Retalls (31.3.19)

The Man that Questioned Everything. Lynn Hunt. The New York Review of Books

The most radical thinker of the eighteenth century, Denis Diderot (1713-1784), is not exactly a forgotten man, though he has been long overshadowed by his contemporaries Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. (...) Diderot’s involvement in turning the second and third editions (1774 and 1780) into incendiary denunciations of European colonialism and the slave trade remained largely unknown before the second half of the twentieth century; the papers he left to his daughter were only inventoried in 1951, thanks to the work of Herbert Dieckmann, a German émigré professor then at Harvard, and scholars are still sorting out what came from Diderot’s pen. (...) As a man of his time, Diderot loved company and he loved Paris, the very place that Voltaire and Rousseau were always fleeing. His connection, unlike theirs, was not with public opinion but with the people he could talk to: his wife and daughter, his lovers, his countless friends, and, eventually, one ruling monarch in faraway Russia, Catherine the Great. In an age of conversation, he stood out for his volubility. When excited, he could hardly contain himself and would frequently grab his interlocutor’s arm or leg to drive home his point. Catherine found it helpful to keep a table between them during their Saint Petersburg tête-à-têtes (…)