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The Weekend Australian - Review - - Front Page - Christopher Allen

Mag­num: On Set State Li­brary of NSW, Syd­ney, to June 23

WHEN peo­ple think of the French philosophes of the 18th cen­tury — the pre­cur­sors of what we would now con­sider in­tel­lec­tu­als rather than aca­demic philoso­phers — they in­evitably re­call Voltaire, the acer­bic and witty author of Can­dide (1759), or Jean-Jac­ques Rousseau, who wrote po­lit­i­cal works such as The So­cial Con­tract (1762) and a great trea­tise on ed­u­ca­tion, Emile (1762), as well as re­veal­ing all the com­plex­i­ties of a ex­cep­tion­ally neu­rotic in­ner life in one of the most re­mark­able au­to­bi­ogra­phies writ­ten, the Con­fes­sions (1769; pub­lished posthu­mously in 1782).

But there is a third fig­ure — Denis Diderot — who tends to be for­got­ten per­haps be­cause many of his writ­ings most ad­mired by sub­se­quent gen­er­a­tions were pub­lished af­ter his death. In his life­time, he was best known as the edi­tor of the monumental En­cy­clo­pe­die, which came out in 28 vol­umes from 1751 to 1772: orig­i­nally in­tended as a ver­sion of the ear­lier Bri­tish Cy­clopae­dia (1728) pub­lished by Ephraim Cham­bers, the first mod­ern ref­er­ence work of this kind, it grew far be­yond its ini­tial brief and sought to epit­o­mise, in words and co­pi­ous large-scale tech­ni­cal plates, all hu­man knowl­edge and tech­nol­ogy from the univer­sity to the work­shop. The enor­mous suc­cess of this pro­ject led in turn to the En­cy­clo­pe­dia Bri­tan­nica, first pub­lished in Scot­land from 1768.

Diderot ran into op­po­si­tion from church au­thor­i­ties over the con­tent of some of the ar­ti­cles in his great work, al­though for­tu­nately for him the pro­ject was pro­tected by the pow­er­ful and in­tel­lec­tual Comte d’Ar­gen­son, who was in ef­fect the over­seer of govern­ment cen­sor­ship as well as min­is­ter of war. But some of his most dar­ing philo­soph­i­cal and sci­en­tific hy­pothe­ses were pro­posed in texts that re­mained un­pub­lished in his life­time, such as the ex­tra­or­di­nary Reve de d’Alem­bert, in which he imag­ines him­self sit­ting by the bed­side of his co-edi­tor, a great math­e­ma­ti­cian, who is toss­ing in a fever and whose ram­bling hy­pothe­ses about the na­ture of life it­self — reach­ing well be­yond ei­ther church doc­trine or sci­en­tific con­sen­sus at the time — con­clude in an in­vol­un­tary sex­ual cli­max.

Diderot was also the fore­run­ner of mod­ern art crit­i­cism and was able to write un­prece­dent­edly frank and witty as well as in­sight­ful com­men­tary on the con­tem­po­rary Salon exhibitions be­cause the pieces ap­peared in a pri­vate news­let­ter, Grimm’s Cor­re­spon­dance lit­teraire (1753-90), so pri­vate in­deed that it was cir­cu­lated in man­u­script form to a hand­ful of cen­tral and eastern Euro­pean monar­chs who were its ex­clu­sive and strictly con­fi­den­tial sub­scriber base. Again, it was only when th­ese re­views were pub­lished af­ter the author’s death that they at­tracted the in­ter­est of Goethe and other great minds of the next gen­er­a­tion.

And yet an­other work that fas­ci­nated th­ese later read­ers was the Para­doxe sur le come­dien.

This is the first mod­ern trea­tise on the art of the ac­tor, al­though it is less a man­ual than an at­tempt to cor­rect a gen­eral mis­ap­pre­hen­sion about per­for­mance, and to sug­gest a the­ory about how the ac­tor makes an im­pres­sion on an au­di­ence. The para­dox of the ti­tle refers to Diderot’s refu­ta­tion of what was then, as it no doubt still is now, a com­mon mis­un­der­stand­ing about the ac­tor’s art.

Peo­ple as­sume when an ac­tor plays a char­ac­ter who is an­gry, for ex­am­ple, he must him­self be an­gry at the time. But in re­al­ity, as Diderot shows, the ac­tor is al­most cer­tainly not re­ally an­gry at all, and in­deed if he were he would not be able to per­form prop­erly, con­cen­trate on di­rect­ing his voice into the au­di­to­rium, re­call the block­ing of the scene, etcetera. Nor is it his own anger, dis­tress, love and so forth that he plays; for of­ten he is called on to play an emo­tion that he has never known at this pitch of in­ten­sity.

Con­stantin Stanislavski — and the later school of method act­ing — would later re­ply that an ac­tor uses the emo­tions that he has ex­pe­ri­enced, but only as the start­ing point for an act of imag­i­na­tive cre­ation.

Sim­i­lar ques­tions, in­ci­den­tally, have arisen in the the­o­ries of writ­ing and paint­ing. Does an author have to be sad when writ­ing a tragic scene, for ex­am­ple? But in any case the art of the ac­tor is to feign, imag­ine and rep­re­sent the

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