The uses of aberrant literacy: Delisle de sales and a "manuscript" of Plato,

Romanic Review,  May 1998  by Grieshaber, Verene


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Marginal figures of the Enlightenment not only project their own negative transparencies but, like those of any period, help us see the period as a whole, warts and all. If nothing of the polymathic "philosophe" Delisle de Sales, had survived but his tale of receiving from Rousseau, in safekeeping, a precious parcel containing a manuscript of Plato's Republic, this image alone would make us value him, with all it shows of the emotional impact, at that time, of philosophical exchanges that spanned the centuries. But the story of the manuscript does more, allowing us to decipher, in the form of an intellectual genealogy, the inscription of the Enlightenment's daydream of being, in one's own right, an ideal legislator.

De la Philosophie de la Nature was Delisle de Sales's major success and is said to have been published seven times, between 1770 and 1804.2 Each of the four editions I have consulted differs in some degree from the others, especially in their introductions and preliminaries. A striking feature of the text is the series of "contes philosophiques", interspersed among the author's interpretations of Enlightenment writings. The seventh edition ( 1804) features an introductory text entitled "Histoire de la decouverte de quelques fragments de manuscrits antiques qui ont servi de base a la Philosophie de la nature". A slightly different version of this "Histoire" had already appeared in 1793 in a completely different work, Eponine ou de la Republique, where it bore the title of "Histoire de la Decouverte du Manuscrit d'Eponine".3

Although de Sales is relatively unknown today, he had a wide circle of acquaintance in his time, corresponding with Voltaire amongst others. It was Voltaire who told him: "Vous allez vous faire un grand nom dans la litterature."4 This proved to be optimistic. Voltaire was one of the few who found him to be "plein de bon sens". The description in Querard's bibliography is reasonably impressive: philosopher, historian, and "membre de l'Institut, classe des inscriptions et des belles lettres", but de Sales's chances of being taken seriously for his work are much diminished by his sheer prolixity and his habit of writing anonymously or under such fanciful pseudonyms as Henry Ophellot de La Pause, Emmanuel Ralph and Nepomucene Frankental.

His introduction to the Philosophie de la Nature suggests that he did not necessarily consider himself to be a philosopher: "II n'y a que deux sortes d'ecrivains qui puissent attaquer mon principe: les philosophes avec leur sens moral, et les theologiens avec leur peche originel."5 We would concur with this suggestion. De Sales is, rather, a poet, in Plato's sense: one who substitutes his illusions for empirical reality as well as for philosophical truth. De Sales's world of discourse consists of an endless series of collapsable boxes, a mingling of past and present that makes history ahistorical. His writing disregards the reader's need for a logical, continuous thread. He creates a filiation which is entirely his own. Even though the Philosophie de la Nature can at times be very sound, he inserts throughout little stories or mythic fragments which seem more like projections of his imagination. The mises en abyme generated might be considered devices for expressing ideas in the form of folklore. We are reminded of Baltrusaitis's observation that "le conte s'inspire directement d'une machine catoptrique".6 This "hall of mirrors" quality is particularly in evidence in the "Histoire du manuscrit".

The story starts with a teasing confession: "J'etais tres lie (...) avec l'immortel Jean-Jacques, que je ne vis jamais." We are told that Delisle de Sales corresponded regularly with Rousseau,7 and that on 24 February 1776, the day Rousseau left his Dialogues on the altar of Notre-Dame, Delisle de Sales received a parcel from him, with instructions not to open it until five years after his death.

Rousseau having died on 2 July 1778, Delisle de Sales undid the parcel's wrapping on the fifth anniversary of this date, at the privileged site of Rousseau-pilgrimage, the Ile des Peupliers at Ermenonville. It contained, not the Dialogues, but another parcel, apparently given to Rousseau by Fontenelle (1657-1757).8 On this second parcel the latter had written: "On menace d'une mort cruelle le depositaire indiscret qui ouvrira ce manuscrit." Delisle de Sales, undaunted, removed the second wrapping and discovered that Fontenelle (aged at most 5 years old) had received the parcel from Pascal (1623-1662), who himself had it from Galileo (1564-1642), who had received it from Montaigne (1533-1592). Montaigne had it from the "fou philosophe" Rabelais (1495-1553), who (according to de Sales), when in Italy with du Bellay, probably became a friend of Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494), since it was he who bequeathed the manuscript to him. It had been bequeathed, again impossibly, to Pico by Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459).9

The non-correspondence of dates is beginning to spoil the story, not least when Delisle de Sales takes the trouble to specify that the last two men were friends. Yet, elsewhere, he is not unaware of chronological time. In the introduction (which does not contain the story of the manuscript) of the 1791 edition of Ma Republique, de Sales writes: "La seule objection specieuse que le savant pourrait faire regarde un point de chronologie. (. . .) En verite peu importe dans un ouvrage sur l'architecture generale des lois, qu'il s'y glisse un si futile anachronisme." We can appreciate how such a procedure, "donnant la vie a l'irreel par un detail precis", gives the reader an impression of truth.10

Poggio was, then, a great friend of Boccaccio (1313-1375), who had given him the parcel with the following warning: "Si Le Pogge, mon ami, voulait courir le danger d'etre pile vif dans un mortier de bronze, il romprait ce cachet; et comme il ne tenterait sans doute cet exploit que dans le dessein d'obeir a la dame de ses pensees, j'en ferais un des heros de mon Decameron." Boccaccio had received it in exchange for a map from Abu al-fida (1273-1331), an historian and geographer king who had received it from the historian Abu al faraj (1226-1286). Abu al faraj had it from the poet Sa'adi (-1184-1291) who had received it, in exchange for one of his poems, from the rabbi Maimonides (1135-1204), who had bought it from the starving poet Tzetzes (-1110-1180). The latter had it from Avicenna (980-1037), the doctor, who had received it from a patient, Suidas (eleventh century), who had found the manuscript in the monastery where Photius (-815-891) died, having left it there to be found.

Before Photius, the manuscript had been in the hands of Alcuin (735-804), Charlemagne's friend and founder of the University of Paris, who had received it from his friend Callinicus (died 673), the inventor of Greek fire, who believed that all the knowledge of his century and those preceding it was on the manuscript, but that he himself did not need it, as nobody had anything to teach him. Callinicus had received it as part of the dowry of his wife Athena*s, who was the daughter of John Philoponus (seventh century). John Philoponus was a scholar who had befriended General Amrutl(600-663), sent in by Caliph Omar to convert Egypt to the Coran. When John had asked Amru whether he could have the library of Alexandria, Omar gave his famous answer: "Si les livres de cette bibliotheque ne renferment que ce qui est deja dans le Coran, il faut les bruler comme inutiles; s'ils lui sont contraires, il faut les bruler comme sacrileges." The books were all burnt but for some that John managed to steal, "au depens de mon turban et de mes cheveux". Amru published an order that anyone who tried to save any of the books, or even to read one of them, would be pounded alive in a bronze mortar, the threat evoked by Boccaccio.

Delisle de Sales had now reached the last wrapping, inside which he found a number of scrolls. The first one was called "De la Philosophie en regard avec la nature", and the few passages he managed to read were to inspire him to write his Philosophie de la Nature; chronology is again at issue here, since he had first published this work thirteen years before apparently reading these manuscripts.l2 The second scroll was about a "Voyage d'Epimenide" by Anacharsis, written in Scythes.13 He gave it to be translated to the abbe Barthelemy.l4 He also found two other works in ancient Greek: "Les douze surprises de Pythagore" and the "Histoire de l'hermaphrodite Tiresias", as well as the "Roman philosophique d'Orondal" in Sanskrit, and a three-part manuscript on Socrates in modern The last scroll was in Greek, entitled "Platonos Politeion", Plato's Republic,l6 and was handwritten by Plato himself. Delisle de Sales claims not to have been very interested at first, as he had "ni egoisme, ni bibliotheque".17 He then noticed that the manuscript was annotated throughout in various handwritings.

In a preface addressed by Plato to his daughter Eponine, we learn that he had made two copies of the Republic, inserting some papyrus sheets in them to receive annotations, and that one of these copies was to be given to the first of Eponine's sons to show some spark of genius, and who therefore should be called Plato. The second copy was to be given to the first daughter to evince grace and a loving soul, who would be called Eponine. The manuscripts should pass to successive generations of Platos and Eponines, each of whom should write on the interleaved papyri until they were fully annotated. And only then:

Un peuple, perdu dans la nuit des ages futurs, pourra s'honorer d'avoir donne le jour a un nouveau disciple de Socrate. Ce disciple (. . .) sera le philosophe, qui, maitre de mes deux manuscrits, en reunira toutes les lumieres eparses en un seul foyer; (. . .) et ce philosophe se nommera Platon; car (...) quel autre que Platon oserait refaire ma republique?

Thus it was that Delisle de Sales received the Eponinian manuscripts, spanning six hundred years and containing the notes of eighteen Eponines, or more exactly: "Ces notes portaient d'ordinaire l'empreinte du genie de chaque petite fille de Platon, ou plutot de l'6poux que son coeur avait choisi; car, dans l'age de l'amour, il est rare qu'une femme sensible soit longtemps elle-meme."

The first Eponine only wrote a few lines, first mourning her father and then commenting on the political situation. The second Eponine married Demosthenes. She starts writing to mourn her husband, who died by poisoning. The third and fourth Eponines did nothing. A century later, the fifth Eponine wrote on the tomb of her husband Archimedes. This Eponine is very vehement, and Delisle de Sales apologizes on her She left the country in search of an empire where everyone would be powerless before the law. 130 years later, Eponine X, who married Sima Qian, the "Herodotus of China", writes that Eponine V went all the way to China on a Phenician boat. This was the perfect empire and Eponine X writes in lengthy praise of it and its patriarchal qualities. But Eponine XI wanted to go back to Rome, where she was to become the poet Lucretius's lover. Lucretius was murdered by a jealous woman with a love potion. Eponine XI, following in the footsteps of her lover, also writes poems, which, by some miracle, manage to rhyme in French translation and to be entirely in alexandrines. Eponine XV went to Gaul and married Sabinus.19 She was executed by Vespasian. This Eponine did not believe in perfect governments, since man is not perfect. The last Eponine lived in Alexandria and married Lucian, the "Voltaire of antiquity". As she loved him, "elle prit aisement la teinte de son esprit", and wrote a dialogue between Spartacus and Lycurgus on the subject of freedom. They initially disagree about everything, until they both admit their mistakes.

With this the Eponine genealogy ends, but as five hundred years intervene between the last Eponine and the burning of the library, Delisle de Sales concludes that Lucian's delicate health, combined with the intensity of intellectual work, contributed to the sterility of their union. So, when Eponine died, leaving no children, Lucian gave the manuscript to the library. Delisle de Sales adds: "Telle est l'histoire fidele du manuscrit, que je tiens de la vertueuse misanthropie de l'auteur d'Emile: les sages qui me connaissent, savent que je ne l'ai point embellie."

Wanting to find the other half of the manuscript, Delisle de Sales looked for it in Greece, since it was presumably in the possession of an eighteenthcentury male descendant of Plato. But he will not yet tell us the story, saying that it will appear in the last part of De la Philosophie de la Nature:20

Je ne dirai point, en ce moment, comment le manuscrit pour lequel j'ai vingt fois expose ma vie, est tombe en mon pouvoir: je ne parlerai point du vieillard venerable, dont les entretiens sublimes ont, pendant deux ans, electrise ma pensee: je m'abstiendrai meme de depeindre I'heroine que le sage fit naitre.

The story is unfolded in Eponine, where Plato and his daughter encounter many adventures. In the seventh edition of the Philosophie de la Nature, Delisle de Sales inserts another of his works, De la Philosophie du bonheur, where we find the last Plato telling his story. It differs from the one told in Eponine. De Sales closes his introduction to De la Philosophie du bonheur with the words "Platon est heureux". In a similar manner, the title of the manuscript story, "Histoire de la decouverte de quelques fragments de manuscrits antiques qui ont servi de base a La Philosophie de la nature", had been quite misleading, the emphasis being on Plato's manuscript rather than the one suggested.

The collection of stories within stories in this text leaves us dazzled and nonplussed. It admirably reflects Delisle de Sales's obsession with disguise.

The fact that the manuscript is always either a gift, or sold,21 adds even more weight to the filiation de Sales creates. This way of "adding weight" by adopting the persona of a classical authority was not new to de Sales; before he was Plato, for instance, he had been Brutus.22 In the tale of the manuscript, an identification is involved, whether with Plato or with de Sales's many "ancestors", such as Rousseau, but it is partial, metonymic, and idiosyncratic. The manoeuvre enacts the ideal of patriarchy prevalent throughout his books, even while the patriarchal mentality shows how little of Enlightenment ideology he actually internalized.

He does more than take an illustrious role model or echo his voice; he takes the symbolism of the manuscript to its literal extreme. A symbol, as the Grand Robert puts it, is "un objet coupe en deux constituant un signe de reconnaissance quand les porteurs pouvaient assembler les deux morceaux". As Pierre Malandain contends:

L'essentiel semble etre, pour l'ecrivain manipulateur du mythe, le bon fonctionnement, a tous les niveaux, de la structure duelle: homme / femme; raison / sensibilitY; filiation du sang / filiation de l'esprit; destin aventureux d'un texte dans l'histoire / conservation tranquille d'un texte en son jardin.23

De Sales dualizes the story through the female and male lines, while allowing himself to speak for both sides and then reuniting them as a whole, and indeed goes further, conflating a story of the creation of humanity and that of its subsequent quest for perfection, through his favoured figure of the hermaphrodite. Man was first created as an hermaphrodite, and was then split into two sexes, the male form being perfect. De Sales's fascination with hermaphroditism climaxes in his transformation of the myth of Tiresias from one of transsexuality to that of a "perfect hermaphrodite".24 Besides describing hermaphroditism as a perfect philosophical state, de Sales reminds us that Plato himself said that during the Golden Age men were androgynous,25 and that today's men were the effect of a degeneration from that state (Symposium, 189e-193d). Tiresias was de Sales's ideal; he was one of the "most perfect": "Le plus parfait des hermaphrodites serait celui qui pouvant s'unir avec succes a un homme et a une femme, pourrait encore engendrer seul par l'union des deux sexes qu'il possederait."26 It is worth noting that Plato describes the androgynous beings as of three different types: female-female, male-male and female-male. They were of a circular shape and were split in the two parts of a "symbol" by Zeus. None of them were able to reproduce themselves, as de Sales would wish, but they sprouted from the ground spontaneously, like cicadas out of their eggs (191b).

Sexual duality is a constant in the Manuscrit text, from the split between the female and the male line to the ambivalence of each of those two lineages. The side of the Eponines is constantly backed by the voices of their husbands; as the last Eponine of the line had a sterile husband, and therefore could not create a symbolic child, the line of transmission of the manuscript crossed over to the male side. Then John of Alexandria failed to receive it as a gift, and therefore had to steal it so that it would not be destroyed and, from then on, the manuscript followed a continuous line of male voices, each man wrapping it up in the midst of danger and mystery. The male heritage became intellectual rather than genetic and was then always given, sold or left to be discovered (as in the case of Photius' monastery). While in a female lineage, the manuscript is "active", involved in the process of creation, being altered, being written upon, and this "masculine" activity is performed by females. In the hands of males it is passive, static, even in the case of the line of the Platos, which shows yet another level of the sexual duality present in this text.

The final rejoining of the two halves by Delisle de Sales, and the subsequent creation of Ma Republique, was meant to achieve perfection and be held up as a model to the world, a model perhaps for the post-Revolutionary new world order. But the ideal was not realized. De Sales had doubtless already foreseen that the attempt would be self-abortive. His own version of the Tiresias legend maintained that Tiresias, being perfect, was self-sufficient and self-reproductive. "Tout etre qui se suffit a lui-meme n'est point enchaine par la nature a la societe: or l'androgyne qui peut jouir tout seul, se suffit a luimeme."27 Tiresias, intended as the type of the ideal legislator, because selfsufficient, was for that reason rejected by society, and blinded as a punishment for his perfection, because society rejects all that is perfect.

In marginalizing Delisle de Sales, are we right to reject the philosophical constructs I have described above from the store which today constitutes, for us, the Enlightenment? The conflation of the dream of perfect legislation, the Platonic heritage, with that of the perfect transmission of life and energy, the Salesian hermaphroditic ideal, brings into view a great-and not just Sadianerotic dream of political creativity, which not only animated that period, but has "electrified" history until the present day. The authoritarian deviation from Enlightenment ideology operates through de Sales's flagrant disregard for the antipatriarchal thrust of Rousseau's thought, in combination with his identifying cult of Rousseau as a personality. The dynamic image of safekeeping and transmission is thus suspended in a negative dialectic. Yet the very fact that de Sales has sunk into obscurity and ridicule completes our vision of that time; in words that could also be applied to a complex movement such as the Enlightenment, Michel de Certeau points out that a society has to admit to itself that "je suis autre que ce que je veux, et determinee par ce que je denie".28 Or, as Baltrusaitis observes of other fantasy-dominated works: "l'ensemble appartient a l'ensemble de l'histoire et de ses egarements".29

1. The authoritative work on de Sales is Pierre Malandain's 800-page "Delisle de Sales philosophe de la nature (1741-1816)", Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, volumes 203-204 (1982). For a brief account of de Sales's principal work see A. Pons, "De la philosophie de la nature", in J.-P. de Beaumarchais & D. Couty, Dictionnaire des ceuvres litteraires de langue franaise (Paris: Bordas,1994). For a detailed study of de Sales's discourse on physical difference, see my "The Monster in the Mirror: Delisle de Sales and the Study of Human Difference", Ph.D., London, 1998.

2. All references to De la Philosophie de la Nature, unless otherwise specified, are to the 1770 first edition, with the addition in 1773-74 of "Du Corps Humain" (Amsterdam: Arkstee & Merkus,1770 [1770-1774]); I have modernized the spelling where appropriate.

3. In 1990, Pierre Malandain edited a modern transcription of Eponine, including the 1793 version of the "Histoire", for the "Collection du Bicentenaire de la Revolution franqaise" (see note 23 below). In this article I refer to the version of the "Histoire du manuscrit" included by de Sales in the 1804 edition of the Philosophie de la Nature. I have so far found no other version in any of his other publications.

4. Theodore Besterman, Correspondance de Voltaire (Paris: Gallimard, 1986), letter dated 7 March, 1977. De la Philosophie de la Nature, livre I, "Discours preliminaire".

6. Jurgis Baltrusaitis, Le miroir (Paris: Seuil, 1978), p.29.

7. I have found, sadly, no evidence to support this claim.

8. De Sales's whimsical relationship to chronology and factuality obliges me to insert many dates in the following account. Where the dates of birth and death are dubious I have cited those most commonly accepted.

9. Poggio and Boccaccio were known "ancient manuscript fanatics", and had found many, in particular in Monte Cassino.

10. Baltruisatis, La Quete d'Isis, in the series "Les Perceptions depravees" (Paris: Flammarion, 1985), p.221.

11. Although Delisle de Sales refers to Amru as "le sauvage Amrou", the latter is supposed to have been himself a great scholar.

12. In the 1793 edition of Eponine, this scroll was called "De l'Origine des etres par un sage du monde primitif", and was "impossible to read", as it was written entirely in hieroglyphs, save for the title, in Greek.

13. In the 1793 edition, this scroll is called "Sur les connaissances humaines avant le siecle d'Alexandre".

14. In 1793, de Sales says he will give it to Barthelemy to be translated. Barthelemy published a Voyage du jeune Anacharsis en Grece, vers le milieu du quatrieme siecle avant l'ere vulgaire (Paris: Adrien Egron, 1818).

15. None of this is found in the Eponine version, but they are all in the first edition of De la Philosophie de la Nature.

16. The closest thing extant to a genuine manuscript of the Republic is probably the collection of Plato texts in the Bodleian (M.S. E.D. Clarke 39), dated 895 C.E.

17. Delisle de Sales was, in fact, renowned for his collection of books.

18. He actually got into trouble because of her and was put on trial in 1794, after being denounced by one of the workers printing Eponine ou de la Republique. This was not his first brush with the law, having been condemned in 1776 for De la Philosophie de la Nature.

19. This Eponine is the only "real" one. She died in 78, following her husband in death. She had twin sons who survived.

20. In the Eponine version he says: "Toute cette partie dramatique de mon livre (. . .) se d6veloppera d'elle-meme dans le cours de cette Republique."

21. As Marcel Mauss has observed, a gift is never free; with it goes the soul of its previous owner.

22. See the Lettre de Brutus sur les chars anciens et modernes ("Londres" [Paris?], 1771).

23. Delisle de Sales, Eponine ou de la Republique, edited by Pierre Malandain (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1990).

24. See especially the "Histoire de Tiresias", in the chapter "De l'Hermaphrodisme" of De la Philosophie de la Nature. For a full discussion of the mythic significance of Tiresias, see Luc Brisson, Le Mythe de Tiresias (Leiden: Brill, 1976).

25. Plato's term is "androgyn". "Hermaphrodite" is a post-Platonic coinage.

26. Delisle de Sales, De la Philosophie de la Nature, livre III, chapitre V. For a related discussion of Delisle de Sales's revisions of the Tiresias myth, see my "Symbole: un objet coupe en deux . . .", Interstice, 1 (Autumn 1995), pp. SS-66.

27. Delisle de Sales, De la Philosophie de la Nature, livre III, chapitre V.

28. Michel de Certeau, L'ecriture de l'histoire (Paris: Gallimard, 1975 ), p. 59.

29. Baltruisatis, La Quete d'Isis, p. 227.

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