I am starting a real-time review of Le Neveu de Rameau written in the Eighteenth Century by Denis Diderot. I originally read it in French during the late 1960s but have recently bought an English translation (Margaret Mauldon OUP 2006). My French is no longer up to scratch and I have wanted to reappraise this book as I now suspect it had a major effect on my later fiction, brainstorming, avant-gardeness, and, yes, the act of real-time reviewing itself. And more. We shall see.
The work has this engaging start:
“Rain or shine, it’s my habit, about five of an evening, to go for a stroll in the Palais-Royal. It’s me you see there, invariably alone, sitting on the d’Argenson bench, musing. I converse with myself about politics, love, taste, or philosophy. I give my mind licence to wander wherever it fancies. I leave it completely free to pursue the first wise or foolish idea that it encounters, just as, on the Allée de Foy, you see our young rakes pursuing a flighty, smiling, sharp-eyed, snub-nosed little tart, abandoning this one to follow that one, trying them all but not settling on any. In my case, my thoughts are my little flirts.”
THE REST OF THIS REAL-TIME REVIEW OF RAMEAU’S NEPHEW WILL APPEAR BELOW IN THE COMMENTS TO THIS POST…
“Nothing could be more unlike him than he himself is.”
Pages 3 – 5
An amusing and provocative description by the narrator of meeting, when playing chess, the eponymous ‘hero’ who is also “the nephew of that famous musician [...] who wrote such reams of incomprehensible visions and apocalyptic verities on the theory of the music, of which neither he nor anyone else ever understood a word, and who left us with a number of operas where we can enjoy various harmonies, unfinished songs, unrelated ideas, uproars, flights, triumphal fanfares, spears, ennoblements, seditious whisperings, endless victories; he also left us dance tunes that will live forever;…”
This somewhat stirs me to recall this passage from a more modern author:
“Wrzesmian wasn’t too popular. The works of this strange man, saturated with rampant fantasy and imbued with strong individualism, gave a most unfavourable impression by inverting accepted aesthetic-literary theories and by mocking established pseudo-truths. His output was eventually acknowledged as the product of a sick imagination, the bizarre work of an eccentric, maybe even a madman. Wrzesmian was an inconvenience for a variety of reasons and he disturbed unnecessarily, stirring peaceful waters. Thus his premature eclipse was received with a secret sigh of relief.” from ‘The Area’ by Stefan Grabinski
But Diderot’s narrator (Diderot himself?) conjures up the obverse side of the ‘eccentric’ coin: “If one of them [an eccentric] appears in a group, he’s like a grain of yeast that ferments, and restores to each of us his natural individuality. He shocks us, he stirs us up; he forces us to praise or blame; he brings out the truth;…”
Pages 6 – 16
This is a mad theatrical play or a Socratic philosophical dialogue or an anti-novella? Only you can judge. There is nothing else like it. All the world’s wisdom perhaps is contained within it. Or none of it. The Intentional Fallacy, the mingling of genius with evil, and vice versa. Truth and lie. The synchronised shards of random truth and fiction.
“What would you prefer? That he’d [Jean Racine] been a good man, always busy with his bookshop, like Briasson, or with his bolts of cloth, like Barbier, giving his wife a legitimate child every year, a good husband; a good father, a good uncle, a good neighbour, an honest tradesman, but nothing more; or that he’d been a swindler, a traitor, ambitious, jealous, and spiteful, but had written ‘Andromaque’, ‘Britannicus’, ‘Iphigenie’, ‘Phedre’ and ‘Athalie’?”
Pages 16 – 26
“Rotting under marble or rotting under earth, you’re still rotting.”
The ambivalence of life, the hypocrisy, self- deception, various forms of behaviour or personal philosophy, the rivalries etc etc which have now been crystallised from this 18th Century book by the Internet, a modern phenomenon that this book somehow knew about, I’m sure.
“ME: Oh, you king of all fools [I exclaimed], how does it come about that that no-good head of yours contains such sound ideas all scrambled together with such wildly extravagant notions?
HIM: Who the devil knows? Chance puts them into your head, and there they remain. It therefore follows that unless you know everything, you really know nothing.”
Also the touching upon mortality and morality arguably makes this book the first NULL IMMORTALIS, the first NULL IMMORALIST. Tied to the dying falls in music. The art of soliloquy vis-a-vis self-contempt and pride. And enquiries made by HIM (Rameau’s nephew) of ME’s (Diderot’s?) daughter. And other seeming trivialities that give this encounter of characters a real ambiance.
“It’s the middle and the end that illuminate the shadows of the beginning.”
Pages 27 – 37
“Virtue demands admiration, and admiration isn’t funny. I spend my time with people who get bored, and it’s my job to make them laugh. Now, absurdity and folly are what make people laugh, so I must be absurd, and a fool; if nature had not given me those qualities, then the simplest solution would be to pretend to possess them. Luckily I have no need to be a hypocrite,…”
As I re-read this book after some 45 years, I’m beginning to remember that it is possibly one of the most significant ever written. Yet, one wonders whether one is a victim of it, too. Brainwashed, hypnotised, the only truth available in a hybrid of both truth and fiction, hypocrisy and sincerity, pragmatism and honour, the “moral idioms” of life.
I also sense that tight-arsed ‘ME’ needs a dose of loose-limbed ‘HIM’ every now and again almost like a madcap holiday in mid-winter or a ceremonial obeisance in summer. But does ‘HIM’ also need ‘ME’ in the same way? Like an experimental author needs his tendentious reviewer (and vice versa)? The multi-tentacled symbiosis threading through human nature? The cure for solipsism?
“HIM: So, the way you see it, one must be an honourable man?
ME: To be happy? Unquestionably.
HIM: Nevertheless, I know countless honourable people who aren’t happy, and countless people who are happy without being honourable.”
Pages 38 – 48
Please don’t expect this review to be a synopsis of this book. But that’s really the whole point of gestalt real-time reviewing: the allowing of a book’s leitmotifs, often complex, often unintended, to cohere autonomously as you read. Even though this is officially a second reading of mine after 45 years, I am feeling my way like you. All I know is that the book (fiction, philosophy, play, avant garde happening?) may have been derived from some conspiracies, rivalries and other “convulsionaries” (as this book’s translation has it) regarding the 18th Century Enlightenment. But it is so much more. So much more than even Diderot would have realised. Randomisations like a little dog and a mask act as its ‘objective correlatives’ or Aickman-like ‘disarming strangenesses’…
“Grovelling’s natural to the worm, and to me; that’s what we both do when we’re left to our own devices, but we rear up when we’re stepped on. I’ve been stepped on, and I intend to rear up.”
“…like a motionless Chinese idol from beneath whose chin a string hangs, leading down under his chair. One waits for the string to be pulled, but it is not pulled; or, if the jaw happens to open slightly, it’s to utter some disheartening words, words which tell you that you have not been noticed, and that all your antics are wasted; the words answer a question you asked several days ago; once they are uttered, the mastoid spring relaxes and the jaws snap shut…”
“…you should be making the most of our chance meeting to hear of things no one knows but me.”
“If this were written down, I think I’d be recognized as something of a genius.”
“…never false if it’s in my interest to be true, and never true if it’s in my interest to be false. I say whatever comes into my head, if it’s sensible, so much the better, but if it’s pointless, no one pays attention.”
This book’s “din of the menagerie” tantamount to my earlier concept of CERN Zoo?
Page 48 – 57
Here, inter alia, in this work of utter modernity as well as pseudo-Whovian 18th Century real-time referencing from an eye-witness of those antique times, we have a hilarious and/or thought-provoking long speech by ‘HIM’ that touches on the eternal human condition of squabbling, some bitter squabbles of bluff and double-bluff and triple bluff ad infinitum, ad absurdum, by whatever spur of rivalry, jealousy or conspiracy, or just simple gratuitous delight in squabbling, or seeking publicity by squabbling, paralleling squabbles between critic and artist, artist and artist, that the Internet shows similarly today and further engenders with the sheer joy and sometimes anguished self-pity, self-deception, self-contempt of the ‘Rameau’s Nephew’ syndrome. A book both wise and foolish, like ‘HIM’ himself. And perhaps ‘ME’, too! The “convulsionaries” of hyperspace as well as 18th Century France. A Rameau symphony of sincere moods and/or deliberate mis-intention.
“ME: Excellent writers.
HIM: They’re a lot better than is generally believed; but who knows how to read them?
ME: Everyone, to the best of his ability.”
“Even a puppet made of steel would be worn out if its strings were jerked from dawn to dusk and then from dusk to dawn. I have to keep them entertained; it’s the requirement;…”
“…they saw me as a complete lunatic asylum of their very own.”
“Brun complains loudly that Palissot, his guest and friend, has written some couplets attacking him. Palissot had to write the couplets, and it’s Brun who’s in the wrong. Poinsinet complains loudly that Palissot’s attributed to him the couplets he wrote against Brun. Palissot had to attribute to Poinsinet the couplets he wrote against Brun, and it’s Poinsinet who’s in the wrong………………”
“The simplest thing is to resign yourself to the fairness of Nature’s judgements, and tell yourself: it’s all as it should be; then either pull yourself together and mend your ways, or remain as you are, but accept the aforesaid contract.”
Pages 58 – 67
““He’s [my uncle] made of stone. He’d see me with my tongue hanging out a foot from my mouth and wouldn’t give me a glass of water. But however hard he tries — with octaves, with sevenths (tum, tum, tatata, tirelee, tirelee, da) making the devil of a din, those who’re beginning to see through him, and no longer confuse a tremendous racket with music, won’t ever come to terms with it.”
The Nephew’s diatribe on music is wonderful and makes me think of my own inner battles when listening to Stockhausen or Boulez one minute and Beethoven or, ironically, Rameau the next.
As do some of his other comments remind me of my own catholic tastes regarding (i) Marcel Proust and Gary McMahon fiction one minute and (ii) Big Brother or Deal or No Deal the next!
“HIM: As a general rule, greatness of character comes from a natural balance between several antithetical qualities.
[...] ME: I’m thinking about the way your tone varies; sometimes it’s high-flown, sometimes familiar and low.”
…leading eventually to HIM’s “trinity” of Aesthetics?
So, everyone, please define ‘melody’.
Pages 67 – 79
“He wept, he laughed, he sighed; he gazed tenderly, or placidly, or furiously; he was a woman swooning with grief; a wretch overcome with despair; a temple rising up from the ground; birds falling silent at sunset; rivers murmuring their way through cool solitudes or cascading down from high mountains; a storm; a tempest, the moans of the dying mingling with the whistling of the wind and the crashing of the thunder; night, with its darkness; shadows and silence — for sound can portray silence itself.”
Ask For Me In My Head, at the end of this poignant section…
An opera bouffe where you can see all the bare barely-formed notes interacting with the action. Indeed, there is much theatrical business now instead of dialogue, whereby the chess-players within sights of the HIM / ME wild Socraticisms become discombobulated or disgusted, amused or confused… A wonderful descripton of this in pyrotechnics of a prose containing ideas in action. I cannot convey it here, as it needs to be read so as properly to absorb it, and to feel how it fits the gestalt of this book so far, each musical leitmotif taking its place to underpin the art of non-hypocrisy, the free admission of one’s faults, bravado in behaviour as well as taste. Melding HIM and ME making the NEW MAN, possibly, dare I say, the new Rhys Hughes to out-Rhys Hughes Rhys Hughes himself. Then leading, as part of this book’s quilt of subtle and blatant contrasts, to a discussion on Nature and Nurture in the bringing up of children, where a ‘gene’ is a “molecule” arguably from the retrocausal Large Hadron Collider! Which brings us back to CERN Zoo…
“…so that the musician can use the whole as well as each part, omit a word or repeat it, add a word that’s missing, turn the phrase upside-down and inside-out like a polyp, without destroying its meaning;”
“The rate at which art is moving ahead, no one can predict where it’ll go. While we’re waiting, let’s have a drink.”
Pages 80 – 89
“Round Memnon’s statue there were many, many other statues and, like him, they were all standing in a ray of sunlight; but his was the only one that reverberated.”
The whole work talks itself to a memorable musical ‘dying fall” when HIM talks of his wife and end-brackets the whole book by recalling the start’s ‘tarts’ with, now, a “most ridiculous caricature of our little coquettes.” I ended in tears, as the “pantomime” it has become diminuendos to this moment of deep thought about how we never change: the 18th century (when this book was written) and the new pantomime, today, called the Internet. Both with good and bad.
“If I’m alone, I take up my pen, I try to write. I gnaw my nails, I rub at my forehead. Nothing doing. Good-night. The god’s not at home. I’d convinced myself that I had genius; at the end of the first line I read that I’m a fool, a fool, a fool.”
Yet, I know I shall meet HIM again. Just as I’ve met this great book again after 45 years (perhaps the greatest of all books). And that makes me feel good.