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