- Sequence and Simultaneity in Diderot’s Promenade Vernet and Leçons de clavecin
Within the early-modern and Enlightenment preoccupation with systematization, mathematicization, and natural order, there exists a tension between linear, sequential, or temporally-oriented modes of thought or presentation, and synoptic or analytic modes. Sometimes they are offered as alternatives, for example, when Arnauld and Nicole consider the narrativizing “order of invention” alongside the systematizing “order of analysis” in the Logique de Port-Royal. Sometimes there is a clear opposition between the two, as when Buffon challenges Linnaeus’s “system” in the name of his own “method” (etymologically, the structure or “assemblage” versus the path or “way”). Sometimes they produce significant disruptions in textual continuity and logic, as when d’Alembert tries to integrate “encyclopedic order” and “genealogical order” in the Discours préliminaire of the Encyclopédie. 1
Much work has been done in recent years on the general cultural impetus in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries towards classification and rationalization. 2 The “radical critique of Enlightenment” constructed in the writings of a number of philosophers and critics suggests that the esprit systématique, once seen as liberating and progressive, is instead ineluctably bound up through mystification and [End Page 291] repression with what it attempts to exclude. From the Weberian analysis of the “administered world” and Horkheimer and Adorno’s contention that Enlightenment is grounded in and produces its opposite, to recent feminist commentary on the ideological element in scientific and philosophic abstraction, these readings focus on the drive toward classification and systematization as the discursive space for what Foucault called “disciplines” and “sciences of order.” To the extent that systematization can be shown to be heterogeneous and mutable, rather than monolithic, however, this severe view can be questioned.
Diderot is an obvious reference point in such a study. Much recent scholarship points to his revision of Enlightenment systematicity in his assumption of a mobile, labyrinthine version of events. 3 In the texts examined here, he must come to terms with something that remains to some extent non-linguistic: painting, music. I am less interested in Diderot’s unanchored systematicity than in the qualities of linearity in two texts, the “Promenade Vernet” sequence of the Salon de 1767 and the Leçons de clavecin of 1771. In these works Diderot’s unorthodox practice of linearity revises the notions of both discursivity and systematicity, and offers thereby strategies for overcoming what many had perceived to be an unresolvable dichotomy. 4 This revision is complex and paradoxical, taking a discursive, readerly approach to painting and a structural, synoptic approach to music, even as it evokes the immediacy and simultaneity of the visual, and the sequential temporality of the musical.
There are various “lines” in Diderot: the broken lines of parataxis, the irregular swerve of not-quite patrilinear descent (Diderot imagines posterity as neveux); the split, shared, oppositional or proleptic line of “dialogism”; the contorted, knotted and frayed narrative line of Jacques le fataliste; the impossible narrative line of La Religieuse, where analepsis inexorably leads to aporia. Another line, one leading us closer to the Promenade Vernet, is the ligne de beauté evoked in the introduction to the Salon de 1767, in which the Promenade occurs. In his discussion of mimesis in the opening pages of the Salon, Diderot replaces the Platonic Form or modèle premier with a mutable, evolving “model” constituted by the influence of observation, experience, touch, “taste” (both physical and aesthetic), a “kind of inspiration”: “Par une longue observation, par une expérience consommée, par un tact exquis, par un goût, un instinct, une sorte d’inspiration.” 5 The passage itself is rendered lyrical and undulating through the repetitive, but syntactically mobile refrain, “modèle idéal de la beauté, ligne vraie.” Assimilated with the modèle idéal, the ligne vraie moves beyond figural complexity to incessantly mutable virtuality: inspiring, compelling, and calling forth artistic activity. Constituted in the act by which it is apprehended, the line is both paradigm and principle of change and non-identity. 6
The line taken by Diderot in the “Promenade Vernet” is also both exemplary and subject to change. The Salon de...