Denis Diderot:
1713 - 1784

Table of Contents:

"Overview" by John Dunkley Abbey
Portrait of Diderot by Sainte-Beuve
"The Man Who Told Secrets" by Jean Satrobinski

Critic: John Dunkley
Source: Reference Guide to World Literature, Second Edition, edited by Lesley Henderson, St. James Press, 1995
Criticism about: Denis Diderot (1713-1784), also known as: Pantophile Diderot

Diderot is best remembered as the general editor of the Encyclopédie (Encyclopedia) and as one of its main contributors. The project absorbed most of his energies from 1750 to 1772. Conceived initially as a translation of the Chambers Cyclopaedia, the Encyclopedia developed into an overview of world knowledge and was intended to illustrate its inherent harmony and order. In Diderot's hands the work became an organ of radical and anti-reactionary propaganda; hence publication was from time to time impeded by the French authorities. Technology figures largely in the text and in the accompanying plates, and the work also contains numerous articles on ethical, philosophical, and aesthetic topics. Though produced in a society still dominated by the Roman Catholic Church, the Encyclopedia reflects its editor's hostility to religious authority, and, while many of the contributors were priests, Diderot contrived to incorporate heterodox or `dangerous' views in seemingly minor articles to which the reader is directed by cross-references given in the more prominent, orthodox ones. The Encyclopedia encapsulates the spirit of the French Enlightenment and is its most note-worthy product.

From early adherence to a deism derived from the English deists (principally Shaftesbury), Diderot moved to an openly atheistic viewpoint in the Lettre sur les aveugles (An Essay on Blindness) of 1749, which earned him a brief spell in the Vincennes prison. In his novel La Religieuse (The Nun), which was not in general circulation in his lifetime, Diderot uses a protagonist forced to take the veil against her will in order to explore the pernicious effects on nuns of life in the convent, separated as it is from normal society. A film based on the novel, directed by Jacques Rivette, was banned in France in 1966 and released in the UK in the following year. Among his other novels, the best known is the picaresque Jacques le fataliste et son maître (Jacques the Fatalist), partially inspired by Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy. As well as being a rather ambivalent examination of philosophical determinism, this novel is notable for the strikingly modern way in which Diderot engages the active participation of the reader in the unfolding of the episodes, through authorial harangues, questions, puzzles, alternative versions, and ascribed reactions. Both Jacques the Fatalist and The Nun are perfectly accessible to the modern reader.

Diderot was a polymath very familiar with the scientific trends of his day. He was especially fascinated by discoveries in the biological sciences of the 1740s and 1750s onwards and, in works which include Pensées sur l'interprétation de la nature [On the Interpretation of Nature], the Dialogue between D'Alembert and Diderot, Le Rêve de d'Alembert (D'Alembert's Dream) and the Éléments de physiologie [Elements of Physiology], developed theories of the cellular structure of matter and of animal adaptation which prefigured the work of Lamarck and Darwin.

While intellectually a philosophical materialist and a determinist, believing that individual character was principally the product of heredity, Diderot thought man was generally susceptible to modification by environmental influences. He ascribed most of the evil he saw around him to the baleful influence of European (especially French) society, but his attempts, in works like his Supplément au voyage de Bougainville [Supplement to Bougainville's Voyage], to develop a moral code based on `natural' principles were doomed to failure by the impossibility of formulating a definition of nature which could underpin social morality.

Like a number of his contemporaries, he clung in his published works to the belief that only the virtuous man can know true happiness and that even apparently prospering evil-doers suffer in their conscience. However, Le Neveu de Rameau (Rameau's Nephew), a polythematic dialogue which he began in 1761 and polished over the next 20 years without ever attempting to publish it, casts doubts on this view. In the belief that the theatre could serve to further ethical progressand that both the writer and the state could exploit it in this wayhe wrote three very detailed treatises on dramatic art, which Lessing admired, and three original plays (discounting adaptations) which fail to match the dynamism of the theoretical works.

In his Salons, written for readers unable actually to see the pictures described, he proves himself a judicious and sensitive art critic and was the first to interest himself in the technical processes ancillary to painting.

Source: John Dunkley, Denis Diderot: Overview, in Reference Guide to World Literature, Second Edition, edited by Lesley Henderson, St. James Press, 1995.

Denis Diderot (1713-1784)

Critic: C. A. Sainte-Beuve
Source: Portraits of the Eighteenth Century: Historic and Literary, Part II by C. A. Sainte-Beuve, translated by Katharine P. Wormeley, G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1905, pp. 89-128. Reprinted in Literature Criticism from 1400 to 1800, Vol. 26
Criticism about: Denis Diderot (1713-1784), also known as: Pantophile Diderot

[Sainte-Beuve is considered the foremost French literary critic of the nineteenth century. Asserting that the critic cannot separate a work of literature from the artist and the artist's historical milieu, Sainte-Beuve regarded an author's life and character as integral to the composition of his work. In the following excerpt, taken from essays originally written over a period of several decades, Sainte-Beuve provides an overview of Diderot's career, describing the philosopher as the first great writer in point of time who definitely belongs to modern democratic society.]

Every man endowed with great talents, if he has come into the world at a time when they can make themselves known, owes to his epoch and to mankind a work suited to the general needs of that epoch, a work which will assist the march of progress. Whatever his private inclinations, his caprices, his slothful humour, or his fancy for incidental writings, he owes to society a public monument, on pain of disregarding his mission and squandering his destiny. Montesquieu by the Esprit des Lois, Rousseau by Émile and the Contrat Social, Buffon by the Histoire Naturelle, Voltaire by the grand total of his labours, bore witness to this sanctified law of genius, by virtue whereof it devotes itself to the advancement of mankind; nor did Diderot, whatever may once have been said too thoughtlessly, fail to do his part.

His great work, his own special work, so to speak, was the Encyclopédie. As soon as the booksellers who first conceived the idea of it had laid their hands on him, they were confident that they had their man; the idea instantly expanded, took on body and life. Diderot seized upon it so eagerly and presented it in such an attractive light that he succeeded in winning the approbation of the pious Chancellor d'Aguesseau, and in inducing him to give his assent, his patronage, to the undertaking; d'Aguesseau was its earliest patron.

It was originally intended to be nothing more than a translation, revised and augmented, of Chalmers's English Dictionarya bookseller's speculation. Diderot fertilised the original idea and boldly conceived the scheme of a universal compendium of human knowledge in his day. He took twenty-five years (1748-1772) to carry it out. He was the living corner-stone within of this collective structure, and also the target of all the persecution, of all the threats from without. D'Alembert, who had joined him mainly from self-interest, and whose ingenious Preface assumed far too much, for the benefit of those who read only prefaces, of the surpassing glory of the whole undertaking, deserted when it was half executed, leaving Diderot to contend against the frenzy of the pietists, the cowardice of the booksellers, and to struggle beneath an enormous increase of editorial labour. The history of philosophy, which he treats at second hand, it is true; the description of the mechanic arts, in which perhaps he displays more originality; three or four thousand plates which he caused to be drawn under his own eye; in a word, the responsibility and superintendence of the whole affair were never able to engross him or to quench the sparkle of his energy. Thanks to his prodigious activity, to the universality of his knowledge, to the manifold adaptability which he acquired at an early age, in poverty, thanks above all to his moral power to rally his associates about him, to inspire and arouse them, he completed that daring edifice, threatening in its massiveness, yet built according to rule. If we seek the name of the architect, his is the name that we must read upon it.

Diderot knew better than any one else the defects in his work; he even exaggerated them to himself, considering the time spent upon it; and believing that he was born for the arts, for geometry, for the stage, he deplored over and over again that he had wasted his life over a matter the profit of which was so paltry and the glory so promiscuous. That he was admirably constituted for geometry and the arts, I do not deny; but surely, things being as they then were, a great revolution, as he himself observed [in his Interprétation de la Nature], being under way in the sciences, which were descending from the higher geometry and from metaphysical contemplation, to include in their scope morality, belles-lettres natural history, experimental physics, and trade; furthermore, art in the eighteenth century being falsely turned aside from its more elevated aim, and debased to serve as a philosophical speaking-trumpet, or as a weapon in the conflict; amid such general conditions, it was difficult for Diderot to employ his powerful talents more profitably, more worthily, and more memorably than by devoting them to the Encyclopédie. He aided and hastened, by that civilising work, the revolution that he had noted in the sciences.

Diderot, in his first Pensées Philosophiques, seems especially indignant at the tyrannical and waywardly savage aspect which the doctrine of Nicole, Arnauld, and Pascal gave to the Christian God; and it is in the name of misjudged humanity and of a saintly commiseration for his fellow-men that he begins the daring criticism in which his impetuous fervour will not allow him to stop. So it is with the majority of unbelieving innovators: at the starting-point the same protestation of a noble purpose makes them one.

The Encyclopédie, then, was not a peace-bringing monument, a silent cloistral tower, with scholars and thinkers of every variety distributed among the different floors. It was not a pyramid of granite with an immovable base; it had no feature of those pure and harmonious structures of art which ascend slowly during centuries of fervent devotion toward an adored and blessed God. It has been compared to the impious Babel; I see in it rather one of those towers of war, one of those siege-machines, enormous, gigantic, wonderful to behold, such as Polybius describes, such as Tasso imagines. There are ruinous portions, and unsymmetrical, much plaster, and firmly cemented and indestructible fragments. The foundations do not extend into the ground; the structure wavers, it is tottering, it will fall; but what does it matter? To apply here an eloquent observation of Diderot himself: The statue of the architect will remain standing amid the ruins, and the stone that is detached from the mountain will not shatter it, because its feet are not of clay.

Diderot's atheism, although he flaunts it at intervals with a deplorable flourish of trumpets, and although his adversaries have too pitillessly taken him at his word, can generally be reduced to the denial of an unkind and vindictive God. In truth, it often seems that all that he lacks is a ray of light to illuminate everything; and one might well say of Diderot's atheism, as he himself said of those two landscapes of Vernet, in which everything is darkened and obscured by the coming of night: Let us wait till to-morrow when the sun will have risen.

If the Encyclopédie was Diderot's great social work and his principal work, his principal glory in our eyes to-day is the having been the creator of earnest, impassioned, eloquent criticism; it is by his work in this direction that he survives and that he must be ever dear to us all, journalists and extemporaneous writers on all subjects. Let us salute in him our father and the earliest model of the race of critics.

Before Diderot, criticism in France had been exact, inquisitive, and shrewd with Bayle, refined and exquisite with Fénelon, straightforward and useful with Rollin; I omit in modesty the Frérons and Des Fontaines. But nowhere had it been lively, fruitful, searching, if I may so express it, it had not found its soul. Diderot was the first who gave it a soul. Naturally inclined to overlook defects and to take fire at good qualities,

I am more affected, he said, by the attractions of virtue than by the deformities of vice; I turn gently away from the wicked and I fly to meet the good. If there is in a literary work, in a character, in a picture, in a statue, a beautiful spot, that is where my eyes rest; I see only that, I remember only that, all the rest is well-nigh forgotten. What becomes of me when the whole work is beautiful!

This propensity to extend a cordial welcome, to universal condescension and to enthusiasm, doubtless had its risks. It has been said of him that he was singularly fortunate in two respects, in that he had never fallen in with a bad man or a poor book. For if the book were poor, he made it over and unconsciously attributed to the author some of his, Diderot's, own inventions. Like the alchemist, he found gold in the crucible because he had put it there. However, it is to him that is due the honour of having first introduced among us the fruitful criticism of beauties, which he substituted for the criticism of faults; and in this respect Chateaubriand himself, in that part of the Génie du Christianisme where he eloquently discusses literary criticism, simply follows the path blazed out by Diderot.

Abbé Arnaud said to him: You have the reverse of dramatic talent: it should transform itself into all the characters, and you transform them all into yourself. But if it be true that Diderot was nothing less than a dramatic poet, that he was in no wise competent for that species of sovereign creation and of transformation altogether impersonal, he had by way of compensation, and in the very highest degree, that power of semi-metamorphosis which is the game and the triumph of criticism, and which consists in putting oneself in the author's place and at the point of view of the subject that one is examining, in reading every written work according to the mind that dictated it. He excelled in taking to himself for a time, and at his pleasure, the mind of another person; in gathering inspiration from it, often to better effect than that other himself had done; in arousing the enthusiasm not only of his own brain, but of his heart; and at such times he was the great modern journalist, the Homer of the profession, intelligent, ardent, effusive, eloquent, never at home, always abroad; or if it happened that he received others at his home and amid his own ideas, then he was the most open-hearted, the most hospitable of mortals, the most friendly to all men and to everything, and gave to all his circle, readers no less than authors or artists, not a lesson but a fête.

Such an one does he appear in his admirable Salons de Peinture. One day Grimm, who supplied several sovereigns of the North with the latest news of literature and the fine arts, asked Diderot to write for him a report on the Salon of 1761. Diderot had theretofore turned his attention to many subjects, but never to the fine arts in particular. At his friend's request he undertook to observe and scrutinise for the first time what he had never up to that time done more than casually glance at; and the result of his observations and reflections gave birth to those pages of admirable causerie which really created criticism of the fine arts in France.

I am aware of one objection which is commonly made to such noble discourses upon art, and to which Diderot's Salons are peculiarly obnoxious. It is that they are beside the subject, that they discuss it from the literary, the dramatic standpoint, which is the standpoint dear to the French. Madame Necker wrote to Diderot: I continue to be infinitely entertained by reading your Salon; I do not care for painting except in poetry; and that is how you have had the skill to interpret all the works, even the most commonplace, of our modern painters. That is praise indeed, and, according to some people of intelligence, it is the severest kind of criticism.

It is a fact, they say, that it is a peculiarity of the French to judge everything with the mind, even forms and colours. It is true, that, as there is no language to express the delicate refinements of form or the various effects of colour, whenever one undertakes to discuss them, one is forced, for lack of power to express what one feels, to describe other sensations which can be understood by everybody.

Diderot is more open than others to this reproach, and the pictures which he sees are generally simply a pretext and a motive for those which he makes of them, and which he imagines. His articles almost invariably consist of two parts: in the first, he describes the picture that he has before his eyes; in the second, he suggests his own. Such talkative writers, however, when they are, as he was, saturated with their subject, imbued with a lively appreciation of art and of the things which they are discussing, are at the same time useful and interesting: they guide you, they make you pay attention; and while you follow them, while you listen to them, while you go along with them or take another road, the sense of form and colour, if you have such a sense, awakens, takes shape, and becomes sharpened; unconsciously you become in your turn a good judge, a connoisseur, for mysterious reasons which you cannot describe and which there are no words to express.

To how great a degree Diderot is a littérateur in his way of criticising pictures, we may discover at the very outset. A painter has represented Telemachus on Calypso's Island: the scene shows them at table, where the young hero is narrating his adventures, and Calypso offers him a peach. Diderot considers that this offering a by Calypso is an absurdity, and that Telemachus has much more sense than the nymph or the painter, for he continues the tale of his adventures without accepting the proffered fruit. But if the peach were gracefully offered, if the light fell upon it in a certain way, if the nymph's expression were consistent with her act, if, in a word, the picture were a Titian or a Veronese, that peach might have been a chefd'oeuvre, despite the absurdity which the mind thinks that it detects therein; for in a picture, the narrative of adventures, which we do not hear, and which the offer of the peach runs the risk of interrupting, is only secondary; we have no use for our ears, we are all eyes.

In a great number of instances, however, Diderot has some just observations, strikingly true, which he offers less as a critic than as a painter. For example, addressing M. Vien, who has painted a Psyche holding her lamp in her hand and surprising Cupid in his sleep, he says:

Oh! how little sense our painters have! how little they know nature! Psyche's head should be bent over Cupid, the rest of her body thrown back, as it is when we creep toward a place we are afraid to enter and from which we are all ready to fly; one foot resting on the ground, the other barely touching it. And that lampought she to let the light fall on Cupid's eyes? Should she not rather bold it away and interpose her hand so as to shield the light? Besides, that would be an excuse for arranging the light in the picture in a very fetching way. These fellows do not know that the eyelids are transparent in some sort; they have never seen a mother come at night to look at her child in the cradle, with a lamp in her hand, and afraid of waking him.

In all this Diderot is a great critic, and in that kind of general criticism which no art can possibly escape on the pretext of technique.

It seems to me, he says, that when one takes up the brush, one should have some powerful, ingenious, delicate, or interesting idea, and should have in mind some definite effect, some impression to be produced.... There are very few artists who have ideas, and there is hardly a single one who can dispense with them.... There is no middle wayeither interesting ideas, an original subject, or wonderful workmanship.

This wonderful workmanship, which is, after all, the condition without which the idea itself cannot live; this exceptional and superior execution which is the hall-mark of every great artistwhen Diderot detects it in one of them, he is the first to feel it and to interpret it for us by words no less wonderful, unusual words from a wholly new vocabulary of which he is, as it were, the inventor. And, in general, all the powers of improvisation, of picturesque and quick imagination, with which he was endowed; all his stores of bold, profound, and ingenious conceptions; the love of nature, of the country, and of family; even his sensuality, his decided tendency to touch and describe forms; the sentiment of colour, the sentiment of the flesh, of blood and of life, which is the despair of colourists and which came to him as his pen flewall these priceless qualities of Diderot found employment in those feuilles volantes which are still his surest title to the admiration of posterity.

He surpasses himself whenever he speaks of Vernet and of Greuze. As an artist, Greuze is Diderot's ideal; he is a sincere, sympathetic painter, a painter of the family and the drama, affecting and straightforward, slightly sensual, yet moral at the same time. And so, when Diderot falls in with him, he makes fast to him, translates him, interprets him, explains him, adds to his meaning, and never again releases his hold of him. I am a trifle long, perhaps, he says, but if you knew how I am enjoying myself while boring you! I am like all the other bores in the world. The analyses, or rather the paintings, which Diderot has given us of the Village Bride, the Girl Weeping for her Dead Bird, the Beloved Mother, and the rest, are masterpieces, little poems appropriate to the pictures and printed on the opposite page as it were. Diderot frequently says of a painter, He paints freely (large), he draws freely. The same may be said of himself as a critic; he spreads his colours freely; his criticism is effusive. Even when describing to us with keen delight some family idyl of Greuze, he finds a way to mingle some tones of his own. In his analysis of the Girl Weeping, he does more, he introduces a complete elegy of his own invention. That child, who seems to be weeping for her bird, has her secret, she is weeping for something very different.

Oh! what a lovely hand, cries the intoxicated critic as he gazes at her; what a lovely hand! what lovely arms! Observe the accuracy of the detail of those fingers, and those dimples, and that soft flesh, and the reddish tint of the finger tips caused by the pressure of the head, and the fascination of it all. One would draw near to that hand to kiss it, were it not that one respects the child and her grief.

And, even while enjoining upon himself respect for the child's grief, he does draw near; he begins to speak to her, to raise, as gently as he can, the veil of mystery:

Why, my dear, your grief is very great, very profound. What means this dreamy, melancholy expression? What! all for a bird? You are not weeping, you are in deep affliction; and your affliction is accompanied by thought. Come, my dear, open your heart to me; tell me the truth: is it really this bird's death that has withdrawn you so entirely and so sadly into yourself?

And so he goes on and transfixes the idyl with his elegy. Thus the picture is, with him, simply a pretext for reverie, for poetic thoughts.

Diderot is the king and the god of those half-poets who become and appear whole poets in criticism; all that they need is an external fulcrum and a stimulus. Observe that, in analysing this picture, and others of Greuze's works as well, Diderot delights in noting therein, or in introducing, a faint vein of sensuality amid the moral meaninga vein which is really there, perhaps, but which at all events he loves to trace out, to point his finger at, and which he is tempted to magnify and exaggerate rather than pass over. The curves of the breast, the fulness of contour, even in the family pictures, even in wives and mothers, he recurs to again and again, he delights to let his glance and his pen rest upon them, not as a critic or an artist, not as a fastidious libertine either (Diderot is not depraved), but as a natural, materialistic man, and sometimes a little indelicate. That is a weak side in him, a vulgar and even rather ignoble side. This excellent man, sincere, exalted, warm-hearted, this critic so animated, so ingenious, so keen, who has above all else a mania for preaching morality, is utterly unable, in presence of an object of art, to content himself with elevating and determining our idea of the beautiful, or even with satisfying our sensitiveness to impressions; he does more, he disturbs our senses a little. And so when you see at times on his brow a reflection of the Platonic ray, do not trust to it; look closely, there is always a satyr's foot.

We have divers fugitive writings of Diderot, brief narratives, tales, skits, which it is the fashion to call chef-d'oeuvre. A chef-d'oeuvre! there is always more or less courtesy in the use of this word with respect to Diderot. The chef-d'oeuvre properly so-called, the finished, definitive, complete work, in which good taste sets the measure of the movement and sentiment, is not his forte: the superior quality, always scattered about in his work, is nowhere concentrated, nowhere set in a frame and glowing with a steady radiance. He is, as we have seen, much more truly the man of the sketch.

In the short pieces written for a purpose, such as the Éloge de Richardson or the Régrets sur ma Vieille Robe de Chambre, he has much grace of expression, happy thoughts, original conceits; but the emphatic manner recurs and manifests itself in spots, the apostrophe spoils the naturalness for me. There are gusts of emphasis here and there. In this direction he lays himself open to caricature to some extent, and that fact has been made use of without compunction in the portraits, generally overcharged, which have been drawn of him. Diderot is altogether successful, and without art too, when he makes no preparation, and has no particular object in view, when his thoughts escape him, when the printer is at his elbow, waiting for him and hurrying him; or when it is time for the postman to come, and he writes in haste, on a tavern table, a letter to his friend. It is in his Correspondance with that friend, Mademoiselle Voland, and in his Salons, written for Grimm, that we find his most delightful pages, the outspoken, rapid sketches in which he lives again just as he was.

Diderot set forth his views on the substance, the cause, and the origin of things in the Interprétation de la Nature, under the shelter of Baumann, who was no other than Maupertuis; and even more explicitly in the Entretien avec d'Alembert and the strange Rêve (Dream) which he attributes to that philosopher. It is sufficient for our purpose to say that his materialism is no dry geometrical mechanism, but a confused vitalism, fruitful and potent, a spontaneous, unceasing, evolutionary fermentation, wherein, even in the least atom, delicacy of feeling, latent or patent, is always present. His opinions were those of Bordeu and the physiologists, the same that Cabanis afterward expressed so eloquently. From the way in which Diderot appreciated external nature, natural nature so to speak, which the experiments of scientists had not as yet distorted and falsifiedthe woods, the streams, the charm of the fields, the harmonious beauty of the sky, and the impression that they make on the hearthe must have been profoundly religious by nature, for no man was ever more sympathetic and more accessible to universal life. But this life of nature and of created beings he purposely left undefined, vague, and in some sort diffused about him, hidden in the heart of the seeds, circulating in the air-currents, fluttering over the tree-tops, breathing in the puffs of wind; he did not gather it about a central point, he did not idealise it in the radiant example of a watchful, guiding Providence. However, in a work which he wrote in his old age, a few years before his death, the Essai sur la Vie de Sénèque, he gratified himself by translating the following passage from a letter to Lucilius, which filled him with admiration:

If there is before your eyes a vast forest, peopled by ancient trees, whose tops ascend to the clouds and whose interlacing branches conceal the heavens from you, that immeasurable height, that profound silence, those masses of shadow which the distance makes more dense and unbroken, do not all these signs hint to you the presence of a God?

It was Diderot who underlined the word hint (intimer).

I am delighted to find in the same work a criticism of La Mettrie which indicates in Diderot some slight forgetfulness perhaps of his own cynical and philosophical extravagances, but also a bitter distaste for and a formal disavowal of immoral and corrupting materialism. I like to have him reprove La Mettrie for not having the first idea of the true fundamentals of morality, of that enormous tree whose head touches the heavens and whose roots reach down to hell, in which everything is bound together, in which modesty, reserve, courtesy, the most trivial virtues, if such there be, are attached as the leaf is to the twig, which one dishonours by stripping it.

This reminds me of a dispute concerning virtue that he had one day with Helvetius and Saurin; he writes to Mademoiselle Voland a charming description of it, which is a picture in a few words of the inconsequence of the age. Those gentlemen denied the innate moral sense, the essential and unselfish motive of virtue, for which Diderot argued.

The amusing part of it, he adds, is that the discussion was hardly at an end before those excellent folk began unconsciously to use the strongest arguments in favour of the sentiment they had been combating, and to furnish the refutation of their own opinions. But Socrates, in my place, would have extorted it from them.

He says in one place, referring to Grimm: The severity of our friend's principles is thrown away; he distinguishes two sorts of morality, one for the use of sovereigns. All these excellent ideas concerning virtue, morality, and nature recurred to his mind with greater force than ever, doubtless, in the meditative seclusion, the solitude which he tried to arrange for himself during the painful years of his old age. Several of his friends were dead; he often felt the loss of Mademoiselle Voland and Grimm. To conversation, which had become fatiguing, he preferred his dressing-gown and his library on the fifth floor, under the eaves, at the corner of Rue Taranne and Rue de Saint-Benolt; he read constantly, meditated much, and took the keenest pleasure in superintending his daughter's education.

In his old age Diderot wondered whether he had made a good use of his life, whether he had not squandered it. Reading Seneca's treatise De Brevitate Vitace, especially the third chapter, where the reader is appealed to so earnestly: Come, review your days and your years, call them to account! Tell us how much time you have allowed to be stolen from you by a creditor, by a mistress, by a patron, by a client. How many people have pillaged your life, when you did not even dream what you were losing! Diderot, thus reminded to search his conscience, wrote as his only comment: I have never read this chapter without blushing; it is my history. Many years earlier he had said to himself: I am not conscious of having as yet made use of half of my powers; up to this time I have only fiddle-faddled. He might have said the same thing when he died. But, as an antidote, an alleviation of these ill-concealed regrets of the writer and the artist, the philosopher and the moralist in him rejoined: My life is not stolen from me, I give it voluntarily; and what better could I do than bestow a portion of it upon him who esteems me enough to solicit that gift? It was in precisely the same frame of mind that he wrote somewhere or other these kindly and admirable words:

A pleasure which is for myself alone touches me but little and lasts but a short time. It is for myself and my friends that I read, that I reflect, that I write, that I meditate, that I listen, that I observe, that I feel. In their absence my devotion refers everything to them I think unceasingly of their happiness. If a beautiful line impresses me, they know it at once. If I have fallen in with a fine drawing, I promise myself to tell them about it. If I have before my eyes some entrancing spectacle, I unconsciously think how I shall describe it to them. I have consecrated to them the use of all my senses and all my faculties, and that perhaps is the reason that everything is exaggerated, everything is glorified a little in my imagination and in my language; sometimes they reprove me for it, the ingrates!

We, who are of his friends, of those of whom he thought vaguely at a distance, and for whom he wrote, we will not be ungrateful. While regretting that we find too often in his writings that touch of exaggeration which he himself admits, a lack of discretion and sobriety, some laxity of morals and of language, and some sins against good taste, we do homage to his kindness of heart, his sympathetic nature, his generous intellect, his shrewdness and breadth of view and of treatment, his freedom and delicacy of touch, and the admirable vigour, the secret of which he never lost throughout his incessant toil. To all of us Diderot is a man whom it is encouraging to observe and to study. He is the first great writer in point of time who definitely belongs to modern democratic society. He points out to us the road and the example to follow: to be or not to be of the Académie, but to write for the public, to address the whole people, to be always in haste, to go straight to the reality, to the fact, even when one has a mania for reverie, to give, give, give, with no purpose ever to take back; to wear oneself out rather than rest, is his motto. And that is what he did to the very end, with energy, with devotion, with a sometimes painful consciousness of this constant loss of substance. And yet, through it all, and without a too manifest effort to that end, he succeeded in saving, of all these scattered fragments, some enduring ones, and he teaches us how one may make his way to the future and to posterity, and arrive there, though it be only as débris from the shipwreck of each day.

Diderot's beneficent-life, replete with good counsels and good works, must have been a source of the greatest inward consolation to him; and yet, perhaps, at certain times, there came to his lips this saying of his old father: My son, my son, an excellent pillow is that of reason; but I find that my head rests even more softly on that of religion and the laws.

Source: C. A. Sainte-Beuve, Denis Diderot (1713-1784), in Portraits of the Eighteenth Century: Historic and Literary, Part II by C. A. Sainte-Beuve, translated by Katharine P. Wormeley, G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1905, pp. 89-128. Reprinted in Literature Criticism from 1400 to 1800, Vol. 26.

Source Database: Literature Resource Center

The Man Who Told Secrets

Critic: Jean Starobinski
Source: The New York Review of Books, Vol. XX, No. 4, March 22, 1973, pp. 18-21
Criticism about: Denis Diderot (1713-1784), also known as: Pantophile Diderot

[Starobinski is a Swiss scholar who is considered one of the outstanding critics of the latter part of the twentieth century and who is best known for studies of Rousseau, Montaigne, and Diderot. In the following excerpt, he focuses on Diderot's goal of laying bare everything which is so painstakingly concealed by ignorance, hypocrisy, and falsehood.]

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 Sterneand in his turn he was to influence Lessing and Goethe and leave his imprint on Hegel and his progeny....

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 antiphilosophe 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 [in his Diderot, 1972] 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?

In his aesthetic theory, Diderot shows the same taste for bringing everything completely into the open, the same desire to have inner life totally accessible to the eye. This is why he always gives expressiveness pride of place in his art criticism. Among painters, even though he appreciates the magical colors of a Chardin, he gives the highest praise to artists who can catch on canvas the high point of an emotional drama, and he is full of admiration for painters who can make every attitude, every face, and every gesture both expressive and immediately comprehensible. He always demands the fullest possible manifestation of emotion in a code or language which is that of the body itself. It is the same with the theater, which he expects to convey in full both the characters' social position and their moral dilemmas. His social realism goes hand in hand with emotional expressionism. In the theater of his dreams the most intense moments are tableaux where gesture, originally the servant of the spoken word, finally supersedes language in the name of a more immediate, more hieroglyphic rendering of emotion.

These feelings which the heroes of Diderot's serious comedies are all too ready to display hardly seem to correspond to the real secrets of our inner lives; in them we recognize, somewhat despondently, the old repertoire of mime laid down by the most conventional theories concerning the physical expression of the passions. Perhaps Diderot felt embarrassed when the laws of the theater obliged him to give his characters a fixed and stable identity. Conversely, he is extraordinarily successful in laying bare the inside story of natural forces beneath the apparent stability of individual existence. He is at his masterful best when he abandons himself to the pleasure of debunking the illusion of personal autonomy and imagines, beyond the diversity of living beings, the still more amazing diversity of atoms, all endowed with their own life and combining and recombining ad infinitum in the flux of space and time.

The ocean of matter so enthusiastically evoked in Diderot's dialogue D'Alembert's Dream (1769) is made up of an unimaginable number of particles, each one unique, each one possessing an elementary kind, of life and impelled by a basic erotic energy which must eventually give rise to every conceivable combination of matter. What Diderot loves above all else is to reveal by an act of imaginative insight the universal force of generation which haphazardly gives birth to ephemeral and monstrous forms of life, to species capable of survival, and to strange hybrids; it is this force, aided by time and chance, that eventually produces thinking beings, men of genius, and the achievements of science.

Diderot's evolutionism, which does not rule out the possibility of periodic returns to chaos, is bound up with a dynamic and somewhat anthropomorphic image of matter as an obstinate arriviste. He uses all his lyrical powers to sing the praises of the material world; nothing excites him more than images of the production and reproduction of life. We should remember that he was writing at a time when one of men's greatest fears was the depopulation of the globe. This is why questions of morality and immorality give way to the claims of public utility. D'Alembert's Dream ends on the daring and entertaining hypothesis of a hybrid race produced by cross-breeding men with goats; why condemn bestiality if it can give us a vigorous new subproletariat to do our dirty work for us? The utility principle comes first.

This image of the hybrid is a significant one. The inspiration to which Diderot owes it is itself a hybrid of intellectual insight and erotic curiosity. The continuing appeal of D'Alembert's Dream is due to a cross-fertilization of scientific thought and cosmic lyricism. It soon becomes clear that in every field, including that of literary style, Diderot was a propagator and creator of hybrids. Of the traditional genres the only one he retained and renewed was satire. Why was this? Because satire is by definition the genre which invites and welcomes heterogeneity. Diderot excels in confusing every kind of hierarchy and blurring every kind of boundary; he is a creator of half-breeds.

Rameau's nephew, the most typical of them all, is a rare blend of villainy and intelligence; he has surprising sensitivity and artistic ability, yet he is incapable of creating anythinghe is a hybrid of talent and impotence. Jacques in Jacques the Fatalist is a mixture of intellectual superiority and social inferiority. The work named after him is a hybrid of dialogue and narration. The middle-class drama which Diderot advocated is in reality the bastard child of comedy (which was thought a low genre) and tragedy (which until then had been considered the only theatrical genre capable of attaining the sublime). It is no accident that Diderot's first stage hero is a natural son. Nor should we forget that Diderot's nun is an illegitimate daughter and that by having her write her life story in the first person Diderot is attempting the curious experiment of identifying himself with the tormented existence of a woman's mind and body. The principle of hybridization leads to literary androgyny.

To think of man as an aggregate of living molecules; to admit the possibility of each organ having its own separate existence; to reduce the diversity between living beings simply to differences of physical organization: is not this tantamount to propounding a doctrine of implacable determinism? In this scheme of things man becomes the plaything of the various elements which make up his bodyand of the chance which brought them together. If we read it to the bitter end, doesn't his inside story lead us to an outside story where everything depends on the laws of matter?

Arthur M. Wilson's book is very illuminating on the subject of Diderot's atheism; in particular he shows with the utmost clarity how this deterministic atheism raised more problems than it solved. If Diderot was tempted by a hedonist ethic which removes all moral barriers and encourages man to make himself happy by satisfying all his supposedly natural instincts, he never abandoned the stoical tradition which advocates discipline and self-mastery. In the most elaborate account he has left us of his thinking on biological subjects, he anticipates the ideas of modern neurology about the unifying control exercised over the peripheral functions by the cerebral centers. However indulgent his moral thinking may be to the satisfaction of the senses, he always endeavors to go beyond the kind of pleasure which is limited to isolated impulses. Man, even if he is matter through and through, can and should exert his will, controlling his sensibility (thought of as peripheral and located in the diaphragm) and performing deeds of outgoing generosity which will win him admiration and gratitude from generations yet unborn.

Self-control and detachment are the qualities which the Paradox of the Actor (1773) ascribes to the great actor, and which Diderot elsewhere attributes to great men in general. Resistance to despotism, which Diderot preached more and more fervently in the final years of his life, presupposes a rebellious individual capable of preferring death to slavery. Political freedom is thus made dependent on a power of self-determination which can only spring from the individual will. So Diderot's determinism leads not to fatalism but to voluntarism, a voluntarism conscious of the conditions which limit the exercise of the will. Willed action may depend on the bodily make-up of the individual and the chain of cause and effect in the physical world, but this does not prevent man from being a creature who can be modified and can modify himself. Diderot particularly likes to cast himself in the role of the master-mind who manipulates others for their own good and enlightens them for their greater happiness. The concluding pages of Arthur M. Wilson's book show very well how for Diderot the hope for posthumous fame in this world replaces the promised immortality which theology had located in the next.

In this way Diderot maintains a belief in the autonomy of the individual. He preserves a constant balance between the forces that work for the unity of the whole and the centrifugal tendency of the parts, the molecular elements, to live their own separate lives. This results in a vitalist mythology in which the synthesizing efforts of the active faculties are pitted against the happy passivity of dissolution into elementary living particles. Diderot's way of choosing active self-determination while still recognizing the pleasure that comes from spontaneity is not without its resemblance to Freudian metapsychology and could be considered its equal as a poetic-scientific account of reality. Diderot favors the victory of the whole over the separatism of the parts. But ultimately this victory cannot be a complete one; some sort of compromise is inevitable. We may desire the unity of the individual, but we must accept that death, sleep, inconsistency, and internal contradiction are inseparable from the human condition.

Diderot was preoccupied then by the opposition between continuity and discontinuity. This problem faced him equally in the field of scientific knowledge. As first envisaged by its authors, the Encyclopedia was to provide a complete exposition of the system of human knowledge. Their desire for coherence and systematic order is shown, among other things, by their use of cross references to compensate for the arbitrary discontinuity of the alphabet. But Diderot himself was the first to admit that these cross references were less successful than had been hoped in making the Encyclopedia a systematic whole. Each separate article is an entity in itself, a mini-treatise followed by another mini-treatiseand so on. Instead of a vast unified map of the sciences and arts, all linked together and mutually interdependent, we are given a succession of rapid images, each one relatively independent of the rest. Dispersion has won the battle against systematic organization.

This love of Diderot's for what is immediately and manifestly present shows itself similarly in his willingness to give expression to flashes of thought, sudden bursts of feeling, and unforeseen objections. His flow of speech is always being deflected and interrupted; unexpected questions, digressions, and breaks of continuity are the ever-recurring signs of the sudden and disruptive incursion of the living present into the pre-established order of logical thought. In his work we find a permanent tug of war between the stability which a rationalist representation of the world strives after and the instability of present time as it forces itself irresistibly upon a mind perpetually in motion.

Diderot never wanted to leave anything out. His last project was a book on the Elements of Physiology, which would have been a systematic treatise laying out the main lines of a vitalist anthropology; all that survives of this work is a mass of fragments. For Diderot never closes his ears to his own internal contradictions and unforeseen trains of thought; his reaction is to embody them in an interlocutor. When he hears in himself the presence of a new thought, he immediately transforms it into an imaginary being with whom he can exchange ideas. In him the dialectic of contradiction and the dialectic of discussion are one and the same thing.

Thus is born the dialogue, a succession of moments in the present, where the author's thought is distributed among several voices whose very opposition gives rise to a superior harmony. Dialogue is in Diderot the manifestation of superabundant presence which needs to be divided among a number of actors, each of them giving vivid expression to a feeling, a reflection, or a silence at the very moment when it emerges into existence. Even when his works are most skillfully constructed, Diderot makes them read like improvisations. It is as if he were continually letting himself be guided by the replies and gestures of an interlocutor, anticipating his questions, asking them on his behalf, and answering them in advance.

Small wonder then that physical absence favors this victory of the present in his writing. Fortunately for us the long absences from Paris of his mistress Sophie Volland forced Diderot to take up the pen, imagine her presence, and speak to her on paper. In these letters ... we find what is perhaps the quintessence of Diderot: a voice stimulated by the imagined presence of a listener, a joyful freedom kept within bounds by respect for someone else's freedom, and a frankness which never conceals the slightest variation of mood or thought.

In these letters to Sophie Volland we only hear the voice of Diderot; the dialogue has reached us in a truncated form. The masterpiece of dialogue is Jacques the Fatalist. Here the author converses with the reader over the heads of his heroes, while they in their turn converse as they ride along, telling one another stories, and listening to the talk in inns where new dialogues are born in a virtually infinite succession. But in this work, which Arthur M. Wilson rightly considers the most modern of all Diderot's writings, the author, as he apostrophizes his reader and declares himself free to say whatever he wants, to make his characters say whatever he wants, and to leave whatever he wants unsaid, is in fact giving us an example of that freedom to which the Romantics later gave the name of irony. He is the master of ceremonies, the indispensable voice, at once responsible and irresponsible, without which all the others would be condemned to silence. In this way the truly modern discovery of the problems of determinism combines in Diderot with another modern discovery, that of the arbitrary powers of the writer.

Source: Jean Starobinski, The Man Who Told Secrets, in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XX, No. 4, March 22, 1973, pp. 18-21.

Source Database: Literature Resource Center

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