Skip to main content
Image
'The Atheist's Bible' by Caroline Warman book cover

In November 2020 during the second national lockdown in the UK, my book on Diderot and his philosophico-medical treatise the Éléments de physiologie came out, an exciting moment for me after more than ten years’ work which I celebrated at home in a new venue for such celebrations, my daughter’s bedroom, with a takeaway from Arbequina on Cowley Road. The food was delicious, the mood was bouncy, and my daughter switched on the fairy lights in honour of the occasion. But it wasn’t a normal book launch and it’ll probably be a while yet before such an event can be arranged. Instead, a series of Zoom talks and YouTube conversations have taken place, in which I have sat by myself in a room orating urgently at a computer screen. Such bizarre new contexts would surely have exhilarated and amused Diderot, that connoisseur of strange juxtapositions, all of whose works seem to specialise in putting people or things in unfamiliar contexts and then waiting to see what happens.

 

It’s just as well that he appreciated the unexpected, given what happened to the Éléments de physiologie, not to mention the rest of his varied œuvre. Contemplating the fate of his manuscripts is never less than a nail-biting experience, whether we think of Goethe’s early discovery, translation, and publication of the Neveu de Rameau, the original of which has never been tracked down, the unearthing in 1890 of another copy in a heap of papers at a Parisian bouquiniste’s stall, or Herbert Dieckmann’s account of his sensational discovery in 1949 of the entirety of Diderot’s manuscripts in a château in Normandy which had been occupied by both German and American armies, the latter burning all paper they could lay their hands on in an attempt to keep warm. The Éléments de physiologie was amongst these manuscripts, and was first published in its mature version in 1964.

What I’ve been working on, however, is how it was known much much earlier, in the 1790s. So it’s the French Revolution which is the particular curve ball, the bizarre new context, the producer of unexpected juxtapositions, in my story. Through a combination of unforeseeable circumstances, and unlike the consecrated great men Voltaire and Rousseau, Diderot’s name became anathema in the course of that Revolutionary decade. Robespierre loathed him for his purported persecution of the Jacobin hero, Rousseau. Conservatives and Catholics loathed him for his atheism.  The state officially loathed him when Babeuf, on trial in 1797 for plotting to overthrow the state, claimed Diderot, author of the anti-propertarian Code de la nature, as his hero and inspiration. In fact Diderot hadn’t written the Code de la nature and the whole thing was a mistake, not that that changed anything. Babeuf had spent hours on the witness stand enthusiastically talking about Diderot and how he was the ‘most determined, the most intrepid, most passionate athlete’ of anti-propertarianism. Every word Babeuf uttered was taken down in shorthand and published in all the papers. It didn’t help Babeuf, who went straight to the guillotine, and it didn’t help Diderot, whom it became difficult to mention other than in terms of condemnation.

Who could have foreseen any of this? Certainly not the mysterious person, a certain ‘Citoyen Garron,’ who had gifted a manuscript of the Éléments de physiologie to the Revolutionary department of public education, the ‘Comité d’instruction publique,’ at the height of the Terror in March 1794. There are a lot of things we don’t know: we don’t know who this person was or whether ‘Garron’ was a pseudonym, we don’t know why the very carefully kept records of manuscripts received by the Comité d’instruction publique do not mention it, and although we do know that it isn’t still in the repository of the Comité d’instruction publique, we don’t know why or or by whom it was removed or how it ended up in the effects of freemason Jean-Pierre Moët of Versailles in 1806. Nor do we know the identity of the ‘Pottier’ who bought it in March 1846 or where it is now.

It is between the fragments of information that we do have that I have been working, using Diderot scholar Hippolyte Walferdin’s reliable description of his examination of the manuscript in 1838 to think about who could have sent it in the first place, who kept it under wraps, and who might have been reading it. What seems likely is that prominent philosophes close to the Revolutionary government, lecturing on theories of consciousness in 1795 at the newly-established École normale and then in the Institut national, founded the same year, were using material from Diderot’s Éléments de physiologie without ever saying so. The tense context means that this is far from being a case of plagiarism even though the textual evidence suggests that these philosophes, Garat, Destutt de Tracy, and Cabanis, did use his work and did pass it off as their own. My argument is that they were protecting it at a time when to attribute it to Diderot would have meant that their own lectures would have been closed down (Garat’s almost were anyway), and their Diderotian line of research halted. Instead, through Cabanis and Destutt de Tracy, the highly contentious theories of consciousness, memory, and imagination that Diderot had been developing were pursued through and by them, carefully buried in mountains of repetitive prose, and became very influential.

Would it have mattered to Diderot that his name wasn’t on them? Should it matter to us? I don’t think so at all. He wrote again and again about the transformation of ideas from one person to another, he thought about the transformation of bodies and even species over time. Perhaps he would just have found it funny and interesting that the afterlives of some of his most explosive ideas were ensured by their transformation into laborious prose. And for those of us who read his work now and who are interested in literary and intellectual history, it is both fascinating and salutory to reconstitute the story of that work. Is this the march of knowledge, the whiggish progress of the past towards its flourishing in a triumphant present? Hardly. Instead we learn of the fragility of transmission, the cruelty and weirdness of historical accident, the ease with which painstakingly-acquired knowledge or carefully-crafted writings could be lost and require inventive custodianship. Perhaps we simultaneously heave one sigh in agreement with this dispiriting truth and another in eye-rolling exasperation at this pious conclusion, but whichever it is, let me end with a different unforeseen consequence and surprising transformation.

Image

Here it is, Michel Van Loo’s 1767 portrait of Diderot in a new guise, as an embroidery by talented 2020-21 finalist student Rosemary Smart. What a fine and joyful transformation! May there be many more.