Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Book Review: Memoirs of a Nun

Title: Memoirs of a Nun (La Religieuse)

Author: Denis Diderot

Translator: Francis Birrell

Date: 1796 (my copy was reprinted in 1992)

Publisher: Buisson (1796), Knopf (1992)

ISBN: 0-679-41324-3 (1992)

Length: 249 pages

Quote: “A charming young man paid his addresses to my eldest sister but I quickly perceived that it was for me that he really cared…I warned my mother…a few days later I was told that a place in a convent had been decided upon for me, and the very next day I was taken there.”

In the eighteenth century parents were supposed to determine their children’s future careers; they had the legal right to decide when, where, and how teenagers would be educated, trained for jobs, or married. Monastic life was, then as now, supposed to be chosen only by people who felt a real vocation to celibacy and prayer, but since the choice could be made by parents, it could also be a way to get inconvenient children out from under their elders’ feet.

In the 1750s, a forty-something nun, Marguerite Delamarre, petitioned to the French Parlement for release from a convent, claiming that her abusive parents “had forced her to choose between entering a convent or…a house of correction.” Delamarre’s petition was denied; she remained in the convent until the Revolution.

The kindly old Marquis of Croismare had supported Delamarre’s cause, to no avail. He had then gone to his country estate and dropped hints that he intended to stay there rather than return to Paris. Diderot and a friend, Melchior Grimm, missed Croismare’s company enough to plot to write a fictitious story about another reluctant nun who, having heard of Croismare’s support for Delamarre, wanted Croismare to help her with a similar petition. Grimm later published a confession that their prank had deceived Croismare; the younger men had reported that their fictional nun had sneaked out of the convent and was looking for a job, and Croismare wanted to help her get one, so Grimm and Diderot “had to” report that the fictional nun had died rather than confess their deception…

It’s possible that La Religieuse, which was banned long enough and often enough that it might have died if Diderot had been less famous, was the “scrofulous French novel On grey paper with blunt type” at which a glance, according to Browning’s character, made “you grovel Hand and foot in Belial’s gripe.” Diderot was an atheist partly because one of his sisters, who had been a nun, had died from the effects of religious mania. (Self-starvation, self-flogging, and other forms of torture were popular ways of showing penitence in some convents.) He was also, his story makes clear, a thoroughgoing sexist who believed that celibacy caused insanity. He could imagine nuns who were both sane and sincere, but couldn’t imagine them being those things for very long. The characters in La Religieuse are repulsive, some in the ordinary sense of bullying and tattling and generally being hard to live with, and some in the sense of becoming lesbians.

In Diderot’s mind, of course, there were no “true” lesbians, or even sincerely gender-confused “women.” There was only the horrid possibility that an “unnatural,” celibate life would cause nuns to start having sexual reactions to one another. One of the “Superior” nuns in this novel has spontaneous orgasms while studying and counselling with younger nuns. For Diderot there was no need to argue about the morality of such reactions. They were “unnatural,” “insane” in et per se.

Not all audiences shared this opinion. During the Revolution a reviewer raved that Diderot’s portrayal of the lesbian nun was “worthy of Racine…it is Sappho; it is Phèdre…the most ardent, the most irresistible love.” Sappho, the ancient Greek poetess, may or may not have touched or wanted to touch her young female students, whose beauty and sex appeal she celebrated in poems; many poets have chosen “compliments to a rich person who may reward the flattering poet” as a theme. Phèdre, or Phaedra or Faidra, seems to me more like Mephistopheles, an evil character portrayed so well by a gifted writer as to seem tragic and romantic if you forget the real point of her or his story; she became infatuated with her stepson and had him killed for the crime he refused to commit--not what I'd call love.

Diderot’s teen nun, vaguely suspecting that an older woman appreciates her kisses as more than shows of affection, doesn’t have the vocabulary to say “She liked kissing us, not only in a motherly way. One day, during a long session of ‘motherly counselling’ with her arms around me, she had a spontaneous orgasm.” She has to express these ideas in details calculated to interest the male reader. Diderot wasn’t writing for commercial publication, so he could afford to be frankly voyeuristic about the repressed sexuality of nuns, both (by our standards) relatively healthy reactions to things generally considered sex-free, like sisterly hugs and kisses, and also “sick,” sadomasochistic reactions to things considered “holy” and acts of contrition. He didn’t need to try to show any particular sympathy or insight into the female point of view; he didn’t intend for this story to be read by females. His nun was invented strictly for the entertainment of a small select group of male readers. If her intended audience had included women, Croismare might not have been deceived by the prank.  

Diderot’s images of perverted sexuality among the ostensibly celibate offended his contemporaries not by their explicitness but by their irreverence. Monastic people were supposed to suppress their sexuality in the name of religion. Undoubtedly there were, and there still are, people who chose a celibate life because they didn’t want whatever they imagined the homosexual lifestyle to be, or because they had kinky erotic feelings about religious images. It was considered obscenely disrespectful to sincere monks and nuns to talk about the less sincere kind. Even in a private joke among friends Diderot took care, if only for the sake of credibility, to keep his nun’s reports of perverted sexuality in the convent both mild and censorious. Something was wrong with the positively lesbian nun, and the ones who enjoyed torturing themselves or others were insane.

Feminists, lesbians, anti-Catholics, and men who share Diderot’s muddled male view of female sexuality, have kept Memoirs of a Nun alive for enough years that it’s been added to the Everyman’s Library. I don’t think it’s worthy of that brand. The Everyman’s brand used to appear on some books that are no longer considered real classics, but it used to guarantee a good read. For many, probably a majority, Memoirs of a Nun is unlikely to be a good read. It is not a classic; it tells us more about Diderot than about nuns, and doesn’t even pretend to tell us about anyone but nuns.

I don’t like censorship and don’t think this novel deserves censorship, either. What it deserves are warnings. It’s not pornographic; it’s an incident in the life of a writer who had already become famous, and probably deserves to remain available for that reason. It is a true monument to the credulity of the kind of men who flattered themselves that they were “devoted to Reason.” I don’t believe that reading it (as a middle-aged lady) has done me any harm, nor do I expect that reading it will do you any harm. I bought it, because it was cheap and because I’ve never read any of Diderot’s other now-obscure books. I’m willing to sell it to someone who’s old enough to recognize that even if it were true it would have been a story about some confused individual nuns, not a study of nuns or of monastic life. But only if you’re especially interested in Diderot, or in the history of pranks, is Memoirs of a Nun likely to do you any positive good.

If you do read it, you might get some French translation practice out of it by reading it along with the original text of La Religieuse (which some Kindle users can get for free).

To buy it here, send $5 per book + $5 per package to either address at the bottom of the screen, and please consider adding a book by a living author to the package.