Samuel Johnson and Three Infidels

Rousseau, Voltaire, Diderot

Title Details

Pages: 232

Trim size: 5.500in x 8.500in



Pub Date: 01/01/2009

ISBN: 9-780-8203-3375-5

List Price: $30.95

Samuel Johnson and Three Infidels

Rousseau, Voltaire, Diderot

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  • Description
  • Reviews

European literary history teems with prejudices. Nowhere perhaps is bias more evident than in the field of Anglo-French relations of the eighteenth century. In England looms the formidable figure of Samuel Johnson, while the French-speaking world is dominated by Rousseau, Voltaire, and Diderot. Samuel Johnson thought little of Voltaire and never mentioned Diderot. That he wanted to banish Rousseau to the American colonies is well known. All three men were, in Johnson's mind, infidels to the Christian order of society.

In Samuel Johnson and Three Infidels, Mark Temmer reevaluates dogmatic views and critical commonplaces that have encrusted these relationships by comparing representative works of the three Continental authors to corresponding works and realities embodied and created by Samuel Johnson. After reviewing existing harmonies and dissonances between France and England, Temmer turns to the lives of Johnson and Rousseau, interpreting them as ontological masterpieces made visible mainly in Rousseau's Confessions and in biographies of Johnson by James Boswell and Hester Piozzi, both of whom insist on remarkable affinities between the two men. In the words of Mrs. Piozzi, they were "alike as sensations of frost and fire." Despite their opposing doctrines, Temmer reveals a pietism in Rousseau that often matches in intensity Johnson's otherworldly yearnings.

Temmer moves from this comparison into a discussion of Candide and Rasselas, works published within months of each other in 1759. Integrating Voltaire's satire and Johnson's moral tale into the philosophical history of the age, Temmer goes on to uncover shared moments of laughter and music, ringing out against the gray background of a life in which, for both men, "much is to be endured and little to be enjoyed." Finally, exploring Johnson's Life of Richard Savage and Diderot's Le Neveu de Rameau, Temmer suggests the strong possibility that Diderot's masterpiece may have been influenced by Johnson's biography as well as by Savage's own An Author to be Lett.

In this book, Temmer moves beyond the boundaries that have traditionally defined eighteenth-century scholarship on either shore of the English Channel. Creating a cross-cultural conversation bounded only by the lives and interests of his subjects, Temmer relates Johnson to Continental literature and defines his innovative role in a tradition that leads to Hegel, Dostoevsky, and Nietzsche.

This is, to my knowledge, the first serious book-length study of the intellectual relationships among Johnson, the greatest literary figure of his time in England, and the three greatest figures of the Continental 'Enlightenment,' Rousseau, Voltaire, and Diderot. The book should be a healthy corrective to the narrow outlook of Johnsonian studies on the one hand, and of Continental studies on the other. This is, what one too rarely encounters, 'comparative literature' at its best.

—Donald Greene

Johnsonians and scholars of the French Enlightenment have generally been very disjunct groups. Mark Temmer is therefore unusual in discovering a remarkable amount of common ground in what amounts to a succinct and readable introduction to eighteenth-century letters.

Virginia Quarterly Review

About the Author/Editor

MARK TEMMER is a professor of French and comparative literature at the University of California at Santa Barbara. His previous books include Time in Rousseau and Kant: An Essay on Pre-Romanticism; Rousseau's Art and Influence: The Pastoral, Goethe, Gottfried Keller, and Other Essays; and a book of French sonnets, Le Surfer de Hawaii.