Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Christopher Caudwell's unpublished manuscripts (2)

Continuing on this work by Christopher Caudwell:

Scenes and Actions: Unpublished Manuscripts, selected, edited, and introduced by Jean Duparc and David Margolies. London: New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986.

Selected Bibliography
from The Wisdom of Gautama
from Heaviside
Short stories
      from The Rock
                The Mother Superior
                Lodgings for the Night
                The Bully
      from The Island
                The Play
                A Bit in the Papers
                The Piston
                Homage to Calderon
                The Bank
                The Device

from ‘Verse and Mathematics’
Heredity and Development

While I have owned this book for a couple decades or more, I never actually read it through. Verse and Mathematics was the draft of what was honed to his published landmark book Illusion and Reality. The extract published here is interesting and I may make it the subject of another blog post. "Heredity and Development: A Study of Bourgeois Biology" was not included in Caudwell's Studies in a Dying Culture, though it belongs there. The letters outline Caudwell's aesthetic principles and his evaluation of his own fiction, as well as details leading up to his fatal participation fighting fascism in Spain.

The introduction places all this in context, also presenting the following poems in whole or part:
The Survival
The Unspeakables
In Memoriam [of T.E. Lawrence]
Artic Expedition
Soul's Progress [excerpt]
Smoke and Diamond
The Art of Dying
[untitled fragment]
The Object
Heil Baldwin!
Caudwell’s Collected Poems were published by Carnacet Press in 1986.

The balance of the book contains selections from Caudwell's hitherto unpublished fiction. Having read none of his published fiction either, though I knew of it, I experienced this facet of Caudwell for the first time. I turned to the fiction after perusing the rest of the book, not in order of the items presented. After reading the letters, I began with Caudwell's non-naturalistic fiction--the excerpt from the speculative fiction story "Heaviside" and the stories from "The Island," which Caudwell termed Kafkaesque, which are in any case extrapolations of ideas, situations, and institutions. This is an unfamiliar dimension of Caudwell for me and adds to understanding his originality and sensibility. The stories from The Rock are character studies. At various times in reading these pieces my attention flagged, but that may just have been an effect of my state of mind at the moment and not the prose itself. While Caudwell criticized his own fiction, as does the book's introduction, Caudwell's style as well as his probing of human character are noteworthy.

It was fortunate that the Stalinists had no idea of what Caudwell was up to or they would have squashed him like they tried to squash Jack Lindsay, an original polymath from Australia who was also a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain.  Caudwell indulged in formulaic political judgments in his analyses, but retained a freshness and originality in his approach.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Christopher Caudwell on religion as static imagination

I have blogged here before about Christopher Caudwell. As I also mentioned, I used the title of his essay collection Studies in a Dying Culture (1938, followed by Further Studies in a Dying Culture, 1949) as the title of my podcast/radio series and one of my blogs.  Here is an interesting quote on religion from Caudwell's correspondence:
As I see it, religion undoubtedly represents very strong emotional realities, but they only become religion by religious people’s making them static, i.e. by demanding that their formulations (angels, salvation, heaven, hell, God, etc.) represent actual existent entities with the same reality of existence as matter. It is just this static formulation which is the core of any formal religion (Buddhism, Christianity, Mohommedanism). Separate that out and what have you left? Primarily two currents. One: art, or ‘poetry’—The fluid emotional experimenting with illusory concepts drawn from reality, either felt as illusory, as in our civilised age, or felt as real, but unconsciously acknowledged as illusory by the very fluidity of treatment, as in Greek myth (not Greek religion). The other current is sociological, and is symbolical of the tremendously powerful and emotionally charged currents that hold a society together, and express, in a subtle instinctive way, the fact that though individualities, we yet have a real being in common: buds of the same tree. We are not completely divided by ‘The unplumbed, salt, estranging sea.’ The power of this bond is expressed in the attitude of men to a drowning stranger, a ship in distress, in time of war, and so on. You may feel a sociological conception of religion arid and empty of content. So do I, but that is because we are children of a civilisation that necessarily sees society as linked primarily by money exchanges, I mean sees that intellectually, whatever we may sometimes feel emotionally. The first criticism of Communism is always that men would never do their best work for society, regardless of income, and this expresses perfectly how debased and empty of content our conception of social relations has become. But the Greek citizen, or the merest tribal primitive, would see nothing strange in our conception of the society as the basis of religion. To him the city or tribe is joined with religion’s bonds; and even to‑day, when religions are so palpably failing, we see, in Italy and Germany, how men are bowled over by the sociological as opposed to the theological element of religion, in however questionable a guise it comes.

But why not leave it at that, you may ask, and, seeing religion’s aesthetic and sociological credentials, say ‘Pass friend, all’s well?’. Just because religion, to be religion, formulates its sociological and aesthetic beliefs in terms of science, of external reality. So that on the one hand art is held back from developing, made to accept the outworn forms of yesterday, and, on the other hand, man, mistaking social relations for divinely ordained permanences, is held back to the social groupings of yesterday. So the Greek, cramped into the City State, was torn by internecine warfare and fell victim to the barbarians he despised. So we, with our national formations, and national churches, are involved in imperialistic wars, in which ministers preach from the pulpit the divine approval of a just war. And it is no answer to say that genuinely religious people are pacifists, for we can only take religion as it appears, and to do otherwise is to mean by the adverb ‘genuinely’—‘religious in a way we approve’, which, from a historical view­point, taking religion as it has manifested itself, turns out to be not religious at all, but people who put social reality before theological formulations—heretics, prophets, and rebels.

SOURCE: Caudwell, Christopher, Letter to Paul [Beard] and Elizabeth [Beard]. 21 November 1935 (from London), in Scenes and Actions: Unpublished Manuscripts, selected, edited, and introduced by Jean Duparc and David Margolies (London: New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986), extract: pp. 220-221.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.: "Slapstick"

What would I have thought of Kurt Vonnegut Jr’s 1976 novel Slapstick had I read it when it came out? I had read his 1973 novel Breakfast of Champions, but some time in the interval I had moved on to other interests until 2006, when I was given Timequake. Vonnegut died in 2007, and I know around this time I had read some of his later nonfiction and began to re-read a couple of novels. I rediscovered Vonnegut as I had rediscovered other people I had drifted away from in the mid-’70s. I don’t recall even being aware of the publication of further novels in the ‘70s, and I think I might have thought that Vonnegut was done with them in 1973. But I must have thought I absorbed everything I had to gain from him. So what would I have thought of Slapstick, his next novel after 1973? And what do I think of it now that I have finally read it?

My reaction was one of both familiarity and bewilderment. One familiar element was Vonnegut’s constant repetition of catch-phrases, this time “Hi ho.” This adds caustic irony to the narrative as did Vonnegut’s catch-phrases in his earlier novels, although for me his catch-phrase wore thin after a while this time around. Also characteristic is the deceptive simplicity, easily readability, and often cartoonish character of Vonnegut’s style, which looks easy but just try and write that way yourself. There is the prominence of Indiana, Vonnegut’s homeland, though the story is initially set in New York City (now known as the Island of Death). And then there is Vonnegut’s outrageous imagination. But this time I couldn’t place it in making sense out of it, especially in relating it to the state of American society of the mid-’70s. Even the title, indicating Vonnegut’s dedication of the work to Laurel and Hardy, struck me as puzzling. Woody Allen’s dystopian film comedy Sleeper made sense to me and was much funnier, and the slapstick in that film was real slapstick.

Vonnegut begins his Prologue by stating that it is the closest thing to an autobiography he is ever going to write. The bizarre symbiotic relationship between the novel’s narrator and his sister is in some way an imaginative projection of Vonnegut’s feelings about his own sister and himself. He also states that the novel represents what life feels like to him, and that he loves the personifications of Laurel and Hardy because they did the best they could with their destinies.

Note that the novel’s subtitle is “Or, Lonesome No More!”—which, as we learn much later, is the narrator’s campaign slogan on which he wins the presidency of the United States. Vonnegut recycles an earlier idea of his of arbitrarily creating extended families to create a novel form of support system. The condition this is meant to address was a concern of American sociologists, notably Philip Slater’s 1970 The Pursuit of Loneliness. I remember, accurately I hope, that Slater had written that the revolutionary political slogan for the American (white) middle class should be ‘no more loneliness’.

What then, was contemporary about Slapstick? I could discern only the mention of Richard Nixon and the curious use of mainland China as the inscrutable world power sciencefiction-ly pulling the strings as the USA declines—which could easily be applicable to the present though a haphazard ‘prediction’ in the mid-’70s, after which Nixon had visited China and around the time of Mao’s death.

By Breakfast of Champions, Vonnegut’s social criticism had progressed to the trashing of American society, or, somewhat more specifically, of ‘Middle America’. What comes next?—is a question I have only now posed. It seems to me that Slapstick represents not the objective state of the USA as a whole in the mid-’70s but rather the disintegration of Vonnegut’s own midwestern universe.

There are familiar elements of post-apocalyptic utopias here—plagues that wipe out millions, social breakdown . . . and even rendering this in a comedic farcical mode is not jarring (remember Sleeper), but the specific mode in which the social transformation occurs strikes me as rather conceptually anemic. The narrator, known eventually as Dr. Wilbur Daffodil-11 Swain, becomes president on the basis of his ‘loneliness no more!’ slogan, in which extended families are arbitrarily established and networked on the basis of his middle-naming system. As the existing governmental organization of the United States disintegrates, the new extended family system results in fiefdoms of warring clans. (And the Hatfield-McCoy feud is not forgotten.) Well, this latter development has a certain logic to it, but, while the totality of the developments described may well be characterized as slapstick—and now we are surely living in a political state of outrageousness oblivious to consequences, they are in my view not effective in characterizing the forces of social breakdown. Social isolation and individual helplessness are indeed the breeding ground of fascism—which isn’t exactly the social order depicted here either—but this cute Vonnegut notion of the artificial extended family cannot carry the weight ascribed to it. It really represents the limit of the midwestern sensibility of his generation that Vonnegut injected into his ouevre. The Vonnegut imagination persists, and I suppose in some way it reflects the social decline perceptible in the 1970s, but only dimly through Vonnegut’s personal lens.

I have not read the intervening novels, but Hocus Pocus in 1990 is on point with respect to American dystopia. By 1973 Vonnegut’s social critique had traveled a long way from 1952’s Player Piano, and apparently sometime in the 1980s he was prepared to confront America’s irreversible social decline imaginatively with greater exactitude.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Ivan Sviták on Baron D'Holbach et al

New on my website:

Sviták, Ivan. Baron d’Holbach, Philosopher of Common Sense, translated by Jarmila Veltrusky. Chico: California State University, 1976. 76 pp. (Translated from Filosof zdravého rozumu, Holbach.)

In April I found this monograph on Holbach written by the dissident Czech Marxist philosopher Ivan Sviták (1925-1994) apparently just prior to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. I've now read it, following up on Philipp Blom's A Wicked Company, and here it is. This is an excellent analysis of both Holbach's historically innovative perspective and his limitations as a bourgeois revolutionary thinker. Svitak takes up where Blom leaves off conceptually. Note also that Sviták has a sophisticated historical perspective on religion.

Sviták, Ivan. The Dialectic of Common Sense: The Master Thinkers. Washington, DC: University Press of America, 1979. ii, 217 pp. (Front matter only.)

This volume includes studies of Montaigne, Voltaire, and Holbach. The Holbach study is the same as the aforementioned monograph on Holbach.

Both publications include information on the persecution of Sviták at the hands of the Stalinist Czech government. Sviták found refuge at California State University, Chico.

See also:

Marx Wartofsky on Diderot

I wrote the following on 1 June 1015; only a few words have been changed here. I fortuitously stumbled on this today, coincidentally after reading two other works about Holbach and his circle:

Diderot has long been beloved by Marxists. Here is an interesting essay about Diderot in ...

Wartofsky, Marx W. "Diderot and the Development of Materialist Monism" (1953), in Models: Representation and the Scientific Understanding (Dordrecht, Holland; Boston: D. Reidel Publishing Company, 1979), pp. 297-337. (Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science; v. 48. Synthese Library; v. 129.)

We see the influences of Spinoza, Maupertuis, Leibniz, La Mettrie, d'Holbach, and how Diderot transcended the limitations of idealism and mechanical materialism.

This change from inorganic to organic matter is, for Diderot, a change in the qualitative level of the organization of matter. These qualitative differentiations within the monistic chain of being characterize his monistic materialism. The aggregates that he speaks of are not merely quantitative combinations, but are qualitative levels of the organization of matter. Thus continuity and discontinuity, the unity of particularity and universality, of quantity and quality, are maintained by Diderot as characteristics of matter in motion. This is not a simple metaphysical unity, not an absolute subsuming of opposites such as we find in the celestial realm of scholasticism, or in Leibniz's monad where there is a metaphysical unity of opposites, or in the metaphysical dialectic of Schelling, but it has the characteristics of such a unity of opposites where the opposition is not merely negated or ignored, but where the very condition of the unity itself is opposition. The pre-Hegelian dialectical element is based on the essential role of process, dynamism, development. The levels are the product of a process in matter, are not preordained, are not prototypes. The flux in Diderot's universe is not a flux-in-itself, it is a flux grounded in matter, in the mode of the existence of matter: motion. Although he never systematizes this process in philosophic terms, it is an essential element in his transformism.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Wicked Company: Holbach's salon, Diderot, & friends (4)

This is the final installment of my review of A Wicked Company: The Forgotten Radicalism of the European Enlightenment by Philipp Blom.

As chapter 18 ends, we find Diderot and Holbach fortunate to die before the onslaught of the French Revolution for which their writings helped pave the way.
Both Diderot and the baron were interred in the ossuarium, a cryptlike room underneath the same altar, together with other famous Frenchmen, such as their friend Claude-Adrien Helvétius, the grand salon hostess Marie-Thérèse de Geoffrin, the great landscape artist André le Nôtre, and the dramatist Pierre Corneille.

During the Revolution, the burial place was ransacked, and the remains were torn from their resting places and scattered across the room. The rebels of the 1871 Paris Commune repeated this blasphemous ritual, and while the bones are still lying in the ossuarium, it was judged impossible to determine the parts of the individual skeletons.
After this chapter comes the "Epilogue: A Stolen Revolution." While Jonathan Israel has advanced the notion of the Radical Enlightenment in a series of scholarly works, Blom has told the story in a popular format. His Epilogue makes his intervention even more radical. This book should be put into as many hands as possible, but it also provides food for thought for more erudite readers.

I lack a detailed knowledge of the French Revolution beyond scattered facts, so Blom provides for me at least quite a revelation and quite an important one. Maximilien Robespierre is unequivocally condemned as a betrayer of the Radical Enlightenment. Considering the complex political mess of the revolutionary period, I won't comment on Robespierre's role in the dictatorship and Terror. Of interest in Blom's account is the emphasis that the most ruthless and violent acts, including those against the Catholic establishment, were not carried out by atheists, and that atheists themselves were executed for being such. Catholicism was supplanted not by atheism but by deism, Robespierre's Cult of the Supreme Being. In the process Robespierre practically deified Rousseau. Robespierre established elaborate festivals in honor of the Goddess of Reason. These details are most revealing:
With an immense flair for classicist bombast and ideological kitsch, the painter Jacques-Louis David, the chief decorator of the Revolution, designed huge, papier-mâché statues of Virtue, Liberty, and Nature—the latter endowed with multiple breasts that dispersed refreshing water, which was drunk out of a common chalice by eighty-six old men symbolizing the departments of France. On 20 Prairial Year II of the new calendar (June 8, 1794, to the uninitiated), Robespierre held a public ceremony for the Supreme Being in the Tuileries gardens. Attended by a crowd of thousands, it included not only a lengthy sermon by Robespierre but also the ritual burning of a statue of Atheism, the charred debris of which revealed an effigy of Truth—unfortunately blackened by smoke.

Implementing his new religion, Robespierre brooked no opposition, even from the dead. On December 5, 1792, the very day on which he was to give his famous speech demanding the execution of King Louis XVI, he had ordered the removal and smashing of a bust of Helvétius, which had been standing in the Jacobin Club next to an effigy of Rousseau. Helvétius had been celebrated by some Revolutionaries as a proponent of reasonable, republican government.
Note also:
After Robespierre’s fall and execution in 1794, the fortunes of Holbach, Helvétius, and Diderot were revived very briefly by the left-leaning Gracchus Babeuf, whose political thinking would today be described as egalitarianism, perhaps even Socialism. But Babeuf’s attempt to gain control of the reeling ship of state, the “Conspiracy of Equals,” was betrayed, and so was he. During his trial in 1797, he frequently cited Diderot as an inspiration, to no other effect than that Denis was regarded posthumously as a dangerous enemy of the people.
Diderot's posthumous reputation was subject either to neglect or calumny. Adulterated versions of his work were published. Uncorrupted versions of his texts saw light in the latter part of the 19th century. Other unpublished manuscripts remained hidden until well into the 20th century. Aside from the fragmentary publication of Diderot's works, the conditions under which he worked also fostered fragmentation.
His work remained eclectic, partly because he was as much an author of fiction and a talker as he was a systematic writer. Both of these factors conspired against Diderot’s recognition as an important thinker. The nineteenth century was the period of great systematic works, of Kant’s Critiques, Hegel’s grand expositions, Marx and his Capital. Diderot simply did not fit the mold: His best thoughts are to be found in his letters, his fiction, his writings on art, and his essays on other works.

Diderot published no great work of systematic philosophy that could have established his reputation in a climate obsessed with all-embracing answers. In addition to the heterogeneity of his writings, his constant, teasing ambivalence makes it impossible to read the philosophe as a dogmatic author. His work sparkles and often provokes—ultimately leaving the reader alone to make up her own mind. As a result, even historians and philosophers who should be his natural allies have too often overlooked him. The French writer Michel Onfray, for instance, has created a publishing sensation with his Contre-histoire de la philosophie, which concentrates on materialist and atheist authors. In his book Les ultras de lumières (The “Ultras” of the Enlightenment) he devotes entire chapters to personal heroes such as La Mettrie, Meslier, Helvétius, and Holbach—but not Diderot.
Holbach's work was systematic, but having appeared under various pseudonyms under the threat of repression, the establishment of authorship did not come quickly or easily. Holbach's unremitting atheism and materialism kept him out of the philosophical canon. He remained generally obscure, though he had his admirers such as Marx.

The Soviet Union pulled the radical Enlighteners—Holbach, Diderot, and Helvétius—out of the shadows and made them prominent figures of honor. Blom sees the Soviet social order as having had more in common with Rousseau than with the Radical Enlightenment.The fall of the Soviet bloc on top of the rise of postmodernism again relegated Holbach to obscurity. Blom reiterates that philosophical historiography initiated in the 19th century followed that century as the age of German idealism—Kant and Hegel. The Radical Enlightenment continues to be sidelined.

Here Blom interjects his most radical thesis:
The Enlightenment applauded and required by the capitalist and imperialist nineteenth century was a moderate version represented by Voltaire, who had always known on which side his bread was buttered, and by the exponents of Idealism, particularly Immanuel Kant. The question at issue here was skepticism. The Enlightenment radicals had argued that there is no grand, metaphysical Truth and that consequently the only valuable knowledge is based on evidence: Do what is useful; avoid what is harmful to yourself or others.

While this moral teaching had the advantage of being simple and easily understood, it was a thorn in the side of Europe’s and America’s burgeoning capitalist societies and their colonial empires. Implacably opposed to the “conspiracy of the priests and magistrates,” to national claims of superiority, to the exploitation of the poor and the oppression of peoples on foreign shores, the radicals stood against the intellectual tide of the century.

The nineteenth century needed a philosophical tradition that justified the colonial enterprise as well as the industrial exploitation of cheap labor, and it turned to the moderate, rationalist Enlightenment to provide it by giving a philosophical justification of religious faith. Meslier, Diderot, and Holbach had pointed out how organized religion leads to an unholy union of priests and magistrates, and the great bourgeois societies of the nineteenth century drew their authority and their social hierarchy out of precisely this union. Historians of philosophy on both sides of the Atlantic therefore emphasized an ultimately deist, religious eighteenth century, with Kant and Voltaire as its greatest exponents.

In this model of history, Immanuel Kant fulfilled a similar function for the eighteenth century as René Descartes had for the seventeenth: His grand metaphysical investigation left open a door through which God could be introduced back into philosophy. Kant argued that our senses determine how the world appears to us and that we may never be able to perceive things as they really are, the “things in themselves.” But instead of accepting that we cannot know anything beyond our perception and that it makes no sense to talk about what we cannot know, he conjectured a purely essential, spiritual reality that is inaccessible to human understanding, a reality in which we might imagine a deity beyond the grasp of the senses. One can read Kant safely without compromising one’s religious beliefs, which can always be safely tucked away among the “things in themselves.” Voltaire, the wit and critical commentator opposed to religious excess, fitted equally well into the designs of a civilization that saw itself as scientific and rationalist, without being antireligious or unpatriotic.

It is worth understanding this idea of rationalism, of scientific reason in harmony with the possibility of religious faith, which still dominates our understanding of the Enlightenment. Kant’s idea of pure reason not only was a field of philosophical research but also represented a cultural ideal: If only we could rationalize the world in its entirety, if only we could rid ourselves of animal instinct and unreasoning impulse, the world would be a better place.
Wow! In this scenario, the Radical Enlightenment has been virtually wiped out of historical memory. Blom sees the Moderate Enlightenment (and deism with it) as an idealized rationalism akin to theology, while the Radical Enlightenment not only strips teleology from the universe but expresses severe skepticism about the ultimate rationality of human beings.
The soft Enlightenment of Voltaire and Kant was highly commensurate with bourgeois values. Reason was celebrated but confined to science, where it did not threaten to violate the sacred grove of religion. Ideally, the human mind was seen as abstract and pure. Merged with faith, it formed the heavy trap door under which the continual guilt of desire and passion was shut away once again in a distasteful souterrain of human nature.
And there's more:
After all, the goal of industrialization was to rationalize society as far as possible; to optimize manufacturing processes, such as division of labor and the assembly line; and to achieve the increasingly efficient planning and control of everything from transport and leisure to sex, punishment, and entertainment. The era that built the greatest railway stations and factories also erected the largest prisons, all according to the same organizing principles of tightly managed production and supply. When the twentieth-century Marxist scholars Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno published their Dialectic of Enlightenment in 1947, they had witnessed (and escaped) the most monstrous travesty of this logic: the fully industrialized murder of human beings in Nazi extermination camps.
Wow and wow! I will comment on this forthwith, but one final quote on the Radical Enlightenment, from the sixth final paragraph of the Epilogue:
The radical humanism emanating from their works was read and understood by a small band of exceptional minds, among them not only the poets Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (who loved Diderot but detested Holbach), Heinrich Heine, and Percy Bysshe Shelley, but also Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Sigmund Freud.
Stephen Eric Bronner, I, and others have had problems with Dialectic of Enlightenment. As Bronner has argued, the work supplants concrete historical analysis with an abstract, metaphysical historical perspective which also does injustice to the Enlightenment, which Bronner has defended most notably in his book Reclaiming the Enlightenment: Toward a Politics of Radical Engagement. Amazingly, Blom leaves the thesis of Horkheimer and Adorno untouched, but lays the blame on the Moderate Enlightenment! This is quite a radical statement, cutting through the prevailing ideological climate of our time.

It is possible, as critics of Jonathan Israel have asserted, that the political alignments and cleavage between the Radical and Moderate Enlightenment are too neatly schematized. Yet the emphasis on the social values of the Radical Enlightenment cannot be underestimated, given the attacks on the Enlightenment not only by the theocratic fascists of the right, but by the left bourgeois ideologues of the identity politics of our neoliberal era.

I should note nonetheless that the assimilation of Holbach, Diderot, and company into our awareness within the strict area of the discipline of philosophy bears certain limitations. The various dimensions—the scientific ideas and orientation as well as the progressive social values—of the Radical Enlightenment have been so thoroughly absorbed into the progressive tendencies of our time, that the only reason to read Holbach for example (Diderot on the other hand remains relevant from a literary standpoint) would be the same as the reason to read Newton—out of historical rather than current interest. Science has long moved on. The Radical Enlightenment is light on epistemology, which is of central interest to philosophy even when one removes skepticism and foundationalism as a focus of concern.  Still, reading the Radical Enlightenment back into the general historiography of philosophy can alter our historical perspective on its biases, contours, and development.

Here are some additional links. On my website:
On other sites:

Wicked Company: Holbach's salon, Diderot, & friends (3)

I finally finished reading this 384-page saga: A Wicked Company: The Forgotten Radicalism of the European Enlightenment by Philipp Blom. What an adventure!

It is written for the general reader and is the most effective argument for the Radical Enlightenment I have seen, particularly the Epilogue following the account of the deaths of Holbach and Diderot, the heroes of the book, esp. Diderot. The final chapter alone is radical.

A recap of the contents:




My previous post on this book sketchily covered up through part 2 (chapter 12). Chapter 13 begins with Cesare Beccaria's argument against capital punishment, which, curiously, did not impress Diderot. Diderot was not a systematic thinker, and he was skeptical of the possibilities of both ideal government and rational administration. Unlike other skeptics, though, Diderot was not attracted to conservatism. He developed progressive views on specific issues, notably women's rights and education.

The subject of chapter 14--"the most ungrateful dogg"--is Rousseau, who turned against all his friends, including Diderot.

Chapter 15 is about the triumph and subversive nature of the Encyclopédie. The subversion, of course, had to be slyly embedded in various entries. The common theme of Diderot's cohort was the advocacy of reason, but each person had a different orientation to its role and potential. Diderot was more skeptical about the possibility of the actualization of reason in the world.
Diderot’s greatness as a philosopher lies partly in the constant, pulsating tension between rationality and instinct. In contrast to Enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire and Kant, who suggested a totally rational world order that would free individuals from the troubling influence of irrational forces within themselves, Diderot wrote about a complex, contradictory, and essentially dark human nature illuminated only rarely by the sunlight of reason. Holbach believed that life must be liberated from superstition and oppression, but he was essentially serene in his belief in reason; for Diderot, life was always marred by error and destruction because human beings can never be purely rational.
For Diderot, the body was everything there was, and reason was a bodily function with a tendency to transcendental megalomania. True insight lay not in fighting, ignoring, or sublimating physical desire, but in building a life in which it had its place. The tension between reason and instinct appeared at precisely this moment. As a philosopher who wanted to change the general way of thinking, he had to believe in the power of persuasion and of virtue, but at the same time his materialist conviction made him uncertain of both.
Chapter 16 details Diderot's experience of Empress Catherine of Russia, who took up his offer to buy his library on condition that he become its librarian and visit her in St. Petersburg. Life in France was becoming dangerous for heretics, and despite Diderot's wariness about people in power, he reluctantly accepted. Catherine feted him and received his ideas with great enthusiasm, accepting his unconventional manner and lack of toadying . . . up to a point. He got overly absorbed in his role:
Diderot backed up his irrepressible stream of ideas with a series of memoranda on different aspects of modernizing the Russian empire according to Enlightened principles, including the importance of tolerance, the promotion of manufacturing, a complete overhaul of the administration, a draft constitution, and a plan for a new university system. Despotic rule and total authority would inevitably lead to a society marked by servility, superstition, and lack of initiative, he told his hostess, the most absolute of absolute monarchs.
He was not prepared for the rebuff that followed. He realized that he was being used to polish the public image of a despot. Returning home in ill health, he contemplated the question of whether one can be more in a deterministic world, resuming working on his Sterne-inspired novel, Jacques the Fatalist and His Master.

Chapter 17 provides some vital information new to me. Report of the encounter of Europeans with the very different mores of the people of Tahiti made Diderot a firm opponent of colonialism. His 1772 essay Supplement to Bougainville’s Journey, or Dialogue Between A and B About the Disadvantages of Attaching Moral Ideas to Certain Physical Acts Which Do Not Call for Them roundly condemns European Christian mores and the European mission of conquest. Nothing is more strikingly different in the two cultures than their sexual views and practices. In his Unconnected Thoughts on Painting Diderot contrasts European sexual prudery with its uninhibited, explicit depiction of violence, blood, and gore. Diderot at least thinks that art can tell us how to improve.
The creativity of art is nothing else than the erotic life of the mind, a common ritual allowing us to accept nature, pleasure, and pain. The greatest, the deepest pleasure of all, erotic love, is the best incentive for creating a society more in tune with our nature and ultimately with nature’s drive towards the survival of the species.
Diderot does not romanticize the Tahitians in the European mold of the 'noble savage', emphasizing that the Tahitians thought that sex should result in fertility. It seems then, that Diderot emphasizes the relativity of customs rather than an absolute ideal. However, the Tahitians lived more rationally in accord with nature than the Europeans. Diderot was far from irreproachable in his depiction of non-European peoples, however he drew egalitarian conclusions in his writings, and his view of sexuality and human nature was at the opposite pole from Rousseau's. Above all, Diderot was vehemently opposed to slavery.

Diderot was an admirer of the United States. Blom deliberates on the possible meetings of the representatives of the American Enlightenment (Jefferson, Franklin) with Holbach's circle.

Chapter 18 depicts Holbach and Diderot in their old age as they wind down toward death. France's own aristocrats shunned Holbach's circle, but foreign aristocrats flocked to it. Holbach and Diderot remained no less suspicious of the aristocracy. Diderot's friend Grimm had turned reactionary. Diderot dreaded the publication of Rousseau's Confessions and became increasingly concerned with his reputation, the only 'immortality' he believed in. In his old age, Diderot was running out of energy and friends. Holbach was still alive, but the two communicated less and less. Diderot died in 1784, Holbach in 1789.
Diderot, Holbach, and their circle had made history, redefining the terms of the debate between religion and science, of politics and morality. Their only judge, they thought, would be posterity. They had no idea just how right they were, no means of knowing how posterity would treat them, and they would have been appalled to think that, having weathered and triumphed over the storms of their own time, their legacy would be all but obliterated by what was to come. They would be practically forgotten for over a century.