I Don’t Know Anything

Rameau’s Nephew was a slow-quick read. It was slow in that it was pretty dense and I’m still digesting it because there was a lot to think about. It was quick in that it was only 82 pages long and I can easily read that in a day (even one sitting).

So, here’s the thing. I like satire a lot. But I’m not that great at talking about it. It’s hard for me to intelligently talk about the satirical nature of something when I don’t fully understand what it’s satirizing. As I learned from “Him” in the dialogue, “when we don’t know everything, we don’t know anything well.” So. I don’t know anything and thus I can’t talk about Enlightenment philosophy or morals or satire.

Sidenote: When they were talking about education and pretention, it made me think of this song:

Of course, the sentiment in the song is relatively Socratic, but still. It’s kind of like the corollary to what Rameau’s nephew says.

Anyway, if you let yourself think about it, this work could really mess you up in some ways. As the two men (“Me” and “Him”) talk, “Him” (Rameau’s nephew) emerges as the jaded, down-on-his-luck cynic opposite the speaker’s optimism. “He” expounds on morality and hypocracy and humanity while “Me” occasionally adds comments that sound relatively naive.

If you think about what “He” says and take everything too seriously, you could get really freaked out. He believes that morality is affectation, rather than authenticity. The way that the people act and how they perceive virtues verses vices is not authentic, but rather a learned behavior enforced by society’s rewards. I would talk about this more, but I’m afraid that I would have to cite a certain 20th century French philosopher who goes by the name of Foucault. The trauma of last semester, when he kept coming up in ALL my classes even though he wasn’t assigned reading hasn’t left me yet. So I’d prefer not to go into society’s influence on morality right now.

However, since I need to post something about this book, I should probably figure out something to say about it. As the conversation progresses from morality and the learned people and education to music and affectation, Rameau becomes more manic. His cynical arguments and comments begin to contradict each other. You get the feeling that he is saying outrageous things just to be sensational. His cynicism manifests itself throughout the conversation, but here, especially:

There is a tacit agreement that they’ll provide good things for us and sooner or later we’ll pay back the good they’ve done us with something bad. . .Too bad for the man who doesn’t know that or who forgets it. How many of those people accused of viciousness I could justify by appealing to this universal and sacred pact, whereas people should accuse themselves of stupidity.

Also unsettling, particularly in today’s economic, social, corporate climate, is this observation:

The older the business institution, the more idioms there are. The worse times get, the more idioms multiply. Whatever the man is worth, that’s what the job is worth, and conversely, in the end, whatever the job is worth, that’s what the man is worth. So we value the job as much as we can.

At this risk of taking the satirical too seriously, hasn’t that kind of happened?

I dunno. This post is a whole big mess of word vomit. But hey, I don’t know everything about French Enlightenment philosophy or Enlightenment criticism, so thus I don’t know anything. That means that this entire post is affectation. Awesome.

Rating: ***
(I promise I understood it better and got more out of it than this mess of a post implies)

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