Shooting Digital Like Film: Lessons From Dad

I was around eight or nine years old when my dad first put a camera in my hands. Maybe I was younger, if I was, I don’t remember. We were gearing up to go to Philadelphia to see some family members, and over the course of the trip, we were slated to go visit Longwood Botanical Gardens.I still have the camera. It was a 1960’s Nikkormat, a Nikon-adjacent model that worked smoothly and had that characteristic silver and black style of the era. I remember attempting to pick the worn gold “certified” sticker off of the lens and my dad stopped me, saying that “a well worn sticker is a badge of honor for a photographer.” So I left it on the camera.

As we geared up for our trip I remember cleaning the body of the camera almost obsessively. I would dip cotton swabs into rubbing alcohol and watch the patina’d crust that had built up over the years dissolve. I would use these disposable lens cloths that come in a little booklet on the lens almost every time I used it. Something about the manual action of winding the film and holding the weighty body of the camera felt indescribably cool and professional, but decidedly not modern.

At this point of the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, digital cameras were certainly present, but had not yet reached the full level of market (and pocket) saturation that they currently enjoy. I remember our first Nikon “CoolPix” with approximately 3.1 megapixels and the tiniest, grainiest, thumbnail screen. Memory was expensive, and my dad’s film SLRs were still the family cameras of choice.

Dad was an avid photographer throughout his life, a member of the Villanova “Photography Department” (which was in fact the photo club, the department moniker was probably added to attain some sense of 1960’s east-coast collegiate largesse). He would tell me how the “Department” would train their green members by making them shoot sports events. Following the action of the ball, trying to shoot a still of the ball leaving a player’s hand, capturing movement in an evocative and dynamic composition could all be practiced through shooting sports, namely basketball and football games.

During the 1970’s he took photos for the Philadelphia Eagles. I remember looking through the old team yearbooks from the 71, 72, 73, and 74 seasons. What a time for facial hair. Apparently Dad was the spitting image of a player named Bill Bergey. The practice that he got in shot composition at Villanova had carried over.

So it was fitting that, in a sense, began my photo journey in Philadelphia. For the trip, Dad gave me a box of three rolls of film to use over the duration of the trip. I immediately put the first roll of film into the camera and began shooting around the house and in the front yard. By the time we got to Philadelphia, I had already used up an entire roll of film. I remember walking around Philadelpia’s historic district and shooting vertical format pictures of the cobbled streets, of pigeons, and other mundanities of city life. I had already used up my second roll of film.

As I wound up my second roll, with a full intention to pop the third in, my Dad interjected and suggested that I wait to put the third roll in until our arrival at Longwood Gardens. I was having so much fun shooting freely that I was resistant to the idea and pouted about the fact that I could not document every little thing I saw.

One restorative hot pretzel later and we were en route to Longwood Gardens. As I put the third roll of film in, As I wound the film to take the first shot, Dad instructed me that I should think about what I want to portray before I shoot. This guiding question of “which story do you want to tell with your image?” has been central in my current nature photography work, and has been a theme of the class.

As I walked through the steamy greenhouses at the gardens, I looked at each flower specimen, scrutinizing its photographic potential. “Was it worth an exposure on my third roll?” “Would it make the cut?” “What if I mess it up?” are questions that probably came to mind. By the end of the day I had two shots left, but my economical approach to shooting the third roll left me feeling better about the shots I had taken at Longwood, as opposed to those taken in Philadelphia. I felt a pang of regret about shooting a whole roll of film on test shots at home, but then quickly forgot about it, as the mind of a nine-year-old has little room for regrets. Most of the photos came out blurry, unfocused, and obviously done by a nine-year old, but the lesson stuck.

I still take photos with a film camera from time to time. I took film photography classes in high school and developed film in UVA’s darkroom. I am glad that it is still a category of photography. It is a different beast than digital, and is in my opinion, much much harder. I am glad that film is still being made and being developed (despite the increasing costs and decreasing efficacy of the process).

The “economy of shots” may purely be a phenomenon of film photography. With modern digital cameras, extremely cheap memory, and a camera phone that is on my person nearly 100% of the time, I can take thousands of photos with little regret. I can take bursts of photos to capture action shots. I can get by on auto mode if I really wanted to, but I must say, something about the thriftiness of film photography still sits with me and informs, albeit passively, most of the shots I take.

While I may not be actively thinking about how many exposures are left, I am always trying to make shots count, and to take fewer shots well, rather than dozens of poorly composed shots that lack purpose or narrative. Much of the “story of the shot” can be added in post-production, but there is still an undeniable value in doing as much “in-camera” editing as possible, i.e. taking the right photo the first time.

I will say that MLA 326 has gotten me to branch out and take more shots. I am more willing to mess up, but experiment and learn something new. I am more willing to take dozens of exposures on a single item and crop it later to tell the best story. Hey, I will even balance light levels on my RAW exposures to try and tell the best story I can.


Going Out and Getting It: Working for Your Photography

Sometimes you have to sweat to get the shot. Professional photographers already know this, many do not. What does sweat entail in this case? Waking up early, driving, hiking out, waiting, whatever it is that gets you to the right place at the right time. It might be the way that the early morning light plays upon a cactus, lighting it up from behind. It might be the diurnal nature of the western fence lizard that brings you to a sunny spot in the middle of a hot California Summer. It might be waiting in stillness and silence to capture the right shot of a flighty Great Blue Heron. Whatever it is, there is going to be some legwork involved.

Before taking MLA 326, I admit it, I was a lazy photographer. I would drive down to Big Sur for a weekend campout in Los Padres Forest and stop at each of the pre-prescribed photo ops along the way. Every two and a half minutes, I would turn off the majestic Highway 1 and snap a quick one on my phone. Alongside me would be 5 other cars filled with 4 passengers each taking the same photo. But mine was special! (Was it?). I also must admit that for some reason, I felt a sense of artistic and aesthetic superiority even though I TOO was using a phone to take a picture.

Why does this happen? Why would I become so annoyed by people who are just trying to catalogue their trip to the coast? Perhaps it was the idea that the highway pull-offs were such low-hanging fruit, hand-picked spots to take the perfect vista pic without having to even exit the vehicle, like a fast food drive through for nature observation. I suppose this is it. Americans are so fond of, nay, too fond of convenience. It is ruining us. We are getting complacent. And this carries over to our photography.

Something about the universal access to photo-imaging devices through our phones has made us poor photographers. Sure, a panoramic shot of Bixby Bridge looks good on instagram and may make people say “oh wow moving to California RIGHT NOW,” but taking those shots at the turn-offs, on a cell phone (or worse, a cell phone on a selfie stick) is not Photography. (Or is it?).

Okay. I do see the value of cataloguing a beautiful vista for future reference, or for sentimental purposes. Our phones are great for that real-time archival work. For the person who has never and may never pick up an actual camera with manual settings, the phone may be as close as they ever get to photography. Let them have their fun then, and I am glad that they at least have a remarkably efficient camera tucked away in their pocket at all times.
So cell phone photography has validity, but good things should be hard. I want to be challenged by the task-at hand, not fed the perfect framing for a photo of McWay Falls. There is a certain reward in having to amble up the side of a mountain to capture a red tailed hawk (or in my case, fumble with the shutter speed in failed attempt to photograph a red tailed hawk). There is a certain reward in waking up early so that you can capture the mist or the eerie light of dawn.

I would liken this feeling to waking up and leaving to go surfing at 7 am on a Saturday morning. As I drive down CA-17 to Santa Cruz, there is nobody around, and I feel as though I have outsmarted the world with my earlybird-dom. There is a parking spot when I arrive, there are fewer people in the water, the conditions are better, and there are fewer kooks out hogging waves. On the drive back up around noon, I laugh as I drive past all of the fools who could not muster themselves out of bed until 10. Perhaps that is a little cruel, but it is a very real feeling.

Perhaps this sense of hard-won iconoclasm carries over to photographic compositions, and is what compels the best amateur and professional photographers to access the toughest terrain to capture a shot of some rare invertebrate. Like most things, you get out what you put in, and photography is no exception. Whether it be learning the camera’s complex optical functions inside and out, lugging a bag full of camera equipment, enduring barrages of insects or poison oak, or having the patience to sit and wait for the right moment, one must be willing to exert themselves in some way to get the right shot.

Towards a Musical Modernity: Jazz in the Iranian Context and Imagination (1925-1979)

The notion of modernity is central to the study of twentieth-century Iran. One of the most significant cultural aspects of modernity is that of the aesthetic, and few forms of music embody the modernist aesthetic quite like jazz does. The history of jazz and jazz-adjacent musical forms in Iran is intimately tied to the advent of modernity. While jazz played a relatively marginal role in Iran’s musical and socio-cultural landscape, it found some receptive audiences, and its impact on the imagination of Iranian thinkers and musicians as an expression of dissent is significant. Iran also represented a proving ground for emergent hybrid forms of jazz music that combined traditional elements with established modes. Iran’s radical shifts in political affiliation have shaped its musical landscape and as such, jazz became a representation of the West, modernity, and eventually, “Westoxification.”

From 1925 onwards, the two Pahlavi Shahs sought to modernize Iran by force, and forms of criticism could be met with harsh retribution. As a part of this modernization effort, Iran’s leaders sought to control elements of popular culture, including music. During the reign of the Pahlavi Shahs, jazz was largely, if not singularly perceived as a Western music, and the implications surrounding such perceptions of Western music changed with each regime. Under Reza Shah, the regime tended to compare Iran’s cultural milieu to that of Europe, while the regime of Mohammad Reza looked to the United States as the primary source of Western ideas (Breyley 299). This constant comparison and importation of “modern” values was not popular among many Iranians. Indeed, as a result of ongoing imperialistic interference by Britain and the United States, many Iranians resented the unequal distribution of wealth and the perceived theft of the nation’s resources by outsiders.

In the period from 1925 to 1953, the term “jazz” was applied to nearly all popular music of the West. Reza Shah’s regime, seeking to demonstrate Iran’s “modernity” imported selected aspects of Western popular and musical culture, but did not actively promote jazz as part of this effort, as the regime did not view jazz as sophisticated or respectable (Nikzad 64). As such, jazz did not fall in line with the regime’s particular vision of Iranian modernity and was of marginal popularity and cultural significance.

By the 1950’s the Cold War context had fully began to make its way into Iranian statecraft. The election of Mohammad Mossadq as prime minister in 1951 reflected a growing disenchantment with and rejection of the West. Mossadeq’s oil nationalization program contributed to his widespread popularity and stoked the fears of the Shah and the United States. In the CIA-backed coup of 1953, the United States reinforced the Shah’s supremacy and a new distrust of the West by the people of Iran. Mohammad Reza welcomed much of the cultural soft power promoted by the United States at this time, and simultaneously restricted what he saw as backwards left-wing revolutionary agendas.

The coup established a new relationship with the United States that permeated all echelons of cultural activity in Iran, as U.S. citizens began to work in the oil, education, media, arts, and other industries. Such migrants to Iran lived privileged lives and authorities catered to their cultural tastes, marking them as new objects of resentment for some Iranians (Breyley 306). The U.S.-backed regime did not actively promote jazz, but was tolerant of its performance and production in select cases. During this time, it was American jazz musicians living in or visiting Iran who enjoyed considerable freedoms in their practice, whereas Iranian jazz musicians encountered active resistance from the state. Musicians who were seen as promoting dissent through their music faced almost certain persecution by SAVAK, the Shah’s secret police force, either in the form of arrest, imprisonment, torture, or even execution (Breyley 300). In this case, jazz was not singled out as a specific musical form to be suppressed, but any music that could be deemed offensive to the regime was at risk of punishment.

Jazz found a receptive audience under Mohammad Reza Shah’s regime. Jazz was popular with many pro-Shah Iranians, who viewed the musical form as a reaffirmation of their special connection to the United States. Alternatively, the inherent creative disobedience of jazz music and its role in the underground made it popular among some leftist dissidents. Much of the commercially viable popular music at the time carried traces of jazz. Two such practitioners of this jazz-inflected pop are singers Farhad ( and Dariush (, whose works employ trace elements of jazz piano, brass, and guitar.

Jazz and other popular musics of the West influenced a form of hybridized national and cultural expression when fused with Iranian art and music. Such hybridity is present in the jazz-adjacent works of Iranian artists Vigen Derderian, Googoosh, and Hassan Golnaraqi. Golnaraqi’s evocative track “Mara Beboos” ( which contains some of the downtempo style of jazz guitarists like Django Reinhardt.

Known colloquially as the “Sultan of Jazz,” Vigen Derderia was perhaps the most commercially successful star of the era. Vigen began his career in the early 1950’s in the cafés and nightclubs of Tehran, and developed a smooth “crooner” pop style that was deemed acceptable to the Shah’s cultural requirements. While Vigen’s music does not sound explicitly like jazz as many Western audiences know it, it is reflective of some of the most Westernized music in the post-war period. He is often compared with Elvis Presley, and like “The King,” he appeared in popular films. Vigen’s musical work is emblematic of jazz in Iran. There exists a complex relationship between Western and non-Western traditions, as the Western elements and aesthetics of Vigen’s music are inexorably tied to the non-Western (Breyley 307). His stage demeanor, hairstyle, costumes and album design are all decidedly non-Western, but contain currents of Western popular forms of music like swing and early rock and roll, both of which contain jazz-derived rhythmic and harmonic elements.

Some colorful YouTube commentary on a video of Vigen’s music sheds light on the complexities in understanding diasporic jazz and the problems of discussing jazz as a generalized form. In the comments section of one of his major hits “Lalai” (Lullaby) (, two commenters engage in a debate about whether Vigen’s music should be called jazz:

Kadkhoda Ahvazi: “this was not a jazz singer and he never sang even one jazz song” [translated from Persian]


Challia25: “Sir, between pop and jazz it makes no difference, don’t take it so seriously” [translated from Persian]

These commenters encapsulate the struggle in defining whether one of Iran’s most prominent musical figures should be grouped into the broader umbrella of jazz. Whether or not he deserves the nickname “Sultan of Jazz” is beside the point, perhaps attempting to generalize or sort all music into restricted individual genres is a fool’s errand.

New Iranian pop music also incorporated this notion of hybridity. Following the advent of television in Iran during the late 1950’s, stars like Googoosh and Fereydun Farrokhzad began to enter the musical fold. While seen as primarily Westernized, such artists incorporated elements from a myriad cultural contexts including Turkish psychedelic, Arabic, Indian, Latin American, and Eastern European styles (Breyley 309). While jazz had contributed to the mainstream pop of these other influences, and therefore found its way into Iranian music through transitive relation, it remained in the minority of musical popularity. It was reserved for some left-wing intellectuals who would frequent Tehran’s small clubs and cafés in search of contact with the more creative side of the West, which would have been, in this case, those traveling “the hippie trail,” or the overland journey taken by members of the hippie subculture and others from the mid-1950s to the late 1970s between Europe and South Asia, primarily through Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Nepal. As such, elements of jazz, beat, and folk mixed with traditional musical forms (MacLean).

During the Cold War, the United States employed jazz as a “sonic secret weapon,” in which American jazz performers would visit other countries to transmute American cultural practices (Belair). In 1956 the U.S. state department sent bebop trumpeter and bandleader Dizzy Gillespie to perform in the oil city of Abadan, kicking off a regional strategic tour of cultural dissemination stretching across the Middle East, Asia and Eastern Europe (Von Eschen). Subsequent campaigns were led by jazz giants like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Benny Carter, Harry Edison, and others (Breyley 308). These cultural ambassadors would have attracted young fans as well as foreigners who were working in Iran. These tours in turn influenced American musicians like Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, whose composition ‘Isfahan’ ( was certainly impacted by the Persian musical forms which they gleaned on their tours.

The emergent musical dialogue between the two countries was instrumental in the development of new forms of jazz. One particularly noteworthy jazz practitioner who embodies the cultural osmosis between Iran and the United States was Lloyd Miller. Dr. Miller is known for his research work on Persian music, is fluent in Persian, can play 100 instruments in 15 jazz, ethnic and world music traditions, and holds a doctorate in Persian studies. During the 1950’s and 60’s, Miller played Iranian instruments with top jazz artists in Europe like Don Ellis and Eddie Harris, and often played at the famous Blue Note in Paris, where he sat in for Bud Powell to play with Kenny Clark. Miller learned Persian art music formally under the Iranian master Dariush Safvat, who was also living in Paris at the time (Breyley 311). Miller lived in Iran for six years, absorbing the music of the country and blending it with his own jazz practice. During the 1970s, Miller even hosted his own prime-time main network jazz show on NIRTV in Tehran, “Kurosh Ali Khan and Friends,” where he performed under a pseudonym Kurosh Ali Khan ( The show featured improvisational performances by mostly unknown Iranian artists. (JazzScope).

Dr. Miller’s magnum opus, aptly titled “Oriental Jazz” elegantly fuses traditional American bebop, hard bop, cool jazz, and big band forms with traditional Persian instruments like the tar, zarb, and santur, 6/8 time signatures, and microtonal scales, all cornerstones of traditional Persian music ( As Miller seamlessly melds Persian instrumentation and modes with American jazz, his music showcases the dialogue between the two. When one first sees the album art and title, there is almost an expectation that the music will be a stiff, buttoned-up imitation of Iranian music, indeed the application of the term “oriental” already implies a certain degree of cultural appropriation. Upon hearing tracks like “Gol-e Gandom,” “Amber Eyes,” and “Hue Wail,” the listener is immersed in a swirling, kaleidoscopic dreamscape of jazz-fusion. The style is not necessarily academic, but contains an ineffable sophistication and clear evidence of the work that Miller put in to learn and play these native instruments from players in Iran.

Miller describes his successful dialogue between jazz and Iranian music as less of a blending and more of a meeting, stating how, “I’d play this Iranian stuff with the Arab oud and Turkish clarinet and Vietnamese flat harp, and we’d play some jazz things with [Western] instruments. So instead of trying to play jazz on [Persian instruments], or trying to play Persian music on Western instruments…I played those instruments…not blended at all. They met, and went side by side” (Breyley 311). Miller’s concept of “side by side” music reflects the aversion to fusion or contamination shared by the supporters of the Golha radio program, discussed below.

“Oriental Jazz” was part of a body of work that kicked off the genre of “spiritual jazz.” Stylistically, spiritual jazz is marked by a mixture of jazz with approximations of ethnic music styles (often a blend of styles evocative of African, Indian, and East Asian musical traditions), religious music of non-Christian traditions, and the ecstatic, transcendental aspects of Free Jazz. Other practitioners of “Spiritual Jazz” include John Coltrane, Alice Coltrane, Pharoh Sanders, Sun Ra and His Solar-Myth Arkestra, and Dorothy Ashby. All of these artists participated in a musical movement that saw jazz artists striking out beyond jazz’s constraints, be it chord changes, predetermined tempos, or “standard” melodies, striving toward freedom and spiritual transcendence amidst the great cultural tumult of the 1960’s.

One of jazz-harpist Dorothy Ashby’s most critically-acclaimed albums takes a cue from Iranian cultural heritage, reflected in the title of the 1970 masterpiece: “The Rubaiyat of Dorothy Ashby: Original compositions inspired by the words of Omar Khayyam, arranged and conducted by Richard Evans.” ( Ashby’s downtempo harp and vocals represent a mannered, lush, and cinematic listening experience, with lyrics supplied by the notoriously inaccurate Fitzgerald translation of Omar Khayyam. The record is self-consciously philosophical, with a grandiosity and mystical sensibility present in the works of other spiritual jazz or soul jazz practitioners.

By the mid-fifties, some of Iran’s urban intellectual communities expressed their concerns about a perceived lack of appreciation and taste for singularly Persian art and music. Such communities saw the emergent popular music as infected by Western, Arabic, Turkish and other influences, which included jazz (Breyley 308). Such fears prompted Davud Pirnia to develop a music program on national radio called Golha or “Flowers,” a reserved space to play authentically Persian music with no sense of cultural interference. Such a narrow goal is nigh impossible to achieve, but nonetheless Pirina established a newfound appreciation for certain new forms of Iranian music that came out of an interdependent musical atmosphere. Golha represented an accumulation of musicians who improvised in the Motrebi or “light-urban” form of music style, lyricists and composers, and some proponents of the Westernized style who emphasized harmony and fixed-meter works (Breyley 308). In many ways, Golha became part of the “back to roots” movement that played a significant role in the revolution.

Lloyd Miller played a role in the ideological preservation of “uncontaminated” Iranian music during this time. His master, Dariush Safvat returned to Iran out of an intensified concern about the Westernization imposed by the Shah’s regime. As such, he established the Centre for the Preservation and Propagation of Iranian Music in Tehran in the late 1960’s. Miller was awarded a fulbright scholarship in 1970 to move to Iran, where he promoted the Centre and its concerts of both traditional art music and jazz. As Miller recalls “[The Centre] wanted to promote the thinking that “Iranian music was going down the tube, it’s the fault of westernization, it’s all the fault of America and its crummy culture and let’s get the Yankees outta here…I didn’t mean it that way, but all these guys were left-wing and loved me ragging on America, and how our music was destroying theirs. I wrote about how great Safvat was saving traditional music” (Nikzad 67)

Additionally, an English-language Iranian magazine article about his television show “Kurosh Ali Khan and Friends” published in the late 1970’s quotes Miller, or “Kurosh” as saying that the United States’ musical landscape was “riddled with union dictatorship, hoods, fakes and swindlers” (JazzScope). Such an ideological position is reflective of a contradiction at the center of Miller’s position in Iran as a jazz practitioner, as Miller enjoyed many of the privileges of being an American in Iran in the 1970’s. Miller was sheltered from, if not immune to the very real and ever-present threat posed by SAVAK, which many Iranian dissidents and aspiring experimental musicians would have faced. Miller enjoyed unprecedented freedom of expression in public contexts while Iranians themselves could only practice and perform their music in private.

For those Iranians who feared cultural colonialism and gharbzadegi (westoxification), jazz represented a prime example of American decadence and moral rot. Critics of the West argued that musical traffic only flowed from West to East, and along with it came the ills of Western society (Milani 831). Indeed, Iranian socio-political critic Jalal Al-e Ahmad declared the West morally and aesthetically bankrupt, as it celebrated what he called the “primitive art of Africa” (Milani 832). This trend of aligning jazz music with the primitive extended to Egypt, where writer and ideologue Sayyid Qtub argued that:

“The American is primitive in his artistic taste, both in what he enjoys as art and in his own artistic works. “Jazz” music is his music of choice. This is that music that the Negroes invented to satisfy their primitive inclinations, as well as their desire to be noisy on the one hand and to excite bestial tendencies on the other. The American’s intoxication in “jazz” music does not reach its full completion until the music is accompanied by singing that is just as coarse and obnoxious as the music itself. Meanwhile, the noise of the instruments and the voices mounts, and it rings in the ears to an unbearable degree… The agitation of the multitude increases, and the voices of approval mount, and their palms ring out in vehement, continuous applause that all but deafens the ears” (Qutb).

Such vehemently racist attacks on jazz were popular, as other thinkers in Iran conflated jazz with westoxification. Indeed, Ayatollah Khomeini and his ideological circle approved and appropriated those views, promulgating anti-modern thought as a function of ecclesiastical doctrine. As thinkers like Al-e-Ahmad provided the ideological underpinnings to the 1979 revolution, it follows that jazz would come under direct censorship and suppression under the new regime. Jazz could not be publicly performed or commercially recorded in Iran between the 1979 revolution and the mid-1990’s (Breyley 313). As such, there exists a complex relationship between the free form musical medium and the totalitarian regime. I hope to touch on the significance of such a frenetic and improvisational art form in the context of a highly regulated society.

In terms of defining an aesthetic modernity, jazz represents one of the most salient art forms in the minds of Iranian thinkers and experimental musicians. Most often, jazz represented a form of dissent, and was perceived as being purely of the West. Jazz also represented a significant pillar of the cultural Cold War, employed by the United States as an overture of the superpower’s aesthetic sophistication, with Iran as one of the proving grounds for the so-called “Sonic secret weapon.” While it did not enjoy the same mainstream success as it did elsewhere, jazz made an impression upon Iranian popular music during a unique moment of cultural osmosis. This musical dialogue also presented the West with traditional Persian music as a new form of inspiration, which sparked the development of new experimental forms in the United States. As for its role in the 1979 revolution, jazz was categorized as an object of resentment by the intellectuals behind “Westoxification,” who attacked the musical form indicative of the moral rot of the West, and of modernity.


Belair Jr., Felix. 1955. ‘United States Has Secret Sonic Weapon – Jazz’. New York Times, 6 November.
Breyley, G.J. “Jazz in Iran since the 1920s.” Jazz and Totalitarianism, by Bruce Johnson et al., Routledge, 2017, pp. 297–324.
Collier, James Lincoln. 1978. The Making of Jazz: A Comprehensive History. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.
Devlin, Paul. 2015. ‘Jazz Autobiography and the Cold War.’ Popular Music and Society 38 (2): 140-159.
“Music in America’s Cold War Diplomacy.” Music in America’s Cold War Diplomacy, by Danielle Fosler-Lussier, University of California Press, 2015.
Kajanova, Yvetta. Jazz from Socialist Realism to Postmodernism. Peter Lang, 2016.
MacLean, Rory (2008), Magic Bus: On the Hippie Trail from Istanbul to India, London, New York: Penguin Books, Ig Publishing.
Milani, Abbas. Eminent Persians: the Men and Women Who Made Modern Iran, 1941-1979. Syracuse University Press, 2008.
Nikzad, Ramtin. 2013. “Music Side By Side: An Interview with Lloyd Miller.” B’ta’arof: A Magazine for Iranian Culture, Arts & Histories 2: 64-67.
Qutb, Sayyid. “The America I Have Seen: In the Scale of Human Values.”, Central Intelligence Agency, 1951,
Von Eschen Penny M., Satchmo Blows up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War, Harvard University Press, 2006.

In a Sentimental Mode: The Literary and Philosophical Strains of Dissent in Alexander Radishchev’s Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow

“Be my witness, kind traveler, be my witness before the world, with what a heavy heart I obey the sovereign will of custom” -Alexander Radishchev

The act of travelling nearly always lends perspective. Be it a vacation, a work trip, aimless wanderlust or nomadic activity, traveling provides the sojourner with unexpected novelties that serve as useful points of comparison. In the case of Alexander Radishchev, the fictional written account of an anonymous traveler became a medium for political and literary expression. His most famous work, the travelogue Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow, served as a form of critical examination, not just of the locations between two cities, but of the Imperial Russian political and social landscape during the twilight decades of the 18th century. Radishchev’s Journey represented a combination of popular literary forms of the time, primarily sentimentalism and advice literature. From a philosophical standpoint, his Journey was unique, synthesizing ideals of duty and liberty from both the French and German enlightenments, while refuting many of the ambient ideas regarding natural law and subsequent natural rights. As for its effectiveness as a form of political critique, Radishchev’s sentimental travelogue falls short. While emotionally compelling, the work fails to promulgate a cohesive and singular vision of a viable alternative that would have been applicable in the Russian empire at the time. Despite its flaws, the enlightenment-driven moral mission and humanitarian appeal put forth in Radishchev’s work served as a mirror for a rapidly-transforming empire to better understand itself in the midst of the moral crisis of serfdom. Like most journeys, Radishchev’s came at a high price.

Radishchev operated primarily within the mode of sentimentalism, a literary form popular in Europe at the time. By the middle of the eighteenth-century sentimentalism displaced classicism, the previously predominant literary mode. Classicism viewed the individual as a “Molecule within a particular hierarchically constructed social system (a hero in a tragedy, a gentle shepherd in an idyll, a military commander or ruler in an ode)” (Altshuller 94). Descriptive rather than normative, Sentimentalism asserted a new depiction of the individual, offering detailed depictions of the inner worlds of characters, who were often ordinary people concerned with romantic and intellectual experiences.  A pioneer of this emergent literary form was Laurence Sterne, who published two interconnected novels – The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1760-7) and A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy (1768) – in which he developed meticulous portraits of the inner lives of his characters. Sterne’s elaborate investigations saw pages upon pages dedicated to the description of the slightest spiritual experience, feeling, or observation. Sterne’s Sentimental Journey is the namesake of the genre and seems to have influenced Radishchev a great deal, as Radishchev’s Journey also takes the form of a sentimental travelogue. Other early sentimentalist works include Samuel Richardson’s works Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740) and Clarissa, or The History of a Young Lady (1747-8), Rousseau’s Nouvelle Héloïse (1761) and Goethe’s Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (1774) (Altshuller 94).

The philosophical stylings of sentimentalism elevated the importance of the individual, who was depicted as an independent personality “of value in and of itself…not acting under the influence of duty or its surroundings…defining its own fate and behavior” (Altshuller 94). Indeed, Sterne’s characters generally disregard social rules and are beholden to their whims and moods. The prototypical sentimental hero is often a lonely one, whose constant attention to the inner life leaves such a character feeble and vulnerable in the face of an alienating external world. Such gloomy depictions of a given external reality draw a sharp contrast to the oft-idyllic and peaceful internal reality of the individual. Such literary developments began to make their impression upon Russian literary circles toward the end of the eighteenth century, just as Western philosophical trends found their way into the minds of educated elites, and eventually the two coalesced in Radishchev’s Journey. Sterne and Richardson were widely translated into Russian in 1790, and other sentimentalist writers were widely read as early as the 1780’s (Altshuller 95-96).

While Radishchev’s Journey falls squarely within the bounds of literary sentimentalism, it is also undoubtedly political. To understand how well-suited sentimental travelogues were for political critique, one must first consider the body of political discourse, advice literature, which preempted and influenced Radishchev’s literary-philosophical project. During Catherine’s reign, the advice literature exploded, with over three times more books published than during the previous century combined (Whittaker 143). This practice of advising monarchs through the medium of odes, plays, sermons, histories, and open letters represented a popular trend in Europe in the eighteenth century. This critical and didactic emphasis found expression in Radishchev’s sentimental travelogue. The enlightenment sensibility present in advice literature established the need for a literarily-ordained moral guideline in the minds of readers. Catherine was privy to this type of political consciousness, as she read widely, and many writers issued their counsel to her through the form of advice literature. Catherine understood that politically-motivated authors of advice literature sought to “point out the defects of the present form of government and its vices” (Whittaker 143). Advice literature represented a viable channel of communication between ruler and ruled, and Catherine understood its necessity in molding a society mindful of new moral laws, and the principles of good governance. However, Catherine’s nominal acceptance of political critique was short lived.

By the 1770’s and 1780’s, Catherine’s attempted portrait of enlightened rule had begun to disintegrate. The Pugachev rebellion, war with Poland and Turkey, and the failure to deliver a code of law all caused writers to begin to doubt the empress’ commitment to the ideals of her early reign. As such, advice writers practiced some degree of self-censorship by writing about ideal kingdoms, as opposed to writing about Russia directly, or wrote privately (Whittaker 146). Radishchev, who published the Journey during the tail end of the era of acceptable advice literature, seems to have undertaken many of the same political dictates that other writers promulgated in their “mirrors” for monarchs. Both popular enlightenment philosophy and advice literature were concerned with political and moral issues, and Radishchev, in his portrayal of powerful individuals in different episodes, sought to facilitate a genuine dialogue between the ruler and the ruled, one that might have resulted in the abolition of serfdom. It was not to be. The ripples of the French Revolution made their way east. The potential for widespread peasant revolt disturbed Catherine, who began to denounce her critics and tighten her grip on the exchange of ideas. It was the unfortunate timing of the Journey’s publication that resulted in Radishchev’s sentencing and subsequent banishment to Siberia.

Radishchev’s timing placed him in the nexus of enlightenment philosophy, advice literature, and sentimentalism. His work represented an amalgamation of these multiple intellectual streams. Were he to have published too long before or after 1790, his Journey would have taken a completely different form. Born in Moscow in 1749, Radishchev would have read European literature and philosophy while he studied initially at the St. Petersburg School for Pages, then at the University of Leipzig in 1766-71, where Catherine sent him along with twelve other students to obtain a legal education (Altshuller 104). Radishchev read voraciously during his time in Leipzig, where he developed a fluency in Aristotle, Plutarch, Plato, Lucretius, Montesquieu, Locke, Milton, Shakespeare, Voltaire, Diderot, Mably, and Rousseau, many of whom he credited for the “sweetness of elevated thoughts” (Clardy 38). He returned to Russia to work in the state Senate, then as a military procurator, and finally at the custom house of St. Petersburg, where he was a director (Altshuller 104). In his successful career working for the state, Radishchev likely formed strong opinions about Russian society and government, no doubt influenced by his education at Leipzig. Such ideas, combined with those present in advice literature, found expression in his literary work.

Radishchev’s relatively disjointed and amateur literary career developed in parallel, and began with stylized letters and diaries. His earliest literary works, which date from the 1770’s include, “Diary of a week” (“Dnevnik odnoy nedeli”), comprised of a sentimental recounting of his separation from his friends, and drew heavy stylistic influence from Sterne. Radishchev’s early writing style represented what he knew, his language a “strange amalgam of the sentimental, archaic Church Slavic with civic-journalistic vocabulary” (Altshuller 104). This cobbled-together stylistic form became the cornerstone of Radishchev’s writing, as his Journey is replete with archaisms, or old-fashioned linguistic mechanisms.

Radishchev’s brand of sentimentalism contained obvious currents of advice literature and his unmistakable political consciousness assumed form in his early work. Most Russian sentimentalist writers, like Karamzin, weren’t politically critical. Radishchev on the other hand, employed the advice literature mode as early as 1782, when he completed his work Letter to a Friend Living in Tobolsk. In his essay, Radishchev considered the significant role that Peter the Great played in the development of the Russian nation. He pointed out that this dynamic leader was rightly called great, for his personality and achievements “gave a purpose to so vast an empire” (Clardy 141). Radishchev went on to say that Peter could have been even more outstanding if he had “established individual liberty and… yet there is no example, and perhaps until the end of the world there will be none, of a monarch voluntarily yielding up any part of his power” (Clardy 141). This critique of the monarchy is quite soft, but represents the nascent dissent that would later emerge in Radishchev’s work, and would come to define his place within the Russian literary canon.

As his writing career progressed, Radishchev’s technical ability remained relatively limited. During the 1780’s Radishchev composed his principal work, which Mark Altshuller argues was a difficult process, as “[Radishchev] was not only devoid of any great artistic gift, but also had a feeble grasp of the rules of composition” (Altshuller 105). This difficulty is reflected in the work’s structure. The book is fragmentary, divided into episodic vignettes, verses, sketches, meditations, and dream sequences. The titles of each section reflect the names of towns and posting stations between St. Petersburg and Moscow: Sofia, Lyubani, Novgorod, Zaytsovo, Gorodnya, Peshki, and others (Radishchev xi). These places indicate the progress of the traveler, yet they have no bearing on the content of each episode.

During this time, a specific tragic episode in Radishchev’s life may have enlarged his capacity for sentimentality, his outlook, and his writing style. In 1783 his wife Anna died after giving birth to their third son, Paul. The death of his wife immediately plunged Radishchev into “grief and desolation” (Clardy 43).  He felt himself helpless in what he considered to be a wicked society, an outlook which is reflected in his portrayal of his surroundings and society. Out of this despondency came his 1789 work, Life of Fedor Vasilevich Ushakov. The work represents a devout outpouring of the heart in which the life of Ushakov is refracted through Radishchev’s own moods and mental state. This work, along with the Journey, are clear examples of the emotional sensitivity that Radishchev has become known for. In a tone that resembles Rousseau’s Confessions, Radishchev said at the beginning of the Life, “I seek in this my own consolation and would like to unfold before you, dear friend, the inmost recesses of my heart.” (Clardy 43). Here, Radishchev employs a sentimental-confessional mode, which fuses sentimentality into the essence of the work. Radishchev’s literary style is decidedly rooted in the detailed expression of real emotional states from the start. Such emotions certainly impacted the overall moral mission of his projects, and provided relatable avenues for his readers to better understand and sympathize with the problems at hand. This emphasis on real emotions indicates that his work is not a mere imitation of Sterne’s Sentimental Journey, as some literary critics argue.

In terms of social protest and political satire, Radishchev went far beyond anything attempted by Sterne. Radishchev’s Journey is at all points concerned with diagnosing societal ills in Russia. His tone is far more cynical and angst-ridden, perhaps influenced by the desolation in his soul following the death of his wife. Where the English writer makes his points by “subtle touches, persiflage, intimate conversation with the reader… Radishchev harangues his audience with passionate conviction, virtually bludgeoning him into acquiescence” (Lang 132). This is not to say that Radishchev’s approach to social justice was entirely effective. The subjectivity and emotional affect present in Radishchev’s work seem to qualify the rationality of any appeals he makes. His Journey is rife with emotional outbursts, like in the chapter “Zaytsovo,” where the traveler narrates an argument with a local governor in which, “[the governor’s] conceit I met with equanimity and calm; his show of power, with steadfastness; his arguments with my own…but finally my agitated heart poured out all that was pent up in it. The more subservience I saw in those who were standing around, the more impulsive my speech became” (Radishchev 102). Here, and in nearly every other chapter of the Journey, Radishchev is moved to tears or engages in some impulsive outburst. While these are natural effects of human passion, and Radishchev’s emphatic defense of justice is admirable, the emotional quality of his critiques would not have endeared him to the people capable of making any real, substantive changes in policy. As such, sentimental travelogue was not particularly well suited for effective political critique, but it was popular, and was widely read. Well aware of the popularity of the genre, and of the tradition of advice literature, Radishchev most likely recognized the disruptive potential of his work, and was well aware of the precarious publishing environment, reflected in his anonymous publication of the work.

When Catherine II ascended to the throne she issued numerous liberalizing laws, ukases, one of which allowed for individual citizens to establish printing presses for the publication of nearly any topic with only “nominal censorship” (Altshuller 109). As such, in 1789 Radishchev established such a printing press, printing and publishing 650 copies of his Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow in 1790. When the St. Petersburg Chief of Police and official censor, Major-General Nikita Ryleev, received for inspection the manuscript of an anonymous work A Journey from St Petersburg to Moscow, the text seemed harmless enough. At first glance the book appeared to consist of travel sketches collected on the road between the two cities. This dismissal of the seemingly innocuous medium of travelogue makes sense, especially when the critiques of the state and monarch are broad-based and cloaked in allegory. Although Radishchev attempted to tackle the sufferings of mankind, the bogus pedigrees of nobility, the alarming vision of abuse of labor under serfdom, his work ultimately did not contain any especially subversive ideas, save for its discussions of peasant rebellion and its defense of the execution of Charles I by Oliver Cromwell, both of which lack political tact. The print run of the Journey sold well, and was most likely read in the drawing rooms and salons of St. Petersburg or Moscow. His bookseller Zotov, wanted him to publish more (Altshuller 109). The major topics that Radishchev explored in the Journey, namely state power, serfdom, governmental reform, and literary problems, must have all weighed heavily on the minds of the intelligentsia at the time.

Why sentimental travelogue? Radishchev likely understood the inflammatory nature of his work as he did not include his name in the publication, and staggered the releases of his work. This awareness of the precarious publishing environment indicates that Radishchev exercised some degree of self-censorship in the undertaking of his project. It seems unlikely that he published his Journey due to the trendiness of the genre, or for expressly commercial purposes. His moral mission was too strong, and he already enjoyed a relatively successful career working for the custom house.  It follows that he used the genre of sentimental travelogue to soften or mask his critique of the state. Moreover, Sentimentalism was particularly well-suited to express the depth of his moral and emotional conviction. Whether intentional or not, Radishchev struck at the foundations of autocratic rule and its self-perceived eternal verities. The Journey uses the medium of sentimental travelogue to oppose “the evils of despotism, slavery and serfdom, outmoded laws, religious persecution, disgraceful prison conditions, and the severity of military service…it is therefore quite understandable why Catherine was so incensed at its flood of eloquence” (Clardy 46). Radishchev’s Journey emphasizes subjective discussions of personal experience and sentiments, of manners and morals, and repetitively employs these modes to make an evocative, yet shielded criticism of the existing structures of power in Russia.

            The Journey also represents an encapsulation of various philosophical trends of the day. Over the course of the eighteenth century, the Russian nobility adopted the philosophical and literary modes of Western Europe. Yet only a minority of literary works embodied the major intellectual values of the enlightenment, and still fewer advocated for an assimilation of those values into public life, namely the abolition of serfdom and solidification of individual rights. In terms of its representations of natural law and the application of enlightenment philosophy, Radishchev’s work is unique, and represents a divergence from contemporary thinkers, namely Rousseau. Radishchev’s concept of natural law had a philosophical-theological foundation as it proceeded immediately from the author’s belief in man’s reasoning ability, but ultimately depended upon the will of God. His concept of natural law sets forth, in short, “an eternal law which is the exemplar of God’s law, and it is by this divine standard that all human law is to be judged and accepted or rejected” (Clardy 68). Radishchev interpreted natural law as being that law which conforms to the natural order of the universe, which is grounded innately within the nature of man, and which is independent of man’s creation.

Radishchev’s characterization of the divine throughout the Journey establishes his belief that God is the eternal creator and preserver of the universe, the first truth and origin of natural law. In the chapter “Torzhok,” Radishchev states how “God will ever be God, perceived even by those who do not believe in Him” (Radishchev 167). He goes on to criticize those who attempt to apply crude anthropomorphic qualities to God, in this case governments who act on behalf of the divine, stating that “The real offender against God is he who imagines that he can sit in judgement on an offense against Him. Is it he who will be answerable before Him ” (Radishchev 168). As such, Radishchev indicates that individuals are endowed by God with their natural rights. Considering this argument for the existence of and primacy of God, Radishchev’s concept of natural law and right is not in harmony with the natural rights defined by thinkers like Mably and Rousseau, who ascribe a great deal of natural freedoms to the individual. The opening lines of Rousseau’s The Social Contract read, “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains” (Rousseau 156). In the chapter “Zaytsovo,” Radishchev makes his own proclamation about how man is born into the world, stating how, “Every man is born into the world equal to all others. All have the same bodily parts, all have reason and will. Consequently, apart from society, man is a being that depends on no one in his actions” (Radishchev 102). While the two descriptions of birth seem similar at first, Radishchev only indicates that all men are equal, not that all men are free. Radishchev’s assessment supports his critique of serfdom, but indicates that man is always beholden to some authority, be it God or an enlightened benevolent monarch.

A far cry from Rousseau’s conception of natural freedom, Radishchev’s idea of natural law is much closer to that of Russian theologian Theophan Prokopovich, who argued that natural law is ordained by God alone. In his sermons, Prokopovich argued that “The highest authority comes from nature, thus from God since He created nature. The first authority comes from the human agreement; since the natural law written by God in the human heart requires a strong defender, and conscience prompts us to seek him, we must see God as the cause of authority. Therefore, people should submit to the authority; disobedience is a violation of the natural law. Not wanting authority is wanting the destruction of humankind. Disobedience to authority is disobedience to God” (Прокопович 1.245). Representative of early enlightenment thought in Russia and Germany, Prokopovich’s interpretation of natural rights is decidedly more restrictive than Rousseau’s as it deifies authority and condemns any individual who would act in defiance of God’s will, which would in this case manifest as the Tsar’s will.

The predominant thinkers of the French enlightenment asserted that what is proper is determined exclusively by society, a concept best encapsulated by Rousseau’s 1762 treatise, The Social Contract. In the text, Rousseau aimed to set out an alternative to the stratified class state guided by the common interest of the rich and propertied who impose unfreedom and subordination on the poor and weak. In such an alternative society, Rousseau claims:

“So that the social pact not be a pointless device, it tacitly includes this engagement, which can alone give force to the others—that whoever re-fuses to obey the general will shall be constrained to do so by the whole body; which means nothing else than that he shall be forced to be free; for such is the condition which, uniting every citizen to the fatherland, protects him from all personal dependency, a condition that ensures the control and working of the political machine, and alone renders legitimate civil engagements, which, without it, would be absurd, tyrannical, and subject to the most enormous abuses.” (Rousseau 166).


As such, each person will enjoy the protection of the common force while remaining as free as they were in the state of nature. This concept of the general will, the collective will of the citizen body taken as a whole, represents the source of legitimacy in society and is willed by all citizens. Jesse Clardy writes that, “One never finds in the French philosopher’s work the idea that there is a law of God which justifies disobedience to the general will of the people” (Clardy 69). Perhaps because of an absence of the divine, Radishchev felt that such a philosophy would lead ultimately to a tyranny similar to that which existed in the state of nature.

Radishchev had a more pessimistic view of man in the state of nature than Rousseau. He presented his unease with the concept of man’s inherent reason as the sole moral guide in the chapter “Kresttsy,” where he described a father’s education of his child, in which, “Leaving [the child’s] reason free to guide [his] steps in the paths of learning, [the father] was even more anxiously concerned for [the child’s] morals” (Radishchev 115). Later in the work Radishchev argues against Rousseau’s vision of man in the state of nature asking, “What are man’s rights in the state of nature? Look at him. He is naked, hungry, and thirsty. He appropriates everything he can seize for the satisfaction of his needs. If anything tries to stand in his way, he removes the obstacle, destroys it, and takes what he wants. If, on the way to satisfy his needs, he meets his like, if for example, two hungry men try to satisfy their appetite with the same food, which one of them has the greater right to it? The one who takes it. Who takes the food? The stronger one” (Radishchev 146). Rousseau’s concept of natural rights was clearly present in Radishchev’s thinking, but relating to sensibility only, as Radishchev’s characterization of man in the state of nature denotes a definitive break with the French philosopher. Radishchev’s philosophical and stylistic borrowings from the west were therefore selective; he considered many of the same philosophical questions, but came to different conclusions.

This is not to say that Radishchev’s consideration of natural law represents a wholesale rejection of French enlightenment thought. He adopted points from thinkers like Montesquieu and Voltaire, who also protested against intolerance, injustice, and irrational despotism. Radishchev’s protests against irrational despotism are clearly present in chapters like “Tver,” where he describes despotism through an allegorical iambic verse, called “Liberty: An Ode.” In the verse, Radishchev characterizes a despot as, “A horrible monster, hydra-like, with a hundred heads…it tramples upon the earthly powers, and stretches its head up toward Heaven, which it claims as its native home. It sows false phantoms and darkness everywhere, it knows how to deceive and flatter, and commands all to behave blindly…[Tyrannous] power calls this monster Revelation; reason calls it Deceit…religious and political superstition, each supporting the other” (Radishchev 196). Here, Radishchev’s mythic allegory indicates a once-removed critique of despotic rule, its deception of the people based in self-affirming religious and political superstition. Radishchev’s allegorical critique is similar to Montesquieu’s view of tyranny in his 1748 work The Spirit of the Laws, in which he argues that, “When the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person, or in the same body of magistrates, there can be no liberty; because apprehensions may arise, lest the same monarch or senate should enact tyrannical laws, to execute them in a tyrannical manner” (Montesquieu 163). Here, a similar concept of self-affirming tyranny is present. Montesquieu’s critique is emblematic of the enlightenment efforts to establish social and political relationships on as rational a basis as possible. Radishchev and Montesquieu share this condemnation of despotism and the advocate for the emancipatory development of the individual’s relationship to the world, and to fellow individuals.

These writers and thinkers employed reason as a new basis for social organization, and created a directive for change that derided superstition, tradition, irrationality, and arbitrariness. Yet despite the popularity of advice literature, few Russian writers and thinkers directly challenged the sovereign. Indeed, the Russian elite lacked the motivation or the gumption to transform the diffuse values of the enlightenment into a cohesive program that might be implemented, nor did they see the monarchy as particularly problematic. Radishchev’s particular brand of sentimentalism was therefore a response to the strict empiricism of the enlightenment, perhaps even verging on romanticism. Laying aside the radical French philosophers’ argument that all ideas are derived empirically, Radishchev retained the principle that certain ideas are innate. In the chapter “Kresttsy,” Radishchev describes a man giving his son a lecture about morality before his departure to join the military. The father says to the son: “Work with your mind…and the quest for truth or facts, and reason will rule your will and passions. But do not imagine…that one can crush the roots of the passions…planted by nature itself in our sensuous organism” (Radishchev 118). Here, Radishchev indicates that despite the appeal of rationalism and empiricism, the passions are always within the individual, and are somehow beyond the individual’s control. The concept of pure rationality mastery of the passions being a power reserved for God alone.

Many of Radishchev’s criticisms of serfdom are based upon the inalienable value put on the individual’s dignity and worth, what he calls “the inviolable human rights of a fellow being” (Radishchev 99). It was the individual, in his view, who was responsible for the functioning of society. In the chapter “Chudovo,” the narrator talks to a serf working on a Sunday and remarks how the serf is, “Dead to the law, except perhaps in criminal cases. A member of society [a serf] becomes known to the government protecting him, only when he breaks the social bonds, when he becomes a criminal! This thought made my blood boil. Tremble, cruelhearted landlord! On the brow of each of your peasants I see your condemnation written” (Radishchev 48). Here, Radishchev does not seem as concerned with the nature of the toil than with the lack of civil representation that the serf has, indicating Radishchev’s insistence upon the rights of the individual. Clardy writes that of all the Russian writers in the eighteenth century there are “none more outstanding in his demand for the abolition of serfdom than Radishchev. He undertook a study of Russian society and government, which led to the publication of a bitter condemnation of serfdom…Radishchev presents, therefore, political ideas which effectively challenged the scientific aspirations of his time and the ensuing disruptions of society. (Clardy 87). As a result of such philosophical steadfastness, Radishchev lost his fortune, his civil service career, jeopardized his family’s welfare, and eventually lost his life itself. His work represents a genuine attempt to write a comprehensive political philosophy with universality and necessity, not merely a study of affairs as they existed in Russia.

The Western European socio-political environment was so different than in Russia, that the political implications of such eighteenth-century “enlightenments” were largely theoretical, as the majority of the population did not and could not take part in any significant change. By the end of the eighteenth century however, such transformations began to foment, as expressed in Radishchev’s work. Radishchev and other Russian elites wanted to leverage Western ideas to create what Marc Raeff describes as, “A new social reality and a new type of man” (Raeff, Origins, 154). In any case, Radishchev, whose existential framework was determined by his education in Leipzig and personal tragedy, adapted Western ideas in his Journey in hopes of developing a nation free of the moral failings of state authority and serfdom.

In the work, Radishchev is also critical of state authority. In the chapter “Spasskaya Polest” he describes in vivid detail, a ruler who is literally blinded by opulence and by the flattery of his subordinates. His directives are not carried out by his deceptive officials, and his subjects suffer in poverty. The author offers a solution fitting the spirit of the enlightenment- the wanderer Pryamovzora, or Truth, removes the cataracts from the Tsar’s eyes, and the deceit is resolved (Radishchev 73). In the author’s view, if the monarch will seek the truth, a natural and proper order will emerge in the state. This commentary contains an encoded portrayal of Catherine II and her circle of sycophantic favorites like Count Potemkin. Such descriptions represent the most overt criticisms of the monarch, but Radishchev also describes the abuse of authority by local officials, such as in “Chudovo” where a local commander refuses to assist in a maritime rescue operation, where he could easily intercede and save the lives of innocent people (Radishchev 51). Only at the last second does the stubborn, reluctant officer decide to help. While critical, neither episode really advocates for a transformation of the system, and Radishchev seems to be more concerned with reforming or un-blinding the powers that be than establishing entirely new forms of administrative power by force, or at least not yet.

Despite his reformist tendencies, one cannot deny the utopian element present in Radischev’s work, reflective of eighteenth-century thought at large. Radishchev’s work was utopian in the sense that he believed in the possibility of creating a new social reality as part of a comprehensive rational system with God as the first truth and source of natural law. This was perhaps nurtured by the legacy of Peter the Great, who influenced many Russians eager to transform their immediate reality, thinking, and selves. Radishchev describes utopia as inevitable in “Tver,” specifically in “Liberty: An Ode,” where he concludes the allegory with a vision of the future in which, “Humanity will roar in its fetters, and, moved by the hope of freedom and the indestructible law of nature, will push on…And tyranny will be dismayed. Then the united force of all despotism, of all oppressive power will in a moment be dispersed. O chosen day of days” (Radishchev 201). This utopian element imparted a sense of naïveté and didacticism to his writing style and further detracted from the effectiveness of any latent political critique, as those capable of implementing any meaningful reform would have most likely felt threatened by Radishchev’s vision.

            Given its placement within the broader trajectory of dissent in Russia, Radishchev’s work is unique. Unlike other contemporary works that condemn the cruelty and monstrosity of the system of serfdom in eighteenth-century literature such as Fonvizin’s The Minor, Novikov’s satirical journals, or Krylov’s Spirit Post, Radishchev pays a great deal of attention to the practical consequences of unnecessarily cruel exploitation. He argues that serfdom is harmful to the state for moral, practical, economic and other reasons. In the chapter “Gorodnya,” he hints at the threat of the wrath of the peasantry and prophesizes active rebellion in which, “The slaves weighted down with fetters, raging in their despair, would, with the iron that bars their freedom, crush…the heads of their inhuman masters, and redden the fields with [their] blood” (Radishchev 209). In Radishchev’s view, the oppressed would be justified in doing so, as such an institution violates natural law, and the new leaders that would arise out of such a rebellion would “be of another mind and without the right to oppress others” (Radishchev 209). Under serfdom, the peasant, “dead to the law,” is not entitled to legal protection and has the right to rise up against laws that only protect the masters. This is not to say that Radishchev advocated for an immediate, widespread popular revolution. On the contrary, he considered the best possible resolution of political problems to be an improvement of the existing autocracy, a reduction of the abuses of power that he describes and attempts to rectify in his anecdotal policy prescriptions in the Journey.

Alexander Radishchev was a man with a moral mission, a reformer, a humanitarian. He envisioned the grand potential of the enlightenment project, and his Journey served to condemn those elements impeding its actualization. Other practitioners of Sentimentalism, advice literature, and the enlightenment philosophy of West Europe certainly impacted his work, but the mélange of literary influences coalesced into a style entirely his own. As for the effectiveness of its political critique, the Journey was limited. To a great extent, the democratic potential of Sentimentalism is due to its celebration of equality on an emotional basis. Unfortunately, the emotions of common people are not typically taken into account in matters of policy and statecraft. While his impassioned critiques of serfdom and irrational despotism are compelling, Radishchev failed to deliver a specific path forward, only a diagnosis and a vague appeal for reform. Did Radishchev realize how critical he was, and was he naïve to believe that a monarch would listen to moralistic advice literature that was so popular at the time? Yes, but he did see himself as an agent of change, and he did leave us with a comprehensive diagnosis of the moral turpitude of his day. Perhaps if he had written a Journey from Moscow to Siberia, his travelogue may have been less than sentimental.



















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A Bird in the Bush is Worth One in the Ear: Thoreau, Perception, and Avian Auditory Co-Presence

“Music is perpetual, and only hearing intermittent” – Journal, February 8, 1857.

Regrettably, Henry David Thoreau did not own a tape recorder. Were he alive today, he might be found with microphone in hand, producing amateur recordings of ambient sound. However, he did record sound, perhaps the deepest source of his veneration of the natural world, in writing. Pre-empting the fields of soundscape ecology, Thoreau engaged in novel forms of sonic perception which reveal a disciplined ear that was open to the vibrations of an ordered, harmonious cosmos. Thoreau’s attentiveness to ambient sound, especially his extensive writings on bird song, reveal his unique ability to perceive the component particulars of a given environmental soundscape. His written descriptions of sonic phenomena signal a development beyond his early transcendentalist consideration of sound as a singularly spiritual correspondence, toward a balance with a more empirical, universal method of recording. In studying his method of deep listening and subsequent written representation of sound, we can trace Thoreau’s development of multiple eco-acoustic theories, including a synergistic view of subject-object orientation, acoustic niche theory and human-animal co-presence, all of which reveal a rare ear open to the sonic possibilities produced by the birds of Concord.

Readers of Thoreau know that he was an astute observer of all natural phenomena. His writings, especially his journals contain valuable records of his findings, etched out in exquisite descriptive detail. As such, Thoreau is today considered one of the first major interpreters of nature in American literary history, a patron saint of environmentalists. However, he was aware of the limitations of his activity as a naturalist, indeed of the limitations of the human perception and language he used to record his collections. In a Journal entry from November 20, 1857 he noted that, “Here I have been these forty years learning the language of these fields that I may better express myself” (Searls 479). In recognizing the limitations of the written word, Thoreau correctly identifies sound, “the language of these fields,” as something distinct and worthy of his attention. This natural language requires learning, or a special type of listening to gain access, possible only if the observer prepares the whole self to perceive it. In Thoreau’s words, “The body, the senses, must conspire with the mind. Expression is the act of a whole man” (Cramer 92). This consideration of the whole man indicates a balance between the mind of an empiricist and the invigorated imagination of an inspired poet. Perhaps this combination of perceptual techniques allowed Thoreau to more regularly hear the perpetual music of the natural world.

The “I” and the Ear: Developing the Technique and Learning to Hear

Before investigating Thoreau’s writings on sound, it is essential to first understand the component parts of Thoreau’s philosophy, which would have impacted the way in which he perceived his natural environment. To do so, one must investigate his transcendental inheritance. One can find some of the early development of Thoreau’s sonic philosophy in the writings of Emerson, who was a towering figure in the polymath’s life in Concord. Thoreau, often described as Emerson’s empirical opposite, moved gradually beyond the core of what Emerson put forth in his seminal 1836 work, Nature, which identified nature as man’s spiritual counterpart, arguing that natural phenomena contained both spiritual and material significance (Emerson 8). Ultimately, Thoreau developed a greater ability to integrate self and nature, whereas Emerson was rooted in the human perspective. In his 1844 essay Experience, Emerson describes a synchronic connection between the perceiver and the perceived, in which, “Thus inevitably does the universe wear our color, and every object fall successively into the subject itself” (Emerson 210). While this synthesis seems to suggest a human-natural co-presence as a mode of being and as a sense of being, the idea that the object “falls successively” into the subject creates a distinct hierarchy of the perceiver over the perceived. This stab at the concept of subject/object synthesis signals Emerson’s understanding of a universal cosmic vocabulary, where humans and natural phenomenon are intertwined, but Emerson’s understanding is invariably rooted in the experience of the human, whereas Thoreau’s is considerably more open.

In Experience Emerson goes on to consider how, “The subject exists, the subject enlarges; all things sooner or later fall into place…let us treat the new comer like a travelling geologist, who passes through our estate, and shows us good slate, or limestone, or anthracite, in our brush pasture. The partial action of each strong mind in one direction, is a telescope for the objects on which it is pointed.” (Emerson 211). Emerson’s subject is a hungry one, a subject that consumes the world around it, subjugating it to the sense-world of the perceiver. For Emerson, a lecture or a bird song might reveal to the listener the inner essence of his own perception, the listener’s “good slate.” This is not to discount Emerson’s mode of perception; indeed, he recognizes the ability of external objects to serve as an unexpected teacher, which must be listened to or perceived attentively, without too much interference. However, his mode of perception nearly always favors the human consumer.

There is no doubt Emerson’s thought left an indelible impression on Thoreau’s mind, although after 1850, Thoreau’s approach to nature became markedly empirical. A growing commitment to exact observation saw more lists and solidly descriptive text emerge in the Journal (Searls 139). While Emerson’s primary consideration was how nature might subserve humanity, Thoreau realized a different epistemological aim. Thoreau’s intention was to define, with words and rough data-collection, nature’s structure both spiritually and materially, for its own sake, and in a form that was as close as he could get to nature’s own language.

What set Thoreau’s mode of perception apart from Emerson’s? Ecocritic Lawrence Buell claims that Thoreau’s turn to the empirical represented his ability to overcome not only the limits of his classical education and his early transcendental idealism, but also an intense preoccupation with himself, his moods and his overall identity (Buell 172). Buell states how, “this narcissism he surmounted by defining his individuality as the intensity of his interest in and caring for physical nature itself.” (Buell 172). In his enthusiastic studies of Thoreau’s auditory capabilities, musicologist John Titon further develops this claim, arguing that Buell overlooks the way in which Thoreau’s listening body “integrated self and nature…it was not so much a surmounting of narcissism as an understanding of the relations between self and environment by means of listening and co-presence” (Titon 146). Here, Titon underlines the unique role of the notion of co-presence and of auditory economy at play in Thoreau’s writing. Thoreau was aware of the multiple acoustic agents of any environment, all jockeying to define their sonic niche: different species of birds using different calls to identify their kin, the drones of crickets or “dreaming toads,” even human sounds of the deep cut made their way into Thoreau’s ear. How would Thoreau make sense of such a heterogeneous orchestra? To develop his ear more wholly, so as to pick apart the components of this sonic tapestry, Thoreau needed to cast off his early mentor’s influence and develop a mode of perception all his own. He did so in his shift to the empirical.

Thoreau describes this shift in the Journal, where on September 2, 1851, he considers “A writer, a man writing [as] the scribe of all nature – he is the corn & the grass & the atmosphere writing.” (Cramer 92). Here Thoreau is constructing a new model of literary perception in which he is not merely recording nature or taking its dictation, but what Sharon Cameron describes as Thoreau’s desire to “incarnate [nature’s] articulating will” (Cameron 47). This empirical shift indicates a new openness to whatever aspects of the sonic environment present themselves to the perceiver. Thoreau’s new mode of sonic perception was one that rejected common listening habits, described in a Journal entry from March 30, 1853 where, “the walker does not too seriously observe particulars, but sees, hears, scents, tastes, and feels only himself” (Searls 193). Thoreau’s receptivity to bird song, his ability to listen and truly hear, was not just brilliance; it represented a technique that required practice, a form of sonic meditation, and a hyper-awareness of sonic environment. This was likely an outgrowth of his lifelong note taking, a highly industrious practice, a competence of the whole self, and a complete knowledge of particulars. His writings following 1850 feature even more detailed records, lists, sketches, and written meditations, all distillations of his sauntering in which he would often lose himself in these particulars.

Lost indeed, Thoreau seems to have encountered limitations to a purely objective approach. In a Journal entry from August 19, 1851, Thoreau indicates his frustration with this new approach, writing that, “I fear that the character of my knowledge is from year to year becoming more distinct and scientific; that, in exchange for views as wide as heaven’s cope, I am being narrowed down to the field of the microscope. I see details, not wholes nor the shadow of the whole. I count some parts, and say, ‘I know.’ The cricket’s chirp now fills the air in dry fields near pine woods” (Cramer 89). This is not to say that Thoreau completely abandoned his poetic transcendental roots in his shift to the empirical, quite the opposite. This awareness of the limitations of pure objectivity was likely useful for Thoreau, who seemed to develop a hybrid approach that incorporated both poetic and empirical gestures.

In fact, the gestures in question denote an observer who defies binary categories of individual acoustic representation, and the text itself is generally hybrid, oscillating between didactic “manifesto” aims and empirical scrutiny. Thoreau’s complex, detailed, and even contradicting moments are akin to the auditory opacity of a wandering mind, unable to focus completely on a bird sound or some other natural element. By willingly becoming lost in a sonic environment, Thoreau thereby unlocks a new method of sonic perception, effectively rendering his mind empty and open, ready to be swept away by sonic particulars and their subsequent poetic or spiritual evocations.

This concept of losing oneself in an environment can be found in more modern acoustic study, especially in the work of John Cage, an American experimental composer and sonic artist. Cage wrote how “[You] should be ready for a new experience, and the best way to be ready for a new experience is to be attentive and empty. By empty is meant open — in other words, the like and dislike of the ego doors should be down. And there should be a flow so that the experience of listening can come in” (Kostelanetz 235). Here the similarity between Thoreau and Cage’s sonic philosophy is striking. Both were interested in allowing the untrammeled language of nature to unfold, without infusing too much of the human will into the listening process.

Thoreau’s language was a listening language, not meant to define with authority, but to describe, letting the world take him along for the ride. In his essay Poethics, Gerald Bruhns develops a crucial distinction between using words to grasp the world and using them to inhabit it, and considers John Cage’s interpretations of Thoreau to do so. Cage says how “Reading the Journal, I had been struck by the twentieth-century way Thoreau listened. He listened, it seemed to me, just as composers using technology nowadays listen. He paid attention to each sound, whether it was ‘musical’ or not, just as they do; and he explored the neighborhood of Concord with the same appetite with which they explore the possibilities provided by electronics.” (Cage ix). Cage correctly identifies Thoreau’s ability to disintegrate a sonic environment into its particulars. For Thoreau, the difficulty came not in the perceiving; he was well trained in this. It was transposing natural sonic artifact in a manner that would not anthropomorphize the sound to a significant degree. If Thoreau was always in the business of learning the language of nature, he was also responsible for translating it for an audience that did not have such eco-linguistic access.

The Human-Animal Language: Linguistic Co-Presence through Bird Song

In his 1991 work, The animal that therefore I am, Jacques Derrida suggests that ‘The idea according to which man is the only speaking being… seems to me at once displaceable and highly problematic. Of course, if one defines language in such a way that it is reserved for what we call man, what is there to say?” (Derrida 116). Here Derrida hints at a human-animal linguistic co-presence, in which language should be, and is liberated from its strictly human connotation. He then attempts to rectify the faulty mechanisms of human language by placing possibility at the core of language, stating how “If one reinscribes language in a network of possibilities that do not merely encompass it but mark it irreducibly from the inside, everything changes. I am thinking in particular of the mark in general, of the trace; of iterability, of différence. These possibilities or necessities, without which there would be no language, are themselves not only human.” (Derrida 117). The possibilities described by Derrida contain linkages to Cage’s modes of attentive listening, wherein the observer is “Ready to hear what there is to hear, rather than what [s/he] thinks there’s going to be to hear” (Kostelanetz 237). By placing openness and attentiveness at the core of one’s listening, the observer then attains a state of what Charles Junkerman describes as a condition of “auditory disponibilité.” (Junkerman and Perloff 52). Unlike word-bound speech and writing, sounds have the ability to communicate directly, in what Thoreau calls a language “without metaphor” (Walden 411). Thoreau attempted to infuse his writing with this language without metaphor, a sort of economical prose, which only took stock of the necessary, self-evident elements of his thought and his surroundings.

Few examples illustrate Thoreau’s impartial, yet undeniably imaginative representations of nature better than his written descriptions of bird song. In a Journal entry from May 3, 1852, Thoreau recounts a sonic environment, where he hears “the first brown thrasher, -two of them. Minott says he heard one yesterday, but does he know it from a catbird? They drown all the rest. He says cherruwit, cherruwit; go ahead go ahead; give it to him, give it to him; etc., etc., etc. Plenty of birds in the woods this morning” (Searls 132-3). Here Thoreau is truly nature writing itself, indicating the presence of multiple sonic actors, considering what today we call acoustic niches, and the transcribing of the sonic characteristics of bird song itself. In doing so, Thoreau taps into multiple senses of observation, and defines multiple forms of sensorial experience, establishing a dichotomy between the song described and the cognitive effects it provokes. Thoreau uses human language to describe the rhythm and cadence of the bird song. The text connects to the reader, who is invited mentally to perform the songs described on the stage of the mind, and experience them, once-abstracted, on a cognitive-sensorial level. This transmutation appeals to the reader’s creative intelligence, promoting the virtual reproduction of the act of listening. Thoreau thus allows us to travel to the woods without moving, to give us a clue of what to listen for on our next jaunt into the forest.

The primary presentation of bird song in Thoreau’s text is as an interjection, a piece of supporting evidence. However, there are moments where Thoreau dissects the sound, anthropomorphizing it through its transformation into written language, integrating it into a human-animal hybrid language. In a passage from Walden, Thoreau describes, “For sounds in winter nights, and often in winter days, I heard the forlorn but melodious note of a hooting owl indefinitely far; such a sound as the frozen earth would yield if struck with a suitable plectrum, the very lingua vernacula of Walden Wood, and quite familiar to me at last, though I never saw the bird while it was making it. I seldom opened my door in a winter evening without hearing it; Hoo hoo hoo, hoorer, hoo, sounded sonorously, and the first three syllables accented somewhat like how der do; or sometimes hoo, hoo only” (Walden 263). In describing bird song as an essential aspect of the lingua vernacula of Walden Wood, Thoreau unveils the existence of hybrid and co-dependent sonic realities, in which bird song is normally withdrawn into the mélange of background noise or overshadowed by human noises.

Thoreau found music in the natural world, it was his muse and his endless source of free entertainment. In a Journal entry from June 22, 1851, Thoreau recounts that, “I awoke into a music which no one about me heard…To the sane man the world is a musical instrument” (Shepard 44). American modernist composer and musical theorist Charles Ives writes how Thoreau’s susceptibility to natural sound “was probably greater than that of many practical musicians…Thoreau was a great musician, not because he played the flute but because he did not have to go to Boston to hear ‘the symphony’” (Ives 77). Ives’ assessment of Thoreau rings true, especially when reading passages of the Journal where Thoreau was deeply moved by common bird songs. Perhaps his favorite winged performer was the common wood thrush, of which he writes fondly. On June 22nd, 1853, Thoreau wrote how, “As I come over the hill I hear the wood thrush singing his evening lay. This is the only bird whose note affects me like music – affects the flow and tenor of my thought – my fancy and imagination. It lifts and exhilarates me. It is inspiring. It is a medicative draught to my soul. It is an elixir to my eyes and a fountain of youth to all my senses.” (Cramer 192-93). This description, while admittedly poetic, indicates a powerfully evocative communion with nature. For Thoreau, this song is not only a natural artifact, for it also retains much of the spiritual significance that both he and Emerson articulated in their transcendentalist visions. He goes on to write how, “[the wood thrush] changes all hours to an eternal morning. It banishes all trivialness. It reinstates me in my dominion – makes me the lord of creation – is chief musician of my court…All that was ripest and fairest in the wilderness and the wild man is preserved and transmitted to us in the strain of the wood thrush. It is the mediator between barbarism and civilization. It is as unrepentant as Greece.” (Cramer 193). The music he describes provides the reader with an opportunity to join him on a dynamic and synesthetic exploration.

Unlike Wordsworth, Keats, and Coleridge, Thoreau does not solely use birds as a romantic-symbolic mode. He does not profess an American “Nightingale”, and keeps his writing more rooted in the real, remaining generally focused on relaying the sonic environment. However, he does describe bird song in a poetic form. In a Journal entry from May 17, 1853, Thoreau draws a comparison between his beloved wood thrush and history’s most famous poets, stating how, “The wood thrush has sung for me sometime. He touches a depth in me which no other bird song does. He has learned to sing and no thrumming of the strings or tuning disturbs you. Other birds may whistle pretty well but he is the master of a finer toned instrument. His song is musical not from association merely – not from variety but the character of its tone. It is all divine – Shakespeare among birds and a Homer too.” (Walden Woods Project). Furthermore, in a Journal entry from April 2, 1852, Thoreau describes numerous acoustic actors in a single sonic environment. He writes, “The sun is up. The air is full of the notes of birds, – song sparrows, red-wings, robins (singing a strain), bluebirds,- and I hear also a lark, -as if all the earth had burst forth into song. A few weeks ago, before the birds had come, there came to my mind in the night the twittering sound of birds in the early dawn of a spring morning, a semi-prophecy of it, and last night I attended mentally as if I heard the spray-like dreaming sound of the midsummer frog and realized how glorious and full of revelations it was” (Searls 120-21). Here Thoreau evokes the prophetic voice of birds, but only as a semi-prophecy. He recognizes the limitations of the romantic-symbolic mode as if to say that the poetry of Keats on the nightingale, Browning on the thrush, and Shelley on the skylark are all splendid, and all evoke charismatic metaphor, but are the birds really singing for us? Nevertheless, Thoreau was clearly moved by bird song, and his descriptions of it indicate his oscillation between the empirical and romantic.

Thoreau was also preoccupied with the effects that bird song produced on the human ear, and the broader effects that sound had on its surroundings. On February 20, 1857 he pondered, “What is the relation between a bird and the ear that appreciates its melody, to whom, perchance, it is more charming and significant than anyone else? Certainly, they are intimately related, and the one was made for the other. It is a natural fact. If I were to discover that a certain kind of stone by the pond-shore was affected, say partially disintegrated, by a particular natural sound, as of a bird…I see that one could not be completely described without describing the other. I am that rock by the pond-side” (Searls 438). This relationship between the bird and the ear, in which one cannot be fully described without the other, in which they are complimentary, indicates a profound awareness of human-bird co-presence. The listener needs the subject as the singer needs the audience. Instead of a classic subject/object-oriented view, Thoreau takes the co-present, or synergistic view. When he writes “I am that rock by the pond-side” he indicates that the subject and object complete each other, that they are harmonious, part of a larger being, that of the cosmos. Listening is therefore not an activity purely of the individual mind, which represents one’s immediate reality, but an immersion in an acoustic environment that mobilizes all of the instruments of the mind and perception, thereby challenging a long dominant dualism of subject/object orientation. The act of listening is rooted in co-presence, a fact which Thoreau explored, whether he realized it or not.

Thoreau was nature writing itself; he was tuned in. The song of nature was his symphony, the wood thrush, his first chair. Sometimes it is hard to think of the Journal as anything other than a sweeping romantic life project. Why bother taking down all this information? Modern readers are lucky that someone so attuned to the cosmos happened to take notes. Among the final lines of Thoreau’s Journal include his admission that, “All this is perfectly distinct to the observant eye, and yet could easily pass unnoticed by most” (Cramer 438). Over the course of his life he used that observant eye, but his scrutiny was at the same time auditory. In fact, all of his senses were used to drink up the particulars of any given environment. His life’s business was paying attention to experience, finding wonder in it, and recounting it either in his Journal, his published works, or his public oratory. Thoreau developed a grand and unifying vision which recognized a reality he called “the frame-work of the universe.” (Walls 300). Thoreau’s astute sense-perception afforded him privileged access and understanding of this framework, especially in terms of his perceptions of sonic environment. Concepts like co-presence and acoustic niche theory are outgrowths of Thoreau’s insights, which have been recognized and documented by scientific and philosophical communities, many of whose practitioners are undoubtedly Thoreauvians.



Buell, Lawrence. New England Literary Culture from Revolution through Renaissance. Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Buell, Lawrence. “Sound Commons for All Tition.” The Cambridge Companion to Henry David Thoreau, pp. 171–193.

Cage, John. M: Writings: ’67-’72. Wesleyan Univ. Press, 1973.

Cameron, Sharon. Writing Nature: Henry Thoreau’s “Journal. University of Chicago Press, 1989.

Derrida, Jacques, and Marie-Louise Mallet. The Animal That Therefore I Am. Fordham University Press, 2008.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo, and Jeffrey S. Cramer. The Portable Emerson. Penguin Books, 2014.

Ives, Charles, and Howard Boatwright. Essays before a Sonata: the Majority, and Other Writings. Norton, 1999.

Kostelanetz, Richard. Conversing with Cage. Routledge, 2003.

Krause, Bernie. Great Animal Orchestra. Profile Books Ltd, 2012.

Mynott, Jeremy. Birdscapes: Birds in Our Imagination and Experience. Princeton University Press, 2012.

Perloff, Marjorie Gabrielle., and Charles Junkerman. John Cage: Composed in America. The University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Sherman, Paul. “The Wise Silence: Sound as the Agency of Correspondence in Thoreau.” The New England Quarterly, vol. 22, no. 4, 1949, p. 511.

Shultis, Christopher. Silencing the Sounded Self: John Cage and the Experimental Tradition in Twentieth-Century American Poetry and Music. 1993.

Thoreau, Henry David, and Damion Searls. The Journal, 1837-1861. New York Review Books, 2009.

Thoreau, Henry David, and Jeffrey S. Cramer. I To Myself: an Annotated Selection from the Journal of Henry D. Thoreau. Yale University Press, 2012.

Thoreau, Henry David, and Jeffrey S. Cramer. Walden. Yale University Press, 2006.

Thoreau, Henry David. The Heart of Thoreau’s Journals. Dover, 1967.

Titon, Jeff Todd. “Thoreau’s Ear.” Sound Studies, vol. 1, no. 1, 2015, pp. 144–154.

Walls, Laura Dassow. Henry David Thoreau: a Life. The University of Chicago Press, 2018.

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Perceiving Materiality: Balzac’s Social Realism and the Marxist Connection in Père Goriot

Honoré de Balzac writes in his 1835 novel Père Goriot, “Money is life. If you have cash, you can do anything” (Old Man Goriot 205). Balzac, who was intimately acquainted with the hierarchy of wealth in Restoration society, revealed the veiled contours of wealth and its inevitable implications on the lives of men and women, most notably their material realities. With his sociological eye, Balzac depicted the effects of wealth disparity with an authenticity and evocative power that few empirical analyses have been able to match. Balzac’s stylistic approach, social realism, identified and personified the love of money, which was the root of life in Paris at the time. His literary realism uncovered the importance and preponderance of economic realities over feelings and ideas. However, it was not money alone that was of central importance to Balzac; it was the appearances that could be obtained with money, the destinies that could be unlocked by real material things and the power they signified. Balzac’s literary realism had a profound effect on the founders of Communism, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who shared this material fixation, as one could not live in the tumultuous industrial age without recognizing the effects of the media of exchange. Despite some theoretical divergence, the emphasis on materialism presented in Père Goriot contains links to the broader philosophical materialism that ultimately shaped a central aspect of Marx’s theory, historical and dialectical materialism.

Balzac’s work embodies an all-encompassing preoccupation with the material, where money and its manifestations compose the structure and meaning of La Comèdie humaine. In the social and physical world Balzac creates, the beginning and end of all feelings, beliefs, and mores is gold and its subsequent material benefits. This distinct cognizance of economic and social realities in La Comèdie humaine is strikingly similar to the necessary and universal emphasis on economics and the material in the works of Marx and Engels. In the preface to the 1888 English translation of The Communist Manifesto, Engels identifies the fundamental proposition which forms the nucleus of the work, stating that, “In every historical epoch, the prevailing mode of economic production and exchange, and the social organization necessarily following from it, form the basis upon which is built up, and from which alone can be explained the political and intellectual history of that epoch, that consequently the whole history of mankind…has been a history of class struggles, contests between exploiting and exploited, ruling and oppressed classes” (The Communist Manifesto 5). This systematic approach to human history carries a Balzacian resonance, in which the prevailing mode of economic production and its material implications comprise the social substructure, the motor that puts the whole of society into motion.

It is no secret that both Marx and Engels were fans of and influenced by literary realism. Karl Marx, who praised “the present splendid brotherhood of fiction-writers” in an article for the New York Tribune on August 1, 1854, stated that realistic novelists’ “graphic and eloquent pages have issued to the world more political and social truths than have been uttered by all the professional politicians, publicists and moralists put together” (Marx in New-York Tribune 1854- “The English Middle Class”). For Marx and Engels, realism represented not only a trend in literature, but a formidable achievement in the world of aesthetics. Engels, who developed a definition of realism in an 1888 letter to Margaret Harkness in London, argued that, “Realism, to my mind, implies, besides truth of detail, the truthful reproduction of typical characters under typical circumstances” (1888 Letter).  This emphasis on truth and realistic representation of environment was not intended to merely copy reality but represented an aesthetic tool to infiltrate and reflect the essence of a phenomenon, social, historical, or otherwise. Literary realism made it possible to reveal the traits of a particular temporal context.

It follows that Marx would view language, and subsequently literature, as a reflection of particular social conditions and relationships. “Language,” wrote Marx, “is as old as consciousness, language is practical consciousness…language, like consciousness, only arises from the need, the necessity of intercourse with other men… Consciousness is therefore from the beginning a social product, and remains so as long as men exist at all” (The German Ideology 19). This view indicates Marx and Engels’ belief that social relations, class antagonisms and the conditions for the development of human individuality, have significant bearing on literary consciousness, determining its nature and development.

Balzac’s world is saturated with the contradictions between the exploitative capitalist system and the humanist ideals so lauded by Parisian society. This contradiction is reflected in the trajectory of the young social climber, Eugène Rastignac, who “Like other noble souls…first wanted to succeed on merit alone…[and] was soon side-tracked by the need to make the right connections” (Old Man Goriot 29). Rastignac’s forked path to material and social success is rife with moral dilemmas. The young man is nearly always pulled in multiple directions by filial piety, Vautrin’s temptations, the beckoning comforts of high society, his sense of idealism, his increasing understanding of Goriot himself, and ultimately, his love of Delphine, which is material in nature.

Engels too described Balzac’s brilliance as a novelist in the 1888 letter and highlighted a specific fondness for Balzac’s treatment of economic and material details. In the letter, Engels states that Balzac gives the reader, “A most wonderfully realistic history of French society…in economic details, (for instance the rearrangement of real and personal property after the Revolution) …I have learned more [from Balzac] than from all the professed historians, economists and statisticians of the period together” (1888 Letter). Engels’ appraisal of Balzac bears a striking similarity to Marx’s article in the New York Tribune, written 34 years prior. The similarity of their praise indicates the profound impact that Balzacian social realism had on the two thinkers. Balzac was so appealing to Marx and Engels precisely because of his truthfulness of depiction, his concrete historical approach to the events and characters described, and his emphasis on the importance of material reality.  Here in the 1888 letter, the mention of the material, in this case personal property, accentuates the commonality of materialism in the thinking of all three writers.

Balzac’s realism represents a vast accumulation of real and realistic, people, cities, houses, furniture, clothing and currencies, all of which are interrelated. Indeed, trousers are not merely trousers; they are signifiers of social status and carry significant metaphorical weight, not to mention golden “Louis d’or” coins. Upon receiving much needed funding from his family members, Eugène felt as if, “The world belonged to him! His tailor had already been summoned…Rastignac had understood the influence that tailors exercise over the lives of young men… Eugène found his to be a man who understood the paternal side of his trade, seeing himself as the link between a young man’s present and future… ‘I know’, he said, ‘two pairs of his trousers that made matches worth twenty thousand livres per year’” (Pere Goriot 88). Here, Balzac is unambiguous in establishing the primacy of belongings and the power they signal. Eugène’s immediate plan upon receiving an infusion of cash is to acquire new trousers, so that he might be seen in them and make a match worth twenty thousand or more livres per year.  Balzac is aware of the magnificent power of trousers, of material, of what something as quotidian as trousers can do for their wearer.

Whether intentional or not, Balzac’s descriptive satire of this avaricious social reality effectively condemned the moral rot of capitalist society. It is no question that bourgeois society produced Balzac, who despite his own class position, was capable of transcending his particular environment to view society as a whole to produce a true and vibrant picture of real life. Balzac’s development of individual character traits, best exemplified by the inhabitants of that respectable boarding house La Maison Vauquer, reflects typical aspects of the character and psychology of the class milieu to which they belong. In the very beginning of Goriot, Balzac states that “This drama is neither fiction nor romance. All is true, so true that we may each recognize elements of it as close to home, perhaps even in our hearts” (Old Man Goriot 4). While aspects of the story are almost certainly fictionalized, Balzac signals to the reader that he communicates his ideas not by didactic philosophizing, but through vivid images of the real, which represent a clear understanding of the dynamic interchange between people, classes, and socioeconomic forces, which are intended to affect the reader with their artistic expressiveness. All this well describes the standard explanation of Balzacian realism, that there is an external reality, independent of the text, that Balzac does a good job of reflecting. A more interpretive reading acknowledges that realism is not necessarily a translation of a pre-existing reality but a manifestation of that reality itself; it is, in a sense, the experience itself.

This is not to say that Balzac was any sort of proto-Marxist revolutionary. Despite the fact that Marx and Engels were deeply convinced that realist literature must reflect the deep-lying, dynamic processes of a particular epoch, which Balzac does, Balzac does not necessarily promulgate progressive ideas or defend the interests of the progressive forces in society. In fact, Balzac was deeply entrenched in the social relations of the day. He was a legitimist, a royalist, and wrote for money (Lyons 146). The serialization of his work was based on an urgent need to make money, money to pay for his expensive material tastes that he had cultivated as part of his integration into Parisian high society. Balzac, a self-described reactionary and monarchist, is less concerned with the overthrow of the existing system than are Marx or Engels. In his 1888 letter, Engels wrote how “Balzac was politically a Legitimist; his great work is a constant elegy on the inevitable decay of good society, his sympathies are all with the class doomed to extinction. But for all that his satire is never keener, his irony never bitterer, than when he sets in motion the very men and women with whom he sympathizes most deeply – the nobles. And the only men of whom he always speaks with undisguised admiration, are his bitterest political antagonists, the republican heroes of the Cloître Saint-Méry” (1888 Letter). Despite his admiration of the “republican heroes,” Balzac’s intentions are not those of the provocateur. He does not seem as focused on where things may be going; rather he is singularly fixated on illustrating how things are in Restoration society with as much detail as possible, showing it all to the reader, the good the bad, and the ugly.

Balzac’s ability to depict genuine passions and the multiple facets of the human character generates a portrait of Parisian material life that exposes the suffering and the absurdity of humans operating under capitalist relations. Balzac’s bourgeois society is hostile, and rife with collusions, alienation, and tragedy. Perhaps the ultimate tragedy is personified in the life of the eponymous character of the novel, old Goriot himself. Identified by his mercantile title, “the vermicelli dealer,” Goriot represents the socioeconomic prime directive of post-revolutionary France: accumulate capital and spend it on material items that denote social significance. As Balzac introduces the character, he describes that, “Goriot arrived fitted out with an opulent wardrobe, the magnificent trousseau of a merchant with the means to treat himself on retiring from trade. Madame Vauquer had admired eighteen cambric shirts, whose exquisite quality she found all the more remarkable for the two pins joined by a fine chain, each set with a huge diamond, that the vermicelli dealer wore on his shirt frill” (Old Man Goriot 17-18). Goriot’s opulent possessions, namely clothing and gilded trinkets, are meant to be shown off, to indicate his social stature, emblematic of the materiality in Balzac’s world.

The tragic nature of Goriot’s life is inexorably tied to the material, and his degeneration over the course of the story is at all points based in material circumstances. This idea is best exemplified by the transformation of his most prized possession. As he unpacks his belongings at La Maison, Goriot reveals “a platter and a small dish with two kissing turtle-doves on its cover…the first present my wife ever gave me, on our anniversary…It cost her every penny of her maiden’s savings…I would rather scrape a living from the earth, with my bare nails than part with this” (Old Man Goriot 18). Later, Eugène secretly observes Goriot as he shapes “a silver-gilt platter and what looked like a tureen…into ingots…Old Goriot contemplated his handiwork sadly, tears trickled from his eyes” (Old Man Goriot 33). In a powerful display of what Engels called “rearrangement of real and personal property” in his 1888 letter, this transformation of sentimental artifact into material commodity is symbolic of deeply emotional sacrifices one makes to acquire cash, in this case intended for Goriot’s grasping daughters. Balzac intentionally tugs at the reader’s heart strings, not to sensationalize, but to indicate the reality of these kinds of sacrifices, which are also made by Eugène’s family, all to acquire new material goods to keep up appearances and ascend to the next rung of the social ladder. The objectivity and realism of Goriot’s story speak to Balzac’s focus on the material, and the broader human experience of suffering and endless striving in pursuit of capital.

The material emphasis in Père Goriot contains links to the historical materialism espoused by Marx and Engels, but the two are not entirely similar. Materialism is a difficult concept to pin down, and this paper will consider two definitions. The first is a standard definition, a preoccupation with material rather than intellectual or spiritual things. This is the definition that is most pertinent to Balzac’s aristocracy and bourgeoisie. Or is it? The second, a philosophical definition, is the doctrine that the only thing that can be said to truly exist is material substance. In this philosophical definition of materialism, one can identify the idealist/materialist split that dominated much of nineteenth-century philosophy. Broadly, idealism, which takes the process of thinking as the primary ontological reality, is opposed to materialism or naturalism, which sees matter and its movements as the primary ontological reality.

Much like his philosophy, Marx’s relationship with materialism is rife with contradiction. To call Marx a “materialist” is misleading, as he is concerned, like Balzac, with conditions of material reality, but he is not an ontological materialist in the philosophical sense. Marx was profoundly influenced by a Hegelian conception of rationality in which logic equates to ontology, and in which ontology thus equates to mind (Marx Engels Reader xx-xxi). To call Marx a pure materialist, or an ontological materialist who believes that the world is ultimately material and nothing more, would be false. Marx wished to take no position on the ultimate question of reality, rather his position was more pragmatic; he wished to address the real concerns of human beings (Megill 8). What really concerns human beings is not “What is the nature of reality,” but rather “How are we to engage the social and natural world that surrounds us?” (Megill 8). Marx is therefore concerned with material reality as well.

For Marx, Engels, and other nineteenth-century thinkers, history, change, and consolidating the sheer volume of systematic knowledge became of central concern. Marx suggests that “we see how consistent naturalism or humanism differs both from idealism and materialism and is at the same time their unifying truth. We also see that only naturalism is capable of comprehending the process of world history (Critique of Hegel’s Dialectic and General Philosophy- Early Writings 389.) In dealing with this contradiction, Marx indicates that he has drawn from both sides of the material/ideal split, that man has a material nature but he also has a thinking nature. This empirical feature of humanity indicates a reconstitution of the split. Many intellectual historians argue that Marx was a synthesizer of ideas, that he was not an original thinker and merely incorporated ideas that came to him from elsewhere. Indeed, Marx’s historical materialism comes largely from Hegel’s dialectic, developed in History of Philosophy.  There is some validity to this criticism, but one must not ignore the breadth and applicability of the synthesis itself (Megill 36). Marx’s broader project was to bring together, in one way or another, the disparate parts of human knowledge. In nineteenth-century literary figures, especially Balzac, one can also identify a similar vein of synthesis, whose aim was to create a stylistically unified and broad-ranging description of his immediate material and psychological reality.

Like Marx, Balzac understands the connection between material and psychological elements, and ultimately ascribes more significance to the material. In Goriot, materiality is inevitably tied to psychological impact, best expressed in sentimental material artifacts, which represent the material/ideal synthesis. Balzac describes the scene at Goriot’s deathbed, where the old man reaches a hand towards his chest, grasping for his locket and “Uttered plaintive, inarticulate cries, as an animal does when in terrible pain…Eugène went to fetch the plaited chain of ash-blonde hair, presumably belonging to Madame Goriot. On one side of the locket was engraved ‘Anastasie’ and on the other ‘Delphine’: a mirror image of his heart… As he felt the locket touch his chest, the old man let out a long, deep sigh of such contentment…one of the last echoes of his sensibility” (Old Man Goriot 249-50).  The locket, like the silver gilt platter, indicates the unquestionable power of material possessions saturated with emotional significance. Without the locket, Goriot cries out like an animal, as a fundamental piece of his humanity is contained within the trinket, no doubt an indication of Balzac’s emphasis on the material.

As far as materialism is concerned, the largest divergence between Balzac and Marx/Engels rests in the agency of the human in relation to material reality. Balzac’s materialism is a bourgeois materialism, in which sensuous material reality affects the human observer through the medium of the senses, which stir up emotional and psychological effects. Here, the external world is the active element, a dynamic force that impresses itself upon the receptive mind. Balzac’s characters are not static observing beings, but dynamic forces that react to the environment around them. Upon receiving money from his family, Eugène’s near-suicidal disposition transforms instantaneously. Balzac describes that, “As soon as a few notes slide into a student’s pocket, an imaginary pillar of support rises up inside him. He walks taller than before, senses a fulcrum giving him leverage…yesterday timid and humble, he would have cowered under a shower of blows; today he has it in him to punch a Prime Minister” (Old Man Goriot 88). The profound impact that money and its potential have upon Eugène’s psychology in this scene is astounding. Furthermore, material circumstances impress themselves upon human agents, exemplified when Balzac writes that “[Eugène’s] last remaining scruples had vanished the previous evening when he found himself in his new rooms. Now that he enjoyed the material benefits of wealth…he had shed his provincial skin and smoothly made a move that pointed to a promising future” (Old Man Goriot 199). Such is the nature of the intersection between class, personal ambition, and materiality, a cash nexus where shallow values are quickly abandoned in favor of material comforts.

The crucial distinction between Balzac’s materiality and historical materialism is in Marx’s view that the human position in society is not purely that of an observer, but that of a force that impacts the world, and changes history through the negating or overturning of existing systems through dialectical progress. In The German Ideology, Marx writes that “the first premise of all human history is, of course, the existence of living human individuals. Thus, the first fact to be established is the physical organization of these individuals and their consequent relation to the rest of nature…the writing of history must always set out from these natural bases and their modification in the course of history through the action of men” (The German Ideology 149). For Marx and Engels, the passive bourgeois materialism will indeed be naturally superseded by the active part of history, the technical, production-oriented transformation of the world by human agency. Balzac himself was a thorough observer of reality, perhaps his view of this subject/object problem was influenced by his activity as an observer (Mortimer 99). Balzac’s characters, like their author, are not concerned with changing the external world, as they have seen the grizzly consequences of the revolution. Rather, Balzac’s Parisians seem more concerned with navigating a Paris that he describes as inordinate, disorganized, and chaotic, almost to an absurd degree.

Balzac describes nearly all his characters as operatives in the frenetic striving for social ascendance but does not characterize them as shaping history in the same manner that Marx and Engels do. These characters are so fixated on obtaining money and objects to climb the social ladder that they become passive actors in the broader trajectory of society, the historical materialist project that Marx is so concerned with. The characters are idealistic; Balzac describes “the Parisiennes who now fulfilled [Eugène’s] dream of ideal beauty [and] the uncertain future of this large family, one that rested on his shoulders…fueled his desire to succeed and tripled his yearning for distinction” (Old Man Goriot 29). The primary activity of Balzac’s Parisians is not to shape the world, but to allot their efforts to secure the material aspects necessary to appear as though they have ascended to a higher social class. Balzac’s moneyed classes only wish to see and be seen, like peacocks, showing off their plumage, content to trot about the palace grounds and peck at scraps of “the obvious material delights of Paris” (Old Man Goriot 28). Regardless of the characters’ lack of history-making praxis, Balzac’s emphasis on materiality parallels that of Marx and Engels, who placed the materialist conception of history at the center of their project.

Père Goriot is a masterful and accurate display of materialistic Parisian life, where “love is essentially vainglorious, shameless, wasteful, flashy, and false” (Old Man Goriot 199). In this central novel of La Comèdie humaine, we have come to identify and isolate the components of Balzac’s social realism, an interpretive tool which enabled the transposition of the author’s acute perception of social reality. Indeed, Marx and Engels identified social realism as a truthful and authentic method of encapsulating the struggles of a particular temporal context. Balzac’s realism amounts to a capacity for re-counting the same reality formulated theoretically by Marx and Engels and designates a clear implication of the primacy of materialism. Despite some theoretical divergence, all three writers ultimately shared this material fixation, and developed their works around this nucleus. In the words of Engels, “[Balzac] describes how the last remnants of [la viellie politesse française], to him, the model society gradually succumbed before the intrusion of the vulgar moneyed upstart…how the grand dame whose conjugal infidelities were but a mode of asserting herself in perfect accordance with the way she had been disposed of in marriage, gave way to the bourgeoisie, who horned her husband for cash or cashmere; and around this central picture he groups a complete history of French Society” (1888 Letter). The cash or cashmere of the vulgar moneyed upstart are personifications of Balzacian materiality, the glittering gilded focal point that illuminates the entire edifice of La Comèdie humaine.



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The Prescient Praxis of Parable: Marx’s Theory of History in Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle

It is essential to view Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle within a historical context, both in terms of when he wrote and in terms of how he portrays historical development within the play. Brecht, undoubtedly a committed Marxist, intends to utilize Marx’s theory of history as a means of forcing the viewer to reckon with his or her preconceived notions of how humans and history interact. Brecht presents multiple temporal realities in a non-linear format and ultimately infuses the play with Marx’s conception of human societal progress away from estrangement through a dialectical-practical method.

In order to discuss Brecht’s work, it is first necessary to understand Marx’s theory of history, both in terms of its philosophical origins, most notably Marx’s inheritance of the hegelian dialectic, and its theoretical component parts that appear in The Caucasian Chalk Circle. Although Marx intended to develop a holistic theory of history and developed the “materialist conception of history” in which he attempted to assert a unified, rational, and scientifically oriented account of human history, he was ultimately unable to develop an all-encompassing theory. Instead, Marx developed multiple fragmentary views of history. This is not to say that these fragmentary views of history were entirely separate from each other; on the contrary, the theories are largely interdependent.

The first aspect of Marx’s theory of history is an anthropological interpretation. Marx develops the concept of history as a process of humanization and naturalization in which history is directed towards man developing the potentiality of his being and becoming fully human while simultaneously becoming more united with humanized “nature”. Marx argues that this human development will arise out of the current state of affairs that is largely characterized by self-estrangement. In 1844, Marx developed a criticism of political economy in his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. The manuscripts describe some of the fundamental elements of Marx’s anthropological theory of history including: man’s coming-to-be and future communism as goals of the historical process, the characterization of man as a social being, as well as a comprehensive depiction of the concept of man’s “self-estrangement”, which plays a central role in the theory. In the manuscripts, Marx identifies and describes four main aspects of the estrangement of labor:

  1. The fact that “labor is external to the worker…that therefore does not confirm himself in his work, but denies himself, feels miserable and not happy… ” (Early Writings 326). The worker feels disconnected from his activity and as such, the relationship of labor to the act of production within labor leads to alienation in the mind of the worker.
  2. The relationship of the “worker to the product of labor as an alien object that has power over him” (EW 327). This relationship creates hostile opposition between the worker and the “sensuous external world, to natural objects”, an opposition which is the root cause of the other estrangements.
  3. Estranged labor “estranges nature from man and estranges man from himself, from his own active function, from his vital activity…from his species” (EW 328). Marx goes on to explain how the animal is immediately at one with its life activity, and that humans make this life activity an object of his will and consciousness. As such, man is a species being “i.e. his own life is an object for him”. The object of labor is therefore the objectification of the species-life of man and estranged labor divorces man from his species-being. This self-estrangement makes man’s human essence and natural potential alien to him.
  4. Estranged labor also leads to the estrangement of man from man. Marx notes that because man is estranged from his individual specifies-being, “each man is estranged from the others and that all are estranged from man’s essence” (EW330). Marx later notes how estrangement is realized and expressed only in man’s social relationship to other men.

Estrangement, which Marx links to the current bourgeois mode of production, restricts man from fully becoming man and realizing the full wealth of his being. Only upon becoming conscious of this estrangement and transcending it, is man able to develop in accordance with his productive forces and truly express his species-being.

Marx characterizes man as “not merely a natural being: he is a human natural being…a being for himself…a species being, and has to confirm and manifest himself as such both in his being and in his knowing” (Marx Engels Reader 116). Marx places particular importance on the concept of man’s coming-to-be, and puts it at the center of his anthropological conception of history. To Marx this humanization is an end goal in man’s historical development and coincides with the inevitable realization of an un-estranged society. In the 1844 manuscripts, Marx explicitly describes the linkage between man’s coming-to-be and history when he states how “man too has his act of coming-to-be–history–which, however, is for him a known history, and hence as an act of coming-to-be it is a conscious self-transcending act of coming-to-be…history is the true natural history of man” (MER 116-117). By categorizing man’s coming-to-be as a natural historical process, Marx thereby confirms the conscious self-transcending act, man’s practical-critical activity, as a central component of historical development.

A second aspect of Marx’s theory is history as praxis or activity. Marx develops the bulk of this interpretation of history in The German Ideology, The Grundrisse, and in his contribution to the Theses on Feuerbach. Marx’s 1845 contribution to the Theses on Feuerbach represents his philosophical and practical rationale to break with Hegel, Feuerbach, and philosophy at large. Marx instead focuses his efforts on an analysis of modern capitalist society from this point on. In his first point in the text, Marx states how Feuerbach mistakenly “regards the theoretical attitude as the only genuinely human attitude, while practice is conceived and fixed only in its dirty-judaical manifestation…[and] he does not grasp the significance of ‘revolutionary’, of ‘practical-critical’ activity” (EW 421). In this passage Marx criticizes Feuerbach’s dismissal of praxis as a “dirty-judaical manifestation”, as Feuerbach equates all practical activity to the dishonest market practices of Schacher (a term for haggling with a negative Jewish connotation). Marx deplores the mode of social behavior that was present in the market and implied in Schacher, and rejects Feuerbach’s conception that praxis and Schacher were inseparable. The passage also elucidates Marx’s view that ‘practical-critical’ activity plays an important and dynamic role in history. Marx further elaborates this position in the third point of the text when he argues that “the coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-changing can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice” (EW 422). Again, Marx criticizes Feuerbach for not considering the act, the ‘revolutionary practice’, as a fundamental element of historical development. This emphasis on praxis marks a shift away from his initial anthropological thinking, but does not represent a complete break. Marx still entertains Feuerbach’s humanistic language, and still considers man’s coming-to-be as a vital aspect of historical progress.

In The German Ideology, Marx remains consistent with his prior humanism when he states how “the first premise of all human history is, of course, the existence of living human individuals. Thus the first fact to be established is the physical organization of these individuals and their consequent relation to the rest of nature…the writing of history must always set out from these natural bases and their modification in the course of history through the action of men” (MER 149). Here Marx describes the connection between history and the action of living human individuals citing the actions of human beings as making history, a current that runs throughout his work. Later in the text, Marx goes on to define history as a series of historical acts including: the production of the means to satisfy human needs, the production of new needs, the production of the family, and finally the production of co-operation. Here Marx frames the development of history in the context of human activity. This is congruent with the anthropological view of history because both views use the process of man’s coming-to-be through his labor which he states is the self-confirming essence of man, but indicates that praxis itself takes precedence.

In his 1844 manuscripts, Marx states how “the real, active relation of man to himself as a species-being… is only possible if he really employs his species-powers-which again is only possible through the cooperation of mankind and as a result of history…” (EW 386).  Here Marx emphasizes the concept of the real active relation of man to himself, again bringing attention to the importance of the act in the development of history. Marx states how praxis is necessary in the creation of a society that is fully developed which produces man in all the richness of his being. Marx argues that in creating this society “the resolution of the theoretical antitheses themselves is possible only in a practical way, by virtue of the practical energy of man” (EW354). To Marx, the resolution of these antitheses must be practical because it is not merely a problem of knowledge, but a real problem which philosophy and other theoretical investigations are unable to solve.

The overlap between the anthropological and praxis-oriented theories of history is clear, especially when Marx continually references man’s relation to his species-being. The praxis-oriented view of history seems to have the same goals of man’s coming-to-be and future communism, but places particular emphasis on the active process itself whereas the anthropological view is more, if not excessively, metaphysical.  The anthropological and praxis-oriented views of history are also linked by Marx’s interpretation of labor as a process of productive consumption. According to Marx, labor “creates the material elements for the development of the rich individuality which is as all-sided in its production as in its consumption, and whose labor also therefore appears no longer as labor, but as the full development of activity itself” (Grundrisse 325). Marx uses labor to connect the concepts of the development of rich individuality and the development of activity itself, characterizing labor as productive consumption which enables the satisfaction of current needs and increases the productive potential of labor. This productive potential aligns with the development of history as it leads man to develop the potentiality of his being through active labor.

Marx’s theories of history are personified and fully expressed through the dramatic works of Brecht. In The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Brecht shows that historical social change can be reflected, inspired and made accessible through fable to the audience. Brecht’s progressive presentation of historical development indicates his preference to subvert the dominant capitalist paradigm. Brecht’s Chalk Circle provides a unique opportunity for the spectator to stand outside of linear temporal reality. No longer a passive audience member, Brecht’s critically engaged observer is able to observe the montage of changing epochs, able to juxtapose the “Old World” and the new, and ultimately able to glean some philosophical lesson from the experience to share with his or her own immediate community. This format of “Epic Theater” enabled Brecht to provoke the viewer into considering Marx’s theories, and in this case, his anthropological and praxis-oriented views of history.

Brecht’s jumbled chronology invites the reader to consider the social relations of the community in each distinct socio-historical context, compare them, and acknowledge the contradictions present in each. The comparison of the land dispute portrayed in the prologue and almost all of the disputes portrayed in the “old world’ story indicate Brecht’s preference for the resolution described by the former. The peaceful resolution of a land dispute under a communist plenum runs counter to the often violent and arbitrary legal process outlined in the rest of the play. There is no doubt that Brecht intended the prologue to serve as an ideological counterweight to the rest of the play, something for the viewer to keep in mind as one observed the arbitrary and cruel rulership of the Prince, the Governor, and Azdak, whose character is more nuanced and benevolent, but unavoidably corrupt. This notion of mismanagement of the community by its elites further signals Brecht’s proletarian sympathies.

Brecht’s characterization of the “old world” as backwards indicates his preference for progress and modernity, for a future guided by the science of dialectical-historical development. By juxtaposing the “old world” and the “new”, Brecht wants to draw our attention to the fact that things have indeed gotten marginally better, history has developed and improved the lives of all those involved in the peaceful resolution of the post-war land dispute. In terms of Marx’s theory of history, the public plenum that Brecht portrays in the preface represents an active relation of species being to species powers insofar as the cultivators win the land for use, which only comes about from the cooperation of mankind and the logical result of history, which has developed since the “old world” that is expressed in the rest of the play. There are multiple dimensions to the word “develop” here, as it implies not only a sense of temporal passage but also of a net growth in social decorum, which is augmented by the structural juxtaposition against the  traditional “feudal” order, which is consistently characterized as oppressive and tyrannical.  Brecht’s portrayal of historical development mirrors Marx’s in the sense that the development of the old world into the new will only occur through what Marx describes as the real active relation of man to himself, actualized in the plenum that occurs in the prologue.

The moral framework that Brecht introduces in The Caucasian Chalk Circle is ultimately defined in Marx’s terms of social utility and production, and follow Marx’s theories of historical development. For both Brecht and Marx, historical development represents a process of both anthropological development, or actualization and expression of the species-being, and practical activity. Any sense of progress in the play relates back to this historical model first put forth by Marx. In the prologue, the land goes to the party most likely to put it to good use, to develop it in accordance with the growing collective’s species-being. In Grusha’s case, this utility oriented morality is most clearly expressed by the actions she takes to make the child her own, which indicate her social utility and her seizure of the “means of production”. Grusha’s intersession and adoption of the child represents a direct expression of her species-being, of her motherliness.

Grusha’s sacrifices and peril, her crossing the bridge and her engagements with the ironshirts, all develop her “productive” capacity, as she “produces” her own sense of motherhood of the child. At the conclusion of the fateful chalk circle scene, Grusha states how she is unable to tear the child from the circle in fear of hurting him, indicating the true heart of a mother. In response, Adzak formally appoints Grusha as the new mother, stating how “In this manner the court has determined the true mother” (CCC127).  It is Grusha’s practical activity, or in this case, the lack of harmful action towards the child, that ultimately cements her identity as a mother. This final sentencing accords with Marx and Brecht’s social utility-oriented moral framework and anthropological-practical model of historical development.

In The Caucasian Chalk Circle human activity is the object of inquiry, not merely taken for granted as a function of the plot. It is Grusha and Azdak’s radical actions that propel the play forward, each one overturning the status quo in some manner. Grusha’s praxis is present in her intercession with the child. She interrupts the natural lineage of the royal family to claim the child as her own, and has in this sense created history on her own. Azdak co opts the legal-juridical framework and introduces his own brand of arbitrary sentencing. Brecht describes Azdak’s period of judging as “a brief golden age, almost an age of justice” (CCC128). Considering the fact that Grusha and Azdak are the only characters who exhibit praxis and develop in accordance with their species-being, perhaps society at large is not yet prepared for a full-fledged “age of justice,” hence the “almost” that modifies the singer’s narration. For both Brecht and Marx, the actions of these two characters represent a taste of what is possible for a more modern society developing under proper conditions with the proper actions taken by all individuals of the community.

The conclusions of the legal disputes in both eras of the story indicate Brecht’s approval of Marx’s developmental theory of history, and Marx’s theory as a whole. The legal outcomes of both trials reject estrangement, which restricts man from fully becoming man and realizing the full wealth of his being. Grusha and Azdak both “invent” history by disrupting the normal progression of “feudal” society, they reject the bounds placed upon them by their class, and reject the ruling paradigm. By overturning the pre-existing structures of authority, they are effectively staging a revolution of their own, advancing the historical dialectic that Marx puts forth in his theory of history. Even the trial of the chalk circle represents a practical resolution of two antithetical agents. Two individual humans physically pull on the child to resolve the dispute, only one can win, just as the dialectic propels Marx’s praxis oriented theory of history.

The legal outcomes of the play are also congruent with Marx’s view of history as a series of historical acts, which appeared in the excerpts from The German Ideology mentioned above. Azdak, Grusha, and the collective farmers are responsible for the production of means to satisfy human needs, the production of new needs, the production of the family, and finally the production of co-operation, especially the last two. As Marx frames this development in the context of human activity, it is congruent with his anthropological view of history, as both views use the process of man’s coming-to-be through his labor which he states is the self-confirming essence of man.

In the closing scene of the play, the singer neatly summarizes the moral of the story, which ultimately affirms the anthropological and practical aspects Marx’s theory of history. The singer states how “what there is shall go to those who are good for it, children to the motherly, that they prosper, carts to good drivers, that they be driven well, the valley to the waterers, that it yield fruit” (CCC 128). By allowing “what there is” to go to “those who are good for it,” Brecht’s form of justice negates estrangement and allows for both Grusha and the collective farmers to fulfill their species-being. Only upon becoming conscious of estrangement and transcending it are the characters of the play able to develop in accordance with their productive forces and truly express their species-being, be it as a mother, or a farmer. These final lines of the play neatly summarize Brecht and Marx’s position, and leave the reader or viewer with a pithy reminder of the moral-historical model expressed over the course of the play.

It is only fitting that Marx’s philosophy should find its expression in the practical act of theater, especially Epic Theater, the necessarily political form of artistic consciousness that forces the viewer into a critical, analytical frame of mind. Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle seems to posit the inevitability of progress, and the central role that humans have in the historical process. Things will develop over time, and humans will be the ones engaged in the practical activity. For Epic Theater practitioners like Brecht, historicization is necessary to show that the human being is determined by and determining of its social and physical circumstances, as Marx describes in his theory of history. Brecht considers questions of progress and rightful ownership, and invites the audience to realize the larger forces and dynamics at work in society. Marx’s theory of history ultimately equipped Brecht with the proper tools to investigate how humans participate in history, an especially pressing question in the post-war environment.


A Spectacle of Virtue: The Performative Morality of Nobility in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro

The notion of a morally superior nobility is one often promulgated by those with enough power to do so. In the case of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, Mozart’s characterization of Count Almaviva makes it clear to the viewer that any class-ordained morality is false, and holding such powerful members of society accountable for their shortcomings requires the power of public scrutiny. This is notably illustrated as Suzanna emerges from the closet during the finale of Act II. Any sense of the Count’s morality erodes and his duplicitous nature becomes clear as he grovels for forgiveness. Mozart’s orchestral treatment of this moment underscores this revelation made possible by Suzanna and the Countess, who band together to hold the Count to task.

The Count would prefer to coerce and threaten those below him behind closed doors, where there is no threat to his public perception, where he feels as though he can use the pressure of his feudal position to get what he wants. It takes the “publicizing” effect of Suzanna’s presence to force the count to act with any sense of virtue. When facing the count alone, both Suzanna and the Countess are unable to bring him to a state of level-headedness. The Count only shows regret upon the exposure of his tyrannical activities, any attempt at reconciliation is merely contingent upon whether he has been outed yet. In a similar vein, this same publicizing effect is present when Figaro requires the public to force the hand of the count to marry the two lovers. The Count is obviously preoccupied with his public perception, and when in public, he is accountable to his pride. It is important to note that his change of heart, whether authentic or not, does not occur when he believes that he is alone with his wife and the unidentified captive in the closet. The Count only asks for forgiveness for his deeds when there is more than one person in the room and his honor is at stake.  It is also worth noting that Suzanna, the object of the Count’s unrestrained sexual desire, is able to leverage his infatuation against him, thus channeling his emotional outburst into an apology to his wife. Suzanna knows that she has sexual power over the Count, but is only fully equipped to use it alongside the Countess.

Mozart’s use of duet and ensemble emphasize the power that Suzanna and the Countess possess upon joining their efforts. As the Count recognizes that he has been had, he sings to his wife and his intended concubine, “I beg your pardon, but playing such jokes is cruel, after all.” In the same breath in which he asks for forgiveness, he accuses the two women of playing a cruel joke, indicating his unwillingness to accept responsibility for his reckless threats and accusations. In response, Suzanna and the Countess sing in a duet, “Your foolish acts deserve no pity.” The two women are of different social classes indeed, the Countess is Suzanna’s mistress yet the two are able to force the hand of the most powerful male character in the opera. If only for a moment, the two women, two sopranos, stand on equal footing and support each other to confront a man who had drawn his sword with murderous intent only moments before. This unification of two opposing social classes, two voices, into one indicates Mozart’s support of égalité and denotes his broader deference to enlightenment principles and the characteristic intellectual concerns of his time.

Mozart masterfully incorporates the orchestra into this “Giudizio Trio” which marks the emotional center of the Opera. The sheer musical tumult of this number does not employ heavy brass or percussion, but is nevertheless sonically rich, and reinforces the deeply emotional tone of the libretto. The finale is scored by a palpable rising tension, with the three-four “allegro spiritoso” establishing an atmosphere of anxiety and disorder.  This vigorous musical moment mirrors the Count’s jealous accusations and the Contessa’s phrase, “Ah! Blind jealousy, what excesses you bring about!” The orchestral tension and the Count’s tirade snap like a taught string as the door to the closet swings open, foiling the Count’s rage-fueled momentum. This shock acts as a sort of punctuation, with sparse orchestration as the strings plod along in a hushed piano. As the scene progresses, the music becomes more passionate and confident, emulating the confidence of Suzanna and the Countess, who having successfully humiliated the Count are able to gain the upper hand.

Mozart wanted to make opera more realistic and human. This imperative is especially clear in Le Nozze di Figaro, where the oppressive power dynamics between the count and his subjects. This is a central theme of the play, that all humans, men and women, high and low-born, are fallible, especially the nobility. Mozart gives proletarian viewers hope. By shedding light on the Count’s abusive tendencies through public spectacle and solidarity, those oppressed members of the household are able to trick him into acting in a respectable manner commensurate to his title.


Arriving at Suprematism: “Zaum” and the Alogical Praxis of Kazimir Malevich’s Cow and Violin

“You are caught in the nets of the horizon, like fish! We, suprematists, throw open the way to you.”

– Kazimir Malevich

Manifesto: From Cubism and Futurism to Suprematism, 1915.


The only immediately recognizable forms in Kazimir Malevich’s 1913 painting Cow and Violin are those identified in the title of the work. Like a bullseye, these two eponymous objects reside at the dead center of the painting, and invite the wandering eye with their familiar, rustic umber tones. Within a split second of acknowledging these two objects, this viewer’s eye then drifts to the background, which appears synthetic, fragmented, and hectic. Any sense that these two primary objects could exist independently of the rest of the painting is abandoned as the viewer steps back and observes the totality of competing forms and forces. An early attempt to transcend the bounds of artistic rationality, Cow and Violin presents a knot of antagonistic contradictions that convey a sense of movement and tenuous coherence overshadowed by irreconcilable extremes.

Sporting udders and horns, the cow is the most realistic component of the painting, yet its mundanity evokes an air of idealized caricature, even farcical humor. While it treads upon nothing, the cow is still on stable footing and provides an ironic sense of lateral stability. Immediately behind the cow is the violin, seemingly balanced on its endpin. The violin bisects the painting with its stubby pinstriped neck, its textured natural wood grain, and its slender triangular tailpiece. This sense of verticality is physically reified by the painting surface itself, a 48.8 x 25.8 cm wooden panel, cut long and lean. The viewer’s eyes keep returning to the center of the composition. Together, the vertical and horizontal impressions derived from the cow and the violin construct a sense of temporary stability and focus, a seemingly recognizable objective. However, this uneasy symmetry is contradicted by features like the head of the violin, which Malevich has abstracted into primitive essentials, a single whorl and two rudimentary tuning pegs flattened in profile. The sense of balance is finally toppled by the movement of the background.

The cow and the violin are enmeshed with the undulating patchwork that lurks behind. This jolted and fragmented backdrop contains multitudes. Explosions of geometric forms weave amongst each other as squares dissolve into curvatures, circles, and amorphous prisms. The composition employs a limited chromatic range of dusky blacks, glossy saturated blacks, grays, various taupes, with highlights of grass colored verticals and subdued plum hues throughout. The limited chromatic palette may reflect the limited availability or high cost of vivid pigments and medium in Russia at the time. The familiar brown-orange ochres of the cow and violin are indeed the brightest colors in the work. The natural tones seem overwhelmed by the repeated artificial industrial hues of the cubist inspired forms. White squares, grey squares and curves intermingle with long green vertical rectangles, suffocating the green, crowding the space, pushing aside the natural taupe of the top left, herding it into a cramped corner. There is a forceful scraping grattage through angular saturated layers of oily black, revealing the washed out black of layers below. Interdependent yet isolated motifs of a violin appear throughout this cubist-inspired backdrop- the bridge and strings at the bottom center, the strings to the left of the neck of the violin, the strong sweeping diagonal in the top left corner, evoking the dynamic movement of the bow. The totality of these shapes and fluid image-movements orchestrate the action in the work.

The painting simultaneously exists in different directions within multiple dimensions. The neck of the violin defines a strong vertical axis and lends an initial sense of structure and symmetry to the painting. Four circles also mark the corners of the painting, while they seem non-representative, they add a rough sense of unity and alignment, like a vision test. However, this sense quickly fades as the viewer’s attention is once again swallowed by the asymmetry and off-kilter chaos of the geometric forms in the background. If there is any balance or asymmetric unity to be found, it tenuous and uneasy, on the verge of toppling over. Unlike a traditional painting of terrestrial phenomena, there is no definable horizon, as these forms exist outside of physics. In fact, Malevich has transcended three-dimensional reality here. Aside from the two objective forms, Malevich abandons any sense of realistic proportion or logical perspective, yet his painting contains a strong sense of depth derived from the potentially infinite layering of forms.

This depth acts in two different ways, the first is established by the literal hierarchy of forms. Malevich has placed the cow in front of the violin, in front of the abstract shapes with violin motifs. The shadow of the neck of the violin upon the white square, the powerful darkness of the painting immediately behind the violin, the white square atop the other forms all lend a sense of traditional physical depth and interval between the forms. The second is an abstraction gradient along the allegorical “Z” axis that proceeds from the objective realistic cow, to the partially realistic violin, to the abstract, non-objective background, to whatever lies behind the amalgamation of forms. Logic deteriorates as the viewer proceeds along this axis, into the painting, from objective to non-objective, from obvious to distorted, diving endlessly into a fractured construction of drab colors, textures, movements, and sensations. As one travels along this axis, Malevich guides the viewer to a higher reality, free from the constraints of meaning, logic, and physics. This artistic truth-beyond-logic saw its genesis in many artistic movements of the time. Cubism, Futurism, and eventually Suprematism all employed this sense of zaum, (зáумь, which is comprised of the Russian prefix за “beyond, behind” and noun ум “the mind, nous” and has been translated as “transreason”, “transration” or “beyonsense”) or beyond-reason as a means of overturning the established, academic artistic orthodoxy, and of grappling with the future.

A sort of hybrid piece, Cow and Violin serves as an indicator of Malevich’s early steps towards zaum, Suprematism, and wholly non-objective alogical art. However, as it still contains the clearly objective elements of the cow and the violin, the piece is only ever arriving at Suprematism. Much of Malevich’s early work, especially from 1910-1913, sits solidly between his original foundation of symbolist-impressionist orthodoxy and his new foray into Cubo-Futurism and the philosophical trappings that accompanied such styles. The collective inheritance of all of these styles pulled Malevich further away from formal representation.  The synthesis of these intersecting traditions would become the evolved form of consciousness expressed in Suprematism.

Cow and Violin is therefore a thoroughly dialectical work, as it simultaneously embodies several contradicting forces, at all times confronts the viewer with an unstable synthesis of multiple contending conceptual agents. At once objective and non-objective, Cow and Violin presents exactly what the title describes, a cow and an instrument, two immediately known forms, but the fragmented background is equally, if not more distinctive, and gives the painting its overall identity. The contrast of the background with the foreground mimics the struggle between phenomenological reality and the noumenal realm of the mind, of free association. Without this struggle, the painting is merely a sketch of two pastoral objects adorned with futuristic ornament. As these planes of reality vie for attention, Malevich also invites a historical dialectic into the painting.

The work undoubtedly contains Malevich’s allegorical meditations on modernity and progress, much of his work does. A kind of temporal tension between past and future is present in this piece, as the primitive composition of the cow and the violin compete with a futuristic, synthetic sea of forms. One must question whether the two quotidien objects will emerge out of the chaos, become subsumed by it, or exist somewhere in between. The work suggests a looming inevitability of the future, painted in dark, angular, industrial, high contrast tones, the alogical zaum again eating up what remains of the “known” rationality and objectivity of the past.

The tension between the various layers of the painting also mirrors the tumultuous economic and political atmosphere of Russia in 1913. Often dubbed an agrarian underdeveloped power that hoped to engage in the great power game, Russia sat in the balance between refined European society and gritty agricultural toil- equal parts cow and violin. These forms indicate Malevich’s juxtaposition of high and low culture, of rural and urbane sensibilities. As it faced the effects of archaic social, economic, and political structures and decades of military and diplomatic failures, Imperial Russia was divided, weakened, and on the brink of engagement in the First World War. These conditions, when paired with cruel treatment of peasants by the bourgeoisie, brutal industrial working conditions, and food shortages resulted in the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Whether Malevich anticipated Revolution in this work is open to debate, but the contrast of past and future is central to the work, to zaum, and to the artistic movement at large.

Malevich’s Cow and Violin seems to posit the inevitability of progress, and the irrationality of praxis. Things will develop over time, and the accompanying mood may be one of nonsensical confusion. For zaum practitioners, known phenomena will still exist, but the truth and the meaning lies somewhere beyond objective reality. The historical context of the work only adds to the sense of contradictory competing forces that may or may not find resolution, all with the mundane as the centering feature of life. Those living through such a time of uncertainty might have found some solace in known commonplace objects, perhaps recognizing the past as essential to the entire project of modernity.


The Divergent Epistemological Pathways of Skepticism and Cartesian Doubt

There are numerous stylistic and thematic similarities between Montaigne’s Essays and Descartes’ Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy. Both works were written by thoroughly introspective French thinkers who employed a vernacular autobiographical style, and both works make use of doubt as a crucial epistemological tool. The purpose of this paper, however, is to identify the profound disparity between the philosophical conclusions of these two writers, which stems from their differing conceptions of doubt. Montaigne’s skepticism, expressed in “On Cannibals,” indicates a belief that there is no objective truth, whereas Descartes’ entire project leverages hyperbolic doubt as a means to identify objective truths, which he believes are ordained by God.

While skepticism has its classical roots in the Socratic method, Montaigne can be seen as its most viable champion and practitioner during the Renaissance. As a skeptic, Montaigne continually raises the issue of whether the reasons we have for our beliefs are strong enough to withstand doubt, yield knowledge, and by extension, objective truth. For Montaigne, the effects of doubt are a necessary aspect of the skeptic’s project. In his Essais Montaigne dealt primarily with questions of the self, and placed a high value on information gained through direct experience, but always remained doubtful of whether our lessons from experience constitute objective truth. In his essay “On Cannibals” Montaigne steps back from his typical investigation of the self to shift the reader’s attention to a broader question, that of the European response to the New World.

This epoch destabilized preconceived understandings of European primacy, human diversity, and general knowledge, which manifested as massive epistemological doubt and a fear of what else might remain unknown. Montaigne, who had always already incorporated doubt into his philosophy, finds in this destabilization the perfect backdrop for his project to remind the reader to consider that he or she might not know anything with absolute certainty, and that objective truth might not exist.

In “On Cannibals,” Montaigne uses the discovery of the Americas as an opportunity to run some thought experiments regarding the historical nature of encounters with the other, the impact of this new encounter, and the potential impossibility of objective truth. Supplying a historical anecdote of King Pyrrhus’ encounter with the early Roman army, Montaigne reminds the reader that encounters with the other are universal and human, but also acknowledges the fact that this encounter with the Americas is “worthy of consideration,” unique in its magnitude and its impact on European certainties (150).

Montaigne paints an appealing picture of life among the naturally virtuous cannibals intended to inspire the European reader to reconsider who is the more “civilized” human and more broadly, the nature of humanity. Montaigne characterizes the natives as a tabula rasa, pure, unfettered by the artifice of civilization, stating how “These nations, then…have been fashioned very little by the human mind, and are still very close to their original naturalness. The laws of nature still rule them, very little corrupted by ours; and they are in such a state of purity that I am sometimes vexed that they were unknown earlier, in the days when there were men able to judge them better than we” (153). Montaigne, in his characterization of the natives as naturally pure, attempts to consider a version of human nature entirely distinct from that which was considered to be known with certainty. Again, Montaigne plants the seeds of doubt in the reader’s mind as to whether Europe, with all its wars and corruption, is really civilized at all. While the essayist does present many valid critiques of wealth disparity and monarchical rule in contemporary European society, it is important to note that his view of the natives is incomplete and highly idealized, relying on scraps of information to project broad societal claims.

By taking a macro-societal comparative approach, Montaigne leverages the doubt borne of the encounter with the New World to challenge established European modes of knowledge and models of civilization, suggesting that we cannot know for certain whether one or the other is better, just as we cannot really know any objective truth. When regarding the exploration and colonization missions in the New World as a whole, a skeptical Montaigne writes, “I am afraid we have eyes bigger than our stomachs, and more curiosity than capacity. We embrace everything, but we clasp only wind” (150). With eyes bigger than our stomachs and more curiosity than capacity, perhaps the “everything” that we attempt to embrace is certainty, and the “wind” we are left with is what Montaigne posits to be objective truth. Montaigne’s skepticism seems to lead to the question, if new evidence continually uppends our understanding of what is true, then can anything be considered true? For Montaigne, perhaps the only truth is that we can only get so close to the truth, and in this truth, there is a rough beauty.

He thinks, therefore he is, or is he? Descartes’ cogito is perhaps his most memorable intellectual product, and it comes from some of the same broad doubts about the nature of certainty that Montaigne used in his skepticism. Considering their close temporal and geographic proximity, it is quite likely that Descartes is reacting to Montaigne’s skepticism in his Meditations and Discourse. As a product of a relatively scientifically progressive Jesuit education and of the Catholic counter-reformation, Descartes intended to restore a degree of Catholic certainty about reality using scientific methodology and a mechanistic worldview. In order to overcome the skeptics and their limitless ability to undermine objective truth, Descartes flipped the problem of doubt on its head and used it to arrive at what he considered to be objective truth of the self, ordained by God.

Descartes does not reject skepticism, in fact methodological skepticism outlined in Meditation I is a necessary part of arriving at the cogito. Similar to Montaigne’s skepticism, Cartesian hyperbolic doubt leaves no concept unquestioned, and acknowledges that unreliable sense perception prevents us from discovering truth directly. Unlike Montaigne’s macro-social generalizations about the New World, human nature, and objective truth outlined in “On Cannibals,” Descartes’ hyperbolic doubt employs a measured micro-psychological approach. As Descartes calls the senses into doubt in Meditation I, he employs a reductive process of refining knowledge. Descartes mentally parses through each item of knowledge he can doubt at a piecemeal level until he has peeled away all potentially doubtable knowledge and is left with a kernel of what he knows for certain. He describes this process as “putting aside everything that admits of the least doubt, as if I had discovered it to be completely false. I will stay on this course until I know something certain or, if nothing else, until I at least know for certain that nothing is certain” (MII 24) This Cartesian hyperbolic doubt presents a novel method of metaphysical engagement, allowing the human to have a critical interface with his or her immediate reality, but also invites new problems.

In his attempt to grapple with doubt, Descartes creates a contradictory circular path to truth. Descartes attempts to ascribe clarity and distinctness as aspects of truth, stating how, “I now seem to be able to lay it down as a general rule that whatever I perceive very clearly and distinctly is true” (MIII 35). The methodological skepticism that leads Descartes to this “truth” in Meditation III is not supported by any sort of epistemological certainty other than the existence of God, and it is necessary to have some sort of certainty to use empirical methodology in the first place. Also Descartes’ certainty that God exists is founded on the idea that we can perceive that God exists, which relies on circular reasoning, evident when he states how “The more carefully I focus my attention on [the ideas of God], the less possible it seems they could have arisen from myself alone. Thus, from what has been said, I must conclude that God necessarily exists” (MIII 45). Furthermore, Descartes’ epistemic certainty of both god and self is founded on doubt, which is a thought, and thoughts are borne of fallible sensory perception.

Both Montaigne and Descartes placed doubt at the center of their respective works, but each author used doubt to arrive at a vastly different epistemological conclusion. Montaigne’s essay “On Cannibals” compares Europe the New World, inviting the reader to reconsider their definitions of civility and human nature, and by extension, become skeptical of all established knowledge. Conversely, Descartes uses methodological skepticism to distill a tenuous objective truth, the cogito, which relies on divine intervention to resolve its logical contradictions. Whether either holds the final answer to the question of objective truth is doubtful.