The French philosopher’s dialectic of storytelling was elegant and forward-looking.
250 years ago, in 1772, the French philosopher and encyclopaedist Denis Diderot (1713-1784) wrote a short text which he titled: «Ceci n’est pas un conte». This can be translated as: “This is not a story”. If you want to mark the difference between a realistic description and a fiction, the more accurate translation can also be: “What I am reporting here is not a fairy tale”. Diderot seems to want to tell us: What I am telling is not the result of my literary imagination, it is pure reality!
A strange title for a piece of writing that, at first glance, seems to be easy to understand in terms of content, even if it uses an unusual narrative strategy in formal terms. In the tradition of the French Enlightenment moralists, the aim here is not moral indoctrination, but a more modest attempt to open the reader’s eyes to how the world works when people enter into relationships with one another.
There are actually two stories that Diderot tells us here. The first is about a greedy woman who rips off her lovers and suitors. The second story tells of an equally ruthless man who takes advantage of the woman who loves him and lets her work for him for years, finally renouncing his affection and rejecting her, so that she dies in poverty and bitterness.
The reader’s voice
One could say: destinies as they occur in the world until today. The world is so unfair, yes unjust! Conclusion of the narrator: Let us have no illusions about the good in people, because “man and woman are two extremely malicious animals!”. The Hegel student Karl Rosenkranz (1805-1879), who dedicated an important two-volume monograph to the life and work of Diderot in 1866, describes the two stories as “social novellas” about “destinies from the dark side of human society”.
The decisive thing about this story is not necessarily its content, but the form in which Diderot lets us look into the abyss of moral depravity. In the first part, for example, he introduces a voice that can be described as the “dialogue voice” of a listener or “that of the reader”. Someone doesn’t simply accept and accept what is told to them, but interrupts, intervenes.
The voice protests against the narrator’s opinion, makes ironic-sarcastic comments and dismantles the supposedly omniscient voice of the narrator from fact to fact. So it happens that time and again it is not the narrator who seems to know what is going on in the story, but rather as if the protesting voice involved had a second and sometimes even better idea of how the story could continue and end.
Bad story maybe
Who is actually in charge of a dialogue? Diderot seems to have been so interested in this question that he made playing with intervening and contradicting instances the main purpose of his narrative art. Here, in a little more than twenty printed pages, he showed us what had become the basic strategy of his storytelling in his great narrative writings – “Le Neveu de Rameau” (1762–1774) and “Jacques le Fataliste et son Maître” (1773–1775). is: A narrator needs instances and figures that answer and contradict him.
There are literary experts who therefore consider Diderot to be the most important pacesetter towards a modern polyphonic narrative art. “Rameau’s Nephew” and “Jacob and His Lord” are the showpieces of the Enlightenment when it comes to experiencing why a narrator has an advantage in having a spirit of contradiction at his side. Diderot’s letters to his longtime lover and lifelong friend Sophie Volland show that letters are also something like dialogues with someone you love and want to stay with.
“This isn’t a fairy tale” begins with the narrator’s explanation that anyone who wants to tell a story needs an audience. «If something is told, someone has to be there to listen; and no matter how short the narration may be, now and then the narrator is interrupted by a listener. Therefore, in the story you are about to read, which is not a story, or if you think it is a bad story, I have introduced a character who is supposed to play roughly the part of the reader; So I’ll start.”
Cough, clear your throat, blow your nose
However, before the narrative really gets going, we experience a skirmish of arguments between the narrator and the listener, one could also say: a cat-and-mouse game about who is responsible for the beginning of the narration, which almost drives the introduced impatient listener to incandescence. Staged role-playing game, in which the narrator promises to be brief, but – perhaps out of malice, as he himself admits – delays the start of what is to be communicated in a particularly awkward manner by coughing, clearing his throat, opening the snuffbox and blowing his nose and so that the listener is in suspense.
Finally it can start, with the statement: “You have to admit: There are very good men and very bad women.” The listener replies that you can experience this every day, you don’t even have to leave your home for it! Today we know that Diderot suffered greatly from the quarrelsomeness and jealousy of his wife Antoinette, whom he married more out of pity than love and who could not be and could not become an equal conversational partner for this intellectual.
Of course, this is not about her, but about a courtesan from Alsace named Madame Reymer, “a beauty that the old people ran after her and the young ones stood spellbound”. It turns out that the person listening to the story also knew this lady and courted her years ago. In addition to the hypocritical, greedy and heartless lady from Alsace, we experience her as clever as business savvy admirer Tanié, who has made money and fortune over the years, but never wins the affection of Madame Reymer, who only “fleets” him and about his wealth facilitated.
The cold beast
So she sends the man twice to distant foreign countries in order to generate wealth for her there. So we hear the story of a love that is only pretended for selfish motives. This is, of course, wittily told in a dialogue between two men, both of whom seem to have learned the ruse from women who seem to be in love. Poor Tanié will die of an acute fever in St. Petersburg on the second expedition to raise money for a lover who is in fact a cold “beast” and will never return to Paris.
Of course, the opposite also happens in the world, the narrator and his listener know that. “If there are very bad women and very good men, there are also very good women and very bad men.” Diderot reports such a case in the second part of his story. This is about Mademoiselle de la Chaux, who leaves her family out of affection for the aspiring doctor Gardeil – both are historically attested and not invented by the poet – in order to sacrifice herself for her lover in Paris.
Gardeil is happy to use her services for a few years, telling her from one day to the next that he no longer loves her, that she is a nuisance and intolerable to him, and that she should go away. He would jump out the window at the thought of spending another twenty-four hours with her. The unfeeling one throws away his beloved like an old useless rag.
The narrator accompanies the woman to her former boyfriend, but neither reason nor pity can persuade him to change his mind. The poor Mademoiselle now has a new admirer, a doctor who is touchingly concerned about her. But she doesn’t want to know anything about this affection, desolates inwardly, rejects all help and withdraws to an attic room on the outskirts of Paris. There she dies alone and bitter. “While the only lover she had had, practicing medicine in Montpellier or Toulouse, living the finest life, enjoying the deserved reputation of a skilful man and the ill-gotten one of a man of honour.”
The atheist and materialist Diderot cannot help but finally settle accounts with Leibniz’s optimistic philosophy of enlightenment, according to which we live in the best of all possible worlds. «If there is a good and honorable Tanié, providence leads him into the arms of a Reymer. If there is a good and respectable de la Chaux, it is given to a guard so that everything is in the best order.”
250 years ago, Diderot’s view of the conditions of this world was so untransfiguringly realistic. It’s a good thing that then, as now, there are people to talk to with whom you can have dialogues and debates about the right and wrong way to set up the world! The world is still not optimally set up and reasonably fair.
Iso Camartin lives as a freelance publicist and writer in Zurich.