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withdraws into her work, but her state of passivity is terminated by her discovery of an eighteenth century, anonymous, unpublished manuscript titled Rameau’s Niece, a dialogue cobbled together from philosophers whose writings fueled the Enlightenment: John Locke, Immanuel Kant, the Marquis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...
(The entire section is 1514 words.)