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Diderot’s Paradoxe: Refutation as Marginalia

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Refutation as Marginalia


Enlighten 1. To illuminate; to supply with light. 2. To quicken in the faculty of vision. 3. To instruct; to furnish with increase of knowledge. 4. To cheer; to exhilarate; to gladden. 5. To illuminate with divine knowledge.

Paradox 1. A tenet contrary to received opinion; an assertion contrary to appearance; a position in appearance erroneous.

Passion 1. Any effect caused by external agency. 3. Violent commotion of the mind.

Perceive 1. To discover by some sensible effects. 2. To know; to observe. 3. To be affected by.

Perception 1. The power of perceiving; knowledge; consciousness.

Reason 1. The power by which man deduces one proposition from another, or proceeds from premises to consequences; the rational faculty; discursive power.

Refute 1. To prove false or erroneous. Applied to persons or things.

Sensibility 1. Quickness of sensation. 2. Quickness of perception. Sensibile. Having the power of perceiving by the senses. 3. Perceived by the mind. 5. Having moral perception. 6. Having quick intellectual feeling.

Dr. Johnson, Dictionary of The English Language1

…if a certain beetle, of whom we have all heard, could extract filth even from pearls, if we have examples that fire destroyed and water deluged, shall therefore pearls, fire and water be condemned?
Schiller, Preface to Die Rauber2

Refutation of a paradox is an attempt apt to drive one barking mad. Especially if it is not clear whether the “paradoxe” is actually intended to be a paradox, as opposed to simply having it both ways, and whether it is in fact a paradox at all. There has been much rumination on Diderot’s Paradoxe sur le comedien. Eric Bentley mentions Copeau, Dullin, Fouvet, Barrault, Pierre Brasseur, Edwige Feuillere, and Claude Dauphin, none of whom offer an endorsement of Diderot’s position. Bentley writes: “What is it, in Diderot’s ‘untenable’ argument, that has perennial interest and vitality? In an argument that any drama student can refute what is it that appeals to a great actor [Coquelin] and a great dramatist [Brecht]?”3
The question of paradox is often ignored or dispensed with quickly. The refutations ignore the ambiguity implicit in a dialogue. The position of Diderot is explained and then assaulted, demolished, dismissed or seemingly still left standing, for as Bentley points out “critics still wish to refute the [Paradoxe] even though they assure us that is was definitely refuted long ago.”4
Why Dario Fo feels compelled in the late 1980’s to give Diderot a good thump with his stick in Minimo dell’Attore, his introduction to commedia dell’Arte, we will leave up to Mr. Bentley. Fo’s arguments against the Paradoxe are intriguing and contain one point that has led me to my own willingness to take up a cudgel. Fo argues that Diderot’s mistakes derive from his being a writer, as opposed to an actor, and Diderot’s opinion “that the written text is all-important.”5
This does not mean I will be arguing with the comedien instead of the man of reason, although a refutation as thoughtful, reasonable, and thorough as William Archer’s might put “any drama student” off the challenge. What I intend to do is consider whether the Paradoxe is a paradox, taking into account the ambiguity of the author’s intentions, his own contradictions elsewhere, and the form of the work itself.6
What is Diderot’s point? What is so often refuted? What does he himself contradict? In discussing the qualities that a great actor must possess, Diderot has his First Speaker (inevitably assumed to be the author) state: “He must have in himself an unmoved and disinterested onlooker. He must have, consequently, penetration and no sensibility; the art of mimicking everything, or, which comes to the same thing, the same aptitude for every character and part.” The second speaker asks “No sensibility?” and the First replies “None.”7 This is the crux of the refutations. Fo writes:
“The famous encyclopedist could not cope with the fact the success of a play might depend almost exclusively on the actor, or his state of mind at a particular moment, or the fact that he was in a good mood one evening, or whether the audience established an easy rapport with actors, or whether they were sunk in a deep torpor from which there was no rousing them.”8

The meticulous building up of argument and detail in the refutation of the Ibsen translator, Archer, attacks this point as well. Archer’s resulting argument is that great acting requires a sort of ongoing tension between intellectual control and the passionate animation we rarely forget when leaving the theatre. When reading William Charles Macready’s journal entries one is struck by the exacting preparation he makes for each role. One is also struck by the constant self-admonition to control his temper and passions both onstage and off. When one reads of Macready in Fanny Kemble or Helen Faucit’s diaries, one is struck by their concern at Macready’s volatile, fiery transformation and the fear of physical danger. There is a parallel in the language that is called purple, in vituperation, denunciation, in the passages from Shakespeare and Joyce that we quote from memory, the burning-fuse aspect of the best dramatic dialogue.
This tension between reason and sensibility as a fundamental element of acting, writing, of painting, can be found within the Paradoxe.
“Not mark you, that Nature unadorned has not her moments of sublimity; but I fancy that if there is anyone sure to give and preserve their sublimity it is the man who can feel it with his passion and his genius, and reproduce it with self-possession.”9

The question then becomes what is intended as paradox? Within the Paradoxe itself we have arguments for and against the idea of emotion and passion as an essential element in great acting held in a tensive suspension with reason, detachment, and control. We also have the argument that no sensibility is necessary for great acting, none, that sensibility in fact hinders or prevents genuine distinction in the player’s art. Is this the paradox? Or, is it within this last narrowed down assertion, that someone within whom all passion and feeling has been removed, eliminated, can express most effectively passion and feeling?
Peter Gay has said of Diderot “his ideas on the arts were anything but systematic…his preoccupation with aesthetic questions was as unorganized as it was persistent.”10 In the Paradoxe the First Speaker states “I have not yet arranged my ideas logically, and you must let me tell them to you as they come to me, with the same want of order that marks your friend’s book”(Paradoxe 14). On November 27, 1758, Diderot wrote to Madam Riccoboni “Forget your rules, put technique aside; it’s the death of genius.” Gay continues, “He saw the collaboration of reason and passion, or craftsmanship and enthusiasm, was at best uneasy and produced unending tensions, unstable compromises, and unresolvable ambiguities” (Gay 283). It may be Diderot’s realization that all art depended on a working chaos of unstable compromises and unresolvable ambiguities resulted in the didactic, hard-line arguments in the Paradoxe. A great desire for control and order, however, did not result in a straightforward refutation of these ideas. The arguments against are buried in a “modernist” fragment that begins abruptly, ends vaguely, and has a digressive interruption by the author that would have made Laurence Sterne or Victor Shklovsky proud. Speaker the First, and Speaker the Second, go to a playhouse and are turned away (no tickets) and end up in the Tuileries, so self-absorbed as to not understand one another and practicing the fine art of non-sequitar. The fragment breaks off with “Let us go and sup” (Diderot, 71).

Whene’er the mist, that stands ‘twixt God and thee,
Defecates to a pure transparency,
That intercepts no light and adds no strain—
There Reason is, and then begins her reign!
Samuel Taylor Coleridge12

The dialogue form is not in and of itself dramatic. If the impulse behind the composition of a dialogue is to convince it rarely does so. A straightforward declamation can make the essential points with more concision and purpose, and does not suffer from the straw man phenomenon, which is a weakness. A straight man can effectively set up a comic lead’s jokes but rarely does anything to increase an earnest man’s argumentation. Dialogues from Plato onwards are tedious for precisely this reason. Rarely are there characters developed who demonstrate any capacity for other points of view different from that of the stand-in for the author. When there are flickers of animation, say in the Symposium, they are dispensed with smartly enough. The point can be made then that the philosophical dialogue is not the best form for argument. Real debate is not so controlled, as such dialogues tend to be.
Clearly also these dialogues are not attempts at dramatic dialogue which is a different phenomenon altogether. We can use as examples plays, which allow for intellectual debate, but which have the quality of an explanation as to why cigar smoke after a certain point goes sideways (back and forth) instead of straight up in the air. Who’s getting this round, chaos theory or entropy?
Dramatic dialogue being an open-ended, freewheeling field of friction, agreement, tension, collaboration among (dramatic) co-equals, the characters in Buchner’s Dantons Tod, Stoppard’s Travesties, Brecht’s Das Leben des Galilei, or David Hare’s Racing Demon are alive with enigma, opinion, and contradiction, and most importantly the writer behind the dialogue is content to set the chaos of debate on human dilemma alight and let it end up how it will, or at least not completely tidied up and finished. The questions are asked but the answers less than forthcoming in Wallace Shawn’s Aunt Dan and Lemon or Ron Hutchinson’s Rat in the Skull.
Having said all this without mentioning Bernard Shaw’s name, I think we can look at the Paradoxe sur le comdien and ask ourselves what sort of dialogue does it intend to be: philosophical or dramatic? How does it succeed? How does this affect the argument or the paradox?
It seems that the Paradoxe is intended as a philosophical dialogue, that Speaker the First is intended to articulate Diderot’s current opinions on the matter of sensibility in acting and that his former views on the matter (the contradicting arguments of earlier letters, essays, etc.) form the basis of Speaker the Second’s rather less developed persona. Speaker the First has, of course, most of the virtuoso set speeches. Speaker the Second is used primarily as a set up man, and some of his best questions or arguments are turned to the advantage of Speaker the First.
However, the dialogue does not seem to be completely under the control of Diderot. That this is so should be no surprise to the authour of dialogic chaos and mayhem in Rameau’s Nephew or Jacques, The Fatalistt. Its fragmentary, sketch-like quality, its slapdash and “wait a minute for this next point” bravura gives it a life that few of Plato’s dialogues ever have. Speaker the Second has his moments.
According to you the likest thing to an actor, whether on the boards or at his private studies, is a group of children who play at ghosts in a graveyard at dead of night, armed with a white sheet at the end of a broomstick and fending forth from its shelter hollow groans to frighten wayfarers.
(Diderot 17)

This wonderful image of theatre as something less and more than the serious work of reasonable minds pops up out of nowhere. Speaker the First has been discussing how “little Clarion” manages to become “great Agrippina.” This is when the irreverent interruption comes. Speaker the First responds “Just so, indeed” and then goes on with his arguments never picking up on this alternate image of theatre and playing, ending his argument with “[c]ool reflection must bring the fury of enthusiasm to its bearings” (Diderot, 17). Just so, indeed. How many children play at white sheets and broomsticks in a graveyard at dead of night? Playing at ghosts takes place more often in their own bedrooms or down the hall between. It is aspects such as this in the Paradoxe, which leave me less inclined to reduce the dialogue to a simple argument or point and quarrel with that.
Late in the dialogue Speaker the Second has an exchange with his adversary in which he gets the best of him.
2nd: I am going to propose a compromise; to keep for the actor’s natural sensibility those rare moments in which he forgets himself, in which he no longer sees the play, in which he forgets that he is on a stage, in which he is at Argos, or a Mycenae, in which he is the very character he plays. He weeps…
1st: In proper time?
2nd:Yes. He exclaims…
1st:With proper intonation?
2nd: Yes. He is tormented, indignant, desperate; he presents to my eyes the real image, and conveys to my ears and heart the true accents of the passion which shakes him, so that he carries me away and I forget myself, and it is no longer Brizart or Le Kain, but Agamemnon or Nero that I hear. All other moments of the part I give up to art. I think it is perhaps then with Nature as with the slave who learns to move freely despite his chain. The carrying it takes from it its weight and constraint.
1st: An actor of sensibility may perhaps have in his part one or two of these impulses of illusion; and the finer their effect the more they will be out of keeping with the rest. But tell me, when this happens does not the play cease to give you pleasure and become a cause of suffering?
2nd: On, no!
1st: And will not this figment of suffering have a more powerful effect than the every-day and real spectacle of a family in tears around the death-bed of a loved father or an adored mother?
2nd: Oh, no!
1st: Then you and the actor have not so completely forgotten yourselves?
2nd: You have already pushed me hard, and I doubt not you could push me yet harder: but I think I could shake you if you would let me enlist an ally. It is half-past four; they play Dido; let us go and see Mademoiselle Raucourt: she can answer you better than I can.
(Diderot, 60-1)

Faced with the immediate challenge of player and playhouse, Speaker the First defers on this question, and, of course, when they do go finally to the theatre they cannot get a ticket. Proof by fire is not allowed. We are not going into the graveyard at dead of night and play ghosts. One wonders if Diderot can’t or won’t?
“Garrick will put his head between two folding doors-doors, and in the course of five or six seconds his expression will change successively from wild delight to temperate pleasure, from this to tranquility, from tranquility to surprise, from surprise to blank astonishment, from that to sorrow, from fright to horror, from horror to despair, and thence he will go up again to the point from which he started. Can his soul have experienced all these feelings, and played this kind of scale in concert with his face? I don’t believe it; nor do you….[If] you asked him for the scene of the Pastrycook’s Boy he will play it for you; if you asked him directly afterwards for the great scene in Hamlet he would play it for you. He was as ready to cry over the tarts in the gutter as to follow the course of the air-drawn dagger. Can one laugh or cry at will? One shall make a show of doing so as well or ill as one can, and the completeness of the illusion varies as one is or is not Garrick.”
(Diderot, 32-3)

Eighteen transformations in five or six seconds: I don’t believe it; nor do you. Imagine a table covered with commedia masks made after Le Brun’s drawings. Imagine an actor very speeded up on cocaine trying to do eighteen changes in five seconds. Still, it is Garrick. Trotsky said the eye notices motion then sees change. Whatever Garrick did and whatever Diderot saw, it astounded him enough to forgo any explanation for the phenomenon other than to remark that to the extent that one is Garrick, one can do eighteen emotional transformations in five, or even six, seconds. This head peeping through a drawing-room door also made him (recollecting feverish emotion in tranquility) mistake Hamlet for Macbeth and, more astonishingly, equate the parlor trick with the dagger scene in the banquet hall. Can actors be so marvelous? Garrick evidently was. Are the above remarks the thoughts of a reasonable man conducting an analysis of the nature of acting or the ravings of a fan?
William Archer’s Masks or Faces? is longer than Paradoxe sur le comedien. Archer’s refutation is thorough, and has the whiff of science about it, with the arguments being supported with such empirical evidence as actors can muster in answering a survey via post. Archer was Scots, and there is a feeling through out when reading Masks or Faces? that this is how it should be done. He narrows the walking back and forth of the Paradoxe down to one assertion, (No sensibility? None.) and proceeds to demolish it. He is irate at even having to do this.
The dialogue, as a form of exposition, has this disadvantage, that it stimulates the pugnacious, or, more politely speaking, the chivalrous instinct in human nature. One of the disputants invariably goes as a lamb to the slaughter, and his pre-arranged massacre cannot but stir our sympathy. Thus a feeling of antagonism to the writer’s argument is aroused by the very form. There is a cat-and-mouse cruelty about the Socratic method against which our sense of justice, nay, of humanity, rebels.
(Mask or Faces, 89)

Archer is, as well, displeased with Speaker the Second. Having pointed out that he is, after all, a set-up man, Archer still has to remark, “he never thinks of demanding that unpleasant preliminary to all fruitful debate: a definition of terms” (Archer. 89). As for Diderot “the philosopher founded his doctrine on slender evidence…[a] few anecdotes of doubtful interpretation” (Archer, 76). We can be glad Archer did not decide to re-write the Paradoxe. “For a fruitful discussion of the points at issue, the interlocutors should be, not, as in Diderot’s dialogue, a dogmatic ‘First’ and a docile ‘Second,’ but a trained psychologist and an experienced and versatile actor.13” This sounds more like the writer Dario Fo was worried about earlier. If one agrees with certain reductive takes on Diderot’s dialogue, then one must agree with the following summation.
Diderot’s theory may be right though his arguments are inconsistent. What I have sought to show is that his reasoning breaks down, or at least straggles off and loses itself, for lack of a definition of terms. He does not know clearly either what he himself is maintaining, or what he is arguing against. He is proving, half the time, that sensibility is mischievous, while the other half he devotes to showing that it does not exist..13
(Archer, 100)

Still, my question is can we really assume Diderot intended to “get it right” as the Scot would have it? There is a severity in Masks or Faces? just as there is more than a little paranoia in Fo’s dislike of the very idea of a writer, who is not an actor as well, having anything at all to do with playing.
William Charles Macready once fell under a table in a melodrama (all under control), hands outstretched, dead with a knife through his heart, until the second actor stepped on his hand while delivering his own lines. The corpse sat up on the floor and began giving the “idiot” great grief, much to the delight of the audience. It seems to me Macready had more reason for umbrage than any man reading through the Paradoxe.

…a poet is not tied to a bare representation of what is true, or exceeding probable; but that he may let himself loose to visionary objects, and to representation of such things as depending not on sense, and therefore not to be comprehended by knowledge, may give him a freer scope for imagination.
John Dryden14

Paradoxe sur le comedien was published in 1830, forty-five years after the death of Denis Diderot. Refutations came soon thereafter. The beehive had been struck a blow. A simple critique of pure reason, no less than a piece of monologue, is a game of hopscotch, rain-faded chalk on a Sunday sidewalk. It may be the intended paradox of the Paradoxe is that of the most accomplished expression of passion and feeling deriving from a man without emotion. Such assertions will be rooted out of an unkempt field such as the Paradoxe and dealt with authoritatively and properly no doubt. The chaos of speculation (unstable compromises, unresolvable ambiguities) will be dealt with effectively. On the other hand it may be that die Geburt der Tragodie aus dem Geiste der Musik is more the result of indigestion than reason, and that Diderot’s writer has more in common with Fo’s actor than we think. It is said often enough that theatre is an art form always intellectually late; that new ideas come into the playhouse last. It is rarely remarked that theatre’s capacity for exploration of the emotional depth of ideas is one its graces.

Stanley Richardson
All editorial material is copyright by the authors and/or Guam Battalions, Intellectual and Various, 2008.

1 Samuel Johnson. A Dictionary of the English Language, In two volumes, (London: J. Johnson, C. Dilly, et al: 1799).
2 Barret H. Clark, ed, European Theories of Drama, newly revised by Henry Popkin (New York: Crown Publishers, 1965), 265.
3 Eric Bentley, ed, Diderot’s The Paradox of Acting and William Archer’s Masks or Faces? (New York: Hill and Wang, 1957), back cover.
4 Ibid.
5 Dario Fo, The Tricks of the Trade, translated by Joe Farrell (New York: Routledge/Theatre Arts, 1991), 14.
6 Fredrick Charles Green’s edition of Diderot’s writing on the theatre, (Cambridge: The University Press, 1936), contains: Entretions sur Le Fils naturel, De la poesie dramatique, extracts from Les bijoux indescrets and letters to Mlle. Jodin, Observations sur Garrick, ou Les acteurs anglais, as well as the Paradoxe.
7 Bentley, ibid.
8 Fo, ibid, 14.
9 Diderot in Bentley, 24.
10 Peter Gay, the Enlightenment, An Interpretation, Volume Two, The Science of Freedom (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1977), 252.
11 Ibid, 258. Gay quotes from the Correspondance II, 100.
12 From the poem “Reason”, I. A. Richards, ed, The Portable Coleridge (New York: Viking Press, 1950), 215.
13 Bentley, ibid, 76. My reading of the characters in the Paradoxe is somewhat different.
14 John Dryden, Essays, Edited by W.P.Kerr (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1900), 153.

Written by herrdramaturg

May 13, 2008 at 4:16 pm

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