Rameau's Nephew and First Satire (Oxford World's Classics)

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Translation © Margaret Mauldon, 2006
Appendix © Christopher Wells, 2006
Editorial material © Nicholas Cronk, 2006

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First published as an Oxford World’s Classics paperback 2006

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British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data

Data available

Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data

Diderot, Denis, 1713–1784.
[Neveu de Rameau. English]
Rameau’s nephew; and, First satire / Denis Diderot; translated by Margaret Mauldon;
with an introduction and notes by Nicholas Cronk.
p. cm. — (Oxford world’s classics)
Includes bibliographical references.
I. Mauldon, Margaret.  II. Cronk, Nicholas.  III. Diderot, Denis, 1713–1784.
Satire première. English.  IV. Title.  V. Title: First satire.  VI. Series: Oxford world’s
classics (Oxford University Press)
PQ1979.A66E5 2006 848.5’08—dc22 2006011792

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ISBN 0–19–280591–6   978–0–19–280591–1


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Rameau’s Nephew
First Satire

Translated by

With an Introduction and Notes by



(1713–1784) was born at Langres in Champagne, the son of a master cutler who wanted him to follow a career in the Church. He attended the best Paris schools, took a degree in theology in 1735 but turned away from religion and tried his hand briefly at law before deciding to make his way as a translator and writer. In 1746, he was invited to provide a French version of Ephraim Chambers’s
(1728). The project became the
, 1751–72), intended to be a compendium of human knowledge in all fields but also the embodiment of the new ‘philosophic’ spirit of intellectual enquiry. As editor-in-chief, Diderot became the impresario of the French Enlightenment. But ideas were dangerous, and in 1749 Diderot was imprisoned for four months for publishing opinions judged contrary to religion and the public good. He became a star of the salons, where he was known as a brilliant conversationalist. He invented art criticism, and devised a new form of theatre which would determine the shape of European drama. But in private he pursued ideas of startling orginality in texts like
Supplement to Bougainville’s Voyage (Supplément au Voyage de Bougainville
) and
D’Alembert’s Dream
Le Rêve de d’Alembert
), which for the most part were not published until after his death. He anticipated DNA, Darwin, and modern genetics, but also discussed the human and ethical implications of biological materialism in fictions—
The Nun (La Religieuse), Rameau’s Nephew (Le Neveu de Rameau
), and
Jacques the Fatalist
Jacques le fataliste
)—which seem more at home in our century than in his. His life, spent among books, was uneventful and he rarely strayed far from Paris. In 1773, though, he travelled to St Petersburg to meet his patron, Catherine II. But his hopes of persuading her to implement his ‘philosophic’ ideas failed, and in 1774 he returned to Paris where he continued talking and writing until his death in 1784.

has worked as a translator since 1987. For Oxford World’s Classics she has translated Zola’s
, Stendhal’s
The Charterhouse of Parma
, Maupassant’s
, Constant’s
, Huysmans’s
Against Nature
(winner of the Scott Moncrieff prize for translation, 1999), and Flaubert’s
Madame Bovary

is Director of the Voltaire Foundation and General Editor of
The Complete Works of Voltaire
, and Fellow of St Edmund Hall, Oxford. For Oxford World’s Classics he has edited Voltaire’s
Letters concerning the English Nation
and Rostand’s
Cyrano de Bergerac



Note on the Text

Select Bibliography

A Chronology of Denis Diderot



Appendix: Goethe on Rameau’s Nephew

Explanatory Notes

Glossary of Names


Man is said to be a Sociable Animal

Rameau’s Nephew
—in French,
Le Neveu de Rameau
—is a work of dazzling paradox, an exploration of the contradictions and complexities of man as ‘sociable animal’ which is in every way unique. It is arguably the greatest work of the French Enlightenment’s greatest writer; yet it was unknown in the century in which it was written. Not one of Denis Diderot’s contemporaries mentions the text, and Diderot himself makes no clear reference to it in his private correspondence. Everything about the book—When was it written? Who was it written for? What is it about?—remains tantalizingly uncertain. Even its publication is uniquely odd.

When Diderot died, the manuscript of this unpublished work passed with his other manuscripts to his daughter Mme de Vandeul and her husband; Diderot’s prudish son-in-law was apparently shocked by many of these works, and piously bowdlerized those in his care. Luckily, another set of manuscripts had been carefully copied for Catherine the Great, who, in an act of great enlightenment, had bought Diderot’s books and papers in 1765 in exchange for a pension paid during his lifetime. An autograph manuscript of
Rameau’s Nephew
was therefore sent to St Petersburg after Diderot’s death in 1784, and some years later it fell into the hands of Klinger, a German dramatist and officer then posted in Russia. Through him, the document found its way back to Germany and to Schiller, who in turn showed it to Goethe; the latter was enchanted by the work and immediately set to translating it. And so it came about that this work of Diderot’s first appeared in print in 1805 in Leipzig, as
Rameaus Neffe
, Goethe accompanying his translation with an extended commentary on the text (extracts from this commentary will be found in the Appendix). Then in 1821 the French version of the text was
published for the first time, in Paris. Except that it was not Diderot’s text at all, but a fraudulent retranslation back into French of Goethe’s German version (with some obscenities added for good measure). This stimulated the publication of another edition in 1823, the so-called Brière edition. This was based on the corrupted Vandeul manuscript (with the obscenities removed), and so was equally inauthentic. Other editions followed in the course of the nineteenth century, all based on manuscripts of dubious provenance. Then, one day in 1890, Georges Monval, the librarian of the Comédie-Française, was visiting the
on the Quai de Voltaire along the Seine and came across a manuscript with the title ‘Second Satire’ which he recognized as an autograph of
Le Neveu de Rameau
. He bought it, and the following year published what is the first reliable edition of the text. The manuscript which he discovered, after its long European travels, has today come to rest in the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York. This is a story, then, of a French book first published in German, because a French manuscript sent from Paris to St Petersburg found its way to Germany before travelling to Paris and ending up in New York: it is a fiction worthy of Borges, or of Diderot.

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