Rameau’s nephew on the ethics of snark

In his dialogue Rameau's Nephew, first published in 1798, Diderot can't quite believe that the younger Rameau is willing to badmouth the people he sponges on. Explaining himself, Rameau anticipates the modern apologists of snark.

HIM: . . . Mademoiselle is starting to become tiresome; the stories they're telling about her are not to be missed.

ME: You're not one of those people?

HIM: Why not?

ME: Because to put it mildly it's indecent to make fun of one's patrons.

HIM: But isn't it even worse to make patronage a justification for degrading one's protégé?

ME: But if the protégé wasn't in himself degraded, nothing would give the patron that power.

HIM: But if the patrons were not in themselves ridiculous, one wouldn't be able to tell such good stories about them. And is it my fault if they socialize with trash? Is it my fault if, having socialized with trash, they are betrayed and mocked? When one chooses to live with people like us, and one has a little common sense, there are I don't know how many blacknesses one ought to expect. When one takes us up, doesn't one know us for what we are, for venal, degraded, and treacherous souls? If one knows us, it's all right. There is a tacit pact that one will do us good, and that sooner or later, we will return evil for the good that has been done us. Doesn't the same pact link a man and his monkey, or his parrot? . . . If one brings a young provincial to the zoo at Versailles, and he takes it into his stupid head to put a hand through the bars of the tiger's or the panther's cage; if the young man leaves his arm in the maw of the wild animal; who's in the wrong? It's all written in the tacit pact. Too bad for anyone who doesn't know about it or has forgotten it.

Mon semblable, mon frère

In describing the memoirs of the duc de Saint-Simon, Lytton Strachey seems to look into a mirror:

His innumerable portraits are unsurpassed in literature. They spring into his pages bursting with life—individual, convincing, complete, and as various as humanity itself. He excels in that most difficult art of presenting the outward characteristics of persons, calling up before the imagination not only the details of their physical appearance, but the more recondite effects of their manner and their bearing, so that, when he has finished, one almost feels that one has met the man. But his excellence does not stop there. It is upon the inward creature that he expends his most lavish care—upon the soul that sits behind the eyelids, upon the purpose and the passion that linger in a gesture or betray themselves in a word. The joy that he takes in such descriptions soon infects the reader, who finds before long that he is being carried away by the ardour of the chase, and that at last he seizes upon the quivering quarry with all the excitement and all the fury of Saint-Simon himself. Though it would, indeed, be a mistake to suppose that Saint-Simon was always furious—the wonderful portraits of the Duchesse de Bourgogne and the Prince de Conti are in themselves sufficient to disprove that—yet there can be no doubt that his hatreds exceeded his loves, and that, in his character-drawing, he was, as it were, more at home when he detested. Then the victim is indeed dissected with a loving hand; then the details of incrimination pour out in a multitudinous stream; then the indefatigable brush of the master darkens the deepest shadows and throws the most glaring deformities into still bolder relief; then disgust, horror, pity, and ridicule finish the work which scorn and indignation had begun. Nor, in spite of the virulence of his method, do his portraits ever sink to the level of caricatures. His most malevolent exaggerations are yet so realistic that they carry conviction. When he had fashioned to his liking his terrific images—his Vendôme, his Noailles, his Pontchartrain, his Duchesse de Berry, and a hundred more—he never forgot, in the extremity of his ferocity, to commit the last insult, and to breathe into their nostrils the fatal breath of life.

From Landmarks in French Literature, 1912.

What is Enlightenment? (The France mix)

Lytton Strachey describes the Philosophes of late-eighteenth-century France:

So far as the actual content of their thought was concerned, they were not great originators. The germs of their most fruitful theories they found elsewhere—chiefly among the thinkers of England; and, when they attempted original thinking on their own account, though they were bold and ingenious, they were apt also to be crude. In some sciences—political economy, for instance, and psychology—they led the way, but attained to no lasting achievement. . . . In their love of pure reason, they relied too often on the swift processes of argument for the solution of difficult problems, and omitted that patient investigation of premises upon which the validity of all argument depends. They were too fond of systems, and those neatly constructed logical theories into which everything may be fitted admirably—except the facts. In addition, the lack of psychological insight which was so common in the eighteenth century tended to narrow their sympathies; and in particular they failed to realize the beauty and significance of religious and mystical states of mind. These defects eventually produced a reaction against their teaching—a reaction during which the true value of their work was for a time obscured. For that value is not to be looked for in the enunciation of certain definite doctrines, but in something much wider and more profound. The Philosophes were important not so much for the answers which they gave as for the questions which they asked; their real originality lay not in their thought, but in their spirit. They were the first great popularizers. Other men before them had thought more accurately and more deeply; they were the first to fling the light of thought wide through the world, to appeal, not to the scholar and the specialist, but to the ordinary man and woman, and to proclaim the glories of civilization as the heritage of all humanity. Above all, they instilled a new spirit into the speculations of men—the spirit of hope.

From Landmarks in French Literature, 1912.

No forwarding address

Reading the chapter on cemeteries in Dell Upton’s Another City: Urban Life and Urban Spaces in the New American Republic (Yale, 2008), I learned that eternal rest beneath a headstone was originally the exception not the rule:

Burying grounds were commons in the traditional sense. Anyone could use them but no one could own them or appropriate them for their exclusive use. They were places to return the dead to dust, not to preserve and celebrate them. By law and custom, public burying grounds were a kind of consecrated waste-disposal plant, processing the abandoned cadaver after the soul of the deceased had gone on to another realm. As an English judge noted, in deciding a case in which a family sought to bury one of its members in an iron coffin that would slow or prevent decomposition, a graveyard was “not the exclusive property of one set of persons, but was the property of ages yet unborn. . . . All contrivance, therefore, to prolong the duration of the body, was an act of injustice, unless compensation was made for such encroachment.”

In such a cemetery, bodies were buried willy-nilly, one grave overlapping another. “When a new tomb is dug, an old one is laid open; and one body that has been slumbering a few years in peace, is removed from its resting place to make room for another,” wrote a horrified nineteenth-century reformer. Once the earth had done its work, graves were reopened to provide space for subsequent users. In European cemeteries and some American ones the skeletal remains were removed to charnel houses. In the light of its grisly function and high religious purpose, the cemetery was, in theory, a “garden of equality,” a place of “modest simplicity.”

Long before America was founded, though, the simplicity began to be undermined by elites, who insisted on privatizing a few spots for themselves. The rest of Upton’s book is not so morbid, by the way; it’s about early American urban design, and ranges from street noise to office architecture, with special attention to Philadelphia, New Orleans, and New York.