Rameau's Niece

by Cathleen Schine

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Rameau’s Niece

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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withdraws into her work, but her state of passivity is terminated by her discovery of an eighteenth century, anonymous, unpublished manuscript titled Rameau’s Niece, a dialogue cobbled together from philosophers whose writings fueled the Enlightenment: John Locke, Immanuel Kant, the Marquis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 philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz’s expense by having both Dr. Pangloss and Candide demonstrate the cause-and-effect force of “sufficient reason” with compliant women.

The propositions Margaret finds most moving for her own sensibility are the manuscript assertion “To perceive is to...

(This entire section contains 1514 words.)

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feel” and Rousseau’s notion that all judgment must be based on comparison. She is led to ponder the meaning of her marriage. Having nothing with which to compare it, she begins to doubt its validity. The need to experiment and to experience her responses to men other than Edward takes hold of her mind. Hence, inevitably, her temptation to adultery.

She flies alone to a philosophic colloquium in Prague. In her lecture at Charles University she reads from Rameau ’s Niece, then discourses on the relationship

between philosophy and pornography, concluding “The desire to know is desire.”

Sightseeing around the city on the last day of her visit, Margaret eroticizes the civic statuary’s saints and cherubs. She wonders whether corporeal sensibility has become her sole mover. On the plane home she finds herself seated next to a handsome Belgian and decides she wants to have sex with him: “To know is to fool around.” He is suffering from laryngitis, however, so their efforts to communicate are aborted.

Margaret’s next target is her sensitive editor, Richard, but he turns out to be gay and meets her declaration of infatuation with a condescending “You may admire me from afar if you like.” In the manuscript, the philosopher is chagrined to find himself sharing the niece’s favors with a gardener. She coolly informs him that he has taught her to distribute nature’s gifts impartially. Margaret seeks to do likewise.

She falls into lust for her dentist, who excites her by inquiring into her “relationship” with her teeth. She confides in her feminist, luscious friend Lily, explaining that amatory judgment requires amatory comparison. By astounding coincidence, the Belgian on the plane reenters her life as Martin Court, an acoustic engineer who travels to sell expensive sound equipment, and the son of an old scholar Margaret had met in Prague. Martin turns out to be forty-nine, divorced, with a twenty-four-year-old daughter. Margaret is in a maelstrom of confusing libidinous directions: Is she in love with her handsome dentist? With charming Martin? With sensual Lily? Or only with her relentlessly cheerful husband? “I want to know what I want,” she laments to herself.

She leaves Edward to sort out her feelings, spends an evening with Martin Court, gets dead drunk in the brownstone house he is occupying but awakens the next morning to find herself untouched, with the solicitous Martin reassuring her that he has phoned Edward to take her home. Lily is next on Margaret’s list. Calling on her pal without a preliminary call, she crushes herself against Lily’s body only to be interrupted by a towel-wrapped Edward. To her amazement, Margaret finds herself enraged at the apparent dalliance, though assured that no sexual transgression has occurred. In the dentist’s Central Park apartment, Margaret is finally bedded, only to awaken the next morning wondering, “Are you necessary, Dr. Lipi? Are you an a priori kind of guy?”

The subsequent twist of the plot evens the empirical score between Edward and Margaret. Just as she discovered him naked with Lily, he discovers her naked in Richard’s apartment. Their eyes have seen the adulterous truth—or have they? Are they to be trusted?

Of course not. In the manuscript the niece returns to the arms of her mentor. In the novel, correspondingly, Margaret and Edward reunite, tendering one another innocent explanations for their apparent derelictions. He had been innocently showering, she had been innocently bathing. Period. To be sure, Margaret does get away with her brief Lipi fling. But then, Edward and Lily might have been in the sack before he showered. Wiping the slate clean, she offers Edward her renewed love while visiting him in his office. Sweeping impediments off his desk, Edward lays her on it. “Of all my theories,” Margaret assures him, “you are the best.”

Schine’s novel is inventive, amusing, compact, and learned. Deconstructing Enlightenment ideas, she nevertheless offers up an essentially moral tale of love and marriage tested and found to be true. The obliquity of the intellectual life is consistently amusing when applied to the urges of the libido.

Regrettably, however, this supremely clever book is vitiated by a grave flaw:

Margaret is often implausible and dislikable as a character. She is intolerant, spoiled, childish, cold, petulant, moody, and narcissistic. She reduces the world to her solipsistic self. The result is that the reader fails to empathize with her tumescent longings and ends up wondering what her husband finds in her to have and to hold, presumably until death do them part.

Bibliography

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.

Form and Content

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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.’

Context

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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. Margaret reasons that her deficient memory prevents her from making comparisons and therefore from arriving at truth. Perhaps, she thinks, the most important decision of her personal life, the choice to marry Edward Ehrenwerth, was based on insufficient comparison.

In an attempt to discover truth, Margaret imitates Rameau’s niece and embarks upon sexual conquests. She attempts to seduce her gay editor, a female art critic, an acquaintance from Belgium, and even her dentist, in order to compare and judge the choice she made in marrying Edward. Her external quest for knowledge, however, one more often associated with the male than with the female Bildungsroman, fails to reveal truth to Margaret. In the end, her jealousy (emotionality rather than rational comparison and judgment) makes her realize the truth of her feelings for Edward. By the time she finally sleeps with Dr. Lipi, Margaret has already found the answers she sought.

Margaret’s sexual quest suggests that a male-oriented, rational approach to knowledge may be merely redundant for women, who often come to truth through intuition. Actually, Margaret’s quest is not to gain empirical knowledge at all but to learn to appreciate the intuitive knowledge she already possesses. Margaret’s self-criticism results from her tendency to contrast herself with her husband Edward, whom she believes to be more knowledgeable because he never forgets things. Her discovery of truth in spite of, even because of, the failure of her empirical experiment reveals to Margaret that intuition is an equally valid means to knowledge.

At first glance, Schine’s novel may seem antifeminist. Margaret’s sexual quest leads her not to independence but back to her husband. Margaret’s story differs from a novel such as Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying or Judith Rossner’s Looking for Mr. Goodbar in that sexual exploration is not a means to self-knowledge. In fact, Rameau’s Niece depicts Margaret’s attempt to re-create the plot of the Enlightenment version of Looking for Mr. Goodbar in her own life as comedy, not revelation.

The feminist significance of Rameau’s Niece, however, is that it differentiates the female and male quests, and honestly portrays women’s struggle for self-knowledge at the turn of the twenty-first century. For Margaret, as for many women, the goal is to unite the public and private spheres, to balance career and love relationships, and to make a place for herself as an individual while remaining connected to family and society.

Bibliography

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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.

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