Since Aristotle, said Lessing, no more philosophical mind than Diderot's has treated of the theatre. Lessing himself translated Diderot's two plays, and the Essay on Dramatic Poetry, and repeatedly said that without the impulse of Diderot's principles and illustrations his own taste would have taken a different direction. As a dramatist, the author of Miss Sara Sampson, of Emilia Galotti, and above all that noble dramatic poem, Nathan the Wise, could hardly have owed much to the author of such poor stuff as The Natural Son and The Father of the Family. Lessing had some dramatic fire, invention, spontaneous elevation; he had a certain measure, though not a very large one, of poetic impulse. Diderot had nothing of all these, but he had the eye of the philosophic critic.
Any one who reads Lessing's dramatic criticisms will see that he did not at all overrate his obligations to his French contemporary. It has been replied to the absurd taunt about the French inventing nothing, that at least Descartes invented German philosophy. Still more true is it that Diderot invented German criticism.
Diderot's thoughts on the stage, besides his completed plays, and a number of fragmentary scenes, are contained principally in the Paradox on the Player, a short treatise on Dramatic Poetry, and three dialogues appended to The Natural Son. On the plays a very few words will suffice. The Natural Son must, by me at least, be pronounced one of the most vapid performances in dramatic history. Even Lessing, unwilling as he was to say a word against a writer who had taught him so much, is too good a critic not to recognise monotony in the characters, stiffness and affectation in the dialogue, and a pedantic ring in the sentences of new-fangled philosophy. Even in the three critical dialogues that Diderot added to the play, Lessing cannot help discerning the mixture of superficiality with an almost pompous pretension. Rosenkranz, it is true, finds the play rich in fine sentences, in scenes full of effect, in which Diderot's moral enthusiasm expresses itself with impetuous eloquence. But even he admits that the hero's servant is not so far wrong when he cries, "Il semble que le bon sens se soit enfui de cette maison," and adds that the whole atmosphere of the piece is sickly with conscious virtue. For ourselves we are ready for once even to sympathise with Palissot, the hack-writer of the reactionary parties, when he says that The Natural Son had neither invention, nor style, nor characters, nor any other single unit of a truly dramatic work. The reader who seeks to realise the nullity of the genre serieux in Diderot's hands, should turn from The Natural Son to Goldoni's play of The True Friend, from which Diderot borrowed the structure of his play, following it as narrowly as possible to the end of the third act. Seldom has transfusion turned a sparkling draught into anything so flat and vapid. In spite of the applause of the philosophic claque, led by Grimm, posterity has ratified the coldness with which it was received by contemporaries. The Natural Son was written in 1757, but it was not until 1771 that the directors of the French Comedy could be induced to place it on the stage. The actors detested their task, and as we can very well believe, went sulkily through parts which they had not even taken the trouble to master. The public felt as little interest in the piece as the actors had done, and after a single representation, the play was put aside.
Ill-natured critics compared Diderot's play with Rousseau's opera; they insisted that The Natural Son and The Village Conjuror were a couple of monuments of the presumptuous incompetence of the encyclopaedic cabal. The failure of The Natural Son as a drama came after it had enjoyed considerable success as a piece of literature, for it had been fourteen years in print. We can only suppose that this success was the fruit of an unflinching partisanship.
It is a curious illustration of the strength of the current passion for moral maxims in season and out of season, that one scene which to the scoffers of that day seemed, as it cannot but seem to everybody to-day, a climax of absurdity and unbecomingness, was hailed by the party as most admirable, for no other reason than that it contained a number of high moralising saws. Constance, a young widow and a model of reason, takes upon herself to combat the resolution of Dorval not to marry, after he has led her to suppose that he has a passion for her, and after a marriage between them has been arranged. "No," he cries, "a man of my character is not such a husband as befits Constance." Constance begs him to reassure himself; tells him that he is mistaken; to enjoy tranquillity, a man must have the approval of his own heart, and perhaps that of other men, and he can have neither unless he remains at his post; it is only the wicked who can bear isolation; a tender soul cannot view the general system of sensible beings without a strong desire that they should be happy. Dorval, who cuts an extremely sorry figure in such a scene, exclaims, "Ah, but children! Dorval would have children! When I think that we are thrown from our very birth into a chaos of prejudices, extravagances, vices, and miseries, the idea makes me shudder!"—"Dorval, you are beset by phantoms, and no wonder. The history of life is so little known, while the appearance of evil in the universe is so glaring.... Dorval, your daughters will be modest and good; your sons noble and high-minded; all your children will be charming.... There is no fear that a cruel soul should ever grow in my bosom from stock of yours."
We can hardly wonder that players were disgusted, or critics moved to wicked jests. The counterpart to the scene in which Constance persuades Dorval that they would be very happy in one case, is the scene in which Dorval persuades Rosalie that they would be very unhappy in another case. The situations in themselves may command our approval morally, but they certainly do not attract our sympathies dramatically. That a woman should demonstrate to a man in fine sententious language the expediency of marrying her, is not inconsistent with good sense, but it is displeasing. When a man tells a woman that, though love draws in one way, duty draws in the other, we may admire his prudence, but we are glad when so delicate a business comes to an end. In The Natural Son the latter scene, though very long, is the less disagreeable of the two. And just as in Diderot's most wordy and tiresome pages we generally find some one phrase, some epithet, some turn of a sentence whose freshness or strength or daring reveals a genius, so in this scene we find a few lines whose energy reminds us that we are not after all in the hands of some obscure playwright, whose works ought long ago to have been eaten by moths or burnt by fire. Those lines are a warning against the temptation so familiar in every age since Paris was a guest in the halls of Menelaus, to take that fatal resolve, All for love and the world well lost. "To do wrong," says Dorval, "is to condemn ourselves to live and to find our pleasure with wrong-doers; it is to pass an uncertain and troubled life in one long and never-ending lie; to have to praise with a blush the virtue that we flung behind us; to hear from the lips of others harsh words for our own action; to seek a little calm in sophistical systems, that the breath of a single good man scatters to the winds; to shut ourselves for ever out from the spring of true joys, the only joys that are virtuous, austere, sublime; and to give ourselves up, simply as a way of escape from ourselves, to the weariness of those frivolous diversions in which the day flows away in self-oblivion, and our life glides slowly from us and loses itself in waste." A very old story, no doubt; but natural, true, and in its place.
What adds to the flatness of the play is a device which Diderot introduced on a deliberately adopted principle; we mean the elaborate setting out of the acting directions. Every movement, every gesture, every silent pause is written down, and we have the impression less of a play than of some strangely bald romance. In the versified declamation which then reigned on the French stage, nothing was left to natural action, nothing was told by change of position, by movement without speech, or in short by any means other than discourse. Diderot, repudiating the conventions of dramatic art, and consulting nature or reality, saw that there are many scenes in life in which it is more natural to the personages of the scene to move than to speak, in which indeed motion is natural, and speech is altogether unnatural. If this be so in real life, he said, it should be so on the stage, because nothing passes in the world which may not pass also in the theatre; and as pantomime, or expression of emotion, feeling, purpose, otherwise than by speech, has so much to do in life, the dramatist should make abundant use of pantomime in composing stage-plays. Nor should he trust to the actor's invention and spontaneous sense of appropriateness. He ought to write down the pantomime whenever it adds energy or clearness to the dialogue; when it binds the parts of the dialogue together; when it consists in a delicate play that is not easily divined; and almost always he ought to write it down in the opening of a scene. If any one is inclined to regard this as superfluous, let him try the experiment of composing a play, and then writing the pantomime, or "business," for it; he will soon see what follies he commits.
Whatever we may think of the practice of writing the action as well as the words for the player, nobody would now dispute the wisdom of what Diderot says as to the part that pantomime fills in the highest kind of dramatic representation. We must agree with his repeated laments over the indigence, for purposes of full and adequate expression, of every language that ever has existed or ever can exist. "My dear master," he wrote to Voltaire on the occasion of a performance of Tancred, "if you could have seen Clairon passing across the stage, her knees bending under her, her eyes closed, her arms falling stiff by her side as if they were dead; if you heard the cry that she uttered when she perceives Tancred, you would remain more convinced than ever that silence and pantomime have sometimes a pathos that all the resources of speech can never approach." If we wonder that he should have thought it worth while to lay so much emphasis on what seems so obvious, we have to remember that it did not seem at all obvious to people who were accustomed to the substitution of a mannered and symmetrical declamation for the energetic variety and manifold exuberance of passion and judgment in the daily lives of men.
We have already seen that even when he wrote the Letter on the Deaf and Dumb, Diderot's mind was exercised about gesture as a supplement to discourse. In that Letter he had told a curious story of a bizarre experiment that he was in the habit of making at the theatre. He used to go to the highest seats in the house, thrust his fingers into his ears, and then, to the astonishment of his neighbours, watch the performance with the sharpest interest. As a constant playgoer, he knew the words of the plays by heart, and what he sought was to isolate the gesture of the performers, and to enjoy and criticise that by itself. He kept his ears tightly stopped, so long as the action and play went well with the words as he remembered them, and he only listened when some discord in gesture made him suppose that he had lost his place. The people around him were more and more amazed as they saw him, notwithstanding his stopped ears, shed copious tears in the pathetic passages. "They could not refrain from hazarding questions, to which I answered coldly, 'that everybody had his own way of listening, and that my way was to stop my ears, so as to understand better'—laughing within myself at the talk to which my oddity gave rise, and still more so at the simplicity of some young people who also put their fingers into their ears to hear after my fashion, and were quite astonished that the plan did not succeed." This was an odd and whimsical way of acting on a conviction which lay deep in Diderot's mind, namely, that language is a very poor, misleading, and utterly inadequate instrument for representing what it professes, and what we stupidly suppose it, to represent. Rousseau had expressed the same kind of feeling when he said that definitions might be good things, if only we did not employ words in making them.
A curious circumstance is worth mentioning in connection with the Three Dialogues appended to The Natural Son. Diderot informs his readers that the incidents of The Natural Son had actually occurred in real life, and that he knew the personages. In the Dialogues it is assumed that the play had been written by the hero himself, and the hero is the chief speaker. Not a word is said from which the reader would guess that Diderot had borrowed the substance of his plot and some of its least insipid scenes from Goldoni. We can hardly wonder that he was charged with plagiarism. Yet it was not deliberate, we may be sure. When Diderot was strongly seized by an idea, outer circumstances were as if they did not exist. He was swept up into the clouds. "Diderot is a good and worthy man," wrote Madame Geoffrin to the King of Poland, "but he has such a bad head, and he is so curiously organised, that he neither sees nor hears what he does see and hear, as the thing really is; he is always like a man who is dreaming, and who thinks all that he has dreamed quite real."
The Father of the Family, written in 1758, and first acted in 1761, is very superior to The Natural Son; it even enjoyed a certain popularity. In Germany it became an established favourite, and in Italy it was only less popular than a piece of Goldoni's. The French were not quite so easy to please. In 1761 its reception was undoubtedly favourable, and it ran for more than a week. In 1769 it was reproduced, and, according to Diderot's own account, with enthusiasm. "There was a frightful crowd," he says, "and people hardly remember such a success. I was surprised at it myself. My friends are at the height of exultation. My daughter came home intoxicated with wonder and delight." Even Madame Diderot at length grew ashamed at having to confess that she had not seen her husband's triumph, and throwing aside her horror of the stage, was as deeply moved as every one else.
Notwithstanding this satisfactory degree of success, and though it was performed as late as 1835, the play never struck root in France. It is indeed a play without any real quality or distinction. "Diderot, in his plays," said Madame de Stael, "put the affectation of nature in the place of the affectation of convention." The effect is still more disagreeable in the first kind of affectation than the second. The Father of the Family is made more endurable than The Natural Son by a certain rapidity and fire in the action, and a certain vigour in the characters of the impetuous son (Saint Albin) and the malignant brother-in-law (the Commander). But the dialogue is poor, and the Father of the Family himself is as woolly and mawkish a figure as is usually made out of benevolent intentions and weak purpose combined. The woes of the heavy father of the stage, where there is no true pathos, but only a sentimental version of it, find us very callous. The language has none of that exquisite grace and flexibility which makes a good French comedy of own day, a piece by Augier, Sandeau, Feuillet, Sardou, so delightful. Diderot was right in urging that there is no reason why a play should be in verse; but then the prose of a play ought to have a point, elegance, and highly-wrought perfection, which shall fill us with a sense of art, though not the art of the poet. Diderot not only did not write comedy in such a style; but he does not even so much as show consciousness that any difference exists between one kind of prose and another. The blurred phrases and clipped sentences of what Diderot would have called Nature, that is to say of real life, are intolerable on the stage. Even he felt this, for his characters, though their dialogue is without wit or finish, are still dull and tame of speech, in a different way from that in which the people whom we may meet are dull and tame. There is an art of a kind, though of an extremely vapid kind.
Again, though he may be right in contending that there is a serious kind of comedy as distinct from that gay comedy which is neighbour to farce—of this we shall see more presently—yet he is certainly wrong in believing that we can willingly endure five acts of serious comedy without a single relieving passage of humour. Contrast of character, where all the characters are realistic and common, is not enough. We crave contrast in the dramatic point of view. We seek occasional change of key. That serious comedy should move a sympathetic tear is reasonable enough; but it is hard to find that it grudges us a single smile. The result of Diderot's method is that the spectator or the reader speedily feels that what he has before him substitutes for dramatic fulness and variety the flat monotony of a homily or a tract. It would be hard to show that there is no true comedy without laughter—Terence's Hecyra, for instance—but Diderot certainly overlooked what Lessing and most other critics saw so clearly, that laughter rightly stirred is one of the most powerful agencies in directing the moral sympathies of the audience,—the very end that Diderot most anxiously sought.
It is mere waste of time to bestow serious criticism on Diderot's two plays, or on the various sketches, outlines, and fragments of scenes with which he amused his very slight dramatic faculty. If we wish to study the masterpieces of French comedy in the eighteenth century, we shall promptly shut up the volumes of Diderot, and turn to the ease and soft gracefulness of Marivaux's Game of Love and Chance, to the forcible and concentrated sententiousness of Piron's Metromanie, to the salt and racy flavour of Le Sage's Turcaret. Gresset, again, and Destouches wrote at least two comedies that were really fit for the stage, and may be read with pleasure to-day. Neither of these compliments can fairly be paid to The Natural Son and The Father of the Family. Diderot's plays ought to be looked upon merely as sketchy illustrations of a favourite theory; as the rough drawings on the black board with which a professor of the fine arts may accompany a lecture on oil painting.
One radical part of Diderot's dramatic doctrine is wholly condemned by modern criticism; and it is the part which his plays were especially designed to enforce. "It is always," he says, "virtue and virtuous people that a man ought to have in view when he writes. Oh, what good would men gain, if all the arts of imitation proposed one common object, and were one day to unite with the laws in making us love virtue and hate vice. It is for the philosopher to address himself to the poet, the painter, the musician, and to cry to them with all his might: O men of genius, to what end has heaven endowed you with gifts? If they listen to him, speedily will the images of debauch cease to cover the walls of our palaces; our vices will cease to be the organs of crime; and taste and manners will gain. Can we believe that the action of two old blind people, man and wife, as they sought one another in their aged days, and with tears of tenderness clasped one another's hands and exchanged caresses on the brink of the grave, so to say—that this would not demand the same talent, and would not interest me far more than the spectacle of the violent pleasures with which their senses in all the first freshness of youth were once made drunk?"
The emphasising moralists of Diderot's school never understood that virtue may be made attractive, without pulling the reader or the spectator by the sleeve, and urgently shouting in his ear how attractive virtue is. When The Heart of Midlothian appeared (1818), a lady wrote about it as follows: "Of late days, especially since it has been the fashion to write moral and even religious novels, one might almost say of the wise good heroines what a lively girl once said of her well-meaning aunt—'On my word she is enough to make anybody wicked.' Had this very story been conducted by a common hand, Effie would have attracted all our concern and sympathy, Jeanie only cold approbation. Whereas Jeanie, without youth, beauty, genius, warm passions, or any other novel perfection, is here our object from beginning to end. This is 'enlisting the affections in the cause of virtue' ten times more than ever Richardson did; for whose male and female pedants, all excelling as they are, I never could care half as much as I found myself inclined to do for Jeanie before I finished the first volume."
In other words, you must win us by kindling our sympathy, not by formally commanding our moral approval. To kindle sympathy your personage must be interesting; must touch our pity or wonder or energetic fellow-feeling or sense of moral loveliness, which is a very different thing from touching our mere sense of the distinctions between right and wrong. Direct homily excites no sympathy with the homilist. Deep pensive meditations on the moral puzzles of the world are not at all like didactic discourse. But the Father of the Family was exactly fulfilling Diderot's notion of dramatic purpose and utility when he talked to his daughter in such a strain as this: "Marriage, my daughter, is a vocation imposed by nature.... He who counts on bliss without alloy knows neither the life of man nor the designs of heaven. If marriage exposes us to cruel pain, it is also the source of the sweetest pleasures. Where are the examples of pure and heartfelt interest, of real tenderness, of inmost confidence, of daily help of griefs divided, of tears mingled, if they be not in marriage? What is there in the world that the good man prefers to his wife? What is there in the world that a father loves more dearly than his children? O sacred bond, if I think of thee, my whole soul is warmed and elevated!"
But these virtuous ejaculations do not warm and elevate us. In such a case words count for nothing. It is actual presentation of beautiful character, and not talk about it, that touches the spectator. It is the association of interesting action with character, that moves us and inspires such better moods as may be within our compass. Diderot, like many other people before and since, sought to make the stage the great moral teacher. That it may become so, is possible. It will not be by imitating the methods of that colossal type of histrionic failure, the church-pulpit. Exhortation in set speeches always has been, and always will be, the feeblest bulwark against the boiling floods of passion that helpless virtue ever invented, and it matters not at all whether the hortatory speeches are placed on the lips of Mr. Talkative, the son of Saywell, or of some tearful dummy labelled the Father of the Family.
Yet one is half ashamed to use hard words about Diderot. He was so modest about his work, so simple and unpretending, so wholly without restless and fretting ambitions, and so generous in his judgment of others. He made his own dramatic experiment, he thought little enough of it; and he was wholly above the hateful vice of sourly disparaging competitors, whether dead or living. He knew that he was himself no master, but he was manly enough to admire anybody who was nearer to mastery. He was full of unaffected delight at Sedaine's busy and pleasing little comedy, _The Philosopher without knowing it_; it was so simple without being stiff, so eloquent without the shadow of effort or rhetoric. After seeing it, Diderot ran off to the author to embrace him, with many tears of joyful sympathy and gratitude. Sedaine, like Lillo, the author of Diderot's favourite play of _George Barn_well_, was a plain tradesman, and the success of his libretti for comic operas had not spoiled him. He could find no more expansive words for his excited admirer than "_Ah, Monsieur Diderot, que vous etes beau_!" Diderot was just as sensible of the originality and Aristophanic gaiety of Colle's brilliant play, _Truth in Wine_, though Colle detested the philosophic school from Voltaire downwards, and left behind him a bitterly contemptuous account of _The Natural Son_.
Of all comic writers, however, the author of the Andria and the Heautontimorumenos was Diderot's favourite. The half dozen pages upon Terence, which he threw off while the printer's boy waited in the passage (1762), are one of the most easy, flowing, and delightful of his fragments; there is such appreciation of Terence's suavity and tact, of his just and fine judgment, of his discrimination and character. He admits that Terence had no verve; for that he commends the young poet to Moliere or Aristophanes, but as verve was exactly the quality most wanting to Diderot himself, he easily forgave its absence in Terence, and thought it amply replaced by his moderation, his truth, and his fine taste. Colman is praised for translating Terence, for here, says Diderot, is the lesson of which Colman's countrymen stand most in need. The English comic writers have more verve than taste. "Vanbrugh, Wycherley, Congreve, and some others have painted vices and foibles with vigour; it is not either invention or warmth or gaiety or force that is wanting to their pencil, but rather that unity in the drawing, that precision in the stroke, that truth in colouring, which distinguish portrait from caricature. Especially are they wanting in the art of discerning and seizing those naif, simple, and yet singular movements of character, which always please and astonish, and render the imitation at once true and piquant." Criticism has really nothing to add to these few lines, and if Diderot in his last years read The School for Scandal, or The Rivals, he would have found no reason to alter his judgment.
One English play had the honour of being translated by Diderot; this was The Gamester, not The Gamester of Shirley nor of Garrick, but of Edward Moore (1753). It is a good example of the bourgeois tragedy or domestic drama, which Diderot was so eager to see introduced on to the French stage. The infatuation of Beverley, the tears and virtue of Mrs. Beverley, the prudence of Charlotte and the sage devotion of her lover, the sympathetic remorse of Bates, and even the desperation of Stukely, made up a picture of domestic misery and moral sentiment with which Diderot was sure to fall in love. Lillo's George Barnwell, with its direct and urgent moral, was a still greater favourite, and Diderot compared the scene between Maria and Barnwell in prison to the despair of the Philocletes of Sophocles, as the hero is heard shrieking at the mouth of his cavern; just as a more modern critic has thought Lillo's other play, The Fatal Curiosity, worthy of comparison with the Oedipus Tyrannus.
Diderot's feeling for Shakespeare seems to have been what we might have anticipated from the whole cast of his temperament. One of the scenes which delighted him most was that moment of awe, when Lady Macbeth silently advances down the stage with her eyes closed, and imitates the action of washing her hands, as wondering that "the old man should have so much blood in him." "I know nothing," he exclaims, "so pathetic in discourse as that woman's silence and the movement of her hands. What an image of remorse!"
It was not to be expected that Diderot should indulge in those undiscriminating superlatives about Shakespeare which are common in Shakespeare's country. But he knew enough about him to feel that he was dealing with a giant. "I will not compare Shakespeare," he said, "to the Belvedere Apollo, nor to the Gladiator, nor to Antinous"—he had compared Terence to the Medicean Venus—"but to the Saint Christopher of Notre Dame, an unshapely colossus, rudely carven, but between whose legs we could all pass without our brows touching him." Not very satisfactory recognition perhaps; but the Saint Christopher is better than Voltaire's drunken savage.
It is not every dramatist who treats the art of acting as seriously as the art of composition. The great author of Wilhelm Meister is the most remarkable exception to this rule, and Lessing is only second to him. It is hardly possible for a man to be a great dramatist, and it is simply impossible for a man to be a great critic of the drama, who has not seriously studied the rules, aims, and conditions of stage representation. Hazlitt, for instance, has written some admirable pages about the poetry, the imaginative conception, the language, of Shakespeare's plays, but we find his limit when he says that King Lear is so noble a play that he cannot bear to see it acted. As if a play could be fully judged without reference to the conditions of the very object with which it was written. A play is to be criticised as a play, not merely as a poem. The whole structure of a piece depends on the fact that it is to be acted; its striking moments must be great dramatic, not merely beautiful poetic, moments. They must have the intensity of pitch by which the effect of action exceeds the effect of narrative. This intensity is made almost infinitely variable with the variations in the actor's mastery of his art.
Diderot, who threw so penetrating a glance into every subject that he touched, even if it were no more than a glance, has left a number of excellent remarks on histrionics. The key to them all is his everlasting watchword: Watch nature, follow her simple, and spontaneous leading. The Paradox on the Player is one of the very few of Diderot's pieces of which we can say that, besides containing vigorous thought, it has real finish in point of literary form. There is not the flat tone, the heavy stroke, the loose shamble, that give a certain stamp of commonness to so many of his most elaborate discussions. In the Paradox the thoughts seem to fall with rapidity and precision into their right places; they are direct; they are not overloaded with qualifications; their clear delivery is not choked by a throng of asides and casual ejaculations. Usually Diderot writes as if he were loath to let the sentence go, and to allow the paragraph to come to an end. Here he lays down his proposition, and without rambling passes on to the next. The effort is not kept up quite to the close, for the last half dozen pages have the ordinary clumsy mannerism of their author.
What is the Paradox? That a player of the first rank must have much judgment, self-possession, and penetration, but no sensibility. An actor with nothing but sense and judgment is apt to be cold; but an actor with nothing but verve and sensibility is crazy. It is a certain temperament of good sense and warmth combined, that makes the sublime player. Why should he differ from the poet, the painter, the orator, the musician? It is not in the fury of the first impulse that characteristic strokes occur to any of these men; it is in moments when they are tranquil and cool, and such strokes come by an unexpected inspiration. It is for coolness to temper the delirium of enthusiasm. It is not the violent man who is beside himself that disposes of us; that is an advantage reserved for the man who possesses himself. The great poets, the great actors, and perhaps generally all the great imitators of nature, whatever they may be, are gifted with a fine imagination, a great judgment, a subtle tact, a sure taste, but they are creatures of the smallest sensibility. They are equally well fitted for too many things; they are too busy in looking, in recognising, and in imitating, to be violently affected within themselves. Sensibility is hardly the quality of a great genius. He will have justice; but he will practise it without reaping all the sweetness of it. It is not his heart, but his head, that does it all. Well, then, what I insist upon, says Diderot, is that it is extreme sensibility that makes mediocre actors; it is mediocre sensibility that makes bad actors; and it is the absolute want of sensibility that prepares actors who shall be sublime.
This is worked out with great clearness and decision, and some of the illustrations to which he resorts to lighten the dialogue are amusing enough. Perhaps the most interesting to us English is his account of Garrick, whose acquaintance he made towards the year 1765. He says that he saw Garrick pass his head between two folding doors, and in the space of a few seconds, his face went successively from mad joy to moderate joy, from that to tranquillity, from tranquillity to surprise, from surprise to astonishment, from astonishment to gloom, from gloom to utter dejection, from dejection to fear, from fear to horror, from horror to despair, and then reascend from this lowest degree to the point whence he had started.
Of course his soul felt none of these emotions. "If you asked this famous man, who by himself was as well worth a journey to England to see, as all the wonders of Rome are worth a journey to Italy, if you asked him, I say, for the scene of The Little Baker's Boy, he played it; if you asked him the next minute for the scene from Hamlet, he played that too for you, equally ready to sob over the fall of his pies, and to follow the path of the dagger in the air."
Apart from the central proposition, Diderot makes a number of excellent observations which show his critical faculty at its best. As, for example, in answering the question, what is the truth of the stage? Is it to show things exactly as they are in nature? By no means. The true in that sense would only be the common. The really true is the conformity of action, speech, countenance, voice, movement, gesture, with an ideal model imagined by the poet, and often exaggerated by the player. And the marvel is that this model influences not only the tone, but the whole carriage and gait. Again, what is the aim of multiplied rehearsals? To establish a balance among the different talents of the actors. The supreme excellence of one actor does not recompense you for the mediocrity of the others, which is brought by that very superiority into disagreeable prominence. Again, accent is easier to imitate than movement, but movements are what strike us most violently. Hence a law to which there is no exception, namely, under pain of being cold, to make your denouement an action and not a narrative.
One of the strongest satires on the reigning dramatic style, Diderot found in the need that the actor had of the mirror. The fewer gestures, he said, the better; frequent gesticulation impairs energy and destroys nobleness. It is the countenance, the eyes, it is the whole body that ought to move, and not the arms. There is no maxim more forgotten by poets than that which says that great passions are mute. It depends on the player to produce a greater effect by silence than the poet can produce by all his fine speeches. Above all, the player is to study tranquil scenes, for it is these that are the most truly difficult. He commends a young actress to play every morning, by way of orisons, the scene of Athalie with Joas; to say for evensong some scenes of Agrippina with Nero; and for Benedicite the first scene of Phaedra with her confidante. Especially there is to be little emphasis—a warning grievously needed by ninety-nine English speakers out of a hundred—for emphasis is hardly ever natural; it is only a forced imitation of nature.
Diderot had perceived very early that the complacency with which his countrymen regarded the national theatre was extravagant. He would not allow a comparison between the conventional classic of the French stage and the works of the Greek stage. He insisted in the case of the Greeks that their subjects are noble, well chosen, and interesting; that the action seems to develop itself spontaneously; that their dialogue is simple and very close to what is natural; that the denouements are not forced; that the interest is not divided nor the action overloaded with episodes. In the French classic he found none of these merits. He found none of that truth which is the only secret of pleasing and touching us; none of that simple and natural movement which is the only path to perfect and unbroken illusion. The dialogue is all emphasis, wit, glitter; all a thousand leagues away from nature. Instead of artificially giving to their characters esprit at every point, poets ought to place them in such situations as will give it to them. Where in the world did men and women ever speak as we declaim? Why should princes and kings walk differently from any man who walks well? Did they then gesticulate like raving madmen? Do princesses when they speak utter sharp hissings?
People believe us to have brought tragedy to a high degree of perfection. It is not so. Of all kinds of literature it is the most imperfect.
The ideas which appeared thus incongruously in the tales of 1748 reappeared in the direct essays on the drama in 1757 and 1758. We have left nothing undone, he said, to corrupt dramatic style. We have preserved from the ancients that emphasis of versification which was so well fitted to languages of strong quantity and marked accent, to vast theatres, to a declamation that had an instrumental accompaniment; and then we have given up simplicity of plot and dialogue, and all truth of situation. La Motte nearly fifty years before had attacked the pseudo-classic drama. He had inveighed against the unities, against long monologues, against the device of confidants, and against verse. His assault, in which he had the powerful aid of Fontenelle, was part of that battle between Moderns and Ancients with which the literary activity of the century had opened. The brilliant success of the tragedies of Voltaire had restored the lustre of the conventional drama, though Voltaire infused an element of the romantic under the severity of the old forms. But the drama had become even less like Sophocles and Euripides in Zaire than in Phedre or Iphigenie. Voltaire intended to constitute the French drama into an independent form. He expected to be told that he was not like Sophocles, and he did not abstain from some singularly free railing against Euripides. The Greek pieces often smacked too much of the tone of the fair to satisfy him; they were too familiar and colloquial for a taste that had been made fastidious by the court-pieces of Lewis XIV. Diderot was kept free from such deplorable criticism as this by feeling that the Greek drama was true to the sentiment of the age that gave it birth, and that the French drama, if not in the hands of Racine, still even in the hands of Voltaire, and much more in the hands of such men as Lagrange-Chancel and the elder Crebillon, was true to no sentiment save one purely literary, artificial, and barren. He insists on the hopelessness of the stage, unless men prepared themselves at every part for a grand return to nature. We have seen what is his counsel to the actor. He preaches in the same key to the scene-painter and the maker of costumes. Scene-painting ought to be more rigorously true than any other kind of picture. Let there be no distraction, no extraneous suggestion, to interfere with the impression intended by the poet. Have you a salon to represent? Let it be that of a man of taste and no more: no ostentation and no gilding, unless the situation expressly demands the contrary.
In the dresses the same rule holds good. Under robes that are overladen with gold lace, I only see a rich man; what I want to see is a man. Pretty and simple draperies of severe tints are what we need, not a mass of tinsel and embroidery. "A courageous actress has just got rid of her panier, and nobody has found her any the worse for it. Ah, if she only dared one day to show herself on the stage with all the nobility and simplicity of adjustment that her characters demand; nay, in the disorder into which she would be thrown by an event so terrible as the death of a husband, the loss of a son, and the other catastrophes of the tragic stage, what would become, round her dishevelled figure, of all those powdered, curled, frizzled, tricked-out creatures? Sooner or later they must put themselves in unison. O nature, nature! We can never resist her."
From all this we turn, for a few moments only, and not too cheerfully, to the Serbonian bog of dramatic rules and the metaphysics of the theatre. There is no subject in literature, not even the interpretation of the Apocalypse, which has given birth to such pedantic, dismal, and futile discussion. The immense controversy, carried on in books, pamphlets, sheets and flying articles, mostly German, as to what it was that Aristotle really meant by the famous words in the sixth chapter of the Poetics, about tragedy accomplishing the purification of our moods of pity and sympathetic fear, is one of the disgraces of human intelligence, a grotesque monument of sterility. The great tap-root of fallacy has been and remains the incessant imputation of ethical or social purpose to the dramatist, and the demand of direct and combined ethical or social effect from the drama. There is no critic, from the great Aristotle downwards, who has steered quite clear of these evil shallows; Diderot, as we have seen, least of all. But Diderot disarms the impatience which narrower critics kindle, by this magnificent concession, coming at the close of all: "Especially remember that there is no general principle; I do not know a single one of those that I have indicated which a man of genius cannot infringe with success." Here we listen to the voice of the genuine Diderot; and if this be granted, we need not give more than a passing attention to the rules that have gone before—about the danger of borrowing in the same composition the shades both of the comic and of the tragic styles; about movement being injurious to dignity, and of the importance therefore of not making the principal personage the machinist of the piece; about the inexpediency of episodic personages—and so forth. The only remark worth making on these propositions is that, whatever their value may be, Diderot at any rate, like a true philosopher, generalised from the facts of nature and art. He did not follow the too common critical method of reading one's own ideas into a work of art, and then taking them back again in the more imposing form of inevitable deductions from the work itself.
What Diderot conceived himself really to have done, was to have sketched and constituted a new species in the great dramatic kingdom. Every one knows, he said, that there is tragedy and that there is comedy, but we have to learn that there is room in nature and the art of the stage for a third division, namely, the genre serieux, a kind of comedy that has for its object virtue and the duties of man. Why should the writer of comedy confine his work to what is vicious or ridiculous in men? Why should not the duties of men furnish the dramatist with as ample material as their vices? Surely in the genre honnete et serieux the subject is as important as in gay comedy. The characters are as varied and as original. The passions are all the more energetic as the interest will be greater. The style will be graver, loftier, more forcible, more susceptible of what we call sentiment, a quality without which no style ever yet spoke to the heart. The ridiculous will not be absent, for the madness of actions and speeches, when they are suggested by the misunderstanding of interests or by the transport of passion, is the truly ridiculous thing in men and in life.
Besides his own two pieces, Diderot would probably have pointed to Terence as the author coming nearest to the genre serieux. If Goethe's bad play of Stella had retained the close as he originally wrote it, with the bigamous Fernando in the last scene rejoicing over the devoted agreement of the two ladies and his daughter to live with him in happy unity, that would perhaps have been a comedy of the genre serieux, with the duties of man gracefully adapted to circumstances.
The theory of the genre serieux has not led to the formation of any school of writers adopting it and working it out, or to the production of any masterpiece that has held its ground, as has happened in tragedy, comedy, and farce. Beaumarchais, who at last achieved such a dazzling and portentous success by one dramatic masterpiece, began his career as a playwright by following the vein of The Father of the Family; but The Marriage of Figaro, though not without strong traces of Diderotian sentiment in pungent application, yet is in its structure and composition less French than Spanish. It is quite true, as Rosenkranz says, that the prevailing taste on the French stage in our own times favours above all else bourgeois romantic comedy, written in prose. But the strength of the romantic element in them would have been as little satisfactory to Diderot's love of realistic moralising as the conventional tragedy of the court of Lewis XIV. The Fable of most of them turns on adultery, and this is not within the method of the genre serieux as expounded by Diderot. Perhaps half a dozen comedies, such, for instance, as The Ideas of Madame Aubray, by M. Dumas, are of the genre serieux, but certainly there are not enough of such comedies to constitute a genuine Diderotian school in France. There is no need therefore to say more about the theory than this, namely, that though the drama is an imitative art, yet besides imitation its effects demand illusion. What, cries Diderot, you do not conceive the effect that would be produced on you by a real scene, with real dresses, with speech in true proportion to the action, with the actions themselves simple, with the very dangers that have made you tremble for your parents, for your friends, for yourselves? No, we answer: reproduction of reality does not move us as a powerful work of imagination moves us. "We may as well urge," said Burke, "that stones, sand, clay, and metals lie in a certain manner in the earth, as a reason for building with these materials and in that manner, as for writing according to the accidental disposition of characters in Nature." Common dangers do not excite us; it is the presentation of danger in some uncommon form, in some new combination, in some fresh play of motive and passion, that quickens that sympathetic fear and pity which it is the end of a play to produce. And if this be so, there is another thing to be said. If we are to be deliberately steeped in the atmosphere of Duty, illusion is out of place. The constant presence of that severe and overpowering figure, "Stern Daughter of the Voice of God," checks the native wildness of imagination, restricts the exuberance of fancy, and sets a rigorous limit to invention. Diderot used to admit that the genre serieux could never take its right place until it had been handled by a man of high dramatic genius. The cause why this condition has never come to pass is simply that its whole structure and its regulations repel the faculties of dramatic genius.
Besides the perfection of the genre serieux, Diderot insisted that the following tasks were also to be achieved before the stage could be said to have attained the full glory of the other arts. First, a domestic or bourgeois tragedy must be created. Second, the conditions of men, their callings and situations, the types of classes, in short, must be substituted for mere individual characters. Third, a real tragedy must be introduced upon the lyric theatre. Finally, the dance must be brought within the forms of a true poem.
The only remark to be made upon this scheme touches the second article of it. To urge the substitution of types of classes for individual character was the very surest means that could have been devised for bringing back the conventional forms of the pseudo-classic drama. The very mark of that drama was that it introduced types instead of vigorously stamped personalities. What would be gained by driving the typical king off the stage, only to make room for the generalisation of a shopkeeper? This was not the path that led to romanticism, to Andre Chenier, to De Vigny, to Lamartine, to Victor Hugo. Theophile Gautier has told us that the fiery chiefs of the romantic school who suddenly conquered France at the close of the Restoration, divided the whole world into flamboyant and drab. In the literature of the past they counted Voltaire one of the Drab, and Diderot a Flamboyant. If it be not too presumptuous in a foreigner to dissent, we cannot but think that they were mistaken. Nothing could be farther removed at every part from Diderot's dramatic scheme, than Faust or Goetz von Berlichingen or Hernani.
The truth is that it was impossible for an effective antagonism to the classic school to rise in the mind of an Encyclopaedist, for the reason that the Encyclopaedists hated and ignored what they called the Dark Ages. Yet it was exactly the Dark Ages from which the great romantic revival drew its very life-breath. "In the eighteenth century," it has been said, "it was really the reminiscence of the classic spirit which was awakened in the newer life of Europe, and made prominent." This is true in a certain historic sense of Rousseau's politics, and perhaps of Voltaire's rationalism. In spite of the vein of mysticism which occasionally shows in him, it is true in some degree of Diderot himself, if by classicism we mean the tendency to make man the centre of the universe. Classicism treats man as worthy and great, living his life among cold and neutral forces. This is the very opposite of the sinfulness, imperfection, and nothingness habitually imputed to man, and the hourly presence of a whole hierarchy of busy supernatural agents placed about man by the Middle Ages. Yet we cannot but see that Diderot was feeling for dramatic forms and subjects that would have been as little classic as romantic. He failed in the search. There is one play and only one of his epoch that is not classic, and is not romantic, but speaks independently the truest and best mind of the eighteenth century itself, in its own form and language. That play is Nathan the Wise.
In hypochondriacal moments, it has been said, the world, viewed from the aesthetic side, appears to many a one a cabinet of caricatures; from the intellectual side, a madhouse; and from the moral side, a harbouring place for rascals. We might perhaps extend this saying beyond the accidents of hypochondriasis, and urge that the few wide, profound, and real observers of human life have all known, and known often, this fantastic consciousness of living in a strange distorted universe of lunatics, knaves, grotesques. It is an inevitable mood to any who dare to shake the kaleidoscopic fragments out of their conventional and accepted combination. Who does not remember deep traces of such a mood in Plato, Shakespeare, Pascal, Goethe? And Diderot, who went near to having something of the deep quality of those sovereign spirits, did not escape, any more than they, the visitation of the misanthropic spectre. The distinction of the greater minds is that they have no temptation to give the spectre a permanent home with them, as is done by theologians in order to prove the necessity of grace and another world, or by cynics in order to prove the wisdom of selfishness in this world. The greater minds accept the worse facts of character for what they are worth, and bring them into a right perspective with the better facts. They have no expectation of escaping all perplexities, nor of hitting on answers to all the moral riddles of the world. Yet are they ever drawn by an invincible fascination to the feet of the mighty Sphinx of society. She bewilders them with questions that are never overheard by common ears, and torments them with a mockery that is unobserved by common eyes. The energetic—a Socrates, a Diderot—cannot content themselves with merely recording her everlasting puzzles; still less with merely writing over again the already recorded answers. They insist on scrutinising the moral world afresh; they resolve the magniloquent vocabulary of abstract ethics into the small realities from which it has come; they break the complacent repose of opinion and usage by a graphic irony. "The definitions of moral beings," said Diderot, "are always made from what such beings ought to be, and never from what they are. People incessantly confound duty with the thing as it is." We shall proceed to give a short account of one or two dialogues in which he endeavours to keep clear of this confusion.
By far the most important of these is Rameau's Nephew. The fortunes of this singular production are probably unique in literary history. In the year 1804 Schiller handed to Goethe the manuscript of a piece by Diderot, with the wish that he might find himself able to translate it into German. "As I had long," says Goethe, "cherished a great regard for this author, I cheerfully undertook the task, after looking through the original. People can see, I hope, that I threw my whole soul into it." When he had done his work, he returned the manuscript to Schiller. Schiller died almost immediately (May 1805), and the mysterious manuscript disappeared. Goethe could never learn either whence it had come, or whither it went. He always suspected that the autograph original had been sent to the Empress Catherine at St. Petersburg, and that Schiller's manuscript was a copy from that. Though Goethe had executed his translation, as he says, "not merely with readiness but even with passion," the violent and only too just hatred then prevailing in Germany for France and for all that belonged to France, hindered any vogue which Rameau's Nephew might otherwise have had. On the eve of Austerlitz and of Jena there might well be little humour for a satire from the French.
Thirteen years afterwards an edition of Diderot's works appeared in Paris (Belin's edition of 1818), but the editors were obliged to content themselves, for Rameau's Nephew, with an analysis of Goethe's translation. In 1821 a lively sensation was produced by the publication of what professed to be the original text of the missing dialogue. It was really a retranslation into French from Goethe. The fraud was not discovered for some time, until in 1823 Briere announced for his edition of Diderot's works a reprint from a genuine original. This original he had procured from Madame de Vandeul, Diderot's daughter, who still survived. She described it as a copy made in 1760 under the author's own eyes, and this may have been the case, though, if so, it must, from some of the references, have been revised after 1773. The two young men who had tried to palm off their retranslation from Goethe as Diderot's own text, at once had the effrontery to accuse Briere and Diderot's daughter of repeating their own fraud. A vivacious dispute followed between the indignant publisher and his impudent detractors. At length Briere appealed to the great Jove of Weimar. Goethe expressed his conviction that Briere's text was the genuine text of the original, and this was held to settle the question. Yet Goethe's voucher for its correspondence with the copy handed to him by Schiller was not really decisive evidence. He admits that he executed the translation very rapidly, and had no time to compare it closely with the French. An identification nearly twenty years afterwards of verbal resemblances and minute references, in a work that had been only a short time in his hands, cannot be counted testimony of the highest kind. We have thus the extraordinary circumstance that for a great number of years, down almost to the present decade, the text of the one masterpiece of a famous man who died so recently as 1784 rested on a single manuscript, and that a manuscript of disputed authenticity.
Critics differ extremely in their answers to the question of the subject or object of Diderot's singular "farce-tragedy." One declares it to be merely a satirical picture of contemporary manners. Another insists that it is meant to be an ironical reductio ad absurdum of the theory of self-interest, by exhibiting a concrete example of its working in all its grossness. A third holds that it was composed by way of rejoinder to Palissot's comedy (Les Philosophes), 1760, which had brought the chiefs of the rationalistic school upon the stage, and presented them as enemies of the human race. A fourth suspects that the personal and dramatic portions are no more than a setting for the discussion of the comparative merits of the French and Italian schools of music. The true answer is that the dialogue is all of these things, because it is none of them. It is neither more nor less than the living picture and account of an original, drawn by a man of genius who was accustomed to observe human nature and society with a free unblinking vision, and to meditate upon them deeply and searchingly.
Diderot goes to work with Rameau in some sort and to a certain extent as Shakespeare went to work with Falstaff. He is the artist, reproducing with the variety and perfection of art a whimsical figure that struck his fancy and stirred the creative impulse. Ethics, aesthetics, manners, satire, are all indeed to be found in the dialogue, but they are only there as incident to the central figure of the sketch, the prodigy of parasites. Diderot had no special fondness for these originals. Yet he had a keen and just sense of their interest. "Their character stands out from the rest of the world, it breaks that tiresome uniformity which our bringing up, our social conventions, and our arbitrary fashions have introduced. If one of them makes his appearance in a company, he is like leaven, fermenting and restoring to each person present a portion of his natural individuality. He stirs people up, moves them, provokes to praise or blame: he is a means of bringing out reality; gives honest people a chance of showing what they are made of, and unmasks the rogues."
Hearing that the subject of Diderot's dialogue is the Parasite, the scholar will naturally think of that savage satire in which Juvenal rehearses the thousand humiliations that Virro inflicts on Trebius: how the wretched follower has to drink fiery stuff from broken crockery, while the patron quaffs of the costliest from splendid cups of amber and precious stones; how the host has fine oil of Venafrum, while the guest munches cabbage that has been steeped in rancid lamp-oil; one plays daintily with mullet and lamprey, while the other has his stomach turned by an eel as long as a snake, and bloated in the foul torrent of the sewers; Virro has apples that might have come from the gardens of the Hesperides, while Trebius gnaws such musty things as are tossed to a performing monkey on the town wall. But the distance is immeasurable between Juvenal's scorching truculence and Diderot's half-ironical, half-serious sufferance. Juvenal knows that Trebius is a base and abject being; he tells him what he is; and in the process blasts him. Diderot knows that Rameau too is base and abject, but he is so little willing to rest in the fat and easy paradise of conventions, that he seems to be all the time vaguely wondering in his own mind how far this genius of grossness and paradox and bestial sophism is a pattern of the many, with the mask thrown off. He seems to be inwardly musing whether it can after all be true, that if one draws aside a fold of the gracious outer robe of conformity, there is no comeliness of life shining underneath, but only this horror of the skeleton and the worm. He restrains exasperation at the brilliant effrontery of his man, precisely as an anatomist would suppress disgust at a pathological monstrosity, or an astonishing variation in which he hoped to surprise some vital secret. Rameau is not crudely analysed as a vile type: he is searched as exemplifying on a prodigious scale elements of character that lie furtively in the depths of characters that are not vile. It seems as if Diderot unconsciously anticipated that terrible, that woful, that desolating saying,—There is in every man and woman something which, if you knew it, would make you hate them. Rameau is not all parasite. He is your brother and mine, a product from the same rudimentary factors of mental composition, a figure cast equally with ourselves in one of the countless moulds of the huge social foundry.
Such is the scientific attitude of mind towards character: It is not philanthropic nor pitiful: the fact that base characters exist and are of intelligible origin is no reason why we should not do our best to shun and to extirpate them. This assumption of the scientific point of view, this change from mere praise and blame to scrutiny, this comprehension that mere execration is not the last word, is a mark of the modern spirit. Besides Juvenal, another writer of genius has shown us the parasite of an ancient society. Lucian, whose fertility, wit, invention, mockery, freshness of spirit, and honest hatred of false gods, make him the Voltaire of the second century, has painted with all his native liveliness more than one picture of the parasite. The great man's creature at Rome endures exactly the same long train of affronts and humiliations as the great man's creature at Paris sixteen centuries later, beginning with the anguish of the mortified stomach, as savoury morsels of venison or boar are given to more important guests, and ending with the anguish of the mortified spirit, as he sees himself supplanted by a rival of shapelier person, a more ingenious versifier, a cleverer mountebank. The dialogue in which Lucian ironically proves that Parasitic, or the honourable craft of Spunging, has as many of the marks of a genuine art as Rhetoric, Gymnastic, or Music, is a spirited parody of Socratic catechising and Platonic mannerisms. Simo shows to Tychiades, as ingeniously as Rameau shows to Diderot, that the Spunger has a far better life of it, and is a far more rational and consistent person than the orator and the philosopher. Lucian's satire is vivid, brilliant, and diverting. Yet every one feels that Diderot's performance, while equally vivid, is marked by greater depth of spirit; comes from a soil that has been more freely broken up, and has been enriched by a more copious experience. The ancient turned upon these masterpieces of depravation the flash of intellectual scorn; the modern eyes them with a certain moral patience, and something of that curious kind of interest, looking half like sympathy, which a hunter has for the object of his chase.
The Rameau of the dialogue was a real personage, and there is a dispute whether Diderot has not calumniated him. Evidence enough remains that he was at least a person of singular character and irregular disastrous life. Diderot's general veracity of temperament would make us believe that his picture is authentic, but the interest of the dialogue is exactly the same in either case. Juvenal's fifth satire would be worth neither more nor less, however much were found out about Trebius.
"Rameau is one of the most eccentric figures in the country, where God has not made them lacking. He is a mixture of elevation and lowness, of good sense and madness; the notions of good and bad must be mixed up together in strange confusion in his head, for he shows the good qualities that nature has bestowed on him without any ostentation, and the bad ones without the smallest shame. For the rest, he is endowed with a vigorous frame, a particular warmth of imagination, and an uncommon strength of lungs. If you ever meet him, unless you happen to be arrested by his originality, you will either stuff your fingers into your ears or else take to your heels. Heavens, what a monstrous pipe! Nothing is so little like him as himself. One time he is lean and wan, like a patient in the last stage of consumption: you could count his teeth through his cheeks; you would say he must have passed some days without tasting a morsel, or that he is fresh from La Trappe. A month after, he is stout and sleek as if he had been sitting all the time at the board of a financier, or had been shut up in a Bernardine monastery. To-day in dirty linen, his clothes torn and patched, with barely a shoe to his foot, he steals along with a bent head; one is tempted to hail him and toss him a shilling. To-morrow, all powdered, curled, in a good coat, he marches about with head erect and open mien, and you would almost take him for a decent worthy creature. He lives from day to day, from hand to mouth, downcast or sad, just as things may go. His first care of a morning when he gets up is to know where he will dine; after dinner, he begins to think where he may pick up a supper. Night brings disquiets of its own. Either he climbs to a shabby garret he has, unless the landlady, weary of waiting for her rent, has taken the key away from him; or else he shrinks to some tavern on the outskirts of the town, where he waits for daybreak over a crust of bread and a mug of beer. When he has not threepence in his pocket, as sometimes happens, he has recourse either to a hackney-carriage belonging to a friend, or to a coachman of some man of quality, who gives him a bed on the straw beside the horses. In the morning he still has bits of the mattress in his hair. If the weather is mild, he measures the Champs Elysees all night long. With the day he reappears in the town, dressed over night for the morrow, and from the morrow sometimes dressed for the rest of the week."
Diderot is accosted by this curious being one afternoon on a bench in front of the Cafe de la Regence in the Palais Royal. They proceed in the thoroughly natural and easy manner of interlocutors in a Platonic dialogue. It is not too much to say that Rameau's Nephew is the most effective and masterly use of that form of discussion since Plato. Diderot's vein of realism is doubtless in strong contrast with Plato's poetic and idealising touch. Yet imaginative strokes are not wanting to soften the repulsive theme, and to bring the sordid and the foul within the sphere of art. For an example. "Time has passed," says Rameau, "and that is always so much gained."
"I.—So much lost, you mean.
"He.—No, no; gained. People grow rich every moment; a day less to live, or a crown piece to the good, 'tis all one. When the last moment comes, one is as rich as another. Samuel Bernard, who by pillaging and stealing and playing bankrupt, leaves seven-and-twenty million francs in gold, is no better than Rameau, who leaves not a penny, and will be indebted to charity for a shroud to wrap about him. The dead man hears not the tolling of the bell; 'tis in vain that a hundred priests bawl dirges for him, in vain that a long file of blazing torches go before. His soul walks not by the side of the master of the funeral ceremonies. To moulder under marble, or to moulder under clay, 'tis still to moulder. To have around one's bier children in red and children in blue, or to have not a creature, what matters it?"
These are the gleams of the mens divinior, that relieve the perplexing moral squalor of the portrait. Even here we have the painful innuendo that a thought which is solemnising and holy to the noble, serves equally well to point a trait of cynical defiance in the ignoble.
Again, there is an indirectly imaginative element in the sort of terror which the thoroughness of the presentation inspires. For indeed it is an emotion hardly short of terror that seizes us, as we listen to the stringent unflinching paradox of this heterogeneous figure. Rameau is the squalid and tattered Satan of the eighteenth century. He is a Mephistopheles out at elbows, a Lucifer in low water; yet always diabolic, with the bright flash of the pit in his eye. Disgust is transformed into horror and affright by the trenchant confidence of his spirit, the daring thoroughness and consistency of his dialectic, the lurid sarcasm, the vile penetration. He discusses a horrible action, or execrable crime, as a virtuoso examines a statue or a painting. He has that rarest fortitude of the vicious, not to shrink from calling his character and conduct by their names. He is one of Swift's Yahoos, with the courage of its opinions. He seems to give one reason for hating and dreading oneself. The effect is of mixed fear and fascination, as of a magician whose miraculous crystal is to show us what and how we shall be twenty years from now; or as when a surgeon tells the tale of some ghastly disorder, that may at the very moment be stealthily preparing for us a doom of anguish.
Hence our dialogue is assuredly no "meat for little people nor for fools." Some of it is revolting in its brutal indecency. Even Goethe's self-possession cannot make it endurable to him. But it is a study to be omitted by no one who judges the corruption of the old society in France an important historic subject. The picture is very like the corruption of the old society in Rome. We see the rotten material which the purifying flame of Jacobinism was soon to consume out of the land with fiery swiftness. We watch the very classes from which, as we have been so often told, the regeneration of France would have come, if only demagogues and rabble had not violently interposed. There is no gaiety in the style; none of that laughter which makes such a delineation of the manners of the time as we find in Colle's play of Truth in Wine, naif, true to nature, and almost exhilarating. In Rameau we are afflicted by the odour of deadly taint.
As the dialogue is not in every hand—nor could any one wish that it should be—I have thought it worth while to print an English rendering of a considerable part of it in an appendix. Mr. Carlyle told us long ago that it must be translated into English, and although such a piece of work is less simple than it may seem, it appears right to give the reader an opportunity of judging for himself of the flavour of the most characteristic of all Diderot's performances. Only let no reader turn to it who has any invincible repugnance to that curious turn for wildbret, which Goethe has described as the secret of some arts.
Dixeris haec inter varicosos centuriones, Continuo crassum ridet Pulfenius ingens Et centum Graecos curto centusse licebit.
As I have already said, it must be judged as something more than a literary diversion. "You do not suspect, Sir Philosopher," says Rameau, "that at this moment I represent the most important part of the town and the court." As the painter of the picture says, Rameau confessed the vices that he had, and that most of the people about us have; but he was no hypocrite. He was neither more nor less abominable than they; he was only more frank and systematic and profound in his depravity. This is the social significance of the dialogue. This is what, apart from other considerations, makes Rameau's Nephew so much more valuable a guide to the moral sentiment of the time than merely licentious compositions like those of Louvet or La Olos. Its instructiveness is immense to those who examine the conditions that prepared the Revolution. Rameau is not the [Greek: akolastos] of Aristotle, nor the creature of [Greek: aponoia] described by Theophrastus—the castaway by individual idiosyncrasy, the reprobate by accident. The men whom he represented, the courtiers, the financiers, the merchants, the shopkeepers, were immoral by formula and depraved on principle. Vice was a doctrine to them, and wretchlessness of unclean living was reduced to a system of philosophy. Any one, I venture to repeat, who realises the extent to which this had corroded the ruling powers in France, will perceive that the furious flood of social energy which the Jacobins poured over the country was not less indispensable to France than the flood of the barbarians was indispensable for the transformation of the Roman Empire.
Scattered among the more serious fragments of the dialogue is some excellent by-play of sarcasm upon Palissot, and one or two of the other assailants of the new liberal school. Palissot is an old story. The Palissots are an eternal species. The family never dies out, and it thrives in every climate. All societies know the literary dangler in great houses, and the purveyor to fashionable prejudices. Not that he is always servile. The reader, I daresay, remembers that La Bruyere described a curious being in Troilus, the despotic parasite. Palissot, eighteenth century or nineteenth century, is often like Troilus, parasite and tyrant at the same time. He usually happens to have begun life with laudable aspirations and sincere interests of his own; and when, alas, the mediocrity of his gifts proves too weak to bear the burden of his ambitions, the recollection of a generous youth only serves to sour old age.
Bel esprit abhorre de tous les bons esprits, Il pense par la haine echapper au mepris. A force d'attentats il se croit illustre; Et s'il n'etait mechant, il serait ignore.
Palissot began with a tragedy. He proceeded to an angry pamphlet against the Encyclopaedists and the fury for innovation. Then he achieved immense vogue among fine ladies, bishops, and the lighter heads of the town, by the comedy in which he held Diderot, D'Alembert, and the others, up to hatred and ridicule. Finally, after coming to look upon himself as a serious personage, he disappeared into the mire of half-oblivious contempt and disgust that happily awaits all the poor Palissots and all their works. His name only survives in connection with the men whom he maligned. He lived to be old, as, oddly enough, Spite so often does. In the Terror he had a narrow escape, for he was brought before Chaumette. Chaumette apostrophised the assailant of Rousseau and Diderot with rude energy, but did not send him to the guillotine. In this the practical disciple only imitated the magnanimity of his theoretical masters. Rousseau had declined an opportunity of punishing Palissot's impertinences, and Diderot took no worse vengeance upon him than by making an occasional reference of contempt to him in a dialogue which he perhaps never intended to publish.
Another subject is handled in Rameau's Nephew, which is interesting in connection with the mental activity of Paris in the eighteenth century. Music was the field of as much passionate controversy as theology and philosophy. The Bull Unigenitus itself did not lead to livelier disputes, or more violent cabals, than the conflict between the partisans of French music and the partisans of Italian music. The horror of a Jansenist for a Molinist did not surpass that of a Lullist for a Dunist, or afterwards of a Gluckist for a Piccinist. Lulli and Rameau (the uncle of our parasite) had undisputed possession of Paris until the arrival, in 1752, of a company of Italian singers. The great quarrel at once broke out as to the true method and destination of musical composition. Is music an independent art, appealing directly to a special sense, or is it to be made an instrument for expressing affections of the mind in a certain deeper way? The Italians asked only for delicious harmonies and exquisite melodies. The French insisted that these should be subordinate to the work of the poet. The former were content with delight, the latter pressed for significance. The one declared that Italian music was no better than a silly tickling of the ears; the other that the overture to a French opera was like a prelude to a Miserere in plain-song. In 1772-73 the illustrious Gluck came to Paris. His art was believed to reconcile the two schools, to have more melody than the old French style, and more severity and meaning than the purely Italian style. French dignity was saved. But soon the old battle, which had been going on for twenty years, began to rage with greater violence than ever. Piccini was brought to Paris by the Neapolitan ambassador. The old cries were heard in a shriller key than before. Pamphlets, broadsheets, sarcasms flew over Paris from every side.
Was music only to flatter the ear, or was it to paint the passions in all their energy, to harrow the soul, to raise men's courage, to form citizens and heroes? The coffee-houses were thrown into dire confusion, and literary societies were rent by fatal discord. Even dinner-parties breathed only constraint and mistrust, and the intimacies of a lifetime came to cruel end. Rameau's Nephew was composed in the midst of the first part of this long campaign of a quarter of a century, and its seems to have been revised by its author in the midst of the second great episode. Diderot declares against the school of Rameau and Lulli. That he should do so was a part of his general reaction in favour of what he called the natural, against the artifice and affectation. Goethe has pointed out the inconsistency between Diderot's sympathy for the less expressive kind of music, and his usual vehement passion for the expressive in art. He truly observes that Diderot's sympathy went in this way, because the novelty and agitation seemed likely to break up the old, stiff, and abhorred fashion, and to clear the ground afresh for other efforts.
END OF VOL. I.
Printed by R. & R. CLARK, LIMITED, Edinburgh. FOOTNOTES:
[Footnote 1: Oeuv., xviii. 505.]
[Footnote 2: Oeuv., xviii. 364.]
[Footnote 3: Ib. 379.]
[Footnote 4: Oeuv., i. 30.]
[Footnote 5: Wahlverwandschaften, pt. ii. ch. vii. The reader will do well to consult the philosophical estimate of the function of the man of letters given by Comte, Philosophie Positive, v. 512, vi. 192, 287. The best contemporary account of the principles and policy of the men of letters in the eighteenth century is to be found in Condorcet's Esquisse d'un Tableau, etc., pp. 187-189 (ed. 1847).]
[Footnote 6: Naigeon, p. 24.]
[Footnote 7: Oeuv., xix. 162.]
[Footnote 8: Oeuv., xix. 89.]
[Footnote 9: Oeuv., xix. 93.]
[Footnote 10: Oeuv., i. xlviii.]
[Footnote 11: Marmontel, Mem., vol. ii. b. vii. p. 315.]
[Footnote 12: Morellet, Mem., i. p. 29.]
[Footnote 13: Oeuv., i. xlviii.]
[Footnote 14: Ib. xix. 55.]
[Footnote 15: Oeuv., xviii. 376.]
[Footnote 16: Madame de Vandeul says 1744. But M. Jal (Dict. Crit., 495) reproduces the certificate of the marriage. Perhaps we may charitably hope that Diderot himself is equally mistaken, when in later years he sets down a disreputable adventure to 1744. (Oeuv., xix. 85.)]
[Footnote 17: For an account of Madame de Puisieux in her later years, see Mdme. Roland's Memoirs, i. 156.]
[Footnote 18: Sainte Beuve, Causeries, ix. 136.]
[Footnote 19: Oeuv., xix. 159. See also Salons, 1767, No, 118.]
[Footnote 20: _Les Regnes de Claud et de Neron, Sec. 79.]
[Footnote 21: Account of Diderot by Meister, printed in Grimm's Correspondence Litteraire xiii. 202-211.]
[Footnote 22: Gretry, quoted in Genin's Oeuv. choisies de Diderot, 42.]
[Footnote 23: Marmontel, Mem., bk. vii. vol. ii. 312.]
[Footnote 24: Plato, Theages, 130, c.]
[Footnote 25: Art. Encyclopedie.]
[Footnote 26: See Barbier's Journal, iv. 166.]
[Footnote 27: The book was among those found in the possession of the unfortunate La Barre.]
[Footnote 28: Honegger's Kritische Geschichte der franzoesischen Cultureinfluesse in den letzten Jahrhunderten, pp. 267-273.]
[Footnote 29: "Es ist nicht gleichgueltig ob eine Folge grosser Gedanken in frischer Urspruenglichkeit auf die Zeitgenossen wirkt, oder ob sie zu einer Mixtur mit reichlichem Zusatz ueberlieferter Vorurtheile verarbeitet ist. Ebensowenig ist est gleichgueltig welcher Stimmung, welchem Zustande der Geister eine neue Lehre begegnet. Man darf aber kuehn behaupten, das fuer die volle durchfuehrung der von Newton angebahnten Weltanschauung weder eine guenstigere Naturanlage, noch eine guenstigere Stimmung getroffen werden konnte, als die der Franzosen im 18. Jahrhundert." (Lange's Gesch. d. Materialismus, i. 303.) But the writer, like most historians of opinion, does not dwell sufficiently on the co-operation of external social conditions with the progress of logical inference.]
[Footnote 30: See Montgeron's La Verite des Miracles de M. de Paris demontree (1737)—an interesting contribution to the pathology of the human mind.]
[Footnote 31: Barbier, 168, 244, etc.]
[Footnote 32: Pensees Philosophiques, xviii.]
[Footnote 33: On this, see Lange, i. 294.]
[Footnote 34: Pensees Philosophiques. Oeuv., i. 128, 129.]
[Footnote 35: Oeuv., xix. 87. Grimm, Supp. 148.]
[Footnote 36: Volney, in a book that was famous in its day, Les Ruines, ou Meditation sur les revolutions des empires (1791), resorted to a slight difference of method. Instead of leaving the pretensions of the various creeds to cancel one another, he invented a rather striking scene, in which the priests of each creed are made to listen to the professions of their rival, and then inveigh against his superstition and inconsistency. The assumption on which Diderot's argument rests is, that as so many different creeds all make the same exclusive claim, the claim is equally false throughout. Volney's argument turns more directly on the merits, and implies that all religions are equally morbid or pathological products, because they all lead to conduct condemned by their own most characteristic maxims. Volney's concrete presentation of comparative religion was highly effective for destructive purposes, though it would now be justly thought inadequate. (See Oeuv. de Volney, i. 109, etc.)]
[Footnote 37: See on this, Lange, ii. 308.]
[Footnote 38: De la Suffisance de la Religion Naturelle, Sec. 5.]
[Footnote 39: It is well to remember that torture was not abolished in France until the Revolution. A Catholic writer makes the following judicious remark: "We cannot study the eighteenth century without being struck by the immoral consequences that inevitably followed for the population of Paris from the frequency and the hideous details of criminal executions. In reading the journals of the time, we are amazed at the place taken in popular life by the scenes of the Greve. It was the theatre of the day. The gibbet and the wheel did their work almost periodically, and people looked on while poor wretches writhed in slow agony all day long. Sometimes the programme was varied by decapitation and even by the stake. Torture had its legends and its heroes—the everyday talk of the generation which, having begun by seeing Damiens torn by red-hot pincers, was to end by rending Foulon limb from limb." (Carne, Monarchie francaise au 18ieme Siecle, p. 493.)]
[Footnote 40: Lettres sur les Anglais, xxiii.]
[Footnote 41: Essai sur le Merite, I. ii. Sec. 3. Oeue., i. 33.]
[Footnote 42: "Shaftesbury is one of the most important apparitions of the eighteenth century. All the greatest spirits of that time, not only in England, but also Leibnitz, Voltaire, Diderot, Lessing, Mendelssohn, Wieland, and Herder, drew the strongest nourishment from him." (Hettner, Literaturgeschichte des 18ten Jahrhunderts: ler Theil. 188.) See also Lange's Gesch. des Materialismus, i. 306, etc. An excellent account of Shaftesbury is given by Mr. Leslie Stephen, in his Essays on Free-thinking and Plain-speaking.]
[Footnote 43: Oeuv., i. xlvi.]
[Footnote 44: Jobez, France sous Louis XV., ii. 373. There were, in 1725, 24,000 houses, 20,000 carriages, and 120,000 horses. (Martin's Hist, de France, xv. 116.)]
[Footnote 45: The records of Paris in this century contain more than one illustration of the turbulence of this odious army of lackeys. Barbier, i. 118. For the way in which their insolence was fostered, see Saint-Simon, xii. 354, etc. The number of lackeys retained seems to have been extraordinarily great in proportion to the total of annual expenditure, and this is a curious point in the manners of the time. See Voltaire, Dict. Phil, Sec. v. Economie Domestique (liv. 182).]
[Footnote 46: Duclos, _Mem. secrets sur le Regne de Louis XV., iii 306.]
[Footnote 47: Oeuv., xix. 91.]
[Footnote 48: Ib. p. 130.]
[Footnote 49: Prom, du Sceptique. Oeuv., i. 229.]
[Footnote 50: "If there is a God, he is infinitely incomprehensible, since, being without parts or limits, he has no relation to us: we are therefore incapable of knowing what he is, or if he is. That being so, who shall venture to undertake the solution of the question? Not we, at any rate, who have no relation to him." Pensees, II. iii. 1.]
[Footnote 51: P. 182.]
[Footnote 52: P. 223.]
[Footnote 53: Barbazan's Fabliaux et Contes, iii. 409 (ed. 1808). The learned Barbazan's first edition was published in 1756, and so Diderot may well have heard some of the contents of the work then in progress.]
[Footnote 54: Naigeon.]
[Footnote 55: In my Rousseau, p. 243 (new ed.)]
[Footnote 56: Voltaire, p. 149 (new ed., Globe 8vo).]
[Footnote 57: Joubert.]
[Footnote 58: Hettner, Literaiurgeschichte des 18ten Jahrhunderts, ii. 301.]
[Footnote 59: Oeuv., ii. 260, etc.]
[Footnote 60: Oeuv., ii. 258, 259. De l'Essai sur les Femmes, par Thomas. See Grimm's Corr. Lit., vii. 451, where the book is disparaged; and viii. 1, where Diderot's view of it is given. Thomas (1732-85) belonged to the philosophical party, but not to the militant section of it. He was a serious and orderly person in his life, and enjoyed the closest friendship with Madame Necker. His enthusiasm for virtue, justice, and freedom, expressed with much magniloquence, made him an idol in the respectable circle which Madame Necker gathered round her. He has been justly, though perhaps harshly, described as a "valetudinarian Grandison." (Albert's Lit. Francaise au 18ieme Siecle, p. 423.)]
[Footnote 61: Elemens de la Philosophie de Newton, Pt. II. ch. vii. Berkeley himself only refers once to Cheselden's case: Theory of Vision vindicated, Sec. 71. Professor Fraser, in his important edition of Berkeley's works (i. 444), reproduces from the Philosophical Transactions the original account of the operation, which is unfortunately much less clear and definite than Voltaire's emphasised version would make it, though its purport is distinct enough.]