‘Garden centres must become the Jacobin Clubs of the new Revolution’

Must they? Ian Hamilton Finlay is the author of this startling command. It is one of his Detached Sentences on Gardening (1980-1998): Finlay was a concrete poet and artist who developed a now-renowned garden by the name of Little Sparta, just to the south of Edinburgh, from the late 1960s onwards. His work, we read, is characterised by an ‘unwavering engagement with the relationship between civilisation and violence’, which his curious ‘detached sentence’ presumably illustrates in the way it connects the garden centre to the Jacobin Club and thence to ‘the new Revolution’. Yet it still seems rather hard to perceive the route from political engagement to garden centre.

William Shenstone, by Edward Alcock

William Shenstone, by Edward Alcock (1760).

Finlay was, it appears, directly influenced in the form and subject of his ‘detached sentences’ by William Shenstone’s Unconnected Thoughts on Gardening (1764). Shenstone was a poet, landowner and landscape gardener. Consultation of his Unconnected Thoughts does not reveal a revolutionary, but it does reveal a dogmatist who opposes the straight line. Not for him the admiration Montaigne expresses in his essay ‘Des Coches’ (On Coaches) for the straight, wide, paved, walled, tree-lined, stream-washed and generally highly usable road linking Quito to Cusco. Shenstone, on the contrary, slams ‘strait-lined avenues’ as giving ‘actual pain to a person of taste’. He singles out two ‘famous vistas’, one in Russia and the other in India, for his particular ire, and this is the comparison he makes: ‘For [a person of taste] to be condemned to pass along the famous vista from Moscow to Petersburg, or that other from Agra to Lahore in India, must be as disagreeable a sentence, as to be condemned to labour at the gallies.’ What, really? Here we find taste and politics brought together with a vengeance. This nasty brew of British imperial superciliousness is so potent, so intoxicating, that it enables Shenstone to use his reference to a vicious penal system as part of a pithy put-down of other tastes, other cultures, other countries. On he goes, empathising with the experience of the galley convict: ‘I conceived some idea of the sensation he must feel’, he says, ‘from walking but a few minutes, immured, betwixt lord D’s high-shorn yew hedges.’

And here, in amongst Lord D’s hedges, is where I ended up, not along a straight line, but after several diversions and detours as pleasingly various as anything the disagreeable Shenstone might have endorsed, and understanding rather better than before how civilization and violence might come together in a garden prospect.

Where I started off was, however, somewhere else entirely: I gave a paper last May at the Voltaire Foundation’s Enlightenment Workshop, run by Nicholas Cronk and Avi Lifschitz. I was talking about eighteenth-century French materialist thought upstream and downstream of Diderot. I was wondering about style and voice and recognisability, and I was trying to understand whether materialist thought – that beast so loathed and reviled by the censoring authorities that it had to go about in disguise, or at least its authors did – had other ways of making itself visible and ensuring its perpetuation. I was wondering whether the repetition of arguments or examples might be part of that, and whether, if what you’re looking at is the ongoing flow of collective voices, it is legitimate or even possible to identify particular ones within the flow.

Basically, I was trying to understand whether Diderot’s late medico-philosophical text the Eléments de physiologie was or was not being cited in Revolutionary Paris of the 1790s; I was also trying to understand what sort of arguments or tools I could use to find this out, given the wall-to-wall silence regarding it; and finally, I was trying to understand whether there’s something somehow against-the-grain in my approach, given that materialist thought tends to privilege connections and the ebb-and-flow of the whole, and does not see any one part as meaningful when separated from any of the rest (thereby interestingly meeting a historicist approach to texts and contexts). Diderot’s work shows this over and over, whether we’re looking at bees in a swarm, an organ in a body, a workman and his loom, a hanger-on in a society of sycophants, or indeed at matter in the universe. And there you have it: the problem in a nutshell. Nobody apart from Diderot writes about this so imaginatively, so interestingly, so self-reflexively. And he’s the one talking about inseparability, the whole being greater than the part, and so on. Back to square one.

Square one, in fact, is that Diderot’s Eléments de physiologie is supposed to be fragmentary and unfinished. You know why? Because he said so, in the preface, in which he describes himself as already dead, and having failed to assemble these promising fragments into a complete text before sadly perishing. Strangely and/or hilariously and/or entirely understandably, this claim has always been taken at face value. Understandably, because it reappears verbatim in his disciple Naigeon’s Mémoires sur la vie et les ouvrages de M. Diderot (1823), which Diderot scholars always seem to take literally, drawing on it as an eye-witness source of factual information. Of course Naigeon was simply quoting Diderot’s own preface, not that anyone has noticed. Fragments, then: why is Diderot focusing on fragments? What is a fragment? Something unfinished, something detached (as in Finlay’s work), or unconnected (as in Shenstone’s)? Something – an element – that’s defined by its relation to the whole of which it is part and without which it has no meaning?

This is what Laura Ouillon, graduate student at the ENS Lyon, disputed. She heard about my paper from Ilya Afanasyev, a medievalist historian specialising in questions of nation and identity who attended the Enlightenment Workshop. Laura is working on Ian Hamilton Finlay, and she sent me her dissertation, ‘Mémoire et Expérience de/à Little Sparta: Le Jardin de pensée selon Ian Hamilton Finlay’, thereby introducing me to his writing, his art and his gardens. Laura is a specialist on British contemporary art, and hopes to pursue her initial work on Finlay in a doctoral thesis. She suggests that we consider the experience of the fragment as an experience in itself, as something that expresses the possibility of sharing and association, of ‘re-membering’, that even invites it. In Finlayan language, the fragment is a crucial brick in the process of bricolage, so beautifully explained by the late lamented Chris Johnson. Or as illustrated in concrete terms here by Finlay himself, with reference to the Jacobin and revolutionary Saint-Just, minus the garden centre. Or did he mean that the garden itself is a centre, a hub of new elements, new fragments?

Little Sparta

Little Sparta, Ian Hamilton Finlay’s garden in South Lanarkshire, Scotland.

Thinking about connections, juxtaposition and flow, all such crucial aspects of eighteenth-century materialist thought, even if the gorgeous notion of bricolage was not then available, one wonders what sorts of connections there are between the materialism of then and the materialism of now, and what happens if one puts their writing together. Do current theoreticians of materialism, the new materialists, with their intermediary experience of Marxism, think about eighteenth-century materialist writing, Diderot, his upstream and downstream, at all? Of course they have a dense relationship to the tradition via Deleuze and Guattari, and Foucault too. Rosi Braidotti, Distinguished University Professor at Utrecht University, important feminist philosopher and articulator of the new materialism, says this about the body. It is:

‘A piece of meat activated by electric waves of desire, a text written by the unfolding of genetic encoding. Neither a sacralised inner sanctum nor a pure socially shaped entity, the enfleshed Deleuzian subject is rather an ”in-between”: it is a folding-in of external influences and a simultaneous unfolding outwards of affects. A mobile entity, an enfleshed sort of memory that repeats and is capable of lasting through sets of discontinuous variations, while remaining faithful to itself. The Deleuzian body is ultimately an embodied memory.’ [1]

I like what she says, and I like her philosophical verbosity, her urgency. But is what she says new, exactly? It sounds continuous with what we read in the Eléments de physiologie:

‘La douleur, le plaisir, la sensibilité, les passions, le bien ou le malaise, les besoins, les appétits, les sensations intérieures et extérieures, l’habitude, l’imagination, l’instinct, l’action propre des organes, commandent à la machine et lui commandent involontairement’ (Pain, pleasure, sensibility, the passions, well-being or discomfort, needs, appetites, internal and external sensations, habit, imagination, instinct, and the natural functioning of the organs, they all command the machine, and do so involuntarily) (Eléments de physiologie, chapter on free will).

And in this context, what the self is, is memory. Thus: ‘la mémoire constitue le soi’ (memory constitutes the self) (Eléments de physiologie, chapter on memory). What Braidotti says, therefore, sounds more like an iteration in modern philosophical language, a renewal of the sort of thing we find in Diderot, than something completely new. As Braidotti herself says, ‘I think French philosophy is rich in minor traditions, which we would do well to revisit.’ She then confesses that her ‘personal favorite is the enchanted materialism of Diderot‘ (p.28).

How great that the affinity is recognised, even if these earlier texts are somehow downgraded, made inferior, relegated to a ‘minor tradition’? What does it matter that she engages with Diderot via the charming title of Elisabeth de Fontenay’s famous study, rather than directly with his words, he not being very likely to use the vocabulary of enchantment or magic in this context? What does it matter that Braidotti’s description of the body seems like a new version of something pretty old? What does it matter whether she knows she’s doing it or not? What does it matter if the point is simply that the collective voice is managing to make itself heard?

The answer is that it doesn’t really matter if an individual contribution is overlooked, but that it does matter if this new materialism preaches collective connectivity while conceptualising it in a flat or forward-facing time frame of now and novelty. That would be a weakness, a failure to acknowledge that connections can made backwards in time as well as sideways in space, a failure to explore the richness of retrospective ‘re-membering’ bricolage. Perhaps all we need to do is to encourage new materialists to do more of the revisiting Braidotti proposes, and rather less of the hierarchical arrangement of ‘traditions’ into ‘minor’ and ‘major’. Because who knows what might happen when you combine elements or place fragments in a new way? You might make new connections, new associations. You might even end up in a garden centre, having started off with Diderot. It might be an experience all of its own.

– Caroline Warman

[1] Braidotti, ‘Teratologies’, in Deleuze and Feminist Theory, ed. I. Buchanan and C. Colebrook (Edinburgh, 2000), p.156-72 (p.159), quoted in ‘Interview with Rosi Braidotti’, New Materialism: Interviews and Cartographies, ed. Rick Dolphijn and Iris van der Tuin (Ann Arbor, 2012), p.19-37 (p.19).

Improvement and Enlightenment

A recent invitation to talk to the Enlightenment Workshop of the Voltaire Foundation prompted me to consider the ways in which some modes of thinking common during the Enlightenment might have been inherited – directly or indirectly – from the English idea of ‘improvement’, a topic on which I had been working. By ‘improvement’ I refer to a word and a culture which were invented in England in the seventeenth century and had their most notable effects, at least initially, at home. Other countries might have been striving for improvement in practice in one way or another at the same time, but the English found a word which embraced every aspect of it, and fashioned out of it a frame of mind which had remarkable consequences.

The word ‘improve’ was first coined in England in the later fifteenth century, and it meant to make a profit from land. By the early seventeenth century the notion and word were being extended, by Francis Bacon, for example, who described learning as capable of being ‘improved and converted by the industry of man’. Then in the 1640s and 1650s the word was extended further by the Baconian reformers in the group led by the Prussian emigre Samuel Hartlib, some of whom went on to become founders of the Royal Society. Hartlib himself was most interested in promoting agricultural improvement, but the word and concept were already being applied to trade and banks, and were soon used about almost everything – including navigable rivers, fire engines, military power and the relief of the poor.

Much of this was propaganda for particular projects, and intended to profit their advocates. But improvers also had to their credit two major innovations in thinking about economic behaviour and the economy in general – two crucial components which English improvement carried with it into the eighteenth century. The first was the explicit defence of consumer appetites and luxury as legitimate roads to national wealth. In the 1670s Nicholas Barbon led a reaction against contemporary criticism of London as a monster consuming the wealth of the nation. Instead he pictured competitive consumption as the consequence of ‘emulation’, and a positive cause of both individual and national improvement. According to Barbon, ‘all men by a perpetual industry’ were ‘struggling to mend their former condition; and thus the people grow rich’. Here, for the first time, some of the moral brakes on economic appetites were being deliberately and explicitly relaxed. A whole generation before Bernard Mandeville’s infamous Fable of the Bees, self-interest was being presented as identical to the public interest.

Sir William Petty

Sir William Petty, by Isaac Fuller (1649-50).

The second intellectual innovation of the 1670s was the work of William Petty, whose tract, Political Arithmetick, advertised the method he had invented for conceptualising, analysing, and measuring the wealth and resources of states. Petty used it to produce for England the first set of national accounts ever devised, and from it he developed a wholly new kind of political economy which he manipulated to show how the power and wealth of England would soon rival those of France. While Barbon opened the way to unrestrained economic appetites, one might say, Petty showed how their consequences could be measured and predicted.

When it came to the realities of England’s economic performance after 1688, therefore, the slogan of improvement was everywhere to be seen. It was wielded by advocates of the Bank of England in 1694, by supporters of the Union with Scotland in 1707, and by a crowd of promoters of trading and insurance companies and transport improvements, on whose often hazardous enterprises England’s economic success ultimately depended. By the 1720s, when Daniel Defoe publicised England as the greatest ‘trading improving nation’[1] in the world, ‘improvement’ had become shorthand for describing and justifying the dedication of the English to the pursuit of every kind of national and personal well-being.

Daniel Defoe

Daniel Defoe, artist unknown (National Maritime Museum, London).

By the 1720s too, improvement appeared to have delivered the goods. We now know that the national income had increased rapidly in the later seventeenth century; and since the population of England had stopped growing, income per head – the standard of living – had risen even more rapidly, probably by about fifty per cent in half a century, an astonishing achievement. Improvement seemed to have created England’s material affluence, and it is no accident that in the years around 1700 the word ‘affluence’ began to be used with its modern meaning, and that ‘progress’ began to be commonly applied to material progress. It was inevitable that so successful a culture should attract foreign admirers, visitors like Voltaire who came to learn its secrets, and politicians in other states who hoped, as David Hume observed, to ‘emulate’ England and adopt improvements of their own.

The full force of an improvement culture naturally travelled first and most successfully to other English dominions, to Ireland and Scotland, and especially, and with the greatest impact, to the English colonies in America, where both Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson found ‘inventions of improvement’ proliferating in endless sequence. The language of English improvement moved less easily across the Channel because it needed translation, but that was no obstacle to the transmission of the intellectual content which lay beneath the word, and least of all to the transmission of English political economy. Its influence was notable, for example, in translations of John Law’s tract on improvement, Money and Trade (1705), into French and German in 1720, and in other economic works written in Paris at the time, which drew on English examples, like the three volumes by Ernst Ludwig Carl, Traité de la Richesse des Princes (1723), which pointed to England’s material improvement and economic progress, and Jean-François Melon’s Essai politique sur le commerce (1734), which had a chapter on political arithmetic, and an argument that France must imitate English industry if there was to be similar economic ‘progress’ there.

John Law

John Law, by Alexis Simon Belle (c. 1715-20).

The most weighty testimony to the impact of improvement in France came in the first volume of the Encyclopédie, where Diderot himself, in a long entry on ‘arithmétique politique’, paid tribute to Petty as the first practitioner of a quantitative science indispensable for any politician concerned with trying to ensure the prosperity of a state by every possible means, including ‘la perfection de l’agriculture’. It is interesting to note that the word ‘perfection’ was used again for ‘improvement’ in translations into French of some of the works of Hume and Adam Smith also written in the 1750s. The common vocabulary suggests that something of the persuasive power of improvement had become part of what one might call Enlightenment thinking.

There were doubtless other sources, besides the writings of English improvers, which contributed to similar ways of thinking; and it is undeniable that there were whole sectors of Enlightenment thought to which English authors made little contribution. Nonetheless, when historians of the Enlightenment seek to identify its greatest contribution to Western thought, and point – as some of them do – to a new political economy aimed at ‘human betterment’, they are paying tribute to English writers on improvement of the second half of the seventeenth century. They had been the first to build a whole culture around the notion that individuals, societies and states had the capacity to ‘mend their condition’ (as Barbon put it) and to demonstrate practical ways of going about it.

– Paul Slack

[1] In A Tour thro’ the whole island of Great Britain (vol.1, 1724).

Catherine II et Friedrich Melchior Grimm : les clés d’une correspondance cryptique

Catherine II, par Fiodor Rokotov, 1763.

Catherine II, par Fiodor Rokotov, 1763.

On comprendrait difficilement l’intense relation d’échanges et de transferts culturels qui s’est établie entre l’Europe occidentale et la Russie dans le dernier tiers du XVIIIe siècle sans étudier la correspondance, entre 1764 et 1796, de Catherine II, Impératrice de Toutes les Russies, et de son principal agent d’influence, Friedrich Melchior Grimm, natif de Ratisbonne établi à Paris qui fut longtemps le directeur de la Correspondance littéraire destinée aux têtes couronnées du continent. Cette correspondance ne comporte pas moins de « 430 lettres », ce chiffre étant cependant « donné à titre approximatif parce que les limites entre les lettres ne sont pas toujours très nettes », les épistoliers pouvant inclure dans une énorme « pancarte » plusieurs lettres écrites à des dates successives. Elle n’était jusqu’alors connue que par les éditions données par Iakov Karlovitch Grot dans le Recueil de la Société impériale russe d’histoire en 1878 (lettres de Catherine II à Grimm, t. 23) et 1885 (lettres de Grimm à Catherine II, t. 44). Quelque utiles qu’aient pu être ces éditions à des générations de chercheurs, force est de reconnaître qu’elles ont fait leur temps. Outre le fait que la séparation des correspondance active et passive en deux volumes rendait difficile de suivre le fil de l’échange, Grot ignorait plusieurs manuscrits, commit certaines erreurs et retrancha des lettres certains passages qu’il jugeait malséants.

Aussi attendait-on avec impatience l’édition de cette correspondance par Sergueï Karp, directeur de recherche à l’Institut d’histoire universelle de l’Académie des sciences de Russie, qui travaille depuis longtemps sur Voltaire, Diderot, Grimm et leurs relations avec la Russie. Il a fait paraître en juillet 2016 le premier volume d’une édition qui devrait en comporter au moins cinq autres[1]. Il couvre les années 1763-1778 qui virent Grimm passer du statut de simple commissionnaire à celui de principal agent de l’Impératrice. Faute de disposer de ce volume au format papier, on pourra le consulter au format électronique sur le site de l’éditeur moscovite.

Force est d’évoquer la qualité, la richesse et l’importance de l’échange épistolaire. Plus qu’un agent de premier plan, Catherine II a trouvé en Grimm un ami et un confident avec lequel elle pouvait plaisanter en toute liberté. Ne lui a-t-elle pas écrit : « avec vous je jase mais n’écris jamais […] je prefere de m’amusér et de laisser aller ma main », ou, mieux encore, « je n’ai jamais écrit à personne comme vous»? Si cette correspondance est en ce sens familière ou « privée », elle est aussi « artistique » et « politique » pour reprendre le titre de l’édition. Catherine II n’était pas une simple collectionneuse mais une collectionneuse de collections; c’est à Grimm qu’elle confia le soin d’acquérir les bibliothèques de Diderot, de Galiani et de Voltaire, les loges du Vatican, pour ne donner que ces quelques exemples de cette frénésie d’acquisitions, de sorte qu’il n’est pas exagéré d’écrire que la Russie est redevable à l’Impératrice de la richesse de certaines de ses plus grandes institutions culturelles, comme la Bibliothèque nationale de Russie et le Musée de l’Ermitage.

Friedrich Melchior Grimm, gravure de Lecerf, dessin de Carmontelle, 1769.

Friedrich Melchior Grimm, gravure de Lecerf, dessin de Carmontelle, 1769.

On soulignera tout particulièrement la qualité des notes éditoriales de S. Karp. Elles sont requises pour éclairer la lecture de ces lettres qui, « dans la plupart des cas[,] sont strictement personnelles et volontairement obscures : c’est ainsi que Catherine a voulu les protéger contre la curiosité des tierces personnes ». S’adressant en 1801 à l’empereur Alexandre Ier, petit-fils de Catherine II, peu après son avènement, Grimm ne constatait-il pas « qu’il s’était établi entre l’immortelle et son pauvre correspondant, une espèce de dictionnaire qui a besoin d’une clef pour ne pas rester énigmatique »? Telle est cette clé que S. Karp offre au lecteur en faisant la lumière sur ce qui était destiné à rester obscur.

On s’attachera à l’« Introduction » pour au moins deux raisons : la première, due à l’éditeur général, consiste dans une étude précise de l’évolution du rôle joué par Grimm qui a su se rendre indispensable à l’Impératrice ; la seconde, œuvre de G. Dulac et de C. Scharf, étudie avec finesse les particularités de son maniement du français et de l’allemand. Surprenant est, en ce qui concerne la première de ces langues, le paradoxe d’une souveraine qui recourt tout à la fois à des néologismes éloquents et à des tournures archaïsantes, que l’Impératrice a parfois héritées de son institutrice huguenote, Mme Cardel, parfois du théâtre de la Foire et parfois aussi de la plume de Voltaire, qu’elle considérait comme son « maître » dans le domaine des belles-lettres. On sait en revanche qu’elle ne possédait que des rudiments d’anglais et qu’elle maîtrisait mal le russe.

S. Karp décrit admirablement l’arrière-plan de cette Correspondance. Suite au coup d’État par lequel son mari Pierre III fut renversé en 1762, Catherine II éprouva le besoin de justifier idéologiquement son règne tant au plan intérieur que sur la scène internationale, en sollicitant la plume des philosophes français qui façonnaient l’opinion publique. Grimm fut incontestablement le principal intermédiaire entre l’Impératrice et la scène philosophique occidentale. Mais contre l’opinion qui consiste à croire que les philosophes furent naïvement manipulés par une souveraine machiavélique, S. Karp considère fort justement, d’une part, que Catherine II a bien été la fille des Lumières, mettant en œuvre de nombreuses réformes qui ont permis une modernisation sans précédent de la Russie, et que, si instrumentalisation il y a eu, elle fut réciproque, les philosophes jouissant de l’actif soutien de cette puissante cour et ayant « utilisé l’exemple russe comme argument rhétorique pour critiquer les pratiques de la monarchie française » dont ils dénonçaient le despotisme.

Frappant est le contraste de la Correspondance de Catherine II avec Voltaire, d’une part, et Grimm, d’autre part. Alors que la première est soigneusement relue et revue, empreinte de formalisme, la seconde est spontanée, souvent écrite à la diable et emplie de facéties. S. Karp montre clairement que leur liberté de ton « abolissait fictivement la distance sociale » qui les séparait. Il fait également justice de l’interprétation, notamment accréditée par Grot, consistant à dénoncer les « flatteries » obséquieuses dont les lettres de Grimm seraient farcies. Il remarque fort justement que « l’humour respectueux » des lettres de Grimm ne s’apparente pas à de la flatterie et que les « formes outrées de la politesse restaient traditionnelles au XVIIIe siècle, comme une composante obligatoire du dialogue entre un souveraine et un simple mortel » (à preuve, les lettres de Diderot ou de Voltaire). Catherine II ne se laissait pas prendre à ces éloges obligés, elle qui se moquait d’elle-même et de ses obligations de souveraine. Ce qui prime dans les lettres de Grimm, c’est leur humour : « ses plaisanteries et ses sarcasmes contribuaient largement à créer cette atmosphère de complicité et de gaieté dans laquelle purent se développer leurs relations ».

Tout spécialiste du siècle des Lumières en général, et de Voltaire en particulier, devra désormais se référer à l’édition des lettres de l’Impératrice et de Grimm qu’on ne nommera désormais plus que « l’édition Karp » et dont on attend avec impatience l’achèvement tant elle contribue à renouveler notre compréhension du dernier tiers du XVIIIe siècle.

– Christophe Paillard

[1] Catherine II de Russie. Friedrich Melchior Grimm. Une correspondance privée, artistique et politique au siècle des Lumières. Tome I. 1764-1778, édition critique par Sergueï Karp, avec la collaboration de Georges Dulac, Christoph Frank, Sergueï Iskioul, Gérard Kahn, Ulla Kölving, Nadezda Plavinskaia, Vladislav Rjéoutski et Claus Scharf, Centre international d’étude du XVIIIe siècle, Ferney-Voltaire, et Monuments de la pensée historique, Moscou, 2016, lxxxiv p., 341 p. et 3 p. non paginées, 26 illustrations.

Falconet: a sculptor’s quest for influence

Portrait of Falconet

Portrait of Etienne Maurice Falconet (1716–1791) (Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne the Younger, Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Etienne Maurice Falconet came out of nowhere. We have no record of the years he is reported to have spent as an apprentice in a master’s shop. Although Parisian by birth, he did not belong to any of the established artistic dynasties. At eighteen, he is said to have worked at a chair-maker’s shop, heralding the type of artisanal livelihood that so many now unknown sculptors embraced in the burgeoning luxury trade of early eighteenth-century Paris. But soon enough he managed to ease his way out of chair-making and into the fortunate selection of young sculptors to compete for and achieve membership of the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture. What happened next, Falconet’s reinvention of himself as a modern philosophe, can be considered a singular achievement by any standards.

Contemporary apocrypha of course reinforce the idea of the hypnotic charm exuded by his works, and leave the man out of the picture. Chance discoveries in the gardens of Versailles and furtive work in the studio of his master Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne are all part of the legend: Lemoyne is reported to have barged in on Falconet during waged hours, catching him red-handed modelling an independent work, his Milo of Croton. Lemoyne then cheered him on. ‘The young Falconet offered himself to Lemoyne as servant, valet, anything he liked’, is how Denis Diderot, one of his closest friends and allies, recalls a decisive encounter between the two. Falconet’s mode of introduction to Lemoyne was a selling point, and it would have involved intricacies of parentage, speech, demeanour and manner.

Vue Perspective du Sallon de l'Academie Royal de Peinture et de Sculpture au Louvre, a Paris

Vue Perspective du Sallon de l’Academie Royal de Peinture et de Sculpture au Louvre, a Paris

The remainder of Falconet’s life story, now less apocryphal, shows that the man was unusually adept at winning over the well-connected and powerful. No other artist of his time seemed better able to tap into the wishes and convictions of his beneficiaries or contemporaries: to his Parisian masters, he was a renegade with an admiration for the Provençal sculptor Pierre Puget, while at the Académie royale, he was a social riser, author of a lecture on the art of sculpture written with a clarity and forcefulness worthy of a literate amateur member. He was a sumptuously decorative artist to Madame de Pompadour, who appointed him to the post of modeller for the recently created Sèvres National Porcelain Manufactory. He was the Boucher of sculpture to fashionable Parisian art collectors, and the Jean-Jacques Rousseau of sculpture to Diderot, his friend at the radical Salon d’Holbach. A bibliophile who, by the early 1760s, had accumulated a stunning facility with classical literature, Falconet culled from the stoics a persona of utter restraint, with living and dressing habits to match.

This was all before 1766, when, aged fifty, he emigrated to St Petersburg where he played a French homme d’esprit and confidant to Catherine II of Russia, who commissioned him with what would be his magnum opus as a sculptor: the landmark equestrian statue of Peter I in St Petersburg, known in street parlance as the ‘Bronze horseman’. Was this all really because his sculptures were so well done? As Diderot quipped in his Jacques le fataliste, we may believe it to be true, or decide it is a falsehood, and we would not be wrong in either case.

Inauguration of the Bronze Horseman monument to Peter the Great

Inauguration of the Monument to Peter the Great, A. K. Melnikov, A. P. Davydov, 1782

1 December 2016 marked three centuries since the birth of this remarkable actor of the Enlightenment stage. Art history, the discipline that through the twentieth century rediscovered him as a proto-romantic rebel, seems of late to have ignored his sculpture. He was not one to sympathize with those men of letters who reviewed works at the Salons where he exhibited his marble sculptures, even though these men were inventing modern art criticism. Conversely, their parliamentary reformism did not inform his manicured, seductive sculpture by any perceivable or logical rationale. Perhaps one day more will come of comparing his work to Diderot’s materialism and complex rethinking of the links between artistic activity and moral realities, illusion and artifice in art.

For now, the way one understands the socio-cultural and aesthetic modernity breaking through in eighteenth-century France is more Chardin or David than Falconet. By contrast, Falconet’s writings, which were recuperated from oblivion by Yves Benot and Anne Betty Weinshenker (Falconet: his writings and his friend Diderot, published in 1966), continue to represent a challenge, almost a missing link to fledging Enlightenment cultural battles. But theory too seems to have represented for Falconet a means of bending and refashioning his circumstances for the better. After starting on his Russian mission in 1766, Falconet practically gave up sculpture in order to devote himself to his written polemics. This new obsession led to his falling out with Diderot, who was wary of Falconet’s plans to publish a series of letters they had exchanged since 1765.


After this, Falconet set out to extract from the letters a body of critical commentary that, in 1781, became published simply as a collection of polemical pieces. Only in these pieces does Falconet deploy a more strident persona: an iconoclast that attacks false privilege and the condescension of literary luminaries writing inanely on art. It is left to the discerning connoisseur and the critical art historian to quarrel over how to credit Falconet’s successes. Was it a result of his sheer vocation for modelling and carving marble figures, or should we also see other factors at work? Power-grabbing is one thing to consider, as Jacques-Louis David made clear in his commentary on a heated argument from 1793 on power abuses at the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture. In David’s report, he recalled how a young former student of Falconet committed suicide after a falling-out with the sculptor. Whatever this may say to us, Falconet had a tenacious way of making sure he stayed on the winning side.

For a deeper analysis of the sculptor’s life at the famous Académie, see my book The Profession of sculpture in the Paris Académie.

– Tomas Macsotay

La fermentation des Lumières: Le Neveu de Rameau de Diderot

Étrange destin d’un texte: Le Neveu de Rameau est l’une des œuvres les plus fascinantes du dix-huitième siècle français, et pourtant elle n’a été lue que bien des années après sa conception en 1761 et son achèvement, vers 1774, lorsque Goethe a publié, en 1805, la traduction allemande d’une copie manuscrite, que Schiller lui avait communiquée. C’est d’abord dans une « retraduction » que l’œuvre a été communiquée aux lecteurs français, avant qu’enfin un voyageur en rapporte une version plus authentique de Russie et qu’enfin, à la toute fin du dix-neuvième siècle, le manuscrit autographe ne soit découvert dans la boîte d’un bouquiniste, sur les quais de la Seine.


Denis Diderot 1713-1784, par Charles Mazelin (1958). Image WikiTimbres.

Immédiatement, l’œuvre de Diderot a fasciné les plus grands, après Goethe et Schiller, Balzac, Hoffmann, Hegel, Barbey d’Aurevilly, et, plus tard, Aragon, Thomas Bernhardt, Jean Starobinski ou Michel Foucault. Aujourd’hui encore, alors que les interprétations se sont incroyablement multipliées, elle résiste et offre aux lecteurs une séduisante énigme. Philosophes ou littéraires, bien des critiques ont tenté de la réduire sans y parvenir. On la proposait jadis aux étudiants débutants, qui n’y comprenaient pas grand chose. Mais ce premier contact avec Diderot pouvait être déterminant: ce fut le cas pour moi. Je traduisais alors sagement Horace, sans faire le rapprochement avec ce texte, que son auteur nous propose comme une « satire », la seconde d’une série, dont la première, composée en 1773, s’intitule Satire première sur les caractères et les mots de caractère, de profession etc., mais qui s’est arrêtée là.

Comme le philosophe, qui nous raconte sa rencontre avec Jean-François Rameau, nous ne savons quelle réaction adopter devant un personnage amusant, totalement amoral, qui ruine toutes nos certitudes. Les questions qu’il nous adresse n’appartiennent pas seulement à son époque. Ne sommes-nous pas, comme Diderot, confrontés tous les jours aux contradictions entre nos désirs et les exigences de la vie en société, entre les principes généraux de la morale et les lois établies, entre nos exigences d’universalité ou notre pensée de l’homme en général et l’infinie particularité des individus.

Au moment précis où la pensée des Lumières atteint son apogée, elle se trouve confrontée à une critique profonde, qui la mine et la nourrit au plus profond: Rousseau, dès la Lettre à d’Alembert, Voltaire, avec Le Fanatisme ou Mahomet le prophète, Diderot, avec Le Neveu de Rameau, ont instillé bien avant Sade les ferments d’une crise magnifique. Le dialogue entre « moi » et Rameau s’émancipe des règles de la rhétorique et de la dialectique des « entretiens » idéologiques si fréquents aux dix-septième et dix-huitième siècles. Il adopte la marche libre d’une conversation dont les protagonistes ne s’entendront jamais qu’à demi: « Rira bien qui rira le dernier ». Tels sont les derniers mots prononcés par Rameau.

Il est significatif que ce soit la poésie qui vienne ici donner naissance aux idées. Car Le Neveu de Rameau est un texte de la plus haute poésie, dans le sens où on l’entend au delà de toute question de « genre ». Avec lui, comme avec Rabelais, Horace ou La Fontaine, la satire se porte à la hauteur de ces œuvres inépuisables qui remettent en question l’ensemble des représentations du monde qui se sont élaborées dans une société. Avec ce personnage, Diderot met en scène un groupe social, celui de cette « Bohême littéraire », ces « Rousseau du ruisseau » dont parle Robert Darnton. Ces parasites, tigres et fauves au service des puissants et de l’ordre établi, poux ou tiques si on les rapporte à leur véritable importance comme écrivains, révélés par le cynisme de Rameau, donnent une image de l’immense chaîne des dépendances qui unit les faibles aux puissants et ceux-ci à quiconque est plus fort qu’eux ou leur paraît tel. Cette cohorte venimeuse figurerait très bien aujourd’hui celle des hôtes habituels de plateaux de télévision.

‘Dans le café de la Régence, au Palais-Royal, Diderot rencontre Jean-François Rameau’. Dubouchet, graveur; Hirsch, dessinateur (1875). Image BnF.

‘Dans le café de la Régence, au Palais-Royal, Diderot rencontre Jean-François Rameau’. Dubouchet, graveur; Hirsch, dessinateur (1875). Image BnF.

Le neveu est-il un comédien génial mais sans emploi? Un musicien raté? Un Diogène trop conséquent? Ce qui est sûr, c’est que son talent est d’imiter non seulement des personnages, mais des situations et des œuvres d’art, singerie de l’art qui désigne sans cesse l’œuvre absente mais la fait surgir dans l’écriture de Diderot. Une quinzaine de pantomimes, décrites par le narrateur, estomaqué, puis subjugué souvent et parfois ému, indigné mais toujours incroyablement amusé, emportent l’écriture de Diderot au delà de toute figuration vers une étonnante musique: « Que ne lui vis-je pas faire? Il pleurait, il riait, il soupirait il regardait, ou attendri, ou tranquille, ou furieux; c’était une femme qui se pâme de douleur; c’était un malheureux livré à tout son désespoir; un temple qui s’élève; des oiseaux qui se taisent au soleil couchant; des eaux ou qui murmurent dans un lieu solitaire et frais, ou qui descendent en torrent du haut des montagnes; un orage; une tempête, la plainte de ceux qui vont périr, mêlée au sifflement des vents, au fracas du tonnerre; c’était la nuit, avec ses ténèbres; c’était l’ombre et le silence, car le silence même se peint par des sons. » En plein dix-huitième siècle rationaliste, Le Neveu de Rameau ouvre ainsi à l’imaginaire les portes de la littérature.

– Pierre Frantz

Digitizing Raynal (and Diderot): New Digital Editions of the Histoire des deux Indes

A collaborative digital research project

On the heels of Cecil Courtney and Jenny Mander’s recent publication, Raynal’s ‘Histoire des deux Indes’ colonialism, networks and global exchange (OSE, 2015), I am pleased to announce a new international research project aimed at further exploring Raynal’s monumental work and its impact on Enlightenment thought. Thanks to the generous support of the Consortium for the Study of the Premodern World at the University of Minnesota, the Centre for Digital Humanities Research at the Australian National University, Stanford University Libraries, and The ARTFL Project at the University of Chicago, we have recently completed the digitization and text encoding (in TEI-XML) of the three primary editions of the Histoire philosophique et politique des établissements et du commerce des Européens dans les deux Indes. These editions – the first edition of 1770, the second of 1774, and the 1780 third edition – were those that Raynal himself oversaw during his lifetime.

Our digital editions are based on high quality PDFs provided by the BNF’s Gallica online library (1770 and 1780 editions) and the Bodleian’s Oxford Google Books Project (1774 edition). A preliminary search interface has been built using the ARTFL Project’s PhiloLogic software and can be accessed here: Raynal search form. Users can query one or all of the above editions, which represent the first publicly available full-text digital edition(s) of the Histoire des deux Indes. In the coming months we will release a new version of the database running on ARTFL’s state-of-the-art PhiloLogic4 system, along with a preliminary ‘intertextual interface’ that will aim to incorporate the text of the three separate editions into one reading interface.


Title page and frontispiece of the 1780 edition of Raynal’s Histoire des deux Indes (Gallica).

Diderot, Hornoy, and the 1780 edition

What is perhaps most exciting about these new digital resources is the inclusion of a unique 1780 edition of the Histoire des deux Indes recently made available by the BNF. Acquired at public auction in March 2015, this particular edition had been conserved since the late 18th century in the private library of Alexandre Marie Dompierre d’Hornoy (1742-1828). A lawyer at the Parlement de Paris and great-nephew of Voltaire – he in fact inherited Jean-Baptiste Pigalle’s infamous nude statue of Voltaire upon his great-uncle’s death – Hornoy corresponded with many of the philosophes, Diderot included. His copy of the Histoire contains pencil marks in the margins of some passages, an unremarkable fact, perhaps, were it not for a note written by Hornoy just above a three-page insert at the beginning of the first tome. The handwritten tables included in the insert list all the sections marked in pencil over the four volumes of text: ‘mourceaux qui sont de M. Diderot’, Hornoy writes, ‘marqués en crayon par Mme de Vandeul’. Madame de Vandeul was, of course, Diderot’s daughter.


Handwritten insert of the 1780 edition (Gallica)

The existence of such an annotated volume of the Histoire was posited in the 19th century, notably by Joseph Marie Quérard in his Supercheries littéraires dévoilées (5 vols., 1845-1856). Quérard claimed that there supposedly existed a copy of the 1780 edition on which Diderot himself had marked in pencil all the passages that belonged to him [1]. According to Quérard, this copy became the property of Madame de Vandeul shortly after Diderot’s death. Whether or not the copy acquired by the BNF is the same as that owned by Vandeul we cannot say for sure, but Herbert Dieckmann, in his inventory of the ‘fonds Vandeul’, also mentions the hypothetical existence of a copy of the in-4o edition (e.g. 1780) that was purportedly annotated by hand, but that had since been lost [2].

Some preliminary experiments

While consensus as to the validity of Hornoy’s assertion that the marked sections are in fact those authored by Diderot will most likely take years to accrue, we can begin, using the new digital edition, to ask some basic questions as to the authorship claims indicated in the text. Thanks to extensive markup in TEI-XML notation, sections purportedly belonging to Diderot are clearly indicated, and perhaps more importantly, can be extracted as one test corpus. Using some basic statistical measures drawn from authorship attribution studies, or Stylometry, we can begin to think about how the ‘Diderot’ sections may, or may not, differ stylistically – i.e. in terms of comparative word usage over the most common words, an established metric of ‘authorship’ in stylometry and forensic linguistics – from the rest of the text.


Page from 1780 edition with ‘Diderot’ section marked in pencil (Gallica)

Working with the Centre for Literary and Linguistic Computing at the University of Newcastle (Australia), and in particular with their Intelligent Archive software for stylistic and statistical text analysis, we extracted the top 200 words for each ‘author’ (e.g. those drawn from sections putatively by Diderot, and the remaining ‘Raynal’ sections). As a result, we were left with 4 ‘Diderot’ tomes (containing all of the text marked in pencil) and 4 ‘Raynal’ tomes (containing the remainder), representing their unique word lists over the entire edition. For a first preliminary test, we ran a cluster analysis on the 8 tomes to see if they would cluster together or separately:


Cluster analysis of ‘Diderot’ tomes vs. ‘Raynal’ tomes, based on top 200 word lists

Cluster analysis works by separating (or clustering) the most similar texts first and the most distinct last, in this case into 2 branches. A division like the one above, clearly separated into two distinct ‘trees’ is a very clear indication that the texts in each of the two branches are highly likely to be those of two different authors.

Principal component analysis (PCA) provides another method of examining our corpora. PCA is a procedure for identifying a smaller number of uncorrelated variables, called ‘principal components’, from a large set of data. The goal of PCA is to explain the maximum amount of variance with the fewest number of principal components. In our case, it is a technique that allows for the first two principal components of our two sets of texts, i.e. their word variance, to be plotted on a bi-axial or two-dimensional graph. One of these plots (using the 100 most frequent words of the full text) with both text corpora divided into 10,000 word blocks, is shown below.


Principal component analysis using 10,000 word blocks and 100 most frequent words

The disparity in size of our two test corpora meant that while there were 68 text sections for Raynal (in green), there were only 14 for Diderot (in blue). Nonetheless, the separation between the two authorial sets is almost complete, with just two of the Diderot sections located in the outer fringes of the Raynal set. Since the word variables underlying this plot were the 100 most frequent words of the whole text, this is a convincing stylistic division, one that suggests a strong distinction in terms of authorship signal between the two sets.

In order to account for the size discrepancy between the two corpora, we ran another PCA test but this time we increased the number of Diderot sections by segmenting his text into 5,000 word blocks and running these against the previous Raynal 10,000-word sections. This plot is shown below:


Principal component analysis on 5,000 word blocks (Diderot) and Raynal, using 100 most frequent words

Here we see the same sort of authorial/stylistic separation as we saw above, but this time (with the Diderot sections halved in size) the distinction is even stronger, as there is only one section located within the Raynal set of entries, indicating an even greater likelihood that the sections marked in pencil were written by a different author than the rest of the 1780 edition.

These are obviously very rudimentary experiments, but they nonetheless indicate several promising future avenues of exploration. Moving forward, we intend to apply a full suite of computational and stylistic approaches to the 1780 edition and its predecessors, including sequence alignment tools developed by ARTFL, text collation software, and the MEDITE system developed by the labex OBVIL at the Sorbonne for computational genetic criticism. All of these approaches will allow us to explore the textual evolution of the Histoire from 1770 to 1780 in an unprecedented manner, as well as its relationship to other Enlightenment texts and text collections such as Electronic Enlightenment, TOUT Voltaire, and the Encyclopédie.

– Glenn Roe

*I would especially like to thank Alexis Antonia and the Centre for Literary and Linguistic Computing at Newcastle for their generous help with the above stylistic analyses.

[1] See Michèle Duchet, Diderot et l’Histoire des deux Indes ou l’écriture fragmentaire, Paris, Nizet, 1978, p. 22.

[2] Herbert Dieckmann, Inventaire du fonds Vandeul et inédits de Diderot, Genève, Droz, 1951.

Émilie du Châtelet, forgotten encyclopédiste?

Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, marquise du Châtelet (1706-1749), portrait by Maurice Quentin de la Tour. (Wikipedia.org)

Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, marquise du Châtelet (1706-1749), portrait by Maurice Quentin de la Tour. (Wikipedia.org)

Émilie du Châtelet was a great many things: mathematician, natural philosopher, translator of Newton, successor of Leibniz and Wolff, lover and scientific companion of Voltaire, and various other sundry pursuits. She was not, however, nor is she today, widely considered as a contributor to the Encyclopédie. No mention of her is made in either D’Alembert’s “Discours préliminaire”, or in any of the other “Avertissements & Errata” paratexts that accompanied the Encyclopédie’s publication. Logically then, she is also not to be found in any of the exhaustive lists and inventories of encyclopaedic authors compiled by later scholars such as Richard Schwab and Frank Kafker.[1]

This accepted wisdom, however, is now being brought into question thanks to renewed interest in Du Châtelet not merely as a translator, commentator, or companion of great men, but equally as a significant intellectual force in her own right. Recent scholarship such as that by Koffi Maglo[2] has succeeded in challenging what had for centuries been assumed as Du Châtelet’s decidedly minor role in the encyclopaedic enterprise. More recently still, an international group of scholars came together in Oxford this past May for a study day on the subject of “Émilie Du Châtelet: Philosopher & Encyclopédiste”, a workshop aimed at unravelling Du Châtelet’s complicated and often overlooked encyclopaedic legacy.

Title page of the Encyclopédie (1751). (Encyclopedie.uchicago.edu)

Title page of the Encyclopédie (1751). (Encyclopedie.uchicago.edu)

We now know, for instance, that the unsigned article “Hypothèse” is largely drawn from Du Châtelet’s Institutions de physique (1740). Indeed, “Hypothèse” is one of seven articles that explicitly cites the Institutions de physique as a source. And, of these seven articles, “Hypothèse” is the only one that is not at least partially authored by Samuel Formey. Formey, it would seem, is largely responsible for Du Châtelet’s inclusion in the Encyclopédie, so much so that, according to Maglo, if one follows “les traces de Formey […] vous serez en compagnie de Mme Du Châtelet”. However, Formey’s role in the Encyclopédie is somewhat curious.

An exiled Huguenot pastor and perpetual secretary of the Prussian Academy of Sciences in Berlin, Formey had begun his own philosophical dictionary as early as 1742. By 1747 he had heard rumour about a French encyclopaedia project – which took as its starting point a translation of Chambers’ Cyclopaedia – and decided to approach its editor, then the Abbé Gua de Malves, offering his completed articles to the new enterprise. By 1749, the deal – executed by the libraires associés who controlled the project – was finalised, and Formey sent the editors (by then Diderot and D’Alembert) some 1800 manuscript pages (petit in folio) in exchange for 300 livres; with the added proviso that the manuscript be returned to the author and that he be mentioned in the work’s preface.

It is thus presumably through the mediation of Formey’s articles that Du Châtelet’s Institutions de physique (one of Formey’s admitted sources for his articles on Metaphysics) came to be incorporated into the Encyclopédie. As such, most scholars have treated Du Châtelet as a secondary source for the Encyclopédie, and little more. But, digging into the issue a little, it would seem that the Du Châtelet/Formey relationship is rather more complex than we normally assume. Is this really just a simple case of an author (Formey) using a source (Du Châtelet) in order to bolster an argument or expand upon a concept? Or, as with “Hypothèse”, is there more to Du Châtelet’s presence in the Encyclopédie than we’ve previously admitted?

To answer these questions I compared a copy of the Institutions de physique found in the BNF’s Gallica digital library to the entire text of the Encyclopédie using a sequence alignment algorithm developed by the ARTFL Project.[3] The results, which will be published in full later this year, not only give us a better understanding of the extent to which Du Châtelet was used in the seven articles that cite the Institutions de physique, but also reveal a further six articles that make extensive use of Du Châtelet’s text with no attribution at all. Given both the scope and scale of these borrowings, whether cited or not, these new findings serve to complicate further the already nebulous notion of authorship in the Encyclopédie.


Title page of Du Châtelet’s Institutions de physique (1740). (Gallica.bnf.fr)

Take, for example, the article “Contradiction”, attributed unequivocally to Formey by Diderot and D’Alembert: “Cet article est de M. Formey”. Of its 338 words, 320 of them are drawn directly from sections 4 and 7 of the Institutions de physique, again with no attribution. To put this into terms perhaps more familiar to modern academic sensibilities, this means that Formey’s Turnitin-style “similarity score” for the article “Contradiction” would register at a rather alarming 95%. Indeed, all of the Formey articles we examined would score well above the 50% originality metric in terms of their similarity to Du Châtelet’s text.

Nor was this practice limited to Du Châtelet, apparently, as Alexander Bocast has convincingly demonstrated. Formey also makes quite liberal and unacknowledged use of Condillac’s Essai sur l’origine des connaissances humaines in his article “Définition”, for example.[4] All of which inevitably begs the question: should we continue to attribute articles to Formey that are drawn primarily from other sources? If not, to whom should we attribute them? Formey and Du Châtelet (or Condillac) together (in what order?); or Du Châtelet (and Condillac) alone, if above a certain threshold of borrowing? At what point does an article “belong” to its author as opposed to its source? And, on what grounds should one make these sorts of editorial decisions at all?

These questions all speak to the unique dialogical structure of the Encyclopédie and its multiple layers of authorship and authority. Contributors (both acknowledged and anonymous) would weave outside sources into their articles with varying degrees of attribution. These contributions would then often become the subject of editorial interventions on the part of Diderot and, to a lesser extent, D’Alembert. All of which makes the Encyclopédie a fundamentally “social” text, one built on the premise of philosophical conversation between the various members of Diderot’s “société des gens de lettres”, a microcosm of that larger international “Republic of Letters”.

Émilie du Châtelet was unquestionably a leading citizen of this Republic. And, while her contributions may be obscured by their apparent status as secondary source, new research such as that presented here is beginning to deconstruct this primary/secondary distinction in favour of a more expansive, and dialogical notion of encyclopaedic authorship. If Montesquieu is unambiguously considered as one the encyclopédistes thanks to his “contribution” of a single, unfinished posthumous article (e.g. “Goût”), then can’t we imagine an expanded author list for the Encyclopédie that makes room for Émilie du Châtelet, and doubtless many others? I, for one, would hope so.

But while we collectively might not yet be prepared to grant Du Châtelet full status as an Encyclopédie author (though I would argue that we should be), then, at the very least, we should do our best to make sure that she’s an acknowledged – and significant – participant in the philosophical conversation that the Encyclopédie enacts.

– Glenn Roe

[1] See Richard N. Schwab, Walter E. Rex and John Lough, Inventory of Diderot’s Encyclopédie (Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, vol.80, 83, 85, 91, 92, 93 and 223, Oxford, 1971-1984) and Frank Kafker, The Encyclopedists as Individuals (Studies on Voltaire, vol.257, Oxford, 1988).

[2] See Koffi Maglo, ‘Madame Du Châtelet, l’Encyclopédie et la philosophie des sciences’, in Emilie du Châtelet: éclairages et documents nouveaux (Paris, Ferney-Voltaire: CIEDS, 2008), p.255-66.

[3] This is the same methodology, in fact, that we used previously to examine the citation practices of the encyclopédistes. See Dan Edelstein, Robert Morrissey, and Glenn Roe, “To Quote or Not to Quote: Citation strategies in the ‘Encyclopédie’”, Journal of the History of Ideas 74.2, April 2013, p.213-36.

[4] See Bocast, “Condillac’s Contributions to Formey’s Article on ‘DÉFINITION’ in Diderot’s Encyclopédie”.

A thirst for knowledge


I confess – I have a craving for facts, for knowing things. Whilst I have an array of free online sources at my disposal for ‘on-demand’ knowledge, the same cannot be said of my eighteenth-century predecessors whose own quest for knowledge became remarkable feats in themselves.

The Enlightenment was the age of encyclopaedias, and the construction of such compendiums – which topics to include, which to leave out and how, crucially, to arrange the topics – was a remarkable feat. Although the Diderot et al. Encyclopédie is greatest project of the period, the encyclopedia legacy was considerably expanded by other reference works that have tended to pale in its shadow.

In her book From ‘Encyclopédie’ to ‘Encyclopédie méthodique’: revision and expansion Kathleen Doig delves into Charles Joseph Panckoucke’s vast Méthodique, and compares its construction and genealogy to the earlier Encyclopédie. Panckoucke’s intent was to resolve the inherent disorder of the Encyclopédie due to the alphabetical arrangement of entries. He chose to arrange his œuvre as a series of subject-specific dictionaries with overviews or treatises at the beginning of each series, followed by alphabetised entries on relevant terms. Through this we can see how, in the Enlightenment, knowledge was already being packaged in different formats according to the editor’s view of the public appetite. Panckoucke, for instance, regarded his market as the ‘informed layperson’ who wanted a self-study course in a certain subject area.


Today’s encyclopedias, such as the Britannica, have gone a long way down the road of market segmentation, with different editions for the home user, the student and the academic library. Most investment goes into online versions so as to compete with and provide value over and above what Wikipedia and similarly-modelled free encyclopedias can offer. Whilst I can retrieve information and facts within the click of a mouse, access to knowledge in the eighteenth century was limited and only available to the literate few who could afford it. The issue I face is what to believe in the free, openly edited encyclopedias. This is where a modern-day Diderot or Panckoucke is needed.

–Lyn Roberts

Happy birthday Denis Diderot! A letter from Marian Hobson

Cher Denis Diderot, happy 300th birthday!

birthdaydiderotWherever you are – for you were a non-believer all your life, and the afterlife you looked forward to was one of infinitely recyclable molecules living on in ever new combinations. A process possibly without end, spinning out like the cosmos itself, but one that was sufficiently complex to leave room for human intervention.

So for 20 years of your life and against the odds you edited the Encyclopédie, aiming to consolidate what was known about agriculture, art, theology, trade – a raft of subjects that probably no other European would have dared bring together – in order that intervention might improve, and wrongs in human systems and thought be at least discussed, and if possible righted.

However, that changing of opinions and recycling of molecules requires energy – that you also knew. In deliciously underhanded ways you developed yours by writing: for instance, dialogues of speculative science prefiguring cloning (Le Rêve de D’Alembert); a hilarious novel (Jacques le fataliste), anticipating le nouveau roman of the 1950s and 1960s, one presenting a net of random co-occurrences out of which events develop in a way that mimics freedom. Your novel forms a net which thus appears as the paradoxical opposite of a linear, causal determinism, and from it we see that these apparent opposites take in each other’s philosophical washing: What is it to be free? Not to be determined. To be determined? Not to be free.

Notably kind, you yet had a talent for comedy and satire which you hid in unpublished work, the satire in the form of a novel-cum-dialogue (Le Neveu de Rameau). Unlike your friend-enemy Rousseau, you are not in the Panthéon; your work doesn’t appear as a set philosophical text in that summum of your country’s education ladder, the written exam of the agrégation en philosophie.DiderotJacquesFatalist01

Your accolades are less of the Establishment, are more wayward and in the future – you will be translated by Goethe, be used as a springboard towards the dialectic by Hegel, and Freud will be glad to find in you a past confirmation of his Oedipus complex. Your work ghosting for others (the atheist d’Holbach), commenting on and round them (Helvétius and the believer Hemsterhuis) and collaborating namelessly on a history of colonialisms (L’histoire des Deux-Indes) has gently rocked beliefs without inculcating dogma or doctrine. We can’t turn you into a memorial, not yet anyway, there is too much to do. You make us keep on thinking. Thank you for all this, cher Denis Diderot!

-Marian Hobson

Visite virtuelle de la Bibliothèque de Voltaire

L’histoire des négociations entourant la bibliothèque de Voltaire après la mort de l’auteur et qui ont culminé dans le transfert de tous les livres de Ferney à Saint-Pétersbourg a souvent été racontée.[1] Loin d’être la seule bibliothèque d’écrivain à avoir survécu à la mort de son propriétaire, elle est cependant peut-être la plus grande (avec presque sept mille volumes) et la plus célèbre. Sa particularité est celle, bien sûr, des nombreuses notes marginales et autres traces de lecture dont les volumes sont remplis. Nous savons que les livres de Diderot ont pris, eux aussi, le chemin de la Russie, mais aujourd’hui l’identité de cette collection a été dissoute au sein du fonds des imprimés de la Bibliothèque nationale de Russie et demande à être reconstituée. La bibliothèque de Montesquieu a connu un sort plus heureux et une partie des volumes du philosophe de La Brède constitue un ‘fonds Montesquieu’ à la Bibliothèque de Bordeaux. Plus éloignés, dans l’espace et dans le temps, des livres ayant appartenu à Alexander Pope et à William Warburton sont conservés à la Hurd Library à Hartlebury Castle en Angleterre, et la presque intégralité de la bibliothèque de Flaubert peut encore être visitée à la Mairie de Canteleu.

St_PetersburgTant qu’on ne s’est pas rendu sur place, le concept d’une bibliothèque d’auteur pourrait sembler abstrait, bien qu’il s’agisse avant tout d’une collection d’objets matériels. Tout change après une visite: la bibliothèque de Voltaire ne peut qu’impressionner le visiteur. Elle fait aujourd’hui partie de la Bibliothèque nationale de Russie à Saint-Pétersbourg qui, comme on le voit sur la bannière de son site web, est encore située dans le bâtiment du dix-huitième siècle commandité par Catherine II à l’angle de la rue Sadovaya et de la Perspective Nevsky, bien qu’il existe également de nos jours un nouveau site plus éloigné du centre-ville. L’entrée des lecteurs a été modernisée, avec vestiaire et tourniquet actionné par les cartes de lecteurs. Pour accéder à la bibliothèque de Voltaire, on prend à droite et on traverse un long couloir aux murs couverts de boiseries, qui donne une impression d’étroitesse grâce à sa hauteur et aux vitrines où sont exposés livres et documents présentant les riches collections de la Bibliothèque, y compris celle de Voltaire. On monte deux marches et on est dans un hall spacieux. En prenant la porte à droite et en descendant quelques marches le lecteur se retrouve devant la plaque commémorant l’inauguration officielle du ‘Centre d’Etude du Siècle des Lumières “Bibliothèque de Voltaire” ’ par les premiers ministres russe et français le 28 juin 2003.

Au-delà des portes sécurisées, on entre enfin dans les deux salles voûtées consacrées à la mémoire de Voltaire et à ses livres. Enjolivée par un parquet et des vitraux faits sur mesure qui incorporent les initiales ‘A.d.V.’ (Arouet de Voltaire), la première salle, disposée en forme de ‘T’ (l’entrée étant à la jonction de la verticale et de l’horizontale), contient les volumes du patriarche de Ferney. Mais c’est d’abord la statue qui frappe, face à la porte: le célèbre ‘Voltaire assis’ de Houdon, une copie de celle qui se trouve à deux kilomètres seulement de la Bibliothèque, à l’Ermitage. Les murs sont tapissés de livres, et les rayons sont protégés par des portes en verre dont seuls les conservateurs détiennent les clefs. Les cotes reflètent l’ordre des livres à l’époque où la bibliothèque était encore conservée à l’Ermitage, et ce classement est censé être celui de Ferney, respecté par Wagnière, le secrétaire de Voltaire qui accompagna et déballa les caisses de livres en Russie. Au milieu de chaque ‘aile’ de la salle se trouve une vitrine, avec des expositions temporaires. Actuellement l’une expose quelques volumes emblématiques de la collection, tel l’exemplaire du Contrat social de Rousseau annoté par Voltaire,[2] alors que l’autre montre le catalogue de la bibliothèque dressé par Wagnière, un plan dessiné au dix-huitième siècle du château de Ferney, et des échantillons de tissu apportés par Wagnière pour Catherine II, qui avait initialement projeté de construire une reproduction fidèle du château de Ferney pour y conserver les collections voltairiennes.

En passant dans la seconde salle on trouve  une copie de la maquette du château de Ferney (dont l’original se trouve, lui aussi, au musée de l’Ermitage), exécutée en 1777 par Morand, le menuisier de Voltaire. C’est dans la seconde salle, bien pourvue en outils de travail (Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, catalogue de sa bibliothèque, etc.) que les lecteurs peuvent s’installer pour consulter les livres du grand écrivain. Là on peut feuilleter ses manuscrits, déchiffrer les ratures, parcourir les notes qu’il a laissées en marge des volumes imprimés. Toutes les traces de lecture de Voltaire ont été recensées et sont en cours de publication dans le Corpus des notes marginales. Nous regrettons le récent décès de Nikolai Kopanev, qui a joué un rôle important dans la continuation de cette publication essentielle par la Voltaire Foundation. C’est en partie grâce à lui que les voltairistes de tous les pays du monde sont si chaleureusement accueillis dans la bibliothèque de Voltaire pour étudier – et pour contempler aussi l’ampleur de la marque laissée par Voltaire sur le patrimoine mondial.

-Gillian Pink

[1] Notamment par Sergueï Karp, Quand Catherine II achetait la bibliothèque de Voltaire (Ferney-Voltaire, 1999); Christophe Paillard, ’De la “bibliothèque patriarcale” à la “bibliothèque impériale” – Grimm, Wagnière, Mme Denis et l’acquisition de la bibliothèque de Voltaire par Catherine II’Gazette des Délices 14 (été 2007); Gillian Pink, ‘Voltaire in St Petersburg: the Voltaire Library and the marginalia project’ au colloque ‘Was there a Russian Enlightenment?’, Ertegun House, Oxford (novembre 2012).

[2] La reproduction en fac-similé a été publiée sous le titre Du contrat social. Edition originale commentée par Voltaire (Paris, 1998). L’annotation de Voltaire, ainsi que les autres marques de lecture, a été reproduite et commentée par Kelsey Rubin-Detlev dans Voltaire, Corpus des notes marginales, t.8 (Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, t.143, p.165-83 et p.493-515 pour le commentaire).