D'Alembert's Dream by Denis Diderot.

Manuscript of Le Rêve de d'Alembert from Œuvres.
D'Alembert's Dream (Le Rêve de d'Alembert) is another fictional dialogue-based piece by Denis Diderot and it was written in about 1782 following Rameau's Nephew, but not published until 1830. It's divided into three parts:

1. Conversation between d’Alembert and Diderot
2. D’Alembert’s Dream
3. Sequel to the conversation
    The characters in this are based on real people: Diderot, obviously, is the author and the protagonist. Then there is d'Alembert: Jean le Rond d'Alembert, co-editor alongside Diderot of the Encyclopédie (published between 1751 - 1772). Next, Mademoiselle de Lespinasse is Jeanne Julie Éléonore de Lespinasse, owner of a prominent salon. Her letters (Lettres inédités de Mademoiselle de Lespinasse à Condorcet, à d'Alembert, à Guibert, au comte de Crillon) were published in 1887. Finally, Théophile de Bordeu, who was a doctor and contributor to the Encyclopédie.

    Jean-Baptiste le Rond d'Alembert,
    by Maurice Quentin de La Tour.
    Jean le Rond d'Alembert was a sceptic in the true sense of the word and abandoned the idea of Materialism, which, in a nutshell, is the belief that everything has a material substance, even the most abstract of things. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as:
    Philosophy The theory or belief that nothing exists except matter and its movements and modifications.
    The theory or belief that consciousness and will are wholly due to material agency. 
    D'Alembert, on the other hand, agreed largely with George Berkeley (author of A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, 1710) that denies material substance, arguing that all 'material' substances are in the minds of those who perceive them (this is 'immaterialism' or 'subjective idealism'), though, above all else, he remained a sceptic, thus he did not wholeheartedly embrace this philosophy.

    Diderot thought otherwise. As Leonard Tancock writes in the introduction to the 1966 Penguin edition,
    As early as 1749, in the Lettre sur les aveugles, he had shown how a man's ideas, character, and even moral and religious position are determined by the purely material state of his body...
    It is these ideas that are thrashed out in the first part of D'Alembert's Dream. In the first part, Diderot puts forth his ideas on materialism and the two debate it with reference to the origins of life, animal reproduction, and the apparent 'sensitivity' of matter. It is in this part, incidentally, that Diderot pretty convincingly, puts to bed the 'chicken and egg' debate:
    Dɪᴅᴇʀᴏᴛ: If you are bothered about the question of the priority of the egg over the hen or of the hen over the egg, it is because you assume that animals were in the beginning what they are at present. How absurd! We have no more idea of what they have been in the past than we have of what they will become.
    Julie de Lespinasse
    by Louis Carrogis Carmontelle.
    In the second part we see d'Alembert the following morning after a very disturbed night. His close friend Mademoiselle de Lespinasse is at his bedside nursing him, and she has summoned her doctor, Théophile de Bordeu to help her. She tells him of d'Alembert's ravings through the night, some which she has written down, and throughout d'Alembert wakes up from time to time and contributes before ultimately waking up fully, getting dressed, and leaving.

    Bordeu, like Diderot, was a materialist, and once again the subject is debated though more from a medial / biological point of view. Bordeu likens the nervous system to a spider in its web, and the web itself is fragile. Any kind of damage to the web, however small, leads to difference in behaviour and attitude. Tancock writes, "hence our psychological or moral behaviour is also explicable in terms of physiology". It should be noted that though Diderot had an interest in science, he was not actually a scientist - Tancock writes,
    He may have had a boyish enthusiasm for the wonders of science, and a somewhat ghoulish interest in the kinds of monstrosities and freaks of nature one sees exhibited at a fair, but he was above all a moralist concerned with man and the foundations of his behaviour as an individual and as a social animal. 
    Later that day, with d'Alembert not yet returned, the doctor goes back to Mademoiselle de Lespinasse's apartment, as promised, and the two have lunch. They continue their discussion, uninterrupted by d'Alembert, They debate the implications of this biological determinism discussed in the second part, particularly with regard to moral and philosophical issues, though eugenics and cross-breeding is mentioned. They also discuss ethics of sex, and if sexual relations do not harm an individual or society then morality does not come into it.

    Théophile de Bordeu, from
    Recherches sur l'histoire de la médecine (1882 edition).
    D'Alembert's Dream is another tricky text for me. I've tried simply to give an outline of what goes on, but I'm in no position to offer much more than a vague commentary! It's interesting to read about these Enlightenment philosophies by such an engaging and entertaining writer, and there are many moments of wit to lighten these 'heavy' theories. Trying to understand what has been written, and understanding the social and historical context is at present beyond me, but reading Leonard Tancock's introductions to both D'Alembert's Dream and Rameau's Nephew has helped considerably. What I will say is that I enjoy Diderot's sense of fun. Diderot was very progressive, too, in a sense quite a modern writer; the theory of evolution, for example, was not widely discussed until a century later. Because there is a light feeling to the text, perhaps reading Diderot may feel like his arguments lack some force, but all the same I've been moved to look a little deeper into them so perhaps Diderot has achieved what he set out to achieve. Nevertheless I remain tentative: this is entirely new ground for me! 


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