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Fig. 1 The ‘real’ Rameau’s Nephew? Reproduction of a drawing by J.G. Wille, at present not traced.
The reproduction was first published by G. Isambert in his edition of Diderot, Le Neveu de Rameau, with notices, notes and bibliography (Paris: A. Quantin, 1883).


In a famous Parisian chess café, a down-and-out, HIM, accosts a former acquaintance, ME, who has made good, more or less. They talk about chess, about genius, about good and evil, about music, they gossip about the society in which they move, one of extreme inequality, of corruption, of envy, and about the circle of hangers-on in which the down-and-out abides. The down-and-out from time to time is possessed with movements almost like spasms, in which he imitates, he gestures, he rants. And towards half past five, when the warning bell of the Opera sounds, they part, going their separate ways. This is the plot of Rameau’s Nephew.

Why present another translation of such a well-known work?

Translations need to adapt the work being translated to the language into which it is being put; so much is obvious. Less so is that language creates a context that changes constantly, sometimes at great speed. There is a need for renewal in the reception of a work in translation. A new Rameau’s Nephew, we felt, was called for.

Why an interactive, on-line, Open Access edition?

Such an edition opens possibilities not available to earlier translations – techniques move on, as well as languages. An interactive, on-line edition is particularly suited to Diderot, who wrote mostly in dialogue, though sometimes the dialogue was asymmetric (as in Rameau’s Nephew, between HIM and ME). In fact, he loved talking. As if in conversation, his writings change their relation to the reader constantly, forcing her to laugh, to argue, to wonder. He usually doesn’t write in discursive form but in fragmentary, often teasing fashion. He would like an audience, clearly, he tacks around to force one into being and into action – but he is dead, he is words on a page (and dust in the Church of Saint Roch, Paris). We may come closer to discussing with him through an interactive edition than in any other way.

Rameau’s Nephew is called ‘Satyre’ on the title page of the autograph manuscript. The spelling reminds us of the licentious mythical beast, the goat-man; the work itself has some very funny dirty stories. Yet it is a satire in a different sense, it is stuffed with personal allusions, it names and shames a whole roll of minor actresses and big stars, Grub Street inhabitants, dodgy newspapers and especially the then version of bankers, the ‘farmers’ of taxes or of offices. It takes them off, it takes them down, several or every peg they ever climbed. This kind of edition makes it much easier to understand who these people are, why Diderot may be getting at them: at a click, the reader can cause their portrait and their biography to appear.

The click is worth making – the similarity to our post-financial crisis world is hard to miss: bankers, celebrities, paparazzi, rise from the pages, with little sense of shame and often little talent, except for pushing themselves ahead. The dialogue’s very lack of conclusion, where the talkers just separate at the sound of the opera bell announcing the performance, leaves us looking at what may be coming towards us, in somewhat shaky or indistinct fashion. The instability of attitude, the changes of scale and weight in what HIM and ME talk of, makes me wonder about what is only a couple of decades down the time-line: 1789, and ask whether its shadow is perceptible.

Yet something seems at odds with the scabrous comedy, the personal satire, the blighting corruption embedded in the dialogue: Rameau’s Nephew has a running concern with music. What is music doing in such a work? – music, the art that seems to us in our century closest to the expression of pure feeling. The title warns us, we are encased in an inheritance, but a lateral one, one that is not direct: Rameau is only a nephew. The tradition of French music after Lulli, that of the high baroque culminating in the great operas of Jean-Philippe Rameau, that is Rameau the uncle, is being countered by a very different style, that of Neapolitan comic opera, and its development in French music by Philidor, Duni working in France, and, not mentioned by Diderot, Grétry. We need to understand the upstream of that wave of creativity, its self-positioning in relation to high art and baroque opera. From this, Diderot can foreshadow that transformation in music which will reach its fullest expression in Mozart and Berlioz and which will open out to the nineteenth century; he seems to foretell a transformation in our relation to our own feeling for music. We hope to have made an understanding of this possible in this edition – the digital form has enabled us to embed into the text pieces of music specially selected by Pascal Duc, who directs its performance by students of his Department of Early Music, at the Conservatoire de Paris. This engenders, we hope, an awareness of the musical context of the dialogue, enlarging it well beyond its relation to opéra comique, which is now fairly generally understood.

Diderot’s bringing forward of Neapolitan comic opera, with its often physical comedy, connects implicitly with his dazzling descriptions of the Nephew’s pantomimes. The foolery performed with musical instruments by the great Swiss clown, Grock (, one of many clips), and the telling movements of the great violinist Gidon Kremer when playing (for an extreme version, performed with others and developed into dance, see are both inheritors of the tradition into which Diderot places his dialogue: the near-dancing, the use of the body as an instrument. But the clowning, the spilling-over of expression moves with Rameau the nephew from the active and the liberating into almost painful movements, into bows and scrapes which are as if extorted. He is, but he is also made to be.

So gesture and pantomime as well as utterances explore the self-awareness of HIM, his consciousness of his lack of freedom, subject as a musician both to his instrument and to his audience. HIM has exploited this lack of freedom – he bows, he scrapes with artistic flair. By perfecting his flattery through self-consciousness, by not being identical to what he is made to be by his patrons, he has contrived to turn his very servitude into a kind of liberty, a liberty raised to the second power, arrived at through an awareness of his bonds. His ironic exploitation of his own turpitude brings it to the level of an art. The strange form of the dialogue reinforces this, for it allows a sideways take on what is said, a striking but puzzling contrast between an objectivized persona, HIM, and first person experience – the narrative by ME. The form, a dialogue not as face to face but as if skewed, seems to have been invented by Diderot and it is puzzling that, to my knowledge, this form is only found in German authors who actually met Diderot or who were interested in him: Lessing, Wieland, Herder, F.H. Jacobi.

Indeed, the first interest in the work, Rameau’s Nephew came from Germany. It was Goethe who at the promptings of Schiller engineered in 1805 its first appearance on the stage of ‘world literature’ – to use a term first coined by the great German poet himself. It was thus not in French but in Goethe’s German translation that the work was first read. Goethe produced the term ‘Weltliteratur’ to seal the claims of his national literature to an attention equal to that accorded to classical French literature or the works of Shakespeare. The term fits the work of Diderot like a glove, if only by the roster of major thinkers who have commented on it: Hegel, Engels, Freud, Bernard Williams.

Each has found there a link to his own work. To take the closest to Diderot in time: Hegel probably had personal reasons to draw attention to Rameau’s Nephew in his Phenomenology (1807), for earlier he had asked Goethe for help in obtaining a post. But there are intellectual reasons also. With exemplary insight, through careful quotation, he picks out two main threads in Diderot’s dialogue: first, the question of ‘species’, espèce, translated in the present version as specimen. One of the philosophical problems that Hegel embeds in the very structure of his major work is the ‘besondere’, the particular. As he moves through the experience of humanity, like a weaver’s shuttle between the universal and the singular, all and one, summarizing and linking, he picks out what lies between them, the particular, what can form a ‘species’, what catches different possible groupings of experience, of moments of thought. And Diderot throughout his work plays with lists, with different ways of collecting together actions and professions and characteristics. The second area on which Hegel insists is music. What appears to interest him most is the way in which Diderot has, through music, sketched out a kind of movement of history, whereby consciousness and hence sensibility make each moment unique, differentiated from the past by what has been in our past. Our ears carry our experience, and we cannot have innocent ears, or innocent experience either. Having listened to the music of the Italian comic opera, Diderot suggests through the mouth of HIM, we cannot go back unchanged and listen to the French composers, to Rameau.

There is another attraction for Hegel. The ‘hero’ of Rameau’s Nephew twists and turns in his argument, moving from assertion to negation and back through negation to assertion. Hegel places his discussion of Diderot’s work in the moment before the great cataclysm that was the French Revolution, in an historical space where complex historical forces vie against each other, acting and reacting against each other. Jean Starobinski, examining in detail the texture of Diderot’s writing has pointed out the use of a rhetorical form which is not one of true Hegelian dialectic (where we might move from a thesis which is negated to a new thesis developed from negating the negation) but is that of chiasmus. In this figure of rhetoric, a position negated leads us back to the starting point; we do not move on, but stay as it were blocked by a contradiction. Yet Diderot ends his dialogue by letting it swing into an open future, one of generality and indistinctness conveyed by the proverbial saying – ‘he who laughs last laughs longest’, says HIM.

How then does Diderot structure his dialogue, if it is left wide open? He makes the beginning and end definite in time and place: as said, it begins after lunch, at the café de la Régence; it comes to a stop shortly before five-thirty, when the opera is about to commence – it was close by. Diderot, then, seems to place different sections of the composition, one after the other, with no linear order that can be discerned in my opinion – indeed, one wonders if some sections do not recur as variations on a theme. For example, Voltaire’s play, Mahomet, occurs twice in relation to Voltaire’s public actions, one criticized – his writing In Praise of Maupéou, the other praised – his rehabilitation of the judicially murdered Protestant, Jean Calas. The reader in fact wanders and wonders. We move through a hailstorm of allusions, a multitude of moods. We hope that the appreciation of this strange work, the route we take as we read, will be made clearer and livelier by this new translation, by the musical extracts of illustration, and by the images and notes.