Waggish

Denis Diderot: Rameau’s Nephew

(This etext of Rameau’s Nephew seems to be an adequate translation, and it’s a short piece.)

I’ve sat on this one for a bit because it is such a strange book, and I fear that a lack of context for it could easily lead a reader down the path of a wrong interpretation. Still, what is on the page is a fairly simple story; it’s the implications that are left ambiguous. The “I” who is the narrator encounters “He,” Rameau’s nephew, in the street, and has something of a one-sided conversation with him. “He” is something of a societal con-man, a poor man who has mastered polite conversation to climb his way to various functions and subsidence. Yet he is filled with contempt for those around him; his loves for art, opera, and his dead wife alienate him from the society he inhabits. He is often cynical, yet reveals the highest ideals at several points, and cries at his inability to bring them to life despite obvious intelligence and skill. “I” stands by and issues ultra-idealistic, naive remarks questioning “He,” taking a condescending Panglossian standpoint towards “He”‘s lack of ethics and integrity.

Hegel loved Rameau’s Nephew and declared “He” to be an advancement in consciousness, transcending “I”‘s conventional and unimaginative “honest self” construct. Lionel Trilling drew on Hegel’s interpretation in Sincerity and Authenticity to present a model of human evolution in which we conceived of an “inner self” strictly separate from our external behavior, one we could or could not be “sincere” to. “He”, Trilling says, is one of the earliest examples of the inauethentic self on full display; i.e., the man who forever measures the distance between his thoughts and the actions which he performs in society. Trilling states:

The moral judgement which the dialogue makes upon man in society is not finally rejected but coexists with its contradition, and upon its validity and weight depends the force of the idea that the moral categories may be transcended. And it is the Nephew himself who invokes the moral categories at the same time that he negates them–the moral judgement is grounded upon the cogency of Rameau’s observation of social behaviour and the shamelessness with which he exhibits his own shame.

To paraphrase, Trilling suggests that “He” has taken the first step towards Nietzsche’s analysis of ethics, not by condemning morality but by saying that it is not an authentic performance, so that morality is something that must be done with conscious intent, and may not reflect what a person has in their heart. (It is this position that Alasdair MacIntyre would later identify as the keystone weakness of Enlightenment ethics in his brilliant After Virtue.)

It is the “I” that first interests me. While “He” is hardly coherent in his beliefs, alternating between a Nietzschean destruction of Enlightenment values and a more arbitrary Schopenhauer-esque personal bitterness at the world, “I” does a fairly lousy job of refuting him. “I” is, if anything, less likable and certainly less interesting, and in no way could be said to represent Diderot’s own values. Even at the very end, when “He” declares that he’d rather beg favor than work for a bourgeois life, “I” spits on him, calling him amoral and lazy, all the while displaying the attitude of the well-off fat cat who’s just come from a salon. (The introduction by “I” is particularly obnoxious when read in this light.)

While “He” rants and trumpets himself, “I” offers token opposition, but what is “I”‘s reaction to “He”‘s charge of hypocrisy in the upper classes, attacking the shallow salons and social habits of the perfumed set, accusing them of not knowing good music from bad, and not recognizing life from death? “I” begins to acknowledge the hypocrisy of his own people, but only in parenthetical comments, not in his actual dialogue:

In all this there was much that we all think and on which we all act, but which we leave unsaid. That, indeed, was the most obvious difference between this man and most of those we meet. He owned up to the vices he had and which others have–he was no hypocrite. He was no more abominable than they, and no less. He was simply more open, more consistent, and sometimes more profound in his depravity.

Interesting that “I” excludes himself from this charge. Interesting that shortly after this observation, he once more attacks “He” for lacking exactly this consistency. “He” declares his praise for the cynic Diogenes, who abandoned corrupt society to live in squalor in pursuit of truth. “He” confesses that he likes the benefits of haute couture too much to leave them behind, and “I” viciously attacks him as a cowardly wastrel (with which “He” cheerfully agrees). This inconsistency is too great to be unintentional. “I” is more of a target than “He”: “I” admits “He”‘s points, but only to himself, and does not condemn himself for working within society. But for “He” to take advantage of the corrupt system is a betrayal. “I”‘s interest lies in protecting the notion of fair play within the system that “He” has damned. After all, it’s in “I”‘s best interests.

Diderot’s attack, I think, is the first critique of Enlightenment reformism, the notion that a system can yield intellectual integrity and incremental improvements even as its people are terrible hypocrites. Moreover, it shows one of the system’s brightest exponents (“I”) able to hear and understand criticism of the system while still condemning the messenger. “I” privately admits the strength of “He”‘s critique to himself, yet ends by publicly thrashing “He,” claiming “He” has no credibility. Yet of course, the critic’s credibility was ruined by openly criticizing the system in the first place. By straying from acceptable (hypocritical) speech, “He” loses authority in the very system his unacceptable speech attacks. “I”‘s argument is a more sophisticated variant of “Play by the rules. If you don’t like it, go to Russia.” One look at the Washington press corps today, and the similarities are painful.

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