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.


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