Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Diderot's Dangerous Idea

In the late 1740s, bookseller and printer, Andre Le Breton, approached Denis Diderot to undertake a French translation of Ephraim Chambers' Cyclopaedia, or Universal Dictionary of the Arts and Sciences.

Instead, Diderot decided to produce an original work that would encompass all branches of knowledge and challenge conventional ways of thinking. From the outset, the project was viewed as a threat to ecclesiastical and aristocratic power, in that it advocated religious tolerance, freedom of thought, and the value of science and industry. The first volume appeared in 1751, but in 1752 a court order was issued to cease the project. With the help of sympathetic supporters, Diderot was able to continue work in secret, and a second decree was issued in 1759 in an effort to suppress the work. Despite continual harassment and loss of friends and associates, Diderot carried on, with the final volumes of the 28 volume set finally being distributed to subscribers in 1772.
The photograph inserted above shows the title page of the first volume. This volume is part of a complete first edition set from the collection of about 400 rare books, that until recently were held at the Fortress of Louisbourg in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. The collection has been moved to the Beaton Institute at Cape Breton University, where it will be maintained in the archive and be made available to researchers.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Organ of Love

The Valentine's postcard pictured below dates from 1908. It comes from a collection of personal papers held in the Beaton Institute at Cape Breton University, the official repository of historically significant records pertaining to life and times in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Its seemingly unromantic caption reads: "Take back your heart. I ordered liver." Whatever personal message the sender was trying to get across to the recipient may be gleaned to some extent by the handwritten line on the card's front border and from the text on the back of the card. However, what caught my attention was the curious wordplay on internal organs, that was obviously penned by a commercial copywriter and considered worthy of mass production as a greeting card.

St. Valentine's Day was instituted by the Roman Catholic Church, on February 14th, 496, in commemoration of a priest martyred in Rome. Perhaps due to its pagan association with Cupid, or possibly because it had become such a secular and commercial phenomenon, the official observance of this day was removed from the religious calendar in 1969. The first association of St. Valentine with romantic love can be traced to Geoffrey Chaucer's Parliament of Fools, written in 1382 in celebration of the first anniversary of the engagement of Richard II of England to Anne of Bohemia. However, given the date of the engagement, Chaucer's reference to St. Valentine appears to be linked to the observance of the feast day of Valentine of Genoa on May 2nd. How the linkage between romance and the feast day of Valentine of Rome on February 14th was established is not known, but it is often spuriously linked to Lupercalia, a Roman fertility festival, that was celebrated in the middle of February.
Personalized Valentine's greetings date back at least until the middle of the 18th century, with commercial card production starting in England in the early 1800s. The mass production of Valentine's cards was started around 1850 in the United States, thanks to the entrepreneurial spirit of Esther Howland, the daughter of a stationer in Worcester, Massachusetts. The addition of candy and flowers appears to have emerged in the second half of the 20th century, as other sectors capitalized on the marketing opportunity established through the greeting cards.
What exactly is the message of this card?
In ancient Greek philosophical writings, as well as in early physiological works, the liver is associated with the dark emotions (wrath, jealousy, and greed). Dating back to ancient Egypt, the heart is seen as the seat of truth and the soul. So, is our seated diner rejecting love and asking for anger? Is this some curious variation on the old chestnut that the way to a man's heart is through his stomach? Is this a card that a man would give to a woman, or a woman to a man? Given the time period, is it logical to assume that this is the man's wife? Otherwise, what is she doing feeding him? Whatever the intended meaning might have been, in today's world, a card like this would be more likely to conjure up images of Hannibal Lecter, than it would to evoke some expression of love.