An Afterlife to Remember

Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely BY Andrew S. Curran. Other Press. Hardcover, 528 pages. $28.

As Denis Diderot’s lengthy and preposterously productive run approached its end in 1784, the question of his posterity loomed in an even more concrete way than usual. In the months before he expired, aged seventy, over a bowl of stewed cherries, he relocated from the conservative parish of Saint-Sulpice to the more renegade-hospitable precinct around Église Saint-Roch, on the other side of the Seine. The move offered a way for Diderot the atheist to avoid the fate of Voltaire the deist, whose corpse had had to be disguised as a still-living being and hustled out of Paris sitting upright in a carriage, since no church graveyard would take it.

In Diderot’s case, the foresight proved propitious (even if grave robbers later looted his vault) and totally in character. Like his onetime kindred spirit Rousseau, who made sure his Confessions wouldn’t appear until after his death, Diderot long concerned himself with his posterity, which took on an almost metaphysical cast both as a kind of guiding spirit for nonbelievers and as a leitmotif across the (vast) range of areas he touched on in his writing (much of it published posthumously). “One only communicates with force from the bottom of the grave,” he wrote near the end of his life. “That is where one must imagine oneself; and it is from there that one should speak to mankind.” Just as he thought about his own demise, he pondered the disintegration over time of other things, especially the art object. When his friend the sculptor Falconet professed he couldn’t care less about what happened to his work once it left the studio, it both amused and scandalized Diderot—so much so that he satirized the artist in his speculative novel D’Alembert’s Dream, imagining one of Falconet’s sculptures pulverized and buried, eventually becoming comestible in the form of vegetal matter. Even his erotic life came in for the after-death treatment. In one of his most famous letters to Sophie Volland, his mistress and confidante for nearly thirty years, Diderot pictured being entombed together so their remains would become one: “When the cell is divided in a hundred thousand parts, the primitive animal dies, but all his laws still exist. O, my Sophie, I still have the hope . . . to blend with you when we no longer exist! If there were in our nature a law of affinity; if we were destined to blend into one common being; if in the space of eternity I could remake a whole with you; if the dispersed molecules of your lover became agitated and began to search for yours!” He would have loved composting.

Jean-Baptiste Greuze, A Girl with a Dead Canary (detail), 1765, oil on canvas, 21 × 18 1⁄4".

Diderot accepted that there would be no religious afterlife in store and gambled on a posthumous reward of renown. His wager paid off, even if many still know him only as the force behind the greatest publishing project in history, the Encyclopédie, the crowning achievement of the French Enlightenment that he spent almost a third of his life in realizing. Voltaire called him a pantophile, “l’ami de toutes choses,” the lovestruck thinker who finds every subject, from the sciences to philosophy to music to the arts, utterly irresistible. Was anyone ever better suited for their appointed task in life? Out of an original core of more than 150 savants running the intellectual gamut, Diderot and his coeditor d’Alembert squeezed seventeen volumes and 74,000 articles. Around a tenth of them issued from the pen of Diderot himself when he was unable to cajole the work from others. The sweep of the project was revolutionary not just for the radius of its subject matter but for the audacious and inspired use of crossreferencing, which wormed unexpected and inspired links from subject to subject, not to mention the majestic use of illustrations, which wedded image to text in a novel way.

But there was infinitely more to Diderot, whose well of curiosity, intellectual restlessness, and creative novelty never seemed to run dry. I remember having my eyes opened to just how surprising he could be when I worked years ago on the Zone Books anthology The Libertine Reader, which reproduced his Supplement to Bougainville’s Voyage, a happy proto-ethnographic bumper sticker of a text advocating the purportedly Tahitian tradition of free love and sexual independence, and the downright filthy Indiscreet Jewels, an Orientalist fantasy in which a certain King Mongogul discovers a magic ring that, pointed in the right direction, will induce its subject’s vagina to begin to speak (and to spill whatever beans there are to spill).

Better known, I suppose, is his essayistic art writing, beginning with the Salon of 1759, an elegant introduction to how to look at art that is often credited as being the genesis of modern criticism. He wrote influentially too on drama and acting, in addition to writing for the theater itself. On a more political stage, he authored vast, uncredited chunks of the Philosophical and Political History of the Two Indies, Abbé Raynal’s prescient critique of colonialism, and traveled to Russia to counsel Catherine the Great, who showered money on his work. Alongside all of this, he knocked out novels that mixed the bawdy and the philosophical: The Nun told of the strange erotic agonies of the convent; the episodic Jacques the Fatalist wrangled a Tristram Shandy picaresque in the service of a rambling deliberation on determination and free will; Rameau’s Nephew imagined a dialogue between “Moi” et “Lui,” the latter a (real-life) social pariah who infamously shares his composer uncle’s name but who delights in undercutting the Diderot-like interlocutor. All three appeared posthumously, and the provenance of the last was only fully confirmed when it turned up at a bouquiniste’s stall in 1890, more than a century after Diderot’s death.

In Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely, Andrew S. Curran emphasizes Diderot’s own patience with his most complex thought. “That [Diderot] refrained from publishing (or taking credit for) his most forward-looking ideas during his lifetime was not simply a matter of avoiding persecution,” a threat that first presented itself when he was jailed in 1749 for the intemperate materialism of his pamphlet Letter on the Blind. (The Encyclopédie would run into troubles again and again, twice banned by the king and ordered burned by Pope Clement XIII before being completed.) In Curran’s lucid biography, writing “for the drawer” also fulfilled Diderot’s complicated sense of a future when he would be more fully understood—an assertion that, it must be said, relies more on the philosopher’s visionary confidence in the rightness of his project than on the prophecies worked out in any single text. Curran elaborates on the many ways in which Diderot’s faith has been redeemed—and the multiple ways in which his thinking outpaced his moment—most of which have earned a future-perfect prefix: For starters, there is the proto-Darwinism of his evolutionary-biological reveries in D’Alembert’s Dream, and the proto-Freudianism of his fascination with the desires of “abstinent monks, libertines, and even the most honorable and principled members of society” and the drives of all those who swim in what Curran calls the “murky waters of eighteenth-century sexuality.”

Curran is particularly attuned to the theme of illusion in Diderot’s life and work, and to how some of Diderot’s most powerful conceits, like Mongogul’s ring, compelled hidden and silent things to reveal themselves and speak. In Diderot’s art writing in particular, Curran stresses the way the philosopher was drawn to the question of illusion in what he considered perhaps the most “deceitful” of the fine arts. In his writing on the Salon of 1763, Diderot notes that, unlike the sounds that a musician sends out him- or herself, what the painter “blends on his palette” is not “flesh, blood, wool, sunlight, and air from the atmosphere, but soil, plant sap, calcined bones, shredded stones, and metallic lime.” The “best and most harmonious painting” was indeed “a web of lies that cover each other.” In his writing on Chardin, he marveled at the seductive power of the still lifes while wondering how the illusion affected him, foregrounding—in another proto-manner—both the painting and the person looking at the painting (a subject that will be familiar to anyone who has read Michael Fried). He detested Boucher (“What colors! What a variety! What richness of objects and ideas! This man has everything, except truth.”) and loved Chardin and Greuze, whose portrait of a young girl weeping over a dead bird licensed a bravado digressive response from the critic ranging from the mawkish to the scatological—all of which combined to highlight his presence as an observer, in front of the canvas. How marvelous indeed that at the very beginning, more or less, of art criticism, Diderot was already at work shifting the frame. In a different context, describing his fiction, P. N. Furbank wrote analogously that Diderot “saw a story not as a story but as someone telling a story.”

This strange sense of displacement feels especially contemporary—and certainly farsighted. It saturates Diderot’s stories and novels, perhaps nowhere so impressively as in the serpentine romp Jacques the Fatalist. Curran aptly quotes the first lines of the book, a masterwork of late style, to emphasize its modernity: “How had they met? By chance, like everybody else. What were their names? What’s it to you? . . . Where were they going? Does anyone really know where they’re going? What were they saying? The Master wasn’t saying anything, and Jacques was saying that his Captain used to say that everything that happens to us here below, for good and for ill, was written up there, on high.” Its odd mix of narration and dialogue, its haphazard adventures and capricious storytelling, still strikes a chord and imbues Jacques the Fatalist with a weirdly indeterminate power (and humor) to undermine what Curran describes as “the so-called fatalism that is at the heart of the book and, perhaps, our lives.” As he points out, one of the most astonishing things about the book is that Diderot philosophizes about matters of the utmost importance to a freethinker—the small but real spaces for action available to us in a deterministic universe—but refrains from pointing this out to the reader directly. Instead, this happy little lesson on freedom and autonomy comes through our “reading and laughing,” which, Curran notes, is what the philosophical experience is all about. Diderot may have left many messages in a bottle for his future readers, but at a time when determinism is more dogmatic than ever and we feel more and more constrained, this one might wind up being the most perspicacious of all—and most welcome.

Eric Banks is the director of the New York Institute for the Humanities.