Rameau’s Nephew for president?

Listening to the news lately, I’ve been struck by — who hasn’t? —  the zaniness of our politics. And particularly the “who knows what he’s gonna say next folks?” quality to our current president. Lindsey Graham said something that really stuck with me. Something to the effect of, “Well, I talked to this one president the other day and I really liked him, but then he went away and I sure hope he comes back.” I am paraphrasing and probably misquoting slightly but I think the substance of my remembrance is correct.

I heard that and thought “I know where I’ve heard this before.”

Yup, I heard it in the 18th Century. In one of the most peculiar pieces of writing from that period. I heard it, or rather, read it in Denis Diderot‘s satire/novel/play/autobiography called Rameau’s Nephew.

I can hear you saying “huh? that’s alot of genres. Which is it?” No one knows. Strictly speaking it’s a dialogue between someone called “ME” and someone called “HIM.”

“So, this is like Beckett?” you say. Well, kind of.

Let me tell you about “HIM.” He’s supposedly the nephew of a semi-famous 18th Century composer named Jean Philippe Rameau, and the Nephew kind of plays the piano, and kind of teaches music, but is more or less a bum who lives off the wealth of others. He’s a “faineant” — a good-for-nothing.

There’s some scholarly debate as to who the Nephew really is. Some think he’s a parody of Jean Jacques Rousseau, with whom all the French philosophes had incredible problems. He was an impossible person to work with apparently (ah, the Swiss [and the French!]).

But “ME” — who may or not be Diderot himself — says something interesting about the Nephew at the beginning of the dialogue. He tells us, on one hand that this guy is a complete phony, that he lies all the time, and that he keeps on changing, like a veritable chameleon.

So… why does “ME” — who is a philosophical serious type — even deign to talk to this weird lying man? This is what ME tells us:

S’il en paraît un dans une compagnie, c’est un grain de levain qui fermente et qui restitue à chacun une portion de son individualité naturelle. Il secoue, il agite; il fait approuver ou blâmer; il fait sortir la vérité; il fait connaître les gens de bien; il démasque les coquins; c’est alors que l’homme de bon sens écoute, et démêle son monde

(Le Neveu de Rameau, 1765, Denis Diderot, https://beq.ebooksgratuits.com/vents/diderot-neveu.pdf)

Diderot does not get enough credit for being an absolutely GORGEOUS writer so that’s why I’m making you look at the French first.

Here’s the translation:

If one of them {these good for nothings] appears in company, he’s a grain of yeast which ferments and gives back to everyone some part of his natural individuality. He shakes things up. He agitates us. He makes us praise or blame. He makes the truth come out, revealing who has value. He unmasks the scoundrels. So that’s the time a man with sense pays attention and sorts his world out. (Project Gutenberg Australia, translation by Ian C. Johnston of Malaspina University-College, Nanaimo, British Columbia, Canada]

What follows between ME and HIM is a wide-ranging conversation that ends — appropriately  — with a discussion about freedom, money, social rank, and dishonesty.  In an ironic and distressing turn around, ME is forced to admit that he is himself no better than this good-for-nothing he has met on the street. He too is a good-for-nothing; the only difference is that ME has made good, financially.

I think that alot of us feel like ME does these days. Confused, aggravated. We are surrounded by so much political and societal duplicity, corruption, greed, and hypocrisy that we don’t even know who we are any more.

And given the corruption at the top, we feel guilty if we have anything at all, because oh my God that means we’re just like the President Nephew. You know. The guy who lies all the time and who eats 10 cheeseburgers IN BED. I don’t think Diderot’s Nephew would ever stoop that low. And no French person consents willingly to eat MacDonalds anyway.

But, Diderot is saying something interesting and important in this book. With this troubling encounter with a truly awful (and yet weirdly charming) lying user guy, Diderot is saying  “here’s your chance to clean house. Here’s your chance to confront who you are and how you sell out to society. Here’s your chance to get real. Here’s your chance to look around and see who’s actually doing something valuable.”

On my more upbeat days, I like to think that POTUS is our Nephew on steroids. He HAS indeed shaken us up.  Everyone is talking about race now! Even white people! Alot of Christians are talking to Jews and Muslims, and alot of Jews and Muslims are talking to each other!  I don’t know about you, but I know more about how our government  works than I ever did. I know who most of the senators are (I’ve actually met one, AND I’ve met my congressperson [I stepped on his foot by accident]) and what their politics are! I’ve met my own mayor, and I go to the County Commissioner meetings. Finally – gasp– I actually talk to my neighbors!

When I’m not sitting up nights worrying about nuclear war, I’m thinking about my society and my state and town. I’ve been SHOOK up, and Diderot would say. “yup, that’s the point.”

Diderot lived in pre-revolutionary France. He was a democrat, a feminist, and he also suspected that Jesus might have been gay. He’s sending us a disturbing, wonderful message.

Still, I’d like someone else to run our country.











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