Claudia Moscovici

Lucidity and Passion: Denis Diderot’s Love Letters to Sophie Volland

For almost thirty years, up to the very end of their lives, Denis Diderot wrote beautiful, touching letters to his friend Louise-Henriette Volland. While these letters became more subdued in tone and less frequent after the first fifteen years of their friendship, they nonetheless stand testimony to the powerful sentiments that bind human beings together in friendship and love. For this reason, they are worthy of an attention which goes beyond biographical curiosity. Diderot’s letters expose, with sensibility and depth, a significant aspect of our legacy of passion left by Enlightenment thought.

Few authors are as appropriate to a discussion of the value of passion—in both life and art–as Diderot, and few texts as useful to this undertaking as his letters to Sophie Volland, which make special claims to reality, sincerity and truth all the while being saturated with moving rhetorical devices that one finds in eighteenth-century philosophical discourses, plays and fiction. The key concepts whose development I will trace in these letters–the notion of aesthetics, which is derived from the Greek word “aisthetikos” meaning “of sense perception” and the notion of passion, derived from the Latin word “passio” meaning suffering, or being acted upon—connect the sensory and emotional experiences we associate with love in life with the mediations and distortions we expect from their representations.

Spanning the period from 1754, when Diderot was editing the Encyclopédie, to his last work, Entretien d’un philosophe avec la Maréchale de…(1776), Diderot’s love letters also give us special insight into his intellectual and artistic production, ranging from his materialist discourses and plays, to his marivaudage and theatricality, to the themes and style of his later fiction. If these letters continue to excite our aesthetic interest, it’s largely because they link life and art in a sophisticated way without inciting us to reduce one to the other. This palpable and moving yet at the same time mediated expression of feeling is, I would like to argue, what creates the unparalleled value of aesthetic passion which we inherit, at least in part, from the French Enlightenment.

Passion in life and passion for art, Diderot’s writings lead us to believe, have analogous manifestations, even if different objects. Both unleash a sense of wonder; a strong form of enthusiasm. As love of art is immediate, personal and visceral, so is the love of a person. It’s a taste that, unlike in Kant’s subjective universal—which is separate from both reason and cognition–can nonetheless be rationally justified. The passionate lucidity we identified in Diderot’s aesthetics is also present in his attitude towards passionate love. And the author does, indeed, repeatedly express this attitude in his love letters to Sophie Volland.

“Look within yourself, my Sophie, and tell me why you are so sincere, so frank, so true in your words? It’s because these very qualities are the foundation of your character and the guide of your behavior.” ( 45)

The reasons for personal like are, in fact, generalizable. If Diderot admires his mistress’ sincerity and frankness, it is because he loves these qualities in general. For Diderot not only is love tied to knowledge—looking at the beloved open-eyed, knowing her and loving her for who she is—but also to ethics—loving in her qualities one can admire in other human beings. In one letter, he advises Sophie:

“Let’s act in such a way, my friend, that your life is without lies. The more I will respect you, the more honest you will be. The more I will show you my virtues, the more you will love me.” (47)

Yet love, like the appreciation of art, requires some special preference and a lot of imagination. Lucidity alone is not enough. Seeing someone for who she is does not imply one will fall madly in love with her. Nor does the fact she exhibits qualities one admires imply a preference for her over all others who share those qualities. Love is a non-distortive enhancement of the real. In other words, Diderot does not attribute qualities that aren’t there to Sophie. But he does value those qualities especially in her. Given the magnification of value in love, it’s not surprising Diderot confesses to his beloved: “Tell me why I find you more lovable with each passing day. Where do you hide some of your qualities which I hadn’t noticed before?” (47)

To maintain this state of freshness, wonder and excitement, love depends upon the interplay between proximity and distance. When the beloved is too close, one gets near-sighted and risks taking her for granted. When she’s too far, one loses sight of her and feelings can diminish or become too solipsistic. Regular contact, proximity, only enhances the imagination. Which is why Diderot constantly imagines himself with Sophie even when they’re apart. In his thoughts and feelings—through their very intimacy—he bridges the distance which constantly threatens to separate them and diminish their feelings:

“How are you today? Did you sleep well? Do you sometimes sleep as I do, open-armed. How tender was your gaze yesterday! How you’ve been looking at me like that for quite a while… I kiss you; oh I kiss you well, isn’t that true? And it’s always the same pleasure for me… always! They wouldn’t believe this, but this is in spite of all the commonplace sayings, may they be those of Solomon. This man had too many women to understand anything about the soul of a man who loves and respects only one.” (50)

Which brings us to the next quality of passionate love. Love renders the beloved unique. In this respect, it is different from ethics. While we may say, along with Kant, that a good action or intent is good only if we believe it to be good for everyone, the same logic does not fully apply to love. There may be thousands of women as frank and down-to-earth as Sophie Volland. But Diderot adores only her. His life revolves uniquely around Sophie. Which is why passion is never static. In creating such a hypervaluation and interdependency, even the most enduring and stable love oscillates emotionally. Because when one prizes one human being above all others, one becomes vulnerable to him or her. Diderot often expresses such doubts:

“I know neither happiness nor pain… if I have the least worry about you. Do you love? Is this how you desire to be loved?” (81)

Jealousy is also never far removed from his mind. He even goes so far as to be jealous of Sophie’s sister, whom he suspects of excessive intimacy with his mistress. Yet as much as passion disperses emotion in a flurry of contradictory feelings, it nonetheless remains rooted in the constancy of sentiment and the pursuit of mutual happiness. Passion is a form of dynamic stability. With you, Diderot explains getting to the essence of passionate love, “I feel, I love, I listen, I look, I caress. I have a kind of existence that I prefer to all others” (87-8).

The endurance of earthly love—like the love of art– gives a materialist like Diderot the only hope for afterlife. If love is so deep and constant, who knows if, even in a world deprived of the solace of a personalized divinity, that sense of meaning might not last forever? Perhaps even death, Diderot hopes in one of the most moving passages of his entire oeuvre, cannot separate those who have loved, as Diderot certainly did, with passionate lucidity:

“When the cell is divided in a hundred thousand parts, the primitive animal dies, but all his laws still exist. O, my Sophie, I still have the hope to touch you, to feel you, to love you, to seek you, to blend with you when we no longer exist! If there were in our nature a law of affinity; if we were destined to blend into one common being; if in the space of eternity I could remake a whole with you; if the dispersed molecules of your lover became agitated and began to search for yours! Leave me this hope, this consolation. It’s so sweet. It assures me of eternity in you and with you.” (91)

Passion for art and passion in life–this delicate balance between the emotional and the cognitive, between intimately personal feelings and transmittable knowledge–Diderot suggests, are the closest human beings come to reaching immortality. And who are we to disagree?

Claudia Moscovici

from Romanticism and Postromanticism (Lexington Books, 2007)

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September 20, 2010 Posted by | 18th century, Claudia Moscovici, Denis Diderot, Diderot's Letters to Sophie Volland, Enlightenment, literary criticism, literature, love, love letters, philosophe, Romanticism and Postromanticism, thoughts on love, thoughts on passion | , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Lucidity and Passion: Denis Diderot’s Love Letters to Sophie Volland

What’s Love Got to Do With It? Passion as the Key (Post)romantic Trope

Seduction and romantic love are often viewed as interchangeable.  But, in fact, they can be polar opposites. In the past two blog entries on psychopathic seduction, I introduced what love is NOT. Love is not a game; it is not a dominance bond; it is not based on deception; it is not a form of conquest of another. Today I’d like to offer a more positive reflection on love, and in particular, of one of the key tropes of Romantic love: passion.

Passion was the core of the Romantic movement. It is also, along with sensuality and the appreciation of beauty, the focal point of the contemporary aesthetic movement I co-founded with the artist Leonardo Pereznieto in 2002, postromanticism.com. Sensuality and passion hardly seem separable since we tend to experience them together. It’s nearly impossible to imagine passion without the excitement, agitation and upheaval of the senses and emotions that we associate with sensuality. At the same time, however, sensuality and passion are opposites. Sensuality is the acute sensibility to beauty and to the myriad of potential delights it promises. It’s a way of seeing beauty in the world, in both human beings and objects. Such beauty is so vast and all-pervasive—kalon, or sea of beauty as Plato’s prophetess, Diotima had depicted—that it’s not necessarily anchored by any preference or bound by any attachment. Every week we may gaze at dozens of attractive persons, inspiring scenes and beautiful paintings or sculptures. Sensuality moves our eyes from object to object, stirring our desires, dreams and solipsistic emotions, but not necessarily capturing our devotion.

Much as sensuality, in its link to perception, evokes the aesthetic and epistemological dimensions of postromanticism, passion constitutes its ethics. This doesn’t mean that postromanticism mandates that human beings should not appreciate a multitude of objects or beings. But it does unabashedly declare: love is special. Many of us fall passionately in love and such feelings are so miraculous that they seem to defy explanation. Yet, at the same time, they are so important that they have inspired thousands of writers, poets, philosophers and artists throughout human history to depict passionate love. Not everyone does or should fall deeply in love. But those who do, we tend to believe, are very fortunate. If passionate love is a privileged form of human experience that has intrigued us for millennia, then it’s certainly worth valorizing it in our times.

Like Romanticism, postromanticism focuses above all on the expression of passionate love. Yet, in our day and age—an age so imbued with feminine and feminist sensibilities—one can no longer speak of the asymmetrical love between a male poet or artist and his ethereal muse, which has long been the dominant cliché of Romanticism. Postromantic love is reciprocal and symmetrical. Nor does postromanticism preserve the instrumental view of passion as a means of reaching something higher than human experience; of moving from the human to the divine, as we see in idealist traditions of love from Plato, to the Renaissance neoplatonists, to the Romantics. In Postromantic poetry, literature and art, passion begins with earthly existence and never transcends it.

Definition: So what is postromantic passion? Above all, passion is a focalization of the senses, thoughts and emotions upon one primary subject. I call it an ethics because it implies considering at every step one’s attitude and actions towards the beloved and, conversely, his or her actions and feelings towards oneself.

 The transcendent in the contingent: The beloved is not randomly chosen. Even if meeting him or her occurs by accident—as do most human encounters—the fit between the lovers feels so right that it appears to be determined by a higher force. The intervention of that higher force cannot be proven. Nonetheless, it has a certain metonymic logic similar to the one described by the Stoics, who perceived the imprint of divine will in the beauty and harmony of the universe. Postromanticism thus spiritualizes, but only gently and lightly, passionate love. It doesn’t necessarily express a belief in divinity, but rather an elevation of emotion and humanity. Passionate love is that which uplifts one’s creative and life energies, as if by force of destiny, with the elegance, sense of wonder and inevitability of something that appears to transcend human experience.

The artist and the muse: With so many successful female artists in the world and, more generally, with so many women encouraged to pursue their talents, it’s impossible nowadays to retain the Romantic idea of the artist as male and the muse as female. When the passion is shared, both members of the couple can inspire and engage in creativity.

Idealization and lucidity: While Romanticism tends towards the idealization of the beloved, postromanticism claims that the beauty of love and of the beloved often lies in his or her imperfection. For the Romantic poets the muse was otherworldly. Only through her nonexistence could she embody aesthetic ideals. She wasn’t a woman, but a fantasy, a dream. In postromanticism, however, the source of inspiration is not a “crystallized” or idealized object of the imagination—as the novelist Stendhal had described love—but a contingent person who is known in the smallest details of his or her reality. Which is not to say that postromanticism follows the legacy of realism or naturalism. In postromanticism, unlike in naturalism, the mundane aspects of the lovers and of love itself never become scientifically predictable, mythical or grotesque, as they do, for instance, in Zola’s naturalist fiction. Postromanticism declares: real love is endearing and unique; a product of a rare fit between two individuals who, through their mutual devotion, create lasting values in an ephemeral life.

Focalization: We tend assume that the Romantic life is synonymous with the adventurous life, the life of an emotional tourist: traveling everywhere; having a multiplicity of relationships; experiencing each type of woman or man as one samples exotic dishes from distant parts of the world. Yet when one glides only on the surface of human existence, it’s difficult to be immersed in passion. For passion requires time to become deeper, richer and more intimate; it requires focalization so that it will not disperse and become a flash of intensity that’s one episode among a hundred others. In losing focus, passion also loses intensity and significance. It ceases to exist.

Energy: Passion is a mutual consumption that gives rather than depleting energy. Like a windmill, like any rhythmic movement, it generates while absorbing energy, but not all by itself, but from the external impetus of two individuals’ continual efforts to live for and with each other.

Symmetry: Passion is constantly reinforced by symmetrical dialogue. The lovers negotiate everything and feel equal in the relationship. Which doesn’t mean that they’re identical. In fact, often passion becomes more exciting when the lovers share differences in temperament, point of view and opinion. Yet there are no conventional gender roles in postromanticism. One person is not necessarily more submissive, the other more authoritative; one person is not necessarily more emotive, the other more rational. The differences are unique to each couple, not necessarily polarized. They are diffused, varied and less predictable than in the Romantic complementarity between masculine and feminine roles.

Reciprocity: Reciprocity, which was largely ignored by the Romantic movement, is the pillar of postromanticism. Passion that is mostly solipsistic—one human being’s dream or projection upon an idealized person—is not real. It may represent desire or even a strong infatuation. But only once feelings, thoughts and desires are shared, do we enter the realm of passionate love.

Proximity and distance: The Romantic male artists and their muses, even when they coupled in real life, appeared infinitely distant in art because the descriptions of women were so often veiled and disguised. The Romantics privileged the metaphors of woman as muse, angel, Salomé or femme fatale; of woman as all the more desirable because mysterious, multiple, changing and unattainable. In this tantalizing play and disguise of feminine identity, the difference between Romanticism, modernism and postmodernism is almost effaced. Postromanticism doesn’t need feminine mystery and masquerade to cultivate desire and love. Which doesn’t mean that it assumes love to be transparent. Postromanticism trusts that passionate love can generate its own dynamics: a constant movement between elevating and lowering barriers which, unlike the Romantic vision of the femme fatale who fans desire through strategic advancements and withdrawals, is reciprocal, genuine and spontaneous.

Breathing: Passion is nourished by a proximity and intensity of communication so strong that it seems as if the lovers are breathing each other’s air. Without suffocating. The withdrawals are themselves part of the process of breathing. They are periods of inhaling air, of absorbing life experience and knowledge, in order to exhale it back to one another; to have a renewed life energy to offer one’s beloved.

Thinking: Postromantic passion is characterized by a rhythm and emotion which are genuine and spontaneous yet thoughtful at the same time. In this respect, it resembles Wordsworth’s Romanticism, which described passion as a processed and thoughtful rather than immediate and visceral emotion. Without the mediation of thought, passion risks being just a passing fancy; a gust of wind. And winds quickly change direction. Passion is a symbiotic relation between two individuals who enable each other to interconnect the important aspects of human life, including sensation, emotion and thought. Passion engages all of our human faculties.

Devotion: Passion is an enduring devotion. It’s not necessarily a commitment or responsibility in the way more institutionalized relations are, where the primary connection is external to the relationship. In other words, in passion the connection is not made by conventional morality and law. But the result is even more spectacular. Because devotion, a term evocative of religious experience, has transcendental dimensions. Passion is a secular form of adoration.

Fidelity: We tend to believe that virtue is a more reliable foundation for fidelity than passion, but postromanticism says that’s not the case. Virtue is often tested in the face of temptation and experienced as a tension between conscience and desire. All too often, the desire is more immediate, easier to satisfy and stronger. Passion reduces that tension and alleviates its pangs. In passion, the obsessive desire and focus upon a primary object is so strong that the energy left for others is weaker and more superficial, thus not posing a real threat to the relationship.

Jealousy and Possessiveness: If philosophers from Plato to Kant cautioned against passion, it’s largely because they associated it with negative emotions such as jealousy, possessiveness and hatred, which occur when love turns full circle and collapses upon itself. The Romantics, from Goethe to Constant, often confirmed this negative impression in describing how the force of passion leads to madness, murder and suicide. It’s undoubtedly true that passion is often accompanied by feelings of jealousy and possessiveness. Yet that’s not necessarily a bad sign. In moderation, jealousy and possessiveness may constitute a declaration of love. They can express: I know you desire others and that others are desirable to me, but I need and am grateful for the uniqueness of our attraction and feelings. Jealousy, in moderation, rekindles the flame of passion. It suggests: out of all the desirable persons we meet, I still chose you and you me. Jealousy in excess snuffs out the flame of passion. It suggests: I don’t trust you; you’re not freely mine. Rather than loving you, I possess you.

Ritual: Passion is a cherished ritual rather than a habit. A repetition of activities that appear always new, always exciting, because they’re primarily motivated by emotions and desires. In lasting love, one needs the repetition of activities as one needs to breathe air or eat regularly, rather than going through the motions today out of inertia, because one did it yesterday. In its rhythm and intensity, the repetition of acts in passionate love—going to a movie, dining out—resembles the repetition of religious rituals.

Erotism: Postromantic passion is erotic in a way that’s intensely sensual and at the same time different from diffused sensuality. In passion, the physical longing for someone is stimulated by knowledge and love of that person, rather than the love being motivated primarily by desire. That’s what makes passion different from the multiplicity of human attraction. While sensuality is a feast for the senses, passion offers food for the soul. Postromanticism places passion at its center, declaring: life and art would be emptier and more impoverished without such exquisite nourishment. 

Claudia Moscovici

postromanticism.com

September 15, 2010 Posted by | Claudia Moscovici, literary criticism, literature, love, modern art, passion, Romantic literature, Romanticism, Romanticism and Postromanticism, thoughts on love, thoughts on passion | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on What’s Love Got to Do With It? Passion as the Key (Post)romantic Trope