Les Bijoux Indiscrets

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Les Bijoux Indiscrets

Denis Diderot (1713–1784), a towering philosopher of the French Enlightenment, published an early novel titled Les Bijoux Indiscrets ([Indiscrete jewels], translated as The Indiscreet Toys in an English edition of 1749) in January 1748 without an author or a publisher name. It recounts the lengthy divertissement of a bored sultan in an Orientalized Congo who is curious about the faithfulness of women, especially the favorite of his harem. He turns a magical ring on all the women of the realm, enjoying its ability to force the "jewel" hidden in their bodies—their sex—to speak frankly and unreservedly about its owner's exploits. This allows the sultan to observe the sexual profligacy of any and all of his subjects and the corruption, venality, hypocrisy, and mendacity of the entire culture: Women sell themselves to cover gambling debts, priests are the first to profit from promiscuity, and husbands seek advancement through their wives' lovers.


Bijoux belongs to the eighteenth-century genre of Orientalist fiction and generally is considered to be an imitation of Le sopha-conte moral (1740) by the fashionable Crébillon Fils (Claude Prosper Jolyot de Crébillon, 1707–1777) and perhaps of Nocrion, conte allobroge (1747), which has been attributed to Caylus (Anne Claude Philippe, Comte de Caylus, 1692–1765). However, Bijoux is also a direct heir to a medieval tradition and has been associated with a fabliau in which a knight makes women's sexual body parts speak, and Diderot might also have been influenced by Renaissance texts called Blasons in which a particular part of a woman's body is extolled and described in detail, sometimes as the result of an exploration by an outside force, which could be the eye, the hand, or even an emboldened insect.


Although the book was an immediate commercial success, Diderot was denounced to the chief of police on February 14, 1748. His bad reputation in matters of religion and morality had intensified before and after this publication. In 1746 he had completed the Pensées philosophiques, which marked his conversion to deism; that work was condemned roundly by the French parliament on July 7 of that year. On June 20, 1747, he was denounced to the police for irreligiousness for writing De la suffisance de la religion naturelle (published only in 1770) and the Skeptic's Promenade (published as late as 1830). On June 3, 1749, his Lettre sur les aveugles, à l'usage de ceux qui voient ([Letter on blindness, for the use of those who have their sight], which was translated in 1770) immediately garnered him the dangerous label of an atheist. This time the police searched his home, and he was arrested and jailed at Vincennes.

Subjected to an interrogatory, Diderot first denied any wrongdoing and then, on August 11, 1750, broke down and confessed his role, betraying his mistress, Madame de Puisieux (Madeleine d'Arsant de Puisieux, 1720–1798), as the responsible party. Somehow he got out of jail, probably through the distributors of the Encyclopédie, a massive project that Diderot and his friend d'Alembert (1717–1783) officially undertook in 1747 and whose first volume appeared in 1751.

While in Vincennes, Diderot began to blame Bijoux for his troubles. With time he increasingly disowned the work and publicly professed to have committed an embarrassing youthful error and to regret it as a respectable writer, moralist, philosopher, and art critic. His publisher, Naigeon, claimed that he lamented the work's existence every day of his life. However, that contrition might have been theatrical in that Diderot added material to the text well after 1750, including three chapters that went into the 1798 edition on his explicit instructions. In 1761 he still was apologizing for the work, calling it abominable and still blaming his mistress. He circulated an ugly story that she asked him for fifty louis that he did not have and that in despair he wrote the novel in a hurry and according to popular taste to earn that sum.

This was a murky episode in Diderot's relationship to Madeleine de Puisieux, a respectable author who wrote on pedagogy and manners and translated a work on the equality of women and men. Diderot fed the misogynist stereotypes of his time, casting Madeleine de Puisieux as the instigator and a prurient female lover of salacious literature, the force behind the indecent parts, whereas philosophical thinking remained the province of Diderot, the male, much as was the case with the characters in Bijoux (Rustin 1979).


The work elicited massive invective in the early nineteenth century, followed by decades of silence and obscurity in the early twentieth century and then a more accepting attitude after the 1960s. However, the work still was treated with some discomfort by modern editors. Scholars in the late twentieth century recognized its importance and commented on it extensively, although they may focus less on the blatant sexual aspects of the work in relation to its other dimensions.

Already incontrovertibly linked to the history of erotic literature (Rustin 1979), Bijoux completely breached the bastions of propriety with a section that is one of the earliest European works of identifiable verbal pornography, in which a "traveling jewel" recounts its adventures in what seems to be the most explicit detail. But is it so explicit? Those pages are written in languages other than French: English, Latin, Italian, and Spanish. This creates a screen or the semblance of a screen for Diderot's educated contemporaries between the ribald and the literally obscene. Further, the degree of crude graphic rendition of sex acts varies considerably from text to text. The English version, for instance, is filled with the strings of sexual metaphors (both explicit and concealing) characteristic of erotic French literature since the late Middle Ages and certainly since the Renaissance. Diderot thus created at once a linguistic tour de force, a rhetorical experiment in verbalizing the obscene, and a representational puzzle, signaled by that deliberate act of veiling and unveiling.

All these aspects of the work have intrigued interpreters of Diderot's oeuvre, eliciting scholarly reflections on the interface of sexuality and textuality and on the scripting of desire in text (Creech 1979; Wall 1994). Michel Foucault used Bijoux to illustrate his thesis of the constant sex talk of modern Western European culture: "We willingly imagine ourselves under a 'victorian' regime," he wrote in a brief essay. "It seems to me instead that our kingdom is the one imagined by Diderot in Les bijoux indiscrets; a certain, nearly invisible mechanism makes sex speak in a virtually inexhaustible chatter. We are in a society of speaking sex" (Foucault 1978, p. 6). Foucault deemed the text extremely important for the history of sexuality and its discourses, for part four of the first volume of his History of Sexuality begins with the statement: "The aim of this series of studies? To transcribe into history the fable of Les bijoux indiscrets" (Foucault 1990, p. 77). Foucault saw the fable, and the device of the ring, as allegorical of the Western will to know about sex and make others speak about it, to understand "what is it that we demand of sex, beyond its possible pleasures, that makes us so persistent?" (p. 79).

Scholars have thus responded to Foucault's reading of Bijoux, making the sultan into a form of critic who adumbrates the will to see and know contained in the Encyclopédie (Creech 1986). Some have attempted to move beyond the ribaldry of the text or correct its apparent misogyny (Meeker 2003), stressing that in the end the virtue of women is upheld (Humphries 1989, Fowler 1997), or that, in fact, it is not about the sexuality of women at all, but about male desire (Fowler 2000). Others, on the contrary, have read it as an historical contribution to building the misogynistic view of woman as disease, specifically linked to the theme of smallpox (Goldberg 1984). Others have underscored its carnivalesque and operatic quality (Didier 1984), or showed its intrinsic connection to the wider philosophical problems addressed by Diderot elsewhere, in particular its relationship to libertine philosophy (Richard 1998, Meeker 2003) and to the critique of metaphysics (Deneys-Tunney 1999).

see also Pornography.


Beeharry-Paray, Geeta. 2000. "Les Bijoux indiscrets de Diderot: Pastiche, forgerie ou charge du conte crébillonien?" Diderot Studies 28: 21-38.

Creech, James. 1979. "Language and Desire in Les Bijoux indiscrets." Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation 20: 182-198.

Creech, James. 1986. Diderot: Thresholds of Representation. Columbus: Ohio State University Press.

Deneys-Tunney, Anne. 1999. "La Critique de la métaphysique dans les Bijoux indiscrets et Jacques le Fataliste de Diderot." Recherches sur Diderot et sur l'Encyclopédie 26: 141-151.

Diderot, Denis. 1981. Les Bijoux Indiscrets, ed. Jacques Rustin. Paris: Gallimard Folio.

Didier, Béatrice. 1984. "L'Opéra fou des Bijoux." Europe: Revue Litteraire Mensuelle 661: 142-150.

Foucault, Michel. [1978] 1990. The History of Sexuality. Vol. 1, An Introduction. New York: Random House.

Foucault, Michel. 1978. "The West and the Substance of Sex," trans. Laurence E. Winters. SubStance, Focus on the Margins 6 (20): 6-8.

Fowler, J. E. 1997. "Diderot's Family Romance: Les Bijoux indiscrets Reappraised." Romantic Review 88(1): 89-102.

Fowler, J. E. 2000. Voicing Desire: Family and Sexuality in Diderot's Narrative. Oxford, UK: Voltaire Foundation.

Goldberg, Rita. 1984. Sex and Enlightenment: Women in Richardson and Diderot. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Humphries, Jefferson. 1989. "The Eighteenth Century Reinvents Virtue: A Reading of Diderot's Bijoux indiscrets." French Forum 14(1): 31-42.

Laborde, Alice M. 1984a. Diderot et Madame de Puisieux. Stanford French and Italian Studies, no. 36. Saratoga, CA: Anma Libri.

Laborde, Alice M. 1984b. "Madeleine de Puisieux et Diderot: De l'égalité entre les sexes." In L'Egalité. Travaux du Centre de Philosophie du Droit de l'Université Libre de Bruxelles. ed. Léon Ingber. Brussels: Bruylant.

Meeker, Natania. 2003. "'All Times Are Present to Her': Femininity, Temporality, and Libertinage in Diderot's 'Sur les femmes.'" Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies 3(2): 68-100.

Mylne, Vivienne, and Janet Osborne. 1971. "Diderot's Early Fiction: Les Bijoux Indiscrets and l'Oiseau blanc." Diderot Studies 14: 143-166.

Richard, Odile. 1998. "Les Bijoux indiscrets: Variation secrète sur un thème libertin." Recherches sur Diderot et sur l'Encyclopédie 24: 27-37.

Rustin, Jacques. 1979. Le Vice à la mode: Étude sur le roman français du XVIIIe siècle: De Manon Lescaut à l'apparition de La Nouvelle Héloïse: 1731–1761. Paris: Ophrys.

Wall, Anthony. 1994. "Le Bavardage du corps ou Les Bijoux indiscrets de Denis Diderot." Neophilologus 78:3: 351-359.

                                   Francesca Canadé Sautman