Merde,” says Moi. He has just spilled ink over his manuscript, his nightgown, his bedclothes. The instrument of his control over words is running wild across the laundry. Trying to describe a rebellious acquaintance (Lui), he finds the very ink rebelling, disturbing his neat white repose among the sheets (and the sheets of paper). Unwrapping bed-cerements from himself, he must stumble up and into a defensive posture. One does not lightly recall Rameau’s nephew. So, at last, the dramatization of Diderot’s Neveu de Rameau began, in the sweltering common room of Jonathan Edwards College at Yale. It had been delayed, rained out, moved indoors, cut from three to two performances. But it was the great triumph of a greatly interesting week.

New Haven is generally ugly, but never more so than in summer. It manages to have the look of a factory town without actually being one. It is soggy with nearby water, yet it must be fled to reach relatively uncontaminated bits of Sound. To make things worse, the week of July 13-20 began in the trail-off of a long summer rain. “Pluvio, sempre pluvio—sempre! sempre!” an Italian lumière muttered as he overtook me in the mid-day darkness and stood under an awning. Yet Yale was still the obvious place for the fourth International Congress on the Enlightenment—the first one held in America. To students of the eighteenth century, it is a factory town, whose dark scholastic mills turn out volume after volume of the Walpole papers, Boswell papers, Franklin letters, and Johnson publications. Yale has consigned much of its twentieth century, whole careers of its old and young men, to repeating the eighteenth century comma by comma. The Enlightenment’s “acres of typography,” whose republication Carlyle described in 1833 as not “within computable distance of completion,” are now at least computable, if not completable.

Some of the raw material from the “factories” was put on display in the Beinecke Library—e.g., Boswell’s letter trying to get Voltaire as interested in his (Boswell’s) soul as Dr. Johnson was. The only messy page in these cabinets of neat calligraphy was by a painter—Joshua Reynolds’s “character” of Samuel Johnson. In the Sterling Library, one could look at some of Benjamin Franklin’s letters and at what was probably his own electrostatic machine. There were ancillary exhibits of eighteenth-century calling cards, playing cards, coins, bookplates, and scientific instruments (“philosophical apparatus,” as they would have been called).

In the art school, the great Trumbull collection of colonial and federal paintings was available (e.g., Peale’s portrait of William Buckland against a classical façade, showing the ideal he followed rather than the kind of buildings he put up). The Boston Museum of Fine Arts, within easy striking distance, was showing Copley’s best American portraits and a dazzling display of silver work by the Reverses (père et fils). The Metropolitan in New York had, by happy accident, three exhibits of interest to those at the Congress: 1) two-thirds of the huge Detroit-Paris show of revolutionary-era paintings from France, 2) a display of George Washington icons, 3) a sample of European images for the continent of America (from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries).

These neatly overlapped. America, as allegorized in the Four Continents scheme of the seventeenth century, shows up in the Roman chariot driven by George Washington; and the apotheosis of Washington could be compared with that of Napoleon in the Detroit-Paris show. Napoleon is called back from the pyramids by a distraught “France,” and American Freedom bids farewell to Washington as he returns to the plow of Cincinnatus.

These riches were offered on fairly austere terms. Most scholars had to bed down in the linked Eero Saarinen colleges, Morse (for those traveling alone) or Ezra Stiles (for those with mate and/or children)—they were let in at night, out in the morning, by student turnkeys who also turned the tables on their elders, eying the singles toward their separate doors. The roster of those attending was a “Who’s Who” of eighteenth-century studies, and let people put faces to many names from the card catalogue. Logistics were admirably handled by Professor Georges May, the host for the Congress, who had to cope with nearly 1,000 participants, roughly a fourth from abroad. Each afternoon groups sorted themselves out toward seven or so different panel sessions, with up to eight papers in each session. The published proceedings are expected to run to six large volumes, over twice the bulk from the last Congress (at Nancy). Meeting places were widely scattered, on a crazed map dictated by the presence of air conditioning. This made it hard or impossible to shop around for single papers. Once you dashed through the rain, or slogged through heat, to one site, you were probably committed for the afternoon.


A philosophe returned to this study of his prime might wonder why, with such an army of dix-huitiemists on hand, the Congress did not make a revolution, rather than footnote one. The Encyclopédie itself would have felt on easy street with the resources of just one Yale “factory”; and a modern Diderot would not trouble himself with the daily life of a proto-Diderot two centuries back. Both speakers at the opening ceremonies obviously felt the need to justify this huge effort in terms beyond the anti-quarian. Lester Crocker, outgoing president of the International Society for Eighteenth Century Studies, gave his epigrams an appropriate balance, comparing philosophes with the new left: “The first were reformers who brought about a revolution; the second may be revolutionaries who bring about reform.” He also compared the eighteenth-century myth of the bourgeoisie to Marx’s myth of the proletariat, and said the time had come to live without myths. The philosophes were models in so far as they attacked old myths; but only warning figures in so far as they erected new myths themselves, like the myth of Nature or of Nature’s laws.

That was like a red flag waved at the next speaker, Peter Gay, for whom the Enlightenment is a norm used in judging everything else. Gay attacked three kinds of “gravediggers” who reinter the eighteenth century in the very act of unearthing it: 1) the embalmers (many of them, clearly, working in Yale’s factories): 2) the distorters, who try to find the seeds of modern totalitarian thought in the eighteenth century (everyone knew he was thinking of Crocker’s own book on Rousseau); and 3) the discouraged, who have simply lost the nerve or will to keep working at the Enlightenment’s unfinished agenda.

Gay was warmly applauded, especially by older members present. It is odd. He praises the philosophes for their attack on Biblical fundamentalism; but he has become a fundamentalist of the Enlightenment. Anything good, it gave us; if anything the philosophes say suggests this is not the case, then they must be interpreted in increasingly complex rescue efforts of exegesis. It reminds me of a passage in Gay’s own book on the Enlightenment. Kart had attacked Herder for going back beyond the classical era in his search for the beginnings of history: “The review is a touching moment in the history of the late Enlightenment: the representative of a great but aging movement faces the representative of a new dispensation, refusing to believe that change is progress….”

There was a generation gap at the Congress, as in most places these days. René Wellek finished an interesting paper (on the Enlightenment’s) fear of the price to be paid for progress) with an unrelated denunciation of the modern world for its lack of clear standards. One of his more famous colleagues at Yale whispered, “That is so beautiful I cannot bear to stay and hear the attacks on it”—and he left. He was right, of course. All the questions were aimed, with increasing animosity, at Wellek’s concluding remarks, not at the heart of his address. What standards would he impose today? (“That would take another lecture.”) What, for that matter, was so good about the taste of a century that wept over Chatterton, Ossian, and Young? (“That is just eighteenth-century sentimentality.”) Grumbling after the talk partially defined those groups that would go at each other on the last big night, fighting this year’s mandatory struggle over things like the representation of women in the slate of officers. After the first day, an Australian said, “Have you noticed that all those giving talks to the plenary sessions in the morning are over sixty? They are the enemy.” They. Les autres.

Moi is a great upholder of standards—the self-sufficient man. His hero is Diogenes masturbating in his tub. Each day at a certain time he takes a walk, plays with ideas on a specified bench (like another kind of man flirting with the day’s first streetwalkers), and goes to watch “the wood pushers” at their game of chess in the Café de la Régence. It is a daily minuet, across a Paris dance floor as well marked for him as the chessboard he oversees. Moi paces out afternoon ruminations by the Seine; his mind flirts decorously with the edged lights and shadows of late day. The world dims a bit, but is more defined, as the light gives everything a shadow-double, chessboard-chequering the world into a pattern. Standards are imposable.

It was a master stroke of Alvin Epstein, the Moi of Yale’s repertory theater production, and the dialogue’s director, not to stage Le Neveu in the obvious literal place, in the café amid silent chess players. The play shows us Moi as he is writing up the dialogue His bed is a rumpled altar, bright-lit deathbed out of David—with a huge dark painting, a third-rate Raphael, as its headboard. It is flanked by carved columns. Moi is disposed between them, composing his memories of talk with Lui. That quaint nephew exists only as Moi gives him inky life on the page. The man of reason is in control, creating his own foil in the remembered debates of late day, so he can answer him.


Much of the Congress would fray out into argument about the very meaning of Enlightenment. Who were the truly enlightened? Gay, in his lecture, referred lightly to George Orwell as “a later philosophe.” He could find a philosophe in the twentieth century, but some panels had a hard time finding philosophes in the eighteenth century. If Kant’s critique was the ideal toward which the Enlightenment was striving, then few reached that high plateau. Should men be called philosophes just because they addressed the same “contemporary” issues of their day? That would make Dr. Johnson as much a philosophe as Diderot.

These questions posed themselves several times in the panel on the Scottish Enlightenment. Was Lord Forbes of Pitsligo a proto-philosophe simply because he came between Pascal and Hume, and registered some of the pressures making from the one to the other? Yet he was a defender of the Old Cause. More to the point: James Beattie was a foe of Hume on his own ground—did that make him a shadow-philosophe, a corrective to be incorporated, not merely an antiphilosophe? In other sessions, analogous problems arose. Were the philosophes more enlightened, or less, than their later rivals, the idéologues? Was enlightenment better advanced by the économistes or by physiocrates? And it was pointed out that the unenlightened—Blake, Johnson, Linguet, Rochester—often saw life with more clarity or compassion than their “philosophical” opponents. At times in the Congress the Enlightenment seemed to be darkening, talk by talk, toward nearly total eclipse.

In the panel on the Declaration of Independence Robert Palmer, after delivering a brief paper on a rare Swiss printing of the Declaration, broke off a rather rambling discussion with a heartfelt outburst: he felt it must be a mistake to treat the Declaration as a product of the Enlightenment. Its roots were rather in the seventeenth century, in Locke and Bolingbroke, Sidney and Harrington—“Did England have any Enlightenment? I don’t think it needed one.” There was a polite self-strangling of anonymous boos for this show of national favor at an international affair.

Yet the philosophes themselves would have been sympathetic to this view. They boasted of their anglomanie. They looked on Bolingbroke and Wilkes as visiting prophets from the land of wisdom. England meant one thing to them: Newton. The most important man in the eighteenth-century scheme of things did his main work before that century began. If there is some truth in Whitehead’s claim that philosophy is a process of footnoting Plato, it would be far truer to say that the Enlightenment is all a series of footnotes to that odd Diogenes-figure of seventeenth-century Cambridge, Isaac Newton. The only proviso might be the addition of an English satellite to that sun: John Locke. God had said, “Let there be Newton,” and there was light. All later lumières were tapers lit from this hearth. (Admittedly, the eighteenth century saw just one of Newton’s sides—the solar-lit side, not the religious and mystic Newton.)

Newton is never absent from talk about the eighteenth century. But in retrospect I find the debates over philosophie at the Congress somewhat dimmed by lack of a constant focus on that source of light. If Diderot would not waste his time studying a proto-Diderot two centuries back, he could boast nothing higher than the study of this giant from half a century before. The two books of whose merit he felt most assured were his Mémoires sur différents sujets, a gloss on Newton, and his Rève de d’Alembert, a gloss on Locke. In the Encyclopédie itself, pride of place goes to Newtonian subjects, or Lockean ones. The student of sensibilité in the moral sense will find fewer than seven columns devoted to it—preceded by twenty-seven on the “medical” (i.e., Lockean) sense, and by eight columns on “Sensation.”

The difference between the philosophes and their present-day students is easily stated. Yale now marshals a learned kosmos of skills to study one man. The Enlightenment thought one man could study the whole cosmos. Newton was its warrant for this. He just observed well, measured exactly, and the universe spoke directly to him. No special training was required—no metaphysical theory, no initiation into priestcraft. Indeed, all those things had to be shed if one was to look with fresh eyes at plain fact. One commenced as a scientist merely by opening one’s eyes. Each gentleman had his own philosophical apparatus (Jefferson’s was left him by his law teacher), just as he had his own library. Benjamin Rush, on his visit to England, found that Dr. Johnson could resolve a dispute on chemistry by recounting his own experiments. Diderot wrote his Encyclopédie articles on points of technology by taking machines home and disassembling them, then rebuilding them himself. The twelve volumes of engravings were actually a series of do-it-yourself courses fancily bound. And as Diderot could reassemble mills and looms in his home, David Rittenhouse, the self-taught clockmaker, could reassemble Newton’s universe to scale.

Yet the very achievement of Newton gave a certain nostalgic air to the Enlightenment. His work was done. Spelling out its implications, smuggling these past the censors, compiling results were in the nature of a mopping-up operation. The laws were almost all discovered now—not only for bodies in motion, but for epic and drama, architecture and painting. And, as Professor Wellek proved with ample quotes, men felt that all this progress had exacted its toll. Men had become “correct,” but by a loss of vigor. Certain pre-Enlightenment charms were lost forever. Men could rattle off all the rules for writing epics—but no one would ever write them again. Even Voltaire’s Henriade seemed a brilliant but misguided attempt to regain a lost credulity. The supernatural “machinery” of epic had to be looked at, now, as a bad attempt at Newton’s laws. Heroes loom up from the shadows, and the Light had shrunk them all back to men. As another speaker to the plenary session, Robert Elliott, put it, men felt obliged to look forward toward utopia rather than backward to epic ages—and utopia looked rather pallid by comparison. Ossian was greeted with raptures because there would be no more Ossians.

And so, amid all the hymns to light, there grew up a half-confessed nostalgie de la nuit. A man was expected to show a certain guilt for the shadows left within him, a kind of pre-Newtonian residue; but he also cherished that shadow-self in off-duty moments. Of course he had to denounce the superstitions of the past, say that monks were trying to keep alive the monkey inside the philosophe. The tallow to be burned up in each lumière’s blaze was the monkey-grease of the past.

But this carping at the past was more useful for infuriating Jesuits than for comforting philosophes. An uncomfortable suspicion remained—that men could achieve total clarity because they had entered a cramped circle of light.

So the eighteenth century secretly nourished a night life it could only intermittently justify. Dr. Johnson roamed the streets with Richard Savage. Blake traced with Flaxman in the daylight, but squinted with Fuseli through night’s torches. Diderot worked at science, pornography, and drama through plenilune, vacant, and gibbous phases of his mind. Rousseau’s yearning back to the savage carried him outside encyclopedist orthodoxy. Enter Lui.

With a lexicographer’s exploration of his own antiworld, Moi says that the only way to define Rameau’s nephew would be by contrast—with himself. He is his own exact opposite. That is his only identity. Moi observes him as Buffon would an orangutang, or as Dr. Johnson would a Scotsman. And while Moi described the man, writing in his stage-lit bed, Lui’s face appeared on one of the columns at his bedside—shrinking, expanding; weeping, giggling; doing a large sample of emotions right out of Encyclopédie 24’s chart of the expressions. Charles Levin, a brilliant young (twenty-six) actor with mobile features, first appeared as a disembodied head—and, at times, as a tape-recorded voice fading back into Moi’s muttered scribblings. But as Moi wrote more furiously, Lui came forward, screamed, jumped up and down on the bedclothes (Moi rolling desperately, here and there, out of the way).

The dialogue, as staged, was a marvelous blend of the photographic and the surreal. Lui danced out from and back behind the bed, his voice flaring up or fading back into the taped “text” of the dialogue. Lui constantly supplanted his own author by enacting dialogues within the dialogue—new little worlds of which he is the author. To give his music lesson, he skipped behind the bed and reappeared dimly over it—the third-rate Raphael became a scrim when backlit. Later, Moi himself mimed the action behind that scrim while Lui, frontstage, described his cold and selfish patron, half-dead with self-absorption—Diogenes, indeed! Diderot the censorious, tsk-tsking over Palissot, became a Palissot.

Diderot would have loved it. His art criticism toyed often with the possibility of alternate languages—pantomime, gestures in painting, oratorical inflections heightened into recitative and aria. He plugged his ears at plays, to see if the actors’ bodies were “speaking” the lines. He sought a wider vocabulary of painted expressions. He fooled with Jesuit Father Castel’s clavecin oculaire, trying to “translate” music into color and vice versa. He wanted someone to experiment with a pantomime that would enact a play while different actors read its lines offstage. Lui and Moi, alternately ranting and posing, miming what the other writes or says, finally gave him his wish.

At one breathtaking moment, Lui disappeared from the platform behind the scrim and—still speaking the same sentence—popped up from the bedclothes beside Moi. Lui has all kinds of tunnels into his own author’s mind. At another point, while Lui resumed his first station behind the bed pillar, Moi ended up behind the other column, his disembodied head nodding and chattering back at Lui’s. Each became an alien element in the other’s consciousness. Each, for a time, controlled, accused, lost control, screaming and screamed at. Moi lunged out of, and barely recovered, the detached observer’s philosophie. Lui, after all, is only a fool—Right! says Lui; but a king who needs a Fool is a fool because of that need, and ends up as his Fool’s fool. Boswell, given one degree greater consciousness of his role, could have said that to Johnson; and Friedrich Grimm all but wrote it to his royal subscribers.

Lui keeps posing his metaphysical paradox to the antimetaphysical philosophe: that an antiself is not a nonself. Indeed, Lui has more selfhood and vitality than Moi. He is angrier, more alive—an erupting volcano of responsiveness. Moi, by comparison, is immobile. Centering back on himself like a spinning penny, he stutters and rocks to a halt—and so drops out of Newton’s world entirely.

Newton needs motion to observe. His task is the measurement of all motion with respect to a constant. The last part of the eighteenth century was filled with attempts to find an equivalent of “cosmic attraction” in human society. Locke supplied the necessary connection. The human mechanism is put in motion by the proper irritation of its senses—by irritability, sensibilité. The task was to get La Mettrie’s l’homme-machine into motion, and then to chart the laws of its motion. The art of drawing tears thus took on experimental value. Richardson and Greuze were recommended as part of man’s experiment upon himself. Michael Fried, in a slide-lecture before one of the plenary sessions, showed how Diderot charted the intensity of each actor’s response in a staged Greuze scene, grading them by their emotional proximity to the central figure, working out the formulas of attraction between moving human bodies.

Yet Moi seeks immobility. His approach to the passions is that of his own Socrates; they must be denied. He would be the still observer of others’ volatility. But if he is truly still, he drops out of post-Newtonian being. If his motions cannot be measured, he cannot be accounted for; he is not. Man exists by responding to the irritation of his senses.

Lui is nothing if not irritable. He is a string that resonates to all the world around him—the very model of sensibilité used by Diderot in D’Alembert’s Dream. It is not surprising that Lui should be a failed musician—too responsive to impose his own order on anything. He rebels against his uncle, yet falls victim to him when he hears his music. He speaks up for Pergolesi and Italian opera, and is sucked into his own airy “performance” of all the works he loves. Lui mimes music so well that Moi can actually hear it pulsing off from his gyrations. The Yale performance accomplished this with the help of three bowed instruments and a harpsichord, spiritedly played. The miming reaches a state of absolute perfection when Lui’s soundless performance conveys to Moi the way music imitates silence—motion suggesting motionlessness without ever becoming it (i.e., without becoming nothing).

The players’ brilliant treatment of these musical passages reinforced Donal O’Gorman’s thesis that Diderot was satirizing Rousseau at the climax of Rameau’s Nephew. Rousseau’s rebellion against Rameau (musical adviser to the Encyclopédie) led to many of the early troubles for the philosophes. Lacking Rameau’s knowledge of harmony and counterpoint, Rousseau praised the simple line and artless eloquence of the new Italian opera, the kind he wrote himself (The Village Soothsayer, 1752). Luckily, the Yale music school put on this very kind of performance for the Congress—Niccolo Piccinni’s La Buona Figluola (1760). The opera was enough to explain why Cimarosa seemed such a giant when he came along. Piccinni’s dramaturgy was on the simplest model Naples could afford, yet far in advance of his musicianship. He did not know what to do with more than one singer at a time, so he had Lover A sing to B, then leave while B responded. The end of each act brought out five people (six in the last), and Piccinni worked hard to ignore their presence.

The opera was well received by Congress members—mostly, I think, for the pleasant baroque busyness behind Piccinni’s simple airs. A modern audience tends to enjoy the “traditional” parts of the Pergolesi Stabat Mater, the bustle and horror vacui of the “Fac ut ardeat,” over the innovative sighs and outbursts and broken solo lines (“Fac ut portem“). Hard as it is to imagine now, Piccinni had verismo appeal to those brought up on Lully’s pageants. He was pitted against Gluck much as Rousseau championed Pergolesi against Rameau. It was appropriate, then, that the opera’s plot was out of Richardson (Pamela) by way of Goldoni—whom Diderot was accused of plagiarizing. The limited cast of characters, and the lingering on “bourgeois” emotions, fit the pattern of Lui’s rebellion. The opera was a Greuze painting set to music.

The Age of Reason was really the age of sentiment. The “moral sense” was man’s highest faculty, and Richardson availed it more than Socrates ever could. The note grave in David’s paintings, wittily expounded at midweek by Jean Seznec, shows us a world weighted with the pondera of moral sense, a little universe of Newtonian irritations tickling men to virtuous response.

But if such stimulation-and-response is the law of moral life, what is to prevent the total responsiveness of Lui? If sensation makes the world go around, it whips Rameau’s nephew like a top. Moral “gravitation” turns to mere levity, as in Diderot’s Bijoux Indiscrets, where the automatic affinities of nature are voiced by the pudenda, not the heart; where women’s lower labia speak sans passion, voicing the human mechanism’s iron rules. The dialogue of the upper and lower labia in chapter eleven of Diderot’s smutty masterpiece is a forecast of the wider conflict between Moi and Lui, and it outlines the real problem of the eighteenth century.

That era’s deepest task was not the simple imposition of reason that Peter Gay keeps looking for—a matter psychologically unmixed like blind retention of one’s superstitions. The real problem was somehow to reunite the savage and the sage, heart and head (as in Crébillon fils), the lower and upper labia, Lui and Moi. The attempt to find the pure philosophe was bound to break down, at the Congress, because the real philosophe was off in search of his shadow self, his lost savage twin, hard enough to find, and even harder to justify once found. The painters and poets liked to dwell on public virtue, repeating Cato’s instructive death in Marat’s. But they were also fascinated, as no other period has been, with the stranded Philoctetes, a figure who combined classical culture with savage isolation. Even Diogenes in his tub was a try at the same combination, his tub becoming Marat’s bath.

Even Diderot and Dr. Johnson were engaged in a single project, though they came at it from different angles. Diderot was trying to make science find room for the heart’s spontaneities. Johnson was trying to make belief find room for skepticism. The Encyclopédie was a work of reason forced to account for irrationality. The Dictionary was a work of faith forced to account for doubt. Johnson still believed in witches on principle, but doubted most reports about any one witch. Diderot hoped for an Ossian, and refused to doubt reports of him. Both reached out from opposed enclosures of belief—praying in effect, “Lord, I disbelieve; help thou my beliefs.” Diderot, alone in his chamber, called up the troublesome ghost of Lui—just as Johnson, in his oratory, used “philosophical” mortar and pestle. They were both trying to put a broken world together again; and both men failed. Lui escapes to laughter at the end of the dialogue, and the Yale audience laughed with him as the lights dimmed on a stranded Moi.

This Issue

September 18, 1975