The Philosopher’s Kiss: A Novel

  • By Peter Prange
  • Atria Books
  • 432 pp.

A rollicking tale set in pre-Revolution France explores the dangers of desire.

How can a philosopher kiss? A philosopher is wise and thus knows the dangers of desire. So, a philosopher cannot kiss. Yet, if you’re like this reader, you’ll guess that many a philosopher does kiss once in a Platonically good, beautiful, and true blue moon. Such tension between an individual’s self and his or her role in society presents the reader of this book’s title a paradox worthy of a philosopher. (If the book’s title led you to read this review, might there be a philosopher in you?)

The West’s most famous philosopher, Socrates might have explained that if and when a philosopher is kissing, he or she is not being a philosopher — not at that moment anyway. This answer raises another question: Once an individual in the role of philosopher has kissed, can that individual continue to play that role? That question parallels many raised by Plato’s Republic and other books of philosophy, religion, and fiction. Such questions tickle the spine of The Philosopher’s Kiss.

Peter Prange, who holds a Ph.D. in the history and philosophy of life during the Enlightenment, sets his historical novel in 1700s France in the decades leading to its political revolution. The Philosopher’s Kiss sketches the struggles among the king, the nobles, and the people in a monarchy. In state offices, many royals indulge their pleasures while taxing and controlling citizens suffering poverty. Some church officials collaborate with the state by investigating unconventional citizens and charging some with immorality. The state supports those efforts by censoring books that they claim violate church doctrine and by imprisoning some of their authors and publishers.

Prange sketches these struggles by speculating about the lives of several actual people, including the central character, Sophie Volland, a lover of a primary editor, author, and philosopher of the Enlightenment, Denis Diderot. Although little is know about the actual Volland, Prange paints her as entwined with not only Diderot but also several other major historical figures and a fictional representative of the Catholic Church.

In Prange’s story, Sophie Volland grows up with her unmarried mother, Madeleine, in a religious town in provincial mid-1700s France, loves the books that her transient-vendor father, Dorval, brings her, wants to fit into her church, and helps church officials by her rare ability to read. Her mother is not legally married, thinks for herself, finds the local church doors closed, is pursued by a nobleman in love, but rejects him. On the day of Sophie’s Holy Communion, Sophie is nervous, and Madeleine gives her a few drops of a black liquid to calm her.

During the church ritual, Sophie receives the Host as Christ and promptly vomits black material. Someone — perhaps a man in a purple-plumed hat — accuses Madeleine of practicing the black arts on Sophie. Madeleine Volland is tried. The judge hides the accuser’s identity because he’s one of the nobility. Madeleine Volland is convicted. A local church official takes Sophie to watch the public burning of her mother as a witch. At the stake, her mother seems to speak toward distant Sophie. But through the noise of the fire and the crowd, the only word Sophie can guess her mother has uttered is “happiness.”

After fleeing to Paris, Sophie waits tables at the Café Procope, a center of freethinkers and intellectual discussions. Serving charming patron Diderot, she initially resists his advances. But soon she yields to his passionate imagination, and they become lovers in both mind and body. Meanwhile, ambitious police spy Sartine eyes not only Diderot and other intellectual writers but also Sophie, whom he quickly desires as his wife. Diderot discovers Sophie’s secret ability to read and write, and she begins to help him write, edit, and publish the Encyclopédie. With her help, it becomes not only a source of knowledge for everyone but also a covert vehicle of freethinkers’ intellectual reactions against extremes of church and state. Lacking marriage to adulterous Diderot, Sophie considers Sartine’s offer of marriage but hesitates.

Yet when Diderot’s publication is challenged, Sophie marries Sartine, who is initially kind to her, and spiritual love blooms. Sartine searches for the identity of her mother’s accuser, and the search seems fruitful. Yet, Sartine shares none of the fruit with Sophie, and thus their marriage leaves her empty and hungry. Hearing about Diderot’s troubles, she reconsiders him. Yet, over the following years she works for King Louis XV’s powerful courtesan, Madame de Pompadour, goes with state censor Malesherbes, and persuades publisher Le Breton to help her covertly cut Encyclopédie text that might enflame the censors.

What do Sophie’s relationships through the course of her fictional life have to do with philosophy? Prange draws the major players’ experiences, feelings, thoughts, words, and behaviors so that we can sense and speculate on the connections among their desires, personal philosophies, and abilities to play their roles in society. Thus, both Sartine’s philosophy about marriage and his philosophy about spying on freethinkers might derive from his physical and emotional incapacities and his desire to hide them. In rivalry with Diderot for Sophie’s heart, can Sartine be objective in spying and reporting on him? If not, can he be a true spy or police officer? King Louis XV’s desires for wealth, pleasure, wit, contentment, and flesh distract him from the people’s sufferings, which he seems to rationalize.

Once he’s kissed La Pompadour, can this king be a good ruler? Although Diderot’s philosophic writings served France by stimulating dialogue on the extremities of church–state over its suffering body politic, his philosophy was somewhat overcooked materialism. Likely it was singed by his desire to question the church’s promise of a heavenly afterlife, as food enough for the hungry poor, and to defy the strict regulations that state–church imposed on people’s self-expression, for example, burning his books. In turn, that desire might have been fueled by his father’s strictness. Once Diderot’s desires turn into passions distorting his philosophy, can he be a good, true, and beautiful philosopher? Thus, Prange sketches the dangers of desires’ burning one’s personal philosophy and ability to play one’s role in society. In turn, such sketches illustrate how such personal desires, philosophies, and role-playing melt together into the philosophy of one’s time.

Moreover, Prange’s characters kiss and hit, divide and join, stand and switch, shout and twist in an interaction of opposites fitting ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus’ transformations between day and night, air and fire, and the like — much like an ancient Taoist’s yang’s poking, fitting, melting into yin — and vice versa. Thus, despite some excesses, opposites’ expressions often melt together into the Socratic virtue of moderation. Prange illustrates how the interactions of many opposing players’ personal philosophies help a tyrannical monarchy melt, twist, and turn into the greater justice and wisdom of a republic.

Reading this book is delightful. If you would enjoy imagining the course of publishing, morality, politics, or philosophy within the real stream of life, you should read this book. More, it should lightly calm any editor who envies authors, any author who hates editors, any publisher who resents censorship, and any censor or churchgoer who hates agnostics, atheists, nonconformists, freethinkers, intellectuals, or the media.

Happily, thy servant commands you to read The Philosopher’s Kiss if you desire a light read that enlightens and delights. (In the unlikely event that you don’t love this book, please moderate any desire to toss it into the fire at the next trial of a witch.)

Chris J. deGrazia has been an editor and writer for decades and has studied philosophy, physics, the social sciences, and the history and literature of political philosophy for two degrees from the University of Chicago. Sources and suggested readings associated with this review can be found here.

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