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Numismatic Nationalisms, Dangerous Liaisons, and the Nature of the Universe. My BSECS Day 3.

January 12, 2015


The “Old Law Library” has no law books in it.  Merely sets of journals in no particular configuration with volumes on brain chemistry nuzzling up to volumes on ancient Athenian drama.  But here was a session on Swift – and the perfect environment for a mismatched “battle of the books” as someone noted.  We learned about some of Swift’s late poems, and the idea of what it means to simultaneously embrace and yet subvert the central tropes of topographical retirement. And we heard a deal about Swift’s numismatic assocations – his love of coins and medals of all kinds – his fascination with artifacts that outlast buildings and manuscripts. Paradoxically, such artifacts can prove as politically ephemeral and fragile as they are physically durable. I got to thinking about Swift and Newton. In Gulliver’s Travels Swift dismisses Newtonian physics as a passing fad – but he would have held a grudge against Newton anyway – as boss of the Royal Mint, Newton had personally attested to the metallurgical integrity of Wood’s Half Pence – that Swift had so vehemently opposed being foisted upon Ireland.

The later morning was more philosophical. And more French. Laclos mixed up with eighteenth-century natural philosophy and the extent to which “Nature” is more or no more than the sum of its (or her) parts. What is love, for example – and is the solitary communion with nature actually as favourable to virtue rather than vice as poets and philosophers have suggested? The belief that “Nature” is inherently good is at the heart of all forms of utopian thought in the eighteenth-century – in eighteenth-century France in particular. Paradoxically, this utopianism can be compatible with some of the most acute descriptions of wickedness literature has to offer, so long as this very wickedness can be transferred to “unnatural” social malformations.

As chair of this last heavy-weight session, it was my responsibility to wind discussion up so that other people did not eat all the sandwiches. And following sandwiches came the final review session. Some commentators above the salt offering remarks on papers seen and heard. Always – some pleasant disagreement as to the extent to which the conference theme had been justified and the extent to which the theme was ever a theme rather than a leitmotif.

At this point I run, because I can’t bear too many extended goodbyes to too many lovely people. Is it just me – but if you take the trouble to say a proper goodbye to someone at a conference, you will invariably see them twenty times afterwards while you plot your journey home?

Still, BSECS 2016 awaits – just 359 days away. BSECS 2016 awaits patiently. And I wait. Impatiently.

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