Diderot: A Geography of Chatter

So many men, so many different cries [. . .] Such diverse chatter, such a host of discordant cries in that one forest which we call society” (II, 384).[1] We read these words in the opening of Diderot’s First Satire, immediately illustrated by the talk of a series of disturbing individuals. It is the animality of civilized man that astonishes Diderot, or rather the satirical voice he makes speak. Social man remains an animal, and society is still a forest, with all the diversity of the species that populate it. Diderot listens to the hum of the human world. And in this First Satire he opposes to a few rare cries of the feminine heart a whole zoomorphic anthropology, manifested by a multitude of masculine failings. “Under the biped form of man, there is no innocent or malevolent beast in the air, in the depths of the forest, in the waters, that you cannot recognize. There is the wolf man, the tiger man, the fox man, the mole man, the pig man.” The whole of animal characterology unfolds, as codified by Le Brun, as exemplified by La Fontaine. This opening, which is not the most illustrious page of Diderot, nevertheless reveals some of the outstanding features of his writing: the quick balancing of coupled words, the play of opposites, then the setting in motion, the list or series that unrolls, and the enumerative drive.

They no sooner appear than the words “chatter” and “cry” place in contrast the duration of a sustained singing and the pathetic brevity of a sudden call. We will come upon other balancings, broader and freer, in the Second Satire, in the talk of Rameau’s Nephew, and this time they will have to do with social ranks: “I’ve got the devil of a ridiculous chatter, half from society and literary people, half from the marketplace.” As the hero himself admits, his talk is bipartite, like the costume of the fool in another age.

The “devil of a,” let us note in passing about this example, is a simple turn of phrase, with no theological implications. It is merely adjectival: a banal depreciative formula. We find it again in Diderot’s ultima verba, as they were reported in the biographical notice drawn up by his daughter, Angélique de Vandeul. Weak as he was, he wanted to eat an apricot. His wife tried to stop him. He rebuffed her: “‘What the devil harm do you think it can do me?’ [. . .] He ate it, leaned his elbow on the table to eat some stewed cherries, coughed slightly. My mother asked him a question: as he kept silent, she raised her head, looked at him, he was gone.” Never having considered pleasure a fault, this gourmand did not accept that a fruit was forbidden him.





As we see, for Diderot the word “chatter” kept its customary range, which had long since been applied to human speech, like the more mocking “cackle,” frequently attributed to women, but less used in the eighteenth century. We would have no trouble showing that Diderot could take to his own account the declarations he lent to the Nephew concerning the bipartition of speech. Nor would we have any difficulty, reading his works of fiction from Indiscreet Jewels to Jacques the Fatalist, in hearing multiple cries in them of an unusually broad acoustic register.

Diderot likes speaking of his own speech. In many of his writings, he makes liberal use of self-reference to call up what he has said and the manner in which he has spoken. The choice of examples is very wide. One of the best is found in the letter to Sophie Volland of October 11, 1759: “I was filled with the tenderness that you inspired in me when I appeared in the midst of our guests; it shone in my eyes; it lent warmth to my discourse; it dictated my movements; it showed itself in everything. To them I seemed extraordinary, inspired, divine. Grimm[2] did not have eyes enough to look at me, nor ears enough to hear me” (V, 163). It is the same again, on a more modest note, in a letter he addressed to Mme. Necker during his second stay in The Hague, on the return from his great journey to Russia of 1773–1774. He fears he has lost his talent as a conversationalist. The fault lies with the diversity of territories passed through, with their idioms, which are so many different kinds of chatter. Could he take up his role once again in the only birdcage that counts, that of Paris, meaning the salon of his lady correspondent?

I am returning to the birdcage I escaped from fifteen months ago. Will my chatter, which was already none too melodious, not have suffered from the harsh and barbarous chatter of the Moravian, Helvetian, Belgian, Prussian, Polish, Slovenian, and Russian birds I’ve been living with?

The word “chatter” is also the term he chooses to refer to the style of writers and what it reveals of their innate dispositions. He knows very well that this word is a metaphorical term, but he holds to it. So it is when, during the same stay in The Hague, he reads the posthumous work of Helvetius entitled Of Man. He finds too many ideas in it that provoke his disagreement, and he undertakes to refute them systematically. This work sometimes leads him, in a show of indignation, to rejoin the Nephew in the vulgar “half” of the “devil of a chatter” he attributes to him: “I beg the reader’s pardon, I am going to say something filthy, something dirty, in the worst tone, in the worst taste, a marketplace phrase” (I, 799). Following a very sharp critique of pages in which Helvetius, proposing a rudimentary version of what Freud will call the pleasure principle, makes of “physical sensibility the unique cause” of “our actions,” of “our thoughts,” of “our passions,” of “our sociability,” No! Diderot objects, physical pleasure is not the sole aim of human choices. No! the diversity of pedagogies is not alone responsible for the difference of tastes and talents. Diderot rejects these simplifications. For human beings are not born identical. One must take individual aptitudes into account: tastes and talents are as variable as physical types. Diderot evokes by way of example the three names of Buffon, d’Alembert, and Rousseau. He compares them: “Here are three quite different styles.” He quickly characterizes Buffon (“broad, majestic”), d’Alembert (“simple, clear, faceless, without movement, without verve, without color”), and Rousseau, whom he admires as a great “colorist” (“he touches, upsets, perturbs” . . .). And he adds, in an unusual comparison: “It is no more possible for these authors to change their tone than for birds in the forest to change their chatter” (I, 828). If they try to go against their innate dispositions, which they draw from their species, the result will be pitiable:

Ask them to make the test: from the originals that they were, they will become imitative and ridiculous. Their song will be a borrowed one, it will mix with their natural song, and they will be like those trained birds that begin a modulated tune and end with twittering. (Refutation of Helvetius, I, 828)

In these lines, Diderot compares the strictly individual features of writers, their style, their personal peculiarity, with those of different living species. Carried away by his verve, purposely exaggerating, he goes so far as to disregard the logical distinction between species and individual (which the species “subsumes in itself”—Encyclopedia, 1748). Diderot’s remark is once again bound up with the old zoology of temperaments or passions, which established correlations between animal species and human types!

What about the “trained birds” that have just been mentioned in the last quoted text?

In the very brief article on “Chatter” in the Encyclopedia, contributed by Jaucourt, a connection is pointed out with a trade and its techniques: “It is a bird catcher’s term.” The name of bird catcher, once mentioned, calls up a captive bird and no longer the one we hear chirping in the branches. The bird catcher makes a trade of capturing birds, and above all of making them listen to and repeat a new, unexpected tune, which gives them more appeal, more value. The learned song also bears the name of chatter, but the value of the term is obviously quite different. “Chatter” will come to mean a melody learned by force, not a natural song. The word will call up artifice; it will betray a captive condition within the walls of an interior. It will imply constraint and submission, behind a pleasant exterior. “Chatter” will be stamped with a certain ambiguity, in the ethical as well as the aesthetic realm. We find ourselves on the dividing line where voices, words exchanged, are attributable either to free expression or, as at the fair, to a servile play, a lesson repeated. We understand how, in the eighteenth century, the defenders of nature and the natural conducted their struggle, symbolically, by denouncing bird catchers and trained birds. Unless the opposites were reconciled by making the bird catcher a “man of nature”: Papageno in The Magic Flute!

In a famous picture by Chardin, the first he painted in response to a royal commission (1751), a young woman has interrupted her embroidery to wind up a toy canary. A birdcage and its captive are installed near a high lattice window. The window, the source of light, is rigorously shut and makes the room itself an enlarged cage. The light falls on the face and flowery skirt of the feminine figure . . .

The toy canary was “a little barrel organ first used to teach canaries” (Encyclopedia, 1798). A melody, played over the range of an octave, was repeated by the inhabitant of the birdcage. He became a “trained” bird for having thus learned to “whistle tunes and airs” substituted for his natural song (Encyclopedia, 1798). This was one of the examples illustrating the idea of “denaturing,” the role of which in Rousseau’s argumentation is well known. The bird catcher having first “lured” the bird in order to capture it, the young woman has only to prolong this enslavement by the perverse mechanism. Now, Diderot—as we have just noticed—is inclined to compare the Parisian salons to big birdcages. It is striking to discover that, in the more or less Oriental fictions of his beginnings, Diderot also referred to convents as “birdcages.” The trained bird and its chatter thus become, in his lexicon, figurative terms designating in a parodic way now the repetitive formulas of the liturgy, now the artificiality and futility of society life—a life in which he himself participated a great deal! How many lessons could a mind like Diderot’s not draw from the coincidence between loss of liberty, imprisonment in a birdcage, and the elegancies of language! Nevertheless, he could declare, with regard to his daughter, that he was ready to play the role of bird catcher in order to assure her a good marriage. In 1755, addressing himself to a wealthy compatriot, Caroillon La Salette, he informs him (or reminds him) that he has a daughter and that he could “whistle for her like a parrot” to make her marry a Caroillon (I, 48). Angélique was only two at the time, but the plan worked out perfectly: she married one of the sons of the letter’s addressee!




In The White Bird, A Blue Story (1749), the voices become entangled. This text presents a group of narrators doing their best to put an insomniac princess to sleep. The voices join together, interrupt each other, take turns in developing fragments of a mock heroic epic: it is the epic of chatter itself! The story tells how the Japanese prince Genistan (“the prince Spirit”) was turned into a bird by the evil spell of a deceitful genie. He was instantly endowed with “feathers” and with “chatter.” The color of the feathers is white, as the Holy Spirit was customarily represented (II, 232). And the powers attributed to his singing are a parody of those his theological antecedent possessed: as he passes through various pagodas (which we recognize as convents), he is sometimes poorly received. Notably in one birdcage whose inhabitants do not tolerate a visitor who does not resemble them —meaning a heretic: “They flutter around him and, noticing that his feathers and his chatter differ somewhat from theirs, fall upon him with great pecks of the beak and mistreat him cruelly.” The bird’s commentary informs the reader, suddenly in very direct terms, that the quest for the Truth cannot do without the acceptance of difference: “‘O Truth!’ he then cried, ‘so this is how you reward those who love you and are busy searching for you!’” (II, 232). But he is well received by the cloistered virgins, and then by Princess Lively.[3] Among the ladies he visits, his “tender chatter” is “prolific” and produces many turbulent “little spirits” (II, 225, 229–230, 263–264). Chatter is a fertilizing power! For Genistan to be freed and returned to human form, what is needed is the intervention of a “fairy Truth,” who has much to do in the world. The parody is perfectly decipherable. To proceed by such indirect ways, Diderot must have placed much hope in the attraction aroused by the play of voices and hearing, through an irreverent fiction developed like one of those elegant caprices that the painters of the day were so good at inventing.




The mechanism of the toy canary, as described in the Encyclopedia, makes use of a crank to wind up a worm screw, sending puffs of air through little pipes . . . Diderot seems to have considered this machine capable of simulating the life of a living being. Except that a hand was needed to turn the crank, and that he cheerfully dispenses with. In The Dream of d’Alembert, in 1769, Diderot compares the human being to a harpsichord, and then, giving free rein to his imagination, does not hesitate to ask his interlocutor: “What difference do you find between a real canary and a toy canary?” The answer is simple, and Diderot once again forgets the hand that turns the crank: all that is lacking is “the faculty of feeding and reproduction.” Is the toy canary only a mechanical model that lacks a digestive system? Yet it is by a lesson drawn from a bird’s egg that Diderot hopes to overturn “all the schools of theology and all the temples of the earth” (ibid.). He already sees and hears the new living being: “This animal moves, stirs, cries: I can hear its cries through the shell” . . . (I, 618). In the second dialogue, conversing with Doctor Bordeu, Mademoiselle de Lespinasse tells him that she heard the sleeping d’Alembert formulate another model of the living: the swarm of bees, a “cluster” which gives off “noise, little cries” (I, 627). In engaging in dream and speculation, in taking the sleeping d’Alembert for an alibi, Diderot’s will to hear amplifies the space explored. In the first conversation he perceived (or fantasized) the weak cries of the origins of life in an egg, but once the impulse is given, nothing can keep him from propagating them expansively by transferring to other speakers—Mademoiselle de Lespinasse and Bordeu—all his speculative audacity:

Mademoiselle De Lespinasse: If you give the lightest tap to the end of a long beam, I can hear the tap if I put my ear to the other end. If this beam touched the earth with one end and Sirius with the other, the effect would be the same. All things being connected, contiguous, that is to say, the beam being existent and real, why do I not hear what happens in the immense space surrounding me, above all if I lend an ear to it?

Bordeu: And who has told you that you do not hear it more or less? (I, 638–639)

In going from the toy canary and the chatter of birds to the limits of all conceivable space, Diderot’s philosophical imagination has not left the realm of sound. As if knowledge of the immensity of the world were reserved for the power of hearing rather than sight!



It must be admitted, from these examples, that the songs of birds and the hearing of them still bore meaning for the philosophes of the eighteenth century. One could enchant an apostle of the lumières, in conversation at d’Holbach’s, if one had the art to make a good story of a rivalry between birds over their chatter. If Diderot has such friendship for the “little abbot” Galiani, it is because he loves his storyteller’s verve, which takes nothing from his qualities as an economist. There was one occasion when this pleasure was particularly keen: this was the day when Galiani cut short a debate that had arisen at the baron’s by means of a story about birds. It was a question of what should have preference: the “method that organizes” (advocated by the naturalist Le Roy), or the “genius that creates” (vaunted by Grimm).[4] A question of preeminence was raised. This question was an innovative transposition, a modernization, of the one evoked by Horace in his Ars Poetica (line 408): Natura fieret laudabile Carmen an arte. To be worthy of praise, should a poem be the product of nature or of art?

The alternatives proposed could lead to endless debate, as if one had to choose between reason and imagination. A fable simplified matters and gave a decisive answer. In a letter to Sophie Volland (October 20, 1760), Diderot transcribed the words of Galiani, who seized the occasion to shine before his audience: “My friends, I recall a fable. Listen to it.” The story tells of a contest between two birds of different species, the cuckoo (supposed to be the representative of method) and the nightingale (the spokesman of genius). Which voice is more beautiful? The dispute is submitted to the ass for judgment. He is lazy and, without investigating the case or listening to the litigants, declares the cuckoo the winner. The story came from an Italian work, the burlesque epic Ricciardetto (1738), by Niccolò Fortiguerri (1674–1735), which Diderot also knew, having recently read it and found cause in it “to weep alternatively from pain and from pleasure.” The ass’s iniquitous judgment in favor of the cuckoo is a perfect example of resorting to antiphrasis: the good response, in a case of this sort, is obviously the contrary of the one given by a bad judge, that is, a judge who does not listen.

Later, when Galiani has gone back to Italy, Diderot will tell him about Parisian events in his letters. He has overseen the final editing of Dialogues on the Wheat Trade. It is in publication, it appears, it is far from pleasing to everyone . . . The debate touched on important problems of production, supply, pricing, export. Diderot, who has contributed to it, sends his friend news of the quarrels his book has given rise to, of the refutation that André Morellet has published to order. In Baron d’Holbach’s salon, the discussions are very animated, and Diderot pricks up his ears as usual, paying great attention to the ideas and issues of the debate, and at the same time, more materially, to the noise made by the dispute. He is anxious to tell the abbot how the baroness took his side. He is happy to inform him that her pretty solo voice broke “from time to time” through the “squalling” and “din” of the disputers. It is clear that this “delicate and fine little chatter” did not leave Diderot indifferent. As for himself, he assures, he played “the role of silence in the midst of all these performers” (early June 1770; V, 1016). Squalling, din, delicate little chatter, silence: in these few lines, we hear a graduated polyphony—three levels of sonorous intensity, which Diderot has perceived, noted down, made his correspondent hear. In a later letter to Galiani (May 25, 1773), there will be new chattering in the air. Diderot comments very audaciously on a poem of Horace, excusing himself in the end by speaking ironically of his own way of entering into the “barbarous chatter of grammarians” (V, 1176).




Giving Sophie an account of a visit to a certain young lady Boileau, the friend and neighbor of the Volland ladies, Diderot lets it be known to her that he has taken part in “chatter” and “banal jabbering” (November 25, 1760; V, 324–330). He has been very attentive to the young lady’s speech. One time he affirms ( June 2, 1759) that she has “the sprit of an angel.” Some years later, on the contrary, the same figure and her “chatter” are the object of a scornful judgment and a very significant generalization: Mademoiselle Boileau, he writes to Sophie, always “echoes the stupidity around her.” The “people who surround her and whistle to her” are “men of the world . . . ignorant and frivolous.” She should have “attached herself to a sensible man.” She is one of those women who repeat the words of “the last one to speak,” crudely specified as “the one they spent the night with . . . Their character, like their chatter, is made of bits and pieces” (to Sophie Volland, August 18, 1765; I, 517). Chatter is thus defined not only as affected speech, but as the sign of a profound lack of personality and a submission to received ideas. The synthetic term that designates these faults is “manner.” To understand what this word implies for Diderot, we must turn to the meaning it acquired in the artistic vocabulary, and to the reflections Diderot added to his Salon of 1767. We learn there that “manner” and “mannered,” though met with in the visual arts, are not limited to them. These faults, more broadly, indicate an excessive striving for effect, the tics of frivolity, exaggerated turns of phrase. Manner is “a vice of refined society,” practiced by “imitators” and “copiers of a bizarre model” (IV, 816). This failing is irritating, because it follows the law of a partial society that considers itself an élite, and therefore neglects what is more broadly human: manner is at once a distortion and a conformism. Diderot will say so in the considerations (On Manner) he adds to The Salon of 1767: it is “a vice common to all the fine arts” (IV, 815). Goethe, translator of Diderot’s Essays on Painting, will repeat as much in a famous essay devoted to the relation of the artist with the world: Einfache Nachahmung der Natur, Manier, Stil (Simple Imitation of Nature, Manner, Style). Diderot, for his part, took pleasure in enumerating the varieties of the false:

Expression is mannered in a hundred different ways. In art as in society, there are false graces, simpering, affectation, preciosity, ignobility, false dignity or haughtiness, false seriousness or pedantry, false grief, false piety; all vices, all virtues, all passions are made to grimace; these grimaces are sometimes found in nature, but they are always displeasing in imitation (IV, 818).

What Diderot brings out here is the way in which certain linguistic practices serve as signs of recognition in restricted groups, where one speaks scornfully of the “common,” because one is in pursuit of “distinction.” He puts it very clearly in the article on “Jargon” in the Encyclopedia, which bears out his judgment of “manner.” If Diderot imposes a norm here, it is in condemning the signs of recognition of an élitist superiority based in fact on a “common” thought (the word becoming pejorative this time) and on an aesthetic without warmth:

JARGON, n. (Gramm.) this word is used in several senses. It is said (1) of a corrupted language, such as is spoken in our provinces. (2) Of an artificial language, which a few persons adopt in order to speak in company and not be understood. (3) Of a certain society chatter which sometimes has its charm and finesse, and which replaces genuine intellect, good sense, judgment, reason, and knowledge in persons much given to worldly life; this consists of particular turns of phrase, a singular use of words, the art of enhancing cold, childish, common little ideas by means of a studied expression. It is pardonable in women: it is unworthy of a man.

This time the mention of “chatter” (no longer a term to be interpreted, but a word that supplies the definition) refers to the exaggeration that takes the place of simple expression, and the recourse to clever devices that “fill it out.” Chatter is thus a bad filler, an improper substitute, a perversion. Whose fault is it? The answer is given in the same article: “The more futile and corrupt people are, the more jargon they have.” In speaking of “society chatter,” Diderot incriminates an additional convention, which had become a rallying sign for a restricted group. This was the case, Diderot specifies, for the “précieux” whom “Molière cried down of an evening” (ibid.). This results in a judgment: “The word jargon always bears with it a notion of frivolity” (ibid.). He who seeks for purity falls into affectation. He who wants to play the angel plays the bird. Jabber then becomes tattle. Diderot, who does not like Boucher, accuses him of painting only “tattlers” and “libertine satyrs” when he means to paint virgins and angels (Salon of 1765; IV, 309). The editor tells us in a note that “tattler” [caillette] has replaced the word “tart” [catin], which is found in the manuscript version of the Literary Correspondence. The word, according to the Academy, refers to “a frivolous and talkative woman.” Worse than that, chatter is no longer the natural singing of a free bird. It is the song repeated by a caged bird that has been “trained.” We should even say: by a society that inter-trains, because the speech of women modifies that of men. At the end of the essay On Women that Diderot wrote and rewrote between 1772 and 1780, we read observations in which, once again, the constraints placed on women are disapproved of. That is a reason for excusing them: they are like us, but subject to a constraint that they alone suffer. The matter becomes more equitable by the establishment of a just balance of faults:

Women’s soul is no more honest than ours, but since decency does not allow them to explain themselves with our frankness, they have made a chatter for themselves in which they can honestly say anything they like, once they have been trained in their birdcages. (On Women; I, 961)

Diderot notices the change that has occurred for that reason in the general tone of conversations. What was the result of the need between men and women to better “express themselves”? One writes differently. Diderot, as we shall see, will bring in the word “style” to make of it a sphere of feminine excellence. And after having allowed for a similarity of souls, he concludes by allowing for an eventual superiority of their “genius.” The text ends with these lines:

We constantly address them, we want to be heard, we are afraid to weary or bore them, and we ourselves acquire a particular facility of expression which passes on from conversation to style. When they have genius, I think it is of a more original stamp than in us. (Ibid.)

It is not surprising to learn that this text was written at the moment when Diderot was taken up with the marriage of his daughter Angélique and was frequenting the salon of Mme. Necker.

On many an occasion, Diderot will frankly give the advantage to women, at least in what touches upon “goodness of heart and mind.” A letter to Sophie (of September 9, 1762) begins with news of his ailing wife and the none-too-charitable mention of her “continuous shouting.” Then Diderot replies to questions about ways of teaching morality to children. The request came from Madame de Salignac, Sophie’s “dear sister”—the older one. Diderot poses the problem in terms of a dilemma, as he will with the Nephew: “One of two things: you must teach your children the morality of vice or the morality of virtue.” But he does not want to take on the task and sends it back to those who asked: “You are women and . . . your simple, fluent, plain chatter will take from ideas the abstract, bristly, and pedantic air that our scholastic learning more or less endows them with” (V, 433–434). The metaphor of chatter, a bit condescending to be sure, but combined now with soothing qualifiers, has become almost affectionate.




We must recall how persistent the motif of the birdcage, and the disapproval of it, were in the imagination of the time. Another writer, Rousseau, offered a memorable version of it. We find it in La Nouvelle Héloïse, which came out in 1761 (fourth part, letter XI). Birds populate a vast area in the center of a perfect landscape garden nicknamed Elysium, which spreads out in Clarens before the residence of Julie and her husband Wolmar. During his visit, Saint-Preux is attracted by a “noisy and confused chatter.” He thinks at first that it is coming from a birdcage. No, Julie explains, what her friend has taken for a birdcage is the free dwelling- lace of the birds. They lived there before the Wolmar couple moved to the estate. “They are the masters here,” she observes, to such a degree that those who enter this space become their “guests.” This birdcage is thus a free place: the sanctuary of a nature that has remained intact. There is obviously no bird to be found there that has been “trained” by a bird catcher! Wolmar completes Rousseau’s thought: it is the “rich folk” who “keep birds in cages and friends at so much a month,” because “force and money are the only means they know.” In truth, this garden and its description are a masterpiece of artifice, but Rousseau, who cannot hide his very great art, and has not made Wolmar a poor man, takes care not to admit it on this page.[5]



[Translated by Richard Pevear]

[1] Roman numerals refer to the volume numbers in the five-volume edition of Diderot’s Oeuvres (“Works”) published in the collection “Bouquins,” Robert Laffont, Paris, 1994–1997. Author.

[2] The Grimm mentioned here is Frédéric Melchior, Baron von Grimm (1723–1807), who moved from Germany to Paris, became friends with Diderot and the Encyclopedists, and wrote in French. Trans.

[3] In English in the original. Trans.

[4] The naturalist Charles-Georges Leroy, nicknamed “the satyr of the Huts” by his friends, was not a bad writer. Baudelaire, in a letter to his mother of 8 March 1854, considered both his Letters on Animals and [Diderot’s] Rameau’s Nephew to be “marvels.” Author.

[5] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, La Nouvelle Héloïse, book IV, letter 11, in Œuvres complètes (Paris, Gallimard, “Bibliothèque de la Pléiade,” vol. II, 1961), pp. 475–476. Wolmar is “rich and of high birth,” ibid., book III, letter 18, p. 343. Author.