Vibrations of Madame de V***

John Mullan

  • To the Hermitage by Malcolm Bradbury
    Picador, 498 pp, £16.00, May 2000, ISBN 0 330 37662 4

Denis Diderot, the hero of Malcolm Bradbury’s new novel, has one niche in the English language with ‘esprit de l’escalier’, his only entry in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations: ‘An untranslatable phrase, the meaning of which is that one only thinks on one’s way downstairs of the smart retort one might have made in the drawing room’. It is given, here and in the OED, as coming from Paradoxe sur le comédien, Diderot’s account of why the greatest actor must be a person of zero sensibility, ‘un spectateur froid et tranquille’ of human nature. The phrase seems untranslatable because it belongs so clearly to its milieu: we imagine the Philosophes in their salons, not afraid of any ideas, valuing only each other’s intellect, fencing with words. And we think of the mortifications involved in belonging to this milieu. An occupational hazard of Enlightenment man, who lives for clever talk, has been fixed in a phrase as a universal experience. If you want to live by your conversational wits, you are condemned to keep realising how clever you failed to be.

The phrase does seem to preserve something of Diderot, the most humanly rueful of the Philosophes. It also catches some of the character of his writing, which is much taken up with the idea of the rejoinder, the drama of wise words immediately rebutted. Diderot loved dialogues and wrote many; most of them he made no attempt to publish in his lifetime, his more audacious or experimental writing apparently being composed for private satisfaction. Dialogues could be enactments of rational activity, pushing and pushing for truth, unafraid of the constraints that would act on any actual conversation. In Diderot’s hands they could also be risky arguments with himself – disputes in which some of his own beliefs were worried at or even mocked.

The dialogue was a form taken to heart by the Enlightenment. Diderot’s early intellectual hero, Shaftesbury, adopted it in a decorous shape for his longest and most ambitious work, The Moralists. David Hume, whom Diderot befriended in Paris in the 1760s, used it to scandalously sceptical effect in his Dialogues concerning Natural Religion, unpublishable until after his death. Diderot’s most famous work is a dialogue: Rameau’s Nephew, in which a Diderot stand-in, candidly labelled MOI, has some of his cherished Enlightenment values challenged by the cynical, satirical antagonist (LUI) of the work’s title. It is not a fake debate pushing a preconceived view; it is a live dramatisation of its author’s own doubts. It still feels like a kind of self-testing, with LUI taking the materialism that Diderot espoused as the licence for his own amoral pursuit of appetite, his cynical parisitism and his entertaining satire on the enfeebled ideals of virtue to which MOI still clings.

You could say it was a philosophical work, with two versions of enlightened thinking – one optimistic, the other cynical – set against each other. Yet some call it a ‘novel’, so subsidiary are the abstract arguments to the psychological drama. Diderot’s success in the work is in making Rameau’s nephew (LUI) an outrageously memorable character: a mimic and mocker who lives beyond his philosophical usefulness. Academic specialists puzzle themselves about how to fit the dialogue into a map of Enlightenment thinking, yet quite uninformed readers can relish its collisions of ideas. In his own day Diderot became famous for editing the Encyclopédie, the Philosophes’ monument to Reason. His contemporaries supposed him to be the only man intellectually equipped to oversee it; he was commonly said to have an encyclopedic mind and to represent in himself the values on which the Encyclopédie was built. With the posthumous publication of many of the works for which he is now most admired (Rameau’s Nephew in some half-reliable form only in 1823) he came to seem a more mischievous writer – a fiction-maker rather than a philosopher.

Certainly he was interested in generating contrariness. His work is full of dialogues and ‘entretiens’. His discussion of philosophical materialism, D’Alembert’s Dream, is framed as a conversation between himself and his fellow Philosophe, followed by an imaginary debate between d’Alembert, his mistress and his physician. His Supplément au voyage de Bougainville, an analysis of the nature of sexual appetite, consists of a series of dialogues, including a couple between a French ship’s chaplain and a Tahitian who offers him his wife and daughters as sexual partners. Paradoxe sur le comédien is an argument between two ‘interlocuteurs’. He created parts for himself, for friends, even for his father and his brother. When he tells a story, he has to have listeners who interrupt, argue, moralise. Ceci n’est pas une conte begins: ‘When one tells a story, there has to be someone to listen; and if the story runs to any length, it is rare for the storyteller not sometimes to be interrupted by his listener.’ It goes on to give two narratives of infidelity in love; the drama of both of them is all in the disputes between teller and listener over the significance of the stories as they unfold. More elaborately, Diderot’s longest so-called novel, Jacques le fataliste, is almost all dialogue: two characters filling an eventless space with tales and disputes.

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