On a typical day, Denis Diderot might write about ancient Chinese music in the morning, study the mechanics of a cotton mill in the afternoon, then work on a play after dinner. The man was both workhorse and Enlightenment polymath: a genius who wrote 7,000 articles for his celebrated Encyclopédie while producing revolutionary novels, groundbreaking art criticism and proto-Darwinian science fiction.
The New York Times
OPIUM loomed large when Charles Baudelaire wrote “The Double Room” in the 1860s. For the first half of this disquieting prose poem, the celebrated French poet finds himself in a dreamlike chamber of pure pleasure. The elation and the illusion end brutally, when a bailiff pounds on the door, bringing the poet (and reader) back to the sordid reality of his actual room and the jaggedness of life.
THE Enlightenment polymath Denis Diderot turns 300 this year, and his October birthday is shaping up to be special. President François Hollande has indicated that he plans to honor the philosopher and novelist with what may be France’s highest tribute: a symbolic reburial in the Panthéon. In the roughly two centuries since this massive neo-Classical church was converted into a secular mausoleum, fewer than 80 people have been admitted into its gravestone club. If inducted, Diderot will arguably be the first member to be celebrated as much for his attacks on reigning orthodoxies as for his literary stature.
ONE of the most enjoyable parts of writing about the life of Denis Diderot has been reconnoitering, exploring, and sometimes imagining the physical spaces that the writer frequented during his lifetime. Several friends sensed my fascination with this aspect of the writer’s existence and suggested that I provide something of a more focused visite guidée that one could follow if desired.