Dramatic Experiments: Life according to Diderot (SUNY series in Contemporary French Thought)

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The literary merit of the dialogue is at least as striking as in any of the pieces of which we have already spoken. The realism of the scenes between the ship-chaplain and his friendly savage, with too kindly wife, and daughters as kindly as either, is full of sweetness, simplicity, and a sort of pathos. A subject which easily takes on an air of grossness, and which Diderot sometimes handled very grossly indeed, is introduced with an idyllic grace that to the pure will hardly be other than pure. We have of course always to remember that Diderot is an author for grown-up people, as are the authors of the Bible or any other book that deals with more than the surface of human experience.

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Our English practice of excluding from literature subjects and references that are unfit for boys and girls, has something to recommend it, but it undeniably leads to a [16] certain narrowness and thinness, and to some most nauseous hypocrisy. All subjects are evidently not to be discussed by all; and one result in our case is that some of the most important subjects in the world receive no discussion whatever. The position which Diderot takes up in the present dialogue may be inferred from the following extract.

The ship-chaplain has been explaining to the astonished Otaheitan the European usage of strict monogamy, as the arrangement enjoined upon man by the Creator of the universe, and vigilantly guarded by the priest and the magistrate. To which, Orou thus:. They are contrary to nature because they suppose that a being who thinks, feels, and is free, can be the property of a creature like itself. Dost thou not see that in thy land they have confounded the thing that has neither sensibility, nor thought, nor desire, nor will; that one leaves, one takes, one keeps, one exchanges, without its suffering or complaining—with a thing that is neither exchanged nor acquired, that has freedom, will, desire, that may give or may refuse itself for the moment; that complains and suffers; and that cannot become a mere article of commerce, unless you forget its character and do violence to nature?

And they are contrary to the general law of things. Can anything seem more senseless to thee than a precept which proscribes the law of change that is within us, and which commands a constancy that is impossible, and that violates the liberty of the male and the female, by chaining them together in perpetuity;—anything more senseless than are oaths of immutability, taken by two creatures of flesh, in the face of a sky that is not an instant the same, under vaults [17] that threaten ruin, at the base of a rock crumbling to dust, at the foot of a tree that is splitting asunder?

You may command what is opposed to nature, but you will not be obeyed. After this declamation he proceeds to put some practical questions to the embarrassed chaplain. Are young men in France always continent, and wives always true, and husbands never libertines? I know all that, as if I had lived among you. It is so, because it must be so; and that society of thine, in spite of thy chief who vaunts its fine order, is nothing but a collection of hypocrites who secretly trample the laws under foot; or of unfortunate wretches who make themselves the instrument [18] of their own punishment, by submitting to these laws; or of imbeciles, in whom prejudice has absolutely stifled the voice of nature.

The chaplain has the presence of mind to fall back upon the radical difficulty of all such solutions of the problem of family union as were practised in Otaheite, or were urged by philosophers in Paris, or are timidly suggested in our own times in the droll-sounding form of marriages for terms of years with option of renewal.

That difficulty is the disposal of the children which are the fruit of such unions.

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Orou rejoins to this argument by a very eloquent account how valuable, how sought after, how prized, is the woman who has her quiver full of them. His contempt for the condition of Europe grows more intense, as he learns that the birth of a child among the bulk of the people of the west is rather a sorrow, a perplexity, a hardship, than a delight and ground of congratulation. The reader sees by this time that in the present dialogue Diderot is really criticising the most fundamental and complex arrangement of our actual western society, from the point of view of an arbitrary and entirely fanciful naturalism.

Rousseau never wrote anything more picturesque, nor anything more dangerous, nor more anarchic and superficially considered. It is true that Diderot at the close of the discussion is careful to assert that while we denounce senseless laws, it is our duty to obey them until we have procured their reform.


There are fewer inconveniences in being mad with the mad, than in being wise by oneself. Let us say to ourselves, let us never cease to cry aloud, that people attach shame, chastisement, and infamy to acts that in themselves are innocent; but let us abstain from committing them, because shame, punishment, and infamy are the greatest of evils. This, however, does not make the philosophical quality of the discussion any more satisfactory.

Whatever changes may ultimately come about in the relations between men and women, we may at least be sure that such changes will be in a direction even still further away than the present conditions of marriage, from anything like the naturalism of Diderot and the eighteenth-century school.

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Even if—what does not at present seem at all likely to happen—the idea of the family and the associated idea of private property should eventually be replaced by that form of communism which is to be seen at Oneida Creek, still the discipline of the appetites and affections of sex will necessarily on such a system be not less, but far more rigorous to nature than it is under prevailing western institutions. Noyes than in Paris or London. We cannot pretend here to discuss the large group of momentous questions involved, but we may make a short remark or two.

One reason why the movement, if progressive, must be in the direction of greater subordination of appetite, is that all experience proves the position and moral worth of women, taking society as a whole, to be in proportion to the self-control of their male companions. Nobody doubts that man is instinctively polygamous. But the dignity and self-respect, and consequently the whole moral cultivation of women, depends on the suppression of this vagrant instinct. And there is no more important chapter in the history of civilisation than the record of the steps by which its violence has been gradually reduced.

There is another side, we admit.

The home, of which sentimental philosophers love to talk, is too often a ghastly failure. The conjugal union, so tender and elevating in its ideal, is in more cases than we usually care to recognise, the cruellest of bonds to the woman, the most harassing, deadening, spirit-breaking of all possible influences to the man. The purity of the family, so lovely and dear as it is, has still only been secured hitherto by retaining a vast and dolorous host of female outcasts.

When Catholicism is praised [21] for the additions which it has made to the dignity of womanhood and the family, we have to set against that gain the frightful growth of this caste of poor creatures, upon whose heads, as upon the scapegoat of the Hebrew ordinance, we put all the iniquities of the children of the house, and all their transgressions in all their sins, and then banish them with maledictions into the foul outer wilderness and the land not inhabited.

On this side there is much wholesome truth to be told, in the midst of the complacent social cant with which we are flooded. But Diderot does not help us. Nothing can possibly be gained by reducing the attraction of the sexes to its purely physical elements, and stripping it of all the moral associations which have gradually clustered round it, and acquired such force as in many cases among the highest types of mankind to reduce the physical factor to a secondary place.

Such a return to the nakedness of the brute must be retrograde. And Diderot, as it happened, was the writer who, before all others, habitually exalted the delightful and consolatory sentiment of the family. Nobody felt more strongly the worth of domestic ties, when faithfully cherished. It is a curious example of the blindness which reaction against excess of ascetic doctrine bred in the eighteenth century, that Diderot should have failed to see that such sophisms as these are wholly destructive of that order and domestic piety, to whose beauty he was always so keenly alive.

It is curious, too, that he should have failed to recognise that the erection of constancy into a virtue would have been impossible, if it had not answered first, to some inner want of human character at its best, and second, to some condition of fitness in society at its best. How is it, says one of the interlocutors, that the strongest, the sweetest, the most innocent of pleasures is become the most fruitful source of depravation and misfortune? This is indeed a question well worth asking.

And it is comforting after the anarchy of the earlier part of the dialogue to find so comparatively sensible a line of argument taken in answer as the following.

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This evil result has been brought about, he says, by the tyranny of man, who has converted the possession of woman into a property; by manners and usages that have overburdened the conjugal union with superfluous conditions; by the [23] civil laws that have subjected marriage to an infinity of formalities; by religious institutions that have attached the name of vices and virtues to actions that are not susceptible of morality. If this means that human happiness will be increased by making the condition of the wife more independent in respect of property; by treating in public opinion separation between husband and wife as a transaction in itself perfectly natural and blameless, and often not only laudable, but a duty; and by abolishing that barbarous iniquity and abomination called restitution of conjugal rights, then the speaker points to what has been justly described as the next great step in the improvement of society.

Buffon introduced him. The same Diderot, however, is present amid them all, and behind each of them; the same fresh enthusiasm, the same expansive sympathy, the same large hospitality of spirit. Always, too, the same habitual reference of ideas, systems, artistic forms, to the complex realities of life, and to these realities as they figured to sympathetic emotions. It was inevitable that Diderot should make an idol of the author of Clarissa Harlowe. The spirit of [25] reaction against the artificiality of the pseudo-classic drama, which drove him to feel the way to a drama of real life in the middle class, made him exult in the romance of ordinary private life which was invented by Richardson.

It was no mere accident that the modern novel had its origin in England, but the result of general social causes. The modern novel essentially depends on the interest of the private life of ordinary men and women. But this interest was only possible on condition that the feudal and aristocratic spirit had received its deathblow, and it was only in England that such a revolution had taken place even partially.

It was only in England as yet that the middle class had conquered a position of consideration, equality, and independence. Only in England, as has been said, had every man the power of making the best of his own personality, and arranging his own destiny according to his private goodwill and pleasure.

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  6. It was to be expected that the first country where princes and princesses were shorn of divinity and made creatures of an Act of Parliament, [26] would also be the country where imagination would be most likely to seek for serious passion, realistic interest, and all the material for pathos and tragedy in the private lives of common individuals. It is true that Marivaux, the author of Marianne , was of the school of Richardson before Richardson wrote a word.

    But this was an almost isolated appearance, and not the beginning of a movement. In the literary circles of France the enthusiasm for Richardson was quite as great as it was in England. There it was one of the signs of the certain approach of that transformation which had already taken place in England; the transformation from feudalism to industrial democracy. It may sound a paradox to say that a passion for Richardson was a symbol that a man was truly possessed by the spirit of political revolution. Yet it is true. Voltaire was a revolter against superstition and the tyranny of the church, but he never threw off the monarchic traditions of his younger days; he was always a friend of great nobles; he had no eye and no inclination for social overthrow.

    I said—Even if all these people were my relations and [27] friends, I could take no interest in them.


    I can see nothing in the writer but a clever man who knows the curiosity of the human race, and is always promising something from volume to volume, in order to go on selling them. He had no vision for the strange social aspirations that were silently haunting the inner mind of his contemporaries.

    Of these aspirations, in all their depth and significance, Diderot was the half-conscious oracle and unaccepted prophet.


    It was not deliberate philosophical calculation that made him so, but the spontaneous impulse of his own genius and temperament. He was no conscious political destroyer, but his soul was open to all those voices of sentiment, to all those ideals of domestic life, to those primary forces of natural affection, which were so urgently pressing asunder the old feudal bonds, and so swiftly ripening a vast social crisis. To this enthusiasm Diderot gave voice in half a dozen pages which are counted among his masterpieces.

    Richardson died in , and Diderot flung off a commemorative piece, which is without any order and connection; but this makes it more an echo, as he called it, of the tumult of his own heart. Some of us may still prefer the moderation, the subtlety, the nice discrimination, of the critics of another school. Still it would be a sign of narrowness and short-sight not to discern the sincerity, the movement, the real meaning underneath all that profusion of glaring colour. If I am hard driven by pressing need, if my friend is overtaken by want, if the mediocrity of my fortune is not enough to give my children what is necessary for their education, I will sell my books; but thou shalt remain to me, thou shalt remain on the same shelf with Moses, Homer, Euripides, Sophocles!

    History paints a few individuals; you paint the human race. History sets down to its few individuals what they have neither said nor done; whatever you set down to man, he has both said and done No; I say that history is often a bad novel; and the novel, as you have handled it, is good history. You must have forgotten how much trouble, pains, busy movement, [29] it costs to bring the smallest undertaking to a good issue,—to end a suit, to settle a marriage, to bring about a reconciliation.

    Think of these details what you please, but for me they will be full of interest if they are only true, if they bring out the passions, if they display character. They are common, you say; it is all what one sees every day.