Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Going Cataleptic: Ecstatic Extremes and 'Deep' Thinking in and around Diderot

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Going Cataleptic: Ecstatic Extremes and 'Deep' Thinking in and around Diderot

Article excerpt

After six days wasted in frivolous discussion with indifferent people, we have today spent a morning in the English manner, gathered in silence, enjoying at once the pleasure of being together and the bliss of contemplation. How few people know the delights of that state! [... ] Two hours thus went by between us in this ecstatic immobility, a thousand times sweeter than the cold repose of Epicurus's Gods.

--Jean-Jacques Rousseau, La Nouvelle Heloise (1)

The abbe, standing next to me, gushed in admiration [s'extasiait] as usual over the charms of nature.

--Denis Diderot, Salon de 1767 (2)

From the two hours of silent bliss shared by Saint-Preux and the Wolmars in La Nouvelle Heloise, to the moments of aesthetic enchantment that punctuate Diderots Salons, eighteenth-century French writers delighted in staging ecstasy. When portrayed in sentimentalist works, ecstasy typically meant an exalted state of emotional pleasure which deep-feeling souls achieved, wondrously and wordlessly, through a shared communion. (3) Ecstasy was equally popular in other realms of this period's culture, including pictorial representations of divinely inspired women like Teresa of Avila, and libertine novels that boldly blurred the lines between higher (religious) and lower (sexual) modes of rapturous experience. (4) There was, however, an alternative discourse produced during the eighteenth century, one that challenged both the communal qualities and the erotic undertones that some authors and artists gave to this affective state. In that line of thinking, ecstasy was a step on the way toward catalepsy, a condition in which being wholly absorbed by feeling held very different implications.

One finds a striking example of such thinking in the chapter "Raison" of the Elements de physiologie, where Diderot remarked: "There are no deep thinkers, no ardent imaginations that are not subject to momentary catalepsies. A singular idea comes to mind, a strange connection distracts us, and our heads are lost. We come back from that state as from a dream, asking those around us, 'where was I? What was I saying?'" (5) Associating knowledge-seeking with catalepsy may seem odd for an author of eighteenth-century France, given that the era's best-known intellectual persona, the philosophe, was fashioned as a sociable type who championed reason, truth-telling, and social-political engagement. However, Diderots remark is consonant with a perspective on intellectual pursuit that was equally important at the time: the notion that intense thinking involved pleasures whose nature and mechanisms were mysterious. His odd intermingling of charmingly dreamlike qualities with more baffling traits to describe "deep thinkers" was not, moreover, unique: it belonged to a broader tradition that simultaneously aestheticized knowledge-seekers and imbued them with a radical alterity.

Perhaps no other period in French culture celebrated thinkers so exuberantly as the eighteenth century: illustrious minds were venerated, and those who belonged to the Republic of Letters enjoyed greater social prominence than they had in previous centuries. (6) However, despite widespread efforts to bring the life of learning into closer alignment with the practices and values of polite society, an aura of difference--strangeness, even--surrounded the knowledge-seeker as a type. This was not simply because some intellectuals kept a distance from le beau monde, as Jean d'Alembert urged them to do in his Essai sur la societe des gens de lettres et des grands (1753). It was also due to a pervasive belief that great thinkers were constituted differently from the nonintellectual cultural elite (as well as from the common herd). According to this view, those who devoted themselves fully and intently to learned and creative endeavor had unique ways of feeling and sensing--including, in Diderot's estimation, a tendency to slip in and out of "catalepsies" when they were gripped by an idea. …

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