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Denis Diderot

Reading Books


(The author of Pamela, Clarissa, and Sir Charles Grandison.)

Until the present day a novel was considered a frivolous tissue of fanciful events, the study of which was dangerous to our tastes and our morals. I much wish that some other name could be given to Richardson's works, which, indeed, are styled novels, yet which elevate the mind, touch our nobler feelings, and breathe throughout a love of goodness.

The maxims which Montaigne, Charron, La Rochefoucauld, and Nicole wrote down are given by Richardson in a living form in his characters. A clever man may be able to reproduce the maxims of the moralists, but these maxims will not enable him to rewrite or correct a page of Richardson.

A maxim is a general and abstract rule of conduct, the application of which is left to ourselves. By itself it offers no striking picture to our minds; but when we watch a man's actions, then we put ourselves in his place, or by his side, and we take part for or against him. If he is virtuous we sympathize with him, and if he is unjust or vicious we turn from him with indignation. Who has not shuddered at the character of Love-lace and Tomlinson? Who has not been filled with horror to see such a wretch feigning all the virtues with such an air of candor and dignity, with such a semblance of pathos and truth? What reader has not confessed in his inmost heart that he would be forced to fly society and to seek the solitude of the woods if there were many such dissemblers as these? Yes, Richardson, in spite of ourselves you compel us to take our part on your stage, to join in the conversations, to approve, to blame, to admire, to be angry or indignant.

If it is important that men should be impressed with the fact that, without regard to any future state, the best way to be happy is to be virtuous, what a great service Richardson has done to mankind! He has not proved this truth, but he has made us feel it. In every line he writes he makes us choose by preference the side of oppressed virtue rather than that of triumphant vice.

Who would wish to be Lovelace in spite of all his advantages? Who would not prefer to be Clarissa in spite of all her misfortunes?

I cannot weary of admiring your capacious intellect, which could carry on a drama of thirty or forty persons, who all act according to the characters you have given them. You show an astonishing knowledge of the laws and customs and manners of the human heart and of life. How much you must have observed, and felt, and weighed in the moral balance.

Poets, learn from Richardson to give an accomplice to the villain of your piece, in order to lessen the horror of his crime, and, for just the opposite reason, do not give a companion to your virtuous hero, that he may stand alone in his merit.

One poet said of another poet: He will not go far, he has not found the secret. What secret? That of describing objects of real interest, fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, children.

0, my friend, how long and difficult and painful is the study of all these arts, whether painting or sculpture, music or poetry, carving or engraving, where we seek to imitate nature.

I think I have already remarked in some of my papers (where I meant to show that a nation could only have one grand century, and that in this grand century there was only one moment able to give birth to a great man) that every fine composition, and every real work of talent in painting, sculpture, architecture, eloquence, and poetry, presupposes a certain mingling of reason and enthusiasm, of judgment and impulse, in the artist's disposition: a disposition which is rarely found, and only rarely manifested an equilibrium of qualities without which an artist's productions are cold or extravagant.

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