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FOREIGN QUARTERLY REVIEW.
Art. I.- 1. Mémoires, Correspondance, et Ouvrages inédits de
Diderot; publiés d'après les manuscrits confiés, en mourant,
par l'auteur à Grimm. 4 tom. 8vo. Paris. 1831. 2. Euvres de Denis Diderot; precédées de Mémoires historiques
et philosophiques sur su Vie et ses Ouvrages, par J. A. Naigeon.
22 tom. 8vo. Paris. 1821. The Acts of the Christian Apostles, on which, as we may say, the world has, now for eighteen centuries, had its foundation, are written in so small a compass, that they can be read in one little hour. The Acts of the French Philosophes, the importance of which is already fast exhausting itself, lie recorded in whole acres of typography, and would furnish reading for a lifetime. Nor is the stock, as we see, yet anywise complete, or within computable distance of completion. Here are Four quite new Octavos, recording the labours, voyages, victories, amours and indigestions of the Apostle Denis: it is but a year or two since a new contribution on Voltaire came before us; since Jean Jacques had a new Life written for him; and then of those Feuilles de Grimm, what incalculable masses may yet lie dormant in the Petersburg Library, waiting only to be awakened, and let slip!-- Reading for a lifetime? Thomas Parr might begin reading in long-clothes, and stop in his last hundred and fiftieth year without having ended. And then, as to when the process of addition will cease, and the Acts and Epistles of the Parisian Church of Antichrist will have completed themselves; except in so far as the quantity of paper written on, or even manufactured, in those days, being finite and not infinite, the business one day or other must cease, and the Antichristian Canon close for the last time,-we yet know nothing.
Meanwhile, let us nowise be understood as lamenting this stupendous copiousness, but rather as viewing it historically with patience, and indeed with satisfaction. Memoirs, so long as they are true, how stupid soever, can hardly be accumulated in excess. The stupider they are, let them simply be the sooner cast into the oven: if true, they will always instruct more or less, were it only in the way of confirmation and repetition; and, what is of vast moment, they do not mis-instruct. Day after day, looking at the high destinies which yet await Literature, which Literature will
VOL. XI. NO. XXII.
ere long address herself with more decisiveness than ever to fulfil, it grow's clearer to us that the proper task of Literature lies in the domain of BELIEF; within which “ Poetic Fiction," as it is charitably named, will have to take a quite new figure, if allowed a settlement there. Whereby were it not reasonable to prophesy that this exceeding great multitude of Novel-writers, and such like, must in a new generation) gradually do one of two things: either retire into nurseries, and work for children, minors and semi-fatuous persons of both sexes; or else, what were far better, sweep their Novel-fabric into the dust-cart, and betake them, with such faculty as they have, to understand and record what is true,-of which, surely, there is, and will for ever be, a whole Infinitude unknown to us, of infinite importance to us! Poetry, it will more and more come to be understood, is nothing but higher knowledge; and the only genuine Romance (for grown persons) Reality. The Thinker is the Poet, the Seer: let him who sees write down according to his gift of sight; if deep and with inspired vision, then creatively, poetically; if common, and with only uninspired, every-day vision, let hiin at least be faithful in this, and write Memoirs.
On us, still so near at hand, that Eighteenth Century in Paris, presenting itself nowise as portion of the magic web of Universal History, but only as the confused and ravelled mass of threads and thrums, ycleped Memoirs, in process of being woven into such,-imposes a rather complex relation. Of which, however, as of all such, the leading rules may happily be comprised in this very plain one, prescribed by Nature herself: to search in them, so far as they seem worthy, for whatsoever can help us forward on our own path, were it in the shape of intellectual instruction, of moral edification, nay of mere solacement and amusement. The Bourbons, indeed, took a shorter method (the like of which has been often recommended elsewhere): they shut up and hid the graves of the Philosophes, hoping that their lives and writings might likewise thereby go out of sight, and out of mind; and thus the whole business would be, so to speak, suppressed, Foolish Bourbons! These things were not done in a corner, but on high places, before the anxious eyes of all mankind : hidden they can in nowise be: to conquer them, to resist them, our first indispensable preliminary is to see and comprehend them. To us, indeed, as their immediate successors, the right comprehension of them is of prime necessity; for, sent of God or of the Devil, they have plainly enough gone before us, and left us such and such a world: it is on ground of their tillage, with the stubble of their harvest standing on it, that we now have to plough. Before all things then, let us understand what ground it is; what manner of men and husbandınen these were. For which reason, be all authentic Philosophe-Memoirs welcome, each in its kind! For which reason, let us now, without the smallest reluctance, penetrate into this wondrous Gospel according to Denis Diderot, and expatiate there, to see whether it will yield us aught,
In any phenomenon, one of the most important moments is the end. Now this epoch of the Eighteenth or Philosophe-century was properly the End; the End of a Social System, which for above a thousand years had been building itself together, and, after that, had begun, for some centuries, (as human things all do,) to moulder down. The mouldering down of a Social System is no cheerful business either to form part of, or to look at: however, at length, in the course of it, there comes a time when the mouldering changes into a rushing; active hands drive in their wedges, set to their crowbars; there is a comfortable appearance of work going on.
Instead of here and there a stone falling out, here and there a handful of dust, whole masses tumble down, whole clouds and whirlwinds of dust: torches too are applied, and the rotten easily takes fire: so what with fame-whirlwind, what with dust-whirlwind, and the crash of falling towers, the concern grows eminently interesting; and our assiduous craftsmen can encourage one another with Vivats, and cries of Speed the work. Add to this, that of all labourers, no one can see such rapid extensive fruit of his labour as the Destroyer can and does : it will not seem unreasonable that, measuring from effect to cause, he should esteem his labour as the best and greatest; and a Voltaire, for example, be by bis guild-brethren and apprentices confidently accounted “not only the greatest man of this age, but of all past ages, and perhaps the greatest that Nature could produce.” Worthy old Nature! She goes on producing whatsoever is needful in each season of her course; and produces, with perfect composure, that Encyclopedist opinion, that she can produce no more.
Such a torch-and-crowbar period, of quick rushing down and conflagration, was this of the Siècle de Louis Quinze; when the Social System having all fallen into rottenness, rain-holes and noisome decay, the shivering natives resolved to cheer their dull abode by the questionable step of setting it on fire. Questionable we call their manner of procedure; the thing itself, as all men may now see, was inevitable; one way or other, whether by prior burning or milder methods, the old house must needs be new-built. We behold the business of pulling down, or at least of assorting the rubbish, still go resolutely on, all over Europe: here and there soine traces of new foundation, of new building up, may now also, to the eye of Hope, disclose themselves.
To get acquainted with Denis Diderot and his Life were to see the significant epitome of all this, as it works on the thinking and acting soul of a man, fashions for him a singular element of existence, gives himself therein a peculiar hue and figure. Unhappily, after all that has been written, the matter still is not luminous: to us strangers, much in that foreign economy, and method of working and living, remains obscure; much in the man himself, and his inward nature and structure. But, indeed, it is several years since the present Reviewer gave up the idea of what could be called understanding any Man whatever, even himself. Every Man, within that inconsiderable figure of his, contains a whole Spirit-kingdom and Reflex of the All; and, though to the eye but some six standard feet in size, reaches downwards and upwards, unsurveyable, fading into the regions of Immensity and of Eternity. Life everywhere, as woven on that stupendous evermarvellous “ Loom of Time," may be said to fashion itself of a woof of light indeed, yet on a warp of mystic darkness: only He that created it can understand it. As to this Diderot, had we once got so far that we could, in the faintest degree, personate him; take upon ourselves his character and his environment of circumstances, and act his Life over again, in that small PrivateTheatre of ours (under our own Hat), with moderate illusivene and histrionic effect,--that were what, in conformity with common speech, we should name understanding him, and could be abundantly content with.
In his manner of appearance before the world, Diderot has been, perhaps to an extreme degree, unfortunate. His literary productions were invariably dashed off in hottest haste, and left generally (on the waste of Accident) with an ostrich-like indifference. He had to live, in France, in the sour days of a Journal de Trevoux; of a suspicious, decaying Sorbonne. He was too poor to set foreigu presses, at Kehl or elsewhere, in motion; too headlong and quick of temper to seek help from those that could: thus must he, if his pen was not to lie idle, write much of which there was no publishing. His Papers accordingly are found flying about, like Sibyl's leaves, in all corners of the world: for many years no tolerable Collection of his Writings was attempted; to this day there is none that in any sense can be called perfect. Two spurious, surreptitious Amsterdam Editions, “ or rather formless, blundering Agglomerations,” were all that the world saw during his life. Diderot did not hear of these for several years, and then only, it is said, " with peals of laughter," and no other practical step whatever. Of the four that have since been printed, (or reprinted, for Naigeon's, of 1798, is the great original,) no one so much as pretends either to be complete, or selected on any system. Brière's, the latest, of which alone we have much per