Denis Diderot

Rameau’s Nephew

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Rameau’s Nephew Summary

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Rameau’s Nephew (subtitled The Second Satire) by the French polymath Denis Diderot is a fictionalized version of the author talking to the nephew of a prominent composer in a Parisian café. Over the course of their wild and occasionally combative talk, they dissect their own personal histories and concerns for the nation at large. Diderot chose not to publish the satirical work during his lifetime (1713-1784). It was first published in German by the equally influential German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in 1805. The first French edition did not appear for another sixteen years. Diderot remains best known for being the editor of an enormous encyclopedia that captured the latest thoughts of the Enlightenment.

Themes include family, the link (or absence of one) between money and genius, exposing hypocrisy, the education system, and the rampant success of mediocrity in society. It is probable that Diderot chose not to publish Rameau’s Nephew (Le Neveu de Rameau in French) during his lifetime because of the extended monologues critical of his contemporaries. Had the work been published, he could easily have been arrested not only for the personal caricatures, but also for the surprisingly bawdy language.

“Moi” (me) is loosely based on the author. “Lui” (him) is the imaginary nephew of Jean-Philippe Rameau, the most famous composer of mid-eighteenth-century France. Diderot personally hated Rameau, and the two of them had engaged in public arguments in the past. Diderot makes “him” a young, talented composer who is already embittered by the way the world seems to structure itself so that his talent is never recognized, even while the pedestrian music of his uncle is praised.

The work begins with the author talking about his daily routine. He usually walks around Paris early in the morning and has all sorts of imaginary conversations with himself. The topics he discusses include love, politics, and art. He’ll often stop by the Café de la Régence to watch the great chess players of his day combat one another. This includes real-life figures, such as François-André Danican Philidor and François Antoine de Legall de Kermeur. One day, he meets Rameau’s irascible nephew there.

The narrator describes Rameau’s nephew as having a “strong constitution, a singularly heated imagination, and an exceptionally vigorous set of lungs.” The nephew is a vivacious young man who sees through hypocrisy and pretension with singular ease. He jokingly calls the avuncular figure of Diderot, “Mister Philosopher.”

After establishing the setting and the outline of the two major characters, the rest of Rameau’s Nephew is arranged like a play, where all of the dialogue is introduced after a “Him” or “Me.” The dialogue between the two men increasingly heats up, as if they were in an intense game of chess. Rameau’s nephew tends to say the more outrageous things; he also speaks in monologues that can last for more than two pages.

Rameau’s nephew complains about being pushed out of his own home. His family didn’t like how freely he expressed himself; what they view as insolence, he regards as artistic sincerity. Over time, he seems to say such ridiculous things that the reader cannot be sure if he’s joking or being serious. At several points, he ridicules his uncle (though a couple times he asks Diderot to keep hush about the insult).

They discuss notions of genius. They both seem to agree that society does not support true geniuses. They reference Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu, and even Diderot, as men of great talent who must “pimp” themselves out to survive the economy. Rameau’s nephew says he wishes he could be the sort of “sycophantic” man who makes himself a jocular fool for the entertainment of the rich. He claims, “There’s no better role to play in the company of great men than the fool.”

Rameau’s nephew decries the fate of man, which is to rot away; whether one is rich or poor, the fate is the same for everyone. He pessimistically says the only solid thing humanity ever leaves behind is fecal matter. He goes on several other tangents, asking Diderot how old his daughter is and mentioning that he once had a wife.

They debate over music and art, attempting to define both. They talk about the point of literature. Diderot maintains that the point is to provide the reader with amusement and instruction, as well as duty and “loving virtue, hating vice.” Rameau’s nephew cynically proclaims that all literature teaches you is how to not look like a hypocrite or a selfish person.

Diderot calls Rameau’s nephew a greedy, cowardice, scumbag. Rameau’s nephew comes back by agreeing with him, but at least he’s not dishonest—he said from the very start of their conversation that he had all of those bad qualities.

Rameau’s nephew suddenly ends the conversation by saying he has to go to the opera. He leaves, asking Mister Philosopher if it’s sad that the conversation hasn’t changed his ignoble behavior at all. Diderot agrees that it is a pity.