Neohelicon

, Volume 18, Issue 1, pp 203–217 | Cite as

Diderot and literary aesthetics: The testimony of the correspondence

  • Arnold Ages
Speculum
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Keywords

Eighteenth Century Prose Great Writer Beautiful Thing Obiter Dictum 

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Literatur

  1. 1.
    I would like to thank the Killam Foundation of The Canada Council for its generous financial assistance, which provided funding for research on this paper — which forms part of a larger project on the history of the correspondence genre in eighteenth century France.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    We have no intention of deprecating Lester G. Krakeur's [Crocker]La Correspondance de Diderot: Son intérêt documentaire, psychologique et littéraire (New York, 1939). His is a pioneering work of analysis and synthesis but it appeared more than thirty years before the publication of the Georges Roth-Jean Varloot definitive edition of the Diderot correspondence issued in Paris between 1955 and 1970. This accounts for the somewhat restricted perspective in Crocker's volume as well as certain lacunae. There is, for example, no separate section in Crocker's book on Diderot's aesthetic preoccupations although the issue is dealt with in other parts of his study. The Roth-Varloot edition contains, moreover, more than double the number of letters that Crocker worked with.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Benoît Melançon, “Du dialogue: la Correspondance de Diderot: Etat présent,” inEtudes françaises, 22–3, Hiver, 1988, pp. 147–162.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Ibid. Benoît Melançon, “Du dialogue: la Correspondance de Diderot: Etat présent,” inEtudes françaises, 22–3, Hiver, 1988, p. 157.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Michel Delon in “Editer la correspondance,” inStudies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century 254 (1988), pp. 399–411 shows that since 1970, the publication date of the last volume of the Roth-Varloot edition, new letters have surfaced and whole new areas of research possibilities have opened up.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    See Jacques Chouillet,L'Esthétique des Lumières (Paris, 1974); Gita May (editor) Denis Diderot,Essai sur la peinture (Paris, 1984).Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    The Melançon bibliography shows that recent studies on the Diderot correspondence focus on several main themes — technical questions on texts of specific letters, Diderot's relationship with Sophie Volland and other correspondents, the conception of love, the philosophical matrix and the narrative art in dialogue and conversation.Google Scholar
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    See entry “Beauty in Context,” inA New History of French Literature, ed. by Denis Hollier (Cambridge, 1989), pp. 442–446.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    Ibid., See entry “Beauty in Context,” inA New History of French Literature, ed. by Denis Hollier (Cambridge, 1989), p. 443.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    Ibid., See entry “Beauty in Context,” inA New History of French Literature, ed. by Denis Hollier (Cambridge, 1989), p. 443. While Diderot's views on aesthetics are based on secular premises, he was not averse to using the paradigms of religious thought, perhaps unconsciously, in trying to persuade Falconet about the importance of posterity as a factor in promoting creativity. See A. Ages, “Diderot, Falconet and the Theology of Art: The Testimony of the Correspondence,” inOrbis Litterarum, 1990, 45, pp. 211–223.Google Scholar
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    There have, of course been numerous studies of Diderot's aesthetics. See Herbert Dieckmann,Cinq leçons sur Diderot (Paris, 1959); Yvon Belavel, “La critique littéraire en France au XVIIIe siècle,” inDiderot Studies, XX, pp. 19–31; Robert Morin,Diderot et l'imagination (Paris, 1987); andDiderot, Les Beaux-Arts et la musique: Actes du colloque international tenu à Aix-en-Provence les 14, 15, 16 décembre 1984 (Aix-en-Provence, 1986). It is significant, however, that with the exception of Dieckmann's study, little reference is made to Diderot's correspondence in assessing his aesthetics. It is significant that in Frederick A. Spear'sBibliographie de Diderot: Répertoire analytique international (Genève, 1980) there are 40 separate entries (on Diderot and aesthetics but none deal directly with the correspondence. In the second volume of this series covering the period 1976–1986 also published by Droz in Geneva there are 34 references to Diderot's aesthetics and 32 cross references. None alludes directly to the correspondence.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    We have chosen to focus on Diderot's literary aesthetics here not because we wish to slight his views on art, music, sculpture, architecture and the theatre as expressed in the letters. An inquiry into those components of his aesthetic vision is being planned for future excavation by this writer. It is instructive that in Hans Molbjerg'sAspects de l'Esthétique de Diderot (Copenhagen, 1964), the author has sections on Diderot's general aesthetics and the aesthetics of drama, painting and the novel. There is no separate treatment on literary aesthetics and while there are some references to the correspondence, they are few in number. It should be noted, however, that Yvon Belavel does have several references to Diderot in his “La critique littéraire en France au XVIIIe siècle,” inDiderot Studies, 21 (1983), pp. 19–31 but they are not focused on the correspondence.Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    For an analysis of the religious zeal with which Diderot promoted the importance of posterity in the artistic paradigm see my “Diderot, Falconet and the Theology of Art: The Testimony of the Correspondence,” inOrbis Litterarum, 1990, 45, pp. 211–223.Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    David Funt, “Diderot and the Esthetics of the Enlightenment,” inDiderot Studies XI, p. 177.Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    All quotations and paraphrases from the letters come from the Georges Roth-Jean Varloot edition of Denis Diderot Correspondance (Paris, 1955–1970). Reference numbers in this paper refer to the letter number in the Roth-Varloot edition. All translations from the French are by the writer. Despite Roth's eloquent plea for maintaining eighteenth century orthography, we have decided to modernize it throughout. De Bernis had written about the soliloquies of Phèdre and Théramène.Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    Diderot accounts for the change of opinion about Riccoboni's work by saying that he had begun this very long letter (Vol. II, pp. 89–102 in the Roth-Varloot edition) two weeks previously. This also says something about Diderot's composing methods in the letters.Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    Diderot also apparently knew the value of his own writings and did not hesitate to praise himself. On September 11, 1769 he tells Sophie that he has been working on Le Rêve de d'Alembert and says, “Il n'est pas possible d'être plus profond et plus fou.” (555)Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    That, of course, depended on the magnitude of the defects. Diderot has no patience for mediocre plays like J. M. Boutet'sClémentine. (226) Diderot also tells Falconet that the enthusiasm which mature people exhibit towards mediocre or bad works of art and literature is something that constantly surprises him. (795)Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    On Diderot andTancrède see André Magnan, “Une Lettre Oubliée de Diderot,” inDiderot Studies XVIII, pp. 139–144.Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    In a letter to Sophie dated August 12, 1762 Diderot also has some unflattering things to say about Voltaire's work on Corneille.Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    Diderot was generally quite generous in his comments about Voltaire. In his famous debate with Falconet he expresses a plangent sense of despair when he asks why, in reference to a charming poem by Voltaire, the genius behind that work should die. (379)Google Scholar
  22. 22.
    Diderot's ambivalent but nonetheless high regard for Voltaire is analyzed by Jacques Chouillet in “Etre Voltaire ou rien: réflexions sur le voltairianisme de Diderot,” inStudies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, 185 (1980), pp. 225–236.Google Scholar
  23. 23.
    For a discussion of Palissot as an enemy of Diderot see Hervé Guénot, “Palissot de Montenoy unennemi de Diderot et des philosophes,” inRecherches sur Diderot et sur l'Encyclopédie № 1 (Oct. 1986) pp. 59–63.Google Scholar
  24. 24.
    In the note to Voltaire, Diderot uses the opportunity to contrast the grandeur which he, Voltaire exhibits in exposing the scoundrels like Palissot and driving them ever deeper into the mire of ignominy. While Diderot does not write about censorship in terms of its impact on aesthetic questions, he does deplore the fact that France, a country supposedly advanced in manners, arts, science, philosophy and taste, persecutes thephilosophes, while the so-called backward countries of the north reach out to them (293).Google Scholar
  25. 25.
    That kind of candour is also found in a letter to Viallet (405) in July of 1766 in which Diderot says that the author's attempt to reconcile incompatible feelings, disparate projects and contradictory roles suggests that he, Viallet was born yesterday and that he does not have the first notion about the human heart. In a note to Hemsterhuis (799) Diderot offers the author ofLa Lettre sur l'homme et ses rapports the view that his book lacks clarity but adds that excessive clarity would have earned the writer persecution in France.Google Scholar
  26. 26.
    Roth suggests that Palissot might have been the author of the play.Google Scholar
  27. 27.
    They are from Book XV, verses 871–876. Roth furnishes the following translation. ”Enfin, j'ai achevé cette œuvre que ne pourront détruire ni la colère de Jupiter, ni les flammes, ni le fer, ni la rouille des ans. Que le jour fatal qui n'a pouvoir que sur mon corps, mette quand il voudra un terme au cours incertain de ma vie; la plus noble partie de moi-même s'élevera, immortelle, au-dessus de l'empire des astres, et mon nom sera impérissable.”Google Scholar
  28. 23.
    Georges May has pointed out a parallel to this in theNeveu de Rameau inQuatre visages (Paris, 1951), p. 48.Google Scholar
  29. 29.
    Georges Roth notes that researchers including Manlio Busnelli have not found the text.Google Scholar
  30. 30.
    In an interesting communication to Willem Van Hogendorp (677) Diderot makes the point that it is not, however, the authority of the great masters which determines the prosody of a language but rather, simple usage. “On citera l'autorité de Virgile lorsqu'il s'agit de savoir si la première de dolorem est brève ou longue, parce que c'est dans les auteurs qui reste une langue morte, qu'il en faut chercher la prosodie. Mais notre langue est vivante. La règle de la quantité est dans nos rues et dans nos foyers; et celui qui, de son autorité, peut mettre en un instant trois cent citoyens à la porte due leurs maisons n'est pas assez puissant pour abréger la durée de la syllabe première du mot grâce.”Google Scholar
  31. 31.
    Diderot notes in a latter to Grimm (312) that eloquence is a function of liberty and that the art declines under tyranny. “Les déclamateurs parurent en même temps que les tyrans.”Google Scholar
  32. 32.
    Op. cit. Diderot notes in a latter to Grimm (312) that eloquence is a function of liberty and that the art declines under tyranny. “Les déclamateurs parurent en même temps que les tyrans.” pp.11–12.Google Scholar

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© Akadémiai Kiadó 1991

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  • Arnold Ages

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