From Derrida to Diderot: The Philosophe’s Dream, Essay 20 of #52essays2017

Thinking back to where The Spectator & the Blind Man all started–and by all I mean dissertation, stage production, literary endeavor–it was probably with Diderot. And I believe I discovered Diderot in the pages of Derrida:

Diderot by Louis-Michel vanLoo, 1767.“I write without seeing….. This is the first time I have ever written in the dark . . . not knowing whether I am indeed forming letters. Wherever there will be nothing, read that I love you.”

-Diderot, Letter to Sophie Volland, June 10, 1759

I first encountered this quote in a book called Memoirs of the Blind, a perhaps ironically beautifully visual book about blindness and the self-portrait by Jacques Derrida, written for an exhibition that he curated at the Louvre.

Denis Diderot, one of my all-time favorite dead white guy writers, would definitely be at my fantasy dinner table for witty repartee and bon vivantism. As I’ve now surely quoted a million times and cannot even remember where I originally read it, he died reaching for the cherry compote (the dessert), that is, he died wanting more of the good stuff.

Encyclopedie de D'Alembert et Diderot Premiere Page.Diderot is probably most famous as one of the editors and main contributors to the Encyclopédie (1751-66), a work that flouted notions of high and low disciplines by putting Christianity alongside Chemistry , Farm Laborer alongside Poet.

But even before that great endeavor of promoting equality, an endeavor that often seems to sing the early song of revolution, Diderot was a young man with man of letters stars in his eyes and he wrote a book inspired by the thoughts of the great Voltaire and other early luminaries of what would come to be known as the Siècle de Lumière. The Age of Enlightenment is much maligned in certain circles for its idealization of rationalism and all the woes of modernity, but Diderot (as our opening quote suggests) reveled in the dark and unfathomable parts of humankind.

Diderot’s Letter on the Blind for the Use of Those Who See (1749) suggested, among other things the doubtfulness of God (Diderot dabbled in deism), and put his controversial notions into the mouth of a real life person, an English mathematician named Nicholas Saunderson, who inherited the Lucasian Chair from none other than Newton, but not his quirky but nonetheless strident beliefs. Saunderson was famously irreligious, but the deathbed conversation Diderot puts in his mouth–not to mention the glorious prophecy of Darwin’s theory of evolution–was indeed fabricated.

Here’s a little sample of the offensive dialogue:

”Consider, Mr. Holmes,” he added, “what a confidence I must have in your word and in Newton’s. Though I see nothing, I admit there is in everything an admirable design and order. I hope you will not demand more. I take your word for the present state of the universe, and in return keep the liberty of thinking as I please on its ancient and primitive state, with relation to which you are as blind as myself. Here you will have no witnesses to confront me with, and your eyes are quite useless. Think, if you choose, that the design which strikes you so powerfully has always subsisted, but allow me my own contrary opinion, and allow me to believe that if we went back to the origin of things and scenes and perceived matter in motion and the evolution from chaos, we should meet with a number of shapeless creatures, instead of a few creatures highly organized. I make no criticism on the present state of things, but I can ask you some questions as to the past. For instance, I may ask you and Leibniz and Clarke and Newton, who told you that in the first instances of the formation of animals some were not headless and others footless? I might affirm that such an one had no stomach, another no intestines, that some which seemed to deserve a long duration from their possession of a stomach, palate, and teeth came to an end owing to some defect in the heart or lungs; that monsters mutually destroyed one another; that all the defective combinations of matter disappeared, and that those only survived whose mechanism was not defective in any important particular and who were able to support and perpetuate themselves.

” Suppose the first man had his larynx closed, or had lacked suitable food, or had been defective in the organs of generation, or had failed to find a mate, or had propagated in another species, what then, Mr. Holmes, would have been the fate of the human race? It would have been still merged in the general depuration of the universe, and that proud being who calls himself man, dissolved and dispersed among the molecules of matter, would have remained perhaps forever hidden among the number of mere possibilities. If shapeless creatures had never existed, you would not fail to assert that none will ever appear, and that I am throwing myself headlong into chimerical fancies, but the order is not even now so perfect as to exclude the occasional appearance of monstrosities.” Then, turning towards the clergyman, he added, “Look at me, Mr. Holmes. I have no eyes. What have we done, you and I, to God, that one of us has this organ while the other has not?”

Lettre sur les Aveugles (Letter on the Blind).So this, along with his bawdy yet still philosophical tale The Indiscrete Jewels–about a prince who gets his hands on a ring which, when turned upon the nether regions of ladies, gets them to talk, indiscreetly about their escapades–published around the same time, landed Denis Diderot in the dungeon of Vincennes, which is where we find him in the following piece. My literary offering is the first in The Spectator & the Blind Man series.

Diderot, a lover of women, music, the theatre and all that Paris had to offer did not relish his time in prison and, in order to avoid a future return, did not publish his literary works, such as Jacques the Fatalist and d’Alembert’s Dream, for which he is mostly known today. In other words, Diderot may have helped to sow the seeds of the Revolution, but, after Vincennes, he mostly avoided angering the regime by keeping his potentially controversial works in private circulation. Diderot enjoyed a good long life and died just five years before the storming of the Bastille.

The following is my piece of flash fiction imagining Diderot’s explanation to a friend for why he would do his best to never piss the authorities off again. The reading is by George Ashiotis with musical composition by Alabaster Rhumb.



Dungeon of Vincennes, 1749

No. I am no Socrates, no martyr to truth. A fishmonger of truths more like. My mistake was in allowing the odors to reach royal nostrils. Henceforth, I peddle my stinking truths underground or, if they are compliant truths, I shall dress them in suitable costumes, sufficiently powdered and pinned to ingratiate themselves to this foolish and frivolous city of mine. Ah Paris! How I adore your decadence. Let me die reaching for the cherry compote!

I digress. I must tell you about last night’s dream that frightened me nearly to death, for, though you may still despise me, I wish you to understand why I scrape the dirt floor with my chin, why I will do or say or write anything they ask of me in order to be out of here. Why I will denounce, without regret, my little Letter on the Blind.

Last night I woke out of sleep into the body and mind of Saunderson. Yes, my blind mathematician whose deathbed non-confession has stirred so much ire. I awoke into his blindness and found myself confronting not only the fumbling clergyman Holmes, but also the governor who has seen fit to thrust me into this cell.

The blindness I experienced was like that of Milton’s darkness visible, a blindness not of eyes but of mind. Understand me. I felt sharp as a whip, as brilliant of intellect as Saunderson must have been to inherit the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics (a seat held by no less a luminary than Newton) but there were no longer any images, no colors, no pictures of beauty or ugliness to be found in this Diderot-head of mine. All memory of seeing had evaporated, and it was this blankness that frightened me almost to distraction. The deprivation terrified me even as I enacted the very dialogue that has landed me in prison.

Nicholas Saunderson.As Saunderson I said, “Ah, sir, don’t talk to me of this magnificent spectacle, which it has never been my lot to enjoy. I have been condemned to spend my life in darkness, and you cite wonders quite out of my understanding, and which are only evidence for you and for those who see as you do. If you want to make me believe in God you must make me touch Him.”

“Sir,” returned the clergyman, “touch yourself, and you will recognize the Deity in the admirable mechanism of your organs.”

I countered, “All that does not appear so admirable to me as to you. But even if the animal mechanism were as perfect as you maintain, what relation is there between such mechanism and a supremely intelligent Being? If it fills you with astonishment, that is perhaps because you are accustomed to treat as miraculous everything which strikes you as beyond your own powers. I have been myself so often an object of admiration to you, that I have not a very high idea of your conception of the miraculous. You think a certain phenomenon   beyond human power and cry out that it must be the handiwork of a god.”

Next came his most persuasive argument, “Men of the highest genius, even Newton, have been impressed by the wonders of nature and recognize an intelligent being as its creator.”

As determined by my folly, I answered, “Seeing nothing, I will acquiesce to you and Newton an admirable design and order. I hope you will not demand more. I take your word for the present state of the universe, and in return keep the liberty of thinking as I please on its primitive state, with relation to which you are as blind as myself.”

Finally, as I have written to my sorrow so I spoke in my dream, “If we went back to the origin of things and perceived the evolution from chaos, we should meet with any number of shapeless creatures. In the first instances of the formation of animals some were perhaps headless and others footless, some stomachless and others lacked intestines. Only those not defective in any important particular survived and perpetuated themselves.”

I stopped his protestations before they started, “Perhaps you will assert that deformed creatures never existed and that I am throwing myself headlong into chimerical fancies, but the order is not even now so perfect as to exclude the occasional appearance of monstrosities.”

I turned, my Saunderson, towards the clergyman and performed what is, in my Letter on the Blind, the coup de grâce. “Look at me, Mr. Holmes. I have no eyes. What have we done, you and I, to God, that one of us has this organ while the other has not?”

Suddenly my fanciful dialogue shifted to nightmare and, instead of the tears gushing from the eyes of the sympathetic clergyman, the menacing voice of the governor materialized from the void. “these are lovely sentiments my dear blind philosophe. They will nicely condemn you in the court of God and man. We will take your deformity into consideration by removing the mask that we offer unblind (if such things exist) heathens. It will do the people good to see your vacant eyes roll with your head. Such a treat to see a monster (as even you have named yourself) demolished.”

With the demonic intoning came the arms out of hell to lift me onto the block where my neck was stretched. The whoosh of the upswept blade penetrated my too-sensitive ears and the steel crashed down. Only then did I wake once more into this seeing body, screams strangling my throat with mingled horror and relief.

*This is essay 20 of #52essays2017. Read #19 Sometimes a Snake is Just a Snake*

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