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Joseph Forster.

Some French and Spanish men of genius. Sketches of Marivaux, Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, Beaumarachais, Mirabeau, Danton and Robespierre, Béranger, Victor Hugo, Eugéne Sue and Zola, Cervantes and Lope de Vega, Calderon online

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Online LibraryJoseph ForsterSome French and Spanish men of genius. Sketches of Marivaux, Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, Beaumarachais, Mirabeau, Danton and Robespierre, Béranger, Victor Hugo, Eugéne Sue and Zola, Cervantes and Lope de Vega, Calderon → online text (page 6 of 19)
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former category. Each and all were possessed by
the chivalrous spirit ; and, in spite of the robustness
of their manhood there was underlying it the femi-
nine sensitiveness, the root of much of their strength
and their weakness. Rousseau altogether lacked the
manly fibre so manifest in the others. There was no
baritone quality in his literary voice.

Denis Diderot was born at Langres in the year
1713. Rousseau was born in 1712, and Yoltaire in
1694. They were very much wanted, and they
came. Without them the Revolution of 1789 might
have been delayed for many years.

Diderot's father was a kind-hearted but very
determined man. When his boy refused to follow
his father's trade, that of a cutler, he brought him
to the Jesuits' College at Paris, and waited there a
fortnight with nothing to do, to learn how the boy
liked it. That generosity of love descended to the
son.



88 DIDEROT.

Diderot was thrown on his own resources as a
literary man from 1734 till 1744. He was gay,
genial too genial, full of life and hope, but did, I
am afraid, a few shady things. He partly lived by
teaching ; but if the pupil was too dull he left him,
and did not return. That was very independent,
but not profitable. At one time he had a good post
with a good salary in a good house ; but rather than
lead a humdrum life of quiet respectability, he re-
turned to his Bohemian freedom and its privations.
Diderot preferred death to respectability.

One day he was without food from morning till
night ; in fact, his landlady found him in a swoon in
consequence of that and previous privation. Like
Dickens, Diderot never forgot the terrible privations
of his youth.

In reference to that terrible time Diderot said :
' I vowed that if ever happier times came to me, and
that I should possess anything, that I would never
refuse it to any living creature, nor condemn him
to the terrible misery of such a day as that/

He acted up to that vow. A poor wretch came
to him one day with a scurrilous satire on himself.
Diderot naturally said, ' Why do you bring this to
me?'

' I thought,' the satirist replied, ' that you would
give me something not to publish it.'

' No,' said Diderot, ' I can't do that. It will pay
you better to dedicate it to the brother of the Duke
of Orleans. He hates me, and will pay you for
abusing me.'



DIDEROT. 89

' But what shall I say in the dedication ? ' asked
the shameless scribbler.

' Oh, I will write it for you if you like/ replied
Diderot.

He then wrote the dedication, which produced a
nice little sum for the impudent rascal. It often
strikes me as nothing short of marvellous how a
mean, ungenerous wretch will anticipate undeserved
help from others, while he himself refuses to dis-
charge the most elementary duties of life.

People borrowed Diderot's money, stole his books,
and picked his brains. In fact, he was devoured by
literary parasites. The reader must not think that
Diderot was so obtuse as not to see through the
scoundrels who robbed and abused him ; but in spite
of that knowledge, he could not say ' no.'

Nothing shows more clearly the broad, genial
good-nature of the man so much as the fact that
the terrible, the almost overwhelming misery he
endured, softened instead of hardened his heart. He
was a sinner after the manner of Burns, Beranger,
and other too genial geniuses ; but, like theirs, his
heart never closed itself to the claims of the poor
and the unhappy. When we compare such warm-
hearted sinners to some of the cold-blooded, respect-
able saints of the Pecksniff breed, we prefer the
former with all their faults. We are not interested
in a man's love for himself, but in his love for others.

Most of my readers are aware that Goethe
translated Diderot's masterpiece, the Neveu de Ra-
utcau. The Neveu de Rameau is one of the most



90 DIDEROT.

profound and subtle studies of character in exist-
ence.* As Goethe's analysis is so thorough and
searching, I will only add that Carlyle's admiration
of it was as great as Goethe's. The next work of
Diderot's in importance is Jacques le Fataliste. Thi*
work Carlyle spoke of with enthusiasm.

It is indeed one of the most daring, extra-
ordinary, many-sided works I know. I will venture
to give a slight sketch of part of it.

The Marquis des Arcis has been in love with
Madame de la Pommeraye for a considerable time.
His visits become less frequent. The lady complains,
and begs him to tell her frankly if he has ceased to
love her.

' I wish to retain your friendship, at all events ;
do not pretend a love you do not feel. Do me the
honour to be frank. Believe me, I shall admire
your candour.'

In answer to this tearful request of the lady, he
foolishly confesses the truth that he only feels for
her a warm friendship. She, outwardly calm and
well bred, is consumed with a burning hatred against
the man who was mad enough to tell her that he
had ceased to love her.

After the very foolish man had gone she thinks
of vengeance, and of vengeance only. And when a
clever woman of mature age, strong passions, and
subtle brain does that, it is a little dangerous.

* The remarkable preface Goethe wrote to his translation
of Diderot's masterpiece is quoted in my sketch of Goethe in
Great German Teachers, now in the press.



DIDEROT. 91

At last she decides on a plan that is bad enough
to please her. She had known in her youth a beau-
tiful girl ; this girl had gone astray, and was now,
with her mother, connected with a low gambling-
house. The diabolical plan of the deserted lady was
to introduce this beautiful girl as innocent to her
former lover, and to try and make him fall in love
with and marry her. She finds the address of the
mother and daughter. She writes, inviting them to
visit her. They do so. She unfolds her plan. Re-
venge is a luxury she is willing to pay a high price
for.

The mother, a harpy, is eager for the rich prey.
The daughter, too, consents. The poor girl hated
the life she led, and is pleased to leave it. Under
the directions of the lady, they take quiet lodgings
in a distant part of Paris ; dress in deep mourning ;
go to early mass regularly ; visit the poor and sick :
in fact they create a reputation of the best kind.

When the girl has regained the bloom of her
beauty by rest and freedom from anxiety, the lady
brings about a meeting. They, in fact, meet at her
house as if by chance. He is wildfire ; she is cold
as ice, and scarcely utters a word. The infatuated
man swallows bait and hook. His love only in-
creases the lady's jealous wrath, who perfectly un-
derstands the character of the man, and knows that
obstacles only excite and stimulate his passion. He
tries by every means to obtain the address of the
girl, but without success. Then he prowls about
Paris for weeks in the hopes of seeing her ; throws



92 DIDEROT.

himself headlong in the wildest dissipation, all to no
purpose ; the poor fellow is securely hooked. At
last, he thinks by chance, they meet at the arch-
plotter's house at dinner. The girl's features, her
figure, her manner, and modest countenance, all
ravish the man. In short, he is mad enough to
marry the girl.

After the marriage, the slighted woman informs
him by letter of what she had done. It is at this
point of the story that Diderot displays the full
scope of his genius. Marvellous to relate, the new,
pure life the girl had led had elevated her character,
and she really loved the man she had married ; and
when he, with words of rage and fury, denounces
her deception, she does not reply ; she does not
attempt even to justify herself; she appears to
loathe herself and what she has been forced to do.
She does not assert herself in the slightest degree,
but lies almost lifeless on the floor, the incarnation
of despair and utter self-abasement. This un-
expected conduct bewilders the man, and, to some
extent, disarms his wrath. He leaves his house, first
ordering his servants to obey his wife. He disap-
pears for two days, those two days must have been
terrible, then returns, finds his wife in the same
state of utter self-abasement, and nearly dead for
want of food. Then the man feels a throb of pity in
his heart for this poor, half -dead woman. She, at
all events, was not to blame. She begs him to let
her die, rather than live to disgrace and grieve him.
She really wants to die, and had taken no food for



DIDEROT. 93

two days. Then he forms the resolution to take the
woman with him far from Paris, and its evil
tongues and more evil hearts, and live with and love
her. Thus the revenge of the woman who could
hate ten times more than she could love is frustrated.

I do not defend the plot of this tale ; I quote it
as a salient instance of the fiery, passionate, emo-
tional, and daring character of Diderot's genius.
He dares to be himself, thinks of pleasing or dis-
pleasing no one ; and when we think of the wretched
literary imitations which surround us on every hand
to-day, we can't help feeling a thrill of delight in
reading the fiery pages of Diderot.

' There are so many echoes, and so few voices.'
And that is not the worst ; there are so many echoes
of echoes.

Diderot's connexion with the stage was very
close; his interest in it profound. Neither of his
plays are of great value, and do not approach
in excellence his Neveu de Rameau. But it is only
fair to admit that his deep admiration of Lessing's
dramatic works, induced him to introduce pictures
of family life and purely natural passion on the
artificial, conventional French stage : that was some-
thing, and led to more.

Perhaps he was of opinion that if the stage
neglected the culture of the domestic virtues, con-
sidering the state of the Church of his day, and the
lives led by its most prominent members, they would
be altogether forgotten. But although Diderot's
plays are not his strong point, his dramatic criticism



94 DIDEROT.

is very valuable. He could feel and appreciate
the beauties of a work of genius as well as point out
superficial defects. His imagination and sympathy
were enormous. He had just the emotional nature
most affected by dramatic situation and passion.
His brain was immense and his heart no smaller.
He wrote in bursts of intellectual emotion. His
style is full of faults, but what force, what fire, what
streaming tears ! That big brain of his was always
fertilised by the blood of as big a heart. Diderot's
works are overflowing with ideas, suggestions, and
original views ; daring, outrageous indeed ; but
compared with the smug, self-satisfied Philistine
twaddle of the ordinary literary man, I almost said
tradesman, how priceless and fascinating they are.
Diderot when he wrote never thought of pleasing
or displeasing any clique, class, or person.

The following rough translation of one of
Diderot's most impassioned pleas for truth and
nature on the stage is well worthy of attention to-
day, when the theatre fills so large a place in our
minds and hearts:

' In entering the theatre, people free themselves from
the company of the idle and corrupted by whom they are
surrounded in society : there they find themselves with
those with whom they wish to be ; it is there they see
Immanity as it is, and that they reconcile themselves
with it. Good people are rare ; but they exist. The
man who thinks the contrary accuses himself, and proves
how unhappy he is in his wife, his relations, his friends
and acquaintances. Some one said to me one day, after



DIDEROT. 95

reading a book which had greatly fascinated him, " I felt
myself alone ! " The book deserved the praise ; but his
friends did not deserve that severe attack.



' Our miserable conventions pervert mankind : we
must not accuse human nature itself. In truth, what
affects us like the description of a generous action?
Where is the man so miserable as to be able to listen
unmoved to a good man's tale of distress 1 The theatre
is the only place in which the tears of a virtuous and
wicked man fall together. There, the wicked man is
angry with the injustices that he would have committed ;
he pities the sufferings that he would occasion ; and is
filled with indignation against a character like his own.
But that impression is made it remains in spite of us; and
the bad man leaves the theatre less disposed to do evil,
than if he had been preached at by a severe and dogmatic
orator. The poet, the novelist, and the dramatist, go to
the heart in an indirect manner, and strike the soul more
strongly and surely because it offers itself to their
blows.

******

' Granted the pains which touch them are imaginary ;
but they are touched. Certain scenes and situations
excite in me a movement of interest in the sufferings of
virtue, and cost me many tears. What could be more
baleful than that which rendered me the accomplice of,
and sympathiser with, vice ? But what art can be more
precious, than that which attaches me imperceptibly to
the fate of a good man ; which draws me from the sweet
and tranquil condition which I enjoy, to wander with
him, to hide myself in the cavern in which he takes



96 DIDEROT.

refuge, and associate myself with all the sufferings by
which, it pleases the poet to try his constancy? Oh,
what good it would do mankind, if all the arts of
imitation proposed to themselves one common object, and
united one day with the laws to make us love virtue and
hate vice ! It is the duty of the philosopher to invite
them to undertake that glorious task ; it is he who should
appeal to the poet, to the musician, to the artist : he
should say, "Men of genius, why has heaven endowed
you so richly? If you realised that, the pictures of
debauch would no longer cover the walls of our palaces ;
your voices would no longer be the organs of vice ; and
taste and morality would advance hand in hand. Do you
think that the action of a blind and aged couple, who
cling to each other, and, with tears in their eyes, press
each other's aged hands, even on the verge of the tomb, does
not require as much genius in the poet who paints it as
a description of the violent pleasures which intoxicated
them in their youth?

******
' " ! dramatic poets ! the applause, the genuine
applause, that you should endeavour to obtain, is not the
clapping of hands which occurs after a telling point in
your play ; no, it is the deep sigh which rises from the
soul after the constraint of a long silence, and which gives
it relief. It is an impression deeper still, and you will
comprehend me, if you are born for your art, and if you
realise all its magical possibilities : it is to place an
audience in deep trouble. Then their spirits are agitated,
uncertain, bewildered ; they are like people during an
earthquake, who see the walls of their houses shake like
leaves, and feel the earth withdrawn from under their
feet."'



DIDEROT. 97

The story of the rich hunks who dies without a
will, and thus places at the disposal of a horde of
poor starved and half-starved relations the whole of
his property, is so characteristic of Diderot's run-
away-with-one style, that I will venture to translate
part of it.

Diderot's father tells his family of his being
appointed executor of the will of a cure of Thivet.
This man lived to be one hundred and one, and died
very rich. This is the father's story :

' Well, my children, his heirs, poor homeless wretches,
scattered in the roads and streets, in the fields, at the
doors of churches, where they begged, entreated me to
represent them, and to see after the safety of their
property. How could I refuse to the poor a service I had
often rendered to the rich ? I went to Thivet ; I called
on the justice of the place, I sealed up the papers, and
attended the arrival of the heirs. They soon arrived, to
the number of ten or twelve. There were women with-
out stockings, without shoes, nearly without clothes, who
held against their breasts babies twisted into wretched
aprons ; old men covered with rags, who had dragged
themselves to the place, carrying on their shoulders by a
stick a handful of rags enveloped in another rag. It was
a spectacle of the most hideous misery. Imagine after
that picture the joy of such people at the prospect of
10,000 francs each, because the property of the deceased
was worth 100,000 francs at least. The seals were re-
moved. I proceeded to make an inventory of the
effects. Night came. The unhappy people withdrew.
I was alone. I was eager to place them in possession
of their property, and to return to my own business.

H



98 DIDEROT.

' There was under a bureau an old coffer without a
cover, and filled with all kinds of papers ; these were old
letters, sketches of answers, old receipts, and other papers
of the kind ; but in such a case one reads all, one must
neglect nothing. I was just finishing this weary work
when there fell into my hands an important-looking
paper, and what do you think it was 1 A will a will
signed by the cure ! A will of which the date was so
ancient that those whom he named executors had been
dead twenty years ! A will in which he rejected the
poor wretches lying around me, and left all his property
to the Fremyns, rich Paris publishers. I leave you to
judge of my surprise and grief. What should I do with
the will ? Burn it ? Why not ? Was it not worthy of
reprobation ? Did not the place where I found it, and the
papers with which it was mixed, testify against it, with-
out speaking of its revolting injustice ? This is what I
said to myself ; and, representing to my imagination at
the same time the desolation of the unhappy heirs,
despoiled, robbed of hope, I approached the fire quietly
with the will in my hand ; then other ideas combated the
first. I know not what fear of deceiving myself in the
decision of so important a case, suspicion of my own
wisdom, the fear of listening rather to the voice of pity,
which cried at the bottom of my heart, than to that of
justice, arrested me suddenly, and I passed the rest of the
night deliberating on that iniquitous will that I held several
times above the flame, hesitating whether to burn it or
not. In my perplexity I thought it would be wise to take
counsel of some enlightened person. I mounted my horse
at dawn of day, I rode at great speed to the town, passed
my own house ; I dismounted at the seminary, which was
then occupied by the Oratoriens, one of whom was



DIDEROT. 99

distinguished for his wisdom and holy life j it was Father
Bonin, who has left behind him a great reputation as a
casuist. I told him all.

' " Nothing is more laudable, sir," said Father Bouin,
"than the sentiment of pity with which you have been
touched by these unhappy heirs. Destroy the will, help
them, I consent ; but it is on condition that you restore
to the legal inheritor the precise sum of which you
deprive him ; no more and no less." And Father Bouin
added : " And who has authorised you to remove or give
sanction to wills 1 Who has authorised you to interpret
the intentions of the dead 1 "

1 " But, Father Bouin, the coffer ? "

' " Who is to authorise you to decide whether the
testament has been repulsed by reflection or mislaid by
mistake 1 Have you never done anything of the same
kind ; have you never found at the bottom of a box a
precious paper you had thrown there inadvertently 1 "

' " But, Father Bouin, the date and the iniquity of
the paper ? "

' " Who authorised you to pronounce on the justice or
injustice of this act, and to regard it as an illicit gift
rather than as a restitution, or any other legitimate act
that it may please you to imagine ? "

' " But, Father Bouin, these poor people are near
relations, and the rich man is a distant one."

' " Who has authorised you to weigh what the de-
ceased owed to his neighbours ? "

' " But, Father Bouin, think of all those letters from
the rich heir which the deceased had not even opened ? "
('One circumstance I had forgotten to mention,' added
my father, 'was that in the mass of old papers with
which I found the fatal will, there were twenty, thirty,



100 DIDEROT.

I know not how many letters from Fr6myn, all un-
opened.')

1 "There is," said Father Bouin, "neither coffer, nor
date, nor letters, nor Father Bouin, nor if, nor but, that
holds ; it is not permitted to any person to break the
law, to enter into the thoughts of the dead, or to dispose
of the property of another person. If Providence has
resolved to chastise either the heirs, or the heir, or the
defunct, no one knows which, by the chance preservation
of this testament, it must stand."

'After a decision so clear, so precise, of a man so
enlightened and revered, I stood stupefied and trembling
before him, thinking to myself what would have become
of you all if I had burnt the will, as I had been tempted
ten times to do ; and that after I had been tormented by
scruples and had consulted Father Bouin. I would have
restored all ; yes, all, and you would have been ruined.

' Well, I knew not what to do. In the first place, I
thought of handing over my powers to a lawyer ; but he
would have acted with all the sternness of the law, taken
the poor people by the shoulders and turned them out.
I hoped to soften their misfortune. I returned to Thivet.
My sudden absence, and the precautions I had taken in
departing, had troubled the poor people, and my sad face
troubled them more. Nevertheless I forced myself to
deceive them.

' I began by placing in safety all the most valuable
property. I assembled in the house a certain number of
neighbours to protect me if necessary. I opened the
cellar and the storerooms, which I abandoned to the un-
happy people, inviting them to eat, drink, and divide
between them all the wine, corn, and other provisions.

' Soon after, pale as death, shaking like a leaf,



DIDEROT. 101

opening my mouth, but unable to articulate, sitting and
rising alternately, beginning a phrase which I was unable
to finish, weeping, with all the terrified wretches around
me crying, " Well, my dear sir, what is the matter 1 "

1 " What is the matter 1 " I replied. " There is a will,
a testament which disinherits you."

'Those few words cost me so much to say that I
nearly lost consciousness. What a scene followed ! I
tremble when I recall it. I still seem to hear the cries
of sorrow, the yells of fury and rage, the awful impreca-
tions.' (' Here my father,' writes Diderot, ' stopped his
ears and closed his eyes.') 'And the women,' he added,
' I see them : some rolled on the floor, tore out their
hair, lacerated their cheeks and bosoms ; others, foaming
at the mouth, held their babes by the feet, ready to
dash their heads against the walls if they were not re-
strained. The men smashed all they could lay their hands
on ; they threatened to set the house on fire ; others
scratched up the ground with their nails as if they would
disinter the cure in order to revenge themselves on his
body ; and, in addition to all this, there was the shrill
crying of the children, who shared, without knowing why,
the despair of their parents, and attached themselves to
their dress, and were brutally repulsed.

' I told the unhappy people that I had written to
M. Fremyn, the sole inheritor. I calmed them a little
by the hope with which I flattered myself of obtaining
a complete renunciation of his rights, or, at all events, to
induce him to make some favourable arrangement.

'FrSmyn arrived. I looked at him fixedly, and I
found a hard, mean face, which promised nothing good.
He had travelled sixty leagues in thirty hours. I began
by showing him the miserable beings for whom I pleaded.



102 DIDEROT.

They all stood before him in silence ; the women weeping,
the men, leaning on their sticks with uncovered heads,
held their caps in their hands.

'Fr&nynwas seated, his eyes shut, his head down,
the chin supported on his chest, and did not look at
them. I pleaded for them with all my force ; I know
not from where one draws what one says at such a time.
I pointed out to him that it was uncertain that the pro-
perty was meant for him ; I conjured him by his riches,
by their misery ; I believe that I even threw myself at
his feet : I could not draw a halfpenny. He answered
that he could not enter into such considerations, that
there was a will, that the history of the will did not
concern him, and that he approved my conduct more
than my eloquence. Full of indignation, I threw the
keys at him ; he coolly picked them up, and took pos-
session of everything, and I returned home so troubled,
looking so ill, so changed, that your mother, who was
then living, thought some great misfortune had occurred.'


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Online LibraryJoseph ForsterSome French and Spanish men of genius. Sketches of Marivaux, Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, Beaumarachais, Mirabeau, Danton and Robespierre, Béranger, Victor Hugo, Eugéne Sue and Zola, Cervantes and Lope de Vega, Calderon → online text (page 6 of 19)