Denis Diderot
Sequel to the Preceding Conversation

Translated by Ian Johnston, Vancouver Island University, Nanaimo, British Columbia, Canada

[The following translation (2014), which has been prepared by Ian Johnston, Emeritus Professor at Vancouver Island University, is a revised version of an earlier translation (originally posted in 2002). Students, teachers, artists, and members of the general public may download and distribute this text. They may also freely edit it to suit their purposes. All commercial use of the translation, however, is prohibited without the permission of the translator. Please contact Ian Johnston for details. This work is the first section of a three-part dramatic conversation. For the Table of Contents of all three parts, please consult the following link: Rêve d'Alembert.

In the following translation the explanatory endnotes have been added by the translator.].

 

Denis Diderot

SEQUEL TO THE PRECEDING CONVERSATION

Speakers: Mademoiselle de L’Espinasse, Doctor Bordeu

[Around two o’clock the doctor returns. D’Alembert has gone out to dine, and the doctor finds himself in an intimate conversation with Mademoiselle de L’Espinasse. Dinner is served. They talk about fairly inconsequential things until dessert, but when the servants leave, Mademoiselle de L’Espinasse speaks to the doctor.]

MADEMOISELLE DE L’ESPINASSE: Come, Doctor, drink a glass of Malaga, and then you can answer a question which has gone through my head a hundred times and which I wouldn’t dare to ask anyone except you.

BORDEU: This is excellent Malaga. What’s this question of yours?

MADEMOISELLE DE L’ESPINASSE: What do you think of breeding between species?

BORDEU: On my word, that’s another fine question! I think human beings have placed a great deal of importance on the reproductive act and they’ve been right to do so, but I’m not happy about their laws, both civil and religious.

MADEMOISELLE DE L’ESPINASSE: And what do you find to complain about with them?

BORDEU: They were made without equity, purpose, or any regard for the nature of things and public utility.

MADEMOISELLE DE L’ESPINASSE: Please try to explain yourself.

BORDEU: That’s what I propose . . . But wait. (He looks at his watch) I still have a good hour to give you. I’ll go quickly, so that we’ll have enough time. We’re alone. You’re no prude, so you won’t think that I wish to forget about respecting you the way I should. And however you judge my ideas, I hope for my part that you’ll not conclude anything from them critical of my morality.

MADEMOISELLE DE L’ESPINASSE: Certainly not. But your opening remarks disturb me.

BORDEU: In that case, let’s change the subject.

MADEMOISELLE DE L’ESPINASSE: No, no. Go on with what you were going to say. One of your friends who was looking for husbands for me and my two sisters gave a sylph to the youngest, a large angel of the Annunciation to the oldest, and a disciple of Diogenes to me. He understood all three of us well. Still, Doctor, you can veil some things, just a little.

BORDEU: Of course I will, as much as the subject and my profession permit.

MADEMOISELLE DE L’ESPINASSE: That won’t be very difficult for you. But here’s your coffee. Drink it.

BORDEU: (After drinking his coffee) Your question is a matter of physical science, morality, and poetics.

MADEMOISELLE DE L’ESPINASSE: Poetics!

BORDEU: Undoubtedly. The art of creating beings which don’t exist by imitating those which do is true poetry. On this occasion, instead of citing Hippocrates, will you allow me to quote Horace? This poet, or maker, says somewhere Omne punctum qui miscuit utile dulci—the supreme merit is to have united the pleasant with the useful. Perfection consists in reconciling these two things. An action which is agreeable and useful should occupy first place in the aesthetic order, and we can’t refuse second place to what is useful, so third place will go to what is pleasant. We’ll give lowest rank to something which brings neither pleasure nor profit.

MADEMOISELLE DE L’ESPINASSE: Up to this point I can share your opinion without blushing. Where is that going to lead us?

BORDEU: You’ll see. Mademoiselle, can you inform me what profit or pleasure is produced by chastity and strict continence, either to the individual who practises them or to society?

MADEMOISELLE DE L’ESPINASSE: I’d say none at all.

BORDEU: Thus, despite the magnificent elegies which fanaticism has produced on their behalf and despite the civil laws which protect them, we’ll delete them from the catalogue of virtues, and we’ll agree that there is nothing so childish, ridiculous, absurd, harmful, and contemptible, nothing worse than these two rare qualities, with the exception of positive evil.

MADEMOISELLE DE L’ESPINASSE: We can agree on that.

BORDEU: Be careful here. I warn you, you’ll be backing away from this position in a moment.

MADEMOISELLE DE L’ESPINASSE: No, I never retreat.

BORDEU: What about solitary sexual acts?

MADEMOISELLE DE L’ESPINASSE: What about them?

BORDEU: Well, at least they bring pleasure to the individual. So either our principle is false or else . . .

MADEMOISELLE DE L’ESPINASSE: Come now, doctor!

BORDEU: Yes, Mademoiselle, yes because such acts are just as harmless but they’re not pointless. It’s a need, and even if a person isn’t drawn to them by need, it’s always something pleasant. I want people to be healthy—that’s my first priority. Do you understand that? I criticize all excess, but in a social condition like ours, for every reasonable consideration there are a hundred more (not including our emotional temperament and the dreadful consequences of a rigorous continence, above all with young people)—lack of money, men’s fear of bitter regrets, a woman’s fear of dishonour, things which reduce an unhappy creature dying of languor and boredom, a poor devil who doesn’t know where to turn, to finish himself off in the manner of a Cynic. Cato told a young man on the point of entering a prostitute’s house, “Courage, my son. . . .” Would he give him the same advice today? On the other hand, if he caught him alone in the act of masturbating would he not claim that that was better than corrupting another man’s wife or risking his own honour and health? What then? Because circumstances do not permit me the greatest imaginable happiness, that of mixing my senses, intoxication, and soul with the senses, intoxication, and soul of a companion chosen by my heart and of reproducing myself in her and with her, because I cannot consecrate my action with the seal of utility, am I to forbid myself a necessary and sweet moment? We have our blood let when we suffer from a plethora, and what does it matter what the nature of the superabundant humour is, its colour, and the manner we relieve ourselves of it? It’s just as superfluous in one of these conditions as in another. And if it’s pumped out of its reservoirs and distributed throughout the machine, it evacuates itself by another longer route, more painful and dangerous. So won’t it be lost anyway? Nature doesn’t permit anything useless. And how could helping her make me guilty when she calls for my help with the most unambiguous symptoms? We should never provoke nature, but we can lend her a hand occasionally. Refusing to do that or just doing nothing I see as mere foolishness and the loss of pleasure. Live temperately, people tell me, wear yourself out with physical exhaustion. I understand what they’re saying—I should deprive myself of one pleasure and go to great trouble to distance myself from another one. What an excellent idea!

MADEMOISELLE DE L’ESPINASSE: Now there’s a doctrine which isn’t a good one to preach to children.

BORDEU: Or to others. However, will you allow me an assumption? You have a good daughter, too good, and innocent, too innocent. She is at an age where her emotional life is developing. Her head is all upset, and nature is no help. You call me in. I see right away that all the symptoms which have you afraid are born from the superabundance and retention of sexual fluid. I warn you that she is threatened by a madness which is easy to prevent and which sometimes is impossible to cure. I indicate the remedy to you. What do you do?

MADEMOISELLE DE L’ESPINASSE: To tell you the truth, I think . . . but this example never happens.

BORDEU: Don’t believe that. It’s not rare, and it would be frequent if the looseness in our morals didn’t stop it. . . . Whatever the case, to reveal these principles would be treading all decency underfoot, drawing all the most hateful suspicions onto oneself, and committing a crime against society. You’re day-dreaming.

MADEMOISELLE DE L’ESPINASSE: Yes, I was hesitating about asking you if it had ever happened that you’d had to give advice like that to any mothers.

BORDEU: Of course I have.

MADEMOISELLE DE L’ESPINASSE: And what view did these mothers take?

BORDEU: All of them, without exception, chose the good side, the sensible side . . . I wouldn’t raise my hat in the street to the man suspected of practising my doctrine. It would be fine with me if people called him despicable. But we are chatting without witnesses and without any consequences, and I’ll tell you about my philosophy what a completely naked Diogenes said to the young and prudish Athenian against whom he was intending to compete in wrestling, “My son, don’t be afraid of anything. I’m not as bad as that man over there.”

MADEMOISELLE DE L’ESPINASSE: (covering her eyes) Doctor, I see where you are going, and I bet you. . . .

BORDEU: I don’t bet. You’ll win. Yes, Mademoiselle, that’s what I think.

MADEMOISELLE DE L’ESPINASSE: What! You don’t care whether people confine their sexual activity to those like themselves or not?

BORDEU: That’s right.

MADEMOISELLE DE L’ESPINASSE: You really are a monster.

BORDEU: It’s not me—it’s either nature or society. Listen, Mademoiselle. I don’t allow myself to be limited by the words I use, and I explain myself all the more freely because I speak my mind and because the well-known purity of my morals doesn’t expose me to criticism from any quarter. So I’ll ask you this: if there are two actions equally concerned with and limited to sexual pleasure, both of which can give pleasure without utility, and if one of them gives pleasure only to the person who does it and the other shares the pleasure with a similar being, male or female, for here the gender of the participants or even the nature of the sexual acts is irrelevant, what would common sense say in favour of one or the other?

MADEMOISELLE DE L’ESPINASSE: Questions like that are too lofty for me.

BORDEU: Ah, after being a man for four minutes, there you go taking up your wimple and petticoats again and becoming a woman once more. Well, all right, then. We must treat you as such. . . . That’s that . . . No one says a word any more about Madame du Barry(1). . . You see, everything works out. We thought that the court would be thrown upside down. But the master has acted like a sensible man: Omne tulit punctum [He’s won every point]. He kept the woman who gives him pleasure and the minister who’s useful to him . . . But you’re not listening to me . . . Where’s your head been?

MADEMOISELLE DE L’ESPINASSE: I was thinking of those sexual combinations which all seem to me to be all contrary to nature.

BORDEU: Everything which exists cannot be either against nature or outside of nature, and I don’t even exclude chastity and voluntary continence, which would be most important crimes against nature if it was possible to sin against nature, and the most important crimes against the social laws of a country where actions were weighed in some scale other than fanaticism and prejudice.

MADEMOISELLE DE L’ESPINASSE: I come back to your accursed syllogisms, and I don’t see any middle ground. One must either deny everything or accept everything . . . But what about this, Doctor—the fairest and shortest way would be to jump over the quagmire and to get back to my first question: What do you think about inter-species breeding?

BORDEU: We don’t need to jump to get there—we were already there. Now, is your question about physical science or morality?

MADEMOISELLE DE L’ESPINASSE: About science, physical science.

BORDEU: So much the better. The question of morality comes first, and you have settled it. So then . . .

MADEMOISELLE DE L’ESPINASSE: I agree . . . It’s undoubtedly what has to come first, but I wanted . . . you to separate cause and effect. Let’s leave the ugly cause out of it.

BORDEU: That’s asking me to begin at the ending. But since that’s what you want, then I’ll tell you that, thanks to our timidity, our aversions, our laws, and our prejudices, there have been very few experiments tried, and we don’t know which sexual unions would be completely sterile or cases where the useful would combine with the pleasant or what sort of species we could expect from various prolonged attempts. We don't know whethr fauns are real or fabulous, or whether we could multiply the race of mules in a hundred different ways, or whether those we do know about are truly sterile. But here’s a strange fact which countless educated people will tell you is true but which is false, namely, that in the poultry yard of the archduke they’ve seen a disgusting rabbit who used act as a cock and service around twenty shameless hens who were happy with the arrangement. The people will add that they have been shown some chickens covered with fur, which were the products of this bestiality. You can be sure they were ridiculed.

MADEMOISELLE DE L’ESPINASSE: But what do you mean by some prolonged attempts?

BORDEU: I mean that the transitions from one creature to another are gradual, that assimilations of beings need to be prepared for, and that in order to succeed in these kinds of experiments, it would be necessary to work for a long time at first bringing the animals closer together by a similar diet.

MADEMOISELLE DE L’ESPINASSE: It would be difficult to reduce a human being to grazing.

BORDEU: But not to drink goat’s milk frequently, and we could easily lead the goat to feed on bread. I’ve chosen the goat for my own particular reasons.

MADEMOISELLE DE L’ESPINASSE: What reasons?

BORDEU: You are being very bold! Well, the reason is . . . it’s because from them we would derive a vigorous race—intelligent, tireless, and quick. From them we could make excellent household servants.

MADEMOISELLE DE L’ESPINASSE: A very good idea, Doctor. It seems to me that I can already see behind our duchesses' carriages five or six large insolent types with goats’ feet, and that makes me happy.

BORDEU: And we wouldn’t be degrading our brothers any more by subjecting them to work unworthy of them and us.

MADEMOISELLE DE L’ESPINASSE: Even better.

BORDEU: And in our colonies we wouldn’t be reducing human beings any more to the condition of beasts of burden.

MADEMOISELLE DE L’ESPINASSE: Then quickly, Doctor, don’t waste any time. Make us some goat-men.

BORDEU: And you’d allow that without any scruples?

MADEMOISELLE DE L’ESPINASSE: Just a moment—I’ve thought of one. Your goat men would be dreadfully dissolute sexually.

BORDEU: I’m not guaranteeing that they’d have good morals.

MADEMOISELLE DE L’ESPINASSE: There’d no longer be any safety for decent women. They’d multiply without end. And in time we’d have to knock them down or obey them. I don’t want them any more—no, no more. You can stop worrying.

BORDEU: (as he goes to leave) What about the question of their baptism?

MADEMOISELLE DE L’ESPINASSE: That would make a fine fuss at the Sorbonne.

BORDEU: Have you seen in the King’s Garden zoo, in a glass cage, that orang-utang who looks like a Saint John preaching in the desert?

MADEMOISELLE DE L’ESPINASSE: Yes, I’ve seen it.

BORDEU: Well, Cardinal de Polignac said to it one day, “If you speak, I’ll baptize you.”

MADEMOISELLE DE L’ESPINASSE: Good bye then, Doctor. Don’t neglect us for ages, as you usually do, and remember sometimes that I love you madly. If people only knew all these horror stories you’ve been telling me.

BORDEU: I’m very sure you’ll keep quiet about them.

MADEMOISELLE DE L’ESPINASSE: Don’t be too sure. I only listen for the pleasure of repeating them. But one word more, and for the life of me I won’t return to the subject.

BORDEU: What’s that?

MADEMOISELLE DE L’ESPINASSE: What about these abominable tastes? Where do they come from?

BORDEU: Always from some deficiency in the organic structure of young people and a corruption of the minds of old men, from the attractions of beauty in Athens, the shortage of women in Rome, and the fear of the pox in Paris. Good bye, good bye.

Endnote

(1) Madame du Barry (1743-1793) was an official mistress of Louis XV, king of France. [Back to Text]