Im. OUBLIETTES, design for the Tagesspiegel/Mehr Berlin, 2011

„RAMEAUs Nephew“ by Gerrit Confurius

Text for OUBLIETTES/Tagesspiegel/Mehr Berlin (2010/11)

On his walks, the narrator, who counts himself among the “philosophers,” meets Jean-Francois Rameau, the nephew of the famous composer Jean-Philippe Rameau, in a café after the Palais Royal, an “original” familiar to Parisians, as vagrants of the upper class were called at the time, with a “temperament as changeable as the weather.” Rameau was called an “overgrown giant,” an “eagle of spirit with the practical disposition of a tortoise,” and well known in the city was his “protruding jaw, which looked like the emblem of a world view focused on everything edible.”

Rameau describes himself seemingly even more mercilessly than his contemporaries, but nevertheless also with the palpable pleasure of unparalleled provocation, as “scum” and “spoiled mediocrity,” calling himself a “toady,” a “liar,” a “thief,” but above all repeatedly “unprincipled” and “beggarly.” He would do anything to “drink good wine, devour opulent dishes, loll around on pretty women and sleep in soft beds.” With this philosophy of life, the narrator says, he elevated himself to an “essential spirit” of his time.

Even more than his convictions, however, the violent pace of his speech pushes the philosopher-narrator to the edge of the conversation. Rameau commands attention with a deafening stentorian voice, hurling volleys of verbs and nouns at his counterpart that always end up sounding ironic. He plays with hundreds of names, recalling gossip and scandals that should be painful, especially for the enlightening party.


Above all, the nephew cunningly undermines the philosopher’s questions and arguments by taking them literally: “What I do? The same as everyone else. Good, bad, and nothing. When I am hungry, I eat, if opportunity offers; when I am thirsty, I sometimes drink; and because my beard grows in the process, I have myself shaved now and then.”

Hegel, in his “Phenomenology of Spirit,” quotes the passage about the “silent weaving away of the spirit in the simple interior of its substance”: “Pure insight creeps … through and through the noble parts, and has soon thoroughly taken possession of all the entrails and limbs of the unconscious idol, and on a fine morning it gives a push with its elbow to its comrade, and Bautz…” He continues by explaining that this spirit “that hides its doing is only one side of the realization of pure insight.” In the transition to the new, a passionate struggle takes place, in which one realizes how much the antagonism to the adversary is already interwoven in its logic.

Certainly Hegel was right when he thought in the “Phenomenology of Spirit” that the author wanted Diderot to be present in two roles, in the “torn consciousness” of the nephew and in the “calm, honest consciousness” of the philosopher. The Diderot of this text simply cannot stand up to his interlocutor. The philosopher’s initially strained self-irony – “my mind is probably limited” – dissolves into a sobering description of the situation: “I was bewildered by Rameau’s sharpness of mind and his depravity, by such a perversion of feeling and such extraordinary honesty.”

The relationship between philosopher and “original” is insidiously reversed. The philosopher slips out of the conversation. The nephew as anti-philosopher and amoral subject increasingly assumes the Socratic conversational role, the role of the one who tries to play off the superiority of the questioner. The arrogant philosopher is driven more and more into aporia by his unworthy adversary. The nephew takes on the role of the one who structures the conversation. Ange
The arrogant philosopher and the fool imperceptibly exchange roles in a carnivalesque Bakhtinian dialogue.

The noise of the struggle swells. The static space of reason fills with frenetic life. Constantly, Rameau hums or sings pieces of music that seem to fit the themes of the conversation. But the humming and singing is only a transition to the bizarre behavior that the narrator experiences as “Rameau’s pantomime.” Rameau copies meanings in physical gestures rather than representing them through words: “Rameau took up what I was talking about as pantomime. He had thrown himself on the ground and pressed his face against the earth, he was crying, he was sobbing. Then suddenly he got up and continued speaking in a serious and deliberate tone.” In the end, the nephew plays an entire orchestra with all his instruments, including the conductor’s movements – to the point of complete exhaustion. He has long since captivated the attention of the audience, and even the philosopher cannot deny him a certain admiration, albeit ironically broken: “I wouldn’t even be worthy of being your student.” “He” with his feelings is ahead of the insights of the “I” by more than a few steps. Of course, being ahead of the body also troubles the nephew himself. Thus Rameau lapses for a moment into gestures of desperate depression. He feels compelled to justify himself. To pantomime and to such convulsions of the body, he complains, the marginalized are condemned, who, unlike the powerful, are denied the fulfillment of all desire.

The self-hiding doing puts itself on the hind legs, as “affirmation of affirmation”, “will to will”, “master without slave”. The will is thereby necessarily “subjectless”, intentionality without intenders. It creatively produces the differences that are non-identical to each other, since at no moment of their emergence are they a reproduction of something already thought or already pre-drawn. Affects without redundancy. This differential power creates solely “singularities” or “events that are not predictable.” Diderot, Goethe writes, knew how to “unite the most heterogeneous elements of reality into an ideal whole”, and anyway it is clear that “nobody equals him in liveliness, power, spirit, variety and grace”. This ideal whole was not limited to the analytical side of enlightenment, but included emotion and affects. The nephew embodies Goethe’s “ineffabile”, the impulse to make the incomprehensible, inexpressible nameable against all linguistic-critical reservations and claims and thus to approach the “hidden center of experience”, also of scientific experience, without losing the “respect for the incomprehensible”.

Foucault summed up his history of madness by saying, “On the one side stands a group of figures who control their will but do not know the truth. On the other side is the fool who tells them the truth, but does not have dominion over his will, or even over the fact that he is telling the truth.” Now, in the history of the cogito’s habits of thought, the Neveu de Rameau suddenly appears. This compromise of baseness and unreason who “brings the truth to light and exposes the villains.” The nephew is in his own way a philosopher who is not crazy, but plays the insolent, the lazy, the moocher, the glutton, the fool, the buffoon. He distrusts his science and does not know where its method comes from, but with all the imitation of the characters he plays, he uses his frankness to draw out that truth which the others hide behind the roles that society sets before them. He is, in his own way, a parrhesiast who speaks the truth. Anti-Cartesian lesson, Foucault called the nephew’s action: “delusion that unites, in an illusion equal to truth, the being and the non-being of the real”, “the intoxication of the sensual”, “the immediate fascination and the painful irony in which the loneliness of madness announces itself”, and, looking at Hölderlin, Nietzsche, Artaud, van Gogh, asks the question: “What is this power that petrifies those who have once looked it in the eye, who have tried to test unreason? “

The latent counter-climate of the Enlightenment connects to the figure of the fool, even though the latter had been officially abolished and ostracized. The figure of the fool has the potential to reverse the relationship between the deceived and the deceived, the conformist and the discriminated. Rameau’s nephew of Diderot tickles out this dialectical character of the fool with allusions to Socrates. The latter not only bears an outward resemblance to Socrates, he also speaks like him.

Hegel suggested that the protagonist as a double figure of philosopher and nephew does not lose himself at all. He plays his pantomimes knowing how to play them; his whole theater is controlled by consciousness, however delirious. One will think of him as a “moral madman”. Precisely because of this play with reason and unreason, however, he becomes indispensable for the righteous people. In times that, like ours, are ossified in conventions, this very thing might be needed again. “When such a one comes into a society, he is a crumb of leaven that lifts the whole and restores to each a part of his natural individuality. He shakes, he moves, he brings up praise or blame, he drives out the truth, he makes legal people knowable, he exposes the rogues, and there a reasonable man listens and separates the people.” The image of the leaven has the same function as the older ones of the trembling ray (Menon) and the obstetrician, which are also addressed in the pantomimes, thus clearly naming the maeeutic-Socratic, even owl-mirrored conversational style.