And so today, when skimming the news wires, I was not hooked by the latest yowl about U.S. President Donald Trump or the latest bit of racism or the suffering of the caravan working its way north out of Central America and en route to the borders of the United States. Not hooked. And yet I was hooked when reading the name of Denis Diderot, the 18th century Enlightenment gadfly who seems never to have missed a chance to prognosticate and was often on target.
Denis Diderot -- did anyone any longer know his name? I did because for a while there in college I was majoring in French. And here, this morning, was a professor (Andrew S. Curran) flogging his upcoming book ("Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely") that might keep him on track in his shark-infested, publish-or-perish profession.
As a young man, Diderot did not concern himself with politics per se. His target was the Catholic church and organized religion. If Voltaire became the era’s most prominent anti-cleric, Diderot was its most ingenious and freethinking atheist. In the summer of 1749, he published a 90-page book proclaiming that the Christian God was little more than a nefarious figment of people’s imaginations. It earned him a three-month stay in prison.I began reading the article, which neatly linked to a latter-day despot, Donald Trump. OK. But why did I read that in preference to the real-time upsets and horrors of the present? Well, I could smell it: History had an ending, if you know what I mean. Not that there actually was an ending, but reading history made it feel as if there were a period on the sentence and that period gave all and sundry permission to comment, parse, or otherwise hold in the palm of the hand.
The obituary like the mystery novel ends as it begins -- with the facts unchanged. Dead is dead. Crime is crime. But starving immigrants stretch out in a long-longer-longest line that continues to go hungry, to be vilified, and to stand as witness to recurring indecency. History is like a rest-stop on some endless freeway. Breathe in, breathe out. Take solace in the long view, even if the long view is not perfectly encouraging... or especially long either, come to that.
The 18th century man idealized the American colonies, but warned:
People of North America, may the example of all those nations that have preceded you, and especially that of your motherland, instruct you. Beware of the affluence of gold that brings with it the corruption of morals and the scorn of laws; beware of an unbalanced distribution of wealth that will give rise to a small number of opulent citizens and a horde of citizens in poverty, a situation that will engender the insolence of some and the deprivation of others.There is something stately (my own plodding pace, perhaps) about Diderot's caveats and hopes. His idealizations are like those that preceded them -- ideal with dangers abounding. Dangers include blood, though the blood is too often, as always, someone else's. And I hate being reminded of my own complicity in the redness of another's blood.
Oh well, it's all water under the dam now. If I cross my fingers tight enough, scrinch my eyes closed until they are slits, and turn my back on a looming fact or two ... well, there's a period on the sentence, right?
"History" puts me in mind of my sister -- who had two kids at the time -- as she tried to ease my worries about having a first newborn: "Adam," she said sagely, "you can read every book that was ever written about child-rearing or you can read none at all. Either way, you won't know shit."
Study history all you like, imagine it as a resting place, and then ... hook up your safety belt and prepare for a nose bleed.