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Compte rendu: Kate Tunstall, 'Diderot's Nodding Pagod'

posted 4 Mar 2015, 06:22 by Cambridge EMS
Kate Tunstall’s object of choice, despite representing an eastern figure, was produced in a European context of commercial competition in the mid-eighteenth century. It was on this context that Tunstall drew in her discussion of how the object related to contemporary discussions of aesthetics, politics, ethics and economics, in particular Diderot’s thinking about luxury.

Pagods (or magots) were collectors items in 1730s and 40s France. Grotesque, bizarre figures, sometimes with articulated heads, hands and tongues, they were often linked to eastern temple culture. Their characteristic movement made them subject of a contemporary idiom: ‘faire la pagode’. Diderot explicitly dislikes the unnatural and imaginary Chinese aesthetic of which they played a part. But Tunstall argued that the pagod, as the ultimate frippery, played an important role in his thinking about an ethically viable political economy.

When Diderot lists objects representing luxury, the magot is frequently the final item. It seems to be the most superfluous thing he can imagine, and a world in which such figures are widespread is thus a world of ‘good luxury’, in which wealth has been acquired for the public rather than the private good, and all members of a society can benefit from this excess by purchasing the most useless artefacts.

At the same time, though, the grimacing, nodding figure is sometimes used to personify those who have bought power and exist in a world of ‘bad luxury’, where the aim is purely to enrich the individual, and artistic taste deteriorates as it is ever further removed from the tempering influence of the public sphere. This is the case in Le Neveu de Rameau, where the title character’s patron, the banker Bertin, is described as a non-functioning pagod: a grotesque but unresponsive statue, who invites idolatrous worship, without responding in any way to his capering, grimacing followers, who in turn become facsimiles of his pagod-like self.

For an online, open access edition & translation of Le Neveu de Rameau, edited by Marian Hobson, and with translation by Kate Tunstall and Caroline Warman, click here.