From the outset, charlatanism poses challenging problems of definition. In fact, one might well argue that to define something so inherently mobile is to misrepresent it. But that difficulty must not be taken as a license for historical indiscipline. Some of the best recent histories often insist on the capacity of great charlatans to move rapidly between roles, or even to play several roles at once. Iain McCalman, in The Seven Ordeals of Count Cagliostro, characterises Cagliostro as a crook, a prophet, and many other things in between, insisting on the paradoxical coexistence of these qualities. Chantal Thomas, in Casanova: un voyage libertin, shows Casanova to be not just a great seducer of women, but a gambler, a freemason, and a fortune-teller. Should we understand the style of these historical figures as adventurous mobility ? another town, another role? Or should we understand their way of living as a craft, if not an art form? In either case, charlatanism must take its shifting form from the overlap of other cultural, intellectual and social spaces. The charlatan holds these spaces together, exploiting their internal and external insecurities through a capacity for simulation, sometimes indistinguishable from the ?real thing?.
Charlatanism is not therefore a positive object for investigation. To investigate it is uncover the internal and external vulnerabilities of European arts and sciences at particular points in their development. It is to point up the uncertainty produced by their dependence on, and their location in personae ripe for simulation. Our conference will seek to describe the blurring of borders between the valid sciences and their shady cousins, between the edifying arts and their corrupting neighbours, and of course the various attempts to redefine and defend these borders at the edge of reason.
Among the milieux to be discussed will be libertinism and the healing arts, demonology and theology, alchemy and natural philosophy, metaphysics and Rosicrucianism. Questions such as the following will be asked:
Was libertine materialism articulated with the practice of medicine as an art, and if so, how? What relationships existed in practice between secular magic (to use Simon During?s expression) and occultism? How were such arts as alchemy and necromancy rethought and redefined so as to have a place alongside freemasonry? What was the relation between the ?Enlightenment? of university metaphysics and that offered by the esoteric metaphysics of clandestine illumination societies? What was it that distinguished false prophets and religious visionaries from the legitimate teachers of the churches?
Dr Peter White Centre for the History of European Discourses The University of Queensland, Qld 4072 Australia Tel: +61 (0)7 3346 9492; Fax: +61 (0)7 3346 9495 CRICOS Provider number 00025B Email: [email protected] Visit the website at http://www.ched.uq.edu.au/charlatans/