The mid-century materialist and pornographic crisis

The 1740s found continental Europe at war. Prussia took Silesia from Austria in an act of naked aggression. Once again the French invaded the Low Countries. The War of Austrian Succession (1740-48) brought little advantage to the French and among its intellectuals by the end, disillusionment with king and army was palpable. At the same time, Dutch military weakness was exposed and the British engineered a revolution there in 1747-48 that brought in a new stadholder, William IV, whose wife was the daughter of the British monarch. It ultimately failed to address the Republic's many problems. Eventually, even its Austrian allies despaired, and in 1756 effected a diplomatic revolution, breaking over half a century of alliance with the Dutch and the British in favour of the French. In short, by the late 1740s a new instability appeared in Europe and rivalry between Britain and France in the old and new worlds became more pronounced and more dangerous.

No simple linkage can or should be claimed between national political or international contexts. Yet at just the moment of the late 1740s when political stress and instability returned to the European scene, so too did the virulence of philosophical heresy. The leading characters in the unfolding drama were the Dutch trained medical doctor, Julien La Mettrie at one end, and the independently wealthy philosopher and freemason, Claude Helvetius at the other. In the supporting cast lay dozens of minor characters, some anonymous, like Diderot, who went on to become quite famous, others whose masks will probably never be removed at this great distance. Diderot contributed a materialist and pornographic novel, Les bijoux indiscrets, for which he served time in the Bastille, and indeed the materialist crisis brought that genre into its own with the classic novel by John Cleland, Fanny Hill, published in 1748-49 and the anonymous, Thense philosophe also of 1748 and almost certainly by the spinozist, the Marquis d'Argens. Fanny Hill, the most memorable recreation bequeathed to us by the freethinking pen, was passive when in love but active when being sexual. She was also quite the philosopher: 'The fire of nature, that had so long lain dormant, or conceal'd began to break out, and make me feel my sex for the first time . . . I should stop; but I am so much in motion ... Natural philosophy all resided in the favourite centre of sense [i.e., her vagina]... All my animal spirits then rush'd mechanically to that centre of attraction, and presently, inly [sic] warm'd, and stirr'd as I was beyond bearing, I lost all restraint, and . . . gave down, as mere woman, those effusions of pleasure, which in the strictness of still faithful love, I could have wish'd to

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