A Warning to Those with more Taste than Money
This, one of Diderot’s most light-hearted pieces, was written as a note of thanks to Madame Geoffrin, a wealthy patron who had sent him a new dressing gown along with some pictures and ornate furniture in return for his help in the matter of a troublesome inheritance. Diderot was used to living simply, if not frugally, and he pretends to foresee dire consequences for his moral welfare in the redecoration of his study. In this short piece, the most genial of the philosophes puts his finger on the modern problem of “affluenza”—keeping up with the Joneses. The Diderot Syndrome seems more acute than ever now that cognitive expansion and wealth creation appear to go hand in glove. Regrets sur ma Vieille Robe de Chambre was first published as a small octavo brochure in 1772.
Why didn’t I hold on to it? It was used to me, I to it. It fitted the folds of my body snugly yet loosely; shabby-genteel it might have been but it was also handsome. The new one I’ve acquired is starchy and rigid; it makes me looks like a tailor’s dummy. The old one used to lend itself complaisantly to any demands I made of it, the way the poor are almost always obliging. If a book was rimed with dust, one of the flaps of my old dressing gown served to wipe it clean. If the ink was too clotted to run out of my pen, there was its hem to clean the nib. You could tell how often it had rendered me this service by the long black lines it bore. Those long lines said: this is a man of letters, a writer, an honest toiler. Now I look like a rich poseur, and nobody could tell what I do.
In the protection of my old dressing gown I had no reason to fear a clumsy servant or my own sloppiness. Nor did I have to worry about sparks from the fire or the odd splash of water. I was absolute master of my old dressing gown; I’ve become slave to the new one.
The dragon that kept watch over the golden fleece was no more uneasy than I am: now I go about in a cloud of concern.
An infatuated old man who has delivered himself, bound hands and feet, to the mercy and whims of a light-headed young mistress, repeats to himself, from morning to night, Where is my good old servant, my old housekeeper? What devil laid a curse on me the day I drove her away for the sake of this flibbertigibbet? Then he gets moist-eyed, and heaves a sigh.
Well, I’m not weeping, nor am I sighing; but I keep telling myself: a plague on the rogue who discovered how to jack up the price of a piece of ordinary cloth by dyeing it scarlet! And a curse on any piece of clothing I have to bow down to! Give me back my humble, comfortable old scrap of a toga!
Friends, hold on to your old friends. Friends, fear the hand of sudden wealth! Let my example be a lesson to you. Poverty never has to meet appearances; wealth is always obliged to.
Diogenes, if you could see your disciple now, dressed up in Aristippus’ ostentatious cloak, how you’d laugh! Aristippus—how low did you have to stoop to acquire your cloak? How can I possibly compare your flaccid, effeminate, servile mode of life with the robustly free existence of the ragamuffin cynic? I’ve abandoned the tub of which I was lord and master only to be vassal to a tyrant.
Nor is that the end of it, my friends. Listen, and I’ll tell you what a ruin luxury has made of my life since I went in pursuit of it.
My old dressing gown was all of a piece with the other odds and ends that surrounded me. A straw-seated chair, a rough wooden deal table, a cheap Bergamo tapestry, a plank of pine that served as a bookshelf, a few unframed prints yellowed with smoke and tacked to the tapestry by their corners; and three or four plaster casts that hung between the prints—together with my old dressing gown these elements created an impression of cheerful poverty.
Now the harmony is gone. Now there is no unity, no beauty, and none of it fits together.
One can expect trouble when a barren old maid takes over the running of a pastor’s house, or indeed when any woman crosses the threshold of a widower’s house. One can expect trouble too when a cabinet minister takes over the post of a disgraced predecessor, or when a Molinist prelate takes over the diocese of a Jansenist—but all that is nothing like the trouble caused by this scarlet gate-crasher.
I can look at a peasant woman without recoiling. I take no umbrage at the shawl of coarse cloth that covers her head, at the loose strands of hair that fall across her cheeks, at the tattered rags that barely cover her frame, at the short threadbare skirt that comes only halfway up her legs, or at her bare, mud-caked feet. All these are the outward signs of a state that I respect; they are the disfigurings of a condition that is wretched but unavoidable, and I feel sorry for her. But my hackles rise at the sight of an elegant courtesan with her curls coiffed in the English manner, and I walk away from her, gaze averted, however much perfume she might be trailing behind, even as her torn sleeves, dirty silk stockings and worn shoes attest to the fact that yesterday’s high life keeps company with today’s squalor.
My house would have taken on this appearance had the imperious scarlet robe not forced everything else to conform to its imperious tone.
I watched the Bergamo tapestry give up its place on the wall where it had been hanging for so long to make room for a damask curtain.
Two prints that were not without merit—Poussin’s Shower of Manna in the Wilderness and his Esther before the Throne of King Ahasuerus—were shamefully banished, one (the sad Esther) usurped by a Rubens portrait of an old man, the other by Vernet’s After the Storm.
The straw-seated chair has been relegated to the vestibule, its place taken by an armchair in Moroccan leather.
Homer, Virgil, Horace and Cicero have taken their weight off the slender plank of pine that used to bow under their burden and are now shut up in a marquetry bookcase, an exile of which they are more deserving than I am.
A huge mirror takes up the space above the mantelpiece.
The two fine plaster heads that were presented to me in honour of our friendship by the sculptor Falconnet, and which he had repaired himself, have been seen off by a statuette of Venus stooping. Modern clay has been broken by ancient bronze.
Only the wooden table held its own, shielded by the heap of pamphlets and papers which were piled high on top of it. This disorder seemed likely to protect it for some time against the threat which hung over it. My usual laziness notwithstanding, fate descended on it one day: the books and papers are now arrayed in neat rows in an expensive new bookcase.
Wanting to be respectable is a disastrous instinct! Fine manners have been the downfall of many a person; sublime good taste is fickle; it changes, it discards, it builds up, it throws down; it empties the family coffers and daughters have to be married off without a dowry, sons to make their way in the world without a schooling. Manners produce many fine things, and many evils too. It has put this fatally pretentious desk in the place of my old wooden table, just as the same taste for luxury brings great nations to their knees; and one day soon it may well bring my last goods and chattels to the flea-markets on the Pont St. Michel where the auctioneer will bark out in his hoarse voice, Who’ll offer me twenty louis d’or for a Stooping Venus?
The remaining space between the top of my new desk and Vernet’s storm, which hangs directly above it, was displeasing to the eye on account of its blankness. This blank space has now been occupied by a pendulum clock—and what a clock it is! There sits Mme. Geoffrin’s solid ormolu clock.
There was also an empty corner beside the window. This corner cried out for a writing desk, which is what it got.
But a disagreeable stretch of bare wall still remained between the flap of the writing desk and the splendid portrait by Rubens; this has been filled by two small paintings done by La Grenée.
Over here is a Mary Magdalene by the same artist; over there a sketch by Vien or Machy—you see, I’ve indulged in a few sketches too. And so a philosopher’s sober retreat was turned into the scandalous prospect of a publican. This is how I insult the poor of the nation.
Of my former modest circumstances I’ve kept but one article: an old braid carpet. This shabby carpet, I can see all too well, hardly fits with my other refinements. But I’ve sworn, and I swear again, that this carpet shall remain where it is: the feet of Denis the Philosopher will never wear out one of La Savonnerie’s masterpieces. I will keep my old rug, just as a peasant summoned from his cottage to serve in the king’s palace brings his old wooden clogs along with him. Every morning when I come into my study robed in sumptuous scarlet I shall chance to look down, and there I’ll see my old braid carpet. It will remind of me of how I used to live, and pride will halt at the entrance to my heart.
No, my friend, no: I haven’t been corrupted. My door is still open to anyone in need who seeks me out; he will find me as friendly as ever. I will listen to his story, give him advice, help him, and show him my sympathy. My heart hasn’t hardened; my head hasn’t swelled; my spine holds firm. I’m still the plain-talker, and my feelings haven’t changed a jot. My luxurious way of life is new to me, and the poison has yet to take effect. But who can tell what time will bring? What can be expected of a man who has forgotten his wife and daughter, who has run up debts, who has ceased to be a husband and father, and who, instead of stowing away a small sum away at the bottom of a solid trunk…
Ah, holy prophet! Lift up your arms to heaven and pray for a soul in distress. Say to the Almighty: if by dint of one of your eternal decrees the heart of Denis is to be corrupted by wealth, spare not the masterpieces which he worships—destroy them, and consign him to his original poverty For my part I shall say: O God! I accept the biddings of the prophet’s prayer, and your will. I relinquish all my treasures! Take them all—all, that is, except the Vernet. Oh, leave me nothing if only my Vernet! It was no human hand which made it, but your eternal artistry. Spare the gift of a friend and your own handiwork! Look at that lighthouse, look at the tower to the right, beyond it; look at that ancient wind-torn tree. What a beautiful arrangement of solid forms! Below that dark region, look at the rocks covered with greenery. They are painted just as your mighty hand must have shaped them, just as your benevolent hand carpeted them. Look at that uneven slope that falls away from the foot of the rocks to the sea. It is the very image of the defacements which you have allowed time to make in the most solid things of your creation. Would the scene have looked any different if your sun had shone on it? God! If it is your will to destroy this work of art, we will know that you are truly a jealous god! Take pity on the poor people scattered here and there on the bank. Is it not enough that they have had to look into the very abyss? Have you saved them simply to cast them away again? Listen to the prayer of this man here who is thanking you. Succour this one who is attempting to gather up the pathetic remnants of his fortune. Close your ears to the curses of that madman—poor devil, he had staked everything on handsome returns from the voyage; he had already thought out a comfortable retirement; this was to have been his last voyage. He calculated the size of his capital scores of times on his fingers during the voyage. He had planned how he was going to put it to good use—and now all his hopes have been dashed: he has barely enough left to clothe his naked frame. Let your compassion be moved by the tenderness of this husband and wife. Regard the terror you have inspired in the poor woman. She is thanking you for the evil it has pleased you not to inflict. Meanwhile, her child, too young to know the danger to which you have exposed him, and his father and mother, is busying himself with his faithful travelling companion: he is buckling on the dog’s collar. Have mercy on this innocent child! Look at this other mother who has just reached firm land with her husband. She is trembling not for herself, but for fear of what might have happened to her child. See how she squeezes it to her bosom, and covers it with kisses. God! Acknowledge the waters which you have created. Acknowledge them, when they are stirred up by your breath, and when they are stilled by your hand. Acknowledge these dark clouds which you brought together but a moment ago, and which it has pleased you to disperse. Already they are beginning to disband and drift off into the distance: already the day-star is glimmering upon the face of the waters. Red sky at night: it will be calm. How far away it is, that horizon! The sky doesn’t come to meet the sea at all; instead it seems as if the sky descends below the surface of the sea and curves around the globe. Banish the clouds that still remain; restore the sea to complete tranquillity. Allow these sailors to get their capsized vessel afloat again; aid their work and give them strength—and allow me my picture. Allow it to remain with me as the scourge of my human vanity. I’ve already heard that people come here to see not me, but my picture. So much for my pearls of wisdom: it’s Vernet they come to admire. The artist has humiliated the philosopher.
So my friend—what a fine Vernet I have! The subject: the end of a storm in which no life has been lost. The waves are still running high; the sky still decked with clouds; the sailors are busy trying to float their ship again; the local people are running down to the shore from the nearby hills. How discerning this artist is! He has used only a small number of figures to convey every aspect of the situation at the chosen moment. How true to life it all is! How he has applied every touch with grace, fluency and purpose! I mean to keep this token of his friendship as long as I live, and I want my son-in-law to hand it down to his children, and they to theirs.
If you could see for yourself what a harmonious piece this is, viewed as a whole; how one effect is inseparable from another; how they are all achieved without strain or ostentation; how the mountains at the right dissolve into the clouds; how magnificent are the cliffs and the structures that cling to them; how picturesque this tree is; how light plays on the sloping ground and then fades gradually into shadow; how the figures are arranged, so naturally, and full of vitality and motion; how they draw the spectator’s gaze; the strength with which they are painted; the purity of line that captures their form; the way they stand out from their setting; the vast expanse of space revealed; the verisimilitude of the water; the clouds, the sky, the horizon! Here, in a reversal of the convention, the foreground is brightly lit and the background left in shadow. Do come and see my Vernet, but don’t try to take it with you!
In time I shall pay off my debts, and my sense of guilt will be less sharp. Then I shall be able to take undisguised joy in my possessions. Rest easy: I haven’t fallen victim to the frenzy that drives men to accumulate beautiful things. My set of friends is much as it used to be, their number remains constant. Laïs is mine, but I’m not hers. Contented in her arms, I’m ready to yield her up to someone I care for, provided she would make him happier than she makes me.
And, if I whisper my secret into your ear, Laïs, who sells her favours to others at such a steep price, didn’t cost me a penny.
Denis Diderot, Regrets sur Ma Vieille Robe de Chambre ou Avis à ceux qui ont plus de goût que de fortune, 1772. Translated from the French by Iain Bamforth, and first published in PN Review 138, 2001.
© Iain Bamforth.
Note: Laïs of Corinth is the notorious Greek courtesan, one of the most alluring women of her time. Diderot is referring to Aulus Gellius, who informs us that men smitten with her beauty would pay fabulous sums to spend the night with her. Her consorts included the pleasure-loving sophist Aristippus, who in contrast to his master Socrates sold his philosophical skills to all bidders in order to maintain his extravagant lifestyle. Tradition has generally held him in contempt.