Diderot’s Letters to Sophie Volland: A Selection
The eighteenth century is remote enough to be another world, yet near enough for us to recognize here in their infancy our modern values, our political doctrines, and our intellectual disciplines. Exploring the eighteenth century is an indirect but useful way of examining ourselves.
In completing his biography of Diderot, Arthur M. Wilson has earned the gratitude of everyone who is interested in the Enlightenment. Diderot’s importance needs no emphasizing today. Throughout the twentieth century he has been growing steadily in stature, and critical comment on his work has even outstripped that devoted to Rousseau—no small feat. The recent publication of Diderot’s works, competently edited by Roger Lewinter, includes almost everything Diderot wrote; all that is missing from these fourteen volumes is the complete collection of texts written by Diderot for the Encyclopedia. Compiling them would have been a hard task, and it will raise daunting problems for the international team of scholars who are about to undertake a critical edition of Diderot’s works.
Diderot indeed occupies a central place in the Enlightenment. Stubborn courage enabled him to bring the great ark of the Encyclopedia safe to harbor in 1772 after twenty-five years of untiring labor. The Encyclopedia has been seen, and rightly so, as a symbol of the triumph of the bourgeois spirit; it aimed at bringing together knowledge of all kinds and harnessing it to the rational exploitation of natural resources for the common good. To use Bernard Groethuysen’s expression, it gave its readers a proprietor’s view of the world. Similarly, Diderot made a decisive contribution to almost every field he touched on. He launched aesthetics and art criticism on a new career, he was instrumental in changing the face of the theater, he invented the first experimental novels. He had an impressive insight into the tasks and methods of the new biology.
He was master enough of the learning of his age to be able to claim without exaggeration that nothing human was foreign to him; mathematics, technology, music, painting, sculpture, medicine, economics, education, and politics, all of these, in almost equal measure, were his concern as a man of letters. This expression possessed in his day a breadth of meaning which it has gradually been losing ever since. In his role as a European, too. Diderot is a central figure; he is among those who introduced, assimilated, and popularized in France Bacon, Shaftesbury, Richardson, and Sterne—and in his turn he was to influence Lessing and Goethe and leave his imprint on Hegel and his progeny.
Diderot’s biographer has a hard task. There are many documents, but they are scattered; for some periods they are plentiful, for others all too rare. Unlike Rousseau, Diderot did not go to the trouble of writing a complete autobiographical apologia; to defend his name he composed not Confessions but a Life of Seneca (1779), in which he speaks of himself only indirectly. The biographer is obliged to sift his material, organizing it patiently so as to discover a guiding thread. Arthur M. Wilson has succeeded admirably in this undertaking. His brisk and sensible book is remarkable for its clarity of outline. He gives us a great deal of information, but does not clutter his text with erudition. The specialist reader will find at the end of the book a very full critical apparatus, which together with the indexes occupies almost two hundred pages. The book is thus at the same time a pleasure to read and a definitive work which anyone working on Diderot will need to consult.
It is worth adding that Diderot is also an unruffled book; the author’s obvious sympathy for his subject never lapses into partisanship. This is not a hagiography with a hero who is never wrong. Arthur M. Wilson is not the sort of biographer who feels himself obliged to weigh up rights and wrongs; he lets facts and texts speak for themselves. His impartial account of the quarrel between Rousseau and Diderot is a model of its kind. He has the modesty to limit himself to a scrupulously faithful presentation of his subject, without thrusting his own interpretations between Diderot and us. And this method works: we are given an almost physical sensation of Diderot’s presence. It is as if we were in the same room as this energetic, immensely active man who forgets his appointments, eats too much and too quickly, and allows his ready tongue to lure him into innumerable digressions. We can easily imagine his excitement (occasionally bordering on the manic) and the eloquence which can sometimes soar to sublime heights, but remains “extremely popular” in tone and leads him, rather more often than is quite proper, to praise his own kindness, virtue, and passion for good.
One of the dominant tendencies of Diderot’s mind is his urge to discover secrets, to bring them to light, to expose them to the general gaze; his aim is to lay bare everything which is so painstakingly concealed by ignorance, hypocrisy, and falsehood. Such is the lesson which his early work The Indiscreet Jewels (1748) inculcates in its libertine and rococo fashion. The starting point of this youthful “novel” is the merry hypothesis of a magic ring which enables bystanders to hear the words spoken by a part of the female body that is not normally endowed with speech; a potentially endless succession of short narratives interspersed with commentaries lets the amused reader into secrets which decency would have kept hidden. It is the lifting of a taboo. And what we discover by way of this near-pornography is what Lockean philosophy had already taught us in more modest terms: that man falls prey to uneasiness if he does not constantly renew the sensations which give him the feeling of his own existence, that boredom lies in wait for him if he does not maintain a rapid sequence of pleasures, surprises, and occupations of every possible kind.
This is why modes of behavior and works of art inspired by Lockean psychology place so much stress on variety, unexpectedness, and inconstancy, and time comes to be experienced as a string of discontinuous moments, this being reflected in literature by occasional verse, brief tales, miscellanies, and collections of anecdotes and letters where the serious and pleasurable are mixed in an unforeseeable combination. Voltaire was a master of this technique; Diderot did no more than experiment with it. He was not the sort of man to make frequent use of the frivolous literary devices which had served his purpose in The Indiscreet Jewels. It was easy for him to do without allegory, satirical fairy tales, and fairground exoticism, but he never lost his curiosity about the life of the body, about desire and sexuality, or his taste for pulling aside the draperies and revealing the truth for all to see.
There is no denying that the reason why many of Diderot’s works are so attractive (and so provocative) is that they are largely made up of the revelation and complete exposure of an inside story. What makes The Nun (1760) such a scandalous novel? Essentially it is the sudden light which it casts on what goes on behind convent walls, the unwilling vocations, the secret illegitimate births, the disastrous physiological effects of forced chastity. It is on the body, deep down in the organism, that convent life finally leaves its mark. In his nun’s confessional tale Diderot’s penetrating medical insight shows us how illness, sexual perversion, and madness are the ultimate consequences of a refusal to obey what he calls “nature.” The reader not only sees into the cells of the convent, he gains access to the secret mechanisms of female existence (as it was understood by the medical science of the eighteenth century).
It is just the same with Rameau’s Nephew (begun in 1761); the satire here consists largely of the way Diderot uses his uninhibited bohemian hero to expose to the public gaze the secret way of the world. Driven from the rich man’s house where he has been living the life of a parasite, the nephew reveals the intrigues and hidden vices of the world of high finance; expelled, because of his impertinence, from the circles where an anti-philosophe plot is being hatched, he reveals all their most secret absurdities and crimes; he knows everything and hides nothing, and above all he flaunts his own immorality, which is so perfectly adapted to the immorality of his society.
In all these examples Diderot reveals the truth by proxy: the “jewels” confessing their own misdemeanors, the nun Suzanne Simonin telling the tale of her torments, the unruly nephew lifting the veil which hides the dinner table and boudoir of a financier living with a mediocre actress. What of the times when Diderot speaks in his own name? This is Diderot the editor of the Encyclopedia, and here again he strives to reveal and divulge secrets to the general public. To undertake a task of this size it is not enough to be spurred on by a deep hate for irrational systems of belief, not enough even to be convinced of the need for a complete inventory of the arts and sciences. It needs too a certain instinctive urge, which enables one to find pleasure in exposing what is concealed. To uncover Nature’s secrets, to capture the secrets of technology and share them with the whole world, to reinforce the written word with visual representation: these were some of Diderot’s most cherished aims.
Arthur M. Wilson gives us an illuminating quotation from a text on The History and Secret of Painting in Wax (1775) in which Diderot proclaims quite openly his passion for bringing things into the light of day and defends it in the noblest moral terms. Of course it is quite possible to accept these humanitarian arguments. But at the same time it is hard not to give equal weight to a less rational sort of motive. This is how Diderot puts it:
Nothing is more contrary to the progress of knowledge than mystery…. If it happens that an invention favorable to the progress of the arts and sciences comes to my knowledge, I burn to divulge it; that is my mania. Born communicative as much as it is possible for a man to be, it is too bad that I was not born more inventive; I would have told my ideas to the first comer. Had I but one secret for all my stock in trade, it seems to me that if the general good should require the publication of it, I should prefer to die honestly on a street corner, my back against a post, than let my fellow men suffer.
This is his constant refrain. Elsewhere we read:
We must make public both the results of our research and the means by which we have achieved them. Mere publication is not enough; it must be complete and unequivocal. Let us hasten to make philosophy more accessible. Is not nature already hidden enough without our adding a veil of mystery; is experimental science not difficult enough as it is?