“Sour Grapes”


Culture and International Relations in the 18th Century

European writers, including the Jesuits, were masters of the “sour grapes” technique! For example, by the late seventeenth century, Europeans were developing a taste for the refined practice of drinking tea. Le Comte (1697), perhaps jealous, dismissed tea drinking, saying that the Chinese had to invent tea to cover up the taste of their foul water! This underlying tone of comparison, mutual jealousy, and one-up-manship is quite typical of international cultural competition and sometimes spurred people on toward rapid development and innovation. And so Jean-Denis Attiret mentions that his Chinese colleagues also chided him on the heavy, closed look of European buildings, shut off from nature, light, and fresh air:

They look upon our streets as so many ways hollowed into terrible mountains; and upon our houses, as rocks pointing up in the air, and full of holes like the dens of bears and other wild beasts. Above all, our different stories, piled up so high above one another, seem quite intolerable to them: and they cannot conceive, how we can bear to run the risk of breaking our necks, so commonly, in going up such a number of steps . . .

From Attiret, A particular account of the Emperor of China’s gardens near Pekin: in a letter from F. Attiret, a French missionary, now employ’d by that emperor to paint the apartments in those gardens, to his friend at Paris. Trans. from the French by Sir Harry Beaumont (London 1752).

In fact, it was only after contact with Chinese garden ideals that European architects began to integrate more organically living spaces and garden spaces, but the process was not an easy one. Although some Europeans who read Attiret began advocating the adoption of Chinese taste, such as the pursuit of variety as an aesthetic ideal, or multiple perspectives in gardening, others were offended by the presumption that Europeans could learn anything of value from other races. The important thing to understand is that, IN EITHER CASE, encounter with another culture often leads to creative changes. For example, although some Europeans did not want to admit that Europeans could learn anything from foreign cultures, by the end of the eighteenth century, almost all English garden designers were talking about multiple views and the need to integrate architecture naturally with the landscape. Perspective had been abandoned as an absolute principle in garden design.

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