Prose of the World – Denis Diderot and the Periphery of the Enlightenment

Image: Lars Englund


Excerpt from newly released book

“I do nothing” – the last three years of Diderot's life


On July 28, 1781, three years and three days before he died, Denis Diderot wrote a letter to Angélique de Vandeul, his beloved and only daughter – this text would be the last document in which he speaks of himself. Angélique's moral and aesthetic education, in accordance with the ideals of the Enlightenment, was so important to her father that he constantly feared exposing her to conflicts with her mother's rigid religious values.

In September 1772, aged 19, Angélique married Abel-François-Nicolas Caroillon de Vandeul, the son of a wealthy family from Langres, thanks to a good dowry that Diderot tenaciously negotiated with his future son-in-law and to the stipend he Catherine the Great had offered him. Shortly thereafter, the new father-in-law called upon his contacts in Parisian politics and business to promote Angélique's husband, and by 1781 Abel was launched making his fortune in the emerging steel industry. The couple went on to have two children, continued to travel frequently between Langres and Paris and enjoyed a life of reasonable comfort according to the standards of the social class and historical time in which they lived.

The words that begin Diderot's last personal letter reveal that it was motivated by an amorous request from Angélique and that her father was having difficulty in responding to her: "I don't know, my daughter, if you take great pleasure in reading me, but not he ignores that writing is torture for me; and that doesn't stop her from demanding another one of my letters; this is what is called a pure personality, and giving yourself decidedly preference over others.”

Line after line, one is left with the impression that the casual topics and rush of his prose were no longer easy for Diderot, and that he was painfully aware of it. At one point he wrote of how his social connections were "dissolving" - and that it didn't make him very unhappy: "I watch with some satisfaction how all my relationships come undone". But, he added, Angélique would not lose anything with this change: “Vous n'y perdrez pas”. The openness to the world that for so many years had entertained, fed and animated Denis Diderot was now closed to the narrow circle of his family – and he resigned himself to that process.

Contrary to what Angélique supposed, no new interest or project lit up her life: “Do I work in moderation? I do nothing,” wrote Denis Diderot. In this situation, like so many older people, Diderot occupied his time by reading novels, discovering that they were good at dispelling bouts of bad temper (vapeurs) and so he had decided to "offer" his wife regular novel readings.

Now he spent most of the day with her – and seemed to be less annoyed with her than he had been for the previous 40 years: “I give her three doses of giblas every day; one in the morning; one after dinner; one at night. when we finish giblas, we will start the Manco Devil, the Bachelor of Salamanca; and other such works of this nature. A few hundred such readings over a period of years will complete the cure. If I were sure of success, of course, the task would not seem difficult. The funny thing is that she tells all the visitors about what she has learned and the conversation doubles the effectiveness of the medicine. He had always treated novels as rather frivolous productions; I finally discovered that they are good for bad moods”.

But talking about romances didn't exactly inflame the letter, and so Diderot closed with another frigid reference to his wife, who had taken to making gooseberry and apricot jams for Angélique's family and wanted him to pay for the sugar. But, above all, he was pleased to have filled a good number of pages: “Your mother makes you currant and apricot jams. They gave her the fruit and she makes me pay for the sugar. For a man who despairs of writing return letters, here is one long enough.”

A good two years earlier, since Sèvres, where he liked to spend the spring at the country house of a friend, the jeweler Belle, Denis Diderot was still writing to Angélique in a very different tone, with the warmth of paternal affection and melancholy with distance. that separated him from his daughter and grandchildren: “Your absence saddened the city and beautified the countryside, especially when the sky dissolved into water and the countryside was on the point of disappearing between the two arms of the Seine, under our terrace. Like you, I am furious with the permanence of this good weather. At night, I thought I heard the leaves on the trees shivering with the raindrops. I got up with my shirt on, and seeing only a starry sky, or the horizon of a beautiful purple color, I went to feel sad between the sheets for what I had made others wake up. Hence I conclude that a good father is often a very bad man; and I secretly carried in the depths of my heart this sentiment, honest, meek and human: may all the others perish, provided that my children prosper, and I persuaded myself that this is, however, one of those cases in which one esteems less and loves more. ”.

They may not be the most stylisticly brilliant phrases ever composed by Diderot, unleashed on a landscape and a feeling, but they are very exuberant in their detailed description of the fluid contiguity between rain, colors and complex emotions – thus, they produce an impression of liveliness, which a few months later he was no longer able to evoke.

As well as relating facts about her activities, Diderot also used to talk with friendly condescension about Angélique's mother: “By the way, I forgot to tell you about the two great misfortunes that befell Madame Diderot. The ungrateful Bibi is gone; and the perfidious Collet, a cat husband of a cat named Colette, maimed one of his canaries and ripped his canary's back with a claw. There is no perfect happiness in this world.”

Above all, Diderot spoke fondly and with some self-mockery about his grandchildren, and he saluted them as well as their father – whereas in the July 1781 letter they receive no mention: “Kiss Caroillon for me; I love your little ones madly, although they think I was rude for not being able to tell them where Charlemagne died. Spare their brains and their delicate breasts, fill neither their heads nor their stomachs.”


What happened to Denis Diderot between May 1779 and July 1781? It must have been years of progressive deterioration in his health, due to dropsy and emphysema, which annulled and dissolved his exceptional gift of transforming every contact with the material world into energy and intensity of life. More likely, he started breathing heavily and having to stop every time he walked a hundred yards. He also complained of no longer being able to concentrate at night or work by candlelight. And, having expert knowledge about the latest medical understandings and discoveries of his time, Denis Diderot did not have as many illusions about the immanence of death as his friends and perhaps even his doctors.

How has your life changed, without that unique energy that had turned you towards the world, in constant pleasure? How did he imagine it would be like to die? In addition to a constantly reiterated confidence that posterity and his future readers would fully value and rescue his work, a rhetorical figure that seems quite conventional to me, Denis Diderot neither avoided nor dedicated himself to talking about his death. Perhaps he also remembered some materialist debates that had problematized the concept in question and extracted some serenity from them: “I live, act and react in mass… Dead, I act and react in molecules… I never die, therefore?… No, without a doubt, I don't die in this sense, neither do I, nor anyone else… To be born, to live and to pass away is to change forms… And what does one form or another matter?”.

It is true that we know, from the testimony of several of his friends, that Denis Diderot expected death to “come suddenly” (he was referring to une sudden death), without much anticipation or physical suffering – and, above all, without giving his wife time to call a priest to administer the last rites. Imagining your own death as “sudden” may have added yet another layer to the existential dimension of contingency that so fascinated Denis Diderot. But if these thoughts didn't bother him too much, family and friends tried not to tell him about the death of loved ones. Perhaps he did not know of Sophie Volland's death on February 22, 1784, and the family on the Langres side decided not to break the news to him when his granddaughter Marie-Anne de Vandeul died on March 15 of the same year.

What altered his behavior and, we might say, altered his values ​​even more profoundly than his reflections on death was the progressive disappearance of energy – which probably affected his state of carelessness. For the first time since Catherine the Great had guaranteed him the economic base of his existence, Diderot returned to concern himself with the publication, in 1782, and with the success of a text, more precisely his last original work, an essay entitled "Sur les regnes de Claude e de Néron” (“On the reigns of Claudius and Nero”), dedicated to Seneca, whose stoicism he greatly admired. Disappointed by the less than ambiguous reactions, Diderot then began to think about publishing his complete works.

But he never got beyond a few preparatory financial initiatives, like asking back money he had lent to friends, thus belying his once-appreciated generosity: “Listen, my friend; I am working on a complete edition of my works. I have four copyists that cost me about 1.20l per month. I am broke and I beg you to help me. You owe me 3.49l. If you could give me that amount, if it wasn't bothersome, so much the better. If you have to bother, then bother”.

At the same time, and contrary to his publicly known habit of engaging in conversations in the most varied positions, Denis Diderot became increasingly sensitive to situations of controversy and tension. He accused his friend Grimm, for example, of behaving like "a courtier" because he did not follow the public acclaim surrounding the Histoire des deux Indes de Raynal. When, in the late summer of 1781, Denis Diderot received the news that he had been elected an honorary member of the Scottish Society of Antiquaries, he replied in English and mixed the expression of his gratitude with bitterness at the treatment he had received all his life in France: “I I should have had the honor of replying to you earlier, but I have been prevented from doing so by a disorder which is more annoying than painful, and from which I have little hope of completely extricating myself. Your letter has come in good time to mend past sufferings, and to give me strength against those to come. I cannot forget the persecutions I suffered in my own country; but, side by side with this painful memory, I will place that of the tokens of esteem I have received from foreign nations.”

Denis Diderot certainly had multiple reasons for the resentment he felt towards institutions and some enemies in France. But if – whether for strategic considerations or a natural predisposition not to feel paranoia – he had never made much of it, in the last years of his life – when he might have enjoyed wider respect and admiration – he began to literally feel chased.


Deprived of his former vitality, however, there was not much left for Denis Diderot to enjoy, and we can imagine how he waited for death – permanently and somewhat impatiently – as a sudden event. Above all other character modifications, perhaps he also wanted, for the first time in his life, to speed up the flow of time.

The long-awaited final moment seemed to have finally arrived in February 1784, with a serious health crisis, which Angélique recalls in detail: “On February 19, 1784, he suffered a violent crisis, spitting up blood. “Here's who's going to die here, he told me, we'll have to part: I'm strong, maybe it won't happen in the next two days, but in two weeks, two months, a year…” I was so used to believing him, that I did not doubt the truth for a single moment; and all the time of his illness, I would come home to him trembling, and leave with the idea that I would never see him again. […] On the eighth day of the illness, he talked: he was troubled; he said a wrong sentence; he realized this, started over and missed again. Then he got up: “A stroke,” he told me, looking at himself in the mirror, showing me his slightly crooked mouth and a cold, inert hand. He goes into his room, sits on the bed, kisses my mother, says goodbye to her, kisses me, says goodbye to me, explains where we would find some books that weren't his, and stops talking. Only he had his head; the rest of the world had lost it.”

But even after this performance of a stoic passage, perfectly executed, death did not come. Diderot recovered and felt an appetite again – perhaps too much, according to his daughter. Only his legs remained “very swollen”. It was then that his friends and doctors hatched the project of asking Catherine the Great to finance a move from the building where Denis Diderot had lived for thirty years with his family on the fourth floor (with its library even higher up) to a place on the second floor. ground floor. In a note dated May 19, His Majesty expressed concern and almost reprimanded Grimm for not having told him earlier, instructing the Russian Embassy to look for a new apartment, with direct access from the street.

They found a luxurious room, which they rented, at 39 Rue Richelieu, over some protest from Grimm and Holbach, worried that the local parish priest would surely refuse their friend a Christian funeral – the only decent funeral available. Denis Diderot, on the contrary, surprised everyone when, back from Sèvres, he moved with great satisfaction into his new apartment – ​​although he did not expect to live there more than a few days.

He seemed to have regained energy and grace in the face of the imminent presence of death: “I wanted to leave the countryside and come and live there; he enjoyed the house twelve days; and he was delighted with it. Having always lived in a sort of slum, he now found himself in a palace. But his body weakened every day. His mind didn't change: he was convinced of the approaching end, but he didn't talk about it [...]. On the eve of his death, a more comfortable bed was brought to him; it was a big job to put it together. “My friends,” he told them, “you are working hard here for a piece of furniture that will not be used for more than four days.”


That afternoon, he received some friends. Angélique wanted to recall –perhaps putting “famous last words” in her father's mouth – that the topic of conversations was the state of philosophy, and that Diderot ended his intellectual life relating this “science” to the central premise of atheism: “In conversation , he spoke about philosophy and the different paths to reach this science: “The first step”, he said, “towards philosophy, is disbelief”. That was the last word he spoke before me: it was late, and I left him; I was hoping to see you."

The next day was Saturday, July 31, 1784. After getting up, Denis Diderot spoke with his son-in-law and his doctor and sat down at the table with his family for lunch: “He sat down at the table. He had a soup, boiled lamb and chicory. He picked an apricot; my mother wanted to stop him from eating that fruit. “What the devil do you think he will do to me?” He ate it, leaned his elbow on the table to eat some marmalade cherries, coughed a little. My mother asked him something; when he didn't answer, she raised her head and looked at him: he was no longer alive”.

That final moment was pure Diderot. He had been impatiently awaited for a long time, but death came suddenly, just as he had expected. His last words began with the most directly secular plague ("what devil!”) that he had so often used. He was also able to take advantage of the last opportunity not to follow the advice of his wife, who probably spoke in line with the XNUMXth century belief that the fruit was harmful to people in fragile health. Above all, Denis Diderot died eating, in that most elementary and metabolic relationship with the material world.

Faithful to his materialistic principles and his fascination with medicine, he wrote that he wanted to be autopsied. Unsurprisingly: “My father believed it wise to autopsy those who ceased to exist; he believed that this operation would be useful to the living. He asked me this more than once; and so it was. His head was as perfect, as well-preserved as a twenty-year-old's. One of his lungs was full of water; his heart, two-thirds larger than other people's. The gallbladder was completely dry: there was no bilious matter left, but it contained 21 stones, the smallest of which was the size of a walnut.”

Denis Diderot seems to have been less concerned than most of his friends, atheists like himself and non-Orthodox Christians, believers in some divine being, with the question of the funeral. But he was aware of how important this was to Angélique and his wife. Everything passed easily: “Her burial of her had only slight difficulties. The curate of Saint-Roch sent a priest to watch over him; this one used more pomp than simplicity in this terrible ceremony”.

The “pomp” that his daughter refers to consisted of the presence of fifty priests during the religious ceremony in the afternoon of August 31st. Angélique and her husband received and paid a large bill for the service. Perhaps it was the unofficial custom that the parish of Saint-Roch charged for the funeral of an atheist with wealthy family members. On the other hand, the Vandeuls had more conservative religious leanings than Diderot's daughter wanted her father to know. For all her candid admiration, for all her love, there was also in the strangely secular behavior and tone of the Memoirs de Angélique a touch of slightly hypocritical.

After all, education never corresponds perfectly to the values ​​it intends to transmit – thus becoming “the world's prose”. Denis Diderot would not be surprised to experience, once more, and beyond death, the limits of his agency. Perhaps being less concerned with perfection and agency than with enjoying the energy of life was his ultimate legacy.

*Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht He is a professor of comparative literature at Stanford University. Author, among other books, of After 1945: latency as the origin of the present (unesp).


Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht. Prose of the World – Denis Diderot and the Periphery of the Enlightenment. Translation: Ana Isabel Soares. São Paulo, Unesp, 2022, 386 pages (

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