Kevin's Week Two: the Blind and Insane (or maybe they're just actors)

What was really striking in week two as a thread to pursue was Denis Diderot's The Paradox of Acting, which so full of discussion of how to affect an audience through gesture. This cracks open several interesting threads about Diderot, like this almost Platonist vision of a pure concept of character that an actor imitates, at least a good one. At the same time he is anything but a Platonist, writing dramas that are so specific to their time and place, and above all celebrating imitation as a route to universal truths.

This tied in with some strange things I found while digging for sources on Diderot (who turned out to be surprisingly slippery) about his indirect role in the development of Louis Braille's school for the blind, by virtue of taking a very well-traveled philosophical puzzler about a blind man learning to see and framing it in terms of a specific blind man who may or may not have been a real acquaintance of Diderot's. I initially abandoned this as a curiosity, but keep returning to it as a sign of how the specific and universal are curiously linked in Diderot's philosophy, and the didactic impulse Diderot seems to believe in based on the Paradox of Acting.

More interesting on this same line was the problem between Rousseau and Diderot regarding the possibility of distorting rather than uncovering truth when presenting images on stage. Ankersmit, who I cited in our main blog entry, describes this in terms of a larger sense of shifting identities in society, and a belief in that society that nothing about a human being was actually fixed as a deeper identity that could be probed by psychoanalysts. This drove Rousseau a bit batty, but it seems to tie into the social changes we have discussed, where spaces and roles can be redefined.

Every thing about Diderot seems to be frustrating, where one thread seems promising but then it becomes impossible to get a firm grip on that particular idea and find anything that supports it, or how it might relate to other threads of the discussion. Half the time it's even contradictory, but hopefully, to paraphrase Joseph Conrad, I am finding a dim haze in Diderot's view of acting that may bind everything together.

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Kevin,

Glad that you found Paradox of Acting so interesting. This is a great text to get at the heart of the theory behind Diderot's bourgeois drama.

Interesting and random connection to Louis Braille! These are the sort of golden coins a historian really likes - connections that you did not anticipate but are really fascinating.

I'm sorry that the reserach on Diderot is so frustrating. Hopefully, things are coalescing a little bit since you have such great sources for research. I like your use of Conrad's quote, but don't think that there will necessarily be something that ties everything together. Maybe Diderot's theory on acting simply doesn't make sense to you (meaning you disagree with it). If that's the case, it doesn't mean you're wrong, it means that you are detecting something different in how the two of you appraoch theatre. Hopefully, this allows you to question your own assumptions and beliefs about the art.

Great work on these so far!

Bryan

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