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Diderot: A Critical Biography.

P. N. Furbank. Secker and Warburg. 25.00 [pounds].

We know Diderot -- or at least Diderot the author -- better than his contemporaries could, because many of his oddest and most interesting works were not published until after his death. Even then he has, however, paid the polymath's penalty of spilling out of the categories of the catalogue. He wrote plays, novels and short stories; he tackled aesthetics, ethics and politics; he was a worthwhile scientist but an unimpressive mathematician. Most memorably he played a major role in editing the Encyclopedie, a compendium which at once consolidated and criticised everything which the eighteenth century knew. This great work consumed the best years of his life, and has often achieved the text-book status of one of the five or seven or twelve Causes of the French Revolution, depending on the orthodoxy of the writer's day. Yet Diderot remains partially recognised, figuring briefly in courses on the novel, art history or the enlightenment without receiving -- at least f rom the English-speaking world -- the attention he deserves.

In one sense, Furbank's study is unnecessary: if you want an exhaustive, scholarly biography of Diderot, Arthur Wilson has written it; if you want your appetite whetted and the principal questions raised in clear and exciting terms, Peter France's little Past Master volume does an excellent job. But Furbank's publishers guessed correctly that there would be a market for a vivid and driving narrative of the philosophe's life which paused to address great conceptual dilemmas -- Diderot's and ours -- in terms accessible to any thinking, reading person.

What makes Diderot startlingly |modern' is that be calls into question not only the structures and beliefs of his own society, but the values and methods by which he himself sets about the task of undermining the traditional, many of which have in their turn become the norms of our century. His attempts at a new basis for knowledge, or for an immanent morality, are themselves satirised and subverted by what is often a second or even third authorial voice within the same work. This Furbank demonstrates by careful exegesis of the key texts, making judicious use of the flattering fiction that we are -- say -- being reminded of the story of Les Bijoux Indiscrets, or that we had ourselves already noticed the way in which the apparent shapelessness of a letter to Sophie Volland conceals three distinct philosophical themes (|Being oneself', |Wanting to be a Genius' and |The Rewards of Life') |which', Furbank explains, |obscurely hang together in Diderot's mind and make one'.

It is a difficult technique to persist with, but Furbank does so successfully, not least because in the last third of the book he is able to draw on points established a couple of hundred pages earlier: referring to Diderot's |"statue-building" concept of ethics' or his |interlocutory method'; by then the only compliment we are being paid is the reasonable one that we have been reading attentively and not skipping.

It is sad that Diderot had no Boswell, for so many witnesses tell us that the best of the man was in his conversation and in his exuberant, even uncontrolled and alarming, physical presence: Catherine the Great was not only lectured on the nature of government, but had to put a table between herself and her philosophical visitor to stop him from squeezing her thighs black and blue. Mostly we have to take the wit, the energy and the kindness on trust. What is clear is that Diderot shared with his once-friend Rousseau an understanding of the dignity of humanity which respected ordinary people, caught up in making their livings, loving and dying; but which nursed a sense that once in a generation comes a man who sees what has never been seen before and that he demands and deserves space, recognition and adulation. Such a man somehow subsumes his less extraordinary fellows into his own vision and achievement, but is entitled to say and do things which they find not just eccentric but offensive. So humanity at large can find itself barried by someone claiming to epitomise it, and who innocently looks for gratitude rather than reproach.

All this Furbank works hard to convey, but sometimes, without the exact turn of phrase, or a detailed account of how a conversation took off, the reader is left knowing only that on a given afternoon in -- say -- 1761 all those present thought Diderot had been very clever and very funny. As we did not share the experience, that is as far as the evidence will take us: but there are points where it is odd that -- according to the footnotes -- a book published in 1992 has not chased evidence that has become available in the last few years. It may be defensible to rest an account of the impact of censorship on book sales on a paragraph in Alfred Cobban's 1957 textbook History of Modern France, but why is there no sign in the text or the footnotes of Robert Darnton's recent vast output on forbidden books and those who wrote, printed and sold them? Again, there is a well-known anecdote about Hume at d'Holbach's dinner-table (|I don't think I've ever met an atheist,' says the visiting Scot, to which the reply is, |Look around: there are eighteen people at table; fifteen are atheists; three haven't made up their minds yet.') This comes to us from more than one source, and probably originates from Diderot himself: it is odd, then, to give as authority Greig's 1931 biography of Hume. Maurice Cranston's second volume of his biography of Rousseau (1991) perhaps appeared too late for its findings to shape the section on Diderot's rupture with Rousseau, but it is a shame not to point readers with a note to where they could find additional clarity. One final carp: modern students find it extraordinary that despite Diderot's willingness to challenge and undermine almost everything his age thought normal, he wrote about the civil and political position of women with a tired mixture of compassion and whimsy, and limited his hopes for his own precious daughter to accomplishments, including the ability to make enlightened conversation, and a decent dowry. Furbank is fully entitled to decide, as he tries to squeeze this vast bubbling life between the covers of a single volume, that this is an issue too far: we are not all interested in everything; we have no call to quiz the subject of every study about his or her political correctness in every particular. Fair enough, but it is then careless to gloss Diderot's insistence that Angelique be taught some basic anatomy as springing from his |feminist way of thinking'.

This book remains, however, a remarkable achievement. Furbank presents a compelling narrative which pauses to open out sharp and enduring issues of perception, value and creativity then sweeps the reader on to the next episode in a life which shares a colourful skittishness with many of Diderot's own stories. Furbank attempts to work out how well Diderot was rewarded for his work, not just in terms of the ubiquitous workman's daily wage, but by noting the cost of a cheap wig or a bowl of cafe au lait at a street stall. It is sobering to note how long it took, in the eighteenth century as now, for a man of talent and energy to make a thinkable living from writing. Furbank is both lucky and deserving that this book has attracted so much favourable attention.
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Author:Kirk, Linda
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1992
Words:1245
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