What do we know of Denis Diderot? The Enlightenment author of the first Encyclopedia penned a handful of biting critiques, rippling with obscenities a

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What do we know of Denis Diderot? The Enlightenment author of the first Encyclopedia penned a handful of biting critiques, rippling with obscenities and scenarios that would test the sensitivities of even our most modern ears. Yet at the end of his life, he found a luxurious home in the lap of power, as Catherine the Great exchanged her patronage for possession of his library.

He spent a good stint in prison for the publication of Lettres sur les Aveugles, or Letters on the Blind, a work of stinging social commentary, and his La Religieuse or The Nun, is a sexually explicit exposé of sadistic cruelty and sexual abuse in religious institutions. His Encyclopédie was banned in 1759, and he never published Rameau’s Nephew, as incarceration taught him to hold dear his liberty. We know the work because of none other than the German Romantic giants Schiller and Goethe, the former who obtained the manuscript, and the latter who translated it into his native tongue in 1805.

Jean-Honore Fragonard - Denis Diderot  Fanciful Figure  - WGA8064

Dennis Diderot

What is Rameau’s Nephew? A philosophical dialogue written in the form of a play, the work features two characters, the wise Philosopher who embodies the ideals of the Enlightenment, and the chaotic Nephew, Jean François Rameau, a resentful, underachieving parasite, who extolls the values of bilking the rich, flattering the pompous, and duping the clueless. The Nephew rebukes both virtue and his uncle, the great Jean Philippe Rameau:

"My uncle thinks of no one but himself and he couldn’t give a damn about the rest of the universe. His wife and daughter could drop dead whenever they feel like it, just so long as when the parish bells ring for them, they resonate at the twelfth and seventeenth intervals"

Rameau Carmontelle

Jean Philippe Rameau

Because society condemns the genius to poverty, the Nephew argues that cheating the privileged through a parastic existence is the right of the artistically gifted. “I’m a layabout, a fool, and all around waste of space” he exults, regaling the Philosopher on time honored techniques of getting through a music lesson, such as filling the rich pupil’s lesson hour with vapid society gossip.

Diderot uses the dialogue form to expand on a number of ideas, including the battle between Italian melody and French harmony, known as La Querelle des Bouffons, which raged through Paris at the time, as Gallic taste felt the assault of Italiantà’s crescendoing charm.

"It should be forbidden by order of the police for anyone of any quality or status to arrange a performance of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater. This Stabat should have been burnt by the public executioner. Good God, these wretched Italians with their opera buffa, their Serva Padrona their Tracollo, have really done us in."

Also percolating throughout the work is the oncoming collision between Classicism and Romanticism. The cool-headed Philosopher and the aggrieved and explosive Nephew can be seen as stand ins for the great cultural upheaval that the French Revolution would bring on in just a few years of the work’s creation.

Sang froid and hot blood spar as cataclysmic social upheaval ushered in by Diderot and his circle of Philosophes augurs to change the world. Out of the clearing smoke of Romanticism’s triumph, it seems fitting that Diderot’s champion would be Goethe, extoller of self-absorbed misery, creator of The Sorrows of Young Werther.

“Imagine what a wise and philosophical universe would be. You must agree it would be as miserable as hell.” – Rameau’s Nephew

– Jessica Gould


Rameau's Nephew by Denis Diderot (1713 – 1784)

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