The Encyclopedia in the eye of censors

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CATASTROPHE ANNOUNCED, SUCCESS INSURED (3/6) - In 1759, the Encyclopedia is blacklisted while the King's Council orders its destruction. But Denis Diderot has more than one trick in his bag.

We do not imagine Diderot in despair. In his portrait by Van Loo, he displays a playful mood. In his bust by Houdon, his eyes are sure. From Langres, his hometown, on Boulevard Saint-Germain, his statues stained with pigeon droppings seem like ironic vanities. And then there are his fictions, often playful in appearance, such The indiscreet jewels, The dream of D'Alembert, Rameau's Nephew or Jacques the fatalist and his master.

And yet, desperate, Denis Diderot (1713-1784) has been repeatedly. And especially during his most formidable company, this Encyclopedia in the end he will not only have written more than 5,000 articles but also directed the design on a daily basis for more than twenty years. Seventeen volumes of texts and eleven illustrations. He had signed for ten in 1750.

Nine years later nothing was played. This Enlightenment movement, which arrogated to itself the right to say the world and its laws to the detriment of the monarchical and clerical word, still shone only with a fragile glow. The first passes of weapons had certainly been won, the number of subscribers increased. On the editors side, despite the withdrawal of one of d'Alembert from co-direction to the mere responsibility of mathematics articles, and a scrambled Rousseau, the team had expanded. And could claim prestigious support, from Voltaire to the Pompadour through Buffon or late Montesquieu. But the success was largely due to the scandal.

»READ ALSO - Diderot, philosopher without borders

"To abandon the work is to turn your back on the breach and do what the rascals who persecute us want."

In 1759, when Volume 7 went to press and the case finally seemed profitable, the Jesuits did not let go. Abraham Chaumeix releases a rebuttal in eight volumes and Elie Fréron, founder of The Literary Year (nicknamed newspaper The literary donkey by Voltaire), reactivates accusations of plagiarism, recurrent since the beginning of this immense work of compilation.

De Ferney, Voltaire encourages his "brother Plato" - aka Diderot - to shoot his arrows from another position, less exposed. He invites her to take off and asks for the return of her papers written for volume 8. Diderot hesitates, delays, then slices. "To give up the work is to turn your back on the breach and do what the rascals who persecute us desire." He intends to apply "what suits people of courage: to despise our enemies, to pursue them, and to profit, as we did, the foolishness of our censors. " In short, facing the grape shot, he stands straight in his boots.

In Versailles, since the stabbing given by the unbalanced Robert-François Damiens to Louis XV - the first attack against a king of France since that committed by Ravaillac in 1610 - tensions are daily. Jesuits against philosophers: the convalescent Bourbon first sent everyone back to back. Then anxious to reconcile the favors of the hereafter, he denounced "the unbridled license of the writings that spread in the kingdom." Their leaders incur death or the galleys in perpetuity. These sentences are not theoretical.

Among the pitfalls that failed to sink theEncyclopediathe most dangerous appeared suddenly. Overnight began to circulate in Paris Spirit, an anonymous, antireligious and anti-monarchical blast passed between the sidelines of idiotic or corrupt censors. Immediately, it was attributed to Diderot. It is actually due to Claude-Adrien Schweitzer, said Helvetius, Queen's butler. Director of the Bookstore and as chief censor, Chrétien-Guillaume de Lamoignon de Malesherbes realized the blunder of his agents. But it is too late: the Vatican has strangled itself. The pope asked the king more severity. Spirit was lacerated and then burned at the foot of the grand staircase of the Palace. More than ever, by capillarity, theEncyclopedia So smell sulfur.

"If the government interferes with such a work, it will not be done (...) An encyclopedia is not ordered"

It is first the Parliament of Paris that withdraws from the group of booksellers, producers and broadcasters, their exclusive permission to print. Then he suspends the sale and waiting for the royal decision to ban. It is done on March 8, 1759. The devout party thinks it has won. We are at the word "Gythinne", there are still at least eight volumes of writings to produce, the 4000 subscribers must be reimbursed. Will one of the most important works of universal literature end up stillborn? It's counting without Diderot who has more than one trick in his bag.

At the age of 45, this strong character does not intend to see a company that gives work to hundreds of people and, more generally, helps improve the living conditions of the majority. In addition, personally, he does not intend to see his career crumble. From the beginning, he works in a network. In the manner of articles of theEncyclopedia Connected together by the game of referrals, Diderot relies on a diffuse but exponential solidarity. This horizontality of writing as social relations does not make it obedient. As today at the time of the triumph of the Internet, this freedom is preferred even at the price of its abuse. The relations between beings and things are radically changed. "If the government interferes with such a work, it will not be done (...) An encyclopedia does not order," warned the son of the cutler Langres in his manifesto article entitled Encyclopedia.

»READ ALSO - Diderot, free-thinker of the 21st century

Ten years ago, when he was incarcerated in Vincennes because of his Letter on the Blind for the use of those who seeA materialist and atheist thesis, he had called on the very influential Madame du Deffand, had asked the old Chancellor of Aguesseau for favor that he counted as a friend, had begged the Keeper of the Seals, had repented to the lieutenant General of Police of his "intemperances of spirit". This time it's another thing. At least he can always count on Malesherbes, the son of d'Aguesseau's successor. As in 1752, he secretly invites him to put his person and his papers in a safe place. To make the change, he recommends leaving the police with copies of engravings when they search.

Diderot et les encyclopédistes. Gravure colorisée d'après Meissonier.
Diderot and encyclopaedists. Engraving colorized after Meissonier. - Photo Credits: Albert Harlingue / © Albert Harlingue / Roger-Viollet

The fate of the last seven volumes of texts under construction is entrusted to nine experts. Finally, tacit permission is left to continue to work in France because we fear relocation to Switzerland or Holland. On March 30, a meeting was held at the principal investor, the bookseller Le Breton. Against d'Alembert and most of the pegs, Diderot stops the strategy. "We sat down at four in the evening. We were gay, we drank, we laughed, we ate; and on the evening, the big business began. I explained the project to complete the manuscript (...). We examined him from all sides; arrangements were made; we encouraged each other; they swore to see the end of the enterprise; it was agreed to work the following volumes with the freedom of the first to chance to print in Holland; and we parted. "Turgot, Morellet or Marmontel threw in the towel. But the last square is decided.

On September 3, a brief pontifical of Clement XIII, read in all the churches, condemns eight materialist works in the first rank of which is theEncyclopedia. It's too late. To satisfy the worried subscribers, the circulation of the volumes of boards, less sensitive, was authorized. It will take place from January 1762. Meanwhile Diderot father died. "This is the last blow I had to receive," the son writes to a friend. I will not have seen my father or mother die. I will not hide from you that I look upon this curse as that of heaven. "This time he does not rouse.

After this dark year, the sequel will be enamelled other blows. But since March 8, 1759 the adventure is perpetuated. The booksellers will gain the equivalent of what a family of Parisian workers would earn for nearly four thousand years. And progress, a fulgurating acceleration.


1749 - Diderot is serving three months in prison. Her Letter on the blind which relativizes everything, is worth the wrath of censorship. TheEncyclopedia is still in the works.

1752 - Article Certainty argues that all miracles can be explained rationally. The Council of the King prohibits the first two volumes already published.

1759 The King decrees the destruction by fire of the seven printed volumes. The pope puts the work on the index. Subscribers must be reimbursed.

1965 - "What happens and is done today has its deep roots in the thought and action of men of theEncyclopedia"Wrote the historian Jacques Proust.

Eric Biétry-Rivierre - Grand Reporter Arts

Source: © The Encyclopedia in the eye of censors

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