Tag Archives: Denis Diderot

The Heart’s Watermarks


I had the pleasure of attending a lecture given by Ken Botnick on his recently published artist book, Diderot Project. While waiting for my final exam of the semester to be released I calmed my nerves by spending a leisurely morning in Mortimer Rare Book Room extending the pleasure by reading this sumptuous, intelligent, and marvelously reverential work.


I decided, while photographing some of the pages, that I would leave my own hand in the image. First of all—it made it a hell of a lot easier to take the image, but also, reading this book is such a richly tactile experience that my own hand began to take on all of the most wonderful aspects of the book. Not least of all–the first section—which is titled: “To Observe Without Confusion Vol. 1 Memory: The Hand.” My hand turning and touching each page created an echo of meaning. As Botnick relates, to touch something is a complex act: “grasping cannot be reduced to its visomoter aspects” (Marc Jeannerod quoted). And then, the spectacle of dried paint under my thumbnail (the stubborn vestiges of my own printmaking adventures) created a connection between myself, the artist Botnick, and les métiers (the trades) which Diderot so famously championed in his encyclopedia. And finally— I work the book. It is my tool. By my hand the deliciously rich and varied papers are discovered, the ideas absorbed, the beauty felt. The object is directly infused into my senses, of which touch, as Diderot believed, is the most essential.

Hand knowledge and symbolic knowledge constitute equally powerful but different and not equally appreciated ways of organizing worldly phenomena” (Jeanne Bamberger quoted).


Botnick pieces together a variety of text by various authors, including himself, as a way into the project of representing, through a work, through an object, the vibrating pulse of Diderot’s spectacular l’Encyclopedie. Botnick lets the affecting qualities of what it means and how it feels to become deeply engrossed— intellectually, aesthetically, and emotionally— radiate out through his own book. In the second part, “I Insist on the Freedom Vol. 2 Reason: the Object”  he includes the poem, “Delights of the door” by Francis Ponge, arrestingly hinged on the gutter of the book. There is something so sweetly lovely about it…I love to turn a page and feel a smile rise upon my mouth.


Some of the most extraordinary pages are the most difficult to photograph. Botnick designed several watermarks and had Paul Wang of Dieu Donné Paper produce. I have a weakness (thanks, especially, to Henry Miller) for watermarks. In the third image posted here the watermark of a compass can just be made out, these pages call to the reader’s hand with such intensity it is impossible not to lift the page and find the image increased by the backing of one’s own darker skin behind it. The paper is breathtaking throughout the book, but these pages are so lovely…Botnick has a gift for finding the sublime in the subtle.


The person who perceives is not spread out before herself as a consciousness must be, she has historical density, she takes up a perceptual tradition and is faced with a present…(Maurice Merleau-Ponty quoted).

The above page, found in the final part, “Through Sensation We are Led to Abstraction Vol. 3 Imagination: The Senses” just about made me fall to my knees…I was trying to drown out the office chit-chat that was being conducted behind me so I put my earbuds in and played my playlist I call “Eclectic” —because it is. As I turned the page, the music went from Sue Jorge’s “Rock N’ Roll Suicide” to Mendelssohn’s Elijah op. 70 “he that shall endure.”  Something in those opening chords combined with the image in front of me just about slayed me.  Our personal-historical density informs and layers every experience we have. This is what I love about a book such as Botnick’s: what he brings, what Diderot left, the watermarks of my own heart—all these things are lived in the object.

IMG_3757 (1)*

*Project Diderot, the work of Ken Botnick, editor, author, designer, printer, and publisher (Emdash 2015). Bound by Daniel Kelm (Wide Awake Garage).


Parlez, bijoux!

There is nothing like being a human. As ridiculous as a work may be, if it is praised it will succeed.
—Denis Diderot, trans. Sophie Hawkes, Les Bijoux indiscrets/The Indiscreet Jewels, (61)


As my interest (okay, fine, obsession) with Diderot continues I took a slight detour into his novels (he is famed for his l’Enclopedie but perhaps not as well known for his literary works). Perhaps detour is too strong a word, the fact that each of his three novels are completely different and experimental in their own way fits perfectly into the kind of discursive and avid (not too strong a word in his case, I believe) intellect.

Allow the voice of your jewel to awaken the voice of your conscience, and do not blush at confessing the crimes you had no shame to commit (61).

The premise of Les Bijoux indiscrets is hilariously scandalous, I’m amazed, frankly, that Dali or Almodóvar never made a film of it. How can one resist a story of a sultan who obtains a magical ring which, once turned toward its female victim, causes her “jewel” to speak. Don’t think that just because this book came out in 1748 women’s vaginas didn’t have a lot to bitch about, actually, I suppose they had more…but this is not a book whose purpose is sympathy for the desires of the various jewels. It is really a provocative philosophical romp undressing the sexual hypocrisies of society.

Diderot was of course accused of indecency and while he was in the middle of negotiating the terms of his editorial-ship in regard to his monumental and incredible l’Encyclopdie, he was promptly thrown into jail for many months. That’s the thing about hypocrites—no sense of humor. Ah well.

Diderot uses this genre, (some people consider it a roman à clef, as some of the characters seem pointed towards real people—and court life in general) in an interesting way. Quick digression—I should mention that I also read his book, The Nun (La Religieuse) and, although a very different genre, it seems to me that he uses the literary form in both cases to explore philosophical ideas and political critiques. Both books suffer from this inverted stance. In literature, the story must come first, and whatever philosophy flows from the tale should not try to lead. It would be like a tango with two leads—an exquisite balance is lost. In The Nun, written as if it were a sort of Samuel Richardson novel in the vein of Clarrisa (Diderot wrote an essay in praise of Richardson that is so effusive in its praise that it is only its sincerity that keeps it from being on the wrong side of the ridiculous— but gosh I love the man’s committed passion!). I digress. The protagonist, Suzanne, is a woman forced into the cloistered life petitioning (the novel is, like Clarissa, epistolary, a long letter written to a man she hopes will help her out of her miserable condition) to be let free. For Diderot’s purposes it is important that Suzanne have no ulterior motive other than the simple reasonable truth that she has no feeling or interest for the vocation. She simply has no calling for it, why should she not have the freedom, the free will, to say, no thank you?  And the tortures and indignities she suffers with perfect patience and understanding! And yet, this purity and simplicity makes Suzanne a pretty flat character, and worse, she really loses credibility when, in an extended series of scenes (greatly detailed) she remains oblivious to the importunate sexual advances that are inherent in the Mother Superior’s fondling of Suzanne’s breasts (and other sweet spots)…. Really Suzanne? I know Diderot wanted to make her “an innocent” but I don’t care who you are, if your breasts are being fondled you are going to feel something, and if you are remotely intelligent you are certainly going to suspect something. Geesh.

But back to the jewels.

“Many are those in whom the soul visits the head as if it were a country house, where the stay is brief. These are the dandies, flirts, musicians, poets, novelists, courtiers, and all those whom we call pretty women. Listen to these people argue, and you will immediately recognize vagabond souls that are influenced by the different climes they inhabit” (126).

While the premise of this novel is fun, I don’t think Diderot has enough fun with it, but that may be because that is not really what he wants to talk about, and he may simply lack any deep insight into the complexity of what a woman’s vagina may have to report on from her perspective…the novel seems focused on the jewels’ fidelity or lack thereof (more the man’s perspective, I’d say) but what is lovely in the novel is the relationship between the sultan Mangogul and his beloved Mirzoza. Their spirited and philosophically complex discussions are the true heart of this novel. I couldn’t help thinking that Mirzoza stood for Sophie Volland who was Diderot’s mistress—her name was not Sophie, but because the name harkens the Greek word for wisdom that is what he called her throughout their passionate (intellectual and sexual) relationship as documented in his copious letters to her (only his are known to be extant).

“What! [affection in a jewel] devoid of meaning?” Cried Mirzoza. “So, is there no middle ground, and must a woman necessarily be a prude, a gallant, a coquette, a voluptuary, or a libertine?”
“My soul’s delight,” said the sultan, “I am ready to admit the inexactitude of my list, and I would add the affectionate woman to the preceding characters, but only on the condition that you give me a definition thereof that does not fall under one of my categories.” (100)

Where does the soul reside? Are animals sentient? Are people fundamentally good or bad? These are some of the conversations dispersed throughout the tale between these two lovers whose respect and tenderness for each other is a lovely thing to spend some time with.

*monoprint—”Motherhood” by J. Ryan 2015

Salt of Words

The object in which power is inscribed, for all of human eternity, is language, or to be more precise, its necessary expression: the language we speak and write.”
—Roland Barthes, A Barthes Reader, edited by Susan Sontag. From the essay “Inaugural Lecture” (460).


Bons mots, bon app’!

I have been deeply engaged in reading as many books about the French Enlightenment figure: Denis Diderot as my wearied eyes can manage. I love the way his mind is organized around a passionate principle of discursive delights. I am planning on writing a short research paper about him, but I have gotten so involved in so many varied primary source essays, novels, and secondary source material— not to mention the impetus of my  fascination: l’Encyclopedie des Sciences— that I was complaining to a friend that I had read far too much to be able to write a mere 7-8 page paper. He suggested that I get some sort of learning disability dispensation stating that my inability to stop reading requires that I be allowed to write twice as much.

Worsening my condition, thanks to Diderot, I now have a new person of interest: Roland Barthes. I got the book A Barthes Reader because it had an essay about the plates of  l’Encyclopedie (the area I will try to narrow my focus upon), but was unable to rest until I had read all of the other varied and wonderful essays within and then, yes, request another book of his: A Lover’s Discourse (but how could I resist that title, I ask you?), possibly, I need help. But nevermind that–

The act of stating, by exposing the subject’s place and energy, even his deficiency (which is not his absence), focuses on the very reality of language, acknowledging that language is an immense halo of implications, of effects, of echoes, of turns, returns, and degrees. […] Writing makes knowledge festive (464).

In Roland Barthes’ essay “Inaugural Lecture,” which is a lecture that he gave upon the inauguration of his position as Chair of Literary Semiology for Collége de France, asserts that it is literature alone which can “understand speech outside the bounds of power” (462). He breaks his argument into three parts based on Greek concepts: Mathesis, Mimesis, and Semiosis. 

Mathesis, or acquisition of knowledge, of which literature is replete—this is not to say that literature is a manual from which one studies, nor is it an either/or proposition—simply, it is really something more: “science is crude, life is subtle” (463) and it is literature that negotiates that line. For Barthes it is significant that the French words (this essay was translated by Richard Howard) flavor and knowledge have the same root. Beautifully put:  literature is the “salt of words,” and it is this, this quality in literature, this “taste of words which makes knowledge profound, fecund” (465) that lifts the burden of acquiring knowledge.

For all knowledge, all sciences are present in the literary monument. Whereby we can say that literature, whatever the school in whose name it declares itself, is absolutely, categorically realist:  it is reality, i.e. the very spark of the real. Yet literature, in this truly encyclopedic respect, displaces the various kinds of knowledge, does not fix or fetishize any or them (463).

Mimesis is of course related to representation, “literature’s second force” (465).

The real is not representable, and it is because men ceaselessly try to represent it by words that there is a history of literature (465).

This is the aim of literature, this realism which the writer will persist “according to the truth of desire” (467) in demonstrating even though, as Barthes’ concedes, “literature is quite as stubbornly unrealistic; it considers sane its desire for the impossible” (466). But even at its most modernistic, literature is based in describing the real, that is what allows a reader to connect to the work.

[The semiology of the speaker] is not a hermeneutics: it paints more than it digs, via di porre rather than via de levare. Its objects of predilection are texts of the image-making process: narratives, images, portraits, expressions, idiolects, passions, structures which play simultaneously with an appearance of verisimilitude and with an uncertain truth (475).

Semiosis is then the effort to “elicit the real” (474). Barthes only concedes that semiotics has a relation to science, not that it is a science. It “helps the traveler” but is not a “grid” meant to make clear a “direct apprehension of the real” (474). It can’t possibly because  it is affixed to a moving target. Language is not static, nor apolitical, nor ahistorical: “I cannot function outside language, treating it as a target, and within language, treating it as a weapon” (473).

It is a fascinating and thought-provoking essay, and it is just one of many in the book. I knew I had to read them all when the premier essay was the very first one Barthes had ever published in 1942 on one of my favorites: André Gide. The penultimate essay described here is “Inaugural Lecture” and it stays with me. He recounts towards the end his experience of reading Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain and how he was struck, powerfully, by the force of reading that historically removed novel about a disease which he himself had had and yet which was, because of modern treatment, a different disease than it had been in Mann’s time. This realization of a connection, through his body, of being linked to the past, was something he said he must forget so to be free for a vita nuova. He distilled his insight into his closing remarks which left me with chills:

There is an age at which we teach what we know. Then comes another age at which we teach what we do not know; this is called research. Now perhaps comes the age of another experience: that of unlearning, of yielding to the unforeseeable change which forgetting imposes on the sedimentation of the knowledges, cultures, and beliefs we have traversed. This experience has, I believe, an illustrious and outdated name, which I now simply venture to appropriate at the very crossroads of its etymology: Sapientia: no power, a little knowledge, a little wisdom, and as much flavor as possible” (478).

God that’s lovely.

*French macarons with raspberry or chocolate hazelnut filling.