lørdag den 27. august 2022

The Nun - Denis Diderot (1796)


The Nun

We continue with another book by Denis Diderot, published posthumously decades after it was actually written. The subject matter and the style of writing is quite different from “Jacques the Fatalist”, this being a first-person narrative in the Richardsonian style about the suffering of a nun as opposed to the Sternian chaos which is “Jacques the Fatalist”, but Diderot being Diderot it also has very modernist elements.

The main part of the novel is formed as one, very long letter to a possible benefactor of the nun Sainte Suzanne. She describes her life story, how as an illegitimate child, her parents wanted to get her out of the way by placing her in a convent. In the first convent she flatly refuses to take her wows, causing quite a scandal, but subjected to enough emotional blackmail she finally accepts to take her wows in the second convent despite being convinced that the religious life is not for her.

The Mother Superior of this convent is a saintly woman who actually understands the misery Suzanne goes through and tries to make her life as tolerable as possible. She dies, and her replacement as Mother Superior is the exact opposite. She sees in Suzanne a threat to her dominion and Suzanne is subjected to all sorts of harassments. Suzanne decides to attempt to be released through a court ruling, which when it becomes known, makes her conditions in the convent even worse. Torments, taunts, starvation and theft are just some of the cruelties she is subjected to. She loses her court case for some reason, possibly because you needed very powerful friends in high positions to get out of a nunnery, and the torments continue, now without hope. Her lawyer and a friendly Vicar General do manage to get her transferred to another, third, convent.

The main problem here is that the Mother Superior is lesbian and abuses her position in true Weinstein fashion to get sexual favors. When Suzanne refuses, the Mother Superior goes into self-escalation and, everybody blaming Suzanne, her life again turns misery.

So far, so good. This story is fairly straight forward. Diderot presents the convent system, not as a religious asylum, but as a prison system to put away unwanted women. A system where compliance is required on pain of torment and a system that will drive those mad who are not suited for a religious life. Diderot obviously was not a fan of convents. His sister was driven mad in one, and he himself fled from a religious career. As a criticism of the enforced convent system, this story is very effective. Suzanne cannot say what it is she wants instead on the religious life, it is the lack of choice that is the problem for her. She has lost her freedom and as intangible as this may be, it is soul-crushing to her.

Then something really weird happens. In a lengthy preface text after the novel proper, it is revealed that the text is a hoax, invented to lure a Marquis back from the provinces to Paris where his friends are missing him. This Marquis was previously engaged in a case where a nun wanted to be released but could not and now, through letters pretending to be from a nun on the lam, they are trying to get him engaged in this story. He consents, so they have to kill her off, and then send him her full narrative as described above.

Why this hoax? And why present this story as a hoax? Do we really want to, or need to, know that this is not just an invented story, but a story invented for crude laughs and petty motives? And even weirder, the way these letters a presented with Diderot talking about himself in third person, makes me wonder if not even this correspondence is a fake, invented for the effect if will have on the story?

I think the whole thing is an exercise in false reality, what we today would call fake news. That the object is to make the reader question apparent truth as something that may look and feel real but is not. This is my guess of course and may be inspired by the times I live in as opposed to the eighteenth century, but if correct, it would make Diderot a far more modern writer than his contemporaries. And well, that was a conclusion I already drew with “Jacques the Fatalist”.

In many ways “The Nun” is the better book, if for nothing else then because Sternian writing tends to annoy me, and beside the modernist mindfuck it also concerns itself with very real social issues that would surely touch a reader, even today. Recommended.


tirsdag den 2. august 2022

Jacques the Fatalist - Denis Diderot (1796)


Jacques the Fatalist

A year or so ago I was reading a lot of “Enlightenment” literature, especially the endless writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He spent most of his life quarreling with everybody else and in particularly a character named Denis Diderot. Frankly, from Rousseau’s telling, Diderot sounded like a far more agreeable character to be around and as it turns out, he also wrote and a far more delightful writer he was.

Diderot dared not publish in his lifetime. Or rather, he stuck to the Encyclopedia, which was controversial enough as it was. His dabbling into literature was way more transgressive and subversive and had to wait for The French Revolution to become printable. Rather promising actually, but also sad for the writer. It also means that I am now thrown somewhere between twenty and forty years back in time.

“Jacques the Fatalist” has been described as the world’s first post-modernistic novel, preceding the advent of those by some 160 years. What is meant by that is that Diderot is playing with the format in a way that is sometimes meta, sometimes explorative and always playful. Heavily inspired by Laurence Sterne, Diderot is not interested in a plot. In fact, plot-wise “Jacques the Fatalist” goes absolutely nowhere. A Master, known only as “Master”, and his servant Jacques travels from place to place. En route the time is spent telling stories. Some stories are begun but never finished. Some are picked up repeatedly, only to be interrupted. I am not quite certain any of them are ever finished and if they were, it is in an abrupt and not really satisfying manner, as if there is actually more to the story than is told.

The theme of the stories is usually around escapades, love affairs, swindles or other juicy topics. This makes them rather amusing if not very coarse, but also so much more disappointing when they never finish. I think Diderot is telling us that the conclusion to the stories is unimportant or the fact that we never know how they end is a point in itself. Jacques himself constantly drives at the futility of changing anything. He is a declared fatalist and convinced that everything that happens is written in the great scroll above. If a thing must happen, it will, and we are powerless to change it. Exactly how that motivates the stories I am not quite certain, but they do serve to illustrate how bizarre and outrageous things can be and that it is virtually impossible to predict what is going to happen, even if it is prescribed.

Diderot insists that everything is true, in the sense that all his stories did actually happen in some form or another and it is difficult not to think that Diderot really just wanted to spread some juicy gossip. Another agenda of his seems to have been to lampoon and grill all the institutions and notabilities he could get away with. He was antiauthoritarian in an age where that was a very dangerous thing to be and he clearly had a lot of things to say about a lot of people.

The upshot is that “Jacques the Fatalist” is a chaotic and messy book to read but highly entertaining and playful, teasing you into rethinking what you think a novel should be. It will never be a favorite of mine, I think, but I am very happy to have read it and I do think I know both Diderot and his age a little better from reading this.

I am not done with Diderot though. The next book is another of his secret novels and another one will pop up when I enter the eighteen hundreds.