3 The Body and the Text
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C H A P T E R T H R E E The Body and the Text J’ai entendu avec le plus grand plaisir tout ce que votre brillant esprit vous a inspiré; mais . . . vous oubliez . . . la différence de nos deux positions: vous, vous ne travaillez que sur le papier qui souffre tout, tandis que moi, pauvre impératrice, je travaille sur la peau humaine. [I have listened with the greatest pleasure to the inspirations that have flowed from your brilliant mind. But you forget the difference between our positions. You write on paper, which will consent to anything; whereas I, poor Empress that I am, I write on human skin.] — EMPRESS CATHERINE TO DIDEROT, whose ideas for a new Russian constitution she had requested, quoted in Ségur, Mémoires, 3:37 Il fallait partir en effet de ceci que j’avais un corps, c’est-à-dire que j’étais perpétuellement menacé. [The first point indeed was this, that I had a body, which meant that I was perpetually vulnerable.] — PROUST, Le temps retrouvé, À la recherche du temps perdu, 4:612 What do fictions do? Is a text its own world? How does it connect with the realm of material consequences and practical activity in which we live outside of novels? In chapter 2 I argued that Diderot’s novels could be viewed as an instrument through which he was reconnoitering these puzzles. This chapter brings these claims into closer contact with Diderot’s texts themselves. Through Diderot I want to evoke a relationship with language and rationality more complex and internally conflicted than most people typically conceive this connection to have been in the Enlightenment. In periods of uncertainty and transition, against the background of a growing misfit between customary modes of expression and their transforming referents , writers think through again the registers of consciousness, sociality, and existence. So in his novels Diderot was scrutinizing fundamental and unsettled characteristics of narrative. The evidence for such reflection needs to be found at the level of his writing practice, in the series of decisions about the individual words and sentences that explore and communicate such reflection. 70 The Consequentiality of Bodies Politics and language were the arenas in which these transformations of the world focused their implications. Abuses in the realm of politics were increasingly clear. But beyond the irrationalities of absolutist power that our Enlightenment rationalists stigmatized, a realm of quotidian practices constituting social life was also coming into view, determining limits on individual possibility through mechanisms, and with an intensity, different from those enforced by the direct exercise of royal or ecclesiastical authority. Fictions registered these more subtle mechanisms and interacted with them. But fictions also turned out to be at the heart of such mechanisms themselves. Their representations could not be sectioned off from what they represented. This implication of the medium in its referent was unexpected, and it was no doubt discomfiting for the philosophes, whose political interests lay in the use of texts as levers to press against reality. But when the supposed instrument for changing the world revealed itself as the heart of the mystery it was attempting to expose and rectify, then an uncanny re-situation of the problem imposed itself. Narratives are not just about narrative. Enlightenment texts aim explicitly at reform. Voltaire put it clearly: ‘‘I write in order to act.’’1 So in La religieuse, for example , a commitment to correct appalling social and religious abuses—royally enforced incarceration for anyone having pronounced a monastic vow—frames the themes, setting, action, and narrative structure of the novel. But these textual characteristics cohere with the theoretical and conceptual preoccupations concerning language and narrative which I have been attributing to it. The tale’s engagement with the political and juridical implications of Suzanne Simonin’s coerced vows, her imprisonment, her suffering, and her fate once she escapes from the convent are intensely at issue in the novel. Such offenses against rights and reason focused Diderot’s reformism; he was surely accurate when he called himself ‘‘one of the most zealous partisans of freedom’’ in France.2 Resonantly, La religieuse invokes the ideal of this freedom and stigmatizes the constraint imposed upon it by constituted power. But the novel goes on to other—I would argue deeper—insights. As La religieuse constructs it, freedom is not just an absence of confinement. Politics doesn’t stop at the convent wall. And texts do not simply...