Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Diderot, The First Blogger?


Although I feel blessed everyday to speak one of the world’s great languages, it is also a handicap. Because English has become the new lingua franca, almost inevitably any foreign book of consequence will be translated into it before any other, making it largely unnecessary to study tongues outside of self-improvement.

It is sadly forgotten by most that French was once the language of diplomacy and intellectual discourse. English won out due to conquest, French to pure elegance, and nowhere is that elegance more prominently displayed than in that monument of the eighteenth-century, the Encyclopédie, and its principal author and editor Denis Diderot.

Diderot was born the son of a cutler, and rose to his position in the pantheon of letters on ability alone. As the son of a laborer myself I take especial pride in this lowly origin, and what it says about the Enlightenment values we take for granted today.

I have only recently been rediscovering his writings. All of his more popular titles are available to the intrepid Francophile, with the exception of his voluminous correspondence, which seems never to have been in English dress at all. More is the pity, for the letters are considered by some to be his greatest achievement. But it was in the magisterial pages of the Encyclopédie that Diderot first displayed his gifts for wit and satire to international acclaim.

Only a polymath of massive learning and the energy of a racehorse could even think to attempt it. It was in the manner the articles were written however that made the whole enterprise an engine of change. In an age when it was impossible to attack the status quo directly without risk of imprisonment or worse, the Encyclopédie provided a back door to social and political critique, a place where one could read between the lines and give a knowing wink to those who grasped what was meant. One need only mention that cheeky entry: “Eucharist: See Cannibalism” to get the point.

As Diderot considered the writing of the entries largely hackwork, the Encyclopédie might in its own way be considered an early form of blogging. Though lacking the anonymity that modern blogging provides, and published at far greater expense, Diderot must have looked at much of his efforts on the project as ephemeral, certainly not his major work, most of which was locked up in his writing desk or those of his friend’s until long after his death. But it is this very quality of inconsequence that allows for the charm of the more salient passages.

To take my analogy further, the Encyclopédie was one of the first major attempts to systematize and make available to the public the whole of human knowledge, a democratization of learning that in many ways the Internet makes available today. This ideal of open access and equal opportunity for self-improvement was at the core of the Enlightenment, and is one of its greatest legacies to our modern world. Not bad for the son of a knife seller, and his friend the bastard.

1 comment:

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