Rameau’s Nephew / d’Alembert’s Dream by Denis Diderot
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The best order of things, to my way of thinking, is the one I was meant to be part of, and to hell with the most perfect of worlds if I am not of it.
With this book, I come to the third member of the triumvirate of the French enlightenment. While Diderot’s writing may lack the sharp wit of Voltaire and the soaring lyricism of Rousseau, Diderot is nevertheless just as interesting and perhaps more lovable than his two more famous contemporaries. For Diderot maintained a childlike curiosity and an excitement for ideas that makes his writing straightforwardly pleasant, without any of Voltaire’s satiric malice or Rousseau’s paranoid egotism. It is interesting to note that, though Diderot was a widely respected writer during his lifetime, his most daring and original works, such as these two dialogues, remained unpublished until well after his death. It takes talent to be both a conventional and an unconventional genius.
Rameau’s Nephew, in addition to its philosophical content, is remarkable simply as literature. It consists of a dialogue between a philosopher (who most assume to be Diderot) and the nephew of the famous composer, Jean-Philippe Rameau, who is an eccentric, ne’er-do-well, moocher, bohemian sort of fellow, whose ostensible profession is to give music lessons, but who really makes his living by playing the fool and flattering rich patrons. The conversation takes many twists and turns, which gives Diderot the opportunity to include some barbs against his rivals and enemies. Indeed, it is difficult to say that any topic is the main focus of the conversation, since—as in reality—the speakers break off on tangents, bring up and drop points, interrupt each other and themselves, and so on. This veracity of Diderot’s representation, and the excellent portrait of a hedonist living on the edge of respectable society, give the dialogue a literary value independent of any intellectual considerations. On a philosophical level, what mainly interested me was the confrontation of a virtuous philosopher with a selfish nihilist.
D’Alembert’s Dream is a more strictly philosophical exercise, detailing Diderot’s materialistic theory of biology. His main contention is that all matter is sensitive, or at least potentially sensitive, and thus no mind or soul is needed to explain life, movement, memory, sensation, or thought. Though this hypothesis mainly consists of armchair theorizing, which may sound very facile in the light of serious research, Diderot does put forward a hazy idea of evolution in this dialogue. What is more, in his notion of characteristics disappearing for several generations, and then reappearing, he also hazily hits upon Mendel. Not content to simply write an essay, Diderot puts all this in the mouth of his fellow encyclopedist D’Alembert (who spends most of the dialogue talking in his sleep), Mlle de Lespinasse (a close friend of D’Alembert who hosted a famous salon), and a doctor that serves as Diderot’s mouthpiece. D’Alembert and Mlle de Lespinasse were understandably upset when they heard about this (especially considering that the dialogue ends with a ringing endorsement of masturbation), and even compelled Diderot to burn the manuscript, but another one (in the possession of Grimm) survived.
As I put the book down, I find myself wishing I could spend more time in the company of Diderot, whose writing is warm and direct, witty but not showy, intellectual but not pretentious, daring but not wilfully provocative. It is amazing that one man could find the time to write literary classics while keeping his day job as the editor of the Encyclopédie and a popular playwright.