Le Neveu de Rameau, and not Jacques le fataliste, is Diderot’s greatest single book—“the classical work,” Goethe called it, “of an outstanding man.”38 Written in 1761, this too was left unpublished, for it is by all means the most scandalous, as well as the most original, of Diderot’s productions. Apparently he thought it too indigestible to be offered even to his friends. After his death a copy of the text found its way into a Germany throbbing with Sturm und Drang. Schiller was shocked and excited by it, and passed it on to Goethe, who, at the height of his fame (1805), translated it into German. This translation entered France, and was retranslated into French (1821). Another copy was published in 1823, but it had come to the printer bowdlerized by Diderot’s daughter. The original manuscript was not discovered till 1891, in a bookstall on the quays of the Seine. That manuscript is now in the J. Pierpont Morgan Library in New York.

Diderot chose, as the mouthpiece of ideas too bizarre for even Diderot to express in the first person, Jean François Rameau, nephew of the famous composer Jean Philippe Rameau (d. 1764), who was still alive when the unpublishable dialogue was written. Diderot knew music well; he talked familiarly of Locatelli, Pergolesi, Jommelli, Galuppi, Leo, Vinci, Tartini, and Hasse, and rightly predicted that in violin playing the difficult would soon displace the beautiful.39

The nephew composed music, and had some success as a music teacher; but he was harassed by the handicap of his name, and jealous of his uncle’s superiority; he gave up the battle, and sank into the Bohemian shiftlessness and self-indulgent amoralism described by Diderot. Many other traits attributed to him in the dialogue are confirmed by contemporary reports,40 but history gives no support to Diderot’s characterization of him as a pander who proposed to market the beauty of his wife. When that wife died Jean François lost all self-respect; his sarcastic and unchastened tongue made him a social outcast; at last he was excluded from the home of the rich M. Bertin, on whom he had for years depended for his dinners; and he had to seek associates in the Café de la Régence and other outposts of advanced and penniless ideas.

Diderot begins (note how he weaves his books into his life):

Let the weather be fair or overcast, it is my habit, about five o’clock in the afternoon, to go walking toward the Palais-Royal. It is I whom you can see always alone, dreaming on d’Argenson’s bench. I discuss with myself politics, love, taste, philosophy. I abandon my mind to all its libertinage.… When the weather is too cold or wet I take refuge in the Café de la Régence, where I watch the chess games.… One afternoon I was there, looking around, talking little, hearing as little as I could, when I was approached by one of the most bizarre persons in the land.41

There follows a remarkable character portait: a man who has drunk the dregs of life and bitterly recalls the wine; formerly moneyed and comfortable, with the prettiest wife in Paris; received once in every fashionable home;42 abreast of all the culture in France; sunk now into poverty and degradation, living on merciful dinners and forgotten loans, seeing nothing in life but struggle and defeat, rejecting all religion as a beautiful and terrible lie, viewing all morality as timidity and sham, and yet keeping enough of his past to clothe his disillusionment in educated eloquence and rational dress. He has a sharp and bitter humor: “Madame So-and-So has been delivered of twins; each father will have one”; or, of a new opera: “It has some pretty passages; too bad this is not the first time they have been composed.”43 His deepest tragedy is that he believes in nothing. He has heard Rousseauian mouthings about nature—how much better it is than civilization; but he observes that “in nature all species devour one another,” and the sublime end of every organism is to be eaten. He sees the same anthropophagy in the economic world, except that there men consume one another by due process of law. All morality, he thinks, is a hoax that the clever play upon the simple, or that the simple play upon themselves. See that pious woman coming from church with modest downcast eyes; “her imagination at night rehearses the scenes of the [licentious] Portier des Chartrains and the [libidinous] postures of Aretino.”44 The wise man, thinks the nephew, will laugh at the Ten Commandments, and enjoy all the sins judiciously. “Hurrah for wisdom and philosophy!—the wisdom of Solomon: to drink good wines, gorge on choice foods, tumble pretty women, sleep on downy beds; outside of that, all is vanity.”45 After this, what was left for the Nietzsches and Baudelaires to say?

Diderot ends this danse macabre of ideas by calling the nephew “a do-nothing, a glutton, a coward, a spirit of mud”—to which Rameau replies, “I believe you are right.”46 A mean thought comes to us: How could Diderot have drawn this character so vividly if he had not found him lurking in himself? He protests against the idea. He admits that he is no saint.

I do not condemn the pleasure of the senses. I too have a palate that relishes delicate dishes and delicious wines. I have a heart and eyes, and I like to see a beautiful woman, I like to feel under my hand the firmness and roundness of her throat [gorge], to press her lips to mine, to draw pleasure from her eyes, and to expire in her arms. Sometimes, with my friends, a little debauch, even a bit tumultuous, does not displease me. But—I will not conceal it from you—it seems to me infinitely sweeter to have helped the unfortunate, … to have given salutary counsel, to have read an agreeable book, to take a walk with a man or a woman dear to me, to have given some instructive hours to my children, to have written a good page, to fulfill the duties of my place, to say to my beloved tender and sweet words that bring her arms around my neck. …

A man of my acquaintance grew to wealth in Cartagena; he was a younger son in a country where custom transmits all property to the eldest. Word reached him in Colombia that his older brother, a spoiled brat, had despoiled his too indulgent father and mother of all that they possessed, and had expelled them from their château; and that these good people were now languishing in poverty in a provincial town. What did this younger son do, who, so badly treated by his parents, had gone so far abroad to seek his fortune? He sent them help, he hastened to arrange his affairs and return, opulent, to his father and mother; he restored them to their home, he provided dowries to get his sisters married. Ah, my dear Rameau, this man regards those months as the happiest in his life. He spoke of them to me with tears in his eyes. And I, in telling you his story, I feel my heart troubled with joy, with a pleasure that can find no words.47

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