Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Eleven Words

Friedrich Melchior Grimm (1723-1807)

Jean-Baptiste Greuze
Portrait in profile of Denis Diderot 
Morgan Library

In 1759 the writer Denis Diderot was feeling old and discouraged. The year before, his much-censored, multi-volume Encyclopédie project had fallen into royal disfavor (through court intrigue, by none other than the Jesuits). Seven of the projected seventeen folio volumes had already been issued to subscribers and booksellers when publication was suddenly ordered to cease. Diderot felt that he could no longer risk publishing anything at all. For the next six years the syndicate behind the project kept  him on the payroll for editing (and to a great extent writing) the remainder of the work  clandestinely. The backers continued to wager in favor of the day when the royal ban would be lifted. As, in time, it was.

Because of the scandal, Diderot lost friends as well as collaborators. His most trusted remaining ally in Paris was the German expatriate Friedrich Melchior Grimm, editor of the Correspondance littéraire, philosophique et critique. This newsletter circulated only in manuscript and never to more than fifteen subscribers, all of them European rulers who could seldom or never enjoy personal access to Parisian high culture. Such an audience particularly valued the explicit frankness that caused trouble for Diderot elsewhere. Grimm's newsletter could employ him as an arts journalist because the entire enterprise was conducted privately and circulated by diplomatic couriers, immune to surveillance.

In a letter to Grimm the isolated Diderot of 1759 quoted Horace 

Quid tibi prodest aerias tentasse domos, animoque rotundum percurisse polum morituro.

What advantage is it to you to have scaled the airy heights and by your intellect voyaged over the rounded pole, you who are about to die?

Horace needed exactly eleven words of Latin verse to create his original chain of images. Translation into English required twenty-seven words.

After 1759 Diderot in fact lived for another twenty-five years  years that were filled with intense and largely joyful creative labors.