Cover image for Diderot and the art of thinking freely
Diderot and the art of thinking freely
Physical Description:
520 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm.
The Abbot from Langres -- Leaving God -- A philosophe in prison -- The Enlightenment bible -- The Encyclopédie hair shirt -- On virtue and vice -- On art : Diderot at the Louvre -- On the origin of species -- The sexologist -- On love -- A voyage to Russia, politics, philosophy, and Catherine the Great -- Last words : speaking to despots and American insurgents -- Walking between two eternities.
Personal Subject:
A vivacious biography of the prophetic and sympathetic philosopher who along with Voltaire and Rousseau built the foundations of the modern world, and travelled as far as Russia to enlighten the Tsarina Catherine the Great. Denis Diderot is often associated with the decades-long battle to bring the world's first comprehensive Encyclopédie into existence. But his most compelling and personal writing took place in the shadows. Thrown into prison for his atheism in 1749, Diderot decided to reserve his most daring books for posterity--for us, in fact. In the astonishing cache of unpublished writings that he left behind after his death, Diderot dreamed of natural selection before Darwin, the Oedipus complex before Freud, and genetic manipulation centuries before Dolly the Sheep was born. Even more audaciously, the writer challenged virtually all of his century's accepted truths, from the sanctity of monarchy, to the racial justification of slave trade, to the limits of human sexuality. He was also keenly aware of the dangers of absolute power, about which he wrote so persuasively that it led Catherine the Great not only to support him financially but also to invite him to St. Petersburg. In this thematically organized biography, Andrew Curran vividly describes Diderot's tormented relationship with Rousseau, his feud with Voltaire, his tortured marriage, his passionate affairs, and his often-paradoxical stand on art, morality, and religion. But what this book brings out most brilliantly is how a man's character flaws and limitations are often the flip side of his genius and his ability to break taboos, dogmas, and conventions. --


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Denis Diderot is often associated with the decades-long battle to bring the world's first comprehensive Encyclopedie into existence. But his most daring writing took place in the shadows. In the astonishing cache of unpublished writings left behind after his death, Diderot dreamed of natural selection before Darwin, the Oedipus complex before Freud, and genetic manipulation centuries before Dolly the Sheep. Even more audaciously, the writer challenged virtually all of his century's accepted truths, from the sanctity of monarchy, to the racial justification of the slave trade, to the complications of human sexuality.

Author Notes

Andrew Curran is the William Armstrong Professor of the Humanities and a member of Wesleyan University's Romance Languages and Literatures department. For the first part of his career, Curran's research focused on the eighteenth-century life sciences and medicine. His major publications include an edited volume ( Faces of Monstrosity in Eighteenth-Century Thought in Eighteenth-Century Life ) and two books- Sublime Disorder- Physical Monstrosity in Diderot's Universe (Voltaire Foundation, Oxford, 2001) and, more recently, The Anatomy of Blackness- Science and Slavery in an Age of Enlightenment (Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2011). Elected a Fellow in the history of medicine at the New York Academy of Medicine in 2010, Curran has also received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Mellon Foundation, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. He was also the co-winner of the James L. Clifford prize for the best article in eighteenth-century studies in 2011 on the history of albinism. Most recently, Curran received a National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholars award (2016). He was also named a Chevalier dans l'ordre des Palmes Academiques in September of 2015. Curran has served on the editorial board of Studies in Eighteenth Century Culture and is presently on the board of Critical Philosophy of Race and Diderot Studies.

Reviews 4

Publisher's Weekly Review

Curran (Sublime Disorders: Physical Monstrosity in Diderot's Universe) returns to the subject of Denis Diderot (1713-1784) in this marvelous account of the philosophe's life and work. But this is much more than a biography, as Curran renders in vivid detail the social and intellectual life of 18th-century France. Curran discusses Diderot's education by the Jesuits and initial intention of becoming a priest, the publication of his first influential text, PensAces philosophiques, his resulting imprisonment (which Curran sees as a formative experience), and his decades-long labor on his masterpiece, the EncyclopAcdie. This last is typical of Curran's thorough approach: readers learn about the financial and political aspects of publishing such an expansive work (such as its printer's prized status as one of six designated "printers of the king"); its proto-hypertext cross-referencing tool, the "System of Human Knowledge," often deployed satirically, such as by connecting "cannibalism" and "communion"; and its political impact, which included a diplomatic incident between France and Switzerland. Equally fascinating are Curran's summaries of Diderot's remarkable contributions as art critic, playwright, and sexologist, the last represented by his outlandish novel Les bijoux indiscrets, which features talking vaginas. Readers will be left with a new appreciation for Diderot, of his wide-ranging thought, and of his life as an expression of intense intellectual freedom. (Jan.) c Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

New York Review of Books Review

THE ANNOTATED MEMOIRS OF ULYSSES S. GRANT Edited by Elizabeth S. Samet. (Liveright, $45.) If you liked Ron Chernow's recent biography of the 18th president, this annotated version of Grant's memoirs provides the context necessary to appreciate one of the most celebrated pieces of presidential writing, team human By Douglas Rushkoff. (Norton, $23.95.) A professor of media theory, Rushkoff files field notes from the war between man and machine, arguing gloomily that technology is currently winning, quickly chipping away at our humanity, bookends By Michael Chabon. (Harper Perennial, paper, $16.99.) Chabon offers a glimpse at his influences in this compilation of previously published odds and ends. Much of the book is made up of introductions to eclectic cult classics, the kindness of strangers By Salka Viertel. (New York Review Books, paper, $17.95.) Born in a remote province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Viertel made her way in the 1920 s to Hollywood, where she had a career as a screenwriter and became a confidante of Greta Garbo. Her memoir captures both the intellectual world she had to leave behind - one peopled by the likes of Kafka, Musil and Einstein - and the home and refuge she made for herself in Los Angeles. DIDEROT AND THE ART OF THINKING FREELY By Andrew S. Curran. (Other Press, $26.95.) In this new biography, Curran looks to remind us just what a radical Diderot was in his time. "I read a lot of contemporary fiction, but the books I keep coming back to in recent months are American noir novels from the '40 s and '50s. I've recently read more Raymond Chandler than I have at any time and can't quite figure out why except that the dark underworld he brings to life, a boozy and beautiful Los Angeles, is one I can get completely lost in. The latest novel of his I can recommend is the lady in the lake, about two missing wives, one rich and one poor, and the men who want them back, and not always for the right reasons. People often forget how extremely funny Chandler is, particularly when it comes to painting a room: 'The whole place was full to overflowing with males in leisure jackets and liquor breaths and females in high-pitched laughs, oxblood fingernails and dirty knuckles.' And I especially enjoy how he describes female characters: She was 'smart, smooth and no good. She had a way with men. She could make them crawl over her shoes.' He also evokes California landscapes better than just about any writer, making it easy to smell the jasmine and feel the heat from the Santa Anas, air, he writes, 'hot enough to blister my tongue.' " - JULIE BLOOM, DEPUTY EDITOR, NATIONAL DESK, ON WHAT SHE'S READING.

Choice Review

Highlighting both the peaks and the valleys of Diderot's eventful, passionate pursuit of life as art, Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely is a freewheeling blend of intellectual biography, slice-of-life social history, and adroit textual commentary. Diverging from earlier readings of Diderot's biography, which saw in his published writings only episodic moments of brilliance--and refused to see in his lifelong passion for social networking anything but opportunism--Curran (Wesleyan Univ.) offers a thrilling contrast of Diderot. Here is the outsider on the inside, sharpening and perfecting the critical instruments of Socrates and Seneca. Like an improbable prophet of postmodernism, Diderot was borne along by the revolutionary odyssey of popular enlightenment and the quest for literary immortality, both of which took him perilously between the Scylla of flagrant, imperial power and the Charybdis of multiform, philosophical critique. Curran's book is superb. With consummate skill, he weaves a tale that is riveting as historical narrative and engaging as critical exposition of Diderot's key works. Curran's deft interweaving of textual commentary with historical scholarship makes for rich and rewarding reading, and provides a sense of what the larger stakes were for the Enlightenment philosophes. Summing Up: Essential. Lower-division undergraduates through faculty; general readers. --John G. Moore, Lander University

Kirkus Review

A lively biography of Denis Diderot (1713-1784), provocateur, polymath, and central figure in the French Enlightenment.Ironically, the philosopher whose name is strongly associated with freethinking kept his freest thoughts under wraps: Thanks to an early lesson in the consequences of candor, he intentionally left mountains of unpublished writings to be discovered after his death. Early writings skewering organized religion and questioning God's existence earned him public book-burnings and a three-month prison stint. In the ensuing years, he would save his most provocative thoughts about sex and politics for the drawer; his posthumous novel The Nun questioned the immorality of incest and adultery. But he put some of his most challenging ideas in plain sight, if subtly, through his life-consuming, multivolume Encyclopdie, which tweaked the sensibilities of religious leaders while also striving to "pull back the world's curtain" through anatomical and mechanical illustrations that were rarely available to the public. Curran (Humanities/Wesleyan Univ.; The Anatomy of Blackness, 2011, etc.) gamely sifts through the mountain of Diderot's outputhe was a prolific art critic, lead writer of the Encyclopdie, and an inveterate correspondentwithout for a moment making it feel burdensome. Rather, he ably balances the details of Diderot's life with thoughtful considerations of the source and depth of his philosophical byways, taking his more peculiar ideas seriously but not literally. Curran's mission is served by his subject's wealth of experiences: In addition to his run-ins with state and religious leaders, he found a patron and intellectual sparring partner in Catherine the Great and corresponded with Benjamin Franklin before the American Revolution his writings helped inspire. As Curran writes, Diderot argued that kings and religious leaders "were complicit in running a massive illusion factory"; a more skeptical world may be Diderot's greatest legacy.An intellectually dense and well-researched yet brisk journey into one of history's most persuasive dissenters. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.



Prologue unburying diderot   Sometime during the snowy winter of 1793, under cover of night, a small group of thieves pried open a wooden door leading  into  the  Church of Saint-Roch. Forced entry into the Paris sanctuary was nearly a weekly occurrence during this time of revolution. In the early 1790s, anticlerical vandals had pulled enormous religious paintings  off  the  walls  and  slashed  the canvases. Other trespassers had made off with more portable works of art, including an exquisite statue sculpted by Étienne-Maurice Falconet. On this particular night, however, the intruders came to steal whatever copper, silver, or lead they could find in the crypt located underneath the Chapel of the Virgin. Setting to work in front of the chapel's altar, the grave robbers used long iron bars to lever aside the mattress-sized marble slab in the center of the floor. Though they surely had no idea who was buried in the vault, the most loutish of the group, assuming he could read, would still have recognized the name of the writer Denis Diderot inscribed on one of the caskets. Dead for nine years, the notorious atheist had been the driving force behind the most controversial  book  project  of  the  eighteenth century, the Encyclopédie . This massive dictionary had not only dragged sacrilege and free-thinking out into the open, but triggered a decades-long scandal that involved the Sorbonne, the Paris Parlement, the Jesuits, the Jansenists, the king, and the pope. None of this old history mattered to the burglars. After removing Diderot's lead coffin from the vault, the men simply shook his decomposing body onto the church's marble floor. The following day, Denis Diderot's remains (along with the other desecrated cadavers from the crypt) were presumably gathered up and transferred without ceremony to a mass grave about a mile to the east. Nobody noticed; nobody reported it in the press. Assuming the church's few remaining parish priests had realized that Diderot had been buried in the church, they were undoubtedly relieved to be rid of the scandalous unbeliever. Some twenty years before his remains were carted out of Saint-Roch, Diderot had prophetically remarked that whether "you rot beneath marble or under the ground, you still rot."   Yet being discarded and forgotten among a mound of recently guillotined aristocratic corpses would not have been his preference. Atheist or not, Diderot had long expressed a keen interest in being remembered and, if all things worked out, celebrated by future generations. "Posterity is to the philosophe," he once stated, as "heaven is to the man of religion." Diderot's interest in speaking to future generations from beyond the grave had come about out of necessity. In 1749, shortly after the then thirty-four-year-old writer had published a work of intemperate atheism entitled the Lettre sur les aveugles ( Letter on the Blind ), two gendarmes showed up at his house, arrested him, and dragged him off to Vincennes prison. Three months later, shortly before he was released, the lieutenant-général de police made a special trip to the prison to warn the writer that any further immoral or irreligious publications would bring about a jail sentence measured in decades, not months. Diderot took this threat seriously. For the next thirty-three years, he avoided publishing the kind  of  inflammatory books that he had authored as a young man. Much of the energy that he might have devoted to such endeavors was redirected toward the all-consuming Encyclopédie . When he finally completed the last volume of illustrations, in 1772, the now-elderly writer was well aware that he was a celebrity throughout Europe and even in parts of North America, but he was not really considered a literary great. His fate, as he admitted quite openly, was perhaps to "survive" long after his reputation as an Encyclopedist had faded, growing ever older and vanishing without leaving a significant work behind. This, in fact, seemed to be the case when he died in 1784. Although several obituaries credited him for being the leader of the generation of thinkers that had utterly changed the country, they also hinted that he had not lived up to his indisputable genius.   Even his friends reluctantly agreed. Jacques-Henri Meister, who revered the man, wistfully acknowledged that Diderot never produced a book that would have placed him among the first tier of "our philosophes or our poets." Charitable friends blamed the writer's supposedly limited literary production on the burden of the Encyclopédie . Others privately ascribed this failing to his famously whirligig brain. As was often the case, the sharp-tongued Voltaire, who both admired and distrusted Diderot, came up with the cleverest remark on the subject; he apparently joked that the Encyclopedist's mind "was an oven that burns everything that it cooks." What Voltaire and virtually everybody else did not know was that Diderot had actually written an astonishing range of improbably modern books and essays for the drawer , as the French like to say. Holed up in his sixth-floor garret office on the rue Taranne for the last third of his life, Diderot produced this cache of writing with the hope that it might one day explode like a bomb. This moment was prepared for carefully. When the author reached his sixties -- borrowed time during the eighteenth century -- he hired copyists to produce three separate collections of manuscripts. The first and most complete set was entrusted to his daughter, Angélique, whom we know as Madame de Vandeul; a second, less complete group of writings was transferred to his designated literary heir and devotee, Jacques-André Naigeon. And six months after his death, thirty-two bound volumes of manuscripts along with Diderot's entire library of three thousand books traveled by ship to Catherine the Great in Saint Petersburg. Diderot's unedited books, essays, and criticism far surpassed what he had published during his lifetime. Among these writings were two very dissimilar, but equally brilliant novels. The first of these, La religieuse ( The Nun ), is a gripping pseudo-memoir of a nun who suffers unspeakably cruel abuse after she announces that she wants to leave her convent. The second, Jacques le fataliste , is an open-ended antinovel where Diderot used fiction to take up the problem of free will. But there were also thick notebooks of revolutionary art criticism, a godless science-fiction-like chronicle of the human race, a secret  political  treatise  written for Catherine the Great, a humorous satire on the absurdity of Christian sexual mores set in Tahiti, as well as some of the most moving love letters in the history of French literature. To become familiar with the range of Diderot's work is to be stupefied: among other things, the philosophe dreamed of natural selection before Darwin, the Oedipus complex before Freud, and genetic manipulation two hundred years before Dolly the Sheep was engineered. These hidden works did not appear in the months after Diderot died; they trickled out over the course of decades. Several of his lost books were published during the waning years of the French Revolution; others appeared during  the course of the Bourbon Restoration (1814-30), while still more of his writing emerged during the Second Empire (1852-70). Perhaps the most significant addition to Diderot's corpus came in 1890 when a librarian discovered a complete manuscript version of Diderot's masterpiece, Le neveu de Rameau ( Rameau's Nephew ), in a bouquiniste 's stand on the banks of the Seine. In this riotous philosophical dialogue, the writer courageously gave life to an unforgettable anti-hero who extolled the virtues of evil and social parasitism while preaching the right to unbridled pleasure. To say that the arrival of these lost books had an effect on subsequent generations would be putting it mildly. Diderot's effusive art criticism inspired Stendhal, Balzac, and Baudelaire. Émile Zola credited Diderot's "vivisections" of society as the foundation of the naturalism that characterized his and Balzac's novels.   Social theorists, too, were spellbound by Diderot's prescient thought. Karl Marx, who borrowed deeply from Diderot's musings on class struggle, listed the writer as his favorite author. And Sigmund Freud credited the ancien régime thinker for recognizing the unconscious psychosexual desires of childhood in Rameau's Nephew long before he or his fellow psychoanalysts had.   If many critics continued to disdain the writer as too atheistic, too paradoxical, and too unrestrained, Diderot was nonetheless becoming the preferred writer of the nineteenth-century avant-garde.   The full extent of Diderot's influence was not truly known, however, until a young German-American academic, Herbert Dieckmann, located the final lost cache of Diderot's writings. Having heard rumors that Diderot's conservative descendants continued to possess some of the lost manuscripts  originally given to the writer's daughter, the Harvard professor finally obtained permission to visit the family château in Normandy in 1948. After overcoming the postwar suspicions of the caretaker, who was initially put off by his German-accented French, Dieckmann was ultimately directed to some armoires on the château's second floor. Entering a room that contained several large free-standing closets, he sidled over to the first one and peeled back the door panel. Hoping, perhaps, to find a lost work or two, he was confronted with an enormous stockpile of Diderot's bound manuscripts. So stunned was Dieckmann that he simply dropped to the floor. Diderot's final cache, the lost collection of manuscripts he had given to his daughter, had at last been found. What are now known as the Vandeul archives -- labeled as such since they came from Diderot's daughter -- have become the most important source for what we know about Diderot and his works. Most astonishing, perhaps, was the discovery of several manuscripts annotated in his hand that revealed that he had been the primary ghostwriter for abbé Raynal's  Histoire philosophique et politique des deux Indes ( Philosophical and Political History of the Two Indies ), the best-selling critical examination of European colonization. It had been Diderot, as it turned out, who had penned   the most influential and best-known anticolonial sections of this multivolume book, including an imagined exchange between an enslaved African who not only claimed the right to be free, but who predicted a day when Caribbean slaves would justifiably put their masters to the sword. Composed in 1779, a decade before the events in Saint-Domingue (Haiti) would prove him right, this is perhaps the most telling example of the writer's radical politics, not to mention his ability to see into the future. Some three hundred years after he was born, Diderot has now become the most relevant of Enlightenment philosophers. That he refrained from publishing (or taking credit for) his most forward-looking ideas during his lifetime was not simply a matter of avoiding persecution; he intentionally chose to forgo a conversation with his contemporaries in order to have a more fruitful dialogue with later generations -- us, in short. His heartfelt hope was that we, the sympathetic and  enlightened interlocutors of the future, might finally be capable of sitting in judgment of his hidden writings, writings that not only question the moral, aesthetic, political, and philosophical conventions of the ancien régime, but our own as well. Excerpted from Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely by Andrew S. Curran All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Prologue Unburying Diderotp. 1
Part 1 Forbidden Fruits
I The Abbot from Langresp. 19
II Leaving Godp. 49
III A Philosophe in Prisonp. 75
IV The Enlightenment Biblep. 101
V The Encyclopedic Hair Shirtp. 133
Part 2 Late Harvest
VI On Virtue and Vicep. 179
VII On Art: Diderot, at the Louvrep. 201
VII On the Origin of Speciesp. 233
IX The Sexologistp. 259
X On Lovep. 293
XI A Voyage to Russia: Politics, Philosophy, and Catherine the Greatp. 315
XII Last Words: Speaking to Despots and American Insurgentsp. 345
Epilogue Walking between Two Eternitiesp. 375
Acknowledgmentsp. 403
Chronologyp. 407
Cast of Charactersp. 417
Notesp. 423
Works Citedp. 479
Illustrationsp. 501
Indexp. 507