Short summary - Rameau's Nephew - Denis Diderot

French literature summaries - 2021

Short summary - Rameau's Nephew
Denis Diderot

The work is written in the form of a dialogue. His heroes are the narrator (meaning Diderot himself) and the nephew of Jean-Philippe Rameau, the largest representative of classicism in French music of Diderot's time. The narrator first characterizes Rameau's nephew: he asserts him as one "of the most bizarre and strange creatures in this region"; he does not boast of his good qualities and is not ashamed of bad ones; he leads a chaotic life: today in rags, tomorrow in luxury. But, according to the narrator, when such a person appears in society, he makes people throw off the secular mask and discover their true nature.

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Rameau's nephew and the narrator accidentally meet in a cafe and start a conversation. The theme of genius arises; Rameau's nephew believes that geniuses are not needed, since evil always appears in the world through some genius; besides, geniuses expose delusions, and for peoples there is nothing more harmful than the truth. The narrator objects that if a lie is useful for a short time, then over time it turns out to be harmful, and the truth is useful, and there are two kinds of laws: some are eternal, others are transient, appearing only due to the blindness of people; genius can fall victim to this law, but dishonor will eventually fall on his judges (the example of Socrates). Rameau's nephew argues that it is better to be an honest merchant and a nice fellow than a genius with a bad temper, so in the first case a person can accumulate a large fortune and spend it on the pleasures of his own and his neighbors. The narrator objects that only people living near him suffer from the bad character of a genius, but over the centuries his works force people to be better, to cultivate high virtues in themselves: of course, it would be better if the genius was as virtuous as he is great, but we will agree to accept things as they are. Rameau's nephew says he would like to be a great man, a famous composer; then he would have all the blessings of life and he would enjoy his glory. Then he tells how his patrons drove him away, because once in his life he tried to speak like a sane person, and not like a fool and a madman. The narrator advises him to return to his benefactors and ask for forgiveness, but pride leaps up in Rameau's nephew, and he says that he cannot do this. The narrator then invites him to lead the life of a beggar; Rameau's nephew replies that he despises himself, as he could live luxuriously, being a hanger to the rich, fulfilling their delicate assignments, but he does not use his talents. At the same time, with great skill, he plays a whole scene in front of his interlocutor, assigning himself the role of a pimp.

The narrator, outraged by the cynicism of his interlocutor, suggests changing the subject. But before doing this, Rameau manages to play two more scenes: first he depicts a violinist, and then, with equal success, a pianist; after all, he is not only the nephew of the composer Rameau, but also his student and a good musician. They talk about the upbringing of the narrator's daughter: the narrator says that dances, singing and music will be taught to her to a minimum, and the main place will be given to grammar, mythology, history, geography, morality; there will be some painting as well. Rameau's nephew believes that it will be impossible to find good teachers, because they would have to devote their whole lives to studying these subjects; in his opinion, the most skilled teacher today is the one who has the most practice; so he, Rameau, coming to class, pretends that he has more lessons than hours in a day. But now, according to him, he gives lessons well, and before he was paid for nothing, but he did not feel remorse, since he took money not honestly earned, but stolen; after all, in society, all classes devour each other (the dancer lures money out of the one who maintains her, and the milliners, the baker, etc., lure money out of her). And here the general rules of morality do not fit, because the general conscience, like the general grammar, allows exceptions to the rules, the so-called "moral idiocy." Rameau's nephew says that if he got rich, he would lead a life full of sensual pleasures, and would only take care of himself; at the same time, he notes that his point of view is shared by all wealthy people. The narrator objects that it is much more pleasant to help the unfortunate person, to read a good book, and the like; to be happy you have to be honest. Rameau replies that, in his opinion, all the so-called virtues are nothing more than vanity. Why defend the fatherland - it no longer exists, but there are only tyrants and slaves; helping friends means making ungrateful people out of them; and to occupy a position in society is only in order to get rich. Virtue is boring, it is chilling, it is a very uncomfortable thing; and virtuous people turn out to be hypocrites, cherishing secret vices. It is better to let him make up his happiness with the vices peculiar to him, than to distort himself and be hypocritical in order to seem virtuous when this will turn away his patrons from him. He tells how he humiliated himself before them, how, for the sake of his "masters", he and a company of other hangers-on vilified remarkable scientists, philosophers, writers, including Diderot. He demonstrates his ability to take the right postures and speak the right words. He says that he reads Theophrastus, La Bruyere and Moliere, and concludes: "Keep your vices, which are useful to you, but avoid their inherent tone and appearance, which can make you funny." To avoid this behavior, you need to know it, and these authors have described it very well. He is funny only when he wants to; there is no better role with the mighty of this world than the role of a jester. You should be what is beneficial; if virtue could lead to wealth, he would be virtuous or pretend to be. Rameau's nephew slanders about his benefactors and says at the same time: "When you decide to live with people like us <...>, you have to wait for countless dirty tricks." However, people who take mercenary, base and treacherous fools into their homes know perfectly well what they are doing; all of this is provided for by a tacit agreement. It is useless to try to correct the innate depravity; it is not human law that should punish such delusions, but nature itself; to prove it, Rameau tells a sordid story. Rameau's interlocutor wonders why Rameau's nephew is so frankly, without hesitation, reveals his baseness. Rameau replies that it is better to be a big criminal than a petty bastard, since the former commands a certain respect for the scale of his villainy. Tells a story about a man who reported the Inquisition on his benefactor, a Jew, who endlessly trusted him, and also robbed this Jew. The narrator, discouraged by this conversation, changes the subject again. It's about music; Rameau expresses correct judgments about the superiority of Italian music (Duni, Pergolese) and Italian comic opera-buff over French musical classicism (Lully, Rameau): in Italian opera, according to him, music corresponds to the semantic and emotional movement of speech, speech perfectly fits the music ; and the French arias are awkward, heavy, monotonous, unnatural. Rameau's nephew very deftly depicts an entire opera house (instruments, dancers, singers), successfully reproduces operatic roles (he generally has great abilities for pantomime). He expresses judgments about the shortcomings of French lyric poetry: it is cold, unyielding, it lacks what could serve as a basis for singing, the word order is too rigid, so the composer is unable to dispose of the whole and every part of it. These judgments are clearly close to those of Diderot himself. Rameau's nephew also says that Italians (Duni) teach the French how to make music expressive, how to subordinate singing to rhythm, to the rules of declamation. The narrator asks how he, Rameau, being so sensitive to the beauties of music, so insensitive to the beauties of virtue; Rameau says it is innate ("the paternal molecule was tough and rough"). The conversation turns to Rameau's son: the narrator asks if Rameau wants to try to suppress the influence of this molecule; Ramo replies that it is useless. He does not want to teach his son music, as it does not lead to anything; he instills in the child that money is everything, and wants to teach his son the easiest ways to ensure that he is respected, wealthy and influential. The narrator notes to himself that Rameau is not a hypocrite, confessing the vices inherent in him and others; he is more outspoken and more consistent in his depravity than others. Rameau's nephew says that the most important thing is not to develop in the child the vices that will enrich him, but to instill in him a sense of proportion, the art of escaping shame; according to Rameau, all living seeks well-being at the expense of those on whom it depends. But his interlocutor wants to move from the topic of morality to music and asks Rameau why, with his instinct for good music, he did not create anything significant. He replies that nature so ordered; besides, it is difficult to deeply feel and uplift in spirit when you revolve among empty people and cheap gossip.

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Rameau's nephew talks about some of the vicissitudes of his life and concludes that we are being ruled by "accursed accidents." He says that only the monarch walks in the whole kingdom, the rest only take poses. The narrator objects that “the king takes a pose in front of his mistress and before God,” and in the world everyone who needs the help of another is forced to “engage in pantomime,” that is, to depict various enthusiastic feelings. Only the philosopher does not resort to pantomime, since he does not need anything (as an example, he cites Diogenes and the Cynics), Rameau replies that he needs various benefits of life, and let him rather be indebted to them to benefactors than to obtain them by labor. Then he realizes that it is time for him to go to the opera, and the dialogue ends with his wish for himself to live for another forty years.