David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

From Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew

One of the centerpiece speeches of Diderot’s masterpiece Rameau’s Nephew, from the tragic, pathetic, hilarious, vexing, vexed nephew, who presents a brilliant facade at social occasions in order to be the perfect social parasite:

For my part, I find in writers a digest of everything one ought to do, and everything one ought not to say. Thus, when I read L’Avare, I tell myself: be miserly, if you wish, but take care not to talk like the miser. When I read Tartuffe, I tell myself: be a hypocrite, if you wish, but don’t talk like a hypocrite. Keep those vices which serve you well, but beware of the tone and the air that go with them, and would make you appear ridiculous. To be sure of avoiding that tone and air, one must know what they are; now, those authors have portrayed them superbly.

I am myself, and that is what I shall remain; but I behave and talk in a socially acceptable manner. I’m not one of those men who despise the moralists. One can profit greatly from them, particularly from those who depict morals in action. Vice itself is only intermittently shocking. The appearance of vice is shocking at all times.

Perhaps it would be better to be an arrogant fellow than to look like one; the man with the arrogant character offends only from time to time; the man with the arrogant face offends all the time.

And by the way, you shouldn’t suppose that I’m the only reader of this kind. The sole merit I claim here is having accomplished systematically, through clear thinking and rational, accurate observation, what the majority of others do by instinct. That’s why their reading doesn’t make them better than me, but instead, they go on being ridiculous, whereas I am so only when I mean to be, and then I leave them far behind me; for the same art that shows me how to avoid ridicule in certain situations, shows me also, in other situations, how to achieve it at a superior level.

Then I bring to mind everything others have said, everything I’ve read, and I add everything of my own invention, which in this domain is surprisingly abundant.



  1. Des Esseintes

    5 May 2011 at 01:48

    French literature reads as if written by adults in a way that British literature almost never matches. Stendhal wasn’t a huge fan of Diderot, despite loving Jacques the Fatalist, but I wonder if he picked up this particular sentiment for his own work. In Memoirs of an Egotist, he says that one can be genuine, or one can be thought genuine, but never both. The idea appears again in Gide’s The Immoralist, in which one of the characters says more or less the same thing. It’s so clearly inarguably true, yet we have centuries of praise on the other side of the Channel for “simplicity,” as if that were a good thing.

  2. David Auerbach

    5 May 2011 at 15:20

    Diderot was a bit of a Coleridgean magpie himself; it’s possible Stendhal picked it up from the same place where Diderot acquired it. Diderot often improves on the wording though, certainly in French but even in translation.

    Am currently reading Blumenberg on the concept of the “naked truth,” which makes a very similar point.

Leave a Reply

© 2024 Waggish

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑