Excerpt: 'Rameau's Nephew, or the Second Satire' by Denis Diderot
No matter what the weather, rain or shine, it’s my habit every evening at about five o’clock to take a walk around the Palais Royal. I’m the one you see dreaming on the bench in Argenson’s Alley, always alone. I talk to myself about politics, love, taste, or philosophy. I let my spirit roam at will, allowing it to follow the first idea, wise or foolish, which presents itself, just as we see our dissolute young men on Foy’s Walk following in the footsteps of a prostitute with a smiling face, an inviting air, and a turned-up nose, then leaving her for another, going after all of them and sticking to none. For me, my thoughts are my prostitutes.
If the weather is too cold or too rainy, I take refuge in the Regency Café. I like to watch the games of chess. The best chess players in the world are in Paris, and the best players in Paris are in the Regency Café. Here, in Rey’s establishment, they battle it out–Legal the Profound, Philidor the Subtle, Mayot the Solid. One sees the most surprising moves and hears the stupidest remarks. For one can be an intelligent man and a great chess player, like Legal, but one can also be a great chess player and a fool, like Foubert and Mayot.
One day I was there after dinner, looking on a great deal but not saying much, listening as little as possible, when I was accosted by one of the most bizarre people in this country (and God has made sure we don’t lack such types). He is a mixture of loftiness and depravity, of good sense and buffoonery. The notions of honesty and dishonesty must be really badly confused in his head, for he shows without ostentation that nature has given him fine qualities, and has no shame in revealing that he has also received some bad ones. Beyond that, he’s endowed with a strong constitution, a remarkably warm imagination, and an extraordinary lung power. If you ever meet him and his originality does not hold your attention, you’ll either put your fingers in your ears or run off. God, what terrible lungs!
Nothing is more unlike him than himself. Sometimes he is thin and haggard, like an invalid in the final stages of consumption. You can count his teeth through his cheeks. You’d say he’d spent several days without a meal or had just left a Trappist monastery. The next month, he’s sleek and plump, as if he’d been eating steadily at a banker’s table or had been shut up inside a Bernadine convent. Today, in dirty linen and torn trousers, dressed in rags, almost barefoot, he slinks along with his head down. One is tempted to call to him to give him a hand out. Tomorrow, he marches along with his head high, powdered, his hair curled, well dressed, with fine shoes. He shows himself off, and you’d almost take him for a gentleman. He lives from day to day, sad or happy, according to circumstances. His first concern in the morning, when he gets up, is to know where he’ll have lunch. After lunch, he thinks about where he’ll go for supper.
Night time also brings uncertainties. Should he return on foot to the little garret where he lives, assuming that the caretaker, in her irritation at not getting the rent, has not asked him to return his key, or should he settle for a working-class tavern to wait for daylight over a slice of bread and a mug of beer? When he hasn’t got even six pennies in his pocket, which happens sometimes, he resorts to one of his friends who drives a cab or the coachman of a noble lord who gives him a pallet in the straw beside the horses. In the morning there are still bits of his mattress in his hair. If the season is mild, he paces all night along the Cours or the Champs Élysées. He reappears in town with the dawn, dressed up for today in yesterday’s clothes, and dressed up today perhaps for the rest of the week.
I don’t think much of these eccentrics. Some people turn them into familiar acquaintances, even friends. Once a year they interest me, when I meet them, because their character stands in contrast to others and they break that fastidious uniformity which our education, our social conventions, and our habitual proprieties have introduced. If one of them appears in company, he’s a grain of yeast which ferments and gives back to everyone some part of his natural individuality. He shakes things up. He agitates us. He makes us praise or blame. He makes the truth come out, revealing who has value. He unmasks the scoundrels. So that’s the time a man with sense pays attention and sorts his world out.
The man I’ve described I knew from some time back. He used to hang about a house where his talent had opened doors for him. There was an only daughter. He swore to the father and mother that he would marry their daughter. They shrugged their shoulders and laughed in his face, telling him he was mad. I saw it happen. He used to ask me for money, which I gave him. He got himself introduced, I don’t know how, into some good homes, where he had a place for dinner, but on condition he didn’t speak without first getting permission. He kept silent and ate in anger. It was really good to see him under this constraint. If he was seized by a desire to break this agreement and opened his mouth, with his first word all the guests would cry out “O Rameau!” Then his fury would burn in his eyes, and he’d go back to his meal even more enraged.
You were curious to know this man’s name, and now you do. He is the nephew of that famous musician who delivered us from the plain song of Lully, which we’ve been chanting for more than a century, and who wrote so much unintelligible visionary stuff and apocalyptic truths about the theory of music, none of which ever made sense either to him or anyone else. He left us a certain number of operas where there is some harmony, scraps of song, some disconnected ideas, noise, flights, triumphal marches, lances, glories, murmurs, victories that leave one breathless, and dance tunes which will last forever. He buried the Florentine but will now be buried by Italian virtuosi, a fact which he saw coming and which made him gloomy, sad, and surly. For no one, not even a pretty woman who wakes up with a pimple on her nose, is as moody as an author who threatens to outlive his reputation–just look at Marivaux and the younger Crebillon.
He greets me. “Ah, ha, so there you are, Mister Philosopher. What are you doing here in this pile of idlers? Are you also wasting time pushing wood around?” That’s how people speak contemptuously of chess or checkers.
ME: No. But when I don’t have anything better to do, I amuse myself for a bit by watching those who push well.
HIM: In that case you don’t get to enjoy yourself often. Except for Legal and Philidor, the others have no idea about the game.
ME: What about Mr. de Bissy?
HIM: That man plays chess the way Miss Clairon acts. They both know everything about their respective games that one can learn.
ME: You’re harsh. I see you honour only men of genius.
HIM: Yes. In chess, in checkers, poetry, oratory, music and other similar nonsense. What good is mediocrity in things like that?
ME: Not much, I agree. But large numbers of men must work at them before the man of genius appears, one man in a multitude. But let’s drop that subject. It’s been an eternity since I last saw you. I hardly think of you when I don’t see you. But I’m always pleased to see you again. What have you been doing?
HIM: What you, I, and all the other do–some good, some bad–and nothing. Then when I was hungry, I ate when I had a chance. After eating, I was thirsty and I drank sometimes. However, I grew a beard, and when that came, I shaved it off.
ME: You shouldn’t have done that. It’s the one thing you need to be a wise man.
HIM: That’s right. I have a lofty wrinkled forehead, a burning eye, a jutting nose, large cheeks, black bushy eyebrows, a clean-cut mouth, curving lips, a square face. If this vast chin was covered with a long beard, can you imagine how splendid that would look in bronze or marble?
ME: Up there beside Caesar, Marcus Aurelius, and Socrates.
HIM: No. I’d go better between Diogenes the philosopher and Phryne the prostitute. Like one of them I’m impudent, and I happily hang around the houses of the other.
ME: Is your health still good?
HIM: Yes, normally it is. But it’s not so marvelous today.
ME: Why’s that? There you are with a belly like Silenus and a face…
HIM: A face one might mistake for what’s behind the belly. That’s because the humour which is making my uncle waste away is apparently making his dear nephew fat.
ME: What about your uncle–do you ever see him?
HIM: Yes–he walks past me in the street.
ME: Hasn’t he done anything for you?
HIM: If he’s done anything for anyone, he’s done it without being aware of what he’s doing. The man’s a philosopher in his own way. He thinks only of himself. To him the rest of the universe isn’t worth a damn. His daughter and his wife might as well die whenever they want. So long as the parish bells which toll for them continue to resonate at the twelfth and seventeenth intervals, all will be fine. That’s a good thing for him. And that’s what I especially value in people of genius. They are good at only one thing. Other than that, nothing. They’ve no idea what it is to be citizens, fathers, mothers, brothers, parents, friends. Just between us, we should try to be like them in every way, but without wanting their breed to become something common. We must have men, but men of genius, no. No, my goodness, we don’t need them. They’re the ones who change the face of the earth. And in the smallest things stupidity is so common and so powerful that no one can reform it without making a great fuss. That sets up, at least in part, what men of vision see. And part remains just as it was. Thus, we have two gospels, the costume of Harlequin. The wisdom of the monk Rabelais is true wisdom, for his own peace of mind and that of others–do one’s duty, somehow or other, always speak well of your master the prior, and leave the world to its fantasies. That works well, because the majority is happy with it. If I understood history, I’d show you that evil has always come here below from some man of genius. But I don’t know history, because I don’t know anything. The devil take me if I’ve ever learned a thing and if I’m any the worse off for having learned nothing. One day I was at the table of one of the King’s ministers who had brains enough for four men. Well, he demonstrated to us, as clearly as one and one adds up to two, that nothing is more useful to nations than lies, nothing more harmful than the truth. I don’t recall his proofs very well, but it evidently follows that people of genius are detestable and that if a child at birth bears on its forehead the characteristics of this dangerous natural gift, one should either smother the child or throw it to the dogs.
ME: But people like that, so hostile to genius, all pretend to have some.
HIM: I’m sure they think that about themselves deep inside, but I don’t think they dare admit the fact.
ME: That’s just their modesty. So from that point on you’ve developed a terrible hatred against genius.
HIM: Something I’ll never put behind me.
ME: But I’ve seen the time when you were desperate to be anything but an ordinary person. You’ll never be happy if the arguments for and against affect you equally. You have to pick a side and stick to it. I quite agree with you that men of genius are usually odd or, as the proverb states, that there are no great minds without a grain of folly. One can’t deny the fact. But we despise the ages which have not produced men of genius, and men will honour those nations among whom genius has lived. Sooner or later, we raise statutes to them and consider them benefactors of the human race. I don’t mean to disparage the sublime minister you mentioned to me, but I think that if a lie can be useful momentarily, it is necessarily harmful in the long run, and by contrast, the truth is useful over time, even though it could be harmful at a particular moment. From that I’m temped to conclude that the man of genius who speaks out against a common error or who establishes a great truth is always a being worthy of our veneration. It could happen that such a being is the victim of prejudice and the law, but there are two kinds of laws, those which are based on equity, which are universally true, and others which are peculiar and derive their authority only from blindness or from the needs of certain circumstances. This second type confers upon the man who breaks them merely a passing ignominy, a shame which time turns back on the judges and countries who condemned him. The shame stays with them for ever. Think of Socrates and the magistrate who made him drink the hemlock–which of those two is the dishonourable man today?
HIM: That’s a great help to Socrates! Does that make him any less condemned, any less put to death? Was he any less a rebellious citizen? With his contempt for a bad law, didn’t he encourage fools to disregard good laws? Was he any less an audacious and odd individual? Just now you were not so far from expressing how little you liked men of genius.
ME: My dear fellow, listen to me. A society should never have bad laws. And if it had only good ones, it would never be in a position to persecute a man of genius. I didn’t say that genius was inseparably attached to malice or malice to genius. A fool is more often an evil person than a man of intelligence is. And if a man of genius were characteristically hard to get along with, difficult, prickly, and unbearable, even if he were bad, what would you conclude from that?
HIM: He should be drowned.
ME: Gently, my dear fellow. Now, tell me–I won’t take your uncle as an example. He’s a hard man, brutal, inhuman, and miserly. He’s a bad father, a bad husband, a bad uncle. And it’s by no means clear that he’s a man of genius who has pushed his art a long way, so that in ten years we’ll be discussing his works. But what about Racine? He certainly had genius, and he didn’t have much of a reputation as a good man. What about Voltaire?
HIM: Don’t press me on this question. I can give you an argument.
ME: Which of these two options would you prefer–that Racine had been a good man, known for his business, like Briasson, or for his yardstick, like Barbier, getting his wife regularly pregnant every year with legitimate children, a good husband, a good father, a good uncle, a good neighbour, an honest merchant, but nothing more–or that he had been deceitful, treacherous, ambitious, envious, and nasty, but the author of Andromache, Britannicus, Iphigeneia, Phedre, and Athalie?
HIM: For him I imagine it would perhaps have been better if he’d been the first of the two.
ME: What you’ve just said is infinitely truer than you think.
HIM: There you go, you others! If we say something good, it’s as if we’re mad or inspired–just a fluke. It’s only you others who really understand what you’re saying. Yes, Mister Philosopher, I understand what I’m saying, and I understand that just as much as you understand what you’re saying.
ME: All right, let’s see. Why would that have been better for Racine?
HIM: The point is that all these beautiful things he created didn’t bring him twenty thousand francs. If he’d been a good silk merchant on Saint Denis or Saint Honore street, a fine wholesale grocer, or a well-connected apothecary, he’d have amassed an immense fortune, and, in the process of getting it, he could’ve enjoyed no end of pleasures. From time to time he could’ve given a few coins to a poor foolish devil like myself, who’d have made him laugh and occasionally procured for him a young woman to relieve the boredom of his eternal co-habitation with his wife. We’d have had some excellent meals at his home, played for high stakes, drunk some fine wines, fine liqueurs, fine coffees, and gone for picnics in the country. You see I know what I’m talking about. You laugh. But let me continue. That would’ve been better for those around him.
ME: No disagreement there, provided he didn’t use the money he got from legitimate business for dishonest purposes and kept far away from his home all gamblers, hangers on, all those self-satisfied tasteless people, all those layabouts, all those useless perverts, and made his shop assistants beat senseless the officious gentlemen who in various ways relieve husbands of the disgust they feel at a never-ending life with their wives.
HIM: Beat senseless, my dear chap, beat up! We don’t beat anyone senseless in a well-policed town. Pimping is a respectable profession. Many people, even those with titles, are mixed up in it. And what in the devil do you want us to use our money for, if not for a good table, good company, good wines, fine women, pleasures of all sorts, amusement of all kinds. I’d have no desire to possess a large fortune without these enjoyments. But let’s get back to Racine. The man was good only for those he didn’t know and for a time when he was no longer alive.
ME: I agree. But weigh the good and bad. A thousand years from now, he’ll still make people cry and win men’s admiration. In all countries of the world he will inspire humanity, sympathy, tenderness. People will ask who he was, what country he came from, and they’ll envy France. He made a few people suffer who are no longer alive and in whom we have hardly any interest. We have nothing to fear from his vices or faults. No doubt it would’ve been better if nature had given him the virtues of a good man along with the talents of a great man. He’s a tree which has caused some trees planted near him to wither up and has suffocated the plants growing at his feet. But he carried his top right up into the sky–his branches stretched a long way. He provided shade to those who came, who come, and who will come to rest alongside his majestic trunk. He produced fruits with an exquisite taste which replenish themselves continuously. We could also wish that Voltaire had had the sweetness of Duclos, the ingenuousness of Abbé Trublet, the honesty of Abbé d’Olivet. But since that’s impossible, let’s look at the really interesting side of this issue. Let’s forget for the moment the point which we occupy in space and time and extend our vision into the centuries to come, into the most distant regions, into nations yet to be born. Let’s think of the well being of our species. If we are not generous enough, let’s at least forgive nature for having been wiser than we are. If you throw cold water on Greuze’s head, perhaps you will extinguish his talent along with his vanity. If you make Voltaire less sensitive to criticism, he will not know how to descend into the soul of Merope. He will no longer move you.
HIM: But if nature was as powerful as she was wise, why didn’t she make those men good in the same way she made them great?
ME: But don’t you see that with that sort of reasoning you confound the general order. If everything here below were excellent, then nothing would be excellent.
HIM: You’re right. The important point is that you and I exist and that we exist as you and I. Let everything beyond that go ahead however it can. The best order of things, in my view, is one in which I had to exist. Who cares about the most perfect of worlds, if I’m not on it? I prefer to exist, even as an impertinent quibbler, than not to exist at all.
ME: There’s no one who doesn’t think just as you do and who doesn’t put existing order on trial, without noticing he’s renouncing his own existence.
HIM: That’s true.
ME: So let’s accept things as they are. Let’s see what they cost us and what they bring us, leaving aside everything we don’t know well enough to assign praise or blame–what’s perhaps neither good nor bad, but what’s necessary, as many respectable people think.
HIM: I don’t understand much about that spiel you’ve just given me. It seems like philosophy, and I warn you I’ll not get mixed up in that. All I know is that I’d be quite happy to be someone else, on the off-chance I’d be a genius, a great man. Yes, I have to admit it. There’s something there which speaks to me. I’ve never heard a single genius praised without such tributes to him making me secretly enraged. I get envious. When I learn about some detail of their private lives which demeans them, I listen with pleasure. That brings us closer together, and I bear my mediocrity more easily. I say to myself, “It’s true you never could have createdMahomet, but you’d never have praised Maupeou.” So I’ve been mediocre, and I’m angry with my mediocrity. Yes, yes, I am mediocre and angry. I’ve never heard the overture to Les Indes Galantes or heard anyone sing Profonds Abîmes du Ténaire, Nuit, Éternelle Nuit, without feeling pain and saying to myself, “There’s something you’d never create.” Hence I was jealous of my uncle, and if at his death there’d been some fine compositions for the keyboard in his portfolio, I wouldn’t have hesitated to remain myself and to be him as well.
ME: If that’s the only thing bothering you, it’s not worth the trouble.
HIM: It’s nothing–they’re just passing moments.
Then he started to sing the overture to Indes Galantes and the song Profonds Abîmes, adding, “That something or other inside me which talks to me says, ‘Rameau, you’d love to have composed those two pieces. If you’d done these two, you’d probably have done two others. And when you’d composed a certain number, people would play and sing you all over the place. When you walked along, you’d hold your head high. Your own awareness would confirm your own merit for you. Others would point you out. They’d say ‘There’s the man who wrote those lovely gavottes.'”
Excerpted from Rameau’s Nephew, or the Second Satire by Denis Diderot, first published 1805. Photograph by VarockAndRoll