Saturday, December 21, 2019

Diderot III

Another aspect of the Rousseau-Diderot split should be mentioned. In recounting the complaints that he had about Rousseau, Diderot said that he was always going out of his way to help Rousseau but never received anything in return. He had spent many hours reading and editing Rousseau's works, and in some cases had provided useful suggestions that had improved them substantially, yet Rousseau never reciprocated at all. By the time Rousseau had moved to the Hermitage, Diderot also had to travel out to the country just to see him, because Rousseau had stopped going to Paris. I had wondered about this lack of reciprocity earlier, when reading Cranston, and now I think that there is enough evidence to say that Rousseau used people. He tended to lay it on thick about how much he loved certain people, such as Mme de Warens and Diderot, but if you look closely it becomes apparent that he was taking advantage of them and creating a lot of labor on their part while expending little energy on them. In fact it seems that Mme de Warens tried to get rid of him on several occasions, and that by the time he finally departed her house she was glad to see him go. We have only Rousseau's account of those events, and I think that Mme de Warens's version would differ. In other words, by our standards, Rousseau used flattery and feigned dependence to get his way with the people whom he knew would reliably help him, and he attached himself to them. His only long-term relationship was with his mistress, Thérèse Levasseur, who, as time passed, settled into the role of maid and was never treated as an equal for social or intellectual purposes. Thus, I am seeing that Cranston, who admired Rousseau and wrote the enormous biography, presented a more favorable view of Rousseau than Furbank, who admired Diderot and was less inclined to suppress Rousseau's defects. I am finding Furbank's explanations more palatable, because they provide a better picture of why Rousseau eventually felt ostracized, and in fact was ostracized, by people who had supported him previously. To be fair, in those days before the field of psychology existed, Rousseau was less likely to be aware of his transgressions, and the people around him would not have had the language to point out his weaknesses to him. There was a pathology to Rousseau's behavior that hadn't been explored by science yet. In contrast, as Furbank likes to point out, Diderot behaved more like a modern man and was cognizant of how he fit into his social milieu. To psychologize a little, Rousseau lacked a mother while growing up and was essentially abandoned by his father; without acknowledging his father's abandonment, he proceeded to abandon his own children and clung rather pathetically to people who seemed to offer him genuine help. In the end, Rousseau benefited enormously from the extended adolescence provided to him by Mme de Warens and from the introduction to the intellectual circles in Paris provided to him by Diderot. His effort to attach himself to Sophie d'Houdetot, which precipitated his split with Diderot, backfired when she chose to stay with Saint-Lambert, in effect dumping him. My interpretation is that human foibles were in full evidence during the Enlightenment, and that one ought to be cautious about idealizing its participants.

Diderot's wife, Nanette, was less educated than he was and a nag. He remained married to her but had a long affair with Sophie Volland, beginning in about 1756. Sophie was better-educated, more intellectual and from a wealthier family than Nanette, and Diderot tended to correspond with her whenever they were apart. His father died in 1759, and he received a substantial inheritance, but not one that made him rich. After the Encyclopédie was finished he tried his hand at all kinds of writing, but did not receive much income. Over his life he wrote essays, plays, novels and short stories, none of which turned out to be profitable. However, he was very well connected, and the philosophes of Paris became the envy of intellectuals throughout Europe. In his middle years his friendships continued with d'Holbach, Grimm and Voltaire, though Voltaire was rarely in Paris. He met David Hume while Hume was employed in Paris, and they became friends. He became interested in art and became an early art critic.  His financial fortunes improved substantially when Catherine the Great of Russia bought his library in 1765 and paid him to be its librarian while leaving it in place. He also recommended the sculptor who designed and constructed a statue of Peter the Great in St. Petersburg. Diderot had no interest in travel, but eventually he visited Catherine the Great in Russia, though, apparently, she didn't like him much when they became better acquainted.

I am having a hard time getting enthusiastic about Diderot and should finish the book soon. Furbank was a literary man who was friends with E.M. Forster, so his emphasis is on literature, in this case Diderot's philosophical literature such as Rameau's Nephew, D'Alembert's Dream and Jacques the Fatalist. Since Diderot's primary model for fiction was Samuel Richardson (1689-1761), I'm not excited about reading Diderot's works. I think that the novel as a form of art was a little primitive before the nineteenth century and that it reached a peak in Europe in the second half of that century. Of course, there have been a few notable works outside that time frame, but I don't care enough to hunt them all down or read them at this point. I think it is more interesting just to read accounts of the lives of intelligent people who lived in different time periods. Diderot is a little less interesting than others because in several respects he prefigures later freelance writers who had good reputations but didn't really produce any significant works. Although Diderot had a wider literary and philosophical range than you would generally find today in a writer, I sense that he produced the same sort of writing that you might expect from recent intellectuals; the general intellectual at this stage seems a little useless to me, and writing based on actual research is more likely to capture my attention – perhaps even if it is poorly written.

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