MY REAL-TIME REVIEW OF JACQUES THE FATALIST (1796) by Denis Diderot STARTS AND CONTINUES BELOW IN THE ‘COMMENTS’ TO THIS POST AS AND WHEN I READ EACH SECTION OF THE WORK.
Do you dare read this?
I have read so far up to page 10, and it was determined long ago that I would read and review this book today at this precise time and thus prevent my meeting someone or something that could possibly have changed my life for better or worse, and thus change your life, too. It is a hilarious but thought-provoking, Rhys-Hughesian (so far) conceit about Fatalism and its implications, a synergy of inter-narrated Socratic dialogue and fiction, a blend that seemed to work so well in RAMEAU’S NEPHEW by the same author. I think the only thing I can do is quote a good chunk of the opening passages below and then you will know exactly what Fiction Fate we are all contending with here, and whether you wish (or dare) to continue, and whether in fact I myself wish (or dare) to continue…
JACQUES THE FATALIST AND HIS MASTER
How had they met? By chance, like everybody else. What were their names? What’s it to you? Where were they coming from? From the nearest place. Where were they going? Does anyone really know where they’re going? What were they saying? The Master wasn’t saying anything, and Jacques was saying that his Captain used to say that everything that happens to us here below, for good and for ill, was written up there, on high.
Master. That’s saying a lot.
Jacques. My Captain also used to say that every bullet shot out of the barrel of a rifle had its billet.
Master. And he was quite right.
After a brief pause, Jacques exclaimed: ‘The innkeeper and his inn can go to hell!’
Master. Why would you want to see a fellow man consigned to Hell? It’s not Christian.
Jacques. Because while I’m getting drunk on his rotgut wine, I forget to water the horses. My father notices. He gets angry. I shrug my shoulders at him. He picks up a stick and lays it across my shoulders a touch hard. A regiment was passing on its way to camp at Fontenoy. I enlist out of pique. We reach our destination and battle commences…
Master. … and you stop the bullet that’s got your name on it.
Jacques. You guessed. Got it in the knee, and God knows what adventures, happy and unhappy, followed that shot. They all hang together exactly like the links in a chain, no more and no less. For instance, if it hadn’t been for that shot, I don’t think I’d ever have fallen in love, or walked with a limp.
Master. So you’ve been in love?
Jacques. Have I been in love!
Master. And all on account of a shot from a rifle?
Jacques. All on account of a shot from a rifle.
Master. You never mentioned it before.
Jacques. No, I don’t think I did.
Master. Why was that?
Jacques. Because it could not have been said before nor after this moment.
Master. And that moment has now come and you can speak of being in love?
Jacques. Who can tell?
Master. Take a chance. Make a start.
Jacques began to tell the story of his loves. It was after lunch. The weather was sultry. His Master nodded off. Night came upon them in the middle of nowhere: they were lost. The Master fell into a terrible rage and freely set about his servant with a whip and the poor devil said at every thwack: ‘That one was apparently written up there too…’
You see, Reader, I’m into my stride and I have it entirely in my power to make you wait a year, two years, three years, to hear the story of Jacques’s love affairs, by separating him from his Master and making the both of them undergo all the perils I please. What’s to prevent me marrying off the Master and telling you how his wife deceived him? or making Jacques take ship for the Indies? and sending his Master there? or bringing both of them back to France on the same vessel? How easy it is to make up stories! But I’ll let them off lightly with an uncomfortable night, and you with this delay.
The new day dawned. Now they’re on their horses again and on their way.
Where were they on their way to?
That’s the second time you’ve asked that question, and here’s the second time I answer: What’s it to you? If I get launched on the subject of their travels, you can kiss the story of Jacques’s love affairs goodbye. .. They rode on in silence for some time. When the both of them had got over their pique, the master said to his servant: ‘Well, Jacques, where were we up to with the tale of your loves?’
Jacques. I think we’d got to the rout of the enemy army. They run away, we run after them, it’s every man for himself. I stay put on the battlefield, buried under the dead and wounded who were very numerous. Next day, I was thrown into a cart along with a dozen others to be taken to one of our field hospitals. I tell you, sir, I’d say there’s no wound hurts more than a wound in the knee.
Master. Come, come, Jacques, don’t exaggerate.
Jacques. No, by God, I’m not exaggerating, sir. There are ever so many bones in the knee, and tendons and all sorts of bits and pieces they have names for, though I don’t know what they are.
A kind of country bumpkin who was following them on a horse, carrying a girl behind him, and had overheard them, now spoke up, saying: ‘The gentleman is quite right.’ No one knew at whom this ‘gentleman’ was aimed, but it went down very badly with both Jacques and his Master, and Jacques said to the tactless interloper: ‘Mind your own business.’
‘I am minding my own business. I’m a surgeon, your honours, and I shall now demonstrate…’
The woman riding behind him said: ‘Doctor, let’s be on our way and leave these gentlemen alone. They don’t want to have anything demonstrated to them.’
‘Certainly not,’ said the surgeon, ‘I intend to demonstrate and demonstrate I shall.’
Whereupon, turning round for the purpose of his demonstration, he jostles his passenger, makes her lose her balance, and tips her on to the ground where she lands with one foot caught in the tails of his coat, and her petticoats clean over her head. Jacques dismounts, frees the poor creature’s foot, and pulls her petticoats down. Actually, I couldn’t say if he started by pulling her petticoats down or by freeing her foot, but if we can judge the state of the woman by the shrieks she uttered, she had hurt herself quite badly. Jacques’s master said to the surgeon:
‘See where demonstrating gets you!’
And the surgeon replied: ‘See what happens when you won’t let people demonstrate!’
And Jacques told the woman, who was either still lying where she had fallen or had been set on her feet again: ‘Cheer up, girl, it’s not your fault, nor the doctor’s, nor mine, nor my master’s, because it was written up above that today, on this road, at this very hour, the doctor would shoot his mouth off, my master and I would behave very rudely, you would get a knock on the head, and we’d all get a glimpse of your backside.’
What couldn’t I make of this episode if the fancy took me to reduce you to tears! I’d make the woman someone important: I’d make her the niece of the curé of the nearest village, I’d rouse all the men in the parish, I’d get ready to show lots of fighting and sex, for, truth to tell, the girl was very shapely under those nether garments, as Jacques and his Master had noticed. Love never wanted a better opportunity! Why shouldn’t Jacques fall in love a second time? Why shouldn’t he turn out a second time to be the rival—even the preferred rival—of his Master?
You mean it had happened once already?
You’re always asking questions! Don’t you want Jacques to go on with the tale of his loves? You’d better let me know, once and for all: is that or is that not what you would like? If it’s what you want, let’s get the girl back up on the horse behind the surgeon, send them on their way, and return to our two travellers
Pages 10 – 19
The Master-Jacques dialogue and its reported action become a mixture of metafiction (narrative collusion with or treachery against you, the reader), pain-empathy, love and lust, cuckolding and pragmatism, as we try to SET-TLE into this text’s retrocausality in the way perhaps Mynheer Peeperkorn from another book might have tried to settle into it.
Itching ears, damaged knees, doorstepping in an 18th century form of kerb-crawling, I keep my powder dry before having got stuck into reading many more pages of this amazing tract. ‘Tom Jones’ as an anti-novel and Canetti’s ‘Crowds and Power’ with meat-emptied chicken-bones.
Pages 19 – 22
In case you don’t yet realise as a reader quite what you’ve got yourself into, and you don’t believe that this is turning out to be quite beyond anything I’ve read before (the nearest probably being Rhys Hughes and Sterne’s ‘Tristram Shandy’), I am going to give you another large chunk of text below. Once you’ve read this second large chunk, your fate will be decided. So think carefully about what company I may be getting you into, melding mind with mind. And also note that Jacques often sees things that happen to him “As written on high” – well, take that whichever way you want, I guess!
And then they immediately launched into an interminable argument about women, one saying they were good and kind, the other that they were spiteful and nasty, and they were both right. One said stupid, the other said intelligent, and they were both right. One said deceitful, the other loyal, and they were both right. One said tight-fisted, the other said generous, and they were both right. One said attractive, the other said ugly, and they were both right. One said they gossiped, the other that they were discreet; one said candid, the other two-faced; one said they knew nothing, the other that they knew a great deal; one said chaste, the other said promiscuous; one said mad, the other sane; one said they were tall and the other said they were short—and they were both right.
After this argument, with which they could have circled the globe without running out of things to say or agreeing, they were overtaken by a storm which obliged them to hurry on their way…
Where? Reader, you and your curiosity are terrible nuisances. What’s it matter to you? If I said Pontoise or Saint-Germain, or Notre Dame de Lorette or Saint Jacques of Compostella, would you be any the wiser? If you insist, I’ll tell you they were making their way towards… yes, why not?… towards a huge castle over the gate of which was written this inscription: ‘I belong to no one. I belong to everyone. You were here before you arrived and you will still be here when you’ve gone.’
And did they go inside the castle?
No. Because unless what was written was wrong, they were already there before they arrived.
But at least they left?
No. Because unless what was written was wrong, they were still inside after they’d gone.
What did they do there?
Jacques said what it was written on high he would say, and his Master said whatever he liked, and they were both right.
What sort of company did they find inside?
What did people say?
Some truth and a lot of lies.
Were there any clever people?
Where are there not clever people? There were also a lot of people asking impertinent, tomfool questions whom everybody avoided like the plague. What shocked Jacques and his Master most the whole time they walked around…
So they walked around?
That’s all anybody did, except when they were sitting or in bed. What shocked Jacques and his Master most was to discover that a score of rogues had taken over the best rooms where they stayed all the time, on top of each other. They claimed, against both common law and the true sense of the inscription, that the castle had been bequeathed exclusively to them as their property. With the backing of a handful of fat-arses in their pay, they had imposed this view on a large number of other fat-arses who were also in their pay, that is, who were ready for a small sum to hang or murder anyone who dared contradict them. Even so, at the time Jacques and his Master were there, some were still bold enough to do just that.
Were they punished for it?
Depends on what you mean.
Now you’ll say I’ve gone off at a tangent and that, not knowing what next to do with my travellers, I’ve lurched into allegory, which is the common refuge of arid minds. Very well. I’ll draw a line under my allegory, and for you I’ll sacrifice all the rich implications I could pick out of it, I’ll agree to anything you want—but only on condition that you won’t make my life a misery any more by arguing about where Jacques and his Master finally passed the night, about whether they got to a large town and slept with whores, or spent it with an old friend who gave them a right royal welcome, or took refuge in a hostel of mendicant friars where they were given an uncomfortable room and were put on short commons for the love of God, or stayed in a grand country house where they lacked the bare necessities in the midst of stunning opulence, or whether the next morning they debouched from an expensive inn where they were made to pay through the nose for a meagre dinner served on silver plates and a night spent in beds with musty damask curtains and damp, creased sheets, or whether they were given hospitality by a village priest as poor as the mice in his church, who scuttled around his parishioners’ backyards scrounging the wherewithal to give them an omelette and a fricasseed chicken, or whether they got drunk on excellent wines, ate a sumptuous dinner, and went down with terrible indigestion in a rich Cistercian abbey. For although any and all of this might seem possible to you, Jacques did not think so: the only possibility was what was written up there, on high. But what is true is that from whatever location you choose for them to put their best foot forward, they’d not got twenty yards before the Master (who nevertheless, according to his custom, had taken his pinch of snuff) said to Jacques: ‘Well now, Jacques, and what about the tale of your loves?’
Instead of answering, Jacques cried: ‘The hell with the tale of my loves! I’ve gone and left…
Master. What have you left?
Instead of answering, Jacques turned all his pockets out and searched everywhere, but in vain. He had left their travelling wallet under the head of his bed, and no sooner did he confess as much to his Master when his Master cried: ‘The hell with the tale of your loves! I’ve gone and left my watch hanging from the mantelpiece!’
Jacques did not wait to be asked twice but immediately turned his horse round and resumed his steady pace, for he was never in a hurry, and returned to…
The great big castle?
Certainly not. Just go back to the different possible and not-possible locations in the list aforementioned and choose whichever you think best suits the circumstances.
Meanwhile, the Master continued on his way, which meant that Master and servant were separated and I’m damned if I know which of them I want to stick with. If you want to go with Jacques, you’d better be warned: looking for the wallet and the watch might turn out to be such a long and complicated business that it might be ages and ages before he joins up again with his Master, the only person he’ll confide in, and then you can say goodbye to the story of his loves. If you ditch him and let him go off by himself to look for the wallet and the watch and decide to accompany the Master, then your manners would be perfect, but you’d be very bored: you have no idea what the man’s really like. There’s not a great deal going on in his head. If he happens to say something sensible, it’s either because he’s remembered something someone else said or has blurted it out on the spur of the moment, without thinking. He has two eyes just like you and me, but most of the time you can’t tell if he’s using them to look with. He’s not asleep but he’s not quite awake either. He just exists—that’s his normal state— like an automaton. He rode on, turning round from time to time to see if Jacques was coming. He dismounted and walked. He remounted, proceeded for a mile, dismounted again and sat on the ground, with his horse’s reins looped round his arms and his head resting in both hands. When he got tired of this position, he got up and looked into the distance to see if he could make out Jacques. No Jacques. Then he lost patience and, none too sure if he were talking out loud or not, said: ‘The villain! the dog! the knave! Where’s he got to? What’s he up to? Does it take this long to fetch a wallet and a watch? I’ll tan your hide, that’s for sure, I’ll give you a damned good leathering!’ Then he felt for his watch in his waistcoat pocket but it wasn’t there, and went to pieces, for without his watch, without his snuffbox, and without Jacques, he didn’t know which way to turn, for they were the three mainsprings of his life, which he spent taking snuff, looking to see what time it was, and asking Jacques questions, though not necessarily in that order. Deprived of his watch, he was therefore reduced to his snuffbox which he kept opening and shutting all the time, just as I do when I’m bored. The amount of snuff left in my snuffbox each night is in direct proportion to how much I’ve enjoyed myself during the day, or alternatively the inverse of my boredom. I do urge you, Reader, to familiarize yourself with these terms which are borrowed from geometry, because I find them precise and shall make extensive use of them.
Well? Had enough of the Master? Since the servant is not coming to us, shall we go to him? Poor Jacques! Even as we speak, he was woefully exclaiming: ‘So it was written on high that on the same day I’d not only be arrested for highway robbery and on the point of being marched off to jail, but also be accused of seducing a young woman!’
Having slept on this book up to page 22, it seems to be a cross between enjoyable Absurdist fiction and a very complex approach to Free Will, not only Diderot’s presumably then relevant 18th century approach to Free Will, but also a retrocausality (stemming from a modern day fashion of Antinatalism) regarding Fatalism and Natalism. Also, there is factored-in Astrological considerations and other arguably determinist divinations (about which I recently explained my views here) as well as Biblical and/or Philosophical debates, as seen through the eyes of, say, a Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, as if such brainstorming may reach the truth more readily than serious study will reach it. All speculation at the moment.
I confirm that I am reading nothing ABOUT this book (including the notes and introduction within the publication and translation I’m using) until I have finished this real-time review.
Meanwhile is ‘to be written up on high’ as a result of Synchronicity or Cause-and-Effect I ask?
Sculpture by Tony Lovell
Pages 22 – 32
“We think we are in charge of our destiny, but it’s always Destiny that’s in charge of us, and destiny for Jacques was everything which concerned or came into contact with him — his horse, his Master, a monk, a dog, a woman, a mule, a rook.”
…plus the picaresque adventures, thieveries and scrapes, misunderstandings, undeserved repercussions, good intentions etc. not only of what happens to others in this narrative but also of the narrative itself in which its reader (you or me) is explicitly entwined by actual conversation with the (unreliable?) narrator or with the (reliable?) author himself. The card-sharp that is either a gambler or a writer. “If a man doesn’t have genius, then he shouldn’t try to write.”
What are we dealing with here? EITHER Metafiction as a way to transcend existentialism and foster hope by paradoxically exposing Destiny for all to see OR a Ligottian Cathrianism bubbling under the surface and then reaching out to subsume us all within the synchronised shards of random truth and fiction?
THIS REAL-TIME REVIEW NOW CONTINUES HERE
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