Monday, 27 December 2010

Diderot still stirs

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Denis Diderot (1769)
Musée du Louvre, Paris
Philippe Sollers, in Le Nouvel Observateur, 23rd December 2010:

On the 7th July 1746, the Parliament of Paris condemned a book to be "slashed and burned as scandalous, contrary to religion and morality." The volume was published deceptively in the Hague, "at the Company's expense," and circulated under the counter, with no named author. This last was 33 years old, and would be much talked about thereafter. His name was Denis Diderot, his book was called Philosophical Thoughts, and on its title page was this inscription in Latin: "This fish is not for everyone." Indeed not, as censorship soon understood, just as she understood it of that most dangerous of books: the Encyclopedia.

For all who, at the time, conspired for a change of era, Diderot was the Philosopher. Funny philosopher, as far removed from the ancient saints of the profession as from today's social windbags. The author of Indiscreet Jewels, The NunRameau's Nephew and Jacques the Fatalist, is first of all a whirlwind in action. He is everywhere and nowhere, an incessant effervescence. As Michel Delon rightly says, "his style is that of a troublemaker or guerrilla who is constantly changing places, who rejects any final position." Or again, speaking of this turbulent writer's numerous borrowings and citations à la Montaigne: "Diderot reveals not only the ideas that constitute him, he deploys his own ideas through recourse to otherness."

He stirs, Diderot; he has multiple related identities; he drifts; he skids; he dialogues. Thinking is a continual conversation, a great swarming novel. "A single physical quality," he said, "can lead the mind to consider an infinite variety of things." To think is to make music, to dance, to hit out, to destroy the ignorant assuredness of every power. Listen to Catherine of Russia after her meetings with the Philosopher: "Your Diderot is an extraordinary man, I do not tear myself away from my conversations with him without my thighs all black and blue." It would have been better for the French monarchy to let itself be smacked on the thighs by this insolent man, rather than persecute the Lumières and send them to Russia or Prussia. Heroic times, when writers were banished and their writings "slashed", something the drab French of today seem to have no idea of.

Pablo Picasso, Denis Diderot (1954)
Read this: "I write of God: I count on few readers, and seek only a few who approve. If these thoughts please no-one, they can only be bad, but I will hold them for despicable, if they appeal to everyone. " Apart from the Letter on the Blind (prison for the author) and the little-known Essay on the Reigns of Claudius and Nero (where Diderot celebrates Seneca), the most fantastic book in this collection [Oeuvres philosophiques, see below] is D'Alembert's Dream, a surrealist masterpiece. D'Alembert rants in his sleep; Mlle de Lespinasse, his mistress, takes notes of what he says in his dreams; Dr Bordeu, like a good psychoanalyst, interprets everything. It's mad, it's wonderful, thoughts that think their subterranean continuity, the "vibrating strings", of which we and all the world are made. It's a frenzied harpsichord, but "the philosophical instrument is sensitive; it is musician and instrument at the same time." Meanwhile, Mlle de Lespinasse receives a harsh cold lesson on sexuality and the baneful effects of continence. She readily accepts the demonstrations of the prophetic Dr Bordeu and says: "there is no difference between a physician awake and a dreaming philosopher." The revolutionary conclusion: "There is but one virtue: justice; one duty: to be happy; one corollary: do not overrate life, nor fear death."

(translation: A Curran)

Oeuvres philosophiques (Pléiade edition, published 18th November 2010) at Amazon France

Denis Diderot: Oeuvres Philosophiques Tome 1: Pensées, Réflexions, Lettre sur les Aveugles, Lettre sur les Sourds

1 comment:

  1. Diderot - The Nun (in English):
    Rameau's Nephew and First Satire (in English):