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.

Here is the allure of Diderot for Bradbury. You can see his appeal to the academic-as-novelist. Willing to push Reason to its limits, Diderot is a model of academic virtue, clear-eyed in the pursuit of truth, however unconsoling (though he was by no means fearless in the face of threats from the authorities). Bradbury, on the other hand, is attracted, as others have been, by Diderot’s subordination of ideas to dialogue. What the author wants to say is less important than the momentary collisions of opinion that he stages. In homage, Bradbury’s novel makes its own, rather unconvincing, attempts at dialogues – conversations that play out ideas. Diderot’s stories were never told without interrupting listeners: you could see him as a writer who made fiction carry its own critical commentary with it. Bradbury’s own fiction has come to seem weighed down by critical baggage, as if he were half-aware that his storytelling cannot escape academic reflections on storytelling. It is clear that in Diderot he has found a model of vivacious self-consciousness. It is clear because his novel keeps saying so.

To the Hermitage takes as its incitement Diderot’s journey to St Petersburg, in 1773, to meet Catherine the Great. In search of pet intellectuals (she had also tried to lure d’Alembert and Voltaire to her court), she offered to print the Encyclopédie, when Diderot was having problems finding a French publisher, and later began subsidising him. In 1765 she agreed to buy his library, allowing him to keep it for his lifetime and paying him a substantial pension. In return, Diderot sang her praises and acted as her agent in the procuring of works of art (to be the basis of the Hermitage collection). Finally, after much coaxing, she persuaded the 60-year-old Philosophe to leave France for the first time in his life and come to Russia to converse with her. Diderot stayed for four months, meeting the monarch each afternoon for mutually improving interviews. More dialogues.

Though informally conducted, each conversation had its agenda, with Diderot drawing up the subjects to be discussed in advance and giving what we might call ‘presentations’ on subjects of moment. We have his memoranda of topics broached, which he left with the Empress: ‘Of Manufactures and Factories’, ‘On Tolerance’, ‘On Luxury’, ‘On the Morality of Rulers’, ‘On Divorce’ and so on. Apparently, the two of them sometimes argued loudly, the Philosophe goading the despot into enlightened thinking (not that this seems to have had any influence on her actual policies). Bradbury invents a series of such dialogues between ruler and intellectual for his novel. Understandably, he ducks away from the dense and earnestly pursued material of Diderot’s memoranda. His Diderot and Catherine cluck and tease, but you never get the impression that a man with ideas, rather than a self-deprecating jester, has arrived at court.

The narrative of Diderot’s visit is interleaved with a story that often sounds autobiographical. An unnamed, world-weary British novelist and academic with a Diderot fixation travels to Stockholm to embark on a cruise across the Baltic to St Petersburg with members of ‘the Diderot Project’. En route, he, too, has dialogues with his fellow travellers. It is October 1993 (Diderot also arrived in Russia in October) and Yeltsin is at war, literally, with members of the Russian Parliament. The country is falling apart, and the narrator, long into his career, feels ‘deeply grey of soul’. He is grumpy with his decade ‘with its lazy decadence, ideological vacancy, consumerist ethics, empty narcissisms’. He is getting old. It is evident that his autumn journey is to be considered parallel to Diderot’s and that Diderot’s writings, bits of which he is finally to encounter in the Hermitage library, are to be some kind of salve for his discontent.

Bradbury does remarkably little to try to indicate why Diderot might have mattered in his lifetime, or indeed in the history of ideas. To the Hermitage – like it or lump it – is about why he matters to Bradbury. And his identification with Diderot is heartfelt. This is not a novel grabbing at a neglected writer of the past merely to enhance its intellectual credentials. There is nothing opportunistic about it (even if its version of Diderot, much influenced by P.N. Furbank’s 1992 biography, is an almost entirely ‘literary’ one). He thinks he has discovered in Diderot a real hero: reasonable, humorous, melancholy, Godless, mischievous, fiction-loving. The problem is that in the parts of Bradbury’s novel labelled, crudely enough, NOW (each 18th-century chapter is labelled THEN), he has a first-person narrator who speaks this admiration, and expresses his ideals, all too straightforwardly.

When you read these alternate chapters of the novel, you know that he means what he says. By various methods, including a couple of actual lectures and some dialogues with Scandinavian stooges, he tells us what he thinks. When he wants the reader to have some information about Diderot, he has one of the party – a flame-haired Swedish diva – ask the narrator the right leading questions. ‘He’ here is both author and narrator, for this narrator is never resolved into a character. Here he is meeting one ‘Jack Verso’, an American academic who is on the trip boasting about his mission to ‘deconstruct the Grand Narratives of the great Age of Reason project’ (he is even given a baseball cap sporting the motto ‘I Love Deconstruction’). ‘I know his type at once: he’s a funky professor. In fact he’s Professor of Contemporary Thinking at Cornell, author of that well-known book The Feminist’s Wittgenstein ... He’s trouble, the American academic high-flyer type, intellectual adrenalin personified, always push-push-pushing to be where it’s all at.’ A couple of chapters later, he is telling us again how well he ‘knows’ this type: ‘He looks pleasant enough, in his designer T-shirt and his Gucci loafers, but I know him for what he is. Somewhere in there I sense the Paglia syndrome, a big show-off’s desire for celebrity thinking and intellectual trouble.’ As the person who tells us this is so clearly Bradbury himself, the claim of insight into a character that he has invented seems tautological.

In the NOW channel of his book, Bradbury has mingled dialogue, travelogue, diatribe, lecture and thinly disguised memoir (there is a long and vivid account of what appears to have been a British Council tour of Finland) in a way that is supposed to have been licensed by Diderot himself. Yet Diderot may be a tricky fictional model. He himself recognised that what could give the Novel its generic power was psychological exactitude, especially in the hands of Samuel Richardson. Before Pamela and Clarissa, the term roman referred, he wrote, to ‘a tissue of fantastic and frivolous events which presented a threat to the taste and morals of its readers. I should like another name to be found for the works of Richardson.’ This is from the opening paragraph of his Éloge de Richardson, one of the most ecstatic pieces of literary criticism ever written. The atheistic and iconoclastic Philosophe writes rapturously of the pious and reactionary English novelist. If poverty were to force him to sell his books, he still would keep just a few: Moses, Homer, Euripides, Sophocles – and Richardson.

The intensity of this admiration was surely rooted in Diderot’s recognition in Richardson’s fiction of what he himself could not manage: the density of scruples, the faith in psychological complexity, the fanatical belief in fictional technique – the ‘writing to the moment’ that Richardson thought was his discovery. ‘The world we live in is his scene of action, his drama is anchored in truth, his people are as real as it is possible to be,’ Diderot said. In his own fiction, he mocks the shifts of other, lesser novelists. At one moment in Jacques le fataliste, he ruminates on all the possible coincidences that he would introduce if he were writing a novel: ‘A novelist would never pass up such an opportunity, but I don’t care for novels, unless they’re by Richardson.’ In among the dialogues and anecdotes that make up most of the book, there is a good deal of such facetiousness about fictional conventions. ‘It must be obvious by now that I’m not writing a novel, since I’m not doing what a novelist would not fail to do.’ Hearing this refrain, some academic critics have eagerly designated Jacques le fataliste an early anti-novel, playfully ‘subverting’ the expectations of ... well, whom? Those readers who had been getting used to the conventions of Richardsonian fiction did not have Diderot’s odd work made available to them. Parts of it were circulated in the Correspondance littéraire, the manuscript journal edited by his friend Grimm that was fashioned only for the smallest and most enlightened of readerships. But Diderot took no care at all to have it ready for publication. His manuscript was sent off to Catherine the Great with the rest of his library after his death and only re-emerged in the 1970s.

And it is simply nothing like a novel. The book’s dialogues float free of circumstances and its only real characters are those who inhabit the inset narratives that get told as Jacques and his master travel aimlessly from inn to inn. It pays its dues to Tristram Shandy, but is stripped of the novelistic (Ian Watt would have said ‘realist’) attributes of that work: the concerns with particulars, with what makes a character individual, with place and time and circumstance, with the laws of probability. Unlike 18th-century novels, it seems to have no thought of a wide readership. So while the author would like to amuse, there has been no compromise with the expectations of unenlightened readers. Jacques le fataliste is under no pressure to balance its amoral vision of human appetites with an idea of virtue. Diderot can allow himself some scandalous discussions, as if what we are encountering is the way intelligent people think when compromises with a reading public are forgotten. Characters discuss, inter alia, how religion, while obviously based on falsehood, might be good for the poor; the usefulness of pretending to be a virgin; whether a man can know that his friend will ‘say no to your wife or daughter, if either of them made up her mind to have him’; why everyone hates philosophers; why it is natural to use obscenities.

Along its main thread, the book, like Rameau’s Nephew, is self-mocking. Jacques is a fatalist, convinced (as was Diderot) that all events are materially determined and that freedom is an illusion. Yet he keeps arguing this against the evidence of his own behaviour. ‘He behaved more or less as you or I do’: as if he were making choices; as if he had a moral sense. Only by considerable efforts of ingenuity does Jacques manage to stick to his fatalism. In hindsight, he always manages an explanation that discounts both freedom and morality. In advance, of course, he never knows what will happen: only that what does happen must. Diderot elsewhere sternly argues that ‘there are and there can be no free beings; we are simply the product of the general order of things, our physical organisation, our education and the chain of events’. The running argument between Jacques and his master is a satire on this faith (as well as on the master’s unexamined belief that we are all masters of our actions).

Diderot seems to have been provoked into writing Jacques le fataliste by his reading of Tristram Shandy. The opening of Jacques le fataliste is an imitation of a passage from Sterne’s novel, where Corporal Trim, Uncle Toby’s manservant, reflects on the opinion of King William (his former commander) ‘that everything was predestined for us in this world; insomuch, that he would often say to his soldiers, that “every ball had its billet” ’ Jacques’s first words are to quote this, the time-honoured sentiment of the stoical soldier that, if a bullet has your name on it, there is nothing to be done. In Tristram Shandy, though, the outburst of fatalism is both sentimental and comic. Trim tells the benevolent Toby Shandy: ‘the shot which disabled me at the battle of Landen, was pointed at my knee for no other purpose, but to take me out of his’ – King William’s – ‘service, and place me in your honour’s, where I should be taken so much better care of in my old age.’ Both men are touched by the thought. This contact between Diderot and Sterne also demonstrates their distance from each other. In Jacques le fataliste, fatalism is a resource because we must make our own contentment without any reference to a God-given scheme of justice. In Tristram Shandy, the comedy of life’s determining accidents is premised on a confidence in natural goodness and, in the end, a benevolent deity.

Bradbury has spotted the connection between Diderot and Sterne and wants to have them as his equal presiding spirits, both Post-Modernists before their time. His NOW narrator says Sterne is ‘my own favourite writer’. On board ship he gives a genially meandering lecture on Diderot and Sterne. As this tells us (more undisguised telling), Bradbury believes that Diderot was handed a baton by Sterne. Sterne had discovered ‘a new way of storytelling’, and this ‘started Diderot off on his own book’:

So we can say Sterne turns into Diderot; who turns into Beaumarchais; who turns into Mozart; who turns into Rossini. He also turns into Proust and Joyce, Beckett and Nabokov, and thus an essential part of our own literature. Instead of writing a book nobody would remember, because as Dr Johnson said nothing so odd can live long, he became the source of a whole tradition of stories, plays, operas – a classic case of Postmortemism.

This undigested credo is necessary because Bradbury’s novel, in a watered-down version of the plot of A.S. Byatt’s Possession, will take him to St Petersburg to find Diderot’s undiscovered ending to Jacques le fataliste, scribbled on a scrap of paper enclosed in a volume of Diderot’s own copy of Tristram Shandy: ‘these unpublished sheets seem to me like the seed of many new stories. I hide them back in my case.’

Were Diderot and Sterne onto the same thing? As Bradbury informs us, the two men met in 1762, when Tristram’s creator visited Paris. Sterne presented Diderot with the first six volumes of Tristram Shandy. His fellow Philosophes could make neither head nor tail of the thing (Voltaire was baffled); Diderot, whose English seems to have been excellent, alone enthused. It was, he told Sophie Volland, the woman he loved, ‘une satyre universelle’: ‘Ce livre si fou, si sage et si gai est le Rabelais des Anglais.’ Sterne was part of a Parisian ‘colonie anglaise’ whose members, Diderot was sure, had left ‘leur morgue et leur tristesse sur les bords de la Tamise’. (It included Garrick, whose drawing-room acting tricks inspired Paradoxe sur le comédien.) Sterne delightedly jested his days away in the salons. Yet Diderot noted something odd about the man who gave him Tristram Shandy. ‘M. Stern qui en est l’auteur est aussi un prêtre,’ he added to the account of the book that he sent Sophie Volland. Perhaps we can detect some puzzlement when he notes that Sterne is a clergyman. Diderot heard this irreverent man of God preach in a service at the British Embassy, and he duly subscribed, along with his fellow atheist d’Holbach, to the forthcoming edition of Sterne’s Sermons. It would, of course, be an elegant entertainment; it also turned out to be, while audaciously tolerant, a distinctively Christian collection.

As Bradbury does not say, Sterne left his own droll memoir of his afternoons with the wits and atheists in A Sentimental Journey, which, apart from anything else, is a brilliant comedy of the miscommunications of the French and the English. Here he paid a sly compliment to the Philosophes and their aristocratic admirers – a compliment characteristic for being potentially either flattering or mocking. In the section headed ‘Paris’, Yorick, Sterne’s sentimental narrator, recalls his reception in the salons and the charm of those he met. He remembers in particular Madame de V***, who was ‘vibrating’ between the first two of the ‘three epochas in the empire of a French-woman’. He explains that such a woman ‘is coquette – then deist – then dévote: the empire during these is never lost – she only changes her subjects’. He sat on the sofa with her and, in the face of her wavering from Christianity, explained that ‘there was not a more dangerous thing in the world, than for a beauty to be a deist.’ He had had to admit his own designs on her, restrained only by ‘the sentiments of religion, and the persuasion they had existed in her breast, which cou’d have checked them as they rose up’. We all need ‘restraints’, he had told her, kissing her hand.

I declare I had the credit all over Paris of unperverting Madame de V***. – She affirmed to Mons. D*** and the Abbe M***, that in one half hour I had said more for revealed religion, than all their Encyclopedia had said against it – I was lifted directly into Madame de V***’s Coterie – and she put off the epocha of deism for two years.

Mons. D*** is Diderot, a friend but also an antagonist. A Sentimental Journey is, in part, a Christian’s satire on Enlightenment irreligion, but Bradbury needs to make his favourite writers into a fraternity. There is a kind of passion about his desire to do this. His discovery of the kinship between Sterne and Diderot is a way of explaining to himself why he is still writing novels. To the Hermitage seems to be about nearing the end of a writing career and is much preoccupied with the deaths of authors, and the qualities in them that disprove ‘the Death of the Author’. Diderot is a model here because the writings of his that Bradbury values were so carelessly waved away, and yet survived, not just intact, but vital. The scatteredness of Diderot’s work is what takes Bradbury’s narrator to the Hermitage. It can seem a consequence of admirable qualities: his desire to write for himself, his resistance to the tastes of the times, his willingness to try things out without worrying where they lead. It has also served as a test of his worth.

Diderot’s spirit has survived in those fragments. And here is an irony, which Bradbury would appreciate, about his most famous ‘quote’, ‘esprit de l’escalier’. It does not actually seem to have been used by Diderot. Although the dictionaries say it comes from Paradoxe sur le comédien, the phrase never appears there. There is a passage where the Diderot figure (LE PREMIER) recalls having been teased and disconcerted by Marmontel, a fellow encyclopédiste. He is reduced to embarrassed silence, for a man of sensibility like himself ‘perd la tête et ne se retrouve qu’au bas de l’escalier’. Nobody seems to know how this became the memorable expression (which is to be found in English dictionaries of quotations, but not French ones). As Bradbury would memorialise Diderot, perhaps it is fitting that he is remembered by something that he did not quite write.