1.7 Diderot and his soul mates

Tuesday, 25. August 2009

 

One day in 1742, when Diderot was passing time in a café, he was introduced to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a young man coming from Geneva who had just arrived in town. Rousseau had moved to Paris to get rich. He had developed a complicated mathematical system that according to him could be useful for musical notation. He planned to sell it to some of the great musicians in Paris. However, nobody was interested in his ideas and Rousseau had to work in other ways for a living. He tried to do so by being a copyist of musical notation, before he became famous as a philosopher and writer.

Diderot and Rousseau liked each other. They were about the same age, around thirty. They shared several interests, for instance they both liked to play chess (although most of the games were won by Rousseau who was a much stronger player); they both loved music and mathematics. Later on Rousseau became one of the contributors to the Encyclopedia, for which he wrote a series of articles on music. The friendship lasted for fifteen years.

Gradually they drifted apart. Then Rousseau, suffering from paranoia, publicly broke off his bonds with Diderot.

 

The other fundamental friendship in Diderot’s life was with the German Friedrich Melchior Grimm who was ten years younger. Before Grimm arrived in Paris, coming from Regensburg, he had developed a keen interest in music and drama. He became the secretary to various aristocratic persons. Later he wrote a gazette for several royal courts in Europe. Diderot and Grimm stayed friends for many years and it is only three years before Diderot died that their relationship came to an end, because of a deep disappointment from Diderot’s side with regard to his friend’s political ambitions.   

 

We could say that Diderot has practised fully his ideas concerning friendship; we can see how his friendships sadly ended because of the habit forming part and when it came to interference with each other’s lives.

Apparently these are the touchy issues and not only three hundred years ago…    

1.6 A Tour de Force, a waste of time?

Wednesday, 12. August 2009

 

It was in the late 1740s that Diderot and Jean d’Alembert were selected as co-editors of the Encyclopédie, a taxonomy of human knowledge with three main branches of knowledge: Memory from which comes History, Reason from which comes Philosophy and Imagination from which comes Poetry. Diderot formulated the taxonomy as follows:

“The universe is the infinite work of God. A science is a finite work of human understanding. There are first principles, general notions, given axioms. These are the roots of the tree. The tree must ramify as much as possible; it must shoot off from the general object as from a trunk, rise first to the large branches or primary divisions; go on from these master branches to smaller ones; and so on, until it has reached out to the particular terms which are like the leaves and crown of the tree.”

Diderot conceived a scheme of an universal compendium of human knowledge in his day. It took him took twenty-five years (1748-1772) to carry it out.

He was the living cornerstone within of this collective structure, and also the target of all the persecution, all the threats from outside. D’Alembert, who may have joined him mainly from self-interest, deserted when the work was not even half-executed, leaving Diderot to contend against the frenzy of the pietists, the cowardice of the booksellers and the struggle beneath an enormous increase of editorial labour. Think of the history of philosophy (which included science), the description of the mechanical arts; over four thousand plates which he caused to be drawn under his own eye… in short, it was Diderot who carried the responsibility and superintendence of the whole affair.

He contrived to incorporate `dangerous’ views in seemingly minor articles to which the reader is directed by cross-references given in the more prominent, orthodox ones. Thanks to his prodiguous activity and to the universality of his knowledge,  thanks to his talent to rally all the contributers, to inspire and arouse them, he succeeded in completing that daring edifice.

 

Twenty-five years… it takes a stubborn mind to keep going for such a long period… What do you think, is this a strength?

1.2 Diderot becomes a priest

Tuesday, 11. August 2009

 

At the age of thirteen Diderot was the main character in a solemn ceremony that made him a priest.        The Bishop of Langres conferred the tonsure on Denis Diderot, a rite consisting of cutting off some locks of the candidate’s hair in the form of a cross. He was expected to wear a short mantle and an ecclesiastical collar with its white tabs. Thirteen, that’s very young, though…

For persons who know only the Diderot of later life – a spirited and emphatic freethinker – it may even come as a surprise. The fact is that Diderot’s relatives hoped that he would be allowed to succeed to the lucrative prebend that his uncle, Canon Didier Vigneron, occupied at the local Cathedral.

Unfortunately after Diderot’s ceremony uncle found that his section objected to his being succeeded by his young nephew. Thus the Canon sent one of his men off to Rome to ask the Pope’s permission. Alas, five hours after he had sent his representative, uncle died. His demission was not binding unless the Pope had accepted it while the Canon was still alive. So the chapter immediately elected someone else and the young Diderot’s religious career went glimmering…

 

Today we don’t know if this ambition was completely Diderot’s own, or at least for a part. Coming to think of it, what do we know at the age of thirteen… At this age most of us do cognise the difference between good and evil. An inkling what’s right and wrong to do. But are we able to overlook at such an age the consequences of our deeds…

 

On the other hand it seems as if young people stay longer child nowadays.

Childish. Irresponsible. Dependent. Is this an improvement, I wonder…

 

Tomorrow: Diderot goes to Paris…

1.5 A clandestine marriage

Saturday, 8. August 2009

 

Diderot spent his first ten years in Paris being a bohemian before he met Anne-Toinette Champion, a poor seamstress. She was three years older than him and ‘beautiful as an angel’. Diderot confessed to her with all the violence of his passion that he was determined to marry her. She must have liked him too, because they decided that Diderot should visit his parents and ask for their consent.

At first the Langres visit went very well. Diderot’s strategy was to persuade his parents to settle an annuity upon him. Following that, he intended to broach the subject of his coming marriage. However, this declaration was poorly received, with the result that Diderot demanded in a fit of passion his share of the family heritance. This request was poorly received as well, whereupon Diderot threatened to have his father arrested. It must have been a tempestuous scene… Diderot’s father took steps of his own.

He put his son in ‘a safe place’, with the intention to keep him there until he would change his mind. As soon as possible Diderot escaped. He wrote to Anne-Toinette in Paris:

‘After having experienced unheard-of torments, here I am at liberty. Shall I tell you? my father carried his harshness to the point of having me shut up with some monks who have employed against me all that the most determined maliciousness could imagine. I flung myself out of the window the night of Sunday going on to Monday… I have come thirty leagues on foot in detestable weather… 

P.S. I forgot to mention that to prevent my running away, they took the useless precaution of cutting off half my hair’. 

 

On his return to Paris Diderot married his Anne-Toinette, without display, without carriages, without guests. The secret was well kept. Only six years later the old Didier Diderot heard a rumor that his son was married…

Hardly nine months after the celebration their daughter Angélique was born. Then, after six weeks, the little girl died. About a year later their second child was born, François-Jacques-Denis. However, shortly past his fourth birthday the boy died of a violent fever. Several months later a third child, Denis-Laurent, was born and duly carried to church for baptism. A careless woman allowed the infant to fall on the steps of this church. The baby died towards the end of the year. It was only three years later (1753) that a new baby was born: Marie-Angélique. This child stayed alive until 1824.

Their married years were to prove, abundantly and regrettably, that Denis Diderot and Anne-Toinette Champion were far from temperamentally congenial. She appeared to be hardheaded, skeptical and disconcertingly realistic; he had soon a mistress. There was a lack of money and their worlds were different. Diderot spent most of his time outdoors. He tried to earn his money in Grubstreet for want of something better.  

 

Hands up anyone who married the wrong person… 

 

1.4 First years in Paris

Tuesday, 4. August 2009

 

‘It won’t be tonight, though your desire will be accomplished. But first let us get some sleep.’

This is how Diderot’s father replied to his adventurous son who tried to leave his parental home silently at midnight.

 

Some time later, Diderot left Langres, at the age of fifteen and his father accompanied him. Down the valley of the Marne they rode, travelling by slow coach, taking seven days to reach Paris.

 

In Paris, Diderot’s father made the arrangements for his son’s settling in to school and took his leave as though he were going to depart from the city. Unobserved, he stayed a fortnight, just to make certain that all was going well. Reassured that young Diderot was happy, the father went back to Langres.

 

From the time Denis Diderot went to Paris until aged twenty-nine and embarked on a career of letters, and desirous of marriage – little is precisely known. Diderot himself seldom spoke of these years and seems almost intentionally inscrutable about this period.

 

 

It is known that after his high school he made a start with theology. Then he changed to study law, whilst working for a solicitor in Paris, which he did for two years. All the time he could steal from his employer was used in studying Latin and Greek, plus Mathematics and also Italian and English…

 

Gradually it became clear that Diderot did not want a career as a solicitor or a barrister at all. At this point his father cut off his allowance and demanded that young Diderot either choose a profession or come home within a week. After this, Diderot left the house of the solicitor and lived the next ten years of his own, in the shadow of obscurity.

 

Which is wise, choosing a profession at a young age or  experimenting with a variety of  possibilities…

Imagine yourself in young Diderot’s shoes, what would you have chosen…

 

 

1.3 When the sexual nature is developing

Monday, 3. August 2009

Soon after this miscalculation the now fifteen year-old Diderot, influenced by his teachers in the Jesuit collège where he was becoming markedly successful, began to think for a short while of becoming a Jesuit himself. You could even say that he underwent the stress of a devout religious experience because he fasted, wore a hair shirt and slept on straw.

The following passage from his novel “James the Fatalist”, written in 1773, may therefore be an autobiographical flashback in nature:

There comes a moment during which almost every girl or boy falls into melancholy; they are tormented by a vague inquietude which rests on everything and finds nothing to calm it. They seek solitude; they weep; the silence to be found in cloisters attracts them; the image of peace that seems to reign in religious houses seduces them. They mistake the first manifestations of a developing sexual nature for the voice of God calling them to Himself; and it is precisely when nature is inciting them that they embrace a fashion of life contrary to nature’s wish.’

Diderot’s desire of becoming a Jesuit didn’t work out and lasted only for four or five months. Nevertheless it was this that led to his departure from Langres, the town where he was born, to Paris, for the rest of his schooling. Diderot intended to leave sneakily in company with a Jesuit, but his father, warned by one of his cousins, waited up on the appointed night and made an unexpected appearance just as Diderot was creeping down the stairs. To the question as to where he was going to in the middle of the night, Diderot replied: ‘To Paris, where I am bound to enter the Jesuits.’

Now guess what his father replied… will be continued tomorrow


The original French title : Jacques le fataliste et son maître

1.2 Diderot becomes a priest

Sunday, 2. August 2009

At the age of thirteen Diderot was the main character in a solemn ceremony that made him a priest. The Bishop of Langres conferred the tonsure on Denis Diderot, a rite consisting of cutting off some locks of the candidate’s hair in the form of a cross. He was expected to wear a short mantle and an ecclesiastical collar with its white tabs. Thirteen, that’s very young, though…

 

For people who know only the Diderot of later life – a spirited and emphatic freethinker – it may even come as a surprise. The fact is that Diderot’s relatives hoped that he would be allowed to succeed to the lucrative prebend that his uncle, Canon Didier Vigneron, occupied at the local Cathedral.

Unfortunately after Diderot’s ceremony the uncle found that his chapter objected to his being succeeded by his young nephew. Thus the Canon sent one of his men off to Rome to ask the Pope’s permission. Alas, five hours after he had sent his representative, the uncle died. The planned succession was not binding unless the Pope had accepted it while the Canon was still alive. So the chapter immediately elected someone else and the young Diderot’s religious career was over…

 

Today we don’t know if this ambition was completely Diderot’s own, or at least in part. What do any of us know at the age of thirteen? We have an idea of the difference between good and evil, but perhaps insufficient to guide our choices and society makes allowance for this.

 

On the other hand it does sometimes seem as though young people stay childish for longer nowadays: irresponsible; dependent. Is this an improvement, I wonder…

 

Tomorrow: Diderot goes to Paris…


 
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