Rameau's Nephew



The narrator has made his way to his usual haunt on a rainy day, the Café de la Régence, France's chess mecca, where he enjoys watching such masters as Philidor or Legall. He is accosted by an eccentric figure: I do not esteem such originals. Others make them their familiars, even their friends. Such a man will draw my attention perhaps once a year when I meet him because his character offers a sharp contrast with the usual run of men, and a break from the dull routine imposed by one's education, social conventions and manners. When in company, he works as a pinch of leaven, causing fermentation and restoring each to his natural bend. One feels shaken and moved; prompted to approve or blame; he causes truth to shine forth, good men to stand out, villains to unmask. Then will the wise man listen and get to know those about him.[3]


The dialogue form allows Diderot to examine issues from widely different perspectives. The character of Rameau is presented as extremely unreliable, ironical and self-contradicting, so that the reader may never know whether he is being sincere or provocative. The impression is that of nuggets of truth artfully embedded in trivia.

A parasite in a well-to-do family, Rameau has recently been kicked out because he refused to compromise with the truth. Now he will not humble himself by apologizing. And yet, rather than starve, shouldn't one live at the expense of rich fools and knaves as he once did, pimping for a lord? Society does not allow the talented to support themselves because it does not value them, leaving them to beg while the rich, the powerful and stupid poke fun at men like Buffon, Duclos, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Voltaire, D'Alembert, Diderot.[3] The poor genius is left with but two options: to crawl and flatter or to dupe and cheat, either being repugnant to the sensitive mind. If virtue had led the way to fortune, I would either have been virtuous or pretended to be so like others; I was expected to play the fool, and a fool I turned myself into.[3]

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