Bruce's Reviews > Rameau's Nephew / D'Alembert's Dream

Rameau's Nephew / D'Alembert's Dream by Denis Diderot
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Aug 05, 2009

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Read in August, 2009

Denis Diderot was one of the foremost figures of the French Enlightenment, living from 1713-1784. Rameau’s Nephew is an imaginary dialogue between Diderot and the nephew of the composer, Rameau, who compares himself to Diogenes, the Cynic philosopher.

Here is an interesting assertion made within this dialogue: If we repudiate the circumstances under which we currently find ourselves, we repudiate our own existence, because our own existence is among the consequences of the circumstances that are, here and now.

The work is a wandering conversation - witty, ironic, outrageous, satirical - often jumping frenetically from topic to topic, always delightful, always entertaining, altogether worldly. It is very modern in tone and, in fact, timeless. In this posthumously published work, Diderot castigates his contemporaries by name-dropping throughout the dialogue, putting most of his criticisms into the mouth of the nephew. By so doing, he satirizes societal norms and practices. Sometimes it all becomes a bit tedious, and one wonders where it is going; maybe it would have been better appreciated with contemporary audiences. Nonetheless, his is a biting and witty critique of the relativity of morals and manners.

To what extent does each of us accommodate oneself to the preferences and whims of society in order to please it and gain something from it? Probably we all do so to some extent, else we would all be saints. Diderot is fierce and incisive in his pointing out of our hypocrisies and venalities. And yet, all of such frailties do end up making humanity endlessly entertaining.

In the prologue to D’Alembert’s Dream, Diderot and D’Alembert share ideas about consciousness that are remarkably prescient about evolution and modern scientific understanding (including even string theory!).

In the following section, the dream itself, the assertion is made that a wide-awake physician is akin to a dreaming philosopher, an interesting observation. More to the point, the cosmos is seen as a single organism, and the individual person a network of information and information transfer. The discussions of embryology, genetics, and physiology are fascinating and much in advance of what I would have expected for the times in which this was written. Much of the discussion ends up revolving around sexual practices and mores, producing a witty, urbane, and ultimately earthy conversation that provides insight into Diderot’s times and his own literary abilities.
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