Denis Diderot (1713-1784) was a French writer, philosopher and art critic, who with Voltaire to a great extent shaped the French Enlightenment during the greater part of the 18th century. Diderot was born in Langres, Champagne, where he was educated at the Jesuit College. He earned a degree in philosophy and entered the Collège d’Harcourt in Paris. Diderot was disowned by his father because he refused to complete his legal studies and married a girl of lower social standing. For the rest of his life he remained in poor circumstances, because his prolific writing was not very profitable and he never succeeded in obtaining a position within the institutions of literature and scholarship. When he had financial difficulties, the Russian Empress Catherine II, an admirer of his works, offered to buy his library, which he could retain until his death. In 1773-1774 Diderot visited the empress in Saint Petersburg.
Diderot’s major work is l’Encyclopédie, which still is a monument of the French Enlightenment, representing the standard of scholarly knowledge of its time and the spirit of rationalism which pervaded 18th century thought. He wrote other treatises in philosophy and art in which he showed a strong anti-clerical attitude and criticized the despotism of the French king. He advocated deism, a form of democracy and the abolishment of slavery. Later he became a pronounced atheist. His novels include the scabrous Les bijoux indiscrets (1748), La religieuse (1760/ 1796), Le neveu de Rameau (1763), and Jacques le fataliste (written in 1773, published in French in 1796). All these novels reveal a satirical spirit eager to experiment with form and explore the boundaries of propriety. Another remarkable work is Le rêve d’Alembert (1769), a philosophical dialogue about the nature of Creation and life. Diderot befriended Rousseau and the philologist Friedrich Melchior Grimm. In the 19th century, Diderot was praised by such writers and intellectuals as Goethe, Schiller, Lessing, Balzac, Stendhal, Zola and Schopenhauer. He is still considered to be the main protagonist of French Enlightenment thought and literature.
Diderot’s most famous novel is Les bijoux indiscrets, which is inspired by the concept of the Thousand and one nights and can be seen as a parody of the moral novel Le sopha by Crébillon fils (1742). Les bijoux indiscrets was Diderot’s first novel, published in 1748 and later reprinted several times. The story is set in the time of Sultan Schachbaam, a grandson of the well-known storyteller Shéhérazade, and emperor of the Mogol Empire. This setting is one of the many references to French authors of Diderot’s age, and more in particular to the novel Le sopha by Crébillon fils. In this novel a bored sultan is entertained by stories about the adventures of a sopha and the amorous and adulterous scenes it witnessed in its eventful existence. The book is both an erotic novel and a comment on French high society and its sexual morals. The reference to this work by Diderot of course enhances his ironic intentions: he is a satirizing not only French society, but also French authors who ironically comment on it, and their use of Oriental motifs derived from Antoine Galland’s translation of the Thousand and one nights. Diderot’s book clearly outshines Crébillon’s novel in satirical wit and erotic permissiveness.
The novel is conceived as a rendition of the work of an African chronicler, containing the account of king Mangogul, who is the 1,234,500th scion of a dynasty of kings of Kongo, a rather diffuse kingdom in Africa. When one day the sultan is bored, his favourite concubine Mirzoza, who has a talent for storytelling, proposes to send for the genie Cucufa to provide some entertainment. Cucufa arrives carried by two owls and hands them a magic ring, which has the power to make the person who wears it invisible and will enable him to hear the stories of the adventures of women, told by the ‘jewel’ between their legs. When the news of the existence of the ring spreads, it creates unrest among the notables, because evidently the ‘jewels’ will tell the truth, avoiding all deceit and prejudices, and will, thus, reveal all forms of hypocrisy. The notables will not only risk to lose their reputation, they will have to adapt their habits and will become dependent on the powers of the new interrogating device.
Mirzoza and Mangogul now agree to hold a contest, since Mirzoza claims that the ring will prove that there are not only licentious, lusty, coquettish courtisan-women, but also loving and faithful wives. The king is sceptical, but he accepts the bet, cautiously refraining from pointing the ring at Mirzoza, since this would indicate that he does not trust her loyalty. What follows is a rather extravagant exploration of the secret interior of French society, in its different components and segments. It is interrupted by several inserted episodes, such as the famous ‘philosophical’ dream of Mangogul, with a child approaching him and metamorphosing into a giant, as the embodiment of ‘experience’, and a rather bizarre dream of Mirzoza, followed by an excursion on Mirzoza’s metaphysics. All these insertions, accompanied by references to contemporary writers and thinkers, can be read as comments on intellectual life of the time and Diderot’s stand towards it.
A relatively long inserted story is the account of the peregrinations of Selim, a courtier who relates his amorous adventures as a young man throughout Europe. He journeys from Tunis to Lisbon and Spain, France and England, where he meets all kinds of adulterous women. Selim’s account is closed by an inserted story about true love, indicating that sincerity is still possible and that true love can be retrieved even if it seems only a distant dream. In the end, Mangogul returns the ring to Cucufa.
Diderot’s Les bijoux indiscrets is not merely an orientalist fantasy, but rather a scathing critique of French society, and above all of the royal court and its promiscuous manners. Selim’s story of Mangogul’s grandfather is a thinly disguised portrait of the previous king Louis XIV, with his imperial inclinations, absolutism and decadence.
The novel Jacques le fataliste (1771-1778) shows formal similarities with the Thousand and one nights especially through the narrative strategy of postponement and of the interruption of stories, told by Jacques during a journey which echoes Tristram Shandy’s well-known peregrinations. It seems to be an exploration of potential kinds of interruptions in an ongoing narration.
Arthur McCandless Wilson, Diderot, Oxford University Press, Oxford etc.1972.
Dufrenoy, Marie-Louise, L’Orient romanesque en France (1704-1789), 3 vols., Montreal: Beauchemin (vols. 1-2), Amsterdam: Rodopi (vol. 3), 1946-1975.
Martino, Pierre, L’Orient dans la littérature Francaise au XVIIe au XVIIIe siècle, Paris: Librairie Hachette, 1906.
P.N. Furbank, Diderot. A critical biography, A.A. Knopf, New York 1992.
Srinivas Aravamudan, Enlightenment orientalism; resisting the rise of the novel, University of Chicago Press, Chicago/ London 2012.
http://www.gutenberg.org/author/Diderot,+Denis (Project Gutenberg)
http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/diderot/index.htm (Denis Diderot Archive)
http://www.denis-diderot.com (Denis Diderot Website)
http://diderot.alembert.free.fr (Online version of the Encyclopédie)
http://quod.lib.umich.edu/d/did/ (The Encyclopedia Translation Project)
http://www.c18th.com/author-works.aspx?id=219 (Denis Diderot Bibliography)