Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

In Rameau’s Nephew, Lui (Rameau’s nephew) and Moi (Diderot) engage in a combative conversation. The work is a totality of contradictions. Lui insists upon what he believes to be true and Moi objects that the exact opposite is right. Lui is a self-admitted parasite upon society who takes advantage of everyone and everything that he can. He admits to having taught his son that money is more important than anything else and to mourning his deceased wife because he could have profited by prostituting her. Lui insists that his lifestyle is morally correct. Moi, who is the embodiment of bourgeois morality, is appalled by Lui and vehemently objects to his assertions. Lui and Moi are both strong combatants, and Diderot does not permit either one a decisive victory. This ambiguity makes the dialogue an inquiry into morality that never finds an answer.

While neither Lui nor Moi can claim a victory, they do lead each other into a state of change, of becoming less of what they were. The character of Lui also undergoes startling physical change as he contorts himself in the most outlandish fashion, acting out what he says. Lui is like an actor, creating characters by his gestures and physical contortions. Just as Lui contorts himself to assume the various individuals he talks about, he also shapes himself into whatever he needs to be to profit from social opportunity. Lui’s explanation of his relationship to the society in which he lives enables Diderot to satirize a number of his enemies in the novel.

The believability of the dialogue as a real conversation that actually took place is enhanced by Diderot’s use of realism. The conversation occurs in the Café de la Régence, an actual café in Paris. The characters of Lui and Moi are drawn from real life. The musician Jean-Philippe Rameau had a nephew, and of course Diderot put himself into the dialogue as Moi. The conversation proceeds in a realistic fashion, as one topic brings up another and the two interlocutors discuss a number of topics, including music, women. making a living, and what it means to be successful.

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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...

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