the religious


Diderot's novel seeks to destabilize, place under suspicion and subvert fanaticism through the description of its practices, discourses and effects

By Arlenice Almeida da Silva*

In dark times, prudence recommends taking refuge in reading the classics. However, if some have a lenient or dissolving effect on the reader; others exacerbate tensions, intensifying forces and energies. As an example of the latter case, I recommend the novel the religious (Perspectiva, 2009), by Denis Diderot, read, if possible, in the company of the beautiful homonymous film by Jacques Rivette (1966).

When the film was censored by the then Secretary of State Yvon Bourges, in response to pressure from religious and educational associations in civil society, Jean-Luc Godard, in an open letter to the then Minister of Culture André Malraux, pointed out with sarcasm: “how prodigiously beautiful it is and moving to see a UNR minister, in 1966, afraid of the encyclopedic spirit of 1789”. Does the A-movie religious would it constitute a threat today, as it was considered by Gaullism in 1966?

The answer is in the book and in its very concise story, which refers to the misfortunes of a 16-year-old girl called Marie-Suzanne Simonin, who is forced to live in a convent, as she is an illegitimate daughter, the result of a mistaken passion in the past. from your mother. With no resources for a dowry or income, she is forced by her family to take vows, become a nun, cloistering herself in a convent.

The novel was written in 1760, distributed to a few readers, as a manuscript, by Correspondence littéraire by Grimm and, finally, published as a book in France in 1796. Since then, a consensus has been formed in the critical fortunes about the work that we do not find, in The nun, anti-Christian theses, but only an anticlericalism, given that Suzanne Simonin would be, deep down, innocent, Christian and pious. In this direction, the novel would aim less at attacking Christianity and more at condemning the practice of forced enclosure.

For this reason the text was read, by many, mainly as a chapter of moral or political philosophy and not as a religious critique. In a recent article, Anne Coudreuse, in fact, recognizes that Suzanne is not just a young woman with no vocation for the religious life, insofar as she embodies a social “figure of resistance”, the presentation of a woman who “can never escape ” in one form or another of imprisonment. However, precisely for this reason, there is in the novel, for the same author, an ironic critique of religion and, specifically, of Christianity, understood as a “speech machine, inside which the character needs to insert himself in order to subvert it. there".[I]

Michel Delon, in the direction of Coudreuse, suggests that the religious allowed Diderot to exorcise his “own demons, agonies and religious obsessions”. In fact, the philosopher is very familiar with the religious environments he narrates; not only the Jesuit college where he was educated in Langres and where at the age of thirteen he almost pronounced his vows, but also the Jansenist dissidence, effervescent at the time, in the Latin Quarter, in which his brother became an intransigent abbot; and the convent Ursulines, de Langres, in which his sister Angelica, religious and mad, tragically dies, in 1748.

Thus, for Delon, the year 1756 marks, in a way, a turning point in Diderot’s trajectory: when his father dies and he is unable to attend the funeral, in a letter to his friend Grimm, he vents: “I didn’t even see my mother die. , nor my father. I will not hide from you that I see this as a curse from heaven.”[ii] For Delon, this will be the last manifestation of superstition, experienced by Diderot as religious liberation; From then on, various moral and existential choices are consummated: “that of Paris against Langres; of the encyclopedic engagement against the Christian faith; of freedom against tradition”.[iii]

The departure from the intimate and familiar context, dominated by religious life, was motivated, moreover, by Diderot's astonishment at the practices of the "seizure women" (convulsionaires), a Jansenist fanaticism that had manifested itself in Paris, mainly among women, and which was the subject of several entries in the Encyclopedia; between them, I highlight the writing by Diderot himself, in volume XIV, entitled “Auxílio” (Emergency), about those modern fanatics who allowed themselves, among other macerations of the flesh, to be nailed to a cross, having their feet and hands pierced by nails.

In this entry, Diderot examines the theme of religious credulity and practices of self-flagellation, marveling at how these forms of martyrdom, when staged in front of an audience, did not hide the suffering of the martyrs; on the contrary, because it was real, the suffering was experienced by victims and spectators as relief or consolation. For Delon, the interest in religious mortifications and fanaticisms enables Diderot to place “Suzanne Simonin in the midst of the violence of the conflicts that tore the French Church apart, between ultramontanes and Galicians, that is, between the defenders of the ecclesiastical hierarchy and the supporters of a paradoxical democracy of faith"[iv].

Diderot, however, does not intend to write a thesis novel, nor to participate in the theological debate; on the contrary, it aims, through the description of its practices, discourses and effects, to destabilize it, put it under suspicion, subverting it, given that, as Alexandre Deleyre states, in another important entry entitled “Fanatismo”, published in volume VI, in 1751, of Encyclopedia, "fanaticism is superstition put into action."[v]

Em the religious Diderot then focuses on the variations of monastic suffering, formally reinventing the novel genre in order to apprehend through it a particular relationship with the martyred body; that is, he seeks to invent a language that is capable of saying it, showing a particular staging of a body that suffers voluntarily. Now, the body is the great theme not only of Diderot's materialist philosophy and libertine literature, its closest affiliation, but it is especially present, as we have seen, in the theological debates that devastated France in the first half of the eighteenth century.

It is for this reason that Diderot takes up the theme of “thereligious in chemise” (naked or crazy religious), whose origin, in France, went back to the libertine anticlerical tradition of Chavigny de Bretonnière and his Venus dans le cloître ou la religieuse en chemise, of 1682, in order to subvert it at the root. Instead of a light and pleasant satire, as occurred in the traditional treatment, the theme now acquires dramatic intensity and gravity in the XNUMXth century, accentuated by means of a long narrative that traverses the journey of the nun's experiences in three convents, to which three correspond. private passions. With this, Diderot avoids any comic or libertine effect, accentuating the pathetic.

In a mixed format that articulates romance and memory, Diderot gives voice to a rebellious young woman, who does not accept being confined in a convent. Named "M"memories”, the voice refers, however, less to memories and more to the format of an intimate diary, written in the immediate sequence of the experience, aiming to instruct a legal piece.

The genre somewhat emulates that practiced in a religious environment, in the XNUMXth century, especially by the lawyers of the Jansenists who, after the bull Unigenitus, of 1713, defended themselves against the accusation of heresy, asserting themselves as the soul of the church and victims of the persecutors. In these “memoirs”, the Jansenists presented defense arguments, in the face of the injustices and mistakes committed, narrating, from the point of view of the victims, the story of their misfortunes. It is in this appropriate and serious tone that Simone writes the Memoirs of a religious who asks, paradoxically, not for her eternal connection with the Church, but for the unilateral and definitive rescission of her vows.

What guarantees the strangeness of the religious it is the unusualness of a voice that, when it cries out for help to the heavens, exhibits an original disbelief, a certain “innocence” or “religion of the heart” that corresponds to what the philosopher calls natural religion. For example, when Suzanne pronounces her vows, what she reports is a paradoxical experience of forgetfulness and unconsciousness, almost like a madness, because at that moment all her senses failed her: “They questioned me, without a doubt, and I, without a doubt, answered , I pronounced the vows, but I have not the slightest memory of them, and I found myself as innocently converted into a religious as I had been converted into a Christian”. [vi]

At the Longchamps convent, we find the same effect of disorganization, silence and silence provoked by Suzanne in Mother Superior Moni: “I don't know what's going on in me; says the mother, it seems to me, when you come, that God withdraws and that his spirit is silent; it is uselessly that I get excited, that I seek ideas, that I wish to exalt my soul; I see myself as an ordinary, narrow-minded woman; I am afraid to speak”.[vii]

This profound feeling, which characterizes Suzanne, sometimes presented as innocence, sometimes as a simple lack of vocation, sometimes corresponds to that described by Diderot, in Rameau's nephew (Unesp, 2019), as when she says: “I am stupid; I obey my fate without repugnance or taste; I feel that the need drags me along and I let myself be carried away (…) I wouldn’t even know how to cry”[viii]The fact is that, faced with Suzanne's purity, the pious Mother loses her talent for consoling: while Moni and the other sisters pray for Suzanne's soul, reciting the Misery, this one sleeps peacefully, without guilt, without dreams, or nightmares, innocently. While Suzanne is attached to things and the present, Superior Moni's small eyes “seemed either to look inside herself or to pass through neighboring objects and discern beyond, at a great distance, always in the past or in the future”.[ix]

Diderot, therefore, builds the image of a feminine rebellion, clear and secure, which is not based on mere psychology, but on a singular religious criticism, as when Suzanne categorically responds to the violent superior Santa Cristina: “It is the house, it is my state , is religion; I don’t want to be locked up, not here, not anywhere else”[X]. In effect, Suzanne's mere presence and her gesture of denial disrupt the religious life of the cloisters, making it possible for religion to be indirectly attacked.

Of course, isolation is the center of Diderot's criticism, given that men are naturally sociable and convents are, for this reason, institutions contrary to nature. However, beyond the confinement, Suzanne's body, mouth and pen are weapons in the fight against the "language of convents", that is, against the murmurings and gestures that directly affect the cloistered bodies, in which the most vulnerable different games of seduction. Between tender looks, sweet voices and affectionate hands, resources of malediction and doubt proliferate; reiterated accusations and insinuations multiplied, fueled by small espionage, unfolded in large pitfalls or traps; in convents discursive stratagems are invented which, in turn, entail new practices of mortification, which exacerbate penances and terrors, full of refinements of cruelty.

Diderot's skilful maneuver is to allow the narrator to slowly dwell on the description of these practices of suffering, suggesting, through reiteration, that they are intrinsic to religious life. The cloister is a “prison” not because it excludes and isolates, but because it constitutes a society of soundings and continuous surveillance, in which everything is collected in order to be, at an opportune moment, in some way, used discursively, be it as an instrument of denunciation and accusation, or of defense.

It is in this context bordering on lawsuits and courts that the mortifications narrated by Suzanne make her recognize, with sharp irony, the paradox of religion: I felt, she says, “the superiority of the Christian religion over all the religions of the world; what profound wisdom there was in that which blind philosophy calls the folly of the cross. (...) I saw the innocent, with the flank pierced, the forehead crowned with thorns, the hands and feet nailed with nails, expiring in suffering, (...) and I clung to this idea, and I felt consolation reborn in my heart. heart".[xi]

Diderot's audacity is to establish literarily, through narrative exacerbation, a modern approximation between suffering and consolation. For example, when he asserts, through the voice of Father Morel, that he too had entered religion against his will: “Religious people are not happy except insofar as they make their crosses a merit before God; then they rejoice over them, these go to meet mortifications; the more bitter and frequent, the more they congratulate each other. It is an exchange that they make of their present happiness for a future happiness; they secure the latter by the voluntary sacrifice of the former. After they have suffered enough, they say: Amplius, Domine; Lord, even more.”[xii]

Not by chance, this same relationship between oppression and relief is taken up by Nietzsche, in § 108 of too human human, (Companhia das Letras, 2000), when the philosopher states that in religious life it is not a question of eliminating the cause of misfortune, but of modifying the effect on our sensitivity, “reinterpreting it as a good”, provoking an anesthesia in pain suffering, relief or consolation, until it becomes a pleasure.[xiii] It is for this reason that the suffering described in detail by Diderot is infinite; locked in an infernal circle of seduction and cruelty, which seems to never end, Suzanne's martyrdom always starts over again, because without suffering there is no religion.

As an ever-repeated movement, it is the tragic dimension, intrinsic to Christianity; without him there would be no miracle of the cross. Therein resides the importance and relevance of Diderot's novel: the more the narrative resembles a nightmare, the more it gains legibility, as a movement of infinite description of mortifications that never end; for, when least expected, suffering is again resumed.

The cloister is not just a place of hypocrisy and fanaticism, as Father Morel says, but a symbolic place of suffering that never ends, as it is always reinterpreted in some way as a good. This interdependence between suffering and consolation, in the Nietzschean sense of “sickly excess of feeling”, stems from a dangerous metaphysics, which, for both authors, rules out any criticism or reform of customs.

As Florence Lotterie demonstrated, there is a continuum of imprisonment in Simonin's narrative,[xiv] a presentation of the precariousness of the feminine that is infinite, acquires imponderable forms, always returning with the same intensity. It begins in Suzanne's family home, continues in the convents and then, when the heroine manages to escape, in order to be able to return to society, she encounters all sorts of suffering: rape, prostitution, marginalization, asylums and, of course, undignified domestic work.

As an insurmountable logic, the excessive voice that narrates religious suffering oscillates, sometimes becoming impersonal, philosophical, discursive and non-narrative, challenging the reader to ask himself who is really speaking: if it is Suzanne's voice, if they are the ideas of the philosopher Diderot, or even of a formless crowd still without a voice.

Intentionally, as in Jacques the Fatalist and his master, (New Alexandria, 2019), 1771 novel, Diderot's literary aesthetics, as shown by Duflo[xv], explores the narrative indetermination, through which the reader is destabilized. As is his nature, Diderot here also pulls the reader out of his passivity, by transferring to him the responsibility of deciding whether the narrative of the sequences of atrocities committed in the three convents is credible or true. Indeed, in the novel the narrative is not and does not intend to be credible, in fact, as the attached preface demonstrates, but, tragically, it can be true.

It is for this reason that, in The nun, the language oscillates between the credible and the true, between fantasy and reality, so that Suzanne's sufferings, like Werther's, Goethe's, are particular, that is, exemplary. It was up to providence, says Suzanne, “to unite on a single unfortunate the whole mass of cruelties distributed, in its impenetrable decrees, by the infinite multitude of unfortunates who had preceded her in the cloister, and who were to succeed her”.[xvi]

Diderot knows very well how the belief system works in his time and how difficult it is to confront it; he knows that belief always brings morality closer to a supposedly sensible, organized, improbable and inaccessible world. That is why Diderot starts from the Lucretian idea of ​​a world produced by chance, in order to found a morality in the concrete relations between men, that is, specifically in the happiness of men.

Suzanne's piety or innocence is therefore not a rhetorical strategy, through which Diderot can paint with contrasts the perversions of convent superiors; nor just a pathetic resource, made of games and erotic insinuations, aiming to provoke scandal or tears in its reader. For him, it is only through the language of natural innocence, which exposes the vulnerability of the feminine, in subtle links between seduction and cruelty, that it is possible to confront the abuses of religious practices: “Suzanne’s piety is not just a strategy rhetoric to please the Marquis de Croismare, winning his sympathy, but it is the only discourse through which an effective critique of Christianity is possible”.[xvii]

At no point in the narrative do we have a merely psychological, interior suffering, as it is social and collective all the time. Diderot thus states, without mincing words, that the convent “is the latrine (sentina) into which the refuse of society is thrown”.[xviii] As Duflo points out, all of society knows that convents “kill, drive people crazy and are prisons where innocent people are locked up for economic and social reasons”[xx]; It is for this reason that, for the critic, the religious it is the only novel of the period that is devoted at length to the theme of collective persecution.

Delon, in the same direction, draws consequences on religious intolerance, which certainly extrapolate the XNUMXth century: “those who sacrifice best are those who most easily sacrifice their neighbors; the fascination with the martyred body accustoms them to violence and the certainty of having a God who encourages them to persecute those who are not on their side”.[xx]

Suzanne, as a daughter of nature, is thus a dangerous power, as she is immune to the language of convents: her heart is “inflexible” to consolation; on the one hand, she does not accept being considered sinful, unworthy or abject; on the other hand, she wants happiness in the present and not in the future, even without knowing where to find it; thus, she does not allow herself to be seduced by Moni's consoling rhetoric, nor by the violent tortures of Mother Cristine, nor by the seduction of the possible erotic pleasures of Mother Santa-Eutrope. As she is not vulnerable, like the others, she knows how to use the word in her favor, she exercises linguistic self-control and writes her own defense, in a hurry, abusing short sentences, in a tone that oscillates between strong agitation and great serenity; in her words, “good or bad, but with incredible speed and ease”.

Here is the voice of a woman “natural and without artifice”, who begs for help, in a world dominated by men, in order to achieve a tolerable condition within society. In the memorable comparison he weaves between forest and convent, Diderot articulates nature and society, in the following terms: “put a man in a forest, he will become ferocious; in a cloister where the idea of ​​necessity joins that of servitude, it is even worse; one leaves a forest, one never leaves a cloister; in the forest one is free, one is a slave in the cloister”.[xxx]

If the Memoirs of Suzanne are denied by the courts, and also by the alleged narrator, in the impudence of the preface-attachment, it is in order to confirm the convent as an institutional complement of society itself, in order to allow the reader to verify the oppression not only of the cloister, but from the perverse structure of society, especially for a poor woman. The tragedy of Suzanne's life is that even though she manages to escape the last convent, she still has nowhere to go.

If Diderot is dangerous, it is because he exacerbates this articulation between suffering and consolation, to the point where the reader realizes, disconsolately, that, in fact, all Suzanne has to do is keep running away. This is what André Gide would also suggest, years later, in the fruits of the earth (Difel, 2012), from 1871: “When you have read me, throw this book away – and leave. I wish I had given you the desire to leave – leave whatever and wherever you are, your city, your family, your room, your thoughts.[xxiii]".

*Arlenice Almeida da Silva is a professor of aesthetics and philosophy of art at the Department of Philosophy at UNIFESP.


[I] COUDREUSE, Anne, The nun by Diderot: a critique of the cloistered conventuelle, In: HAL, Montpellier, 2012.

[ii] Apud: DELON, Michel, Diderot cul par-dessus tete. Paris: Albin Michel, 2013, p. 271 (

[iii] Same, same.

[iv] Same, p. 262

[v] DIDEROT and D'ALEMBERT, Encyclopedia, v.6. São Paulo: Editora Unesp, 2017, p. 274 (

[vi] DIDEROT, Denis, The nun. Construction, v.7. Translation J. Guinsburg. São Paulo: Perspectiva, 2009, p. 79 (

[vii] Ditto, p. 75.

[viii] Ditto, p. 78.

[ix] Same, same.

[X] Ditto, p. 106.

[xi] Ditto, p. 121.

[xii] Ditto, p. 205.

[xiii] Cf. NIETZSCHE, Friedrich, Human, all too human. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2000, p. 85.

[xiv] LOTTERIE, Florence, Diderot, Religion, Paris: Flammarion, 2009.

[xv] DUFLO, Glues, Les adventures de Sophie. La philosophie dans le Roman au XVIII siècle. Paris: CNRS Editions, 2013, p. 218.

[xvi] Ditto, p. 128.

[xvii] Coudreuse, op. cit., p. 11.

[xviii] Diderot, the religious, P. 133.

[xx] DUFLO, Glues, Diderot, philosopher. Paris: Honoré Champion, 2013, p. 440-444.

[xx] DELON, op. quote, p. 265.

[xxx] DIDEROT, the religious, P. 166.

[xxiii] Andre Gide, the fruits of the earth. São Paulo, Difel, 2012, p. 15

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