Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Rameau's Nephew - Denis Diderot

One of the things that makes Rameau’s Nephew difficult to read, is it feels sort of like eavesdropping on a conversation rather than a cogent narrative. At one point “I” mentions it would be ridiculous to create an opera from Blaise Pascal’s Pansees…yet what Diderot has created is almost just as incomprehensible.

Thankfully we are not left alone on these unnavigable rapids, and have as our guide Leonard Tancock, vying for my favorite editor alongside John Reddick

In a brief introduction we learn that Diderot was an incredibly versatile Renaissance man, having a brilliant mastery of everything from mathematics to theology; although perhaps his passion for music may have outmatched his talents. Tancock describes him as “a scientist always in a state of febrile emotion and seldom far from tears, a deadly enemy but the kindest and most companionable of men.” In 1747, Diderot began a project that would span the next 25 years and be filled with intrigue and controversy. What began simply as translating Chambers Cyclopaedia into French expanded to become the first great Encyclopedia of the modern world, running 17 folio volumes of text and eleven supplementary volumes of plates. 

Alongside the birth of the Encyclopedia, French philosophers wrestled with the debate between materialistic fatalism and sentimental moralism. The Encyclopedia was seen as a threat to the church, it quickly became clear that “the tendency of the work was to be materialistic, progressive and hostile to all religious and social vested interests.” Very quickly an “anti-Encyclopedia” faction arose that was not above the most dastardly foul play; using every conceivable means to suppress and destroy the Encyclopedia. 

I kind of wish the book was about that. An anti-Encyclopedia faction hell bent on the destruction and suppression of knowledge sounds like a nail-biting thriller. Instead we have “a work belonging to no recognizable genre, neither novel nor play nor essay nor, in spite of its subtitle, satire, and unique in French literature.” 

Tancock gives us four possible objects that would have motivated this writing: An attack on the enemies of the Encyclopedia and of progress, a battle in the musical war, a discussion of moral values or simply a discussion of literary and artistic questions; with a break here and there for some hilarious miming…

While I am the farthest thing from an expert on French literature, I wonder if option three gives us the most holistic solution. 

Written in first person and ostensibly from the perspective of Diderot, the plot is as follows: “I”, while strolling throughout the streets of Paris meets “He” or Rameau’s nephew. The dialogue then runs in an almost play-like form with “He” and “I” taking turns hashing out the general theory of everything. Their discussion progresses until it is evening and time for Rameau’s nephew to make his way to the opera.  

This work was never published, and that only adds to the general confusion of why this was written and what it was written for. The characters are real, although perhaps less grotesque than sometimes made out to be. The chronology is almost impossible and the portions of “reality” are done in broad, ambiguous strokes. Tancock wonders why, if this work was never meant to be published, there is such dramatic scathing personal abuse of his enemies? 

Leaving aside the “why” this was written, or for whom, I think the quest to unify one’s philosophy is a good place to start. Along with the other great 18th century French writers, Diderot explores the impact a materialistic philosophy, and as such determinism, would have on all aspects of life. He uses Rameau’s nephew as a foil to hash out all the rabbit trails that determinism leads to, while Diderot straddles the fence between materialistic fatalism and sentimental moralism. How could he devote 25 years of his life to compiling one of the greatest contributions to science and not be a bit wary of where this leaves mankind if he truly is predetermined by the laws of chemistry and physics? So through his either real or imaginary debate with Rameau’s nephew, he uses the Socratic method to flush out his philosophical inconsistencies. 

As the text opens, Diderot walks through the streets of Paris, alone with his thoughts, thinking about the opera, women and the unmasked villains and fools of the world. It is not long before he meets the latter in the form of Rameau’s nephew. After a few nods and a “what have you been up to” Rameau’s nephew replies:

He: The same as you, and I and everybody else: good, bad and nothing. And then I’ve been hungry and eaten when chance came along, and after eating I have been thirsty and had a drink, sometimes. In the meantime, my beard grew and when it grew I had a shave.” 

I: That was a mistake. A beard is all you need to be a sage. 

I think it’s fair to say that at base point there is an aura of cynicism from both parties. And also, I think if I’m ever engaged in a conversation I want immediately out of, I should try that line…

The conversation moves on to discuss all forms of facial hair growth, until we come to a short treatise on the transitory nature of truth and as such the fatalism of the law. 

I:…there are two kinds of laws: some absolutely equitable and universal, others capricious and only owing their authority to blindness or force of circumstance…Who is disgraced today, Socrates or the judge who made him drink the hemlock?” 

But moral ambiguity is not really a solution. Men of genius are quickly brought up as examples of exemptions to the law, seemingly operating in a moral construct of their own. But is that right? Does their genius demand a certain moral ambiguity and as such absolve them from the responsibility of their actions? And are men of genius the only ones with the ability to write their own moral code? What about men of wealth? Wouldn’t all people rather, at the end of the day, to be men of wealth rather than men of genius? What good does it do you if while you are living you are barely able to scrape by enough to survive? 

More importantly, if a man of genius is predetermined as such, what responsibility has he for his actions? If nature “were as powerful as she is wise why, when she made them great, didn’t she make them equally good?” 

I am reminded of Buchner, wrestling with the same ideas and using as his foil the prostitute Marion. If this is who she was created at baseline to be, this is the sum of all parts and the definition of her nature…can she be faulted if this is then what she does? And who is to decide the difference between good and bad if there is no seemingly negative consequence (besides the contraction of a few social diseases and the potential to lose body parts and one’s sanity to syphilis…)
Ultimately, I think Buchner’s example of the happy prostitute is the better illustration. Diderot decides to take the argument one step further. What if a truly bad man is so good at being bad that he elicits almost a form of respect for his profession? Or to use Buchner’s example, could a prostitute be so good at her craft to evoke admiration? 

Diderot sets up a couple heinous scenarios of villains taking advantage of the occasional unsuspecting Jew. In one example involving the “renegade of Avignon”, our villain after befriending a “virtuous descendant of Abraham” and convincing him into a profitable business venture that involves “the Jew” putting all his wealth and assets into the hand of the renegade, the villain then reports “the Jew” to the Inquisition and within three days the unsuspecting man has been burnt at the stake. The renegade is then left to walk away with all of the Jewish man’s wealth and possessions. 

This is an example of pure, unadulterated baseness. Does the same argument that fit so well with the prostitute still hold true? Maybe it is in this man’s nature to be depraved, and he’s certainly putting a lot of effort and creativity into the endeavor; is it unsettling because it offends our moral sensibilities or because there is a foundational truth that whispers into our souls that certain actions are indisputably wrong? 

Nabokov’s “Humbert” would be another example of this argument.  Humbert is obviously disgusting and grotesque…but can we the reader understand him? And if we can understand him, can we truly condemn him? 

He: In nature all the species feed on each other, and all classes prey on each other in society. We mete out justice to each other without the law taking a hand. 

Diderot is disgusted by not only the illustration, but the prancing and gadding about by Rameau’s nephew as he describes these horrible acts like a connoisseur of painting or poetry; holding up each example to the light and examining them like a work of art. Diderot feels just ill enough for the reader to be aware of his general disapproval.

While Buchner’s argument encompasses virtue and vice and the social implications that rewriting the moral code will have, Diderot takes his argument another step. If we can agree that at baseline there is foundational truth and moral transparency of some sort, should we not then aspire to achieve the highest level of truth and purity in all our actions? Which brings us then to a discussion on art and morality, specifically the place of realism in music. What is the musician’s model when he writes a tune? 

We are then subjected to a very long treatise on the verisimilitude of the opera and the disconcerting lack of, “the animal cry of passion that should dictate the melodic line.” Disclaimer: I start tuning out when there are more than two paragraphs devoted to the musicality of anything…

Eventually we get to the money shot: 

I: How is it that with a discrimination as delicate as yours and your remarkable sensitiveness for the beauties of musical art, you are so blind to the fine things of morality, so insensitive to the charms of virtue? may be that I have always lived with good musicians and bad people. Hence it has always come about that my ear has become very sharp and my heart very deaf.

Prior to reading this book, I thought we were at an apex of social insecurity; we not only have the tabloids to feed us the little mishaps of celebrity culture, but we have reality television that feeds our ability to feel superior to the truly mediocre. Our hearts are often deaf because we spend too much time worrying what others think and less time wrestling with questions of morality.  This is not a symptom of mass media and instant gratification, but one of humanity. To be untethered, insecure and devoid of a sense of self is to be truly human without the bastion of faith. 

I found this book to be very thought provoking. While the narrative may lack a certain linear progression, and there is undoubtedly way too much pantomiming going on, I almost wished I was there in the pub to observe the whole dialogue in person. As someone "in a state of febrile emotion and seldom far from tears" myself, I think Diderot and I would have gotten along really well. 

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