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Rameau's Nephew / D'alembert's Dream: AND D'Alembert's Dream (Classics) Kindle Edition
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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.
As the novel begins, Rameau ('one of the weirdest characters in this land of ours where God has not been sparing of them') meets the philosopher in a public garden, where chess is being played, and tells him the sad state of his affairs - he has in an ill-timed moment been cruel to another of his 'patron's' hangers-on, and as a result is now back on the street with no money and no prospects. The conversation shifts to a discussion on the subject of genius, the philosopher arguing artists who have achieved great works can be forgiven dissolute habits and viciousness, while Rameau is mainly interested in the fact that (rare) artistic success usually brings in money, something he truly loves, along with 'good wine...luscious food...a tumble with lovely women...soft beds. Apart from that the rest is vanity'.
The topics covered in this book seem endless: music, literature (in one wonderful section Rameau tells how reading the 'moralists' has taught him to lie and deceive more effectively!), virtue, wisdom, fame, reputation, children, education - yet we always return to the woeful amount of corruption in society, for whom Rameau's ideas, claims 'I', 'are so exactly made to the measure of'.
On rare occasions the tone is a little too dry, the discourses on current political and musical controversies go on too long, yet these contribute verisimilitude to the outrageously honest remarks by Rameau: 'the rascal by nature only offends now and again, but the evil-looking person offends all the time', and his difficult to believe behaviour, particularly when he, in rapid succession, totally loses himself in imitation - both physically and vocally - of opera and other musical forms, characters of all ages and from all walks of life, in virtually every possible human situation, and all the sounds of nature - coming down from these performances exhausted, to find himself surrounded by people he had been utterly unaware of. The writing is still fresh and innovative today.
In his superb introduction, Leonard Tancock (also the translator) states: 'The most profound issues raised by the two men in their discussion are certainly the moral ones. The crucial problem which each of the great eighteenth-century French writers tried to solve in his own way, and which none of them solved quite satisfactorily, is this: in varying degrees each was committed to a materialistic philosophy, and this means determinism. But they were equally committed to an emotional faith in progress, civilization, the social virtues of public spirit, kindness, unselfishness. But the logical end of determinism is cynical opportunism, for how can there be moral responsibility if our lives are predetermined by the laws of chemistry and physics?'
Tancock further on adds: 'Finally there is a long discussion of the familiar theme: is happiness possible without virtue? Rameau ingeniously begs the whole question by saying that happiness comes from living according to nature, *one's own nature*. This turns one of the most cherished ideas of some eighteenth-century thinkers upside-down - the notion that nature is right because she is pure, simple, undefiled. Human nature, such people say, is essentially good, and has only been corrupted by evil political forces and social exploitation. Yes, says Rameau, nature is indeed always the best guide, and she counsels free rein for such perfectly natural human traits as sloth, lies, hypocrisy, greed, sensuality. Look at a natural animal or child and deny that if you can'.
Though Rameau (who on this subject as on all others is capable of adopting vastly inconsistent positions and opinions) certainly suggests nature counsels absolute selfishness, does this mean Diderot believes one cannot suggest with equal vigour that nature also counsels unselfishness and virtuous action? Certainly, it is the philosopher who, regarding children, says: 'If the little brute were left to himself and kept in his native ignorance, combining the undeveloped mind of a child in the cradle with the violent passions of a man of thirty, he would wring his father's neck and sleep with his mother'. Yet Rameau sounds entirely reasonable as he argues: 'just let the little brute go his own way and told him nothing, he would want to be expensively dressed, eat sumptuously, be popular with the men and loved by the women, in fact to gather round him all the pleasures of life'. These desires are so normal and common we forget for one moment Rameau means to satisfy them not by any hard work, but by flattery, trickery and any other unscrupulous method opportunity presents. Still, the point remains that Diderot is perhaps not as condemning of human nature as Tancock implies.
In the passage of the novel in which Rameau blames his 'stars', his 'blood', his 'molecule', his 'nature', his 'heredity' for what he has become, it is possible Diderot the literary artist is - with a great deal of irony - facing the facts about human beings in a way Diderot the philosopher perhaps never could. If so, the message would be: 'Moral' responsibility should more accurately be termed 'natural' responsibility. Human nature is at the same time both essentially good and essentially bad. If we claim that we can remove the bad from humanity - or at least suppress it - in order to maximize the good, instead of recognising that each of us has been randomly allotted fixed quantities of these attributes - then to the degree we believe this we are deceiving ourselves.
What the philosopher, and the religious person, with their insistence on abstract notions of human perfectibility (or depravity) will at best merely tolerate, I like to think Diderot is indicating the artist can wholeheartedly - notwithstanding some sadness born of disillusionment - accept and embrace.
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