Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Rameau's Nephew by Denis Diderot.

Denis Diderot.
Rameau's Nephew, or the Second Satire (Le Neveu de Rameau ou La Satire Seconde) was written by Denis Diderot (the editor of the Encyclopédie, 1751-72) between 1760-61, then revised in 1773-74. It was translated into German by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and first published in 1805 as Rameaus Neffe, however the original manuscripts in French were lost until 1890 when they were found by Georges Monval. These were published in 1891: previously, the main French edition had been a re-translation of Goethe's Rameaus Neffe. And I'm afraid the actual book itself is no less complex than the history of its publication!

In short it's a dialogue between the unnamed narrator ("I" or "Moi": could it be the real Diderot? This is up for debate) and Jean-François Rameau, the nephew of the famous Baroque composer Jean-Philippe Rameau (who composed, for example, Les Fêtes d'Hébé, Zaïs, and Pigmalion, and was the author of Treatise on Harmony, 1722). This dialogue takes place at the Palais-Royal in Paris.

Jean-Philippe Rameau by Jacques Aved (1728).
The dialogue begins following a brief description Rameau, his nephew, and the Palis-Royal. Diderot writes of the Rameau and his nephew:
Somehow or other he had wormed his way into several good homes, where there was always a place laid for him, but on a conditon that he did not speak unless permission had been given. He held his peace and ate in rage. Kept under retraint in this way he was wonderful to behold. If he felt like breaking the agreement and opened his mouth, at the first word all the company cried: 'Oh, Rameau!' Then his eyes glittered with rage and he fell to eating again with renewed fury. You were anxious to know this man's name and not you do. He is a nephew of the famous musician who has delivered us from the plainsong of Lully that we have been chanting for over a hundred years, who has written so many unintelligible visions and apocalyptic truths on the theory of music, not a word of which he or anyone else has ever understood, and from whom we have a certain number of operas in which there is harmony, snatches of song, disconnected ideas, clash of arms, dashings to and fro, triumphs, lances, glories, murmurs and victories to take your breath away, and some dance tunes which will last forever. 
The narrator describes himself sitting in the Palais-Royal watching chess players when Ramaeu's nephew approaches him,
He accosts me... 'Aha, there you are, Mr. Philosopher, and what are you doing here among all this lot of idlers? Are you wasting your time, too, pushing the wood about?'
Example of the dialogue.
From here the two engage in dialogue, talking about a whole manner of things - society, philosophy, music, politics, morality... The dialogue is so fluid and life-like it's hard at times to pinpoint exactly where the change in conversation takes place, it simply flows. Nevertheless it is a notoriously tricky piece of writing that may be interpreted in different ways. I've been guided by the translator of my edition, Leonard Tancock (who also translated a number of Zola books - The Debacle, Germinal, and Thérèse Raquin to name a few).

In his introduction, Tancock writes under four main headings:
1. An attack upon the enemies of the Encyclopédie and of progress?
2. A battle in the musical war?
3. A discussion of moral values?
4. Literary and artisitc questions?
In the first instance, an attack on the enemies of the Encyclopédie, Rameau would represent the enemies by opposing anything that does not serve his own interests. With regards to the "musical war", it should be noted that Jean-Philippe Rameau (the uncle) objected to articles on music within the Encyclopédie. The musical criticism within Rameau's Nephew would be an acknowledgement and response to this, though, as Tancock noted, Diderot "knew next to nothing about music". As a discussion of moral values, both the narrator and Rameau had faith in the values of the Enlightenment such as progress and civilisation, but both are also determinists, believing that our lives are pre-determined by our biology, chemistry, and physics. This dialogue would represent trying to come to terms with morality and determinism; if it is possible to choose to act morally if one is already pre-determined to act in a certain way. From here the conversation moves on to other moral issues of the time - the goal of morality, is it worth it in the end?, is it better to be happy and immoral rather than unhappy and moral?, and the possible incompatibility with contemporary social perceptions of morality with human nature. Finally, the literary and artistic questions include the question of virtuous literature (I recently read Samuel Johnson's thoughts on this) with reference to Moliére and La Bruyère, which Rameau's nephew claims to read in order to pick up tips on how to be immoral, which naturally turns to the abuse of literature - as Tancock writes,
... what is to prevent the unscrupulous from utilizing this obvious fact in order to sell pornographic literature disguised as a purity campaign?
Here perception and reality are discussed again in terms of morality. Rameau's nephew says,
For instance, when I read L'Avare I say to myself: 'Be a miser if you want to, but mind you don't talk like one.' When I read Tartuffe I tell myself: 'Be a hypocrite, by all means, but don't talk like a hypocrite. Keep the vices that come in useful to you, but don't have either the tone or the appearance, which would expose you to ridicule.' Now in order to avoid this tone and appearance you must know what they are, and these authors have done excellent portraits of them. I am myself, and I remain myself, but I act and speak as occasion requires. I am not one of those who look down on the moralists, not I! There is much to be got from them, especially those who have shown morality in action. Evil only upsets people now and then, but the visible signs on evil hurt them from morning till night. it might be better to be a rascal than to look like one: the rascal by nature only offends now and again, but the evil-looking person offends all the time. And don't imagine that I am the only one who reads in this way.
And so it goes. Whatever Diderot's point or motivation in writing Rameau's Nephew may be up for debate, but whatever it is, it's extremely lively and fun to read. It also gives a good insight into morality in the Enlightenment, which is not an era I'm very familiar with at all. Next week I'll be reading and writing about D'Alembert's Dream (Le Rêve de d'Alembert), again not published until long after Diderot's death, which is the second story in my Penguin volume. Until then, some illustrations: these are by J L Perrichon and published in 1922 by Helleu et Sergent in Paris.


  1. I'm reading Rousseau's Confessions and apparently he and Diderot were buddies. It made me laugh when I read Diderot knew nothing about music because Rousseau loved music and initially knew little about it but decided to become a music teacher anyway. He had some disasters but eventually learned through his students. I know little about the Enlightenment, but sometimes it seems like these "thinkers" thought they knew everything, even if they knew next to nothing about a subject. And I wonder if Rameau's Nephew's thoughts encompass Enlightenment thinking ...... the appearance is more important than the reality ...???? In any case, it's wise that you're reading a number of books set in this time period so you can draw parallels in their thinking.

    1. I loved Confessions, especially the first few chapters! Have you read Rousseau's Social Contract? I did once ages ago, but retained nothing - I'll have to re-read it.

      By the way - I'm so behind on reading blog posts! I've got all your's saved and I'm hoping to have a catch up tonight :) We're preparing for tomorrow (new chickens!) but it should all be done by evening. Missed out on loads of stuff this week! :)

    2. I've loved the first half of Confessions. When he takes the two year break and returns to writing it, there is much more boasting and a "poor me" flavour to it which I find slightly distasteful. I've gained an appreciation for Rousseau though ...... somehow I quite understand him, even though I would never want to be him. I haven't read The Social Contract. Given some of his "theories" in his Confessions, I think his philosophy may be driven more by emotion and quickly contrived surmises, rather than a solid reason, but it will be interesting to find out.

      I'm exhausted from trying to keep up with everyone. My posts will probably slow down now that I'm back from island vacation. I'm struggling with my Persuasion post and trudging happily through some C.S. Lewis essays while trying to finish up Montaigne, so that should give you a reading breather!

      So excited about your chickens!!! I wish I would get brave enough to get some. We aren't allowed them here but I don't think anyone would complain. However I'm usually away for a month in the summer so I hesitate to add more animals. I'll probably regret it though, in hindsight.......

    3. We picked the chickens up yesterday - I've just put a post up. It's a shame you can't keep chickens, they're perfect pets :)


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