One jibs nowadays, perhaps as a result of reading Foucault, at the once-cherished notion of an ‘age’ – such an ‘age’ as one might be tempted to paint a ‘portrait’ of. For those brought up on ages, Foucault’s Les Mots et les choses was a shock, locating as it did Colbert and Cantillon, the Port-Royal Logique and the Encyclopédie, within one and the same episteme. (But, as Foucault was quick to point out, this was merely one possible dissection: there were many others he might equally well have performed.) The concept of an age seems riddled with fallacies, and especially perhaps when applied to the French mid-18th century, the so-called Age of Enlightenment. This latter name ought to be harmless enough, unlike that thoroughly obfuscating modern one, ‘The Enlightenment’ (which must, one supposes, stem from a mistranslation of the German definite article). All the same, that tag ‘The Age of Enlightenment’ can soon become a nuisance. It is a tendentious phrase, like ‘the true Church’, or ‘phlogiston’ – a phrase which many might have used in the 1760s, for their own intricate purposes. Thus a historian studying how these loaded phrases were used can hardly afford to use them himself, incorporating them as neutral terms into his own professional vocabulary.
The habit of thinking in ages fosters what has been rather a plague to literary history, and especially with the French writers of the mid-18th century – promoting an interest in them, not so much for what they achieved as for what they ‘represented’. The trouble with this is that what these writers had in common, though highly important, is, for us, a platitude, and they are only profound in the things in which they differed. Hence there is something stultifying in the attempt, à la Ernst Cassirer, to prove that at some deep level, and by reference to the future, they were all batting in the same team.
One may consider a striking fact about these French writers: that their profoundest works, the works that still speak to us and can influence us – Candide, Le Neveau de Rameau, Les Liaisons dangereuses, Rousseau’s Confessions – are works of ferocious, if invigorating pessimism. It is a paradox, seeing that Progress and Improvement were so much in the air at the time, but a paradox which is not going to surprise us very much: for what more natural than that the deepest works should spring from the deepest fears? It only begins to seem surprising because of the labelling which makes this an Age of Enlightenment.
This is a lengthy approach to Francis Steegmuller’s highly enjoyable A Woman, a Man and Two Kingdoms. But if I have a cavil about his book, it lies just here, and in his preface, where he describes his intentions. He takes as his text Talleyrand’s Qui n’a pas vécu dans les années voisines de 1787 ne sait pas ce que c’est le plaisir de vivre: ‘Talleyrand was thinking, above all, of a social and intellectual flowering that, ever extending its boundaries, has caused the age to be called that of Enlightenment.’ It was an age, says Steegmuller, in which barriers to friendship were eased and conversation flourished. ‘The circles enjoying these changes were intimate but not parochial; their companionable discussions were often subtle, and didactic in no baneful sense. Civilised conduct, which encompassed wit, self-humour and sociability, necessarily excluded bombast. And the presence of women in an active – at times a presiding – role contributed a new measure of incisiveness, sensibility and grace.’ One sees what it is: Steegmuller is beginning to paint an ‘age’, trying to make salon conversation somehow ‘stand for’ the age, and it will not work. One will not disagree: a most attractive form of salon conversation developed in the 1750s – more congenial, because more easy, than the all-male bludgeonings of the Johnson Club in England. But equally true, if one is going to use this language, the 1750s and 1760s in France were a great age – one might almost say the age – of bombast. The Encyclopédie was all too full of bombast, as Voltaire complained loudly; the great Buffon was a bombastic writer, and could one be more bombastic than Condorcet? The criterion of an age will at least have to be, not just something, but something-and-its-opposite – a point which did not escape Hegel.
But then, over and above this general law of contradictions, the French writers of this period had a special stake in contradiction and paradox; their greatness lay in exploring paradox in a way that had not been done before. Voltaire’s paradox about Leibniz can still challenge us, and no writer, surely, has ever been so dedicated to paradox, so luminous about his own paradoxes, as Rousseau? Equally, the link between Les Liaisons dangereuses and Le Neveu de Rameau is a paradox, of a wonderful and disconcerting kind. One of Mme de Merteuil’s cherished discoveries, in her long self-education in libertinism, is how much a libertine can learn from the Classical moralists. ‘I supplemented observation by reading,’ she tells Valmont, ‘but do not imagine it was all of the kind you might suppose ... I even studied the severest moralists, to discover what they demanded of us; and thus I learned what one could do, what one was supposed to think, and how one had to appear.’ Rameau’s Nephew arrives at the same thought. The French moralists like La Bruyère and Molière, he remarks gleefully to Diderot-Moi, are regarded as one of the glories of French culture, and rightly so, if you know the way to read and profit from them.
I learn from them everything one must do and everything one must not say. Thus, when I read Molière’s L’Avare I tell myself, ‘Be a miser if you like, but be sure not to speak like a miser.’ When I read Tartuffe I say to myself, ‘Be a hypocrite if you choose, but do not speak like a hypocrite. Cling onto the vices which suit you, but do not have the tone and the appearance that go with them, for fear that they make you a laughing stock and subject for comedy.’ Now, in order to avoid such a tone and such an appearance, you have to know them; and these authors have given excellent pictures of them ... I am not one of those who despise the moralists.
The friendship of Steegmuller’s ‘Woman’ (Louise La Live d’Epinay) and ‘Man’ (the Neapolitan abbé Ferdinando Galiani led to one of the most engaging correspondences of the century, and Steegmuller has had the excellent idea of constructing a book round it. The two were both remarkable characters and friends to others equally remarkable. With Melchior Grimm, who was Mme d’Epinay’s lover, and with Grimm’s close friend, the philosopher Diderot, they formed an intimate quartet, in touch with most that was going on in the ‘philosophic’ circle generally. Thus Steegmuller’s book, without straining, broadens into a general chronicle. It is a beautifully organised book, and another of its strengths is that he is a first-rate translator, and the words leap off the page. The eloquence and fantasies tell, the jokes do not fall flat.
Mme d’Epinay, daughter of an impoverished family of the minor nobility, married, at the age of 19, her cousin La Live d’Epinay, one of France’s 40 farmers-general. They owned a vast and gloomy mansion near the forest of Montmorency, and here she would entertain writers and philosophes. She had a little private theatre, in which Rousseau once performed, very badly, and for which he wrote a play. Her husband was an appalling spend-thrift and rake, and eventually the marriage broke down. Before this, though, in a bitter episode, she found that he had infected her with a venereal disease and that, unknowingly, she had passed it on to her lover of the time, Dupin de Francueil. She was also rash enough to do Rousseau a good turn, giving him the use of a cottage (‘The Hermitage’) on her estate. The result was that, eighteen months later, there was a shattering quarrel: Rousseau accused her of treachery, intrigue and ‘tyranny’, and severed relations with her – also with Grimm, with whom she was now living, and indeed with almost all his philosophic friends. Then, in the last weeks of the same fraught year (1757), she fell seriously ill and took refuge in Geneva, to be under the care of the famous Dr Trochin. While there, she got to know Voltaire, who was greatly taken with her (he spoke of her as ‘an eagle in a cage of gauze’), and occupied herself by writing a vast, rambling, intermittently fascinating novel (or fictionalised autobiography), the Histoire de Madame de Montbrillant.
When she returned to Paris a year or so later, it was as if she had begun a new life. In a sense, this was Diderot’s doing. Hitherto he had refused to meet her, but now he asked Grimm to bring them together, and they were enchanted with each other. Diderot, she said, ‘gave her soul a shake’, he enabled her to enjoy life again. Grimm conducted a small-circulation manuscript journal, the Correspondance littéraire – a report on the cultural life of Paris, intended for the eyes of foreign princes, and a publicity organ for the views and doings of Diderot. Mme d’Epinay found herself writing countless unsigned reviews for it; and when Grimm was abroad – he fancied a diplomatic career and was friend, fetcher-and-carrier and marriage-broker to various German courts – she and Diderot would ‘look after the shop’.
The Goncourt brothers, in La Femme au dix-huitième siècle, have a tirade about that significant figure of the French 18th century, the lay confessor or ‘director of conscience’. In any house of importance, they write, some ‘saint of the Encyclopédie’ will have installed himself as a fixture, coming between a wife and her husband: lecturing her, scolding her, ‘penetrating her sentiments’, reading her letters, interfering in her children’s education and taking her reputation into his hands. They cite as an example Mme d’Epinay and her friend Charles Duclos, the historian and Academician; and indeed some of the best pages in her Histoire de Madame de Montbrillant describe her troubled relationship with Duclos, a genial bully – diagnosed by Sainte-Beuve as a faux bonhomme – and his efforts to ‘run’ her. It is a kind of relationship that people bring upon themselves, and one has the impression Mme d’Epinay always felt the need for it. Thus, for all the latter part of her life, she would let herself be ‘run’ by her worldly and ‘tyrannical’ lover Grimm: a man, as she wonderingly remarked, who received a thousand confidences and would give none. Always uncertain of herself, always physically ailing, she seems to have cast herself for the role of slave, witness and chorus. She would have liked to create a salon and, not quite succeeding in this, she did the next best thing, creating in her novel some brilliant imaginary salon conversations, pieced together from her friends’ published works. She died in 1783, and the manuscript of her novel, confiscated during the Revolution, found its way, thirty years or so later, into the hands of a crooked publisher, who savagely mauled the text, replaced the fictional names by the real-life ones of Grimm, Rousseau, Diderot etc, and presented it to the public as an authentic historical document. As such, it would intrigue and mislead readers through most of the 19th century.
During September 1760 Diderot was staying as a guest of Mme d’Epinay at La Chevrette, and one of his fellow guests was the Abbé Ferdinando Galiani. Galiani had come to Paris the previous year as secretary at the Neapolitan Embassy. He was then 32, the nephew of a cardinal, and an altogether bizarre figure – being, for one thing absolutely tiny, only four foot six in height. He was a dazzling teller of fables, a wit and mimic and, incongruously, a learned archaeologist and advanced economic theoretician. For a time he had hated France, with its ‘incredibly strange climate’ and power to make him feel a provincial; then he had decided to love it, and Paris, or at any rate its salons, had decided to love him.
Diderot took against him on their first meeting, finding himself jarred by Galiani’s dry-eyed humour. ‘The Abbé Galiani greatly displeased me,’ he told his friend Sophie Volland. ‘He confessed he had never wept in his whole lifetime, and the loss of his father, his brothers, his sisters and his mistresses had not caused him to shed a single tear. Mme d’Epinay, I have the feeling, was as shocked as I was.’ The repulsion did not persist; and soon Diderot, like Mme d’Epinay and many of their friends, developed a sort of cult of Galiani, as an original and a ‘treasure for a rainy day’. He and Diderot were together again next month at another country house, when a dispute arose about the relative claims of ‘genius’ and ‘method’, and Galiani told a fable about the cuckoo (method) and the nightingale (genius) and how they held a singing-contest before a donkey (Galiani himself). ‘How you would have laughed,’ Diderot told Sophie Volland, ‘to see him stretch up his neck and pipe as the nightingale, throw out his chest and sound gruff as the cuckoo, and lay his ears back to mimic the imbecile gravity of the donkey – and all without the faintest effort. He is all pantomime, from his head to his feet.’
Galiani was genuinely very witty, and his wit travels. On his attending at Versailles for the first time, the courtiers ill-manneredly tittered at his strange appearance – at which he blithely explained that what they saw was only a sample of the secretary: ‘The complete article will come later.’ When he heard that the writer Algarotti had ordered his tomb to be inscribed Hic jacet Algarottus, sed non omnis, he made the bad-taste joke that it would be more appropriate for Farinelli and Salimbeni (the famous castrati).
He was also a powerful and self-forgetting debater. Diderot wrote to Grimm later of how he longed to see Galiani again, uncovering his steaming head and laying his wig on the chimney-piece, ‘pursuing some topic and casting beams of light on the obscurest corners of literature, antiquity or politics’. Philosophically, he was an extreme cynic and an intransigent pessimist, declaring, ‘Be damned to our neighbour. There are no such things as neighbours,’ and admitting in politics only the purest Machiavellianism, ‘unmixed, raw and in all its force and harshness’. When he argued at the dinner-table of Julie de l’Espinasse that the only thing he loved in his men friends was their money and in his women friends their beds, the assembled ‘Parliament’ voted that a monstre gai was worth more than a boring sentimentalist.
Almost every day he stayed in bed till noon, and he would receive his friends there, sitting cross-legged like a tailor, in a great cloak lined with lynx fur, holding what he called his lit de justice. His own account was that in Naples he was loved as the nephew of a cardinal, a friend of the royal family, and a useful man to know, whereas in Paris he was loved for himself. The place was, he felt, made for him: ‘In Paris philosophes grow out of doors; in Stockholm and St Petersburg they only thrive in hothouses; in Naples they have to be raised under manure.’ When, in 1769, as the result of a diplomatic indiscretion, he was recalled to Naples, he lamented to friends, in loud and over-acted despair, that he had ‘rejoined the vegetable kingdom’. The blow was all the worse because, having just completed his intensely topical Dialogues on the Corn Trade, he was compelled to leave Diderot and Mme d’Epinay to see it through the press. It was agreed that someone must, at all costs, keep him in touch with Paris, and the choice, inevitably, fell on the indispensable Mme d’Epinay. She agreed, as it were, to supply him with his own private Correspondance littéraire.
The truth is, Galiani was a most formidable figure. He was – in contrast with the always dependent Mme d’Epinay – entirely his own man, never in the least abashed to exhibit his own harshness, vanity and cynicism, and the appointed scourge of nonsense in others, including the nonsense side of ‘enlightened’ attitudes. It is he who wrote (the tone is uniquely his):
Voltaire is wrong to tell philosophers, ‘Love one another my children.’ That is something to be said only to sectaries. It should be said to Economists and Jansenists ... Philosophers are not born to love one another. Eagles do not fly in company; that is to be left to partridges and starlings. Voltaire has never loved, and he is not loved by anybody. He is feared, he has his claw, and that is enough. Soar on high and have claws, that is the lot of great geniuses.
In his letters to his friends it is a comedy to see how he makes it his business to cross them and to get away with insults intolerable from any other person. When Mme d’Epinay achieved her one literary success, some educational dialogues called Conversations d’Emilie, he classed himself with ‘those appreciating the originality of its gaiety and naivety, being greatly amused by it and finding it utterly useless, since education is entirely a matter of chance’. (‘Were you ever so deluded as to believe Rousseau and his Emile?’ he wrote to her earlier. ‘To believe that upbringing, maxims, preaching, had anything to do with the formation of minds? If you believe that, take a wolf and make a dog out of him if you can.’)
Steegmuller tends a little to soften the outlines of this extraordinary man, underplaying his pessimism and his needlings of ‘enlightenment’ and the degree to which he simply outmatched his correspondent Mme d’Epinay. Steegmuller’s valedictory sentence, praising their good fortune in escaping the Revolution, runs thus: ‘Their lives, fraught with infirmities and sorrows, gladdened by benign pleasures, had been passed in a more hopeful era, and in the active belief that knowledge and self-knowledge might ultimately prevail over the destructive passions of mankind.’ This is to suffuse Galiani with too warm a sunset glow.
Galiani’s Dialogues on the Corn Trade is a work of genius, sometimes – and quite justly – likened to Pascal’s Lettres provinciales. As in Britain in the 1840s, so in France in the 1760s, one of the burning topics of the day was the corn laws. Bread-supply in France had traditionally been considered a state responsibility. The grain trade had been subject to a mass of confusing regulations, preventing easy movement of grain from one part of France to another, and the export of grain had been made a criminal offence. However, the group known as the Physiocrats, who held that all true wealth was derived from the soil, had been campaigning for the abolition of internal customs barriers and restrictions on export, together with the replacement of the elaborate national tax system by a single property tax; and in 1763/4, under their influence, the experiment of free trade had actually been tried. The result had been chaos – local famines, demonstrations, assaults on merchants and engrossers – and by 1768 free trade in grain was as good as dead in the greater part of France.
Galiani, who had had frightening experience of famines in Italy, saw these recent events as a reflection not merely on the Physiocrats but on the whole mode of thinking that Physiocracy exemplified. His Dialogues are set in an unnamed salon, and the speakers are (initially, anyway) the ingenuous and philanthropic ‘Marquis de Roquemaure’ (loosely based on a close friend of Galiani’s and his circle), and the ‘Chevalier de Zanobi’, a thinly-disguised portrait of Galiani himself – the contrast between the beaming good will of the Marquis and the teasing, malicious, trap-laying tactics of Zanobi providing the mainspring of the argument. At every point, whether in his generous impatience for action, his wish for a clear-cut creed, his indifference to detail and propensity to ‘lump’, his readiness to assent to any simile or metaphor (till Zanobi proffers a contradictory one, just as persuasive), the Marquis is made to re-enact the errors of the Physiocrats. Eventually, exhausted and bewildered, he declares himself convinced by Zanobi and his long and tortuous chain of reasoning, and then there comes a further bombshell: Zanobi is actually in favour of the enactments of 1763/4. He is so for a quite unexpected reason – the proto-Kantian one that at last a French monarch has told his subjects that they are adults: no longer shall they be slaves or domestic animals who have sold their independence for bread.
Meanwhile, to another interlocutor – by a subtle dramatic stroke, the Marquis is out of the room at this moment – Zanobi has revealed his deepest conviction of all. Why, he is asked, does he rate the writings of the Physiocrats so low? ‘Because,’ he answers disconcertingly, ‘they are the work of men of good will.’
Believe me: do not fear the rascally or the wicked; sooner or later they are unmasked. Fear the deluded man of good will; he is on good terms with his own conscience, he desires the good, and everyone trusts him ... But unfortunately he is mistaken as to the means of procuring it for us. THE PRESIDENT: So from what you say, you would rather have us governed by wicked men than by good ones?
ZANOBI: I don’t say that; but I want to insist how hard it is to find a great man. A great man has to combine extreme and opposite qualities, almost impossible to reconcile; he must have the ardent will for good of the man of virtue, together with the calm and – as you might say – the indifference of the wicked.
Diderot read and was much struck by this passage, just at the time when he was sketching his Paradox of the Actor, and one can detect Galiani’s influence on that famous work, which insists on the coldness and insensibility necessary to the great actor and to ‘genius’ generally.
An episode soon after the publication of the Dialogues gives one an even more intense impression of Galiani’s strangeness, his reckless imagination and utter carelessness of appearances. Mme d’Epinay sent him a report of the dreadful disaster in Paris on the night of 30 May 1770, when a firework display in honour of the Dauphin’s marriage set fire to the surrounding decorations, and the crowd, retreating in darkness along the Rue Royale, was mowed down, or plunged into flooded ditches, by the approaching fire engines – a catastrophe costing many hundreds of lives. His response, merciless and unhesitating, was to see it as an allegory of the Physiocrats and their talk of ‘the beauty of unbridled Nature finding its own equilibrium’. It set him to work on an entertainment for his Paris friends, in the form of a line-by-line parody of a treatise (The General Interest of the State, or the Liberty of the Corn Trade) by Lemercier de la Rivière (one of the windiest of the Physiocratic spokesmen), in which Lemercier’s ‘freedom of the marketplace’ is travestied as the freedom to crowd into narrow spaces, jostle, pick pockets and trample underfoot.
Galiani fascinated Nietzsche. He counted Galiani among the select band of ‘profound and joyous men who please me, avec des âmes mélancholiques et folles’ and, in Beyond Good and Evil, he elaborated a striking apologia for him.
Cynicism is the only form in which common souls come close to honesty; and the higher man must prick up his ears at every cynicism, whether coarse or refined, and congratulate himself whenever a buffoon without shame or a scientific satyr speaks out in his presence. There are even cases in which fascination mingles with the disgust: namely, where, by a caprice of nature, such an indiscreet goat or monkey is touched with genius, as in the case of the Abbé Galiani, the profoundest, most sharp-sighted and perhaps also the dirtiest man of his century – he was far more profound than Voltaire and consequently also a good deal more silent.
Galiani’s strength, according to Nietzsche, lay in his being a satirist without indignation:
whenever anyone speaks, without bitterness, rather innocuously, of man as a belly with two needs and a head with one; wherever anyone sees, seeks and wants to see only hunger, sexual desire, and vanity, as though these were the actual and sole motives of human actions; in brief, whenever anyone speaks ‘badly’ of man – but does not speak ill of him – the lover of knowledge should listen carefully and with diligence.
This brings us back to Diderot and his Le Neveu de Rameau, for in that novel Diderot-Moi says that the follies of the Nephew, the tales of Galiani and the extravagances of Rabelais have sometimes made him ‘dream profoundly’ and have furnished him with a store of comic masks to fit onto the faces of grave personages. One gains the feeling that the cynical and pantomimical Galiani has made a definite contribution, possibly even a large one, to the persona of Diderot’s Rameau. Also, it is worth remarking, the pharisaic Diderot-Moi, in his confrontation with Rameau, closely resembles Nietzsche’s indignant man’ – one who, Nietzsche says, ‘may indeed stand higher, morally speaking, than the laughing and self-satisfied satyr, but in every other sense is the more commonplace, less interesting, less instructive case’.
But if Rameau the supreme cynic contains something of Galiani, one is struck all the more by what Diderot has discovered about cynicism. For we are shown that, for all Rameau’s vaunting, and for all his brilliant sophistry, cynicism lets him down. Cynicism opts for the rock bottom, as being a place perhaps not very comfortable but at least secure. But, Diderot’s novel continually makes us ask, is it really so secure? What happens if you take cynicism literally and actually try to live by it? The answer is unexpected, and extraordinarily interesting. There is no rock bottom. It is impossible to take your stand on cynical certainties, any more than on any other kind, for they shift and give way under your feet, and you find yourself not standing on a rock but pursuing an ever retreating, ever changing, shadow. To declare yourself dishonest is not an ultimate honesty: it has nothing ultimate about it. To take one’s stand on the average human’s ‘average’ desires – food, wine, sex and soft beds (Nietzsche’s ‘belly with two needs and a head with one’) – is to embrace a chimera. For a man like Rameau, at any rate, obsessed with ‘genius’, these goods quickly lose all substance and are revealed as mere tokens. They have value only as proof that one is ‘genius’ enough to secure them. For all the marvellous intelligence of Galiani, this was an insight outside his range.