Rameau's Niece

by Cathleen Schine

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Rameau’s Niece is a good-natured parody of the contemporary intellectual elite and of the empiricist tradition against which they have reacted. Deconstructionists, feminists, and Marxists reveal themselves at their most absurd in Schine’s novel. Dinner-party conversation reflects on the liberation of the signifier. A French student of American popular culture pontificates that literature is merely the acquisition and distribution of cultural capitalism. An art critic, Lily, explains that restaurant menus are a sign of male domination and that the Gulf War was a patriarchal invasion into the vaginal gulf. These highly educated, middle-aged people are still comparing their SAT scores and have nothing more to say to one another than ‘What is your field?’ and ‘What are you working on?’

In its swipe at academicians, Rameau’s Niece takes its place alongside David Lodge’s Small World and A. S. Byatt’s Possession. In addition to parodying those who purport to possess truth in contemporary culture, however, Rameau’s Niece also questions, in good postmodernist fashion, whether truth is attainable at all. Margaret Nathan, the novel’s protagonist, discovers an eighteenth century pornographic parody of Enlightenment philosophy entitled Rameau’s Niece, which she determines to have been based on Denis Diderot’s dialogue Rameau’s Nephew. When Margaret’s analysis of Rameau’s Niece is finally published, critics point out that the parody actually predates the publication of Rameau’s Nephew and therefore could not be based on it. After several weeks of mortification over her error, Margaret comes to the conclusion that it may be her job only to seek the truth, not to find it.

Even when the novel does suggest that truth is attainable, it parodies the means of attaining that truth, the empirical method. The philosophical tract that is embedded within the novel is itself a parody of that method. Like Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew, after which it is patterned, the manuscript that Margaret translates is, at least superficially, a philosophical dialogue on the subject of epistemology. A male teacher and his female pupil discourse on the Enlightenment proposition that truth is obtainable only by sensory perception. On another level, however, the dialogue is an elaborate double entendre. The teacher uses the language of rationalist empiricism to seduce his student, and she learns her lesson at least well enough to teach it to the gardener.

Like the dialogue, the novel is a parody of empiricism. While translating Rameau’s Niece from French to English, Margaret begins to shape her own life according to its principles. The dialogue posits that truth can be determined only by comparing and judging various sense perceptions. As she reads, Margaret begins to fear that her own poor memory prevents her from making comparisons and that perhaps the most important judgment she ever made in her life, the choice to marry Edward Ehren-werth, was based on inadequate comparison. Consequently, she sets out to gather more data.

The problem, however, is that her test subjects are unwilling to participate in the experiment. Margaret tells her gay editor that she is in love with him, but he grants her permission only to worship him from afar. In a drunken stupor, she tries to seduce her Belgian friend Martin, but he only laughs and puts her to bed in the spare room. Finally, when she passionately kisses her friend Lily, whom she believes to be a lesbian, Margaret is again rebuffed. Essentially, the unpredictable, irrational side of human personalities prevents her rationalist project from succeeding.

Furthermore, Margaret’s own irrationality subverts her experiment. When Margaret attempts to kiss Lily, they are interrupted by the sight of Margaret’s husband Edward in the doorway of Lily’s bathroom....

(This entire section contains 755 words.)

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Despite her own adulterous intentions, Margaret becomes furious at the thought that Edward and Lily are having an affair. She stomps out of Lily’s apartment and falls into the arms of her dentist, Dr. Lipi. By this time, however, thoughts of jealousy and revenge have supplanted her original desire for comparison and judgment; in a sense, her experiment is completed before it ever begins. Margaret knows before she spends the night with Samuel Lipi that Edward is the man with whom she wants to spend her life. Her jealousy and anger, rather than her comparison and judgment, tell her so. Emotionality, not rationality, proves to be the means to truth. Margaret’s original intuitive knowledge of Edward proves to be correct, and the sexual comparisons she seeks in the name of rationalist judgment turn out to be merely redundant.