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Cruel delight - James A. Steintrager

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Cruel delight - enlightenment culture and the inhuman
James A. Steintrager
Paperback / softback
Indiana University Press
UK Publication Date

"An important contribution to studies of eighteenth-century culture and to literary history and theory and for those with an interest in horror, sentimentality, the invention of the modern individual, and ethics of 'the human.'"
-Daniel Cottom, David A. Burr Chair of Letters, University of Oklahoma

Cruel Delight: Enlightenment Culture and the Inhuman investigates the fascination with joyful malice in eighteenth-century Europe and how this obsession helped inform the very meaning of humanity. Steintrager reveals how the understanding of cruelty moved from an inexplicable, apparently paradoxical "inhuman" pleasure in the misfortune of others to an eminently human trait stemming from will and freedom. His study ranges from ethical philosophy and its elaboration of moral monstrosity as the negation of sentimental benevolence, to depictions of
cruelty-of children mistreating animals, scientists engaged in vivisection, and the painful procedures of early surgery-in works such as William Hogarth's "The Four Stages of Cruelty," to the conflict between humane sympathy and radical liberty illustrated by the writings of the Marquis de Sade. In each instance, the wish to deny a place for cruelty in an enlightened world reveals a darker side: a deep investment in depravity, a need to reenact brutality in the name of combating it, and, ultimately, an erotic attachment to suffering.

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James A. Steintrager received his M.A. in French and Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University. He teaches English and comparative literature at the University of California, Irvine. He has published articles and essays on Enlightenment philosophy, poststructuralist theory, and libertine fiction, and is now writing a study on pleasure as a social system.

Steintrager (English and comparative literature, Univ. of California, Irvine) offers a thoughtful and original meditation on cruelty as it appears in the English, French, and (to a lesser degree) German literature of the 18th century. Informed but not overwhelmed by Foucauldian theory, the short narrative (just 150 pages of text) is more suggestive than definitive, but it raises useful questions about those who take pleasure in inflicting pain. The 18th century found discussions of cruelty difficult because moral philosophy defined human beings as sympathetic creatures: to be human was to be humane. The prospect that people could enjoy the suffering of others threatened to disturb the age's very definition of humanity. The book's six chapters fall into three groups of two: the first pair examine the place of cruelty in moral philosophy, especially that of the Scottish Enlightenment; the next two explore cruelty to animals, using William Hogarth's prints The Four Stages of Cruelty as a case study; the final two start from the life and works of the Marquis de Sade and take on issues of vivisection and surgery. Summing Up: Recommended. Upper-division undergraduates and above.September 2004

Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, Newark - J. T. Lynch

Keyword Index
Cruelty - History - 18th century.|Enlightenment.
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