of his times, Diderot occupies a central place in this study of confusion. Other authors include Marivaux, Crébillon, Voltaire, and Pinel, among others. Rousseau and Sade serve as counterexamples to this kind of enlightenment but ultimately do not so much oppose the period's poetics of confusion as they complement it. The final chapter on Sade combines contemporary discussions of politics, society, culture, philosophy, and science in an encyclopedic way that at once reflects the entire period's tendencies and establishes important differences between Sade's thinking and that of the mainstream philosophies. Ultimately, confusion serves, O'Neal argues, as an overarching positive notion for the Enlightenment and its progressive ideals.
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University Press Copublishing Division / University of Delaware
Pages: 240Size: 6 1/2 x 9 1/2
978-1-61149-024-4 • Hardback • March 2011 • $75.00 • (£44.95)
John C. O'Neal is professor of French at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York.
Chapter 1 Introduction
Chapter 2 Chapter 1: The Subversive Use of Confusion in Marivaux's Theater
Chapter 3 Chapter 2: Cultivating the Reader's Critical Mind in Crébillon's Les Égarements du coeur et de l'esprit
Chapter 4 Chapter 3: Telling, Reading (or Listening), and Knowing: Interpolated Narrative in Voltaire and Diderot
Chapter 5 Chapter 4: Diderot and the Enlightenment's Poetics of Confusion in the Lettre sur les aveugles
Chapter 6 Chapter 5: Blurring the Boundaries between Mind and Body: Rousseau and the Philosophies on the Soul
Chapter 7 Chapter 6: Society's Confusion in the Lettre à d'Alembert sur les spectacles and the Question of Rousseau's Modernity
Chapter 8 Chapter 7: Gender Confusion
Chapter 9 Chapter 8: Understanding and Intepreting Confusion: Philippe Pinel and the Invention of Psychiatry
Chapter 10 Chapter 9: Sade's Justine: A Response to the Enlightenment's Poetics of Confusion
Chapter 11 Conclusion
John C. O’Neal has written an excellent book on the uses of the concept of confusion in the French Enlightenment. O’Neal begins by deconstructing the traditional image of the Enlightenment as a period obsessed with reason, rationality, and order. . .Throughout this relatively short work, O’Neal provides lucid and often counter-intuitive readings of Marivaux’s La double insonstance and Le jeu de l’amour et du hasard, Crébillon fils’s Les égarements du coeur et de l’esprit, Diderot’s Jacques le fataliste and Lettre sur les aveugles, Voltaire’s Candide, and Rousseau’s Lettres à d’Alembert sur les spectacles. O’Neal peppers his argument with subtly iconoclastic interpretations of some canonical texts.
Oxford Journal

In his most recent book, John C. O'Neal sets out to interpret the French Enlightenment project as a successful attempt to trouble the water, blur boundaries, and mix genres and forms in the very heart of the cultural order inherited from the classical age, an attempt that rejects dogmatism and fixed ways of thinking in order to create an epistemological framework capable of adequately assessing the complexity of human nature and all living things. He contributes in this way to the deconstruction of Cassirer's reading of Kant and thereby promotes an empirical and skeptical approach to the thinking of the French Enlightenment. . . .studying as he does numerous different genres in the body of work under consideration, John C. O'Neal brilliantly affirms an eighteenth-century critical trend that is gaining traction.
Dix-Huitième Siècle