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  • L’Homme-clavecin, une analogie diderotienne par Philippe Sarrasin Robichaud
  • Rosalind Holmes Duffy
L’Homme-clavecin, une analogie diderotienne. Par Philippe Sarrasin Robichaud. (L’Europe des Lumières, 55.) Paris: Classiques Garnier, 2017. 192 pp.

Philippe Sarrasin Robichaud’s erudite book sets out to explore the complex subject of Diderot’s prolonged preoccupation with analogies between string instruments and man. Diderot was specifically fascinated by the imagined hybrid creature of the man-harpsichord, which proved a rich source of startling imagery and provided provocative lines of enquiry into a wide array of eighteenth-century debates. Sarrasin Robichaud is clearly widely read and makes some thought-provoking observations, but this work would have benefited from a tighter focus on its primary texts: when their historical contexts are minimized or overlooked in favour of conceptual free association, they lose much of their texture and depth. For example, when discussing Diderot’s relationship with Louis-Bertrand Castel, inventor of the ocular harpsichord, Sarrasin Robichaud writes: ‘Les deux seules lettres qu’il nous reste de Diderot à Castel sont datées de 1751; elles font l’objet d’une vive sympathie du premier envers le seconde. Sans ironie apparente, dans l’esprit du directeur de l’Encyclopédie, Castel “va de pair avec les dieux”’ (p. 56). Surely these documents deserve a less cursory examination: they are the only survivors of a larger correspondence between Castel and Diderot on the subject of the Lettre sur les sourds et muets. As Huguette Cohen has shown, Diderot revised the Lettre in order to make its references to the ocular harpsichord more flattering to Castel, who played a role in the quarrel between the encyclopédistes and the Jesuits at the Journal de Trévoux (Cohen, ‘The Intent of the Digressions on Father Castel and Father Porée in Diderot’s Lettre sur les sourds et muets’, Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, 201 (1982), 163–83). Thus Diderot’s overtly friendly tone tempers a transactional negotiation with a problematic potential ally. This type of history sheds light upon the content of primary sources by enabling critics to put their arguments into relief without resorting to fantasy or pure speculation. At one point, Sarrasin Robichaud asks: ‘Permettons-nous d’effleurer de l’imagination la fiction d’un Rameau expliquant, un axiome à la fois, son système musical à Diderot, ce dernier l’interrompant sans cesse d’une volée de ponctuations exaltées’ (p. 89); and provides a paragraph of imaginary conversation. Why should the reader permit such a creative exercise, when more rigorous research might have yielded evidence of the interpersonal dynamics the author is presumably attempting to capture? This book [End Page 456] contains other similar methodological and theoretical digressions, and the figure of l’homme-clavecin often gets lost in the mêlée. The development of a bee–honey metaphor to elucidate Diderot’s development of the human–harpsichord analogy is distracting, as are the invocations of string theory and Lenin in the conclusion. However, Sarrasin Robichaud makes some evocative arguments, notably when using Jan Zwicky’s concept of resonance to discuss Diderot’s dedication of his Shaftesbury translation to his brother. Later, in the chapter on the Leçons de clavecin et principes d’harmonie, he argues persuasively that the ‘participation dynamique d’une pluralité de voix’ (p. 130) bears a resemblance to the harmonic resonance of vibrating chords, and observes: ‘Il ne suffirait pas de lire pour l’assimiler; il s’agit d’entrer en conversation attentive avec ses éléments constitutifs’ (p. 143). These kinds of dynamics will be familiar to Diderot scholars, and offer inspiring connections.

Rosalind Holmes Duffy


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pp. 456-457
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