The Cartoon History of Humanism, Episode 20 Making Determinism Art: The Humanist Fictionscapes of Denis Diderot

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Making Determinism Art: The Humanist Fictionscapes of Denis Diderot

By the mid-eighteenth century, materialism and its close cousin determinism both had august philosophical traditions behind them. Hobbes, Spinoza, Collins, and La Mettrie had all made convincing arguments about the nonexistence of the soul, and effected breaches in humanity’s natural reluctance to part with the notion of free will. But a convincing argument for why you ought to believe something is often no help at all in figuring out how one is to live with that belief. How do you accept yourself as a mechanical automaton and still laugh and love and create and strive? It would take somebody with the sharp mind of a philosopher and the boundless imagination of a literary dreamer to finally give us, in an artistic medium that people could readily grasp and understand, our first answers to that question.

DenisDiderotPre-Revolutionary France had no shortage of contestants in the race to be that somebody.  Voltaire and Rousseau, and to a lesser literary degree d’Alembert, d’Holbach, Condillac, and Helvetius, all had profound things to say about humanity’s new relation to itself in the Age of Reason. Yet their works, stunning as they often were, show an attachment to the conventions of their time that prevented the potential of the new philosophy from being fully realized. To avoid chaining philosophy to the prejudices of ancien régime narrative strictures, a more subversive literary thinker was needed, someone willing to break the bones of the traditional novel and reset them according to his own creative whim and insight.

The person fated to accomplish this task was Denis Diderot (1713-1784), who famously gave decades of his life to editing the grand Encylopédie that represented the zenith of the philosophe tradition’s hopes for the classification and dissemination of the world’s knowledge. Diderot was an avowed atheist, determinist, and materialist, a ceaseless talker known for vigorously gesticulating to the point of injuring his conversational neighbors, a man willing to undertake any task for a friend, and a man who was able to delight in the surprising creations of his mental powers precisely because he recognized how deeply foreign he was to himself.

Were you to consider Diderot based on his published work at the time of his death, you would think him a diligent editor, a passable playwright, and a vigorous and clever essayist, and then promptly move on to talking about the wicked cleverness of Voltaire or the tragic sentimentality of Rousseau. For Diderot, somewhat oddly for a man so obsessed with the notion of reputation, kept his works of true genius under tight wrap, and many were not widely known until decades after his death. Jacques the Fatalist, D’Alembert’s Dream, and Rameau’s Nephew, the three masterpieces that form the base of his literary reputation today, were familiar to only a handful during Diderot’s life, and even when editions began emerging in the nineteenth century, they failed to ignite the imagination of an age that was interested in nothing so much as lying in the cozy lap of sentiment, where messy ruminations about identity dared not indecently tread.

It took us the better part of two centuries to rediscover Diderot, to open Jacques and realize at once that here was the person who had not only grappled with the anxieties of modernist philosophy, but who was able to do it artistically, through a recasting of formal elements, in a way that the giants of the early twentieth century were only stumblingly working out afresh for themselves.

In all three of these novels Diderot’s question is: How do you live, knowing what you know? In D’Alembert’s Dream, the action of the novel’s middle section revolves around the words spoken by a sleeping d’Alembert, as relayed to his doctor by his lover. It is, already, a strangely modern configuration, where the main character is only allowed to represent himself through a disconnected dream fugue, while lover and doctor push his thoughts this way and that in his eerily absent presence. D’Alembert’s ravings center on identity and materialism—how are we to think of ourselves? As a unity, a duality, a swarm of cooperating interests? Where are “we” in the whole mess of tissues and organs, or is that even an important question? More practically, what changes when we accept at last that we are matter pushed forward on a wave of continuous reactions?  This last question is answered with true Diderot charm when the lover and the doctor finally sit down to explore, with unhindered curiosity, the consequences of d’Alembert’s night musings, discovering for themselves how much there is to gain in demystifying the body’s nature—how much more capacity for pleasure, and less for fruitless shame.

What D’Alembert did in humanizing materialism, Rameau’s Nephew and Jacques the Fatalist did for determinism. In Rameau, the incorrigible nephew of the great composer Jean-Philippe Rameau, is depicted in conversation with, effectively, Diderot himself, though it’s probably more accurate to say that the two characters represent two halves of Diderot’s character, set in opposition so that Diderot can, through art, sort out his contradictory modern psyche. On the one side is the part of him that loves knavery and abhors pretense, the perpetually bankrupt cynic who dances to the tune of his temporary masters and repays them in veiled impertinence, and who knows that his greatest insincerity comes when he insists on being sincere. This side is represented by the nephew character, while the “Diderot” character represents all of his benevolent impulses, his optimism for the future and belief in virtue and justice, his need to see humanity amount to something and to be part of that process.

In their back and forth, they reenact dramatically the conversation that I think every humanist engages in privately: what to do with one’s self in a doomed world. Rameau’s nephew sees all the pettiness and play-acting of society for what it is, realizes fundamentally that none of it matters on any kind of grand scale, and takes his comforts in food and irritability. He is what we all are, on our worst days, a man totally cowed by the futility of the human project, and the double futility of a single person’s role within it. He is a gifted pantomime artist with utterly no certainty about his identity, given to paradox after paradox, any of which would be perfectly at home in a Jean Genet play. But Diderot can’t bring himself to let that side of the rationalist mentality win the day—he fights against the implications to find a happiness in a posterity that he knows he will never behold, in a humanity mechanically hurtling into the void, but doing so with a set of instincts that are beautiful and worth lauding even as the cynics snicker. Little wonder that the book didn’t find its posthumous audience until the self-sure era of Romanticism passed and the age of troubling questioning scrambled forward, looking for a guide, any guide, about what to do with itself and its terrible self-knowledge.

It’s a great book, but of another order entirely is Jacques the Fatalist and His Master. (It is, truth be told, my favorite book.)  It breaks all the rules, as narrator, reader, Jacques, and his master all vie for control of the storytelling process, getting in each other’s way, making their demands, staking their rights to existence and independence, all creating a mad whirl of stories begun and interrupted, narrative expectations thwarted, and a great number of things insistently not happening when, by any standard of literary decency, they ought to be. It is so inventive and gleefully subversive, that any other work of the eighteenth century read afterwards must appear somewhat flat and ordinary by comparison. Even Candide, brilliant as it is, can’t long stand next to the joyful madness of Jacques.

It’s a perfect case of form and message seamlessly wound into each other. For Jacques is something of a confirmed Spinozist, a servant living his life in the full realization of his mechanical nature, and having quite the adventure in spite of all that knowledge. His bumbling master, who is good for little else but waxing indignant, checking his very fine watch, and taking snuff, is thoroughly dependent on Jacques and is sentimentally, one might say neurotically, attached to his philosophical self-delusions, but can’t quite make them go in the face of the good-natured fatalism of Jacques. It is precisely the book that the dour philosophy of determinism needed—a raucous and liberating romp that enjoys the unknown ride of life, even as it recognizes the essentially programmed nature of it all. Amidst the imposing and unforgiving correctness of Hobbes and company, it manages at last some legitimate joy, needed as much then as now.

Of course, if editing the entire Encyclopédie, and writing the first and greatest works to creatively render the living paradoxes of modernist philosophy isn’t enough for you, let us not forget that Diderot also revolutionized French theater; elevated craft techniques to a position of general esteem; assembled the basis of the Hermitage museum’s art collection; exposed the cruelty of the convent system in his early novel, The Nun; warmly supported the American Revolution; inveighed against colonialism in all its forms; invented modern art criticism; and remained friends with Jean-Jacques Rousseau far longer than most managed to. He is one of the great exceptions to the rule that, to be brilliant, one must be a bit cruel. As creator, philosopher, and human, he was the full flowering of the Enlightenment tradition, who often lived in dire poverty and never received the flood of titles and positions that fell upon his other philosophe colleagues, but who lived happily all the same, a self-contented machine always ready to learn something new or chat with an old friend come evening.


Further Reading

Jacques the Fatalist and His Master is smashing. You need a copy. Order one now. The Penguin edition translated by Michael Henry quite literally changed the entire direction of my life. Then, if you want to know more about Diderot the man, there are two excellent biographies that are commonly available, Diderot by Arthur M. Wilson (1957), and Diderot: A Critical Biography by P.N. Furbank (1992). As to Diderot’s other works, The Nun (which originated from a practical joke and ended as a tragic story of the cruelty to human nature perpetrated by the convent system), The Indiscreet Jewels (a comedy in which genitalia are given the power to talk, and proceed to tell their tales), The Letter on the Blind (featuring a crushing rebuke of God’s indifferent cruelty), D’Alembert’s Dream, Rameau’s Nephew, and Diderot’s short stories are all readily available in English, along with some selections of his literary and artistic essays. In French, you’ve got the Diderot volumes in the excellent Classiques Garnier series, which includes all manner of texts that have yet to be translated.