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The Nun (La Religieuse): the Book, the Film and Diderot.

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The Nun. La Religieuse, the Book, the Film and Diderot.

“On objecte que la soumission à une authorité législative dispense de raissoner. Mais, où est la religion, sur la surface de la terre, sans une pareille authorité?”

It’s objected that submitting to a legislative authority does away with individual judgements. But, where would religion be, anywhere on the Earth, without such authority?

Diderot. Pensées Philosophiques. XXXll.

Denis Diderot (1713 – 84) was the director the Encylopédie, and hence, known to all as one of the founding figures of the Enlightenment. As such he remains a name familiar to those ready to expound on the faults of the French Lumières. Did a philosophy that holds the world to be, “a machine, with its cords, its pulleys, its springs, its weights” have lasting social consequences? The Enlightenment has been blamed for the illusions of progress that George Sorel animated the, once, rising bourgeoisie and its functionaries, to Imperialism, the mechanical ordering and surveillance of modern society, to the ‘Orientalist’ attack on the authority of the Qur’an.

Diderot, the writer, genial conversationalist and political activist, is anything but an easy figure to put down by such second-hand criticisms. Straight away we should recognise that he explicitly opposed the most famous ‘Enlightened” Prince, Frederick the Great, by observing that, “le governement arbitaire d’un prince juste et éclaire est toujours mauvais.” (Arbitrary government by a just and enlightened Prince is always bad). That, the “droit d’opposition, tout ensensé qui est, est sacré” (the right to opposition, however insane this might be, is sacred). Rosa Luxemburg could not have put it better. (1)

The Encyclopaedist was then far from a Master Thinker who wished to impose his views on society. Perhaps the best way to approach the Nun, film and book, is to bear in mind this citation from Diderot in the Victorian rationalist, John Morley’s biography, “I have ever been the apologies of strong passions; they alone move me. Whether they inspire me with admiration or horror, I feel vehemently. If atrocious deeds that dishonour our nature are due to them, it is by them also that we are borne to the marvellous endeavour that elevates it.” (2)

In this vein Morley observed that, Diderot, while not making the (much later) claims for women’s social emancipation, had deep sympathy for their oppressed position in 18th century society. Again he cites the author, “They have been treated like weak-minded children. There is no sort of vexation, which, among civilised peoples, man cannot inflict upon women with impunity. (3)

 A Serious Message not Shocks from the Convent.

The Nun, la Religieuse, was written in 1760 and was published in 1796, after Diderot’s death. It was originally a mystification (as my reference calls it) played on a certain M. de Croismare. It was a series of letters that claimed to be from a young woman forced to take the veil, and imprisoned in a convent. It asked for Croismare’s help.

The novel itself is the tale of a superfluous daughter of the gentry, forced by her parents into a nunnery. She has no vocation and no desire to submit to the religious order. She suffers.

La Religieuse’s reputation, to the large numbers who have never read it, as a salacious drama of sadistic nuns, religious frenzy, and lesbian affairs.

It is far from that. The novel is a serious effort to describe the effects of authority, patriarchal(the family), and sacred, on power-holders, and those under their command. The inability of the Catholic hierarchy, for all the existence of people of transparent good will, to deal with those with who refuse their legitimacy, is the binding thread. The weight of Canon law (which had much greater power in 18th century France than in, say, Britain) is underlined. The frustrations of the celibate life – for women – loom large.

The Nun is written in the style of English novels of the same period – Diderot was a great admirer and reader of such authors as Richardson Sterne. Comparing the book with these, reminds one, however, that The Nun is rightly considered no more than a minor work.

The present film, directed by Guillaume Nicloux,  is excellent. I have a vague memory of Rivette’s 1966 version of the same title, which indeed skirts close to pornography. This, dignified, if a little bloodless production, is marked by institutional cruelty and not entertainment.

The process forcing Suzanne Simonin (played byPauline Étienne)  to enter a convent is drawn out by her hostility to the very idea. Despite the young woman’s devout belief this is not the life for her eventually the dutiful daughter goes along. After finding a sympathetic figure in authority, she is half-cajoled into accepting things. This process comes to a halt when a new Mother Superior forces the nuns to follow a stricter rule. They have to wear the cilice, (hair-shirt,). Suzanne burns it, and thereafter her life is made a living hell.

The unwilling Suzanne manages to get transferred to a new convent. The picture is really brought to life by Isabelle Huppert as the Abbess of Ste-Eutrope who takes a more than shine to her charge. Her sufferings are rightly put on a par with Suzanne’s. The conclusion, and they reasons for her living burial in convents, are revealed in a less than conclusive finish.

Inevitably we would think of Philomena. The Nun pales when set beside that film’s warmth. Yet the institutional injustices remain tangled in a not too different set of knots. There are many more of these bonds around in the world waiting to be unravelled. Diderot’s social and political message, in this respect, lends to support to fights against religious and sexual injustice, from those against those who would impose their ideas of gender segregation today, to all laws based on divine doctrine.

Anybody interested in finding more about Diderot could not do better than begin with reading Rameau’s Nephew. A satire of success, of selling oneself to the world, it has been compared to an 18th century Society of the Spectacle. Many would consider it a lot more enduring.

  1. Pages 619, 620. Oeuvres Philosphiques. Diderot. Garnier. 1964.

  2. Page 51 Diderot. Vol. 1. John Morley. Macmillan. 1891.

  3. Page 79. Morley Op cit. Morley also noted that The Nun was “strictly a private performance” (that is, never published by Diderot), and “an expression of the strong feeling of the Encyclopaedic school about celibacy, renunciation of the world, and the burial of men and women alive in the cloister” Page 32. Diderot Vol. ll.


Written by Andrew Coates

December 20, 2013 at 1:03 pm

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