For almost thirty years, up to the very end of their lives, Denis Diderot wrote beautiful, touching letters to his friend Louise-Henriette Volland. While these letters became more subdued in tone and less frequent after the first fifteen years of their friendship, they nonetheless stand testimony to the powerful sentiments that bind human beings together in friendship and love. For this reason, they are worthy of an attention which goes beyond biographical curiosity. Diderot’s letters expose, with sensibility and depth, a significant aspect of our legacy of passion left by Enlightenment thought.
Few authors are as appropriate to a discussion of the value of passion—in both life and art–as Diderot, and few texts as useful to this undertaking as his letters to Sophie Volland, which make special claims to reality, sincerity and truth all the while being saturated with moving rhetorical devices that one finds in eighteenth-century philosophical discourses, plays and fiction. The key concepts whose development I will trace in these letters–the notion of aesthetics, which is derived from the Greek word “aisthetikos” meaning “of sense perception” and the notion of passion, derived from the Latin word “passio” meaning suffering, or being acted upon—connect the sensory and emotional experiences we associate with love in life with the mediations and distortions we expect from their representations.
Spanning the period from 1754, when Diderot was editing the Encyclopédie, to his last work, Entretien d’un philosophe avec la Maréchale de…(1776), Diderot’s love letters also give us special insight into his intellectual and artistic production, ranging from his materialist discourses and plays, to his marivaudage and theatricality, to the themes and style of his later fiction. If these letters continue to excite our aesthetic interest, it’s largely because they link life and art in a sophisticated way without inciting us to reduce one to the other. This palpable and moving yet at the same time mediated expression of feeling is, I would like to argue, what creates the unparalleled value of aesthetic passion which we inherit, at least in part, from the French Enlightenment.
Passion in life and passion for art, Diderot’s writings lead us to believe, have analogous manifestations, even if different objects. Both unleash a sense of wonder; a strong form of enthusiasm. As love of art is immediate, personal and visceral, so is the love of a person. It’s a taste that, unlike in Kant’s subjective universal—which is separate from both reason and cognition–can nonetheless be rationally justified. The passionate lucidity we identified in Diderot’s aesthetics is also present in his attitude towards passionate love. And the author does, indeed, repeatedly express this attitude in his love letters to Sophie Volland.
“Look within yourself, my Sophie, and tell me why you are so sincere, so frank, so true in your words? It’s because these very qualities are the foundation of your character and the guide of your behavior.” ( 45)
The reasons for personal like are, in fact, generalizable. If Diderot admires his mistress’ sincerity and frankness, it is because he loves these qualities in general. For Diderot not only is love tied to knowledge—looking at the beloved open-eyed, knowing her and loving her for who she is—but also to ethics—loving in her qualities one can admire in other human beings. In one letter, he advises Sophie:
“Let’s act in such a way, my friend, that your life is without lies. The more I will respect you, the more honest you will be. The more I will show you my virtues, the more you will love me.” (47)
Yet love, like the appreciation of art, requires some special preference and a lot of imagination. Lucidity alone is not enough. Seeing someone for who she is does not imply one will fall madly in love with her. Nor does the fact she exhibits qualities one admires imply a preference for her over all others who share those qualities. Love is a non-distortive enhancement of the real. In other words, Diderot does not attribute qualities that aren’t there to Sophie. But he does value those qualities especially in her. Given the magnification of value in love, it’s not surprising Diderot confesses to his beloved: “Tell me why I find you more lovable with each passing day. Where do you hide some of your qualities which I hadn’t noticed before?” (47)
To maintain this state of freshness, wonder and excitement, love depends upon the interplay between proximity and distance. When the beloved is too close, one gets near-sighted and risks taking her for granted. When she’s too far, one loses sight of her and feelings can diminish or become too solipsistic. Regular contact, proximity, only enhances the imagination. Which is why Diderot constantly imagines himself with Sophie even when they’re apart. In his thoughts and feelings—through their very intimacy—he bridges the distance which constantly threatens to separate them and diminish their feelings:
“How are you today? Did you sleep well? Do you sometimes sleep as I do, open-armed. How tender was your gaze yesterday! How you’ve been looking at me like that for quite a while… I kiss you; oh I kiss you well, isn’t that true? And it’s always the same pleasure for me… always! They wouldn’t believe this, but this is in spite of all the commonplace sayings, may they be those of Solomon. This man had too many women to understand anything about the soul of a man who loves and respects only one.” (50)
Which brings us to the next quality of passionate love. Love renders the beloved unique. In this respect, it is different from ethics. While we may say, along with Kant, that a good action or intent is good only if we believe it to be good for everyone, the same logic does not fully apply to love. There may be thousands of women as frank and down-to-earth as Sophie Volland. But Diderot adores only her. His life revolves uniquely around Sophie. Which is why passion is never static. In creating such a hypervaluation and interdependency, even the most enduring and stable love oscillates emotionally. Because when one prizes one human being above all others, one becomes vulnerable to him or her. Diderot often expresses such doubts:
“I know neither happiness nor pain… if I have the least worry about you. Do you love? Is this how you desire to be loved?” (81)
Jealousy is also never far removed from his mind. He even goes so far as to be jealous of Sophie’s sister, whom he suspects of excessive intimacy with his mistress. Yet as much as passion disperses emotion in a flurry of contradictory feelings, it nonetheless remains rooted in the constancy of sentiment and the pursuit of mutual happiness. Passion is a form of dynamic stability. With you, Diderot explains getting to the essence of passionate love, “I feel, I love, I listen, I look, I caress. I have a kind of existence that I prefer to all others” (87-8).
The endurance of earthly love—like the love of art– gives a materialist like Diderot the only hope for afterlife. If love is so deep and constant, who knows if, even in a world deprived of the solace of a personalized divinity, that sense of meaning might not last forever? Perhaps even death, Diderot hopes in one of the most moving passages of his entire oeuvre, cannot separate those who have loved, as Diderot certainly did, with passionate lucidity:
“When the cell is divided in a hundred thousand parts, the primitive animal dies, but all his laws still exist. O, my Sophie, I still have the hope to touch you, to feel you, to love you, to seek you, to blend with you when we no longer exist! If there were in our nature a law of affinity; if we were destined to blend into one common being; if in the space of eternity I could remake a whole with you; if the dispersed molecules of your lover became agitated and began to search for yours! Leave me this hope, this consolation. It’s so sweet. It assures me of eternity in you and with you.” (91)
Passion for art and passion in life–this delicate balance between the emotional and the cognitive, between intimately personal feelings and transmittable knowledge–Diderot suggests, are the closest human beings come to reaching immortality. And who are we to disagree?
Claudia Moscovici, Literaturesalon