Although the most important critics of the Enlightenment remain Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, who claim in Dialektik der Aufklärung that the universalisms and instrumental reason of the Enlightenment evolved into the inhumanity of Auschwitz, their arguments have been reiterated by many postmodern critics who have traced virtually all of the flaws of modernity to the Enlightenment project. Defenders of the Enlightenment have countered that postmodernism has turned the Enlightenment into the Other against which it defines itself. Confirmation that the combination of the Enlightenment and postmodernism is a volatile one can be found in fiction as well. In this essay I discuss three novels—Michel Tournier's Friday (1967), Sven Delblanc's Speranza (1980), and Barry Unsworth's Sacred Hunger (1992)—all of which examine key aspects of the Enlightenment. There are in addition slender intertextual threads connecting these three works that suggest that they might profitably be read as an evolving discussion regarding the opposition of culture and nature, the limits of the scientific perspective, the workings of power, and the viability of utopian visions.
All three novels critique the Enlightenment for its exploitation and domination of others. In Friday Crusoe's attempts to organize and rationalize his domain are exposed as an urge to control and dominate his environment, and, in turn, Friday. When his constructed civilization is ultimately undone by the whimsy and accident represented by Friday, Crusoe rejects the values of “civilization” and elects to remain on his island in a state of nature. In Speranza, on the other hand, Delblanc seems to reject Tournier's somewhat romantic ending and allows his literary imagination to follow Friday back into the world of slave ships and avarice. On the slave ship that gives the novel its title, the novel's protagonist learns that Enlightenment ideals involving liberty and fraternity are hopelessly naïve, that scientific rationality carries no weight, and that the very notion of utopia becomes an excuse to sacrifice individuals for some greater goal. Although in Sacred Hunger Unsworth seems to share much of Delblanc's pessimism about human nature, the hope that is vindicated in Friday and squelched in Speranza is allowed to flicker once more. Resistance to the violence onboard the Liverpool Merchant results in mutiny and change, in contrast to the failed revolt on the Speranza; and the utopian ideal of a better society actually creates a relatively egalitarian and peaceful community for the span of twelve years, a limited prospect that does not seem possible in Delblanc's novel. Moreover, although avarice and the urge to subdue others finally prevail in Sacred Hunger, some Enlightenment ideals have been realized and even survive into the future. Thus, I argue, if both Michel Tournier and Sven Delblanc present an Enlightenment that has foundered on the rocks of human avarice and cruelty, Barry Unsworth chooses to salvage some of the wreckage.