Illusionists

Norman Hampson

  • Diderot: A Critical Biography by P.N. Furbank
    Secker, 524 pp, £25.00, February 1992, ISBN 0 436 16853 7
  • This is not a Story and Other Stories by Denis Diderot, translated by P.N. Furbank
    Missouri, 166 pp, £22.00, December 1991, ISBN 0 8262 0815 0
  • Diderot: Political Writings edited by John Hope Mason and Robert Wokler
    Cambridge, 225 pp, £30.00, May 1992, ISBN 0 521 36044 7

Once upon a time, a distinguished French Department in a well-known British university set a question on Diderot in its Final Examination. Owing to a couple of unfortunate misprints, his name appeared as ‘Piderst’. Understandably, it was not a popular question. But it did attract one answer, from a candidate who discussed the merits of Piderst with enthusiasm, if in rather general terms. The department, contrary to its usual practice, gave him a viva, in which he sustained his opinion with a conviction that impressed his examiners. Diderot would have enjoyed that – and probably gone on to ask himself if he was not, in fact, really Piderst rather than Diderot, or maybe both at the same time. He was perhaps the most attractive of the 18th-century French philosophes, and certainly the most elusive. The problems that he poses are enough to frighten off the most intrepid biographer and one can only admire P.N. Furbank, not merely for tackling the job at all, but for doing it so well.

Diderot’s long life, from 1713 to 1784, almost spanned the whole period between Louis XIV and the French Revolution. He was a compulsive writer and his output was enormous. Its range was no less impressive. During his lifetime he was known, above all, as the editor of the Encyclopédie, which took up most of his time between 1751 and 1765. He probably regarded himself as primarily a philosophe, in the sense of being someone who challenged accepted orthodoxies on any subject under the sun and looked for the assumptions behind what were presented as the unquestionable theories of science and the truths of religion. He also tried his hand at many other genres, producing plays, novels, short stories and ‘philosophical’ contes. He was a pioneer in the field of art criticism; his denunciations of European colonisation have been oddly neglected by those who are busy deploring the consequences of Columbus, and towards the end of his life he travelled to St Petersburg to advise Catherine II on the government of Russia. To situate all these activities within their particular contexts, and to evaluate Diderot’s contribution to the dissemination and advancement of knowledge on so many fronts, would require an intimate acquaintance, not merely with his massive oeuvre but with almost every aspect of 18th-century civilisation, that would be far beyond the compass of any single scholar.

That is only the beginning of the problem. Diderot saw nature as a continual flux. Where his contemporaries thought of science primarily in terms of Newtonian physics and the explanation of how things work, he was more interested in biology and the discovery of how they change, and in how apparently unrelated phenomena such as the fate of a species, or a political regime, and the climate – meteorological or political – are connected with each other. It would have been rather odd if his own attempts to understand the processes of change had themselves been either static or consistent. The man who once tried to run away from home in order to become a Jesuit ended his life as a materialist who made atheism a working assumption, if not an article of faith. Diderot never stands still to be pinned down.

He was constantly preoccupied by the contrast between the way things are and the way they seem when viewed from different perspectives. This could, but need not, take the form of a conflict between the conventional and what he believed to be natural. Whatever subject he tackled – a landscape, a code of conduct or a political system – had a dual existence as both a thing in itself and a variety of perceptions that were determined as much by the preconceptions of the observer as by the actual object. As Furbank puts it very well when describing his fiction, ‘he saw a story not as a story but as someone telling a story.’

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