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.’

Like the other philosophes, he had also to contend with the problem of censorship. He rejected Voltaire’s advice to get out of France and enjoy the freedom of exile. As he saw it, the Encyclopédie must be publicly produced within France itself. That meant that part of his message had to be conveyed by irony, double-entendre, subversive cross-reference, and the occasional hyperbole intended to provoke doubt. Throughout his life he divided his work between writing for publication and texts that he was content to leave in manuscript. Only in the case of the latter was he free to say exactly what he meant – if he chose to do so. His private writings suggest that he was often not so much unsure about what he did mean as inclined to see truth as a debate between probabilities. What fascinated him was speculation rather than the mobilisation of evidence in support of any particular theory. His Supplément au Voyage de Bougainville, which is mainly concerned with painting an idealised picture of Tahitian society and denouncing European colonisation, begins by raising the question of why islands separated from each other by wide tracts of sea should be populated by the same species. His conjectural answer prefigures the theory of Continental Drift. This splendid guess might have provided a biologist with the programme for a lifetime’s work. To the best of my knowledge, however, Diderot never referred to it again. Where human activity was concerned, he was quite capable of mounting a crusade against what he believed to be demonstrably evil – the slave trade, for example – but equally given to tantalising and shocking his readers by showing them that the values which they took for granted were no more well-founded than their opposites.

Diderot loved to mystify and tease. His fictional writings brought in real people alongside his invented characters, so that the reader can never be sure what is embroidered fact and what is pure invention. His novel La Religieuse began as a trick played on a friend, the Marquis de Croismare, to coax him back to Paris by means of a forged letter, purporting to come from a real nun whom the marquis had tried to help in her attempt to obtain release from her vows. The story of ‘Les Deux Amis’ began as a similar hoax. With a man of Diderot’s mischievous and inventive energy, any simple prank was liable to hatch into a literary butterfly.

His favourite vehicle was dialogue. Occasionally this was no more than the means by which the writer met and confounded the superficial objections of his stooge. More often, it involved looking at a question from various possible points of view, without necessarily rejecting any of them. In these cases, one can never be sure that the ‘I’ character, when there is one, necessarily represents Diderot himself, or if it does, whether he is not asking himself if his instinctive personal reaction to a question may not be misguided or inadequate. Sometimes the message emerges from the dialogue itself, as the characters combine to build up a collective understanding of which each would have been incapable in isolation.

None of this makes it possible to present Diderot as a four-square sort of person, hacking his way through ignorance and prejudice in the systematic pursuit of some specific goal. Any attempt to do that would be a betrayal of everything he claimed to stand for. This means that writing his biography is rather like asking an eel to keep still while you paint its portrait. At the same time, one has to resist the temptation to relapse into uncritical admiration and merely sit back and enjoy the fireworks. His modus operandi – more of a way of life than a literary technique – worked better in some fields than in others.

When he addressed himself to politics he was not so much concerned with speculating about the nature of society as making positive suggestions for its improvement. The self-contradictions and simultaneous embracing of conflicting viewpoints that served him so well in other fields were not what was wanted here. Anyone whose acquaintance with him was confined to the material made available to us in Mason and Wokler’s Political Writings could he pardoned for thinking his reputation a confidence trick played on posterity. In his supplement to Bougainville’s voyage he treats Tahiti as a kind of natural society, not merely managing without intellectual culture and industrial technology but much the better for their absence. When he imagines himself in Tahiti he treats change as dangerous and argues that the Enlightenment has done nothing to check the spread of despotism. In his contributions to Raynal’s Histoire philosophique des Deux Indes, where his subject is colonisation, he still maintains that civilisation brings with it the loss of ‘virtue, courage and liberty’. Once he is transported to St Petersburg and enjoying his tête-à-tête with one of the hated despots, things look rather different. He now saw the condition of 18th-century Europe as characterised by public order and enlightenment. Moeurs, or habits and customs, are the products of government, not the factors that condition it, and it is for the ruler to reshape a people by giving it the best laws that he or she can devise, and not, as Montesquieu had argued, the best it is in a condition to accept. Diderot could be eloquent in his denunciation of slavery, but he argued that the Russians should have taken advantage of their temporary occupation of Berlin during the Seven Years War to deport its artisans in order to provide themselves with the rudiments of an industrial working class. He denounced extremes of wealth and poverty – but believed that the role of governments should be purely negative, and that the right to property was absolute. All states were condemned by nature to a cyclical progress from barbarism to dissolution – but old societies could be regenerated by civil war, although popular revolts led only to anarchy and seas of blood. All this is rather less than impressive.

Here is a life that would defy even an omniscient biographer to impose coherence on it and to integrate all its diversities and incongruities, its insights and inadequacies, within a single coherent text. Furbank is not omniscient, although he is formidably well-informed and liable at any time to awe the reader by the range of his knowledge, not merely of Diderot’s writings, but of the secondary sources. Anyone with an axe to grind is liable to be disappointed, here and there, because Furbank has treated a text from one angle when he or she would have preferred him to approach it from another, or concentrated on some of the works rather than on others. I, for example, was sorry that he treated the Rêve de d’Alembert as study in the problem of personal identity rather than an exciting intuition of biological evolution. Wherever he is now, Diderot must be laughing at this demonstration of his conviction that it all depends on who you are and what you are looking for.

Writing as a literary critic, author of Reflections on the Word ‘Image’, Furbank tends to focus his attention on Diderot’s literary works rather than his art criticism, his scientific speculation or his political writing, and to organise his book round Diderot’s perennial attempts to distinguish between appearance and reality. On the first page of his Introduction he quotes at length from Diderot’s ‘dream’ of Plato’s cave. A captive audience – in the sense that they are chained to their seats – is enjoying a show put on by ‘kings, ministers, priests, doctors, apostles, prophets, theologians, politicians, rogues, charlatans, makers of illusions and the whole troupe of merchants of hopes and fears’. These illusionists, standing behind the audience, project images of themselves on a screen at the end of the cave, to the delight of their public, which reacts angrily when one or two brave spirits try to relieve them of their fetters. One could interpret this, in the most obvious sense, as a familiar depiction of the heroic philosophes, armed with a clear-sighted understanding of things as they are, trying to liberate the reluctant masses from their cherished illusions. This may have been all that Diderot intended, but Furbank thinks that there is more to it than that. He sees Diderot, not as the self-confident if frustrated liberator, but – as indeed he presents himself in his ‘dream’ as a member of the audience, unlike them only in his awareness that what he is looking at is merely an image.

This is well chosen as an expression of Diderot’s central preoccupation. It also describes his quest for the natural and his suspicion of all conventional responses that act as substitutes for thought. Furbank argues, both in his biography and in the introduction to his translation of Diderot’s stories, that the middle of the 18th century saw the emergence of two conceptions of the novel, neither of which had as yet imposed its predominance. The first of these, as exemplified by Tom Jones, he describes as ‘accepted illusion’. Fielding’s pretence that his story is history rather than romance takes in nobody. Everything is so crafted, with its suspense, changes of pace, ironies, coincidences and final convergences, that the reader settles back to enjoy a good yarn which, despite its plausibilities of detail, he knows to be entirely fictitious. The second type of novel Furbank calls ‘deception ... falsehood dressed up to look like truth and leaving a margin of possibility that it might in fact be truth’. This is a very accurate description of some of Diderot’s stories, but it is less convincing as a portrayal of a genre: has any reader ever thought that Tristram Shandy ‘might be truth’? Diderot too, in Jacques le Fataliste, has no inhibitions about buttonholing his reader and threatening to alter the story if there are too many interruptions. It would perhaps be more accurate to describe this kind of fiction as Brechtian, in the sense that the author goes out of his way to emphasise that he is not some kind of tape-recorder but a man with a pan to play – not the creator of illusions but a commentator on life.

Furbank may appear at times, at least to someone who has not been brought up on a diet of literary criticism, to push his analyses over the edge of plausibility and on occasion to bid a trifle high on behalf of his client. He describes Diderot’s novel Les Bijoux indiscrets, as ‘indecent and intentionally outrageous’ but not pornographic, ‘pretending to be pandering to [the reader’s] “corrupt” tastes in order to get across a philosophical message’. This is perhaps a question of semantics. Diderot was not a man who could keep philosophy out of anything. Whether he was using a veneer of philosophical comment to diversify a piece of smut or sweetening the pill of social criticism with an erotic coating, is, as Diderot himself would have been the first to admit, a matter of opinion. More open to question is Furbank’s classification of La Religeuse as a ‘masterpiece’ and his high praise for the stories he has translated in the University of Missouri Press volume. This is not an assessment that would meet with universal assent but Furbank shows himself to be such a subtle and convincing exponent of the qualities of some of Diderot’s other works like Le Neveu de Rameau and Jacques le Fataliste that one cannot challenge him without an uneasy suspicion that one may merely be exposing one’s own superficiality. In any case, it is a hard world indeed if a man is not entitled to the benefit of the doubt from his biographer.

If Furbank occasionally finds subtleties in the novels that might have surprised Diderot, he is not an uncritical admirer of everything that Diderot wrote. He condemns his first play as pompous and self-righteous and his second one as ‘dreadfully wooden’. No one could accuse him of adopting a perspective that accentuates the positive and hides the warts. There are important aspects of Diderot’s achievement that he scarcely mentions. But if he tends to view his subject from one angle rather than another, Diderot would have been the first to recognise that no one can do anything else, whatever claims he may make to objectivity or omniscience. Like Diderot himself, Furbank is more concerned to open up new perceptions than to bludgeon his readers with ‘definitive’ judgments about this and that. Perhaps no one could hope to do justice to Diderot, but Furbank has certainly done him proud.