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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780807120040
Publisher: Louisiana State University Press
Publication date: 09/28/1995
Series: Pegasus Prize for Literature Series
Pages: 568
Product dimensions: 6.31(w) x 9.32(h) x 1.66(d)

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Chapter One


Diderot

Paris, December, 1749

In the little house in the rue St-Victor, Diderot was gathering hisstrength in order to forget the terrible nights he had lived through inthe fortified tower of Vincennes. It was hard for him. The smell andthe rats lingered in his memory - above all, the smell. He had notmanaged to rid his senses of it, for it was so pungent and disagreeable,an odor of urine and burned turds, of garlic and cooking oil, ofscorched lime and rancid fish, that it had invaded not only his senseof smell but really all his senses. It was in his sense of touch: hishands, washed a thousand times since leaving prison, were still dampand sticky from absorbing that repugnant mixture, which seemed tohave entered his bloodstream and traveled through it until it arrivedat his pituitary, saturating it with the smell of Vincennes. His sightalso played him false, for he thought he saw on every object, whethertable, plate, or book, a sort of sticky sweat: tiny dewy drops, greenishyellow like pus. He knew that that substance was the condensate ofthe smell, that if he touched any object, the viscous essence wouldstick to his hands, make its way through his blood, and reach hissense of smell. At times, he saw his own body sweating and felt likea slug dragging itself along and carrying the loathsome odor with it.On such occasions, he filled the tub with lukewarm water and submergedhimself, barely leaving his head above water. Only in thisway could he rally and gain a few moments' respite from the smellthat tormented him. In the warm water up to the tip of his chin, hethought of how Marat, many yearslater, would avail himself of thevery same recourse, and he wondered whether Marat - that hotheadJacobin he never did get to meet - felt as hounded by the smell.

He was in the bedroom, watching the winter darkness come overthe Paris sky, when Lizette entered with word that his good friendJean d'Alembert had arrived. He had her show him in, since hecouldn't bring himself to get out of the water. He observed the mathematicianstep into the room, humble, taciturn, without a wig, histhin chestnut brown hair tied back in a queue. He was dressed inblack, like a village schoolmaster. Nothing about him hid his yearsas an orphan; the hospice showed through every pore of his skin. Hisdeep gray eyes bespoke enormous intelligence but also permanentmelancholy, as though he were always on the point of dissolving intotears, into a fit of weeping that, by being soft and gentle, had to beso much sadder, more heartfelt.

D'Alembert took off his tricorn and greeted him. As he did soDiderot realized with disgust that his friend was also permeated withthe smell: his clothing of black fabric bore a thin yellowish haze likethe breath of a visionary. A fallen angel, covered with the dust ofheaven, he thought, or rather, of hell - and remembered the divineDante telling of the torments of the world below. He invited d'Alembertto sit down, indicating a chair by the door, agreeably far fromthe bathtub. He could not master the impulse to get away from thestench emanating from his friend, and he ducked his head underwaterfor some time, until it occurred to him that it was worse to drownthan to endure the terrible smell. D'Alembert was not astonished tosee Denis plunge beneath the water. He had learned to know himand understand him. He professed an enormous liking for him andno less an admiration. How could there be behind that ruddy facewith its fat cheeks and its peaceful and kindly eyes - the face of apleasant baker from Champagne - such a powerful intelligence, sucha demoniacal one, so to speak? His friend went underwater, d'Alembertthought, to help cool down his brain - that imposing machinethat for twenty-four hours a day never stopped, always thinking,imagining, mapping out heaven only knew what ambitious projects.That broad forehead that Diderot carried with a certain vanity wasalways crowned with tiny drops of sweat, the result, no doubt, of theintense heat emitted by the dynamic activity taking place within. Healmost expected that steam would come out of the bathtub when hisfriend lowered his head into it, as though it were a slab of metal justout of the furnace.

"Forgive me, Jean dear" - his sparse wet hair was plastered downover his skull, giving it the appearance of a Byzantine helmet - "I'vehad a string of bad luck with my body. It's sciatica, I think. Oh, myfriend! How quickly we age."

"Enough of that! You don't fool me, Denis. You're still holdingtogether. It's just that you've been sitting too long. The same thingused to happen to me, until Abbot Bernis taught me to write standingup. You can't imagine the difference! Since then my body hasweighed on me so little that I sometimes forget it exists. It's a marveloussensation."

"Didn't Abbot Bernis tell you about varicose veins? Workingstanding up relieves the strain on your back, but it's torture on yourlegs. And mine are weak. Maybe the solution is to work lying down,like the Moors. They say Avicenna wrote all his works recumbent onfluffy cushions."

"Yes, as a beautiful odalisque masturbated him. I've heard aboutthat. But don't get your hopes up. Antoinette would never let youwork in such a way. Incidentally, where is Antoinette?"

"In some church or other, no doubt, praying. The intensity thatfaith can reach in someone weak is incredible, Jean. A long time ago,when we first met, Antoinette had become as much an agnostic as Iam."

"No, don't exaggerate."

"It's true. And now it turns out that, after the loss of those threechildren, her religiosity erupts all over again, livelier than ever. Shedoesn't talk to me about it, but I can feel it: she's more comfortableinside a church, speaking of heaven only knows what with a woodenimage than she is with me. Very likely, and quite against her will,she considers me responsible for her misfortune. As though it weren'tmine as well! This is something I'd like the two of us to discussdispassionately some day, my dear friend: Why does faith in Godincrease in direct proportion to the misfortunes we blame upon him?I once asked Voltaire the same question, and he answered with subtleirony: 'Instead of asking me, why not put that question to the dogof a beggar? Because it's well known that the worse a master treatsthose poor little creatures, the more attached they are to him.'"

"That's a clever answer."

"Yes, like all his others. But we must get back to our own business.The first volume of the Encyclopedie is due out next year. How's thatintroduction of yours coming along?"

"Slowly, very slowly, like a windmill when there's only a faintbreeze blowing. I've tried to take the approach you suggested, of notwriting until I've thought the whole thing through thoroughly, untilI've discovered all the possible traps where inanity might be hidingin wait. But it's hard, believe me, very hard. At times, my mindengages in its own mean tricks. It leads me to think that by the sheerfact that I'm writing to explain a subject or an idea, I must betray itby including something else along with the original idea, somethingthat disfigures it, that makes it come out different from the way Iconceived it in my mind. On being put down on paper, the ideaseems to be stained by the very ink I'm writing with, and wanting toclean it up, I begin to load it down with analogies, adjectives, logorrhea,until I find that the syntax, far from making it clear, hides italmost completely. And worse still, when I'm forced to polish it, Icontaminate it with another idea without at first realizing it - anotheridea that in most cases, believe me, is diametrically opposed to theoriginal. Then my pen runs frantically after it, trying to catch up andeliminate it. But often all I accomplish - and I realize it when I readthe paragraph I've just written - is to make a rigorous and even dazzlingpresentation of the parasitical idea, which has succeeded withoutthe least effort in usurping the place of my original insight. Perhapsall this sounds muddled to you, but it's not easy to explain."

"No, Jean, I understand very well. This certainly happens to metoo. (The smell was now beginning to go away. Except for the tub,perhaps talking, immersing himself in a conversation in which eachneuron of his brain had to be alert so he might choose exactly theright word to fit the idea in his head, the way a ring fits a finger, wasthe only way to banish the smell and the rats from his senses.Wrapped up in the dialogue, he did not cease to notice the accursedsmell; rather, he did not allow himself time to pay close attention toit, to take a whiff of it in its full force. It was for that reason thatafter he got out of Vincennes, he had become, if that is possible, evenmore loquacious, more vehement. His ideas, flowing headlong acrossevery nerve of his body, inhibited memories and reduced the powerof that odor.) "You can't imagine the complications in translatingthat stupid English dictionary! The Saxons, my friend, definitely donot think the way we do. I don't know whether that's due to theirlanguage or whether, on the contrary, their language results from theirway of thinking. The fact is that they embellish their arguments witha sort of (how shall I put it?) spirituality - very pagan, by the way,but in no way rational, or so it would seem. The impression is thatthe old Druid sorcerers have been reincarnated in their minds. Everythingwritten by an Englishman has something immanent, teleological,in a word religious, about it. Take Newton, for example. Afterconducting an impeccable analysis of motion in which his prodigiousintellect succeeds in ordering and presenting nature bare, unsullied,clear, and in perfect equilibrium, as only Euclid did before, after thattitanic labor, he tells you of an absolute and indispensable God whohas suddenly turned up - or not so suddenly, because if you thinkabout it a little you realize that he's always been there, crouching likea lynx in wait for its prey. So the upshot is that this whole splendidsystem his reason has established is sustained by an omnipresent God,a God who, if you follow Newton closely, is after all the cause, thereason, and the effect of movement and is in himself inaccessible andunrecognizable. You can take my word for it that that God is identicalto Aristotle's unmoved mover."

"Yes, I've sometimes thought so."

"But that's terrible. Why the Principia then? Why those axioms?

Why those beautiful demonstrations of the movement of the planets?Why explain gravitation if in the final analysis everything is supportedby God? And we've been hearing about God for a long time, myfriend. Sometimes I feel that Newton was a sort of mystic with inappropriateskills. Having the skill of a craftsman who is looking forGod and can find no better means of representing him than in anassemblage put together with his own hands, as a painter would representhim by creating his portrait. The Principia, if you fathom theoriginal intention of its author, ends up a mechanical portrait ofGod."

"I think you're exaggerating again, Denis."

"Not a bit! If anything, I'm understating the case. Doesn't Newtonbring in God in postulating an absolute time or an infinitespace?"

"But even dispensing with God, the system functions perfectly,and that's what counts."

"You see! You're French. You've just spoken like a real Latin! Inthe final accounting, what matters to you is what's real, what can beunderstood and transformed. Think of Descartes, for example. Hedoes exactly the opposite of Newton. When you begin to study hiswork, you may think that you're dealing with an ardent believer, whois much more concerned with God than even the Englishman is. Butif you get inside his ideas, you'll see that God is of very little interestto Descartes. Remember his system. What does he do? In the firstplace, he offers the existence of God as an incontrovertible axiom.And then, after that, he penetrates, in a manner of speaking, into thereal, into thought, matter, whatever you like. In that way, he developshis argument and arrives at conclusions that don't depend in theslightest on that God so beautifully adorned and solemn whom hedescribes to us in the beginning. By affirming the existence of God,Descartes makes a concession to his era - and perhaps to his conscience,because whether he was an atheist or not doesn't change oneiota what I'm telling you - so as to be able to work in peace on hisideas, which, rest assured, have nothing to do with God. For Latins,God is a superior being we have imposed on ourselves at sword'spoint - or by being roasted over green wood - whom we must respectand fear, for in some way or other he is a sort of arbiter or supremeadjudicator of our relations. That is why we keep him safe and soundin our churches. Ask any Frenchman, or Italian, or Spaniard, whereGod is. Any of them, or the overwhelming majority, will answer thathe's in the churches. Because, in the final analysis, that is where heought to be, duly cloaked in incense, adorned, and adored. Outsidethe houses of worship we are only ourselves, wretched mortals - andif there are priests there, they are something like home distributorsof God, when necessity requires that. When someone is about to die,for example, and cannot make his way to the nearest church, thepriest brings God to him at his house and absolves him, lifting fromhim the enormous weight of dying without having drawn up therequisite balance and settlement of accounts with the Creator - andalso relieving the members of his family of the burden of a few louis.On the other hand, ask an Englishman, a German, where God is.Either will doubtless answer, God is within me, God is everywhere.And they spend their whole lives and write complete works searchingfor him. Fortunately for us, we have found him long since."

D'Alembert listened in awe to his friend's peroration. Of all hisqualities, the one he most admired and, why not admit it, envied,was the delightful ability to let his mind range far afield, to leap fromthe height of one idea to another, as a bee flits from flower to flower.Diderot was interested in everything; nothing was safe from beingdissected to bits by his implacable intellect. As though he had carefullysaved each one of the sharp-edged knives his father had made,his mind always had what it needed to cut, divide, slice to pieces anyidea, separating it into tiny fragments~ perhaps of the size of Leucippus'atoms, and then to put all the pieces together again, accordingto different patterns, reincorporating them in another entity that toall appearances had nothing to do with the original. He himself wasnot like that, he did not have that instinct for the whole that hisfriend had. He was far from being a "pantophile," as Voltaire calledDiderot. He was too well disciplined. He could not force his mindto stray. He needed method, reason, logic. Perhaps it was for thatreason that he was a sublime mathematician. From a very early age,in the warm arms of Madame Rousseau, who rather than his motherwas his only fixed point in the world, the only shelter he had availablefrom the cold loneliness that had permeated his body from the veryday that his frivolous, real, absent mother, a housemaid in the serviceof Madame Tencin, had abandoned him as a newborn babe on thestairs of Saint-Jean-le-Ronde, from that very early age - he reflected - hehad taken a liking to order, loved perfect balance: hepermanently situated his mind in the world of logic, where everysyllogism must fit every other perfectly, where nothing is left tochance, where everything is deduced and deducible, where there areno gaps save ignorance, where one can analyze something down tothe infinitely small in order to find the reason for it, its fluxion, asNewton would say, so that, freed of its mysteries, exposed, its enormoussimplicity your doing, it can be reproduced, it can be workedout to infinity without losing its quality, even though it is little morethan a curve traced on paper. What else is mathematics if not that?

"So then, Jean, since we've located God and have him shelteredin a safe place, we can focus our attention on the things of this world.Despite what you've told me about your private war with the pen,syntax, and ideas, you must write the introduction to the Encyclopedie.There is simply no one who can do it better."

"And why not you, Denis? It would be more suitable. You'veworked on this much more than I have."

"Please. Forgive me for cutting you off, Jean. But we've been overthis point often enough. Why not me? Look, my boy, because I'mDenis Diderot, the son of a knife maker in Langres. A perfect unknown,or almost a perfect unknown, since there are now a fewpeople who are beginning to be aware of me. And do you know howthey think of me? As the lowlife who at Vincennes" - all he did wassay that accursed name and the odor reappeared - "received deservedpunishment for having written obscenities (that was what they'vecalled them) and insults against God and his Most Holy Mother theRoman Catholic apostolic church." He heaved a great sigh. The odor,stronger than ever, began to make him sick to his stomach. The bathwater had got cold, and his body, racked by rheumatism, felt it."Have Voltaire write it? That man, my friend, is too well known.Besides, in spite of all the admiration we may profess for him, youhave to admit he's as treacherous and vain as an Indonesian peacock.If he wrote the introduction, you may be sure he'd find a way to saythat the Eneyclopedie is a collective work in which many men areparticipating but to get across that in reality he is the only author.Admit it, Jean, that man is incapable of sharing anything with anybody... unless it's the profits made through speculation with thesavings of Parisians, and his take is always the lion's share. Montesquieu?I spent six months writing him the most fawning and flatteringletters I've come up with in my entire life. And do you know whathis answer was? Well, Baron Montesquieu, the author of the PersianLetters, the investigator of the Roman Empire, the man who workedfor fifteen years putting Locke's ideas into French in his Spirit of theLaws, the great Montesquieu, though I came close to kissing his assin my letters, has committed himself to at best a single article! Anddo you know on what subject? On 'aesthetics and good taste.' Montesquieuoffers us that, and you want him to write the introduction!The only one you haven't mentioned is Buffon. I'm sure he'd tailorhis introduction to the tastes of the Countess d'Egmont and themenageric of pompous dandies who go to her soirees. Someday, whenI really feel a grudge against you, I'm going to hand you somethinghe's written, for you to edit. You'll find out what torture is. Andthat's if you manage to do the job, if the syrup in his texts doesn'tglue your hand to the page or the odor of rose water clinging to hiswords doesn't make you throw up."

"You're unkind, Denis."

"No, my friend, it's Buffon who's unkind. I believe he's doingvery little kindness to science by popularizing it in that foppish styleof his - although, it must be granted, he knows what he's talkingabout. But from there to writing the introduction, never. Please tellthe maidservant to bring a pailful of hot water; my body's beginningto go numb."

As his friend headed for the kitchen, he immersed himself again.He indeed felt very ill. That confounded project was beginning tostink as much as the prison of Vincennes. He sensed intuitively, andhe knew his intuition never failed, that he was going to end up takingit on all by himself. D'Alembert, despite a great show of enthusiasm,is going to get bored after a while, he thought. Or worse still, he'sgoing to get scared. Because he's not up to bearing the torture ofVincennes or the Bastille. He'll never risk losing the freedom he'sgained since his early years as an orphan, and he won't move so muchas an inch from the comfortable protection of his charming Julie-Jeanne...

"So you see, Jean dear, there is no one as well suited as you forwriting that introduction. Look. First of all, in spite of everythingyou've told me, you write very well; second, you're the most respectedman of learning in the country, an Academician at the age of twenty-five,famous since you were twenty; and third, your reputation as amathematician protects you from the inquisitors and the other fathersof the church. They can't see in you, as they can so easily in me, anenemy of God and of the worship of him, for a very simple reason:they don't have the slightest idea what mathematics is, and their faithis not sufficiently great to impose on them the penance of studyingit. They treat you the way the vassals of King Midas treated himwhen they saw his idiotic attire. So it's settled. Go on scuffling withyour ideas and polishing your syntax, but don't fail to write thatintroduction. And be quick about it; the booksellers are putting agreat deal of pressure on me. They've told me they think they cansign up more than two thousand subscribers and charge them tenpistolas for the entire work, the robbers."

The bells of Notre Dame were ringing for five-o'clock mass. Theroom suddenly grew dark, though this did not seem to disturb them.

"Rasero should be along soon. I told him to come at five," d'Alembertsaid.

"Rasero?" "Yes. The young Spaniard I told you about." "The Andalusian?"

"In person. I took the liberty of inviting him to your place thisafternoon. I want you to meet him. He's a queer bird."

"Voltaire is more attracted to queer fellows than 1."

"I don't mean that. He's very intelligent. At least I think so. Inno conversation that I've had with him - and you know I always talkabout mathematics or things of that sort - has he failed to follow meto the last detail. On top of that, I must admit that he backed meinto a corner several times. He's very quick-witted, despite his appearanceof sluggishness."

"What's he like?" At that moment they heard a knock at the door. "The best thing is to get to know him yourself."

Diderot saw, barely illuminated in the last afternoon light, a manof medium build dressed impeccably in dark blue, with neither wignor hair, who greeted his friend d'Alembert extremely politely.

"Denis, I'd like you to meet Senor Fausto Rasero."

"How do you do, my dear sir. I trust you'll excuse me for receivingyou in this place and in this state, but my body is worn-out."

"There's nothing to worry about at all in how you're receivingme, Monsieur Diderot," Rasero said in his peculiar accent. "Youdon't know how eager I've been to meet you. Denis Diderot, thehero of the tower of Vincennes!"

On hearing these words, Diderot felt that the odor was once morestarting to envelop the world. It was everywhere and mercilessly assailedhis sense of smell. Even the water in the tub had taken on thatyellowish odor. The room, like a painting done in a single color, hadbecome tinted by the stench. He was about to go underwater again,but on lowering his head, he noticed something strange and lifted itat once. Apparently everything was still the same, purulent and foulsmelling: the tub, the sheets, the walls, the door, Jean...but notRasero! His blue attire, his pale skin, his shiny bald pate did not giveoff the least little whiff of the repellent smell. Rasero was the onlyobject in the bedroom that retained its color: he did not smell, or tobe more precise, he did indeed, though the odor was a pleasant one,unbelievably pleasant to Diderot's nose. He gave off a fresh, woodsyfragrance. He smelled the way a forest smells at dawn; he smelled ofeverything that the accursed castle of Vincennes cannot smell of...he smelled of freedom.

Diderot was in ecstasy. His eyes lingered on the face of the Andalusian.A peculiar face, incidentally: his eyebrows, very fine, archedabove eyes of normal size, though set very far apart and almost withoutvitreous surface, filled almost completely by their enormous blackirises. The rest of his features were harmonious without being handsomethe nose small and fine-drawn, the mouth with delicate lipsand strong, regular teeth, the jaw ending in a point, diminishing thestrength of his face but on the other hand giving it a certain charm.Furthermore, not a single wrinkle furrowed his face; it was perfectlysmooth, enough to make any lady of the nobility die of envy. Abeauty spot applied to his left cheek was the one concession to thefashion of the times. He was not wearing powders, paints, or rouges.

The bad smell having departed, Diderot suddenly felt very good,better than he had felt for a long time - as when he had strolled atdusk through the gardens of the Palais Royal with Antoinette long,long before the hell of Vincennes, when his marriage was still a dreamand he knew that he was young and full of vigor, capable of meetingthe world and conquering it, or as when he began to hatch in hismind that project he was not to abandon for the rest of his life, evenin his worst crises brought on by the foul smell and by revulsion...He wanted to take advantage of this new situation, to treasure eachinstant he was living through without the burden of the foul smell;he wanted to drink wine, to talk about a thousand things. He wanted,in short, to open his sense of smell, and all his senses, to the sweetfragrance that was invading his body.

"Gentlemen," he said, "why don't we go on into the dining room?My body has had enough water. If I stay here where I am, I'm goingto end up looking like a raisin - like, incidentally, Monsieur Rasero,those which are so delicious in your country. What is their nameagain?"

"Muscats."

"That's right, muscats. Go on into the dining room, please." Hishands, wrinkled from the water, smoothed his hair. "Jean, ask Lizetteto open a bottle of wine, and pour yourselves some. I'll be with youin a moment."

The apartment was a modest one. The pieces of secondhand furnitureseemed too large for the small room. A few undistinguishedengravings adorned the walls. Nonetheless, the place had its charm,owing, doubtless, to the books by which it was literally occupied.They were everywhere: in two old bookshelves on the wall, stackedin double and even triple rows; on the table, one atop the other incolumns three feet high. They were even on the floor, where the pilesformed a miniature labyrinth through which it was not easy to threada path. Rasero noticed that, irrespective of the apparent chaos, thebooks were systematically arranged. He could see that each heap correspondedto a single subject matter, without there being a singlebook in it that fell outside the field. In front of him, on the table,was a column of old books on chemistry. He could read the namesof the authors on the spines—names that brought back memories often years before, when he used to listen rapt to the disquisitions ofDr. Antonio Ulloa, his teacher and friend, the discoverer of platinum,the greatest chemist in Spain. Ulloa talked to him - and there cameto him their illustrious names - of Calinicus, the Syrian alchemist,the inventor of Greek fire, which contains a certain proportion ofpetroleum as the inflammable element, saltpeter as the provider ofthe spark to set it alight, and quicklime as the contributor of heatwhen in reaction with water...of Livadius, the author of the firsttextbook on modern chemistry, which at that moment was withinRasero's sight (a small, very old book, for which his beloved teacherwould have given his meager fortune)...of Mayow, the Englishchemist who studied the phenomenon of respiration in a new wayand demonstrated that only a part of the air is used either in breathingor in combustion, leading to an experiment that later on would bringfame to Lavoisier, who at that moment - Rasero did not know this - wasonly six years old...of the great Moorish savant Rhazes, whofirst made plaster of Paris, able to heal broken bones by holding themtogether, and the discoverer, to boot, of antimony, contrary to thelies and imaginings - as Ulloa called them - of Westerners, who attributethat discovery to an Irish monk...of Becher, the Germanadventurer, who inspired Dr. Stahl and his theory of phlogiston...of Maimonides, the great Spanish physician, the enemy, from daysas remote as the thirteenth century, of fanaticism and fraudulenttricks, and hence an implacable critic of astrology but an enthusiasticdefender of astronomy...of Kunckel, the German who succeededin isolating phosphorus, a discovery that - Ulloa used to say - canalso rightly be attributed to Brand, another German who was thecontemporary of Kunckel, one of whose books, incidentally, was alsoon Diderot's table...of Aubert, a French chemist able - the onlything that Ulloa knew about him - to give a book a title like Demetallorum ortu et causis contra Chemistas brevis et dilucida et Progymnasmatain Joannis Fernelli librum de abditis rerum naturallum causis,a work that he now had before his eyes, in the house of the pantophileDiderot. There were also here van Helmont, Beguin, Aldrovandi,Avicenna, Paracelsus, Boyle, Boerhaave, Toscanelli, Lefevre, Pott,and Cristobal Acosta, the African author of the Treatise on the Drugsand Medicines of the East Indies, a very old book of which Ulloa pridedhimself on being the possessor of the only copy in existence. Mybeloved teacher would not be very happy to see this additional impression,Rasero thought.

"Are you interested in chemistry, Monsieur Rasero?" Jean d'Alembertasked.

"I believe so. To tell the truth, I know little about this science,just what Dr. Antonio Ulloa, my former teacher, managed to drumthrough my thick skull. A wonderful person, incidentally. He wasthe one who convinced me of the possibilities of this science providedthat - a point he strongly emphasized - it sever itself from alchemy,not the mother but rather the stepmother of chemistry, which hascaused many centuries and many fine minds to be wasted in thesearch for something as useless as gold. Because, just imagine, if bysheer chance the alchemists had been right, if they had found thatmagic operation capable of transforming base metals into gold, whatwould have been gained? Very little, in my opinion; the world wouldsoon have had an excess of this metal and as a consequence its pricewould have plummeted. In the rage to turn lead into gold, after afew years it would have been lead that was valuable, since it wouldhave become scarce and, as we must concede, it is much more usefulthan the yellow metal. Hence, according to Ulloa, the alchemists weremistaken from start to finish. Nonetheless, and perhaps unwittingly,they made significant discoveries that constitute the origin and thebasis of chemistry, a truly modern science. Ulloa spoke to me of morethan two hundred substances, including metals, minerals, alcoholicspirits and acids, salts, and gases, discovered or prepared byalchemists - substancesmuch more useful than gold, with an endless numberof applications in our daily life. That is the path that must befollowed, and I believe that it is now being followed: as time goes by,there are fewer and fewer who seek the golden road. Perhaps Newtonwas the last of the learned greats to believe in alchemy. And as yousee, he did not succeed in making a single contribution, howeverminor, to this field. There is no comparison with what he did inphysics, and this notwithstanding that, as his biographers relate, foreach hour of his life that he devoted to physics, he devoted five toalchemy.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgmentsxiii
I Diderot1
II Damiens36
III Voltaire100
IV Mozart151
V Mariana190
VI Madame de Pompadour253
VII Lavoisier343
VIII Robespierre402
IX Goya494

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