Rameau’s Niece

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Margaret Nathan is the heroine of Cathleen Schine’s wittily amusing novel of manners. Margaret is one of fortune’s darlings, married to Edward Ehrenwerth, a handsome, sexy, jovial, brilliant, generous, and surprisingly forgiving Englishman who has become an authority on Walt Whitman and teaches literature at Columbia University. Margaret is herself a scholar of the eighteenth century who has had a popular success with her biography of an obscure woman, Charlotte de Montigny, who rechristened the parts of the human body in a tract named Anatomie sans Culotte, so that a penis was now named “crescam ut prosim (… ‘Let me grow, in order to benefit mankind’)” and “the mammary glands were dubbed the citoyens bienfaisant” (charitable citizens).

Margaret is bright and energetic but also shy and socially awkward, far more at ease on the written page than in live company. Wondering how she would behave if she were to find herself seated next to herself, she sadly concludes, “She would have nothing to say. And neither would she.” She has therefore fallen into the habit of letting Edward think and talk for her, since he is a larger-than-life enthusiast with a well-stocked mind and nimble tongue.

Margaret withdraws into her work, but her state of passivity is terminated by her discovery of an eighteenth century, anonymous, unpublished manuscript titled Rameau’s Niece, a dialogue cobbled together from philosophers whose writings fueled the Enlightenment: John Locke, Immanuel Kant, the Marquis de Condercet, Claude Helvetius, and Denis Diderot. Diderot’s great colloquy, Le Neveu de Rameau (1821; Rameau’s Nephew, 1897) is the inspiration and structural model for Margaret’s find.

Rameau’s Nephew is an examination, from two points of view poles apart, of what should be the basis for the good life. It is a running conversation between the first-person narrator, “Moi,” who defends rational morality and reflects Diderot’s public self, and the nephew of a composer, Jean- Philippe Rameau, famous in his time even though obscure in the twentieth century. The nephew is a bohemian in contrast to the narrator’s philosophe, a shameless procurer and parasite but also a talented actor and brilliant advocate. Diderot’s work can be understood on many levels of meaning, with the nephew regarded by many critics as a precursor of Fyodor Dostoevski’s self-destructive underground man.

The manuscript named Rameau ’5 Niece is hardly as profound. Its dialogue also features a first-person narrator who is a philosopher, a friend of Rameau and author of a Treatise on Sense and Sociability, a title mockingly anticipating one of Jane Austen’s novels. His conversational partner is the niece in question, a beautiful young woman. Under the cover of teaching her the art of reasoning, the philosopher undertakes her instruction in the mysteries of sexual passion. Behind a screen of abstract academic jargon, the manuscript becomes a manual of seduction, a piece of rationalist pornography.

The philosopher and his pupil decide to test empirically-in bed-a number of cogitative propositions, such as the principle of corporeal sensibility as the stirrer of the intellectual faculties. The manuscript soon teems with suggestive double entendres, such as “I felt true friendship to be within our grasp,” and the niece’s joyful cry, “Your logic, sir, is rigorous, your assertions sublime.” One of Schine’s obvious sources is the first chapter of Voltaire’s Candide (1759; English translation, 1759) in which Voltaire amuses himself at the German...

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Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Rameau’s Niece is the title of both Cathleen Schine’s novel and the parodic philosophical tract contained within it. The outer framework, the novel, is the story of Margaret Nathan, a renowned scholar of eighteenth century intellectual history who lacks confidence in her intellectual abilities and seeks sexual conquests as a means of proving them. The inner framework, the philosophical tract, is the impetus for the progression of the novel’s plot. While conducting research for her Ph.D. dissertation on Madame de Montigny, a forgotten eighteenth century anatomist, Margaret discovers a pornographic French manuscript entitled Rameau’s Niece, which appears to be a contemporary parody of the Enlightenment philosophy of Claude-Adrien Helvetius, Immanuel Kant, and Denis Diderot, among others. As Margaret begins to translate Rameau’s Niece, its slick logic seduces her into believing that sexual experience is the means to knowledge, and she begins to conduct her own life accordingly.

The influence of Rameau’s Niece suddenly brings Margaret’s world alive with sexual significance. She travels to Prague to deliver a paper on the underground literature of the eighteenth century and finds herself gazing luridly at naked statues in the architecture. On the flight home, she fantasizes about Martin Court, the man in the seat next to her, and dreams of her own naked body next to his green-and-white-striped shirt. Once home, she invents sexual fantasies involving her editor, Richard; her friend, a feminist art critic, Lily; and her dentist, Dr. Lipi. In fact, the only person she does not desire sexually is her husband, Edward.

In an attempt to judge her feelings for Edward, Margaret decides to separate from him and to act on her sexual desires. She tries to seduce Martin, she attempts to kiss Lily, and she actually succeeds in her pursuit of Dr. Lipi. She finds, however, that the actual experience of adultery is unequal to what she imagined. Lipi is handsome and a perfect performer, but she longs for the intellectual attachment to Edward that had once deepened her desire for him. Shortly thereafter, Margaret returns to Edward and recognizes in the words of the teacher in Rameau’s Niece—that ‘our truest opinions are not the ones we have never changed, but those to which we have most often returned.’


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Rameau’s Niece is an example of the female Bildungsroman and a debunking of the myth of the male Bildungsroman. Margaret Nathan, the novel’s protagonist, goes through a female rite of passage toward self-awareness. At the opening of Rameau’s Niece, she is on the brink of an intellectual crisis that spawns a sexual quest. Margaret is a scholar of eighteenth century intellectual history whose biography of the anatomist Madame de Montigny has brought her international fame. Nevertheless, Margaret believes she is inadequate because of her poor memory. Her inability to remember names and faces makes her feel socially inept, and she worries that her research method (she masters material just long enough to write about it and then promptly forgets it all) reveals her to be an intellectual sham.

Once Margaret discovers and translates an underground philosophical dialogue entitled Rameau’s Niece, however, she begins to imitate its heroine’s epistemology and transforms her career-related fears into a sexual quest for personal knowledge. The dialogue that she translates affects Margaret so dramatically because it echoes her own intellectual crisis and seems to offer a satisfactory means to solving it. The dialogue particularly appeals to her as a woman because its philosophy promises to unite both spheres of her life, the public and the private. As she reads, Margaret begins to worry that her poor memory might have affected more than her career. According to the dialogue’s logic, truth results from judgment and judgment results from comparison....

(The entire section is 658 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Annan, Gabriele. “La Femme Savante.” The New York Review of Books (April 22, 1993): 29. Annan’s review compares Margaret Nathan to her prototype in Hollywood movies, the attractive bluestocking, and notes a “cheerful antifeminism” in the novel.

Coates, Joseph. “A Zestful Satire Smites the Chic of the New Academics.” Chicago Tribune, April 15, 1993, sec. 5, p. 3. Coates focuses on the novel’s parody of the new intellectual elite.

Goodrich, Chris. “A Novel of Ideas Is Cloaked as Comedy.” Los Angeles Times, March 23, 1993, p. E3. Goodrich praises the novel for its combination of comedy and Enlightenment philosophy.

Goreau, Angeline. “How Do You Know You’re Happy?” The New York Times Book Review, March 21, 1993, 13-14. Goreau discusses the novel as a parody of the postmodernist literary genre it imitates.

See, Carolyn. “Philosopher in the Bedroom.” The Washington Post, May 9, 1993, p. C5. See praises the novel and discusses its combination of sexuality and phi-losophy.