Sunday, April 23, 2017

Lately discovered not to be Diderot

The impact of re-appraisals like
this depends in part on when they
are delivered. One can well ima-
gine the inconvenience in lining
up a putt, for example, or some
skewering bon mot in an essay on
Neil Gorsuch's tie-breaking vote
to slaughter an Arkansas convict,
when crushing news of such mis-
attribution made its way to us.
Happenstance, in this period of
hysterical paranoia, would then
have to account for its offense.

But now we come to observe lèse-
majesté of greater mercy in the
timing of scholarship's finding,
that an insouciant blue-eyed wit,
so long adorning the dust jacket
of every schoolboy's Jacques the
Fatalist, a Fragonard hero incar-
nate, is actually an only lately
identified sitter named Ange-Gab-
riel Meusnier de Querlon, who led
his own merry if discreet liter-
ary existence as a contemporary
of Denis Diderot. Again, just as
we witness the most consumptive
obsession with personal branding
at the highest echelons of daily
news, to be discovered as no Di-
derot must bring the greatest an-
guish. In the present case, that
candidate expired in 1780, and
must be deemed to possess a per-
spective to cope with being un-
masked as who he is. But can so
much be said of a current poseur,
who positively shreds the very
meaning of Enlightenment, with
every bruited burst of spittle?

Yet, to return to poor old Meus-
nier, of spare but golden, swept-
back locks and oranged counten-
ance, do we not discover anew
their commanding power, even in
our time, to inspire a molten
impersonation of a great philo-
sophe, for whom he sacrificed
his own identity to history's
mistake? Could it be, at long,
deferred last, that in freeing
the brow of Denis Diderot from
cruel misrepresentation, some
huge and heated claimant to his
stature is exposed, as shadowing
the forgotten man?

Colin B. Bailey
Fragonard: The Heights
  of Drawing
  A review of an exhibition
  and catalogue from the
  Metropolitan Museum of Art
The New York Review of Books
February 9, 2017©

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