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Rameau's Nephew and D'Alembert's Dream (Penguin Classics) Paperback – October 28, 1976

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Editorial Reviews

Language Notes

Text: English, French (translation)

About the Author

Denis Diderot was born at Langres in eastern France in 1713, the son of a master cutler. He was originally destined for the Church but rebelled and persuaded his father to allow him to complete his education in Paris, where he graduated in 1732. For ten years Diderot was nominally a law student, but actually led a precarious bohemian but studious existence, eked out with tutoring, hack-writing and translating. His original writing began in 1746 with a number of scientific works setting out the materialist philosophy which he was to hold throughout his life. Along with his editorship of the Encyclopédie (1747-73), he wrote works on mathematics, medicine, the life sciences, economics, drama and painting, two plays and a novel, as well as his Salons (1759-81). His political writings were mainly composed around 1774 for Catherine II, at whose invitation he went to St. Petersburg. Diderot's astonishingly wide range of interests, together with his growing prediliction for the dialogue form, led to the production of his most famous works: D'Alembert's Dream, The Paradox of the Actor, Jacques the Fatalist and Rameau's Nephew. During the latter part of his life Diderot received a generous pension from Catherine II, in return for which he bequeathed her his library and manuscripts. He died in 1784.

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Product Details

  • Series: Penguin Classics
  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Classics; Reprint edition (October 28, 1976)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140441735
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140441734
  • Product Dimensions: 5 x 0.5 x 7.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 6.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #71,267 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Bruce Kendall VINE VOICE on May 27, 2000
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is probably Diderot's most widely read work in English translation. There is good reason for it. Rather than strict philosophical treatises, Rameau's Nephew and D'Alembert's Dream are a series of comic dilogues which serve as vehicles to attack conventional 18th century social mores and theology. In the first book, Rameau, who is an actual historical figure, the nephew of the famed composer, runs into the narrator (Diderot) in a parisian cafe where games of chess are going on around them. Rameau is one of the great comic creations of 18th century French literature. He is a cross between Lear's fool and Dostoevsky's Underground Man. Like the fool, he gets away (until recently) with saying outrageous things to his benefactor's faces, because they tend to regard him as a buffoon. Like the underground man, he is constantly vacillating in terms of his self-image. For the most part he excoriates himself and even seems to revel in the fact that he has brought his misery upon himself. This is in fact a rather ennobling trait, and probably part of the reason that Diderot doesn't dismiss him out of hand. Rameau really doesn't blame others. He accepts resposibility for getting himself kicked out of his rich sponsor's household. He also blames himself for the loss of his attractive young wife. Diderot's descriptions of Rameau's japery is hilarious. Rameau is an accomplished mimic. He performs an entire opera there in the cafe, singing all the parts and providing his own unorthodox instrumental accompaniment. Diderot writes: "What didn't he do?Read more ›
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Rameau's Nephew is one of the the world's best books. It is a supremely entertaining and profound examination of the puzzling capacity of human beings to simultaneously contain both vile selfishness and the ability to self-sacrifice, and why corruption and dishonesty often seem to have the upper hand. Diderot's triumph is that he manages to eschew didacticism for an artistically well-rounded study of one of the greatest characters - whose honest venality calls forth a sympathetic response from all of us - ever to appear in a work of fiction.

Taking the philosophical dialogue form as its structure, the book presents an extremely vivid conversation (often sublime, sometimes crude) between 'I', a philosopher presumably based on Diderot himself , and 'He', Rameau, the nephew of a famous musician in France around the middle of the eighteenth-century. The philosopher represents many of the best aspects of the 'enlightenment' - honesty, hard work, patriotism, concern for his fellow-man, while Rameau is precisely the opposite - he is a sponger, a parasite who lives off - when he can - the rich and corrupt members of society, utterly disdaining work (though he has intelligence, some musical gifts and a near-supernatural talent for mimicry and impersonation) unless driven to it by imminent starvation. He throws away his self-respect to toady to the idle bourgeois who keep him in funds, food and clothing, only occasionally letting his true feelings be seen.
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If ever there was a cafe novel this is it though it is not really a novel as it consists mainly of dialogue or a dialectic between(perhaps) the two sides of Diderot himself. It is very funny and its all very staged to be that way of course. It makes fun of what passes for reason as this was The Age of Reason and so it has been called a precursor to the romantic movement but still what it most values is cleverness and that seems to fit very well with the age it comes from. Chock full of witty chat, and anti establishment(accepted views) banter in the Candide to Celine tradition of French letters, Rameau's Nephew plays devils advocate to an entire epoch . What is most appealing about this is the earthy idleness which is the center the wandering intelligence(s) roam around. It is a liberating feeling to read a book which challenges a whole societys agenda and self view. It is interesting to see that this is the tradition Celine and Beckett inherited and furthered(well, used) in their own way. A sort of gleeful anti utopian pessimism seems the attitude to adopt if one wants to keep ones dignity in the face of society's sometimes ludicrous efforts to maintain the appearance of civilization . Of course the greatest cafe novel is Man Without Qualities but that is just too long to read at one sitting. Check please, garcon.
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Denis Diderot's groundbreaking philosophical text, Rameau's Nephew is a discourse between Rameau, a musician and jester for the rich, and a philosopher, possibly Diderot himself. Rameau takes the name of "He" throughout the discussion, while the philosopher is referred to as "I". One of their first areas of disagreement arises with their discussion on men of genius; this discussion then leads into many other areas of philosophy and music. He takes a definite position on the side of materialism, greed, nihilism, and cynicism, and goes to the farthest extreme in defending the accuracy with which these ideas explain why people act as they do. On the other hand, it is more difficult to determine the position that I takes, the philosopher possibly argues Diderot's ideas on these subjects, but there is also evidence that Diderot in fact disagrees with him, and merely uses I's stance to show many of the conventional and socially accepted ideas of the time. Problems arise when one tries to classify where I's ideas come from, and they strange events surrounding the printing of the text only add to these woes. Diderot never allowed Rameau's Nephew to be printed during his lifetime; it was only after his death that versions of the manuscript were printed. These concerns make finding a definite position for I to take a difficult proposition. Taking into consideration the printing dates of the text as well as discrepancies within in the ideas of the philosopher lead to a conclusion that Diderot probably does not agree with the philosopher, but uses him to serve a purpose in regards to Rameau. Diderot makes the philosopher's defense of genius based on amoral grounds and contradictory to his later arguments on virtue and morals because Diderot wants to show the inanity in conceptions commonly held by the general public.
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