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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 386

Rameau's Nephew begins with a scene at the Regence Cafe, where the narrator is approached by the eponymous nephew of M. Rameau. The nephew is not very intelligent but likes to express himself. These two characters then proceed to have conversations on various topics.

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They first talk about society and geniuses. The Nephew tells the narrator about his uncle (who is a great musician) while also maintaining that evil has always stemmed from genius. They discuss whether it's better to be a genius or just an ordinary merchant.

They then talk about parasitism as a philosophy. During this conversation, the Nephew mimics all kinds of people and states—seduction, supplication, a harpsichord player, and so on—to show off his talents.

The next topic is the education of young girls. The Nephew questions whether someone is able to master science well enough to instill it in others.

The Nephew then contradicts the philosopher, a new interlocutor, in defending philosophical immoralism. His conversation with the philosopher continues and moves on to the question of happiness. The philosopher, who is a moralist, contends that true happiness lies in helping the unfortunate. The Nephew, defending his immoralism, claims that the world is full of people who are happy without being good or honest.

The Nephew then talks about his time at M. Bertin's. Bertin was a financier and had a salon of mediocre poets and musicians; the Nephew excelled there, as someone "mad."

The Nephew then goes on to start a cynical and enthusiastic advocacy of the sublime in the evil, recounting the story of the renegade of Avignon, who, not content to be a despicable villain, reaches the sublime of malice. The penultimate discussion, on the quarrel of buffoons, is about musical art as imitation. The Nephew, an admirer of Italian works, strives to show that singing is an imitation of the accents of passion, and he condemns French works. At this point, he mimics the operatic arias and the various instruments of the orchestra.

Finally, they talk about the education of Rameau's son. The philosopher is surprised by the nephew’s sensitivity for aesthetic value coupled with his blindness for moral value.

The epilogue concludes with the notion that the only being who is exempt from pantomime is the philosopher, who has nothing and who asks nothing.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 945

Myself and He first discuss geniuses. Myself stresses their benefit to the larger society and future generations, but He berates them for personal flaws with which they harm themselves and those around them—they would be better off, He avers, amassing a fortune in business so they can live splendidly and pay buffoons such as him to make them laugh and procure girls for them. He concedes that He is vexed at lacking genius himself and declares that He would like to be someone else, on the chance of being one. He also remarks that He loves to hear discreditable things about geniuses—it lets him bear his mediocrity more easily.

At this point, He begins singing famous songs He wishes that He composed, and He details the good life that fame and fortune would afford him—a fine house, good food and wine, pretty women, a gaggle of flatterers, falling asleep with the gentle hum of praise in his ears. This alluring vision soon gives way to austere reality, however, for He was banished by his former patron. Rameau acknowledges that he himself is a foolish, lazy, impudent, greedy ne’er-do-well, but he adds that those with whom he lives like him precisely because of those qualities. He is their buffoon, their great greedy boob. In their mediocrity, they need someone to despise.

Myself advises Rameau either to apologize to his patron or to be courageous enough to be poor. That latter idea does not appeal to Rameau because there are so many wealthy fools to exploit. He admits self-contempt, but only for not making more lucrative use of his God-given talent for flattery, bootlicking, and seducing bourgeois daughters for his master.

Myself, distressed by these frank avowals of turpitude and perverted feelings, seeks to change the subject. Talk shifts to music (with mime of violin and keyboard) and education, but He discloses scams of the music tutoring trade and goes on to assert that such “idioms” are common to all professions and are the means by which restitution is achieved. Should He gain wealth, he would be happy to disperse it by gorging, gambling, wenching, and maintaining a whole troop of flatterers.

“You would certainly be doing honor to human nature,” Myself dryly remarks. “Openly or no, most think as I do,” He retorts. He dismisses patriotism (there are no countries, only tyrants and slaves), aiding friends (gratitude is a burden), even the devotion to the education of one’s children. Myself, while admitting delight in sensual pleasures, says that even more he likes solving problems, reading good books, instructing his children, doing his duty. While he would give all to have written a great work, better still would be to rehabilitate the Huguenot Calas (Voltaire’s great legal victory over Church and monarchy).

Rameau wants none of Myself’s kind of happiness, finding it strange and rare (and adding that the virtuous are ill-humored). It is easier to follow one’s natural vices, so congenial to French people and their little needs. Myself again suggests that He hurry back to his former patron, but He reveals a new motive: pride. He is quite willing to be abject, but at his pleasure, not under duress. He also tells more of the grim situation in “our house,” which includes a grouchy master (the financier Bertin) and a mistress who is a stupid, second-rate actor growing fat, as well as fallen poets and despised musicians who form a mob of shameful toadies eager to tear down all that succeeds. He also details the faux pas—a brash quip about the hierarchy of freeloaders at Bertin’s table—that led to his expulsion. The passage betrays that He wants both the benefits of being a parasite and the pleasure of feeling superior to his benefactors. Asked if he spreads malicious gossip about them, He replies that they should expect as much—would you blame a tiger that bites off a hand thrust into its cage? Asked why He is so open about his vices, He reveals that He wants admiration for sublimity in wickedness, and He describes in admiring detail a man who cleverly robbed and betrayed a Jew.

Again horrified, Myself shifts the subject to a lengthy discussion of French versus Italian new music, which elicits Rameau’s most elaborate singing pantomime, a jumble of airs, emotions, and orchestral instruments. Startled chess players and passersby watch the spectacle of a man possessed. Myself wonders why a person so sensitive to refinements in music is so insensible to virtue, and he asks what Rameau wants for his own son. Rameau, a fatalistic and passive parent, hopes that the boy will learn the “golden art” of averting disgrace, shame, and the penalties of the law, but he seems unconcerned about giving his son direction. Myself observes that should the boy grow up uniting infant reasoning with adult passion, he might well strangle his father and sleep with his mother.

Asked why, for all his understanding of music, he never created a great work, Rameau blames his star, the low-grade people around him, and need, which forces him to take positions vis-à-vis his superiors. As He says, the needy man does not walk like the rest; he skips, twists, cringes, and crawls. While He contends that all must take positions, Myself declares that a philosopher such as Diogenes, who mastered his desires, does not. Rameau replies that he wants good food, bed, clothes, rest, and much else that he would rather owe to kindness than to toil. Myself insists that He overlooks the cost. Undeterred and uninstructed, He declares cheerfully that he who laughs last laughs best.

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