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a black and white photo of a pencil drawing of various comets

The Logic of Comets: Rethinking 17th-century French Studies

Thursday, March 7, 2024
5:00 pm
Harrison Hall 111

Claire Goldstein's research examines cultural and literary reactions to comets that appeared in 1664-65 and 1681-82, bookending the period in which Louis XIV established his personal reign and his artists developed the sun king imagery. Comets –considered at the time to be without discernable form or pattern – are brilliant like the sun, but they arrive in the dark, appearing nightly (and sometimes by day) for months at a time, in seemingly haphazard locations, with a dramatic tail in tow. Comets, and the attention people paid to them, allow us to see the seventeenth century in ways that complicate the narrative of a race towards rationalization, classicism, and modernity. They index, rather, a messy period where the spectacular is inscrutable; comets, in other words, raise questions rather than offer answers. Exploring the late seventeenth century in France with an eye for comets significantly reshapes our understanding of the literary and cultural field.

Claire Goldstein teaches French literature and culture at the University of California Davis. She was previously a faculty member in the Department of French and Italian at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Professor Goldstein’s research in ancien régime French-language literature and culture has explored subjects such as garden design, art and architecture; theater, ballet, and fête performances; astronomy; early modern fashion accessories; and early journalism. Her scholarship is motivated by her abiding interests in visual and material culture, her curiosity about how the things people see, and the objects and material practices that they engage with, create cultural meanings.

Professor Goldstein's forthcoming book (Northwestern UP, Rethinking the Early Modern), In the Sun King’s Cosmos: Comets and the Cultural Imagination of Seventeenth-Century France, is a study of how unusually bright comets that appeared in 1664-65 and 1680-81 appeared not only in the sky but also in ballets and theater, letters and early journalism, architecture and institutions, theology and literary style. She studies how comets -- considered at the time to be chaotic and without discernable form or pattern -- organized curiosity, scrutiny, resistance and doubt regarding the epistemological status of observation; and also crystalized alternative—non-official, sometimes contestatory— networks in which information, bodies, and texts circulated against the centralizing current of Louis XIV's France, which sought to dictate the shape, availability, and dissemination of knowledge.

In another long term project, Professor Goldstein studies early modern fashion accessories and the limits of the human.

Sponsored by the L.P. Irvin Lecture Fund and the department of French, Italian, and Classical Studies.

Claire Goldstein
Claire Goldstein
Professor of French Literature and Culture at the University of California Davis