Navigation – Plan du site

The Vital Dynamism of the Voice in Diderot

Le dynamisme vital de la voix chez Diderot
Hélène Cussac

Résumés

Conscient de la difficulté à dire le son dans une culture encore prise dans un rationalisme qui privilégie le sens de la vue à celui de l’ouïe, Diderot n’a cessé d’inscrire et d’explorer la voix au cœur de son œuvre philosophique mais aussi romanesque. Aussi cet article observe-t-il la façon dont l’écrivain matérialiste, au cœur d’une tension interne entre la présence simultanée de sons négatifs et positifs, entre agacement et attirance pour le son, cherche à réhabiliter la voix humaine en ce qu’elle est signe de vitalité. Le propos souligne encore que si l’écrivain, en expérimentant chez ses personnages la sensibilité de la matière, rend compte parfois de l’énergie et de l’excès d’une voix vibrante, il dit aussi la force d’une nature humaine passionnée qui perd en fin de compte l’idée de sa perfectibilité, mais s’extrait de la chape de plomb dont l’univers religieux et politique la revêtait. Représenter la voix pour Diderot, c’est par conséquent, conclut l’auteur, mener un travail d’esthète et d’anthropologue, auquel s’associe une dimension politique.

Haut de page

Texte intégral

To Jean Marie Goulemot

  • 1 “[Enjoying] so much noise and movement” Blaise Pascal, Pensées, in P. Sellier (ed.), Paris, Garnier (...)
  • 2 For Descartes, extended objects dictate the way of studying and of understanding nature. Sound does (...)
  • 3 “Man, who is spirit, is led by his eyes and ears.” La Bruyère, Les Caractères, ou les mœurs de ce s (...)
  • 4 “Oh reason! Who can resist you when you assume the enthralling accents and voice of Woman?” Diderot (...)
  • 5 “The night obscures forms and fills sounds with horror, be it but the rustle of a leaf in the depth (...)

1In the eighteenth century, despite the taste for musical sound and the pre-eminence accorded to the voice – conceived as superior to its physical manifestation – the sense of hearing was still low down in the hierarchy of senses because of the primacy of sight. Sounds had, for a long time, maintained a poor reputation, whether one considers Boileau’s Satire VI, which was heir to Juvenal’s Satires, or Pascal’s Pensées, which reproached man with enjoying “tant le bruit et le remuement.”1 Aside from this poor reputation, the age of Enlightenment has been rather more associated with sight and touch, senses more consistent with the rationalist, and specifically Cartesian, culture that regarded the senses in general as powerful and dishonest rivals of reason.2 As La Bruyère reminds us in his Caractères, commenting on the appeal of kettledrums and other smock-frocks: “l’homme, qui est esprit, se mène par les yeux et les oreilles.”3 Diderot is aware of this rivalry when he portrays Dorval, who has just freed himself from his feelings for Rosalie, exclaiming: “Ô raison! Qui peut te résister quand tu prends l’accent enchanteur et la voix de la femme?”4 Sounds remained on the periphery of cultural awareness regardless of their sources, because, despite the scientific advances that mechanically systemised sounds according to contemporary epistemological standards, they were not as easily grasped as those objects perceived by sight or by touch. Diderot thus declares, borrowing from Burke: “La nuit dérobe les formes et donne de l’horreur aux bruits, ne fût-ce que celui d’une feuille au fond d’une forêt; il met l’imagination en jeu”?5 While quite interested in sounds, the philosopher does not hesitate to use visual comparisons to explain sounds:

  • 6 “When the different sections of the string are incommensurable, will not a phenomenon occur that is (...)

Lorsque les parties de la corde sont incommensurables, n’arrivera-t-il pas un phénomène analogue à celui que rapportent quelques auteurs d’optique qu’il a si fort embarrassés ? C’est la vision confuse de l’objet, lorsque les rayons réfléchis ou rompus entrent dans l’œil convergents. Si cela est, voilà des choses communes, entre deux sensations d’une espèce bien différente.6

  • 7 “When she heard singing, she could distinguish the voices of brunettes and blonds.” Denis Diderot, (...)

2Let us also remember Mélanie de Salignac, who did not hesitate to assign colours to voices: “quand elle entendait chanter, elle distinguait des voix brunes, blondes.”7 Aware that it is difficult to characterise sounds, the author, who responded to all challenges, tries to express them through pantomime:

  • 8 “So there he was, seated at the harpsichord […] His voice was like the wind and his fingers flew ov (...)

Le voilà donc assis au clavecin […] Sa voix allait comme le vent, et ses doigts voltigeaient sur les touches ; tantôt laissant le dessus, pour prendre la basse ; tantôt quittant la partie d’accompagnement, pour revenir au-dessus. Les passions se succédaient sur son visage. On y distinguait la tendresse, la colère, le plaisir, la douleur. On sentait les piano, les forte. Et je suis sûr qu’un plus habile que moi aurait reconnu le morceau, au mouvement, au caractère, à ses mines et à quelques traits de chant qui lui échappaient par intervalle.8

  • 9 See Hélène Cussac, "Espace et Bruit. Le monde sonore dans la littérature française du XVIIIe siècle (...)
  • 10 Speculation on the world of vibrations was very active during the eighteenth century, maintaining t (...)

3The pantomime is here expressive of a form of transfer: the sense of sight is charged with ‘telling’ sounds, the better for us to imagine them either through gestures, or by their effect on the character and on the listener. But despite the difficulties involved, and despite the reluctance expressed by some writers to render sounds in language (notably in the first third of the eighteenth century9), others, such as Diderot, would not limit his approach to noise to a tableau désagréable in the manner of Boileau, but would instead try to preserve the ear’s capacity to delight in beautiful sounds.10 Moreover, if there are more unpleasant sounds, they are at the heart of an internal tension between the simultaneous presence of both negative and positive sounds, between irritation and attraction to them; to rehabilitate the sonority that is a sign of human life. With Diderot, the human world, which appears in the world of the text, is rich with softness and fury, whispers and screams. For, though the writer is sometimes as much interested in the sounds of nature as in the sounds of objects, he is much more in tune with the noises produced by Man: noises from the body and/or from the voice, whether they are associated with objects or not. By consequence, in the works of Diderot we can observe unarticulated vocal sounds as well as singing, and can forge relationships between texts that might otherwise appear heterogeneous, such as Le Neveu de Rameau and Les Bijoux indiscrets. We can also confront – and not oppose – theoretical and fictional texts, aiming to find sociological and philosophical (and therefore anthropological and even political) significance in vocal representation in Diderot.

Of laughter, or, of the existential power of joy

  • 11 References to the voice were indeed often used to make fun of characters; it conveys, more so than (...)
  • 12rire à gorge déployée”, Diderot, Les Bijoux indiscrets, DPV, t. III, XX, p. 91.
  • 13 “babillard”, “éclate de rire”, ibid., XIII, p. 104.
  • 14 “laughter from the stalls, the amphitheatre and the boxes” ibid., p. 71.
  • 15 “Burst out laughing” Diderot, Le Neveu…, DPV, t. XII, p. 180 (2 occurrences), trans. L. Tancock (ed (...)
  • 16 “Everybody rushed out with the speed and babble of a flock of birds escaping from their cage, and t (...)
  • 17 “The immoderate laughter and rowdy merriment of a dozen or so brigands,” Diderot, Jacques le fatali (...)
  • 18 Jacques’s master “was splitting his sides laughing” Ibid., p. 81. Tr: p. 71.
  • 19 He is touched by his “delightful merriment” Ibid., p. 259. Tr: p. 226.
  • 20 He “started to laugh and whistle” Ibid., p. 255 (two occurrences). Tr: p. 222.
  • 21 Or while he was “almost crying with joy,” Ibid., p. 273. Tr: p. 238.
  • 22 “bursts of laughter fit to split open the ceiling,” Le Neveu…, DPV, t. XII, p. 165. Tr: L. Tancock (...)
  • 23 "able to imitate with gesture and voice the “sublime monkey-ing” of the “grand comedy, the comedy o (...)
  • 24 Ibid., p. 56.
  • 25 “The gaiety which had never been, absent since my arrival at the convent suddenly disappeared. Ever (...)
  • 26 Pierre Chartier, preface to his edition of Jacques le fataliste, Paris, Le Livre de Poche, 2000, pp (...)

4Diderot questions the voice more as an aesthete and a philosopher than as a moralist, even though he only uses this representation, like La Bruyère, to paint a few character portraits.11 Satire is not his objective, and his interest in what is sonorous leads him to create unarticulated sounds through word-noises and word-images. Among these is laughter, which allows Diderot to express his thoughts about humanity without entering into in-depth characterisation. When a piece of jewellery starts to “laugh heartily,”12 or another, a “babbler,” “bursts out laughing”13 the laughter becomes intense, denoting an open gaiety which still corresponds to the “cacophony” of the “ris du parterre, de l’amphithéâtre et des loges,”14 as provoked by hilarious shows such as the one at the Banza Opera. In Neveu de Rameau, Lui will go so far as to use the expression “crever de rire.”15 Amidst the worst torments, laughter can be seen as a sign of the quest for happiness at all costs. We know the weight that confinement to a convent places on Suzanne and her friends. And yet the protagonist tells us: “On en sortit [du choeur] avec la vitesse et le babil d’une troupe d’oiseaux qui s’échapperaient de leur volière; et les sœurs se répandirent les unes chez les autres, en courant, en riant, en parlant.”16 The insouciance of youth, emphasised by this bird metaphor, is ready to re-emerge at the least hope of life, of bodily joy and of the soul, in a community where harmony and friendship could exist if they were only allowed to blossom. Laughter, however, is most often to be understood implicitly, through asides provided for the reader. Though in Jacques le fataliste, the “ris immodérés” and the “joie tumultueuse”17 of the bandits permeates the narrative with real joy from the outset, and marks the picaresque inspiration of the text in a way similar to the first pages of Lesage’s Gil Blas, such joyful scenes are not always as a celebration of the mind, but the reader, nonetheless, might catch himself smiling when Jacques’s master “se tient les côtes de rire,”18 or is touched by his “gaieté charmante,”19 or shares his joyful mood when he “se met à rire et à siffler”20, or while we see him “pleure[r] presque de joie.”21 If the passers-by and the customers at the coffee shop where Moi and Neveu converse have “des éclats de rire à entrouvrir le plafond”,22 while attending the famous pantomime of the latter, the pathetic voice of misfortune still rises from the character. It seems that, through the character of the Neveu, the writer experiments with the theory developed in the 1770s in the Paradoxe du comédien: his thoughtful observation of behaviours and his acoustic acuteness make a great poet of him, one able to imitate with gesture and voice the “singerie sublime” of the “grande comédie, la comédie du monde”, “dont l’acteur garde le souvenir longtemps après l’avoir étudiée”.23 So, as a buffoon, Neveu provokes the effect of laughter “dans toute la liberté de son esprit”.24 Indeed, the characters are often placed in the way of fatalistic philosophy, in order for laughter to occupy a more prominent place in the work. “La gaieté, qui depuis mon arrivée dans la maison, n’avait point cessé”, says Suzanne, “disparut tout à coup; tout rentra dans l’ordre le plus austère.”25 In most novels by Diderot, laughter, from a linguistic point of view, is quickly subdued. But its virtues are emphasised by the writer: the deep joy of the soul shared through dialogues, whether it be in Jacques le fataliste or in Le Neveu de Rameau. The laughing voice is thus seldom represented, but it has a constant non-spoken presence, turning a novel such as Jacques le fataliste into “a manual of gaiety know-how,” to reference Pierre Chartier’s analysis.26 It is either through an underlying complicity with the reader, or through an association with multiple vocal variations including singing that laughter makes sense in language itself. Even when the pathos of existence casts a shadow on the text, and when some noises expressing passion such as sobs and screams displace laughter, the philosophical joy that permeates Diderot’s writing is still not diminished.

Of laughter, and of sighs, of songs, and of tears: or, of the piquant of dissonance

  • 27à sangloter, pleurer, gémir, soupirer, se désespérer” after having gone “brusquement de ses ris im (...)
  • 28 “C’est par l’opposition que les caractères se distinguent,” Diderot D., in Leçons de clavecin et pr (...)
  • 29 See Didier B., “La réflexion sur la dissonance chez les écrivains du XVIIIe siècle: d’Alembert, Did (...)

5When the sonorous extends to the experience of suffering, Diderot still attempts to bring a smile to the reader in spite of it all. When a piece of jewellery continues “to sob, cry, moan, sigh, despair” after going “suddenly from immoderate laughter to ridiculous lamentations,”27 Diderot finds amusement in the style of La Bruyère, emphasizing the whimsical behaviour of the character. This recourse to unarticulated vocal sounds comes partly from the inclusion of those five verbs designating varying intensities, and partly from the near-instantaneousness of completely opposed moods. This reflects the author's interest in dissonance that he will later confirm in his Ecrits sur la musique,28 a dissonance which he will show to be natural in harmony.29

  • 30 Béatrice Didier has addressed this question quite cogently: she shows that changes in the way music (...)

6Another notable instance of an interest in noise in the eighteenth century is, indeed, the persistent question of dissonance.30 Theorists have hesitated to consider this dissonance objectively, within an aesthetic that is all too often subordinate to the principle of a normative nature. Yet, the hypothesis of an illimitable nature – and distinct from the cultural idea that man, limited by his intellectual and anthropological prejudice, has created – ends up making the idea of natural dissonance possible. Rejecting it is mooted to be only be an effect of education. This is what Diderot observes through the metaphor used by Neveu:

  • 31 “the dissonances in social harmony are the ones that need skill in placing, preparing for and resol (...)

[…] ce sont des dissonances dans l’harmonie sociale qu’il faut savoir placer, préparer et sauver. Rien de si plat qu’une suite d’accords parfaits. Il faut quelque chose qui pique, qui sépare le faisceau, et qui en éparpille les rayons.31

7He also notices the propensity of individuals to mix laughter and tears. In his pantomime, Rameau creates voices of laughter and happiness, of tears and unhappiness, heard separately but almost juxtaposed:

  • 32 “[…] the fine accompanied recitative in which the prophet depicts the desolation of Jerusalem was m (...)

[…] ce beau récitatif obligé où le prophète peint la désolation de Jérusalem, il l’arrosa d’un torrent de larmes qui en arrachèrent de tous les yeux. Tout y était, et la délicatesse du chant, et la force de l’expression ; et la douleur. […] Il pleurait, il riait, il soupirait ; […].32

  • 33 “in the direction of the linguistic and in the representation of society and its tensions.” Didier (...)
  • 34 A “very old jewel, sighing heavily” starts to “ramble,” while others “reached such a high pitch, so (...)

8The vocal expressivity conveyed here aims to accentuate passions – particularly those of tense emotiveness. The voice, linked to the truth of the inner soul, offers emotions that lead it to dispersal and contradiction. The voice speaks the truth of the natural character of the soul. Thus, it signals the physical dissonance of sounds, which correspond to the metaphysical dissonance of Men capable of going instantly from the greatest joy to the most intense suffering. If sonorities seem sometimes off-key and rasping – becoming a broken puppet, so to speak – it is because emotions have an effect on this process, creating dissonance along the way before the soul returns to perfect harmony. When Diderot emits “an unarticulated, broken and painful complaint” or “a painful and astute complaint” through his character, he observes, as Beatrice Didier has noted, the musicality of the voice, and widens its conception of dissonance “dans la direction de la linguistique et dans la représentation de la société et de ses tensions,”33. He also wishes to express that vocal distortions are created by the soul, and not by a mechanical problem, as the likes of Mersenne tought in the seventeenth century. Human nature is not a matter of equilibrium. Jewellery, a common metaphor for the pudenda, expresses a form of vitality that is often disharmonious. A “très antique bijou, poussant un profond soupir” starts to “radoter,” while others “se montèrent sur un ton si haut, si baroque et si fou qu’ils formèrent le chœur le plus extraordinaire, le plus bruyant et le plus ridicule qu’on eût entendu.”34 Diderot here uses a breathless, broken up style to indicate expiring sounds which foregrounds the grotesque chaos of the jewellery, a reflection of the comedy of the theatrum mundi and a reminded of Rameau's tragic poetry. The inarticulate language that results from the urges of body and soul can be disturbing; it is not a question, for all that, of censoring primal nature, that which exists before speech, as Rousseau explains so well in Essai sur l’origine des langues. The frenzied opera offers a confusion of voices, a heathen, outlandish feast where the most unlikely sounds can be intertwined. Off-key music, inarticulate sounds, and inaudible words put the powerful vitality of someone being freed from all constraints into perspective:

  • 35 “However, their pieces of jewellery were shouting themselves hoarse with the extent of their singin (...)

Cependant leurs bijoux s’égosillaient à force de chanter, celui-ci un pont-neuf, celui-là un vaudeville polisson, un autre une parodie fort indécente, et tous des extravagances relatives à leurs caractères.35

9This diverse collection of sounds becomes shrill and reminds us of the social disorder that man is susceptible of creating, but it also highlights the excesses of human sensibility. The cacophony of the jewellery, just as much as the vocalised trances of Neveu and as the voiced gesticulations of Jacques – a true Harlequin, oscillating from laughter to tears and from lamentations to whistling – ultimately expresses the individuals' resistance to standards of politeness, in a monarchic régime which has restrained them for too long. The voice, though it disrupts civilization, represents a dynamic participation in global harmony insofar as it exacerbates passions. Turning from tears to laughter and from laughter to screams is a normal process. Does this mean that it is existentially pure and beautiful? Vocal expression, as Diderot imagines it, is as rich and inflected as the soul is sensitive:

  • 36 “We endlessly inveigh against the passions; we attribute them all to be the griefs of man, and we f (...)

On déclame sans fin contre les passions ; on leur impute toutes les peines de l’homme, et l’on oublie qu’elles sont aussi la source de tous ses plaisirs. […] il n’y a que les passions et les grandes passions qui puissent élever l’âme aux grandes choses.36

10Starting with the rehabilitation of the passions, Diderot attempts, as early as in his Pensées philosophiques in 1746, to promote voices that are “langage des sensations,” as a result of passions that “trouble the soul.” That disruption is created by the power of the voice, by irrepressible sobbing, and contrasted vocal sounds. The author explains his notion of contrast in his Leçons de clavecin et principes d’harmonie:

  • 37 “It is pain that gives pleasure its bite; it is the shadow that brings out the sun; joy owes its sw (...)

C’est la peine qui rend le plaisir piquant; c’est l’ombre qui fait valoir la lumière; c’est à la fatigue que la jouissance doit sa douceur ; c’est le jour nébuleux qui embellit le jour serein; c’est le vice qui sert de fard à la vertu; c’est la laideur qui relève l’éclat de la beauté; c’est par l’opposition que les caractères se distinguent; c’est dans le clair-obscur que consiste la magie de la peinture; les poètes d’un goût exquis n’ont guère manqué de jeter une idée triste au milieu des images les plus riantes ou les plus voluptueuses; celles-ci en deviennent intéressantes; un peu de bruit lointain prête un charme inconcevable au silence; un être pensif relégué dans le coin d’une solitude, ajoute à la solitude. Un bonheur que rien n’altère devient fade.37

  • 38 This is not to praise that music of which noise might unduly take advantage, but rather to emphasis (...)

11“Le plus puissant de tous les beaux-arts”, according to Diderot, is music,38 which delights the acute sensibilities of the time, demanding the most exquisite voluptuousness, as Mademoiselle de Salignac confesses:

  • 39 “I will never tire of listening to singing or to a superlative instrumentalist, and if such is the (...)

Je ne me lasserai jamais d’entendre chanter ou jouer supérieurement d’un instrument et quand ce bonheur-là serait, dans le ciel, le seul dont on jouirait, je ne serais pas fâchée d’y être. Vous pensiez juste lorsque vous assuriez de la musique que c’était le plus violent des beaux-arts, sans en excepter ni la poésie ni l’éloquence; que Racine même ne s’exprimait pas avec la délicatesse d’une harpe; que sa mélodie était lourde et monotone en comparaison de celle de l’instrument.39

  • 40 “[Fear,] indignation, anger, vexation [disappointment], one passion after another possessed me, and (...)
  • 41 It is worthwhile to recall the musical image so dear to Diderot, of a man as sensitive as a harpsic (...)
  • 42 “ […] I merely heard confused and distant voices buzzing round me; whether it was real speech or si (...)
  • 43 “ loud and fierce voice, ” Ibid., p. 169. Tr: p. 90.
  • 44 “Is man therefore condemned to never agree with neither his kind nor himself?” Diderot D., De la po (...)

12Rousseau and Diderot among others, however, discovered one way of making this unique pleasure possible, using the happy contrast of the dissonance in music as in man. Thus, the characters of Diderot represent all of these arresting states of mind which make them charming. The human experience of the author is conveyed by a sensitive form of writing, laden with emotion, body language or sound: “la frayeur, l’indignation, la colère, le dépit, différentes passions se succédant en moi, j’avais différentes voix, je prenais différents visages et je faisais différents mouvements.”40 No matter what the period, place, or etiquette, the human being is made up of nervous fibres,41 of sounds and diverse noises. This, at least, is what Suzanne says. Even a space that is dedicated to silence, such as a convent, is constantly troubled by a range of noises, from the softest to the most menacing: “[…] j’entendis seulement bourdonner autour de moi des voix confuses et lointaines; soit qu’elles parlassent, soit que les oreilles me tintassent, je ne distinguais rien que ce tintement qui durait.”42 On the verge of fainting, Suzanne suddenly has trouble hearing, thus pushing away and transforming the “voix forte et menaçante”43 of her superior. The character, losing her understanding by way of the fashion in which her sense of hearing has been aggressively confronted with the emotions contained in the vocal emission, experiences the power of the voice. The attention that Diderot gives to vocal sounds brings him to note situations where communion between men is absent, and where the voice of disagreement is never far. Diderot asks himself: “L’homme est-il donc condamné à n’être d’accord ni avec ses semblables, ni avec lui-même?”44 Would he also wallow, I would personally add, in the cavern of tears and the Hell of screams? Despite the agitation of hearts, the inevitable tensions, and the troubling circumstances that make exchanges difficult, such as how Moi feels when observing Rameau in his scene “of the pimp and the maiden he was procuring”:

  • 45 “ I […] did not know whether to give in to laughter or furious indignation. I felt embarrassed. A s (...)

[…] je ne savais si je m’abandonnerais à l’envie de rire, ou au transport de l’indignation. Je souffrais. Vingt fois un éclat de rire empêcha ma colère d’éclater ; vingt fois la colère qui s’élevait au fond de mon cœur se termina par un éclat de rire. J’étais confondu […]. Il s’aperçut du conflit qui se passait en moi […].45

  • 46 “ we were busy the Chevalier and I, grieving, consoling ourselves, accusing ourselves, insulting ou (...)

13And despite a dialogue filled with disagreements, the understanding between the two protagonists is such that complicity remains salient. The laughing voice wins the day, and adumbrates an ethic of exchange above that of aesthetics. Art can thus conjure up things which education could not: the joint vibration of hearts and bodies through the musical voice – this is the lesson of the Neveu de Rameau. The impetus is always towards reconciliation: “nous étions en train” (explains Jacques) “le chevalier et moi, de nous affliger, de nous consoler, de nous accuser, de nous injurier et de nous demander pardon.”46

  • 47 “We became bitter, we shouted, we went from screams to insults.” Les Bijoux …, DPV, t. III, X, p. 6 (...)
  • 48 “ I was thinking how variable your style is, sometimes lofty, sometimes familiar ”, DPV, t. XII, p. (...)

14But sometimes men, like the savants of Les Bijoux indiscrets, cannot avoid verbal dissension, contained in the resounding substance of the voice: “On s’aigrit, on cria, on passa des cris aux injures.”47 The voice is the physical phenomenon that best defines temperament, and best expresses emotion through its tone and its contrasts: Moi “dreams,” he says, “of the unevenness” of Rameau's pitch, “sometimes high, sometimes low”; Rameau  “élevait le ton, à mesure qu’il se passionnait davantage.”48 A new sound dimension of the voice, in its most extreme form, is of interest to Diderot because it reveals the animal nature of a human being, while also perhaps putting in danger the concept of perfectibility.

Of scream: or, of the animal characteristic of passion

  • 49 “Without movement life is but a kind of lethargy.” Rousseau J.-J., “Cinquième promenade ”, in B. Ga (...)
  • 50 See Diderot D., the Rêve de d’Alembert and particularly the definition stated by Bordeu, DPV, t. XV (...)

15“Sans mouvement la vie n’est qu’une léthargie.”49 Rousseau’s assertion in “Cinquième promenade” could just as well have been taken from Diderot. And with movement come sounds and come noises. With Diderot, the noise made by man forms a dynamic resulting from the uncontrollable sensibility of the “bundle of fibres”.50 The voice expresses the emotions of the man of feeling and is enough in itself; it needs no further actions – such as those of orators – to attract or repel with its powerful effects. The philosopher underlines the strong impressions that the voice can provoke, by observing that children can generate fear by using their voices as well as any professional actor can:

  • 51 “Nothing so much resembles actor on stage [...] than children who, during the night, imitate ghosts (...)

Rien ne ressemblerait tant à un comédien sur la scène […] que les enfants qui, la nuit, contrefont les revenants sur les cimetières, en élevant au-dessus de leurs têtes un grand drap blanc au bout d’une perche et faisant de dessous ce catafalque une voix lugubre qui effraie les passants.51

16Even high-pitched sounds are not always disturbing:

  • 52 “It is the animal cry of passion that should dictate the melodic line […] The simple language and n (...)

C’est au cri animal de la passion, à nous dicter la ligne qui nous convient. […] Les discours simples, les voix communes de la passion, nous sont d’autant plus nécessaires que la langue sera plus monotone, aura moins d’accent. Le cri animal ou de l’homme passionné leur en donne.52

  • 53 “the animal moves, becomes restless, screams; I can hear its screams through its shell” Diderot D., (...)
  • 54 See Cussac H., “La voix dans le Dictionnaire philosophique de Voltaire,” La voix dans la culture et (...)
  • 55 “ She began to cry aloud ,” La Religieuse, DPV, t. XI, p. 191. Tr: L. Tancock (ed.), p. 113.
  • 56 “ Jacques cried out ” and “ started rolling around on the ground, shouting,” Jacques le fataliste, (...)
  • 57 “ The cell echoing with our lamentations,” La Religieuse, DPV, t. XI, p. 125. Tr: L. Tancock (ed.), (...)
  • 58 “ A loud scream,” Ibid., p. 174. Tr: p. 94.
  • 59 “There were broken and muffled cries of a man being strangled” Le Neveu…, DPV, t. XII, p. 150. Tr: (...)
  • 60 Here “ the natural son of Desglands and the beautiful widow started uttering the most awful cries” (...)
  • 61 She started “ crying – such cries…” Ibid., p. 106. Tr: ibid., p. 94.

17Here Diderot turns the scream into a sign of the energetic nature of man. That is because the scream is one of the first signs of sensibility in animals and men alike. Take the example of the egg from “Entretien entre Diderot et d’Alembert” (1769): in its shell, the philosopher remarks, “cet animal se meut, s’agite, crie; j’entends ses cris à travers la coque,”53. Unlike thinkers in the previous century, Diderot proves more audacious than, say, Voltaire, for whom the cries of man were unbearable54. He rates these loud sounds as positive through their association with passionateness, which is unobjectionable. An “animal scream” becomes the most commonly used image to denote the natural expression of passion. If vitalist behaviour had, so far, been accepted and recognised, it hadn’t always been appreciated; Diderot reclaims sound emitted in this way, regardless of its physics. Indeed, all of his characters express themselves through screaming, which comes from an inner impulse, and makes the body a vibration machine, a sort of physiological resonator. Saint Ursula begins by “pousser des cris”55 in her fear of seeing Suzanne die. Jacques, in a similar situation, “pousse un cri” and “se roule à terre en criant.”56 But substantives and gerunds are not sufficient. In order to give scope to his sounds, the author must become an astute acoustician. To represent the resounding body, different stylistic devices are used. Sometimes only a verb accompanies the critical word: as the death of Moni’s sister is getting nigh, “sa cellule retentissait de cris.”57 At other times adjectives can specify the nature of the scream, which may be “un grand cri.”58 Adjectives can also create physical specificity: the scream can be “high-pitched” or “very high-pitched”: the specificity may be of an affective kind: the scream becomes “dreadful.” Sometimes, sounds are softer: the writer wishes to get as close as possible to the physical representation of the sound through a periphrasis, so that it becomes frightening: “c’étaient les cris interrompus et sourds d’un homme qui s’étouffe”59. The purpose of the verb that determines the clause is to pinpoint the nature of a muffled scream. Finally, an adjective makes the idea of animality explicit: the character – here “the son of Desgland and of the beautiful widow” – utters “cris inhumains.”60 Diderot further highlights the intensity of sounds by stating their duration. This can happen through the repetition of a noun: Nanon, a mistreated young girl, starts shrieking out “des cris, mais des cris.”61 Synonymy is also what best shows the strength of the sounds: uproar, hubbub, racket, din, and booing are the nouns chosen when the scene is loud with with screams, but also with a multitude of noises from bodies and objects. Indeed, to understand a man through his screams is inevitably to be confronted with a body in movement, with a resounding corporality. When passions arise, the voice is barely dissociable from the body. D’Alembert recognises this his entry for “Action” in the Encyclopédie:

  • 62 Action, says Cicero, is so to tell the eloquence of the body: it has two parts, the voice and the m (...)

L’action, dit Cicéron, est pour ainsi dire l’éloquence du corps : elle a deux parties, la voix et le geste. L’une frappe l’oreille, l’autre les yeux ; deux sens, dit Quintilien, par lesquels nous faisons passer nos sentiments et nos passions dans l’âme des auditeurs.62

18Diderot’s aesthetic understands this. Screams appear suddenly, where we might least expect them – indeed one ‘shouts’ in places that are principally calm and silent like the convent – screaming is what puts the body into movement:

  • 63 “She was all dishevelled and half naked, she was dragging iron chains, wild-eyed, tearing her hair (...)

Elle était échevelée et presque sans vêtement ; elle traînait des chaînes de fer ; ses yeux étaient égarés ; elle s’arrachait les cheveux ; elle se frappait la poitrine avec les poings, elle courait, elle hurlait ; elle se chargeait elle-même, et les autres, des plus terribles imprécations[…].63

  • 64 “One morning she was found barefoot, in her nightgown, shrieking and foaming at the mouth, running (...)
  • 65 “Where are the energy of the Leibnizian monad and the cosmic effusions of Shaftesbury to be found? (...)
  • 66frémir les cartilages du larynx, et les os de la tête et les parties de la poitrine”” Diderot D., (...)

19In times of pain, human nature expresses itself violently. When emotions are at their most intense, the author is not satisfied with vocal expression alone, and therefore exhibits the boisterous body of his character. Moni’s sister, affected by madness, utters the “cry of animals” so dear to Diderot. Verbal lexicon is deployed to express the voice and the body: “Un matin on la trouva pieds nus, en chemise, échevelée, hurlant, écumant et courant autour de sa cellule.”64 The dramatic scene evokes the image of a rabid dog in the reader’s imagination. Sometimes, Diderot resorts to explicit comparisons. Indeed, at one point Suzanne is not content to “make awful screams,” she “yells” at the same time “like a ferocious animal” from the second the nuns drag her onto the floor. The outside world stimulates both thought and sensibility, and activates an inner impulse “où se retrouvent – according yo Michel Baridon– l’énergie de la monade leibnizienne et les effusions cosmiques de Shaftesbury.”65 The consequence – whether the situation be dysphoric or euphoric – is the utterance of a scream from the heart, a scream which, for those listening, makes “the cartilage of the larynx vibrate, and the bones of the head and the different parts of the chest.”66 The scream is, consequently, one of the most obvious manifestations of the range and the possibilities of the voice, naturally leading to animal imagery.

  • 67 See Cussac H., “Espace et bruit…”, 2005. See also number 43 (2011) of the journal Dix-Huitième Sièc (...)
  • 68 “Voices are always changing roles, moving their identities around” Lejeune P., “Paroles d’enfance,” (...)
  • 69 “as for me, am I never at one point in time what I ma at another?” Diderot, De la poésie dramatique (...)

20Not one of the novels of Diderot does without language evocative of a sensitive and energetic voice. Thus, by exploiting an entire range of sounds, as an adept of the physiology of Haller and Bordeu, he experiments with the sensibility of matter. This is shown by the rich vocabulary which constructs an aesthetic of sound not to be found in writers from the first third of the century, except Marivaux – though to a lesser extent.67 Only Rousseau, in whom the voices of excess and madness are also found, like that of Rameau in Diderot, emphasises that from then on, the inarticulateness of song – or ‘first language’ – will take over from the inarticulate language of the understanding. I would like to suggest that Diderot adumbrates here modern conceptions of the voice, as defined by Nathalie Sarraute in Enfance: “les voix passent leur temps à changer de rôle, à faire bouger leur identité.”68 Indeed, the character of Rameau is an expert in the near-simultaneous emission of infinitely modulated voices, from the softest to the shrillest, emphasising the question that Diderot had posed in his essay on Poésie dramatique: “et moi-même, je ne suis jamais dans un instant ce que j’étais dans un autre?”69

All at once, laughter and screams, songs and pamphlets; or, of the relationship between sounds and their effects

  • 70 “He sang thirty tunes one on top of the other and all mixed up: Italian, French, tragic, comic, of (...)

Il entassait et brouillait ensemble trente airs, italiens, français, tragiques, comiques de toutes sortes de caractères ; tantôt avec une voix de basse-taille, il descendait jusqu’aux enfers ; tantôt, s’égosillant, et contrefaisant le fausset, il déchirait le haut des airs, imitant de la démarche, du maintien, du geste, les différents personnages chantants ; successivement furieux, radouci, impérieux, ricaneur.70

  • 71 Sounds “have a marvellous capacity to touch us, because they are signs of the passions, instituted (...)

21The influence of Italian opera on behaviour here is obvious: the pantomime of Rameau’s nephew, which aims to illustrate his enthusiasm for Italian music, is primarily corporal and gestural. And yet the voice also maintains a primary role. It is through vocal expressivity, indeed, though associated with gesture, that the reader enters into the world of the writer. Verbs, adjectives and adverbial phrases of manner refer to sound more than content. “Entasser” (accumulate) and “brouiller” (to muddle together) – which Hancock’s translation renders as “one on top of each other and all mixed up” – suggest confusion, while the voice ranges randomly through various pitches, with no regular progression at all. Rather than naturally going from low to high, it is “sometimes low,” “sometimes high.” The adverb tantôt (sometimes) emphasises the absence of harmonious inquiry, as well as the vocal range. The diversity of these verbs reflects the possibilities of the voice in terms of both its quality and its intensity. Metaphor is sometimes preferred to express the more tragic accents – “jusqu’aux enfers ”, while at another point the physicality of the sound is qualified by the technical jargon – “voix de basse-taille”. This circumlocution foregrounds the description of the ‘high’ sounds “tearing up the high skies.” This not only results in a visual tableau of diverse characters, but also in a musical work. On his own, Rameau is indeed an artistic work in which vocal variations represent all human passions. As Du Bos had already noted in 1719, sounds: “ont une force merveilleuse pour nous émouvoir, parce qu’ils sont les signes des passions, institués par la nature dont ils ont reçu leur énergie.”71 Therefore, if there is dissonance in Neveu, it may only be to reinforce the passionate expression of human nature, and thus its beauty. However, as we have already mentioned, this ‘one-man-band’ sometimes provokes uncontrollable laughter in a pantomime audience. The effect achieved is far from the one expected. Rameau is not the ‘complete’ artist he would have liked to become, as would be defined by Diderot in his Paradoxe sur le comédien. Neveu displays, both visually and orally, an imperfect nature, a dissonant nature at odds with itself – the sound of a voice without resolution. The ‘one-man-band’ embodies disorder. Literature has not succeeded in preserving the beautiful sounds which aim at enrapturing. Writing sound brings the reader into a thousand-voice trance, just as the Nephew’s voice brings the ear of Moi into the whirlwind of a thousand-step waltz:

  • 72 “With cheeks puffed out and a hoarse, dark tone he did the horns and bassoons, a bright, nasal tone (...)

Avec des joues renflées et bouffies, et un son rauque et sombre, il rendait les cors et les bassons ; il prenait un son éclatant et nasillard pour les hautbois ; précipitant sa voix avec une rapidité incroyable, pour les instruments à cordes dont il cherchait les sons les plus approchés ; il sifflait les petites flûtes ; il recoulait les traversières, criant, chantant, se démenant comme un forcené ; faisant lui seul, les danseurs, les danseuses, les chanteurs, les chanteuses, tout un orchestre, tout un théâtre lyrique, et se divisant en vingt rôles divers, courant, s’arrêtant, avec l’air d’un énergumène, étincelant des yeux, écumant de la bouche.72

22The sounds that are apparently most opposed actually unite and complete each other, such as those of bassoons and oboes in a particularly wide vocal tessitura, imagining the crazed musician set forth in the Encyclopédie’s entry on the “Effects of Music”. The voice exhausts all possible inflections and pulls extremes together: “even silence is painted by sounds,” notes Moi, who does not know if he should admire or loathe “the pantomime of beggars”:

  • 73 “He wept, laughed, sighed, his gaze was tender, soft or furious: a woman swooning with grief, a poo (...)

Il pleurait, il riait, il soupirait ; il regardait, ou attendri, ou tranquille, ou furieux ; c’était une femme qui se pâme de douleur ; c’était un malheureux livré à tout son désespoir ; un temple qui s’élève ; des oiseaux qui se taisent au soleil couchant ; des eaux qui murmurent dans un lieu solitaire et frais, ou qui descendent en torrents du haut des montagnes ; un orage, une tempête, la plainte de ceux qui vont périr, mêlée au sifflement des vents, au fracas du tonnerre ; c’était la nuit, avec ses ténèbres ; c’était l’ombre et le silence ; car le silence même se peint par des sons.73

23The nephew, at once funny and pathetic, touches us, because he has a soul that is fragile, extremely passionate and unavoidably excessive. In fact, the music of the voice, imitating both voices and instruments, reflects emotions more than any other form of expression. Diderot had already understood the effects of music on the soul:

  • 74 “Paint shows the object, poetry describes it, music barely sketches it. Music can only resort to in (...)

La peinture montre l’objet même, la poésie le décrit, la musique en excite à peine une idée. Elle n’a de ressource que dans les intervalles et la durée des sons ; et quelle analogie y a-t-il entre cette espèce de crayons et le printemps, les ténèbres, la solitude, etc., et la plupart des objets ? Comment se fait-il donc que des trois arts imitateurs de la nature, celui dont l’expression est la plus arbitraire et la moins précise parle le plus fortement à l’âme ? Serait-ce que montrant moins les objets, il laisse plus de carrière à notre imagination, ou qu’ayant besoin de secousses pour être émus, la musique est plus propre que la peinture et la poésie à produire en nous cet effet tumultueux ?74

24Individuals feel before they think. For Diderot, after Condillac and at the same time as Rousseau, sensationalism has entered language itself. To write down sounds is to give a rightful place to the sense of hearing. But the representation of sound emphasises a human nature that is incapable of reaching total plenitude, as can be seen with Rameau. However, rather than despairing, the philosopher prefers to see this as a sensory boon, even if that means maintaining a belief in man, be he less than perfect.

  • 75 See Chouillet J., Diderot, poète de l’énergie, Paris, PUF, 1984. And Delon M., L’idée d’énergie au (...)
  • 76 See our essay : “La Religieuse de Diderot, expérience et contre-pouvoir”, in Expérimentation scient (...)
  • 77 See Kremer N.,  “Entendre l’invisible : la voix de l’œuvre dans la pensée esthétique de Diderot”, R (...)

25Aesthetically, therefore, the presence of the voice in Diderot forms the physical and metaphorical angle from which he affirms the entry of French literature into the sensorial. From an anthropological point of view, he frees the “frozen speech” of authors like Rabelais, and justifies a being whose noise had been perceived by the previous century as mere annoyance. Like characters in Rabelais, who “with open ears inhaled the air as if it were fine oysters”, the reader ‘hears’ human voices of a rare intensity in the writing of Diderot. Following the paroxysm of Bijoux indiscrets, and before sharing in the vigorous joy of Jacques le fataliste, the reader finds himself in the Babelian universe of La Religieuse and at the heart of a cacophonous concert in Neveu de Rameau. If we, along with Suzanne, are immersed in a noise that reflects human vitality – as in Marivaux –, Diderot constantly tries to bring this human vitality back into the world. With Neveu, powerful sounds reveal the life of the body, but seem to signify a disharmonious society. The noise that is represented is eventually linked to satire, even in Diderot. It expresses movement and the energy,75 and sometimes the excess of a vibrating voice. It expresses the strength of a human nature that is so passionate that it loses the idea of its perfectibility, and of the capacity of man to become reasonable, in total harmony with himself and his kind. Consequently, if the voice in Diderot signifies the inherent vitality of man, it may also mark the end of optimism and utopia for Enlightenment thinkers. It also marks, however, the entry of sound into philosophy. With the XVIIIth century emerges a new culture of the body. Diderot, through his study of vocal physiology, with its emission and its effects, experiments through his characters the sensibility of physical matter, enounced as soon as 1751 in the article ANIMAL of the Encyclopédie. The experience of the vocal aspect that brings him to represent his characters with a passionate nature, allows him to be political as well: the vibrant body of sound of his characters suddenly become a social body clamouring against the theological and political universe trying to shut him up and coop him up.76 Diderot expresses in this way his thoughts on sound: the voice speaks beyond language77. Whether in a sigh or in a scream, the voice declares that it is language.

Haut de page

Bibliographie

Baridon, Michel, “L’imaginaire scientifique et la voix humaine dans le Rêve de d’Alembert”, in Auroux, Sylvain, Bourel, Dominique and Porset Charles (eds), L’Encyclopédie, Diderot, l’Esthétique. Mélanges en hommage à Jacques Chouillet, Paris, PUF, 1991.

Chouillet, Jacques, Diderot, poète de l’énergie, Paris, PUF, 1984.

Cussac, Hélène, “La voix dans le Dictionnaire philosophique de Voltaire”, in Wagner, Jacques (ed.), La Voix dans la culture et la littérature françaises, 1713-1875, Clermont-Ferrand, Presses universitaires Blaise Pascal, 2001, pp. 69-84.

Cussac, Hélène, “Espace et Bruit. Le monde sonore dans la littérature française du XVIIIe siècle”, Thèse de doctorat, Université de Clermont II, 2005.

––, “La Religieuse de Diderot, expérience et contre-pouvoir”, in Jean Marie Goulemot (dir). Expérimentation scientifique et manipulation littéraire au siècle des Lumières, Paris, Minerve, 2014, pp. 171-190.

––, “Anthropologie du bruit au siècle des Lumières”, in Frédéric Mathevet, Georges Pelet et Celio Paillard, L’Autre musique, 4 (2016). http://www.lautremusique.net/lam4/preambule/anthropologie-du-bruit-au-siecle-des-lumieres.html (accessed 30 June 2016)

Delon, Michel, L’Idée d’énergie au tournant des Lumières (1770-1820), Paris, PUF, 1988.

Diderot, Denis, Additions à la Lettre sur les Sourds et Muets, in Lewinter Roger (ed), Œuvres Complètes, Paris, Le Club français du Livre, 1969.

––, Eléments de physiologie, ed. Jean Meyer, Paris, M. Didier, 1964.

––, Le Rêve de d’Alembert, Jacques Roger (ed.), Paris, Garnier- lammarion, 1965.

––, Entretien entre Diderot et d’Alembert, ed. Jacques Roger, Paris, Garnier-Flammarion, 1965.

––, Le Neveu de Rameau, ed. Henri Bénac,in Œuvres romanesques, Paris, Garnier, 1962.

––, Rameau’s Nephew and D’Alembert Dream, ed. and trans. Leonard Tancock, London, Penguin Classics, 1966.

––, Jacques le fataliste, ed. Pierre Chartier, Paris, Le Livre de Poche, 2000.

––, Jacques the Fatalist, eds and transl. Michael Henry and Hall Martin, London, Penguin Classics, 1986.

––, La Religieuse, ed. Henri Benac, Œuvres romanesques, Paris, Garnier, 1962.

––, The Nun, ed. and trans. Leonard Tancock, London, Penguin Classics, 1974.

––, Leçons de Clavecin et Principes d’Harmonie, in Lewinter Roger and Meyer Philippe (eds), Œuvres Complètes, Vol. II, Paris, Le Club français du Livre, 1971.

––, Mémoires sur différents sujets de mathématiques, In Roger Lewinter (ed.), Œuvres Complètes, Paris, Gallimard, 1964.

––, Pensées Philosophiques, ed. Antoine Adam, Paris, Garnier-Flammarion, 1967.

––, De la poésie dramatique, ed. Paul Vernière, in Œuvres esthétiques, Paris, Garnier, 1968.

––, Le fils naturel, in Œuvres complètes, t. X, Paris, Hermann,1980.

––, Salon de 1767, in Œuvres complètes, t. XVI, Paris, Hermann, 1990.

Didier, Béatrice, La Musique des Lumières, Paris, PUF, 1985.

––, “La réflexion sur la dissonance chez les écrivains du XVIIIe siècle: D’Alembert, Diderot, Rousseau,” Revue des Sciences Humaines, 205, 1987, pp. 13-25.

Du Bos, Charles, Réflexions critiques sur la poésie et la peinture, ed. Dominique Désirat, Paris, Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, 1993.

Dubruque, Julien, “Théorie et esthétique musicales dans la Lettre sur les sourds et muets.” Recherches sur Diderot et l’Encyclopédie, 46, 2011, pp. 58-70.

Durand-Sendrail, Béatrice, Diderot. Écrits sur la musique, Paris, Lattès, 1987.

Kintzler, Catherine, “Préface. Rameau et Rousseau : le choc de deux esthétiques,” in Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, Écrits sur la musique par Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Paris, Stock, 1979, pp. IX-LIV.

Kremer, Nathalie, “Entendre l’invisible : la voix de l’œuvre dans la pensée esthétique de Diderot”, Recherches sur Diderot et l’Encyclopédie, 49, 2014, pp. 71-85.

La Bruyère. Jean de, Les Caractères, ou les mœurs de ce siècle, ed. Robert Garapon, Paris, Garnier, 1995.

Lejeune, Philippe, “Paroles d’enfance”, Revue des Sciences Humaines, 217, 1990, pp. 23-38.

Pascal, Blaise, Pensées, ed. Philippe Sellier, Paris, Garnier, 1991.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, Les Rêveries du promeneur solitaire, in Œuvres Complètes, Vol. I, eds. Gagnebin Bernard and Raymond Marcel, Paris, Gallimard, 1959.

Haut de page

Notes

1 “[Enjoying] so much noise and movement” Blaise Pascal, Pensées, in P. Sellier (ed.), Paris, Garnier, 1991, fragment 168, p. 217. All translations are by Timothy McInerney, whom the editors and the author would like to thank.

2 For Descartes, extended objects dictate the way of studying and of understanding nature. Sound does not seem to belong to the realm of the measurable, as it is mobile, changing, unstable. Thus, is not the human voice inseparable from the hypothesis of the embodiment of the human word, which in turn leads to the notion that, to the extent that ,thought being expressed by the human voice, it depends on circumstances extraneous to its intellectual substance?

3 “Man, who is spirit, is led by his eyes and ears.” La Bruyère, Les Caractères, ou les mœurs de ce siècle, in J. Lafond (ed.), Moralistes du XVIIe siècle, Paris, Robert Laffont, 1992, XI, 154, p. 872.

4 “Oh reason! Who can resist you when you assume the enthralling accents and voice of Woman?” Diderot D., Le fils naturel, in H. Dieckmann, J. Proust, J. Varlot & al. (ed.), Œuvres Complètes, Paris, Hermann, 1975, t. X, IV, 7, p. 69. References to the work of Diderot all come from this edition, henceforth referred to as DPV followed by the number of the volume and of the chapter when applicable.

5 “The night obscures forms and fills sounds with horror, be it but the rustle of a leaf in the depths of a forest; it sets imagination in motion” Diderot, Salon de 1767, DPV, t. XVI, p. 234.

6 “When the different sections of the string are incommensurable, will not a phenomenon occur that is analogous to that reported by certain authors on optics, and which has so very much embarrassed them? It is the muddled vision of an object, when the reflected or broken rays come together in the eye. If this is the case, these are things held in common by two sensations of a very different kind” Denis Diderot, Mémoires sur différents sujets de mathématiques, DPV, t. II, remark in the First Memoir, p. 275. We could also add the Lettre sur les sourds et muets and the Lettre sur les aveugles, which shows how Diderot further studies the idea of sound and of voice. What is a human being when speechless ? What is the reception and the account of sound and voice in a sightless human being? Are they different in a human being who can see? For Mélanie de Salignac, distraits par leurs yeux, ceux qui voient ne peuvent ni l’écouter [la musique] ni l’entendre comme je l’écoute et je l’entends.” (Additions à la Lettre sur les aveugles, DPV, t. IV, p. 100 “distracted by their eyes, those who see cannot hear it (music) nor listen to it in the way in which I hear and listen to it”).

7 “When she heard singing, she could distinguish the voices of brunettes and blonds.” Denis Diderot, Additions à la Lettre sur les sourds et muets, DPV, t. IV, p. 99. The allusion to the ocular harpsichord of the Père Castel is clear. See Dubruque J., “Théorie et esthétique musicales dans la Lettre sur les sourds et muets”, RDE, n° 46, 2011, p. 58-70.

8 “So there he was, seated at the harpsichord […] His voice was like the wind and his fingers flew over the keys, sometimes abandoning the upper ends for the lower, no sooner quitting this accompaniment for the upper end again. One passion succeeded another across his face – one could distinguish tenderness, anger, pleasure, and pain. One felt the pianos and the fortes. And I am sure that one better versed than I would have recognised the piece from its tempo and character, his facial expressions and the snippets of song that escaped from him from time to time.” Diderot D., Le Neveu de Rameau, DPV, t. XII, p. 99. Translation by L. Tancock, Rameau’s Nephew, London, Penguin Classics, 1966, p. 54.

9 See Hélène Cussac, "Espace et Bruit. Le monde sonore dans la littérature française du XVIIIe siècle", Thèse de Doctorat, Université de Clermont-Ferrand II, 2005.

10 Speculation on the world of vibrations was very active during the eighteenth century, maintaining the opposition between noise and sound. On the one hand, this was on intellectualist grounds, noise, as an indistinct object, not being open to analysis, according to Furetière; on the other hand, this was mainly on sensualist grounds, as noise does not provide as much pleasure as those sonorous events we call sounds. While the distinction between noise and sound is aesthetically interesting, I will not observe that distinction within the framework of my discussion, because I know that what was of interest for theorists and acousticians in sound was the pleasure it provided. Indeed, Diderot makes only a distinction between sound and noise on a secondary level. Sound is enriched noise: “Noise is one. Sound, on the contrary, never reaches our ears alone. With it we hear other sounds that we call its harmonics.” (Mémoires sur différents sujets de mathématiques, DPV, t. II, remark in the First Memoir, p. 265 ). See our essay : “Anthropologie du bruit au siècle des Lumières”, Actes du colloque « Bruits », dec. 2013, org. Sorbonne Paris 1, CNRS and ENS Louis-Lumière, on-line journal L’Autre musique, 28 mars 2016, http://www.lautremusique.net/lam4/preambule/anthropologie-du-bruit-au-siecle-des-lumieres.html (accessed 30 June 2016).

11 References to the voice were indeed often used to make fun of characters; it conveys, more so than sight, potential satire. It might be remembered how La Bruyère ridiculed N*** , who “arrive avec un grand bruit”, “écarte le monde, se fait faire place nette ; gratte, heurte presque ; se nomme…”, (in Les Caractères, R. Garapon (ed.), Paris, Garnier, 1995, XV, 4, p. 223. N*** who “arrives with a great noise,” “pushes through the crowd, sweeping people aside; scratches herself, almost causing injury; known as ...”) “Sight doesn’t make itself noticed; the voice imposes itself. It is a sense that is incapable of being insensitive to events that concern it. We can close our eyes and thus momentarily remove ourselves from the world.”  “L’oreille – as Pascal Quignard said– n’a pas de paupière.” , (in La haine de la musique, Paris, Calmann-Lévy, 1996, p. 118. “The ear”, as Pascal Quignard said, “doesn’t have an eyelid.”)

12rire à gorge déployée”, Diderot, Les Bijoux indiscrets, DPV, t. III, XX, p. 91.

13 “babillard”, “éclate de rire”, ibid., XIII, p. 104.

14 “laughter from the stalls, the amphitheatre and the boxes” ibid., p. 71.

15 “Burst out laughing” Diderot, Le Neveu…, DPV, t. XII, p. 180 (2 occurrences), trans. L. Tancock (ed.), p. 114.

16 “Everybody rushed out with the speed and babble of a flock of birds escaping from their cage, and the sisters wandered off into each other’s rooms, running, laughing and chattering,” Diderot D., La Religieuse, DPV, t. XI, p. 219, trans. L. Tancock (ed.), The Nun, London, Penguin Classics, 1974, p. 130.

17 “The immoderate laughter and rowdy merriment of a dozen or so brigands,” Diderot, Jacques le fataliste, DPV, t. XXIII, p. 29. Tr: M. Henry, Jacques the Fatalist, London, Penguin Classics, 1986, p. 26.

18 Jacques’s master “was splitting his sides laughing” Ibid., p. 81. Tr: p. 71.

19 He is touched by his “delightful merriment” Ibid., p. 259. Tr: p. 226.

20 He “started to laugh and whistle” Ibid., p. 255 (two occurrences). Tr: p. 222.

21 Or while he was “almost crying with joy,” Ibid., p. 273. Tr: p. 238.

22 “bursts of laughter fit to split open the ceiling,” Le Neveu…, DPV, t. XII, p. 165. Tr: L. Tancock (ed.), p. 103.

23 "able to imitate with gesture and voice the “sublime monkey-ing” of the “grand comedy, the comedy of the world” of which the actor keeps the memory long after having studied it. So, as a buffoon, Neveu provokes laughter through “the freedom of his spirit Diderot” Le Paradoxe sur le comédien, DPV, t. XX, p. 54 and p. 56.

24 Ibid., p. 56.

25 “The gaiety which had never been, absent since my arrival at the convent suddenly disappeared. Everything returned to the strictest discipline,” La Religieuse, DPV, t. XI, p. 263. Tr: The Nun, ed. L. Tancock, p. 170.

26 Pierre Chartier, preface to his edition of Jacques le fataliste, Paris, Le Livre de Poche, 2000, pp. 10-11.

27à sangloter, pleurer, gémir, soupirer, se désespérer” after having gone “brusquement de ses ris immodérés à des lamentations ridicules” Les Bijoux…, DPV, t. III, XX, p. 91.

28 “C’est par l’opposition que les caractères se distinguent,” Diderot D., in Leçons de clavecin et principes d’harmonie en dialogues, DPV, t. XIX, p. 196. “It is by opposition that characters are distinguished.”

29 See Didier B., “La réflexion sur la dissonance chez les écrivains du XVIIIe siècle: d’Alembert, Diderot, Rousseau,” in Revue des Sciences Humaines, 76, 205 (janv.-mars 1987), pp. 13-25. From the same author see also La Musique des Lumières, Paris, PUF, 1985.

30 Béatrice Didier has addressed this question quite cogently: she shows that changes in the way music was listened to were low and stabilised only during the Enlightenment: 1987, pp. 13-25.  

31 “the dissonances in social harmony are the ones that need skill in placing, preparing for and resolving. Nothing is so dull as a succession of common chords. There must be something piquant, to break up the beam of light and split it into rays,” Le Neveu…, DPV, t. XII, p. 177 (tr. T. McInnerney).

32 “[…] the fine accompanied recitative in which the prophet depicts the desolation of Jerusalem was mingled with a flood of tears which forced all eyes to weep. Everything was there: the delicacy of the air and expressive power as well as grief. […] He wept, laughed, sighed […]” Ibid., p. 165-166. Tr: pp. 103-104.

33 “in the direction of the linguistic and in the representation of society and its tensions.” Didier B., “La réflexion…”, 1987, p. 13.

34 A “very old jewel, sighing heavily” starts to “ramble,” while others “reached such a high pitch, so bizarre and wild that they formed the most extraordinary, noisy, and ridiculous choir that had ever been heard” Les Bijoux …, DPV, t. III, XVIII, p. 102 and XIII, p. 71.

35 “However, their pieces of jewellery were shouting themselves hoarse with the extent of their singing, this one a Pont-neuf, that one a naughty Vaudeville, another one a quite indecent parody, and for all, eccentricities related to their characters” Les Bijoux…, DPV, t. III, XIII, p. 71.

36 “We endlessly inveigh against the passions; we attribute them all to be the griefs of man, and we forget that they are also the source of all joys. […] there are only passions, and great passions that can elevate the soul to the greatest things.” Diderot D., DPV, t. II, p. 17.

37 “It is pain that gives pleasure its bite; it is the shadow that brings out the sun; joy owes its sweetness to weariness; it is a nebulous day that embellishes a serene day; it is vice that sets off virtue; it is ugliness that reveals the radiance of beauty; it is by opposition that characters are distinguished; the magic of painting consists of this chiaroscuro; poets with exquisite taste have rarely neglected to insert a sad idea amidst the most joyous and the most voluptuous images; in this way, the latter become interesting; a little noise from faraway gives an inconceivable charm to silence; a pensive being confined to a nook of solitude, adds to that solitude. A happiness that nothing can alter is a bland one.” Diderot D., Leçons de Clavecin …, DPV, t. XIX, p. 196.

38 This is not to praise that music of which noise might unduly take advantage, but rather to emphasise how much the sense of hearing had henceforth become a open door onto the nature of Man, no longer contrary to the rationalist attitude of Rameau which applied exclusively to the nature of things. On that point, see the preface by Catherine Kintzler in her edition of Écrits sur la musique de J.-J. Rousseau, Paris, Stock, 1979. See also Sciences, musique, Lumières: mélanges offerts à Anne-Marie Chouillet, Kölving U. et Passeron I. (ed), Ferney-Voltaire, Centre international d’étude du 18e siècle, 2002.

39 “I will never tire of listening to singing or to a superlative instrumentalist, and if such is the only happiness to be enjoyed in heaven, I will not baulk at being there. You were right when you claimed that music was the most violent of all beaux arts, excepting neither poetry nor rhetoric; that not even Racine could express himself with the delicacy of a harp; that his melody was heavy and monotonous in comparison to that of an instrument.” Diderot D., Additions à la Lettre sur les aveugles, DPV, t. IV, p. 100.

40 “[Fear,] indignation, anger, vexation [disappointment], one passion after another possessed me, and I had different voices, took on different expressions and made different gestures,” La Religieuse, DPV, t. XI, p. 94, tr: The Nun, L. Tancock (ed.), p. 28.

41 It is worthwhile to recall the musical image so dear to Diderot, of a man as sensitive as a harpsichord, written by J. Van Effen (La Bagatelle, 11 August 1718): “Ce qu’il y a de machinal dans l’homme répond avec la même nécessité aux inflexions de la voix de quelqu’un que les cordes d’un instrument répondent au doigt ou à l’archet d’un musicien” (“What is mechanical in man answers as necessarily to the inflections of someone’s voice as the strings of an instrument answer to the finger or to the bow of a musician.”) Quoted from F. Deloffre and M. Gilot in their edition on Marivaux, Journaux et Œuvres diverses, Paris, Garnier, 1969, note 20, p. 557.

42 “ […] I merely heard confused and distant voices buzzing round me; whether it was real speech or singing in my ears, I could make out nothing but this continual buzzing, ” La Religieuse, DPV, t. XI, p. 170. Tr: The Nun, L. Tancock (ed.), p. 91.

43 “ loud and fierce voice, ” Ibid., p. 169. Tr: p. 90.

44 “Is man therefore condemned to never agree with neither his kind nor himself?” Diderot D., De la poésie dramatique, DPV, t. X, p. 424.

45 “ I […] did not know whether to give in to laughter or furious indignation. I felt embarrassed. A score of times a burst of laughter prevented a burst of rage, and a score of times the anger rising from the depths of my heart ended in a burst of laughter. I was dumbfounded […]. He noticed the conflict going on inside me […], ” Le Neveu…, DPV, t. XII, p. 95, tr. L. Tancock (ed.), p. 51.

46 “ we were busy the Chevalier and I, grieving, consoling ourselves, accusing ourselves, insulting ourselves and begging each other’s pardon, ” Jacques le fataliste, DPV, t. XXIII, p. 276. Tr: M. Henry (ed.), pp. 243-244.

47 “We became bitter, we shouted, we went from screams to insults.” Les Bijoux …, DPV, t. III, X, p. 62.

48 “ I was thinking how variable your style is, sometimes lofty, sometimes familiar ”, DPV, t. XII, p. 164. L. Tancock (ed.), p. 94. “ […] “as he grew more impassioned, he raised his voice ,” ibid., p. 102.

49 “Without movement life is but a kind of lethargy.” Rousseau J.-J., “Cinquième promenade ”, in B. Gagnebin and M. Raymond (ed.), Les Rêveries du Promeneur Solitaire, Œuvres Complètes, Paris, Gallimard, 1959, p. 1047.

50 See Diderot D., the Rêve de d’Alembert and particularly the definition stated by Bordeu, DPV, t. XVII, p. 145, 170-171, 179-184, or in L. Tancock (ed.), D’Alembert’s Dream, Londres, Penguin Classics, 1966, pp. 186-187.

51 “Nothing so much resembles actor on stage [...] than children who, during the night, imitate ghosts in cemeteries, by raising a big white sheet with a pole above their heads, and, from under their bier making lugubrious voices which frighten passers-by away.” Diderot D., Paradoxe sur le comédien, DPV, t. XX, p. 52.

52 “It is the animal cry of passion that should dictate the melodic line […] The simple language and normal expression of emotion are all the more essential because our language is more monotonous and less highly stressed. The cry of animal instinct or that of a man under stress of emotion will supply them.” Le Neveu…, DPV, t. XII, p. 169-170. Tr: L. Tancock (ed.), p. 105 -106.

53 “the animal moves, becomes restless, screams; I can hear its screams through its shell” Diderot D., La Suite d’un Entretien entre Diderot et d’Alembert, DPV, t. XVII, p. 104.

54 See Cussac H., “La voix dans le Dictionnaire philosophique de Voltaire,” La voix dans la culture et la littérature françaises, 1713-1875, in J. Wagner (ed.), Clermont-Ferrand, Presses Universitaires Blaise Pascal, 2001, pp. 69-84.

55 “ She began to cry aloud ,” La Religieuse, DPV, t. XI, p. 191. Tr: L. Tancock (ed.), p. 113.

56 “ Jacques cried out ” and “ started rolling around on the ground, shouting,” Jacques le fataliste, DPV, t. XXIII, p. 66. Tr: M. Henry (ed.), p. 58.

57 “ The cell echoing with our lamentations,” La Religieuse, DPV, t. XI, p. 125. Tr: L. Tancock (ed.), p. 53.

58 “ A loud scream,” Ibid., p. 174. Tr: p. 94.

59 “There were broken and muffled cries of a man being strangled” Le Neveu…, DPV, t. XII, p. 150. Tr: L. Tancock (ed.), p. 92.

60 Here “ the natural son of Desglands and the beautiful widow started uttering the most awful cries” Jacques le fataliste, DPV, t. XXIII, p. 263. Tr: M. Henry (ed.), p. 229-230.

61 She started “ crying – such cries…” Ibid., p. 106. Tr: ibid., p. 94.

62 Action, says Cicero, is so to tell the eloquence of the body: it has two parts, the voice and the movement. One affects the ear, the other the eyes; two senses, says Quintilian, by which we transfer all our feelings and our passions into the soul of our listeners. Denis Diderot et Jean le Rond d’Alembert, Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, Paris, Briasson, 1751, p. 120.

63 “She was all dishevelled and half naked, she was dragging iron chains, wild-eyed, tearing her hair and beating her breast, rushing along and shrieking. She was heaping upon herself and everyone else the most appalling curses […] ” La Religieuse, DPV, t. XI, pp. 92-93. Tr: L. Tancock (ed.), p. 27.

64 “One morning she was found barefoot, in her nightgown, shrieking and foaming at the mouth, running round and round her cell,” Ibid., p. 278. Tr: p. 181.

65 “Where are the energy of the Leibnizian monad and the cosmic effusions of Shaftesbury to be found? ” Baridon M.,  “L’imaginaire scientifique et la voix humaine dans le Rêve de d’Alembert”, in S. Auroux, D. Bourel and C. Porset (ed.), L’Encyclopédie, Diderot, l’Esthétique. Mélanges en hommage à Jacques Chouillet, Paris, PUF, 1991, p. 118.

66frémir les cartilages du larynx, et les os de la tête et les parties de la poitrine”” Diderot D., Eléments de physiologie, DPV, t. XVII, p. 397. The Leningrad copy adds “et tout le corps” (“and the entire body”).

67 See Cussac H., “Espace et bruit…”, 2005. See also number 43 (2011) of the journal Dix-Huitième Siècle devoted to the world of sounds.

68 “Voices are always changing roles, moving their identities around” Lejeune P., “Paroles d’enfance,” in Revue des Sciences Humaines, 1 (1990), p. 33.

69 “as for me, am I never at one point in time what I ma at another?” Diderot, De la poésie dramatique, DPV, t. X, p. 424.

70 “He sang thirty tunes one on top of the other and all mixed up: Italian, French, tragic, comic, of all sorts and descriptions, sometimes in a bass voice going down to the infernal regions, and sometimes bursting himself in a falsetto voice he would split the heavens asunder, taking off the walk, deportment and gestures of the different singing parts: in turn raging, pacified, imperious, scornful.” Le Neveu…, DPV, p. 165. Tr: L. Tancock (ed.), p. 102.

71 Sounds “have a marvellous capacity to touch us, because they are signs of the passions, instituted by nature from whom they receive their energy.” Du Bos, Réflexions critiques sur la poésie et la peinture, in D. Désirat (ed.), Paris, Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, 1993, p. 155.

72 “With cheeks puffed out and a hoarse, dark tone he did the horns and bassoons, a bright, nasal tone for the oboes, quickening his voice with incredible agility for the stringed instruments to which he tried to get the closest approximation; he whistled the recorders and cooed the flutes, shouting, singing and throwing himself about like a mad thing: a one-man show featuring dancers, male and female, singers of both sexes, a whole orchestra, a complete opera-house, dividing himself into twenty different stage parts, tearing up and down, stopping, like one possessed, with flashing eyes and foaming mouth,” Le Neveu…, DPV, t. XII, p. 166. Tr: L. Tancock (ed.), p. 103.

73 “He wept, laughed, sighed, his gaze was tender, soft or furious: a woman swooning with grief, a poor wretch abandoned in the depth of his despair, a temple rising into view, birds falling silent at eventide, waters murmuring in a cool, solitary place or tumbling in torrents down the mountain side, a thunderstorm, a hurricane, the shrieks of the dying mingled with the howling of the tempest and the crash of thunder; night with its shadows, darkness and silence, for even silence itself can be depicted in sound,” ibid., p. 166-167. Tr: ibid., p. 104.

74 “Paint shows the object, poetry describes it, music barely sketches it. Music can only resort to intervals and the length of sounds; and what analogy is there between this kind of pencil and spring, darkness, solitude, etc, and most objects? How come then that of the three arts imitating nature, the one of which the expression is the most arbitrary and the least precise speaks the loudest to the soul? Would it be that by showing the objects less, it leaves more career to our imagination, or that needing tremors to be moved, music is more able than paint and poetry to create in us that tumultuous effect?” Diderot D., Lettre A Mademoiselle (Additions à la Lettre sur les Sourds et Muets), DPV, t. IV, p. 207..

75 See Chouillet J., Diderot, poète de l’énergie, Paris, PUF, 1984. And Delon M., L’idée d’énergie au tournant des Lumières (1770-1820), Paris, PUF, 1988.

76 See our essay : “La Religieuse de Diderot, expérience et contre-pouvoir”, in Expérimentation scientifique et manipulation littéraire au siècle des Lumières, dir. Jean M. Goulemot, Paris, Minerve, 2014, p. 171-190.

77 See Kremer N.,  “Entendre l’invisible : la voix de l’œuvre dans la pensée esthétique de Diderot”, RDE, n°49, 2014, p. 71-85.

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Hélène Cussac, « The Vital Dynamism of the Voice in Diderot  », Études Épistémè [En ligne], 29 | 2016, mis en ligne le 03 juillet 2016, consulté le 24 novembre 2017. URL : http://episteme.revues.org/1191 ; DOI : 10.4000/episteme.1191

Haut de page

Auteur

Hélène Cussac

Hélène Cussac, who teaches at the University of Toulouse, has published extensively on sensorial aesthetics and, more broadly, on the history of ideas : she has recently coedited an issue of the journal Dix-huitième Siècle (forthcoming in 2016) devoted to the theme of retreat from the world. Her interdisciplinary interests cover cultural transfers and the representation of blacks in Ancien Régime travel narratives ; she also belongs to the team editing the complete works of Bernardin de Saint-Pierre.

Hélène Cussac, enseignante à l’Université de Toulouse, a beaucoup travaillé sur l’esthétique sensorielle et plus largement dans le domaine de l’histoire des idées : ainsi, elle co-dirige un numéro thématique de la revue Dix-Huitième Siècle , « Se retirer du monde », à paraître en 2016. Elle s’est également intéressée, à la croisée de la littérature, de l’histoire et de l’anthropologie, à la circulation des savoirs et à la représentation des Noirs dans les récits de voyage sous l’Ancien Régime. Hélène Cussac participe en outre à l’édition des œuvres complètes de Bernardin de Saint-Pierre.

Haut de page
  • Revues.org