From Eve to Bluebeard: the Difficult Secularisation of Curiosity
It is well known that Perrault’s tales, far from being original, are rather revised literary versions of popular tales, often drawing on oral traditions (Soriano 1977). The tale of Bluebeard follows this model, but in a very particular way. It follows the model insofar as its account of the dangers of curiosity, as in the themes dealt with by many other fairy tales, is far from new. However, things are nevertheless different. The story not only recounts a popular fairy tale,1 but also possibly retells historical events. The models for Bluebeard perhaps include: in France, Gilles de Rais, Joan of Arc’s companion, who murdered a number of children and was hanged and then burned for his crimes and acts of witchcraft (Cazelles and Wells 1999); and, in England, Henry VIII, who executed two of his six wives. We can also say, with even greater certainty, that it retells the ‘tale of tales’: the most obvious source of inspiration (whether direct or indirect) for Bluebeard seems to me to be the Bible and its story of the tree of knowledge and of Eve and the Serpent:
Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, ‘Did God really say, “You must not eat from any tree in the garden”?’ The woman said to the serpent, ‘We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden’, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die’. ‘You will not certainly die’, the serpent said to the woman. ‘For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil’. When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realised they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves. Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, ‘Where are you?’ He answered, ‘I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid’. And he said, ‘Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?’ The man said, ‘The woman you put here with me – she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it’. Then the Lord God said to the woman, ‘What is this you have done?’ The woman said, ‘The serpent deceived me, and I ate’.2
As we know, God then punishes the three protagonists: he condemns the Serpent to crawl and to eat dust, the woman to give birth in pain and to live under the domination of her husband, and Adam to cultivate the soil (and, upon his death) to finally return to it himself.
The analogy between Bluebeard and Genesis is as strong as it is evident: in both stories a mysterious agent (God or man) prohibits a woman from approaching one item amongst many others; that same or another item stimulates her curiosity, pushing her to contravene the initial prohibition, and either punishes her or tries to punish the person (or people) who were unable to keep their promise. In both cases, the force (incentive?) of the temptation is exactly the same: access is granted to all the trees or cabinets, with the exception of one. There are of course very considerable differences between the two stories, which might outweigh their similarities, but before exploring these differences and their meanings, I would like to emphasise the extent of the parallels we can establish between the two.
The story of Bluebeard is nothing more than a profane variation of a very old, mythical story. As such, curiosity defies the sacred: it is a disposition that is deeply linked to an old anthropological scheme, not limited to the Judaeo-Christian tradition. This scheme relies on the privileged nature of the relationship of knowledge between the gods and humankind, as in the myths of Icarus and Prometheus, and/or on their being costs for sampling and discovering what is forbidden, as in the myths of Pandora5 and Psyche6 (or more recently, of Lady Godiva7 or the Lady of Shalott8). The mythical or religious roots of Bluebeard lend the question of curiosity a particular depth. It is not just any disposition; it is, on the contrary, the very first disposition which humankind gave itself; it is curiosity and curiosity alone which is at the beginning of our history; after God provided the main elements and the scenery, it is curiosity that sets the human adventure in motion. At least in the Judaeo-Christian imagination, curiosity therefore intervenes long before ‘habit’ and ‘self-interest’, which sociology and economics nevertheless try to impose, one set in opposition to the other, like primitive matrices for all behaviour!
The mythical and religious origin of curiosity lend it a particular quality, by reminding us of its relation to sacred questions, to the ordering of knowledge, and to respect for Scripture. Before the development of modern science, curiosity was at the heart of the tension between natural philosophy and religion, and dealing correctly with this tension was a major challenge for social order as well as for religious power. For the fathers of the Church, the problem consisted in making the teachings of Aristotle, for whom ‘all men, by nature desire to know’ (Metaphysics book Ab 980 a 21), compatible with Scripture, which forbade access to the tree of knowledge. The difficulty is best expressed in Saint Augustine’s famous confession concerning curiosity. On the one hand, Saint Augustine recognises that curiosity (curiositas) is a passion which, like its two sisters’ pleasure (voluptas) and pride (superbia), is from both a spiritual and biological point of view inherent to the human condition:
To this is added another form of temptation more manifoldly dangerous. For besides that concupiscence of the flesh which consisteth in the delight of all senses and pleasures, wherein its slaves, who go far from Thee, waste and perish, the soul hath, through the same senses of the body, a certain vain and curious desire, veiled under the title of knowledge and learning, not of delighting in the flesh, but of making experiments through the flesh. The seat whereof being in the appetite of knowledge, and sight being the sense chiefly used for attaining knowledge, it is in Divine language called The lust of the eyes (Saint Augustine 2005: 113).
On the other hand, Saint Augustine is wary of the dangers of curiosity, which he sees as steering us towards futile and vain knowledge and distracting us from serious and pious thought:
From this disease of curiosity are all those strange sights exhibited in the theatre. Hence men go on to search out the hidden powers of nature (which is besides our end), which to know profits not, and wherein men desire nothing but to know. Hence also, if with that same end of perverted knowledge magical arts be enquired by. Hence also in religion itself, is God tempted, when signs and wonders are demanded of Him, not desired for any good end, but merely to make trial of […] in how many most petty and contemptible things is our curiosity daily tempted, and how often we give way, who can recount? How often do we begin as if we were tolerating people telling vain stories, lest we offend the weak; then by degrees we take interest therein! I go not now to the circus to see a dog coursing a hare; but in the field, if passing, that coursing peradventure will distract me even from some weighty thought, and draw me after it: not that I turn aside the body of my beast, yet still incline my mind thither. And unless Thou, having made me see my infirmity didst speedily admonish me either through the sight itself by some contemplation to rise towards Thee, or altogether to despise and pass it by, I dully stand fixed therein (Saint Augustine 2005: 114).
In his confession, Saint Augustine identifies an interesting series of types of curiosity which range in form from the most anodyne to the most dangerous. The first category includes all kinds of ‘spectacle’, such as the dog race mentioned in the quote, or the lizard and spider catching flies, which in the process catch our attention, or the ‘frivolous’ gossip which we at first listen to in order to avoid offending the speaker, but which we then find ourselves obtaining great pleasure from. All these forms of curiosity are reprehensible. It is less because of the objects of our curiosity, which are of no particular importance, and more because of their effect: they distract us from the Augustinian quest for knowledge of God and of oneself.9 A second category (just as reprehensible) concerns the enigmatic and unhealthy curiosity we experience with regard to unpleasant sights which functions as a perverse form of distraction: ‘For what pleasure hath it, to see in a mangled carcase what will make you shudder? And yet if it be lying near, they flock thither, to be made sad, and to turn pale. Even in sleep they are afraid to see it’ (Saint Augustine 2005: 114). It must be said, in passing, that this second, horrific form of curiosity is precisely the kind we find operating in the last part of Bluebeard. It does not operate through Bluebeard’s wife (who has no way of knowing what is on the other side of the door, and who turns away and leaves immediately, truly horrified by what she discovers), but through the reader: it is the ‘gory’ side of the tale that makes it so particularly fascinating for readers.10 Finally, a third, more significant category of curiosity involves the search for the ‘hidden powers of nature (which is besides our end)’. This is, in other words, the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge. Saint Augustine – like contemporaries of his such as Apuleius (Tasitano 1989) – thought that the heretical search for this type of knowledge could not be pursued other than by ‘magic’. For centuries, the idea of an almost obligatory link between ‘forbidden knowledge’ (Harrison 2001) and ‘the curious sciences’ – that is to say, the heretical practices of alchemy, astrology, necromancy, Hermeticism, and witchcraft – served to disqualify and suppress (often violently and, from the thirteenth century, with the help of the Inquisition) the numerous attempts to pursue knowledge beyond the sphere of religious thought, thus impeding the development of science.11
This recurrent confusion concerning curiosity (considered at once natural and dangerous) was in fact supported by scholastic thought throughout the Middle Ages, including by Thomas Aquinas, who eventually attempted to reconcile the one with the other: ‘Through his soul […] man is inclined to desire knowledge; thus must he humbly restrain this desire, so as not to push his investigation of things beyond the bounds of moderation’ (Thomas Aquinas, quoted in Pomian 1990). With this particular wording, Aquinas was trying to reconcile natural philosophy and religion. This attempt was based on drawing a distinction between curiosity (directed towards forbidden and therefore reprehensible knowledge) and scholarship (controlled curiosity, in other words, compatible with the teachings of the Church). The entire question was therefore a matter of appropriately directing the desire to know, of respecting the guidance of and limits defined by Scripture. Suffice it to say that these limits were very strict, and that for a long time the distinction between good and bad curiosity was completely obscured by the latter.
It was not in fact until the Renaissance and the Reformation that a breach was opened – one favourable to a freer and broader expression of curiosity. The Reformation’s contribution to this greater openness was both ambiguous and limited. On the one hand, by breaking from the pontifical monopoly and advocating a more personal reading of religious texts, the Reformation introduced a more direct relationship with the world, therefore weakening the old ‘scriptural consensus’ that these texts had offered: the criteria of truth must be able to be discussed (Houdard 1998). On the other hand, reformers, like their predecessors, were not inclined to allow curiosity free rein. John Calvin, in particular, in his Warning Against Judicial Astrology, whilst supporting in what were now accepted terms the Aristotelian nature of the desire to know, denounces the ‘horrible, endless labyrinth’ and the ‘folly and superstitions’ into which men have fallen ‘since they have unleashed their curiosity’ (Calvin 1842: 130). In the same text, Calvin has no fear of claiming, like other demonologists whom he joins here (Jacques-Chaquin 1998b), that mathematics often serves as a refuge for astrologists in search of an image of respectability.12
He even goes so far as to continuously warn his contemporaries against all curiosity which is too focused on his own doctrine of Election, to the extent that behaving in this way is seen as consisting of a search for the impenetrable will of God, and thus to risk the formation of incorrect ideas about divinity (Harrison 2001).13
If the Reformation therefore played a role in the advent of a more curiosity-based relationship with the world, it was very limited, and in any case took place on a much smaller scale than the social changes of the Renaissance which partially preceded and accompanied it. With regards to the issues we are concerned with, these changes took the form of two major innovations: a multiplication of the number of cabinets of curiosity and the advent of modern science.
Cabinets of curiosity are astonishing private spaces, the ancestors of our modern museums (Impey and Macgregor 1985; Findlen 1994), in which, from the fifteenth century, certain individuals started storing large numbers of intriguing, bizarre, and extraordinary objects. Specifically, the strange items in these cabinets that have been subject to a magnificent autopsy in the work of Antoine Schnapper (1998) are presented in a register that occupies a space somewhere between curio and curiosity (in French ‘bric-à-brac’, which arrived in English with a related but distinct meaning during the Victorian era). Because of the often substantial financial resources required to assemble these collections, this was a practice dear to the hearts of Europe’s finest. This was not always the case, however, given that the world of collectors included people of very diverse circumstances and wealth, including collectors of antiquities, the bourgeoisie, doctors, scientists, and so on. As for the curiosities themselves, the cabinets threw together haphazard collections of objects ranging from cultural artefacts, such as medals, paintings, Greek and Roman antiquities, to handicrafts – jewellery, for instance – to miniature heads and figurines, even to natural objects from the vegetable, animal, and mineral kingdoms. These latter objects were collected because of their spectacular qualities (for example: tulips, birds of paradise, gemstones), or their legendary connotations (the Jericho rose; a Remora fish – harmless looking but nonetheless, according to Ovid, capable of slowing down ships – basilisks, unicorn horns, and eagle-stones – a kind of geode which, according to Eastern legend, could be placed in an eagle’s nest in order to encourage propagation) and/or their curative abilities: the Jericho rose, unicorn horns, and eagle-stones that I just mentioned are also known for their medicinal virtues, the first for easing childbirth, the second for healing wounds, and the third for preventing miscarriage. Finally, greatest interest was shown in intriguing objects found at the intersection of the three kingdoms, which appeared to call their separation into question: for example, fossils – animal or vegetable rocks – and coral, apparently a vegetable-mineral.
Cabinets of curiosity appeared at a very particular time, when objects were being discovered faster than knowledge itself. That is to say, they were being discovered before we had the knowledge that could categorise them, or explain their origins, or determine their exact characteristics and virtues. The collectors of these curiosities marvelled at and expressed perplexity about everything they collected. Rather than try to explain the thousands of enigmas and puzzles, they tried to record them: giants’ bones, amber containing insects, minerals which attract iron, extraordinary animals, unknown objects and monsters that provoked disgust, wonder, and desire to know (Daston and Park 1998). All of these curiosities created the possibility if not of numerous explanations then at least of the likelihood of questions being left open. As Krzysztof Pomian (1990) explains – the author to whom we owe the most accomplished investigation on the subject – the logic behind these collections is that of a relationship between the part and the whole: every cabinet works as a microcosm, a synecdoche, a place which is meant to ‘represent the invisible’ and provide access to the entire universe. Pomian beautifully defines the items that these collectors assemble as ‘semiophores’: in other words, objects filled with signification intended to make us able to see what is extremely distant both in time (see: a collection of antiques) and space (see: a collection of exotic objects). To put it in Bruno Latour’s terms (1993), collectors, even if driven by the desire to know about the ‘modern’ in the making, are themselves very much ‘non-modern’: they pile up objects more than they classify them14 and they scarcely make a distinction between the human and the non-human. The logic which motivates them is concerned with the particular, and thus neither the universal nor market value: each piece is collected according to its own merits, regardless of its exchange or use value, and without a principle of commensurability that might allow their organisation.
The desire to understand and to explain was of course very much present, but neither was it a priority – collectors were not necessarily scholars – nor could these concerns make much progress given that attention tended to be confined to singular entities, and to noting their marvellous appearance rather than their inner and often inaccessible structure. And although, from the seventeenth century, these curious collectors became interested in scientific instruments, it was as collectors’ items and not as instruments of knowledge: for example, when microscopes and telescopes were collected it was as a means of multiplying fascination rather than increasing understanding about the world. That the primary attraction was the wonder of an individual object, rather than for a systematic understanding of things, can be easily explained by taking two contextual elements into account. On the one hand, the discovery of the New World and the exploration of other exotic lands opened Western eyes to numerous novelties and enigmas (some spectacular and some of great potential significance), which science, still in its infancy, was not capable of explaining. On the other hand, the continuing prestige of classical forms of knowledge and the authority of religion remained as sources of confusion. At a time when the direct observation of phenomena and experimental verification were often out of reach, it was difficult to imagine how theses propounded by the great classical authors could be called into question (see Ovid and the supernatural power of Remora). Furthermore, the weight of forms of religious authority shaped and heavily constrained collectors’ cognitive processes. Contrary to what one might think, the Church was not completely alien to the art of collecting, given that the practice had largely been anticipated in its accumulation of relics, paintings, statues, and even ‘giants’ bones’ in places of worship (Pomian 1990; Schnapper 1988). However, if ‘giants’ bones’ or ‘unicorns’ horns’ were being collected, it was precisely because the existence of these extraordinary creatures was mentioned in the Scriptures. Both the belief in and the weight attached to Scripture placed very narrow limits on possible explanations and discussion. Even Ambroise Paré, a sceptic amongst sceptics, could do nothing but bow in the face of dogma: he did not dare to question the existence of unicorns, confining himself instead to discussing the therapeutic virtues of their twisted appendages. If fossils were intriguing, it was because of an inability to understand how fish could be found on top of mountains. The account provided by Genesis, which was beyond question, may have featured the Flood, but the latter was hardly compatible with the rising of the sea. In order to reconcile the irreconcilable, one suggestion was that animals were generated spontaneously by rock and would only be released once they were perfect. All in all, the marvels of nature and religious dogma combined to hamper knowledge and to increase astonishment. The cabinets of curiosity were therefore like antechambers of the science to come, the paradox being that, at a time when the world was suddenly being invaded by new objects from the world over, religious objection to knowledge sharpened the very curiosity it was meant to restrain.
However, the influx of new objects of curiosity would ultimately encourage the emergence of a less superficial and more scholarly approach to knowledge, and would therefore shape the gradual emergence and increasing autonomy of modern science. It is well understood that developing independent forms of knowledge about nature was particularly risky at a time when any attempts to obtain knowledge which differed from the content of Scripture might be suspected of heresy, or even links with the Devil (Harrison 2001; Jacques-Chaquin 1998b). The emancipation and development of modern science began just before Perrault at the very start of the seventeenth century; it became a key topic in academic circles in the following decades (Kenny 2004), and triumphed with the Enlightenment. Two major factors contributed to completely turning the image of scientific curiosity around (and thus to converting a desire for knowledge that was blasphemous and condemned by the Bible) into a force that would benefit society.
The first contribution was that provided by the English scholar and philosopher, Francis Bacon, who between 1603 and 1605 managed, for the first time, to develop a method of reasoning compatible with religious Scripture but nevertheless able to overturn the subordination of knowledge to religious authority. The first part of the argument consisted in arguing that since God had endowed man with cognitive skills, the knowledge of the world was neither forbidden nor above our capabilities: ‘God hath framed the mind of man as a mirror or glass, capable of the image of the universal world’ (Francis Bacon, quoted in Harrison 2001: 279). This formulation is very subtle. On the one hand, to claim that the knowledge of the world is accessible to man does nothing more than repeat the classical Aristotelian position which the guardians of Scripture had long since conceded. However, on the other hand, to say that God conceived the human spirit as a mirror, capable of directly reflecting the state of the world, was to open the way for a new approach. Largely favoured within Protestantism (to which Bacon personally adhered), this consisted in proposing to complement the reading of the great book of Scripture, and the Bible, with that of the new ‘book of nature’ (Mukerji 1983; Findlen 1994).
The second part of Bacon’s argument was just as astute and innovative. The idea involved conceding the existence of forbidden knowledge (that which produced pride) in order to better emphasise another kind of knowledge, that which, on the contrary, would promote charity – the greatest of theological virtues, in other words. Once again, the concern to separate ‘proud knowledge’ and knowledge guided by charity falls within a longer philosophical tradition, given that it reminds us of the distinction drawn by Thomas Aquinas between curiosity and scholarship. However, at the same time as connecting with previous ideas, Francis Bacon managed once again to innovate, by suggesting that it was possible to define the proud or charitable nature of knowledge in light of its usefulness. With this new criterion, it then became possible to distinguish between knowledge acquired through vanity or pride, guided only by the ‘pleasure of curiosity’, and virtuous knowledge, directed not towards the personal satisfaction of the senses or of the mind, but towards a search for knowledge that is useful in life. This would repair the damage caused by the Fall. By providing a new reading of Genesis, this twin argument manages to overcome the dogma which had stood in the way of scientific progress. The promoters of the new sciences had finally found a way of developing their work without overly offending the religious authorities and risking the wrath of the demonologists. Robert Boyle referred to Bacon in order to defend his experimental philosophy and a practice of science consistent with reading the book of nature; the members of the Royal Society, who first resisted Bacon, Boyle, and Newton’s pioneering curiosity (Ball 2013), finally recognised their debt to Bacon, who had given them legitimacy and had opened the way for their activities to take off (Harrison 2001).
The second contribution to the emancipation of science and the acceptance of curiosity came from authors such as Descartes and Montesquieu. Descartes’ original contribution, shortly after Bacon and long before Montesquieu, also consisted in addressing curiosity not from a religious point of view, but through a methodological approach. Based on the idea that the intellectual capabilities of man were limited, Descartes argued that these capabilities could not encompass everything, or else there would be a risk of errors of judgement. He therefore condemns unbounded curiosity, and in particular the curiosity which is aimed, according to him, at the pointless inventory of all natural entities. He does this in order to argue in favour of a desire for knowledge that is deliberately limited to objects that we can tackle with the tools provided by reason and method (Pomian 1990; Harrison 2001). Later, and after Bluebeard had been written (1697), Montesquieu agreed by saying that
[w]hat makes the discoveries of this century [eighteenth] so admirable are not the simple truths that we have found, but the methods for finding them […] It is not a single brick in the edifice, but the instruments and machines for constructing the whole building (quoted in Jacques-Chaquin 1998a: 19).
Without a doubt, and as has been demonstrated by Christian Licoppe (1996), the previous ‘curiosity for curious things’ played an important role in the development of modern science throughout the second half of the eighteenth century – the period between Descartes and Montesquieu. This occurred through the organisation of spectacular experiments where a curious public (generally deliberately chosen either at the time of the experiment, or when it was later recounted) was called upon to give its approval to the events observed and the conjectures inferred. However, this was ultimately a period of transition: a ‘curiosity-based’ knowledge regime was, little by little, sidelined in favour of methods of argumentation revolving around the usefulness and exactitude of scientific proposals. A science playing on the curiosity of public experiments was replaced by a ‘cooler’ form of knowledge, determined less by the excitement of visual and collective perceptions than by the possible usefulness of the knowledge produced. This was whether this knowledge was employed by political authorities (in France); by economic and financial institutions (in England); in the internal organisation of museums and the establishment of their catalogues (which contributed (especially in Italy) to ‘codifying the culture of curiosity that defined the experience of the collection’ (Findlen 1994: 44);15 in the drafting of laws meant to explain the reproducibility of the phenomena studied; or in the increasingly hushed, closed world of scholars’ studies and the academies – for instance, in the Académie des Sciences in France or the Royal Academy in England (Licoppe 1996).
Thereafter, the Enlightenment completed the liberation movement of libido sciendi (the craving for knowledge) from religious tutelage: the limitations of science and human curiosity were, from then on, not cultural, but technical and cognitive (Jacques-Chaquin 1998a). Paradoxically, accompanying the triumph of knowledge over religion was a disenchantment not only with prior beliefs, but also with curiosity. This was also a process which clearly demonstrated the decline of analogical thinking (which, for example, claimed nuts could heal the brain) in favour of taxonomic thinking (which tried to reduce the world to a finite series of universal criteria) (Foucault 1973). Consider the case of ornithology, for instance. We see a move from Rondelet’s impressionist sixteenth-century classifications (birds with strong beaks, singing birds, birds living beside water, and so on), towards the morphological classifications of Francis Willughby a century later (based on anatomical criteria (Schnapper 1988: 61)). The singular is finally reconciled with the universal: with the development of robust methods of classification, able to draw together a series of singular events within the same structure – what Descartes had feared so much (uselessly overloading the memory through the vain science of the inventory) finally made sense. With the upsurge of taxonomy, collections were ordered and divided, with curiosity taking a step back in favour of examination. Employing the general laws of physics and chemistry, and supported by the use of methods of dissection and an analytical approach, single objects were split into ever more simple elements. The irreducible strangeness of creatures thus became the simple expression of universal combinations. Paradoxically, science had triumphed over both the Church’s prohibitions on curiosity as well as over the forms of guilty curiosity which its practices were meant to arouse:
In the last decades of the eighteenth century, naturalists increasingly turned towards observation, experimentation, and reconstitution. As Cuvier said in 1808, ‘natural history […] which the general public and even some scholars still have rather vague ideas about, started to be recognised for what it really was: a science whose aim is to use the general laws of mechanics, physics, and chemistry to explain particular phenomena demonstrated by different natural entities’. This leads us to apply classificatory criteria to natural phenomena which no longer owe anything to visual inspection. Thus, minerals are now classified according to their chemical composition, which is only revealed thanks to the destruction of the samples being studied and the use of measuring instruments. And animals are classified on the basis of their anatomy as studied under the microscope; this means that specimens have to be removed from their jars, in which they had been preserved and exhibited, so they can be dissected to the point where very little is left. As for fossils, they are now classified in relation to their original organisms, which involves comparative anatomy, whilst being integrated into a time-based, reconstituted series, thanks to the presence of fossils in strata whose position allows their order of succession to be inferred. The golden age was coming to an end. We were now entering the age of laboratories and fieldwork (Pomian 2004: 35–36).
At the same time, curiosity began to become ‘economised’, which completed the general sense of disenchantment: over time, the commercial potential of curiosities was seized upon by traders: these grew in number, invaded the world of collectors, contributed to and organised collections, authored catalogues, and converted the previously private accumulations of the collectors into a market for collected objects. The market became the place where both collectors and scientists obtained the curiosities which fascinated and interested them (Findlen 1994: 170 sq.), as well as the place where these same objects were put into circulation. If we could give only one example to illustrate the consequences of this movement of commercialisation, it would have to be the fate of the poor unicorn: traders supplied such a large number of narwhal tusks (those twisted horns so dear to collectors) that they ended up ruining the unicorn legend by both demonetising and discrediting it (Schnapper 1988). In other words, science and forces of economic transformation joined together to restrain curiosity, collections, and the number of collectors. The very last source of hesitation was that of the Encyclopédie,16 torn between its own ambition for knowledge and the risk of vain curiosity (Jacques-Chaquin 1998a), under the influence of La Bruyère’s brutal satire against tulip collectors (Schnapper 1988). However, this hesitation was no longer produced in the name of religion, but was rather grounded in knowledge guided by reason: these were the dying embers of a long debate, which had already moved towards an era of tempered or even forgotten curiosity.
We have now reached the time when the major divisions that structured modernity since the Reformation ended as they became brought together: after Protestants had launched their own modern project by attempting to separate the divine and the Church, scientists in many ways prolonged their efforts by seeking to separate the world of things from those of the state and religious authority (Shapin and Schaffer 1985). Eventually, in the eighteenth century, the new separation of the economy from religious and civil control resulted in the disentanglement of all of the political, religious, and economic elements which the old world had mixed together. Just as Protestants had built their doctrine on the definition of a direct link between the subject and the word of God (the Bible), scientists had founded their knowledge on the establishment of a direct link between the work of a researcher and the things he studies. Now, with Adam Smith at the forefront, the new economists also intended to break away from their old political affiliations (associated with the heritage of mercantilism) by proclaiming the transcendence of market forces. This would protect economics from all human and spiritual domination for the benefit of the dictatorship of ‘interest’, created ex novo, as a new, natural disposition (Hirschman 1980). The economic, the political, and the religious were each separated while the manner in which they could be recombined was reinvented: ‘The laws of commerce are the laws of nature and consequently the laws of God’ (Polanyi 1957: 117); laissez-faire had to be respected in order to respect the divine/natural order to things.
The proliferation of goods was accompanied by a general movement towards materialism, science, and economics. Contrary to what is understood following Weber, Protestantism did not play a privileged role in this development: the love of gold, finery, possessions, and the search for profits for profit’s sake, which Weber postulated as the consequences of capitalist behaviour, in fact preceded the advent of the economics of accumulation (Sombard 1966: 32). Similarly, at the root of the modern economic world we find Veblen’s pre-capitalist ‘leisure class’, which was born out of the disappearance of both the feudal system and the predatory nature of the aristocracy. If the lower classes were still limited to a subsistence-level existence (Veblen 2013), then the new leisure class was giving pride of place to salons, speech, and manners, as well as to luxury and comfort, presents, feasts, and ostentatious behaviour. Of course, the leisure class (inclined to spend) was quickly replaced by the middle class (inclined to save). Long before Weber’s Protestants, rich Italians (such as, starting in the fifteenth century, the architect Alberti) pushed problems of household management to the fore by discovering that it was possible to become rich not only by earning a lot of money, but also by spending less (Sombart 1966: 106). However, the middle class’s inclination to save was – in fact similar to Weber’s Protestants, who followed – purely relative. Whatever the middle class men did not personally consume was done so by those that surrounded them: for example, by domestic servants (Veblen 2013: 49) and wives who were responsible by proxy for the master of the house’s consumption. The former did so out of duty and the latter to guarantee the household’s reputation:
It is by no means an uncommon spectacle to find a man applying himself to work with the utmost assiduity, in order that his wife may in due form render for him that degree of vicarious leisure which the common sense of the time demands […] the wife […] has become the ceremonial consumer of goods which he produces (Veblen 2013: 57).
This duplicitous behaviour is not the late flowering of curiosity. On the contrary; curiosity has been coextensive with the history of modern capitalism. In fact, the double articulation of production and consumption was based less on a hypothetical division of duties between Protestants (inclined towards saving and production) and Catholics (inclined towards spending and consumption), and more on the intimate entanglement of saving and consumption behaviour amongst all of the actors involved:
Many of the seventeenth- and eighteenth- century English businessmen of Protestant faith who built up their enterprises by careful reinvestment eventually used large portions of their wealth to become the new gentry, building great country houses on their newly acquired estates and filling them with lovely artifacts (portraits, chairs, murals, and chinaware) that testified to their high social station. These entrepreneurs are easy to type as Protestant businessmen in the Weberian sense if one simply ignores the way they lived at home. But such ignorance is costly. It masks the fact that pure ascetics or pure hedonists were rare in early modern Europe; most people, whether Protestant or Catholic, combined the two tendencies (Mukerji 1983: 3–4, my italics).
The worlds of collecting and consumption became progressively blurred, at the mercy of a movement of ‘publicisation’ and democratisation. The English historians McKendrick, Brewer, and Plumb (1982) and the sociologist Chandra Mukerji (1983) have clearly demonstrated how, throughout the eighteenth century (after Bluebeard, then) there was a craze for the exotic and for novelties amongst the working classes. The private collections of old, which had required considerable wealth, took on different and more accessible forms. This involved new, less costly activities: growing seeds and bulbs in the garden for show, buying ribbons and printed textiles which brightened up wardrobes, and visiting zoos and botanical gardens, which gave people a cheap way of discovering the extraordinary animals and plants that had been brought from the New World and the colonies. However, the progress of science and the progressive generalisation of the unusual ultimately resulted in disenchantment. The commercialisation and the assignment of monetary value to everything eventually imposed interest as a substitute for all other passions (Hirschman 1980). From then on, economics became concerned with self-interest, and sociology with habit, with both forgetting all other motives of action, including curiosity, which, as we shall see, was abandoned to the market.