Reading Notes: Diderot

There’s a lot of name-dropping in Rameau’s Nephew, which may be why Diderot never published the book in his lifetime. It recounts a long, probably fictitious conversation between Diderot himself and the brilliant but unsavory person named in the title, the real-life down-at-heels nephew of the French baroque composer Jean-Philippe Rameau.

When not performing intricate pantomimes and discoursing on musical theory, Rameau’s nephew (who does most of the talking) explains how he makes his living as a sponge and buffoon in the homes of the rich, as a procurer of young women for randy aristocrats, and as a teacher of music who never really teaches anything. There’s a bit of Falstaff in him, but he’s more sophisticated, more craven.

“For long ages,” says Rameau, “there was an official King’s Jester, but at no time has there been an official King’s Wise Man.” He plays the jester therefore. Like some of Shakespeare’s jesters, he’s venomous as well as diverting:

“People laud virtue, but they hate and avoid it, for it freezes you to death, and in this world you need to keep your feet warm… Virtue commands respect, and respect is a liability. Virtue commands admiration, and admiration is not funny.”

“If it is important to be sublime in anything, it is especially so in evil. You spit on a petty thief, but you can’t withhold a sort of respect from a great criminal. His courage bowls you over. His brutality makes you shudder. What you value in everything is consistency of character.”

What exactly is Diderot about in Rameau’s Nephew? It’s hard to say. He’s giving the devil his due, perhaps, or purging himself, through the puppet of Rameau, of all the uncharitable thoughts he’s harbored about his fellow men. Or maybe he’s trying to inoculate himself (and us) against the allurements of cynicism and easy hypocrisy:

“One swallows the lie that flatters, but sips the bitter truth drop by drop.”

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