Vertumnis, quotquot sunt, natus iniquis
(Horat., Lib. II, Satyr. VII)
No matter what the weather,
rain or shine, it's my habit every evening at about five o'clock to
take a walk around the Palais Royal. I'm the one you see dreaming on
the bench in Argenson's Alley, always alone. I talk to myself about
politics, love, taste, or philosophy. I let my spirit roam at will,
allowing it to follow the first idea, wise or foolish, which
presents itself, just as we see our dissolute young men on Foy's
Walk following in the footsteps of a prostitute with a smiling face,
an inviting air, and a turned-up nose, then leaving her for another,
going after all of them and sticking to none. For me, my thoughts
are my prostitutes.
If the weather is too cold
or too rainy, I take refuge in the Regency Café. I like to watch the
games of chess. The best chess players in the world are in Paris,
and the best players in Paris are in the Regency Café. Here, in
Rey's establishment, they battle it out--Legal the Profound,
Philidor the Subtle, Mayot the Solid. One sees the most surprising
moves and hears the stupidest remarks. For one can be an intelligent
man and a great chess player, like Legal, but one can also be a
great chess player and a fool, like Foubert and Mayot.
One day I was there after
dinner, looking on a great deal but not saying much, listening as
little as possible, when I was accosted by one of the most bizarre
people in this country (and God has made sure we don't lack such
types). He is a mixture of loftiness and depravity, of good sense
and buffoonery. The notions of honesty and dishonesty must be really
badly confused in his head, for he shows without ostentation that
nature has given him fine qualities, and has no shame in revealing
that he has also received some bad ones. Beyond that, he's endowed
with a strong constitution, a remarkably warm imagination, and an
extraordinary lung power. If you ever meet him and his originality
does not hold your attention, you'll either put your fingers in your
ears or run off. God, what terrible lungs!
Nothing is more unlike him
than himself. Sometimes he is thin and haggard, like an invalid in
the final stages of consumption. You can count his teeth through his
cheeks. You'd say he'd spent several days without a meal or had just
left a Trappist monastery. The next month, he's sleek and plump, as
if he'd been eating steadily at a banker's table or had been shut up
inside a Bernadine convent. Today, in dirty linen and torn trousers,
dressed in rags, almost barefoot, he slinks along with his head
down. One is tempted to call to him to give him a hand out.
Tomorrow, he marches along with his head high, powdered, his hair
curled, well dressed, with fine shoes. He shows himself off, and
you'd almost take him for a gentleman. He lives from day to day, sad
or happy, according to circumstances. His first concern in the
morning, when he gets up, is to know where he'll have lunch. After
lunch, he thinks about where he'll go for supper.
Night time also brings
uncertainties. Should he return on foot to the little garret where
he lives, assuming that the caretaker, in her irritation at not
getting the rent, has not asked him to return his key, or should he
settle for a working-class tavern to wait for daylight over a slice
of bread and a mug of beer? When he hasn't got even six pennies in
his pocket, which happens sometimes, he resorts to one of his
friends who drives a cab or the coachman of a noble lord who gives
him a pallet in the straw beside the horses. In the morning there
are still bits of his mattress in his hair. If the season is mild,
he paces all night along the Cours or the Champs Élysées. He
reappears in town with the dawn, dressed up for today in yesterday's
clothes, and dressed up today perhaps for the rest of the week.
I don't think much of these
eccentrics. Some people turn them into familiar acquaintances, even
friends. Once a year they interest me, when I meet them, because
their character stands in contrast to others and they break that
fastidious uniformity which our education, our social conventions,
and our habitual proprieties have introduced. If one of them 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
The man I've described I
knew from some time back. He used to hang about a house where his
talent had opened doors for him. There was an only daughter. He
swore to the father and mother that he would marry their daughter.
They shrugged their shoulders and laughed in his face, telling him
he was mad. I saw it happen. He used to ask me for money, which I
gave him. He got himself introduced, I don't know how, into some
good homes, where he had a place for dinner, but on condition he
didn't speak without first getting permission. He kept silent and
ate in anger. It was really good to see him under this constraint.
If he was seized by a desire to break this agreement and opened his
mouth, with his first word all the guests would cry out "O Rameau!"
Then his fury would burn in his eyes, and he'd go back to his meal
even more enraged.
You were curious to know
this man's name, and now you do. He is the nephew of that famous
musician who delivered us from the plain song of Lully, which we've
been chanting for more than a century, and who wrote so much
unintelligible visionary stuff and apocalyptic truths about the
theory of music, none of which ever made sense either to him or
anyone else. He left us a certain number of operas where there is
some harmony, scraps of song, some disconnected ideas, noise,
flights, triumphal marches, lances, glories, murmurs, victories that
leave one breathless, and dance tunes which will last forever. He
buried the Florentine but will now be buried by Italian virtuosi, a
fact which he saw coming and which made him gloomy, sad, and surly.
For no one, not even a pretty woman who wakes up with a pimple on
her nose, is as moody as an author who threatens to outlive his
reputation--just look at Marivaux and the younger Crebillon.
He greets me. "Ah, ha, so
there you are, Mister Philosopher. What are you doing here in this
pile of idlers? Are you also wasting time pushing wood around?"
That's how people speak contemptuously of chess or checkers.
ME: No. But when I
don't have anything better to do, I amuse myself for a bit by
watching those who push well.
HIM: In that case you
don't get to enjoy yourself often. Except for Legal and Philidor,
the others have no idea about the game.
ME: What about Mr. de
HIM: That man plays
chess the way Miss Clairon acts. They both know everything about
their respective games that one can learn.
ME: You're harsh. I
see you honour only men of genius.
HIM: Yes. In chess,
in checkers, poetry, oratory, music and other similar nonsense. What
good is mediocrity in things like that?
ME: Not much, I
agree. But large numbers of men must work at them before the man of
genius appears, one man in a multitude. But let's drop that subject.
It's been an eternity since I last saw you. I hardly think of you
when I don't see you. But I'm always pleased to see you again. What
have you been doing?
HIM: What you, I, and
all the other do--some good, some bad--and nothing. Then when I was
hungry, I ate when I had a chance. After eating, I was thirsty and I
drank sometimes. However, I grew a beard, and when that came, I
shaved it off.
ME: You shouldn't
have done that. It's the one thing you need to be a wise man.
HIM: That's right. I
have a lofty wrinkled forehead, a burning eye, a jutting nose, large
cheeks, black bushy eyebrows, a clean-cut mouth, curving lips, a
square face. If this vast chin was covered with a long beard, can
you imagine how splendid that would look in bronze or marble?
ME: Up there beside
Caesar, Marcus Aurelius, and Socrates.
HIM: No. I'd go
better between Diogenes the philosopher and Phryne the prostitute.
Like one of them I'm impudent, and I happily hang around the houses
of the other.
ME: Is your health
HIM: Yes, normally it
is. But it's not so marvelous today.
ME: Why's that? There
you are with a belly like Silenus and a face...
HIM: A face one might
mistake for what's behind the belly. That's because the humour which
is making my uncle waste away is apparently making his dear nephew
ME: What about your
uncle--do you ever see him?
HIM: Yes--he walks
past me in the street.
ME: Hasn't he done
anything for you?
HIM: If he's done
anything for anyone, he's done it without being aware of what he's
doing. The man's a philosopher in his own way. He thinks only of
himself. To him the rest of the universe isn't worth a damn. His
daughter and his wife might as well die whenever they want. So long
as the parish bells which toll for them continue to resonate at the
twelfth and seventeenth intervals, all will be fine. That's a good
thing for him. And that's what I especially value in people of
genius. They are good at only one thing. Other than that, nothing.
They've no idea what it is to be citizens, fathers, mothers,
brothers, parents, friends. Just between us, we should try to be
like them in every way, but without wanting their breed to become
something common. We must have men, but men of genius, no. No, my
goodness, we don't need them. They're the ones who change the face
of the earth. And in the smallest things stupidity is so common and
so powerful that no one can reform it without making a great fuss.
That sets up, at least in part, what men of vision see. And part
remains just as it was. Thus, we have two gospels, the costume of
Harlequin. The wisdom of the monk Rabelais is true wisdom, for his
own peace of mind and that of others--do one's duty, somehow or
other, always speak well of your master the prior, and leave the
world to its fantasies. That works well, because the majority is
happy with it. If I understood history, I'd show you that evil has
always come here below from some man of genius. But I don't know
history, because I don't know anything. The devil take me if I've
ever learned a thing and if I'm any the worse off for having learned
nothing. One day I was at the table of one of the King's ministers
who had brains enough for four men. Well, he demonstrated to us, as
clearly as one and one adds up to two, that nothing is more useful
to nations than lies, nothing more harmful than the truth. I don't
recall his proofs very well, but it evidently follows that people of
genius are detestable and that if a child at birth bears on its
forehead the characteristics of this dangerous natural gift, one
should either smother the child or throw it to the dogs.
ME: But people like
that, so hostile to genius, all pretend to have some.
HIM: I'm sure they
think that about themselves deep inside, but I don't think they dare
admit the fact.
ME: That's just their
modesty. So from that point on you've developed a terrible hatred
HIM: Something I'll
never put behind me.
ME: But I've seen the
time when you were desperate to be anything but an ordinary person.
You'll never be happy if the arguments for and against affect you
equally. You have to pick a side and stick to it. I quite agree with
you that men of genius are usually odd or, as the proverb states,
that there are no great minds without a grain of folly. One can't
deny the fact. But we despise the ages which have not produced men
of genius, and men will honour those nations among whom genius has
lived. Sooner or later, we raise statutes to them and consider them
benefactors of the human race. I don't mean to disparage the sublime
minister you mentioned to me, but I think that if a lie can be
useful momentarily, it is necessarily harmful in the long run, and
by contrast, the truth is useful over time, even though it could be
harmful at a particular moment. From that I'm temped to conclude
that the man of genius who speaks out against a common error or who
establishes a great truth is always a being worthy of our
veneration. It could happen that such a being is the victim of
prejudice and the law, but there are two kinds of laws, those which
are based on equity, which are universally true, and others which
are peculiar and derive their authority only from blindness or from
the needs of certain circumstances. This second type confers upon
the man who breaks them merely a passing ignominy, a shame which
time turns back on the judges and countries who condemned him. The
shame stays with them for ever. Think of Socrates and the magistrate
who made him drink the hemlock--which of those two is the
dishonourable man today?
HIM: That's a great
help to Socrates! Does that make him any less condemned, any less
put to death? Was he any less a rebellious citizen? With his
contempt for a bad law, didn't he encourage fools to disregard good
laws? Was he any less an audacious and odd individual? Just now you
were not so far from expressing how little you liked men of genius.
ME: My dear fellow,
listen to me. A society should never have bad laws. And if it had
only good ones, it would never be in a position to persecute a man
of genius. I didn't say that genius was inseparably attached to
malice or malice to genius. A fool is more often an evil person than
a man of intelligence is. And if a man of genius were
characteristically hard to get along with, difficult, prickly, and
unbearable, even if he were bad, what would you conclude from that?
HIM: He should be
ME: Gently, my dear
fellow. Now, tell me--I won't take your uncle as an example. He's a
hard man, brutal, inhuman, and miserly. He's a bad father, a bad
husband, a bad uncle. And it's by no means clear that he's a man of
genius who has pushed his art a long way, so that in ten years we'll
be discussing his works. But what about Racine? He certainly had
genius, and he didn't have much of a reputation as a good man. What
HIM: Don't press me
on this question. I can give you an argument.
ME: Which of these
two options would you prefer--that Racine had been a good man, known
for his business, like Briasson, or for his yardstick, like Barbier,
getting his wife regularly pregnant every year with legitimate
children, a good husband, a good father, a good uncle, a good
neighbour, an honest merchant, but nothing more--or that he had been
deceitful, treacherous, ambitious, envious, and nasty, but the
author of Andromache, Britannicus, Iphigeneia,
Phedre, and Athalie?
HIM: For him I
imagine it would perhaps have been better if he'd been the first of
ME: What you've just
said is infinitely truer than you think.
HIM: There you go,
you others! If we say something good, it's as if we're mad or
inspired--just a fluke. It's only you others who really understand
what you're saying. Yes, Mister Philosopher, I understand what I'm
saying, and I understand that just as much as you understand what
ME: All right, let's
see. Why would that have been better for Racine?
HIM: The point is
that all these beautiful things he created didn't bring him twenty
thousand francs. If he'd been a good silk merchant on Saint Denis or
Saint Honore street, a fine wholesale grocer, or a well-connected
apothecary, he'd have amassed an immense fortune, and, in the
process of getting it, he could've enjoyed no end of pleasures. From
time to time he could've given a few coins to a poor foolish devil
like myself, who'd have made him laugh and occasionally procured for
him a young woman to relieve the boredom of his eternal
co-habitation with his wife. We'd have had some excellent meals at
his home, played for high stakes, drunk some fine wines, fine
liqueurs, fine coffees, and gone for picnics in the country. You see
I know what I'm talking about. You laugh. But let me continue. That
would've been better for those around him.
ME: No disagreement
there, provided he didn't use the money he got from legitimate
business for dishonest purposes and kept far away from his home all
gamblers, hangers on, all those self-satisfied tasteless people, all
those layabouts, all those useless perverts, and made his shop
assistants beat senseless the officious gentlemen who in various
ways relieve husbands of the disgust they feel at a never-ending
life with their wives.
HIM: Beat senseless,
my dear chap, beat up! We don't beat anyone senseless in a
well-policed town. Pimping is a respectable profession. Many people,
even those with titles, are mixed up in it. And what in the devil do
you want us to use our money for, if not for a good table, good
company, good wines, fine women, pleasures of all sorts, amusement
of all kinds. I'd have no desire to possess a large fortune without
these enjoyments. But let's get back to Racine. The man was good
only for those he didn't know and for a time when he was no longer
ME: I agree. But
weigh the good and bad. A thousand years from now, he'll still make
people cry and win men's admiration. In all countries of the world
he will inspire humanity, sympathy, tenderness. People will ask who
he was, what country he came from, and they'll envy France. He made
a few people suffer who are no longer alive and in whom we have
hardly any interest. We have nothing to fear from his vices or
faults. No doubt it would've been better if nature had given him the
virtues of a good man along with the talents of a great man. He's a
tree which has caused some trees planted near him to wither up and
has suffocated the plants growing at his feet. But he carried his
top right up into the sky--his branches stretched a long way. He
provided shade to those who came, who come, and who will come to
rest alongside his majestic trunk. He produced fruits with an
exquisite taste which replenish themselves continuously. We could
also wish that Voltaire had had the sweetness of Duclos, the
ingenuousness of Abbé Trublet, the honesty of Abbé d'Olivet. But
since that's impossible, let's look at the really interesting side
of this issue. Let's forget for the moment the point which we occupy
in space and time and extend our vision into the centuries to come,
into the most distant regions, into nations yet to be born. Let's
think of the well being of our species. If we are not generous
enough, let's at least forgive nature for having been wiser than we
are. If you throw cold water on Greuze's head, perhaps you will
extinguish his talent along with his vanity. If you make Voltaire
less sensitive to criticism, he will not know how to descend into
the soul of Merope. He will no longer move you.
HIM: But if nature
was as powerful as she was wise, why didn't she make those men good
in the same way she made them great?
ME: But don't you see
that with that sort of reasoning you confound the general order. If
everything here below were excellent, then nothing would be
HIM: You're right.
The important point is that you and I exist and that we exist as you
and I. Let everything beyond that go ahead however it can. The best
order of things, in my view, is one in which I had to exist. Who
cares about the most perfect of worlds, if I'm not on it? I prefer
to exist, even as an impertinent quibbler, than not to exist at all.
ME: There's no one
who doesn't think just as you do and who doesn't put existing order
on trial, without noticing he's renouncing his own existence.
HIM: That's true.
ME: So let's accept
things as they are. Let's see what they cost us and what they bring
us, leaving aside everything we don't know well enough to assign
praise or blame--what's perhaps neither good nor bad, but what's
necessary, as many respectable people think.
HIM: I don't
understand much about that spiel you've just given me. It seems like
philosophy, and I warn you I'll not get mixed up in that. All I know
is that I'd be quite happy to be someone else, on the off-chance I'd
be a genius, a great man. Yes, I have to admit it. There's something
there which speaks to me. I've never heard a single genius praised
without such tributes to him making me secretly enraged. I get
envious. When I learn about some detail of their private lives which
demeans them, I listen with pleasure. That brings us closer
together, and I bear my mediocrity more easily. I say to myself,
"It's true you never could have created Mahomet, but you'd
never have praised Maupeou." So I've been mediocre, and I'm angry
with my mediocrity. Yes, yes, I am mediocre and angry. I've never
heard the overture to Les Indes Galantes or heard anyone sing
Profonds Abîmes du Ténaire, Nuit, Éternelle Nuit, without
feeling pain and saying to myself, "There's something you'd never
create." Hence I was jealous of my uncle, and if at his death
there'd been some fine compositions for the keyboard in his
portfolio, I wouldn't have hesitated to remain myself and to be him
ME: If that's the
only thing bothering you, it's not worth the trouble.
nothing--they're just passing moments.
Then he started to sing the
overture to Indes Galantes and the song Profonds Abîmes,
adding, "That something or other inside me which talks to me says,
'Rameau, you'd love to have composed those two pieces. If you'd done
these two, you'd probably have done two others. And when you'd
composed a certain number, people would play and sing you all over
the place. When you walked along, you'd hold your head high. Your
own awareness would confirm your own merit for you. Others would
point you out. They'd say 'There's the man who wrote those lovely
He sang the gavottes, and
then, looking like a man deeply moved, swimming in joy, his eyes
damp, he added, rubbing his hands together, "You'd have a fine
house"--he measured its extent with his arms--"a fine bed"--he
pretended to stretch himself out on it nonchalantly--"good
wines"--which he tasted by smacking his tongue against his
palate--"a fine horse and carriage"--he raised his foot as if to
climb in--"beautiful women"--he embraced their breasts and gazed at
them voluptuously--"A hundred hangers-on would come to sing my
praises every day"--he imagined he saw them all around
him--Palissot, Poincinet, the two Frérons, father and son, La
Porte--he listened to them, he puffed himself up, agreed with what
they said, smiled at them, ignored them, scorned them, sent them
off, called them back. Then he continued "That's the way people
would tell you every morning that you're a great man. You'd read in
the history of Trois Siècles that you were a great man. You'd
be convinced in the evening that you were great man, and that great
man, Rameau the nephew, would fall asleep to the soft murmur of
praise which echoed in his ears. Even while he was sleeping, he
would have a satisfied air--his chest would expand, rise, and fall
with assurance, and he'd snore like a great man." As he was saying
this, he moved over and lay gently on a bench. He closed his eyes
and imitated the happy sleep he'd just imagined. After having
enjoyed this relaxed repose for a few moments, he woke up, stretched
his arms, yawned, rubbed his eyes, and looked around him for any
dull admirers still there.
ME: So you think that
a happy man sleeps like that?
HIM: Do I think so!
I'm a poor wretch, and when I go back to my garret in the evening
and tuck myself in on my pallet, I'm shriveled up under my
coverlet--my chest is tight and my breathing short, like a weak moan
that's hardly audible; whereas, a financier makes his apartment
reverberate and amazes his entire street. But what bothers me today
is not that I sleep and snore meanly like someone destitute.
ME: But that's sad.
HIM: What's happened
to me is much worse.
ME: So what is it?
HIM: You've always
taken some interest in me because I'm a good little devil whom deep
down you despise--but I amuse you.
ME: That's true.
HIM: And I'm going to
Before beginning, he sighs
deeply and puts both hands on his forehead. Then he recovers his
calm appearance and says to me: "You know that I'm ignorant--a silly
man, a fool--impertinent, lazy, what we Burgundians call an
incorrigible crook, a swindler, a thief..."
ME: What a panegyric!
HIM: It's true, all
of it. I don't take back a word of it. Let's please not argue about
it. No one knows me better than I do, and I'm not saying everything.
ME: I don't want to
upset you, so I'll accept everything you say.
HIM: All right. I
used to live with people who liked me precisely because I was
endowed with all those qualities to an unusual extent.
ME: That's odd. Up to
the present I believed that people hid them from themselves or
forgave them in themselves and condemned them in other people.
HIM: Hide them from
oneself--is that possible? Rest assured that when Palissot is alone
and reflects on himself, he tells himself something different. You
can be sure that in a tête-à-tête with his colleague, they frankly
confess that they are nothing but two outstanding rogues. Despise
such defects in others! My people were fairer than that--their
character made me a marvelous success in their company. I was in
clover. They fêted me. They were sorry every moment I was away from
them. I was their little Rameau, there beautiful Rameau, their
Rameau the foolish, the impertinent, the ignorant, the lazy, the
greedy, the clown, the great beast. There wasn't one of these
familiar labels which didn't earn me a smile, a caress, a pat on the
shoulder, a slap, a kick, at table a fine morsel tossed onto my
plate for me, away from the table a liberty which I tolerated as of
no consequence, for I myself was of no consequence. People make of
me, with me, and in front of me anything they want, without my
taking exception. And all the small presents which showered down on
me? I'm such a stupid dog I lost them all! I lost everything because
once--the only time in my life--I had common sense. May that never
happen to me again!
ME: What was it
HIM: It was an
incomparable stupidity--incredible, unpardonable.
ME: What stupidity?
HIM: Rameau, Rameau,
people didn't accept you for your common sense! The idiocy of having
had a little taste, a little intelligence, a little reason. Rameau,
my friend, this will teach you to remain the man God made you, the
man your patrons wanted you to be. So they grabbed you by the scruff
of the neck, marched you to the door, and said: "Imposter, get out.
And don't come back. I believe it wants to have some sense, some
reason! Beat it. We have these qualities to spare." You went off
biting your nails. You should've bitten off your damned tongue long
before that. Because you didn't think about it, here you are on the
pavement, the ground, with no idea where to go next. You'd been
eating high on the hog, and now you'll return to slops; you'd been
well lodged, and now you'll be very lucky if they let you have your
garret back; you had a nice place to sleep, and now the straw is
waiting for you between Mr. de Soubise's coachman and your friend
Robbé. Instead of a soft and peaceful sleep, as you used to have,
you'll be listening with one ear to the neighing and stomping of
horses and with the other to a sound a thousand times more
unbearable--dry, hard, and barbarous verse. Miserable, stupid fool,
possessed by a million devils!
ME: But isn't there
some way to go back? Is the fault you committed unforgivable? In
your place, I'd go to find my people again. You're more necessary to
them than you think.
HIM: Oh, I'm certain
that right now, when they don't have me around to make them laugh,
they're bored to death.
ME: Then I'd go get
them back. I wouldn't leave them the time to learn to do without me,
to turn to some decent amusement. Who knows what could happen?
HIM: That's not what
I'm afraid of. That won't happen.
ME: No matter how
wonderful you are, another could replace you.
HIM: That would be
ME: I agree. However,
I'd go back with this dejected face, these wild eyes, this
disheveled collar, tousled hair--in the truly tragic state you're in
right now. I'd throw myself at the feet of that goddess, stick my
face against the earth, and, without getting up, I'd say to her in a
low and sobbing voice, "Pardon, madame! Forgive me! I'm unworthy,
despicable. That was an unfortunate moment, for you know I'm not
subject to having common sense, and I promise you I'll never have it
again in my life."
What was amusing was that
while I was having this conversation with him, he carried out the
pantomime. He threw himself down, stuck his face against the ground,
and seemed to hold between his two hands the toe of a slipper. He
was crying and sobbing the words, "Yes, my little queen. Yes, I do
promise. I'll never have it in my life, never." Then he got up
quickly and added in a serious and deliberate tone:
HIM: Yes, you're
right. I think that would be best. She's a good woman. Mr. Viellard
says that she is so kind. And I know a little bit that she is.
Nonetheless, to go humiliate oneself in front of an ugly bitch! To
cry for pity at the feet of a miserable little actress who's always
followed by the hissing from the theatre stalls! Me, Rameau, son of
Mr. Rameau, apothecary of Dijon, a man of means, who's never bent
his knee to anyone at all! Me, Rameau, nephew of the man who calls
himself the Great Rameau, the man people see walking upright on the
Palais Royal with his arms waving in the air, ever since Mr.
Carmontelle made that drawing of him bent over with his hand under
the tails of his coat. I, who have composed pieces for the keyboard
which no one plays but which may well be the only ones which our
posterity finds agreeable enough to play. I, well, I...I would
go...but look here, sir, it's impossible.
Then, putting his right hand
to his chest, he added, "I feel something there rising up--it says
to me, 'Rameau, you'll do none of that.' There must be a certain
dignity attached to human nature which nothing can extinguish. The
most trivial thing will awaken it--something trifling. There are
other days when it would cost me nothing to be as vile as anyone
could wish. On those days for a penny I'd kiss the ass of the little
ME: But, my friend,
she's white, pretty, young, soft, chubby--it's an act of humility
that even a man more refined than you could sometimes stoop to.
HIM: Let's understand
each other--there's literal ass kissing and metaphorical ass
kissing. Ask fat Bergier who kisses the ass of Madame de La Mark
both literally and figuratively--my God, with them the literal and
figurative disgust me equally.
ME: If the course of
action I'm suggesting doesn't suit you, then have the courage to be
HIM: It's hard to be
poor, as long as there are so many wealthy idiots one can rely upon
for one's living. And then contempt for oneself, that's unbearable.
ME: Do you know that
HIM: Do I know it?
How many times have I said to myself, "How come there are ten
thousand fine tables in Paris, each with fifteen or twenty places,
and there's no place for you! There are purses full of gold spilling
over left and right, and no piece falls on you! A thousand fine half
wits without talent or merit, a thousand tiny creatures without
charm, a thousand insipid schemers are well dressed, and you'd walk
around naked? In this business how could you be so stupid? Couldn't
you lie, swear, forswear, promise, and then perform or fail to
perform, like everyone else? Couldn't you crawl on hands and knees
like the others? Couldn't you promote a lady's affair and carry a
love letter from a gentleman, like any other man? Couldn't you
encourage this young man to speak to this young lady and persuade
her to listen to him, like other men? Couldn't you tell the daughter
of one of our bourgeois that she is badly dressed, that some fine
earrings, a little rouge, lace, and a Polish-style dress would make
her look ravishing, that those little feet of hers were not made to
walk along the road, that there's a fine gentleman, young and rich,
who has a coat trimmed in gold, a superb horse and carriage, and six
huge footmen, who saw her passing by and who finds her charming and
who, since that day, has lost his desire for food and drink, doesn't
sleep, and will die for her. 'But what about my father?' 'Yes, yes,
your father! He will be a little angry at first.' 'And what about
Mummy? She's told me so often to be an honest girl. She says there's
nothing in the world but honour' 'An ancient saying which doesn't
mean a thing.' 'And my father confessor?' 'You won't see him any
more. Or if you continue the fairy tale of going to him to tell the
story of your amusements, it will cost you some pounds of sugar and
coffee.' 'But he's a strict man who has already refused me
absolution for singing Viens dans ma cellule.' 'That's
because you didn't have anything to give him, but when you appear
before him in a lace dress...' 'Then I'll have a lace dress?'
'There's no doubt about it, all sorts of them, and diamond
earrings.' 'So I'll have beautiful diamond earrings?' 'Yes.' 'Just
like the ones belonging to that marquise who comes sometimes to buy
gloves in our shop?' 'That's right. In a fine carriage with dappled
gray horses, two large footmen, a small Negro, and a man running in
front; you'll have rouge, beauty spots, a train carried behind you.'
'To a ball.' 'To a ball, to the opera, to the theatre.' Her heart is
already quivering with joy. You play with a sheet of paper between
your fingers. 'What's that?' 'It's nothing.' 'It seem to me to
be...' 'It's a letter.' 'For whom?' 'For you, if you are at all
curious.' 'Curious? I'm really curious. Let's see it.' She reads. 'A
meeting. That's impossible.' 'Perhaps when you are going to mass.'
'Mamma always comes with me. But if he came here early in the
morning. I get up first, and I'm at the counter before they get up.'
He comes. He is pleasing. One fine day at dusk the girl disappears,
and I get paid my two thousand écus. How come you possess such
talent and are short of bread. You wretched man, aren't you
ashamed?" I remember a group of scoundrels who couldn't hold a
candle to me and who were loaded with money. I was in a buckram
overcoat, and they were dressed in velvet, leaning on gold-headed
canes shaped like ravens' beaks, with pictures of Aristotle or Plato
on cameo rings on their fingers. But who were they? For the most
part they were incompetent musicians--nowadays a sort of nobility.
At the time it gave me courage, raised my spirits, made my mind more
subtle, capable of everything. But these happy states of mind
apparently didn't last, because up to now I haven't been able to
make any headway. Whatever the case, those are the words of my
frequent soliloquies, which you can paraphrase however you like,
provided you conclude from them that I understand disgust for
oneself or the torment of conscience which arises from the
uselessness of the gifts given to us by heaven. It's the cruelest
thing of all. It would almost be better for a man not to be born.
I listened to him. While he
was acting out the scene of the procurer and the young girl being
seduced, I was pulled in two opposite directions--I didn't know
whether to give in to my desire to laugh or get carried away with
anger. I was perplexed. Twenty time a fit of laughter prevented my
anger from bursting out--twenty times the anger arising at the
bottom of my heart ended in a burst of laughter. I was taken aback
by so much cleverness and base behaviour, by such valid ideas
alternating with false ones, by such a general perversity of feeling
and such complete depravity and such rare frankness. He noticed the
conflict going on inside me. "What's the matter with you?" he said.
HIM: You seem upset.
ME: Well, I am.
HIM: What do you
think I should do?
ME: Change the
subject. You poor man, to be born or fall into such a debased
HIM: I agree. However
don't let my condition affect you too much. In revealing myself to
you I didn't mean to cause you distress. From those people I've
saved up something. Remember that I didn't need anything, absolutely
nothing, and they gave me a considerable allowance for my trifling
Then he began hitting his
forehead again with one of his fists, biting his lip, rolling his
wild eyes up to the ceiling, commenting, "But that business is over
and done with. I've set something aside. Time has gone by. It's
always that much more of a gain."
ME: You mean more of
HIM: No, no. More of
a gain. We become richer every moment. It's one less day to go on
living, or one écu more--it's all one. The important point is to
keep emptying one's bowels easily, freely, pleasurably, copiously
every night. O stercus pretiosum! That's the grand result of
life in all conditions. In the last analysis, everyone is equally
rich--Samuel Bernard, who by dint of robbery, pillaging, and
bankruptcies leaves twenty-seven million in gold, or Rameau, who
won't leave anything, Rameau, for whom charity will provide a floor
cloth as a shroud to wrap him in. A dead man doesn't hear the bells
tolling. It's a waste of time for one hundred priests to shout
themselves hoarse on his behalf or for him to be preceded and
followed by a long line of burning torches. His soul does not walk
alongside the master of ceremonies. To rot under marble or to rot
under the earth--it's still rotting. To have around your coffin
choirboys in red and choirboys in blue or none at all--what does
that matter? Take a good look at this wrist. It used to be stiff as
the devil. These ten fingers were like so many sticks stuck into a
wooden metacarpal. And these tendons were old cords of
catgut--drier, stiffer, and more inflexible that those used to turn
a lathe operator's wheel. But I've tormented, broken, and abused
them so much. You don't want to move, but, by God, I say that you
will and that's that!
As he said this, with his
right hand he grabbed the fingers and wrist of his left hand and
bent them back and forth. The tips of his fingers were touching his
arm. His joints were cracking. I was afraid he'd end up dislocating
ME: Be careful, I say
to him. You're going to hurt yourself.
HIM: Don't worry.
They can stand it. For ten years I've given them a hard time.
Whatever they felt like, the little buggers had to get used to it
and learn to strike the keys and fly over the strings. So right now
they're working. Yes, they're working fine.
At that moment he takes on
the pose of a violin player. He hums an allegro from Locatelli, and
his right arm imitates the movement of the bow, while his left hand
and his fingers seem to move along the length of the neck. If he
hits a wrong note, he stops, tightens or loosens the string and
plucks the string with his nail, to make sure that it's just right.
He resumes playing the piece where he has stopped. He keeps time
with his feet, and thrashes about with his head, feet, hands, arms,
Perhaps at some concert of
spiritual music you've had occasion to see Ferrari or Chiabran or
some other virtuoso in the same sort of convulsions, presenting a
picture of the same torture. That gives me almost as much pain, for
surely it's agonizing to watch the torment of someone who is busy
giving me a representation of pleasure. If he simply has to show me
a patient under torture, then draw a curtain between the man and me,
something to conceal me. In the midst of his agitation and cries, if
there was a moment when the note had to be held, one of those
harmonious spots when the bow is drawn slowly across several strings
at once, his face took on an ecstatic expression, his voice
softened, and he listened in rapture. He was sure the harmony was
resonating in his ears and mine. Then, placing his instrument under
his left arm using the same hand he was holding it with and letting
his right hand holding the bow fall, he said, "Well, what do you
think of that?"
HIM: That was all
right, I thought. That sounded almost like the others.
All at once he crouches down
like a musician sitting down at a keyboard. I say to him, "Have
mercy on yourself and me."
HIM: No, no. Since
I've got your attention, you'll listen. I don't want anyone's
approval unless they know why. You'll praise me with a more
confident tone, and that might be worth another pupil to me.
ME: I don't go out
very much, and you're going to exhaust yourself to no purpose.
HIM: I'm never tired.
Since I saw that my wish to
pity the man was useless, for the violin sonata had left him bathed
in sweat, I decided to let him do what he wanted. So there he was,
seated at the keyboard, his legs bent, his head raised towards the
ceiling where one would have said he was looking at a written
musical score, singing, playing a prelude, working through a piece
by Alberti or Galuppi, I don't know which of the two. His voice went
like the wind, and his fingers flew across the keys, sometimes
abandoning the upper part to play the bass, sometimes abandoning the
accompaniment to return to the upper register. A series of emotions
went in succession across his face. You could see there tenderness,
anger, pleasure, sadness. You could feel the soft notes and the loud
I'm sure that someone more
astute than myself would have recognized the piece from the movement
and style, from his expressions, and from some snatches of melody
coming out of him now and then. But what was really strange was that
from time to time he groped around and started again, as if he had
made a mistake and was upset at himself for not having the piece at
his finger tips. Finally he straightened up, wiped the beads of
sweat running down his cheeks, and said, "You see that we also know
how to play a tritone or an augmented fifth, and that we're familiar
with transitions of dominants. Those enharmonic passages which my
dear uncle has made such a fuss about, there's not all that much to
it. We'll get a handle on it."
ME: You've gone to a
lot of trouble to show me that you've got great skill. But I'm a man
who would've taken your word for it.
HIM: Great skill? Oh
no! I know a few tricks of the trade, and that's more than one
needs. After all, in this country does anyone have to understand
what he teaches?
ME: No more than
people have to understand what they learn.
HIM: That's well
said, my God, very apt. There, Mister Philosopher, cross your heart
and tell the truth. There was a time when you weren't as well off as
you are today.
HE: I'm not all that well
off even now.
HIM: But you'll no
longer be going to the Luxembourg in summer. You remember...
ME: Drop that
subject. Yes, I do remember.
HIM: In a gray plush
ME: Yes, yes.
HIM: All worn out on
one side, with frayed cuffs and black wool stockings stitched up the
back with white thread.
ME: Yes, indeed.
Everything just as you like.
HIM: What did you do
then in the Alley of Sighs?
ME: I was a sorry
HIM: When you left
there, you used to scurry along the pavement.
ME: That's right.
HIM: You gave lessons
understanding a word of it. Isn't that where you want to go?
ME: I learned by
teaching others, and I produced some good students.
HIM: That may well
be, but with music things aren't the same as in algebra or geometry.
Now, these days you are a grand gentleman...
ME: Not so grand.
HIM: But you're
ME: Not really.
HIM: You provide
tutors for your daughter.
ME: Not any more.
It's her mother who's concerned about her education, and one has to
have peace at home.
HIM: Peace at home?
My God, one only has that when one is the servant or the master. And
it's essential to be the master. I had a wife. God rest her soul,
but when she got the idea now and then to answer back, my hackles
rose. I let go with my thunder and said, like God, "Let there be
light." And there was light. So over a four-year period, we didn't
raise our voices in a row ten times. How old is your child?
ME: That's got
nothing to do with it.
HIM: How old is your
ME: What the
devil--leave my child and her age out of it, and let's get back to
the teachers she'll have.
HIM: My goodness, I
know nothing as stubborn as a philosopher. If one supplicates you
very humbly, might one not be able to learn from Monsieur the
Philosopher the approximate age of Mademoiselle his daughter?
ME: Let's assume
she's eight years old.
HIM: Eight! She
should have had her fingers on the keys four years ago.
ME: But perhaps I
don't worry very much about putting into the plan for her education
a study which is so time-consuming and which is so little use.
HIM: And what are you
intending to teach her? Please tell me.
ME: To reason
correctly, if I can. That's something uncommon among men and even
rarer still among women.
HIM: Let her reason
badly, as much as she likes, provided she's pretty, amusing, and
ME: Since in her case
nature has been so ungrateful as to give her a delicate constitution
with a sensible soul and to expose her to the same pains of life as
if she had a strong constitution and a heart made of bronze, I'll
teach her, if I can, to bear those pains bravely.
HIM: Oh, leave her to
cry, suffer, and simper, with delicate nerves, like the others,
provided she is pretty, amusing, and flirtatious. What, no dancing?
ME: No more than
what's necessary for her to curtsey and have a decent carriage, to
present herself well, and to know how to move.
HIM: No singing?
ME: No more than is
necessary for her to enunciate well.
HIM: No music?
ME: If there was a
good teacher of harmony, I would willingly entrust her to him for
two hours a day for one or two years, no more.
HIM: And in the place
of these essential things you are cutting out...
ME: I put grammar,
literature, history, geography, a little drawing, and a great deal
of moral instruction.
HIM: It would be so
easy for me to prove to you the uselessness of all those subjects in
a world like ours. Did I say uselessness--perhaps I should have said
danger. But for the moment I'll confine myself to one question:
Won't one or two teachers be necessary?
HIM: Ah, well there
we are again! And these teachers--you hope they'll know something
about the grammar, literature, history, geography, and morality
which they're teaching her in her lessons? That's just a song and
dance, my dear sir, a song and dance. If they grasped these matters
well enough to teach them, they wouldn't be teaching them.
ME: Why not?
HIM: Because they
would have spent their lives studying them. It's necessary to be
profound in art or in science in order to grasp the basics well.
Educational works can only be properly produced by those who have
grown white in harness. It's the middle and the end which illuminate
the shadows at the beginning. Ask your friend Mr. d'Alembert, the
leading light in the mathematical sciences, if he would be too good
to teach the basics. Only after twenty or thirty years of practice
did my uncle glimpse the first faint light of musical theory.
ME: Oh you idiot, you
total idiot! How is it that in your wretched head there are such
reasonable ideas all mixed up higgledy piggledy with so many
HIM: Who the devil
knows? Chance throws them out to you, and they stay with you. Still,
when we doesn't know everything, we don't know anything well. We
don't know where something is going or where something else comes
from, where this or that should fit, which should go first or
whether it would be better to go second. Can anyone teach well
without a method? And where is that method born? You see, my
philosopher, I have this notion that physics will always be a poor
science, a drop of water picked up by a needle from the vast ocean,
a grain detached from the mountain range of the Alps. And the
reasons for phenomena? In truth, it would be just as good to be
ignorant about them as to understand them so little and so badly.
That was exactly where I was when I made myself a teacher of
accompaniment and composition. What are you dreaming about?
ME: I'm dreaming that
everything you've just said is more specious than substantial. But
let's leave that. Did you say you taught accompaniment and
ME: And you didn't
understand them at all?
HIM: No, my goodness,
not at all. And that's the reason there were worse teachers than
me--those who believed they understood something. At least I didn't
ruin the judgment or the hands of the children. When they left me
for a good teacher, they'd learned nothing, and so at least they
didn't have to unlearn anything. And that was always so much money
and time saved.
ME: How did you
HIM: How they all do.
I arrived. I threw myself into a chair. "What dreadful weather! How
tiring the pavement is!" I chattered about some news: "Miss Lemierre
was to have taken on the role of a vestal virgin in the new opera.
But she is pregnant for the second time. They don't know who will
take her place. Miss Arnould has just left her count. People say she
is negotiating with Bertin. The little count, however, has just
found out about Mr. de Montamy's porcelain. At the last concert for
the lovers of music there was an Italian woman who sang like an
angel. That Preville is an exceptional fellow. You must see him in
the Mercure galant. The part about the riddle is priceless.
And poor Dumesnil no longer knows what she's saying or doing. Come,
Mademoiselle, take your book." While the young lady, who's in no
hurry, looks for her book, which she has mislaid, and while the maid
is being summoned and chastised, I keep going, "That Clairon is
truly incomprehensible. People are talking about a really crazy
marriage--one with Miss What's-Her-Name, a little creature he's been
supporting, with whom he's had two or three children and who's been
kept by so many others." "Come now, Rameau, that's not possible.
You're rambling on." "No, I'm not rambling. They even say that the
marriage has taken place. There's a rumour going around that
Voltaire is dead. So much the better." "Why's that good?" "Well,
that means he's going to give us some fine foolishness. He has a
habit of dying two weeks before he does so." What else shall I tell
you? I told her a few naughty remarks which I'd brought back from
some homes where I'd been, for we are all great gossips. I played
the fool, and they listened to me. They laughed. They cried out,
"He's always charming." However, the young lady's book was finally
recovered from under an armchair, where it had been dragged, chewed,
and ripped by a young pug dog or by a kitten. She sat at the
keyboard. At first she made some noise there, all by herself. Then I
came up, after having given her mother a sign of approval. The
mother said, "That isn't bad. One need only to want to do it, but
one doesn't want to. One prefers to waste one's time with chit-chat,
clothes, running around, and I don't know what. As soon as you're
gone, the book is closed and it's not opened again until you return.
And then you never reprimand her..." However, since I had to do
something, I took her hands and placed them in a different position.
I got upset. I cried out, "G, G, G, mademoiselle. It's a G." The
mother, "Young lady, don't you have an ear? I'm not even at the
keyboard, and I'm not looking at your book, but I feel that that
must be a G. You're giving this gentleman a great deal of trouble. I
don't understand his patience. You don't retain anything he tells
you. You're not progressing at all..." Then I eased the blows a
little, by shaking my head and saying, "Excuse me, madam, excuse me.
Yes, that could go better, if the young lady wanted to, if she
studied a little. But it's not going badly." The mother: "In your
place, I'd keep her on the same piece for a year." "That's all
right--she won't leave it until she has surmounted all the
difficulties, and that won't take as long as madam thinks." The
mother: "Mr. Rameau, you're flattering her. You're too kind. That's
the only thing she'll remember from her lesson, and she'll know the
right time to repeat it in front of me." The hour went by. My pupil
gave me the small fee, with a graceful movement of her arm and the
curtsy she had learned from her dancing master. I put it in my
pocket, while the mother said, "Very good, mademoiselle. If
Javillier were here, he'd applaud you." I kept chatting for a moment
longer out of courtesy, then disappeared. There you have it--that's
what people used to call a lesson in accompaniment in those days.
ME: And nowadays,
it's something different.
HIM: My God, I should
think so. I arrive. I'm serious. I'm in a rush to take off my coat.
I open the keyboard. I test the keys. I'm always in a hurry. If
anyone makes me wait for a moment, I cry out as if they've stolen an
écu from me. In an hour from now I have to be over there, in two
hours at madam's house, the duchess of something or other. I'm
expected to dine at the home of a beautiful marquise, and once I
leave there, to go to a concert in the house of Baron de Bacq, in
Rue Neuve des Petits Champs.
ME: Of course, you're
not expected anywhere?
HIM: That's the
ME: So why do you use
all these vile little schemes?
HIM: Vile? Why vile,
if you please? They're what's customary in my profession. I don't
demean myself in acting just like everyone else. I'm not the one who
invented them. And I'd be really odd and tactless if I didn't
conform. Of course, I know very well that if you're going to apply
certain universal principles from I don't know what morality which
all of them mouth but none of them practices, it will end up that
what's white will really be black and what's black will really be
white. But, Mister Philosopher, there's a universal conscience, just
as there's a universal grammar, and then there are exception in
every language. You call them, I think, you scholarly types,
some...give me some help here...some...
HIM: That's it. Well,
every profession has its exceptions to the general conscience. I'm
happy to call these trade idioms.
ME: I understand.
Fontenelle speaks well and writes well, although his style is
crawling with French idioms.
HIM: And the
sovereign, the minister, the financier, the magistrate, the soldier,
the man of letters, the lawyer, the prosecutor, the merchant, the
banker, the artisan, the singing master, the dancing master--these
are all really honest people, although their conduct goes against
the general conscience in several points and is full of moral
idioms. 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.
ME: What I can see
clearly from all this nonsense is that there are few professions
honestly practised or few honest people in their professions.
HIM: Right, there
aren't any. But, on the other hand, few of them are rascals outside
their own shops, and everything would go well enough if there
weren't a certain number of people whom we call diligent and
accurate, who carry out their duties rigorously and strictly, or,
what amounts to the same thing, who are always in their shops busy
with their trade from morning to evening, doing nothing else. In
addition, they're the only ones who get rich and respected.
ME: Because of
HIM: That's it. I see
you've understood what I've been saying. All right, one idiom in
almost every profession--for there are idioms common to all
countries and all times, just as there are common ways of being
foolish--a common idiom is to acquire for oneself the largest number
of customers as possible. A common stupidity is to believe that the
person who has the most customers is the most expert. There you have
two exceptions to the general conscience which we have to bow down
to. It's a sort of credit system. In itself it's nothing, but it is
worth something in public opinion. It's been said that a good
reputation is more valuable than a golden belt. However, the man
with a good reputation doesn't have a golden belt, but I see that
nowadays the man with the golden belt rarely lacks a good
reputation. It's necessary, as much as possible to have the good
reputation and the belt. And that's my goal, when I make myself
valuable by what you characterize as vile tricks and unworthy little
schemes. I give my lesson, and I give it well--there's the general
rule. I let people believe that I've more lessons to give than there
are hours in the day--that's the idiom.
ME: And the
lesson--you give a good one?
HIM: Yes, not bad,
quite good. My dear uncle's fundamental bass has made it all a lot
simpler. Before that I used to rob my pupil of money, yes, I did,
that's for sure. But today I earn it, at least as much as the
ME: And did you steal
the money without any guilt?
HIM: Oh, none
whatsoever. People say that if one robber steals from another, the
devil laughs. The parents are overflowing with a fortune they've
acquired--God knows how--they're from the court or financiers or
great merchants or bankers or business people. I was helping them
pay some of it back, me and a crowd of others just like me whom they
employed. In nature all species devour each other, and in society
all the classes feed on one another. We bring justice to each other
without the law getting involved. Earlier that woman Deschamps and
nowadays Guimard are the prince's vengeance on the financier, and
then the fashion merchant, the jeweler, the upholsterer, the laundry
woman, the swindler, the chambermaid, the cook, the saddle maker get
their revenge on Deschamps on behalf of the financier. In the middle
of all this, it's only the idiot or the lay-about who gets hurt,
without having upset anyone--and that's just fine. So from all this
you see that these exceptions to the general conscience or these
moral idioms about which people make such a fuss, calling them
tricks of the trade, are nothing and that, in the last analysis, the
only thing one needs is to keep one's eyes open.
ME: Your eyes are
HIM: And then there's
poverty. The voice of conscience and honour are really feeble when
one's guts are crying out. If I ever get rich, I'll certainly have
to give the money back, and I'm firmly resolved to do so in all
possible ways--dining, gambling, wine, women.
ME: But I'm afraid
you'll never get rich.
HIM: I suspect the
same thing myself.
ME: But if things
turn out differently, what will you do?
HIM: I'd act like all
beggars whose life has turned around. I'd be the most insolent rogue
anyone has ever seen. Then I'd remember everything they made me
suffer, and I'd pay them back full measure for the humiliations they
put me through. I like to give orders, and that's what I'd do. I
like it when people praise me, and praise me they will. I'll have in
my service all Villemorien's hangers-on, and I'll speak to them they
way they spoke to me, "Come on, you scoundrels, amuse me," and
they'll amuse me, "Rip some honest people to shreds," and they'll
tear them apart, if there are any still to be found. And then we'll
have girls, and all address each other as friends when we're drunk,
and we'll get drunk. We'll make up stories. We'll have all sorts of
quirks and vices. It will be delicious. We'll prove that Voltaire
has no genius, that Buffon is always strutting formally on stilts
and is nothing but a bombastic windbag, that Montesquieu is nothing
more than a witty fellow. We'll consign d'Alembert to his
mathematics, and we'll throw down onto their bellies and backs all
those little Catos, like you, who despise us from envy, whose
modesty is a coat covering their pride, and whose sobriety is a law
arising from their own needs. And music? That's when we'll make
ME: Given the
dignified way you'd use your wealth I see what a great pity it is
that you're a pauper. You'd live in a way that would confer great
honour on the human species and would be really useful to your
fellow citizens and truly glorious for yourself.
HIM: I think you're
making fun of me, Mister Philosopher. You don't know who you're
playing with. You don't suspect that at this moment I represent the
most important party in the town and at court. The wealthy people in
all professions either have told themselves the same things I've
confided to you or they have not, but the fact is that the life I'd
live in their place is exactly the life they lead. That's just where
you are, too, you others. You believe that happiness is the same
thing for everyone. What a strange vision! Your version assumes a
certain romantic frame of mind which we don't have, a peculiar soul,
a strange taste. You dress this weirdness up with the name virtue.
You call it philosophy. But are virtue and philosophy made for
everyone? Some are able to get them, and some can keep them. Imagine
a wise and philosophical universe. You'll concede it would be
devilishly sad. So long live philosophy, long live the wisdom of
Solomon. Drink good wine, gorge oneself on choice delicacies, roll
around on beautiful women, lie on lovely soft beds. Other than that,
the rest is nothing but vanity.
ME: What about
defending one's country?
HIM: That's vanity.
There's no country any more. From one pole to the other all I see is
tyrants and slaves.
ME: Helping one's
HIM: Vanity. Does one
really have friends? And if we had, would we have to make them
ungrateful? Look closely, and you'll notice that that's almost
always what you get back for services rendered. Gratitude is a
burden, and every burden is put there to be shaken off.
ME: Occupy a position
in society and carry out its duties?
HIM: Vanity. What
does it matter whether one has a position or not, provided that one
is rich, since no one assumes a position except to get rich? Carry
out its duties--where does that lead? To jealousy, trouble,
persecution. Is that the way one gets ahead? Pay court to people, by
God, pay court to them. Observe great people, study their tastes,
take part in their fantasies, serve their vices, applaud their
injustices. That's the secret.
ME: Taking care of
the education of one's children?
HIM: Vanity. That's
the business of a tutor.
ME: But if this tutor
has fully absorbed your principles and neglects his duties, who's
going to be punished for it?
HIM: My goodness, it
won't be me. Maybe someday my daughter's husband or my son's wife.
ME: But what if both
your son and daughter hurl themselves into debauchery and vice?
HIM: That's their
ME: What if they
HIM: Whatever one
does, one cannot dishonour oneself if one is rich.
ME: What if they ruin
HIM: Too bad for
ME: I see that if you
can dispense with taking care of the conduct of your wife, your
children, and your servants, you could easily neglect your own
HIM: Excuse me, but
no. It's sometimes difficult to find money, and it's prudent to get
it well in advance.
ME: You'll pay little
attention to your wife?
HIM: None whatsoever,
if you please. The best arrangement which one can have with one's
dear better half, I think, is to do whatever one wants. In your
view, wouldn't society be really amusing if everyone did what was
agreeable to them?
ME: Why not? The
evening is never more beautiful for me than when I'm happy about my
HIM: The same goes
ME: What makes
fashionable people so delicate about their amusements is that they
are profoundly idle.
HIM: Don't you
believe it. They run around a lot.
ME: Since they never
get tired, they never relax.
HIM: Don't believe
that. They are constantly exhausted from excess.
ME: Pleasure is
always a business for them, never a need.
HIM: So much the
better. Need is always painful.
ME: They wear
everything out. Their souls become stupefied. Boredom grabs hold of
them. Whoever took away their lives in the midst of their
overwhelming abundance would be doing them a service. The fact is
they don't know anything about happiness except the part which
becomes jaded most quickly. I don't disparage the pleasures of the
senses. I have a palate as well, and it really likes a tasty
delicacy or a delicious wine. I have a heart and eyes, and I like to
see a beautiful woman. I like to have my hands feel the firmness and
the roundness of her breasts, to press her lips against mine, to
soak up rapture from her looks, and to die in her arms. I'm not
against a party with my friends sometimes, a debauch, even one that
gets a little out of hand. But I won't conceal from you that it is
infinitely more pleasurable to me to have helped someone in
distress, brought some difficult business to a conclusion, given
some beneficial advice, read something agreeable, taken a walk with
a man or woman close to my heart, passed some instructive hours with
my children, written a good page, fulfilled the duties of my
position, or told the woman I love something tender and soft, so
that she put her arms around my neck. I know the sorts of actions I
would give up all I own to have done. Mahomet is a sublime
work of literature, but I would prefer to have rehabilitated the
memory of Calas. An acquaintance of mine once took refuge in
Cartagena. He was the youngster of the family in a country where
custom gives all property to the eldest. There he learned that his
older brother, a spoiled child, after stripping his mother and
father very easily of everything they possessed, had kicked them out
of their chateau and that the good old people were languishing in
poverty in a small town in the provinces. So what then did this
youngster do, a boy who had been treated harshly by his parents and
had gone to see if he could win his fortune far away? He sent them
assistance. He quickly wound up his own affairs and returned
wealthy. He brought his father and mother back into their home. He
arranged for his sisters to be married. Ah, my dear Rameau, the man
considered this period the happiest of his life. When he told me of
it, he had tears in his eyes. And as I tell you the story, I feel my
heart beating for joy, and my delight makes talking difficult.
HIM: You people are
so very odd!
ME: And you are
creatures who well deserve to be pitied if you can't see how we've
raised ourselves above our fate and that it's impossible to be
unhappy under the shelter of two fine actions like the ones I've
HIM: Well, that's a
type of happiness which I'll find it difficult to get familiar with,
because we meet it rarely. But, according to you, should we then be
ME: To be happy? Yes,
HIM: But I see
countless decent people who are not happy, and countless people who
are happy without being decent.
ME: So it seems to
HIM: But isn't it
because I had some common sense and candour for a moment that I have
no idea where to get a meal this evening?
ME: Not at all. The
reason is you've not had those qualities all along. It's because you
didn't realize early on that it's first necessary to create options
for yourself which will make you independent, free from serving
HIM: Independent or
not, what I've made for myself is at least the most comfortable.
ME: And the least
secure and the least honest.
HIM: But it's the one
best suited to my character as a lazy man, fool, and scoundrel.
ME: I agree with
HIM: And since I can
find happiness through vices natural to me, which I've acquired
without working, which I maintain without effort, which are
compatible with the customs of my country, which suit the taste of
those who protect me and are closer to their small particular needs
than virtues which would embarrass them, by criticizing them morning
and night, it would be really odd if I were to go on tormenting
myself like some soul in hell in order to cut myself up and make
myself something other than I am, to give myself a character foreign
to my own, very worthy qualities--I'll concede that, to avoid an
argument--but which would cost me a great deal to acquire and to
practise, and which would lead to nothing, perhaps worse than
nothing, because all the time I'd have to satirize the rich people
among whom beggars like me have to find a living. People praise
virtue, but they hate it. They run away from it, because it makes
them freezing cold, and in this world one has to have warm feet.
Besides, it would inevitably make me moody. Why else do we so often
see devout people so hard, so angry, so unsociable? It's because
they've imposed on themselves a task which isn't natural to them.
They suffer, and when one suffers, one makes others suffer. That's
not what I want, nor my patrons. I have to be happy, flexible,
pleasant, funny, amusing. Virtue makes itself respected, and respect
is uncomfortable. Virtue makes itself admired, and admiration is not
amusing. My business is with people who are bored, and I have to
make them laugh. So I have to be ridiculous and funny. And if nature
had not made me that way, the simplest thing would be to appear like
that. Fortunately, I don't need to be a hypocrite. There are already
so many of them of every stripe, without counting those who are
hypocritical even with themselves. Take that Chevalier de la
Morlière, who turns up his hat above his ears, who holds his head in
the air, who looks at you over his shoulder as you go by, who has a
long sword banging against his thigh, who has an insult ready for
anyone who doesn't carry one, and who seems to be issuing a
challenge to everyone coming along. What's he doing? Everything he
can to persuade himself that he's a stout-hearted man. But he's a
coward. Just tweak the end of his nose--he's take it quietly. If you
want to make him lower his voice, raise you own. Show him your cane
or give him a kick in the ass. He'll be astonished to find out he's
a coward and will ask you how you found out, who told you. The
moment before he was ignorant of the fact, for his long and habitual
aping of bravery had impressed on him that he was. He'd gone through
the pretence so many times he believed that's what he was. And that
woman who mortifies herself, who visits prisons, who helps at all
the charitable meetings, who walks along with her eyes lowered, who
would never dare to look a man in the face, always on guard against
being seduced by her senses, does all that keep her heart from
burning, sighs escaping from her, her temperament catching fire, her
desires obsessing her, and her imagination going over and over night
and day scenes from the Portier des Chartreux or the
Postures de l'Arétin. So then what happens to her? What does her
maid think of her when she gets up in her nightdress and rushes to
help her mistress as she's dying? Justine, go back to bed. It's not
you your mistress is calling for in her delirium. And what about
friend Rameau, what if one day he began to show signs of contempt
for wealth, women, good food, and laziness and started to act like
Cato, what would he be? A hypocrite. Rameau has to be what he is--a
happy thief among wealthy thieves, and not a virtuous swaggerer or
even a virtuous man, gnawing his crust of bread by himself or among
beggars. To sum up--I won't put up with your idea of happiness or
the well being of a few visionaries like you.
ME: I see, my dear
fellow, that you have no idea what that is and that you're not even
capable of learning what it is.
HIM: So much the
better, by God, so much the better. It would probably make me die of
hunger, boredom, and remorse.
ME: Given that, the
only advice I have for you is to go back quickly to the house where
you so imprudently got yourself thrown out.
HIM: And do what you
don't object to literally but find offensive metaphorically?
ME: That's my advice.
HIM: Regardless of
that metaphor which I object to for the moment but which won't
bother me at some other time.
ME: How odd you are!
HIM: There's nothing
odd about it. I'm happy enough to be abject, but I want that to
happen without any compulsion. It's all right with me to abandon my
dignity...What's so funny?
ME: Your dignity
makes me laugh.
HIM: Everyone has his
own. I'm happy to forget mine, but at my own discretion, and not on
someone else's orders. Does it have to be the case that when someone
can say to me "Crawl" I have to crawl? That's how a worm
operates--and it's my way, too. We both follow it, when people leave
us alone. But we raise ourselves up when someone steps on our tails.
People have stepped on my tail, and I straightened up. But then you
have no idea of the madhouse we're talking about. Imagine a
melancholy and sullen personality, consumed with vapours, wrapped up
in two or three layers of dressing gown, who loves himself but who's
unhappy about everything, a person from whom it's difficult to get a
smile, even if you distort your body and mind in a hundred different
ways. He examines coldly the pleasant grimaces of my face and of my
judgment, which are even more pleasant, for, between us, that father
Christmas, that nasty Benedictine so famous for his grimaces, for
all his success at court, is nothing but a wooden Punch in
comparison to me--and I say that without praising myself or him. I
went to great lengths tormenting myself to reach the highest arts of
the idiot house. But it's no use. Will he laugh? Won't he? That's
what I'm forced to say to myself in the middle of my contortions,
and you can judge how much this uncertainty damages one's talent. My
hypochondriac, with a nightcap pulled down over his head covering
his eyes, has the expression of an immobile idol with a string
attached around his chin, which goes from there right down under his
armchair. One waits for the string to be pulled, but it's not
pulled. If it so happens that the jaws open, it's to utter a
distressing word, a word which informs you that you've not even been
noticed and that all your monkey tricks have been wasted. This word
is a response to a question you asked him four days ago. Once the
word has been uttered, the mastoid spring is released, and the jaws
Then he began to imitate the
man he was talking about. He was seated in a chair with his head
fixed, his cap right down to his eyelids, his eyes half shut, his
arms hanging down, moving his jaws like a robot. He said: "'Yes, you
are right, mademoiselle. One has to be perceptive in these matters.'
That's the person who decides, who always decides, and there's no
appeal--in the evening, in the morning, at his morning toilet, at
dinner, in the café, at the gaming table, in the theatre, at supper,
in bed and, God forgive me, in the arms of his mistress, too, I
think. I'm not in a position to hear these last decisions, but I'm
damn weary of the others. Sad, obscure, cut and dried, like
fate--that's the kind of patron we have."
"Right across from him
there's a prudish woman who's pretending to be important. One could
persuade oneself that she's attractive, because she still is,
although her face has some scabs here and there and she's getting as
large as Madame Bouvillion. I do like flesh when it's beautiful, but
for all that, too much is too much. Movement is so essential to
matter! Item--she is more malicious, more proud, more stupid
than a goose. Item--she'd like to have wit. Item--one
has to persuade her that people think she's more witty than anyone
else. Item--she knows nothing, but she makes decisions, too.
Item--one has to applaud these decisions with one's feet and
hands, to jump for joy, to become paralyzed with admiration: 'Your
decision is so beautiful, delicate, well said, perceptive, uniquely
felt. Where do you women get all this? Without any studying, purely
by the power of instinct, by your own natural light--it's
miraculous. And then people come to tell us that experience, study,
reflection, and education all play a part in it.' All sorts of other
similar stupidities, with tears of joy. To bow down ten times a day,
with one knee bent in front and the other leg stuck out behind,
one's arms stretched towards the goddess, looking for her desires in
her eyes, hanging onto her lip, waiting for her order, and dashing
off like a bolt of lightning. Who could subject himself to such a
role, except the poor wretch who, two or three times a week, finds
something there to calm the tribulation of his intestines? What is
one to think of the others, like Palissot, Fréron, the Poinsinets,
Baculard, who do have some property, and whose baseness thus cannot
be excused by the rumbling of a suffering stomach?"
ME: I'd never have
though you were so fussy.
HIM: I'm not. At
first I used to watch the others doing it, and I carried on like
them, even a little better, because I'm more candidly impudent, a
better actor--and I was hungrier and equipped with better lungs.
Apparently I trace my descent in a direct line from the famous
And to give me a fair idea
of the force of this organ of his, he began to cough violently
enough to make the windows in the café rattle and to divert the
attention of the chess players from their game.
ME: But what good is
HIM: You can't guess?
ME: No. I'm a bit
HIM: Supposing a
dispute has started and victory is uncertain. I stand up and,
displaying my thunder, cry out, "It's just as Madame has assured us
it is. That's what one calls judgment, a hundred times better than
our fine wits. The expression is pure genius." But one mustn't
always approve in the same way. That would make one monotonous.
You'd look false and would become insipid. The only way around that
is with judgment and creativity. You need to know how to prepare and
when to put in those peremptory major tones, how to seize your
chance and the moment, for example, when there is a division of
opinion, when the argument has moved up to the final stage of
violence, when no one is in agreement any more, when everyone is
speaking at once--then you must take up a position some distance
away, in the corner to the apartment furthest removed from the field
of battle. You must prepare for the eruption with a long silence and
then blow up suddenly, like an explosion, in the middle of the
contenders. No one has my skill in this art. But where I'm really
surprising is in the opposite skill--I have some soft notes which I
accompany with a smile, an infinite variety of expressions of
approval, bringing into play my nose, mouth, forehead, and eyes. I
have a supple back, a way of turning my spine, or raising and
lowering my shoulders, extending my fingers, inclining my head,
closing my eyes, and being amazed, as if I'd heard the voice of a
divine angel coming down from heaven. That's what does the
flattering. I'm not sure if you really understand the full power of
the attitude I've just mentioned. I didn't invent it, but no one has
pulled it off better than me. Look. Watch this.
ME: It's certainly
HIM: Do you think
that there's a slightly vain female brain which could hold out
ME: No. I have to
concede that you have taken the talent for making fools of people
and for demeaning oneself as far as it's possible to go.
HIM: All those other,
however many there are--they'll do well, but they'll never get to
that point. The best of them, Palissot, for example, will never be
anything but a good pupil. But if this role is amusing at first and
if you enjoy the pleasure of laughing to yourself at the stupidity
of those you are intoxicating, in the long run it loses its appeal.
Besides, after a certain number of discoveries, you have to repeat
yourself. Wit and art have their limits. Only God or a few rare
geniuses could make a career out of it which grows as they advance.
Bouret is such a person, perhaps. That man has certain tricks which
impress me (yes, even me) as sublime ideas--the little dog, the book
of happiness, the torches on the road to Versailles--those are
things which stagger me and put me to shame. It could be enough to
make one unhappy with the profession.
ME: What about that
little dog? What are you talking about?
HIM: Where have you
come from? What--in all seriousness, you don't know how that
extraordinary man set about detaching himself from a little dog and
attaching it to the Keeper of the Seals, who'd taken a fancy to it?
ME: I confess I have
HIM: So much the
better. It's one of the most beautiful things one could imagine. All
Europe marveled at it, and there isn't a single courtier who wasn't
envious of it. You're a man who doesn't lack a certain
shrewdness--let's see what you'd have done in his place. Remember
that Bouret was loved by his dog. Remember that the odd costume of
the minister used to terrify the little animal. And remember that
there were only eight days to overcome the difficulties. One has to
understand all the conditions attached to the problem in order to
appreciate properly the merit of the solution. Well then?
ME: Well, I have to
confess to you that in this sort of thing the simplest things baffle
HIM: Listen (he says
to me, giving me a slight blow on the shoulder--he's very informal),
listen and admire. He has someone make him a mask which looks like
the Keeper of the Seals, and he borrows the latter's voluminous robe
from a footman. He covers his face with the mask and puts on the
robe. He calls his dog and caresses it. He give it a biscuit. Then
all of a sudden, with a change of clothes, he is no longer the
Keeper of the Seals, but Bouret. He calls his dog and beats it. In
less than two or three days of doing this exercise from morning to
night, the dog learns to run away from Bouret the Farmer General and
run to Bouret the Keeper of the Seals. But I'm being too kind.
You're a layman who doesn't deserve to be instructed in the miracles
which go on right beside you.
ME: In spite of that,
if you don't mind, the book and the torches?
HIM: No, no. Ask the
cobble stones. They'll tell you about those things. You must profit
from the circumstances which have brought us together to learn those
things which no one knows except me.
ME: You're right.
HIM: To borrow the
robe and the wig of the Keeper of the Seals--I'd forgotten about the
wig! To make a mask which looks like him! It's the mask above all
that turns my head. Also this man is of the highest respectability,
and he owns millions. There are men with the Saint Louis cross who
don't have any bread, so why run after the cross at the risk of
working oneself to death and not turn to an activity with no danger
which never fails to pay? That's what we call acting in the grand
manner. Role models like that are disheartening. One pities oneself
and loses interest. That mask! The mask! I'd give one of my fingers
to have come up with that mask.
ME: But with this
enthusiasm of yours for fine things and the creative genius you
possess, have you invented anything?
HIM: Let's see--well,
one example is the attitude of admiration I make with my back which
I spoke you about. I look upon that as mine, although some envious
people could perhaps argue with me about it. I think that people
used it before, but who realized just how handy it was for having a
secret laugh at the fool one was admiring? I have more than a
hundred ways to start the seduction of a young girl right under her
mother's nose, without her perceiving a thing, and even making her
an accomplice. I'd hardly started on my career when I turned my back
on all the common ways to slip someone a love letter. I have ten
ways of getting people to snatch it away from me. Among these
methods, I dare flatter myself that there are some original ones.
Above all, I possess the talent for encouraging a timid young man.
I've enabled some to succeed who had neither wit nor looks. If that
were all written out, I think that people would attribute some
genius to me.
ME: Would you get
HIM: I don't doubt
ME: If I were you,
I'd put those things down on paper. It would be a pity if they were
HIM: That's true, but
you have no idea how unimportant method and precepts are to me.
Someone who needs written instructions will never get far. Geniuses
read little, act a great deal, and create themselves. Look at
Caesar, Turenne, Vauban, the Marquise de Tencin, his brother the
cardinal, and the cardinal's secretary, Abbé Trublet. And Bouret?
Who gave Bouret lessons? No one. It's nature that makes exceptional
men like that. Do you think that the story of the dog and the mask
is written down somewhere?
ME: But in the hours
when you have nothing to do--when the agony of your empty stomach or
the weariness in your crammed stomach stop you from sleeping...
HIM: I'll think about
it. It's better to write about great things than to carry out
trivial ones. Then the soul is raised, the imagination heats up,
catches fire, and grows, instead of shrinking up beside the little
Hus girl, in her amazement at the applause which the idiotic public
insists on lavishing on that simpering Dangeville, who acts with so
little imagination, who moves through the scene almost doubled over
and affects to stare continuously into the eyes of whoever she is
talking to, underplays her role, and who confuses her own grimaces
with subtlety, her tiny trotting around with graceful movement--or
on that bombastic Clairon woman who's scrawnier, more affected, more
mannered and starchy than anyone could imagine. Those idiots in the
pit bring the house down applauding them. They don't see that we are
a pack full of charm. It's true that the pack is getting somewhat
larger, but so what? We have the most beautiful skin, the finest
eyes, the best-looking mouths--not much heart inside, to be sure--a
walk which is not light, but not as awkward as people maintain. As
for feelings, on the other hand, there isn't one which we couldn't
ME: Why are you
saying all this? Are you being truthful or ironical?
HIM: The problem is
that this devil of a feeling is all inside and no glimmer of it
reaches the outside. But as for me--the one talking to you--I know,
and know well, that she has some. Well, if it's not that exactly,
it's something like it. You need to see how we treat servants, when
we're in the mood, how we slap the chambermaids, how we kick old
casual parts Boutin around if he fails to deliver the respect due to
us. She's a little devil, I tell you, full of feeling and
dignity....Hey, you're not sure what all this is about, are you?
ME: I confess I have
no idea how to sort out whether you're speaking in good faith or
maliciously. I'm a decent man, so be good enough to deal with me
directly and put away your art.
HIM: That's just what
we say to the little Hus girl about Dangeville and Clairon, mixing
in a few words here and there to rouse your suspicions. I don't mind
your taking me for a rascal, but not for an idiot. And only an idiot
or a man hopelessly in love could say so many outrageous things
ME: But how does one
bring oneself to say such things?
HIM: That doesn't
happen all at once--one gets there gradually. Ingenii largitor
venter [The belly incites genius]
ME: You have to be
forced into it by a savage hunger.
HIM: That could do
it. However, no matter how extreme these things seem to you, you
should know that those to whom they are addressed are much more
accustomed to hearing them than we are to trying them out.
ME: Is there anyone
out there who has the courage to share your opinion?
HIM: What do mean
anyone? It's the opinion and the language of all society.
ME: Those among you
who are not great rascals have to be great fools.
HIM: Fools among us?
I swear there is only one fool--and that's the one who gives us a
good time in exchange for our imposing this language on him.
ME: But how can
anyone let himself be so crudely imposed upon? For in the end the
superior talent of Dangeville and Clairon is well established.
HIM: We swallow whole
the lie which flatters us and sip drop by drop a truth set down
before us. Besides, we have such an earnest and truthful demeanour.
ME: Nonetheless, you
must have sinned at least once against the principles of your art
and let slip inadvertently some of those bitter truths which hurt.
For despite the wretched, abject, vile and abominable role you play,
I think that basically you have a refined soul.
HIM: In my case, not
at all. The Devil take me if I have any idea what I am deep down. In
general, my mind is as round as a ball and my character as open as a
wicker chair--I'm never false if I have any interest in being
truthful and never truthful if I have any interest in being
dishonest. I say things as they come to me. If they're sensible, all
well and good, if impertinent, people don't worry about it. I use my
candour in speaking to the full. I've never thought about my life
before speaking or while I'm talking, or after I've finished
talking. In that way I don't hurt anyone.
ME: But that's just
what happened to you with those respectable people whose house you
lived in and who were so kind to you.
HIM: What about it?
It was unfortunate, a bad moment. These things happen in life. No
happiness lasts. I was too well off. It couldn't last. We have, as
you know, the most numerous and exclusive company. It's a school for
humanity, the renewal of ancient hospitality. All the fallen poets,
we gather them up. We had Palissot after his Zara, Bret after
Le Faux généreux, all the discredited musicians, all the
authors no one reads any more, all the actresses hissed off the
stage, all the booed actors, a pile of poor disgraced people, dull
parasites. I have the honour of being at their head, the brave chief
of a timid band. I'm the one who urges them to eat the first time
they come. I'm the one who demands they get something to drink. They
take up so little room! Some ragged young people who don't know
where to lay their heads but who are good looking. Others are
villains who suck up to the master and send him off to sleep so they
can scoop up what he's left with the lady of the house. We appear
carefree, but at bottom we're all moody and greedy. Wolves are no
hungrier than we are, nor are tigers more cruel. We cram ourselves
like wolves when the earth has been covered in snow for a long time,
and, like tigers, we rip apart anything which has succeeded.
Sometimes the crowds of Bertin, Montsauge, and Villemorien come
together, and then there's a fine old noise in the menagerie. You've
never seen so many wretched creatures in one place--cantankerous,
harmful, and angry. No one hears anything but the names of Buffon,
Duclos, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Votaire, D'Alembert, Diderot, and God
only knows what epithets are attached to them. No one can have any
wit unless he is as stupid as we are. That's the place where the
plan for the comedy Les Philosphes was conceived--I'm the one
who came up with the scene of the peddler. I based it on La
Théologie en Quenouille. You don't get off the hook in it, any
more than anyone else.
ME: So much the
better. Perhaps you're giving me more honour than I deserve. I'd be
humiliated if those who speak badly about so many expert and decent
people decided to say something good about me.
HIM: There are many
of us, and each one must pay his dues. After the sacrifice of the
great animals we immolate the others.
ME: Insulting science
and virtue in order to make a living--that's really expensive bread.
HIM: I've already
told you we have no effect. We could injure the entire world, and we
wouldn't hurt anyone. Sometimes our company includes the peasant
Abbé d'Olivet, the fat Abbé Le Blanc, and the hypocrite Batteux. The
fat abbé is malicious only before he's eaten. Once he's had his
coffee, he throws himself into an armchair, rests his feet against
the shelf by the chimney, and goes to sleep like an old parrot on
its perch. If the noise gets violent, he yawns, stretches his arms,
rubs his eyes, and says, "All right, what's up What is it?" "We're
trying to find out if Piron has more wit than Voltaire." "Let's get
this straight--are you talking about wit? It's not a question of
taste, for your Piron has no notion of taste." "No idea at all?"
"No." And then we set out on a discussion of taste. Then our patron
signals with his hand that we should listen to him, because he's
keener on taste than on anything, "Taste," he says, "taste is
something..."--my goodness I've no idea what he said it was, and
neither does he. Sometimes our friend Robbé is with us. He amuses us
with cynical stories, miracles about people in convulsions where he
was a visual witness, and also with a few cantos from his poem on a
subject which he knows really well. I hate his verses, but I like to
hear him recite. He has the air of someone truly weird. All those
around him cry out, "Now that's what we call a poet." Just between
us, that poetry is nothing but a din of all sorts of confused
noises, the barbarous song of people living in the tower of Babel.
Sometimes we also get a visit from a certain simpleton with a dull,
stupid expression, who has a mind like a demon and who's smarter
than an old monkey. He's one of those figures who invite jokes and
tricks, someone God made to correct people who judge on the basis of
appearances, those who should have learned at their own mirrors that
it is just as easy to be a witty man and look like a fool as it is
to hide a fool under an intelligent looking physiognomy. It's a
really common form of cowardice to sacrifice a good man for the
amusement of others. And they never fail to go after this man. He's
a trap we set for the new arrivals, and I've hardly seen a single
one of them fail to get caught.
I was sometimes surprised by
the justice of this fool's observations on men and on their
characters. I told him as much. "Well," he replied, "it's a matter
of getting some benefits out of bad company, just like out of being
a libertine. You get compensation for the loss of innocence by also
losing your prejudices. In a society of bad people, where vice shows
itself with its mask removed, you learn to recognize it. And
besides, I've read a bit."
ME: What have you
HIM: I've read, I
read, and I constantly re-read Theophrastus, La Bruyère and Molière.
ME: Those are
HIM: They are much
better than people think, but who knows how to read them?
according to how intelligent he is.
HIM: Hardly anyone.
Could you tell me what people are looking for in those books?
ME: Amusement and
instruction? That's the point.
ME: A knowledge of
one's duties, a love of virtue, and a hatred of vice.
HIM: Well, I gather
from them everything one should do and everything which one
shouldn't say. So when I read L'Avare, I say to myself: be a
miser, if you want to, but be careful not to talk like a miser. When
I read Tartuffe I tell myself: be a hypocrite, if you like,
but don't talk like a hypocrite. Keep the vices which are useful,
but don't assume a tone or an appearance which will make you
ridiculous. In order to be sure about this tone and appearance, you
have to know them. Now, these authors have provided excellent
portraits of them. I am myself, and I remain what I am. But I act
and speak in a way that's suitable. I'm not one of those people who
disparage the moralists. One can profit a lot from them, above all
from those who have put morals into action. Vice doesn't hurt
people, except now and then. But the visible features of vice injure
them from morning to night. Perhaps it would be better to be a
scoundrel than to look like one--insolence in a character is only
insulting from time to time, but an insolent appearance is always
insulting. As for the rest, don't go and imagine that I'm the only
reader of this sort. I've no particular merit in this, except that
I've done systematically, with a keen intelligence and a reasonable
and true aim in mind, what most others do by instinct. That's the
reason why what they read doesn't make them better than me and why
they continue to be ridiculous in spite of themselves--whereas I'm
ridiculous only when I choose to be, and then I leave them far
behind me. For the same art which at certain times teaches me to
save myself from being ridiculous also teaches me at other times to
make myself ridiculous in a superior way. Then I recall everything
other people have said, everything I've read, and I add to those
everything from my own capital funds, which in this type of thing
are a surprisingly rich resource.
ME: You've done well
to reveal these mysteries to me. Without that I would've thought you
were contradicting yourself.
HIM: No, I don't to
that at all. Fortunately, for one occasion when it's necessary to
avoid ridicule there are a hundred where one has to be ridiculous.
There's no better role to play in the presence of grand people that
that of the fool. For a long time there was an official jester to
the king, but there has never been an official wise man to the king.
Me, I'm a fool for Bertin and many others, perhaps for you at this
moment, or perhaps you're my fool. A man who wanted to be wise would
not have such a fool. That's why anyone who has a fool is not wise.
If he's not wise, he's a fool and perhaps, if he's a king, his
fool's fool. Beyond this, you should remember than in a subject as
varied as morals, there's no absolute, essential, universal truth or
falsity, unless it's the fact that one has to be what one's
self-interest wants one to be, good or bad, wise or foolish, decent
or ridiculous, honest or vicious. If by chance virtue had led the
way to a fortune, either I'd have been virtuous or I'd have
pretended to be virtuous, just like anyone else. People wanted me to
be ridiculous, and that's what I've made myself. As for viciousness,
nature alone paid the cost of that. When I say vicious, it's in
order to speak your language, for if we were to come to an
understanding of each other, it could turn out that you call vice
what I call virtue and virtue what I call vice. We also had among us
authors from the Opera Comique, their actors and actresses, and more
often their managers Corby, Moette...all resourceful people of
superior merit. And I was forgetting the great literary critics.
L'Avant-Coureur, Les Petites Affiches, L'Année
littéraire, L'Observateur littéraire, Le Censeur
hebdomadaire--all that clique of columnists.
littéraire; L'Obervateur littéraire--that's not possible.
They detest each other.
HIM: That's true. But
all beggars are reconciled at the feeding trough. That damned
Obervateur littéraire--I wish the devil had taken the man and
his columns. It's that little cur of an avaricious priest, that
stinking usurer, who's the cause of my disaster. He appeared on our
horizon for the first time yesterday. He arrived at the hour which
drives us all out of our hide outs--dinner time. When the weather is
bad, anyone among us who has a twenty four sou coin in his pocket
for cab fare is a happy man. Some people make fun of a fellow beggar
who arrives in the morning with mud up to his ribs and soaked to the
bone--and then in the evening have to return home in the same
condition. There was one of them--I don't know which one--who a few
months ago had a violent tangle with the Savoyard peasant who had
set up at our door. They were running on credit, and the creditor
wanted the debtor to settle up, but the latter didn't have the
money. Well, they serve the meal, and honour the abbé, by placing
him at the head of the table. I come in. I notice him. So I say to
him, "Well, abbé, so you're presiding today? That's fine for today,
but tomorrow you move down one setting, if you please, and the day
after tomorrow to the next place setting, and thus from place to
place, either to the left or right, until you move from that place
which I've occupied once before you, Freron once after me, Dorat
once after Freron, Palissot once after Dorat, and come to rest
beside me, a poor dull bugger like yourself, qui siedo sempre
come un maestoso cazzo fra duoi coglioni." The abbé, who's a
good little devil and takes everything well, began to laugh.
Mademoiselle was struck by the truth of my observation and the
justice of my comparison, and she began to laugh. All those who were
seated to the right and to the left of the abbé and whom he had
moved down one notch began to laugh. So everyone was laughing except
Monsieur who was irritated and went at me with things which wouldn't
have mattered at all if we'd been alone: "Rameau you're an impudent
man." "I know that--that's why you receive me here." "A scoundrel."
"Just like the others." "A beggar." "Would I be here if I weren't?"
"I'll see to it that you're thrown out." "After dinner, I'll leave
on my own." "I'd advise you to do that." So we ate, and I didn't
miss a bite. After we'd eaten well and drank a good deal, because,
after all, it wouldn't have mattered one way or the other--Mr. Guts
is someone whom I've never avoided--I made my decision and was
preparing to leave. I'd given my word in the presence of so many
people that I had to keep it. I was prowling around the apartment
for a long time, looking for my walking stick and my hat in places
where they wouldn't be, all the time counting on the fact that my
patron would let out a new torrent of abuse, that someone would
intervene, and that we'd finish up by being reconciled because we'd
lost our tempers. I wandered round, I kept wandering around, for I
wasn't feeling anything inside, but my patron, well, he was blacker
and grimmer than Homer's Apollo when he fired his arrows down on the
Greek army. He was walking back and forth, with his hat pulled down
more than usual and his fist on his chin. Mademoiselle came up to
me. "But Mademoiselle, what's been so extraordinary, then? Have I
been any different today from my usual self?" "I wish him to leave."
"I will leave. I haven't done him any wrong." "Excuse me, but
Monsieur l'Abbé was invited, and..." "He let himself down by
inviting the abbé and then letting me in and with me so many other
hangers-on like me." "Come on, my dear Rameau. You must apologize to
Monsieur l'Abbé." "I don't want his pardon..." "Come on, come
on--all this will sort itself out." They took me by the hand and
dragged me towards the abbé's armchair. I held out my arms. I looked
at the abbé with a sort of admiration, for who had ever made an
apology to the abbé? "Abbé," I said to him, "abbé, all this is
really silly, isn't it?" And then I started to laugh, and so did he.
So right there I was forgiven in that quarter. But I had to tackle
the other one, and what I had to say to him was a different game
altogether. I don't know much about how I framed my apology.
"Monsieur, look at this fool..." "He's been making me suffer for too
long. I don't want to hear any more talk about him." "Monsieur is
angry." "Yes, I am very angry." "That won't happen any more." "Well,
the first scoundrel..." I don't know if he was in one of his moody
days when Mademoiselle is afraid to go near him and doesn't dare
touch him except with velvet mitts or whether he misheard what I was
saying or whether I spoke badly, but things got worse than before.
To hell with it--doesn't he know me? Doesn't he know that I'm like a
child and there are situations where I just let everything go under
me? And then, God forgive me, I thought I'd never have a rest from
performing. Even a puppet made of steel gets worn out if the strings
are pulled from morning to night and from night until morning. I
must relieve them of their boredom--I take that for granted--but I
have to amuse myself sometimes. In the middle of this mess, a fatal
thought went through my mind, an idea which made me arrogant and
inspired me with pride and insolence: it was the notion that they
couldn't do without me, that I was someone indispensable.
ME: Yes, I think
you're very useful to them, but they're even more so to you. You
won't find a house as good as that one, when you want to, but those
people, if they're missing one fool, can come up with a hundred.
HIM: A hundred fools
like me! Mister Philosopher, they're not as common as that. Yes,
some insipid fools. It's harder to find quality in foolishness than
in talent or virtue. I'm a rare member of my species, yes, very
rare. Now that they don't have me any more, what are they doing?
They're as bored as dogs. I'm an inexhaustible sack of impertinence.
At every moment I had a joke which made people laugh until they
cried. For them I was an entire house of idiots.
ME: So that's why you
had table, bed, coat, vest, trousers, shoes, and a small allowance.
HIM: Well, that's the
good side. That's the profit. But what about the charges--you don't
say a word about those. First, if there was a rumour about a new
play, no matter what the weather, I had to poke my nose in all the
attics in Paris until I found the author. Then I had to find a way
to read the work and to insinuate skillfully that there was role in
it which would be performed extremely well by someone I knew. "By
whom, if you please?" "By whom--a good question! Someone with grace,
charm, and delicacy." "You mean Mademoiselle Dangeville? Do you know
her by any chance?" "Yes, a little. But it's not her." "Then who?"
I'd say her name in a low voice. "Her!" "Yes, her," I'd repeat,
somewhat ashamed, for there are times I feel a sense of modesty, and
when I repeated the name you should've seen the poet make a long
face or at other times blow up in a temper right in front of me.
However, for better or worse I had to bring my man to dinner--and he
didn't want to get involved. He'd stall and offer his thanks. You
should've seen how I was treated if I didn't succeed in my
negotiations with him: I was a lout, a fool, an oaf. I was good for
nothing. I wasn't worth the glass of water they'd given me to drink.
But it was even worse if she got the part--then I had to go
fearlessly through the midst of the booing public (and they're good
judges, no matter what people say about them) and make my applause
heard as a one-man claque. I attracted people's attention and
sometimes stole the booing away from the actress. I'd hear people
whispering beside me, "It's a valet in disguise, one of those
belonging to the man who sleeps with her. Won't the rascal ever shut
up?" People have no idea what could make a person do that. They
think it's stupidity; whereas it comes from a motive that excuses
ME: Up to and
including breaking the laws.
however, I became known, and people said, "Oh, it's Rameau." My only
option was to throw out some ironic expression to salvage the
ridicule of my solitary applause so that people would interpret it
as its opposite. You have to admit that it takes a powerful interest
to brave the assembled public like that and the effort is worth more
than one small écu.
ME: Why didn't you
get some help?
HIM: I've done that,
too. I earned a bit of money from it. Before going into the torture
chamber, we had to memorize some brilliant passages where we had to
set the tone. If I happened to forget them or got confused, there
was a real earthquake when I returned. You've no idea the kind of
fuss they made. And then in the house there was a pack of dogs to
look after. It's true that I'd taken on this job--like a fool. And
then I had to take care of the cats. And I was only too happy if
Micou favoured me with a claw scratch which ripped my cuff or my
hand. Criquette is subject to colic, and it's my job to rub her
belly. Previously Mademoiselle had vapours. Now it's nerves. I'm not
mentioning the other slight indispositions which no one bothered
about in front of me. Those were all right. I've never believed in
too much formality. I've read, I don't know where, that a prince
known as The Great used to rest sometimes leaning against the back
of his mistress's toilet commode. People act relaxed around their
familiars, and in those days I was more familiar than anyone. I'm
the apostle of familiarity and relaxation. I preached them there by
example, without anyone objecting to me. They just had to let me be.
I've given you a sketch of my patron. Mademoiselle is beginning to
put on weight, and you should hear the fine stories people make of
ME: You're not one of
those people, are you?
HIM: Why not?
ME: At the very least
it's indecent to make your benefactors sound ridiculous.
HIM: But isn't it
even worse to let your good deeds give you an excuse to discredit
ME: If the protégé
wasn't vile on his own, nothing would give his protector such a
HIM: But if these
people weren't ridiculous in themselves, one couldn't make up good
stories about them. And then is it my fault if they become vulgar?
Is it my fault, once they've become vulgar, if people betray and
ridicule them? If they decide to live with people like us and have
any common sense, they have to expect all sorts of dark stuff.
People who take up with us, surely they know us for what we are, for
self-interested souls--vile and two-timing? If they understand us,
then everything's fine. 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. Isn't this the agreement
that exists between a man and his pet monkey or parrot? Brun cries
out that Palissot, his guest and friend, has written some couplets
attacking him. Palissot had to compose the couplets, and it's Brun
who's in the wrong. Poinsinet cries out that Palissot has ascribed
to him the couplets he wrote against Brun. But Palissot had to
ascribe to Poinsinet the couplets he wrote attacking Brun, and it's
Poinsinet who's in the wrong. The little Abbé Rey cries out that his
friend Palissot has snatched away his mistress after he introduced
her to him. But he shouldn't have introduced someone like Pallisot
to his mistress if he wasn't prepared to lose her. Palissot did his
duty, and it's Abbé Rey who is in the wrong. The bookseller David
cries out because his associate Palissot has slept with or wanted to
sleep with his wife. The wife of the bookseller David cries out that
Palissot has told anyone willing to listen that he has slept with
her. Whether Palissot has slept with the bookseller's wife or not is
difficult to determine, because the wife's duty was to deny the fact
and Palissot could've let people believe what was not true. Whatever
the case, Palissot played his role, and it's David and his wife who
are in the wrong. Helvitius may cry out that Palissot slanders him
by putting him in a scene as a dishonest man, but Palissot still
owes him the money he borrowed for the medical treatment for his bad
health, as well as for his food and clothing. But should Helvetius
have expected any other treatment from a man soiled with all sorts
of infamy, a man who for fun makes his friend swear off his
religion, who appropriates the assets of his partners, who has no
faith, law, or feeling, who runs after fortune per fas et nefas,
who measures his days by the acts of villainy he commits, and who
has even lampooned himself on stage as one of the most dangerous
rascals--a piece of impudence I believe we've not seen in the past
and won't see in the future? No. So it's not Palissot but Helvetius
who's in the wrong. If one takes a young man from the provinces to
the zoo at Versailles and his foolishness persuades him to stick his
hand through the bars of the tiger's or panther's cage, and if the
young man leaves his arm behind in the throat of the ferocious
animal, who's in the wrong? All that is written in the tacit
agreement. 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. Yes, you fat countess, you're
the one in the wrong when you gather around you what people of your
sort call "characters," and when these "characters" play dirty
tricks on you and you do the same, thus exposing yourself to the
resentment of decent people. Honest people do what they ought to do,
so do your "characters." And it's your fault for having collected
them. If Bertinhus lived quietly and peacefully with his mistress,
if through the honesty of their characters they'd made the
acquaintance of decent people, they'd have summoned round them men
of talent, people known in society for their virtue. If they'd
reserved for a small enlightened select group hours of entertainment
taken from the sweet life they had together loving each other in the
quiet of their retreat, do you think people would have made up
stories about them, good or bad? So then what happened to them? They
got what they deserved. They've been punished for their imprudence.
And we're the ones whom Providence has destined from all eternity to
bring justice to the Bertins of today. And it's people like us among
our descendants who are destined to bring justice to the Montsauges
and Bertins of the future. But while we execute the decrees of
justice on stupidity, you paint us as we are and carry out these
just decrees against us. What would you think of us, if, with our
disgraceful habits, we claimed that we enjoyed popular favour? You'd
say we were out of our minds. And those who expect decent treatment
from people born vicious, from vile and base characters, are they
wise? Everything in this world receives its due. There are two
public prosecutors. The one by your door punishes the criminal
offences against society. Nature is the other. She recognizes all
the vices which escape the laws. You devote yourself to debauchery
with women. You'll get dropsy. You're a scoundrel. You'll get
consumption. You open your door to rascals, and you live with them.
You'll be betrayed, mocked, and despised. The simplest thing to do
is to resign yourself to the equity of these judgments and tell
yourself that it's all right. Then you can shake your ears and
change your ways, or else stay as you are, but on the conditions
ME: You're right.
HIM: In fact, about
these bad stories--I don't myself make any of them up. I stick to
the role of peddler. They say that a few days ago, at five o'clock
in the morning, people could hear a really violent noise. All the
house bells were in motion. There were stifled and broken cries of a
man choking. "Help, help. I'm being suffocated. I'm dying." These
cries came from the apartment of my patron. People arrived. They
went to help him. That fat creature of ours had lost her mind and
was no longer aware of what she was doing--which sometimes happens
at such moments. She kept speeding up her movements--raising herself
on her two hands so that from higher up she could let fall on his
casual parts her weight of two or three hundred pounds, energized
with all the speed provided by furious desire. They had a lot of
difficulty getting him out from under. What a devilish fantasy for a
little hammer to place himself under a heavy anvil!
ME: You're too
naughty. Speak about something else. Since we've been talking, I've
had a question on the tip of my tongue.
HIM: Why has it
stayed there so long?
ME: I was afraid it
might be indiscreet.
HIM: After the things
I've just shown you, I don't know what secret I could conceal from
ME: You have no
doubts about how I judge your character.
HIM: None whatsoever.
In your eyes I'm a very abject person, very contemptible, and I'm
also sometimes just the same in my own eyes, but rarely. I
congratulate myself on my vices more often than I criticize myself
ME: That's true, but
why show me all your nastiness?
HIM: Well, first
because you know a good deal about it already, and I saw that
there's more to win than to lose by confessing the rest to you.
ME: Please tell me
how that works.
HIM: If it's
important to be sublimely good at anything, it's above all necessary
with being bad. People spit on a petty cheat, but they can't hold
back a certain respect for a grand criminal. His courage astonishes
you. His atrocity makes you tremble. In everything, people value
integrity of character.
ME: But this worthy
integrity of character, you don't yet have it. From time to time I
find you vacillating in your principles. It's uncertain whether you
hold to your nastiness from nature or from study, or if study has
taken you as far as it's possible to go.
HIM: I agree with
that. But I've done my best. Haven't I had the modesty to recognize
beings more perfect than myself? Haven't I spoken to you about
Bouret with the most profound admiration? Bouret, in my view, is the
greatest man in the world.
ME: But immediately
after Bouret, there's you.
ME: Then it's
HIM: It's Palissot,
but it's not only Palissot.
ME: And who could be
worthy of sharing second place with him?
HIM: The renegade
ME: I've never heard
mention of this renegade of Avignon, but he must be a really
HIM: That he is.
ME: The history of
great people has always interested me.
HIM: That I can
believe. This one used to live with a good and honest descendant of
Abraham--the one who was promised he'd be father of the faithful and
they'd be as numerous as the stars.
ME: He lived with a
HIM: With a Jew. He
began by winning the Jew's sympathy and then his good will, and
finally his total confidence. That's how it always goes. We count so
much on the effects of our kindnesses that we rarely hide a secret
from someone we've buried in our good deeds. It's impossible to have
no ungrateful people when we expose men to the temptation of being
ungrateful with impunity. This perceptive idea is one our Jew did
not think about. So he confided to the renegade that he could not in
good conscience eat pork. Now you're going to see the advantages a
creative mind can derive from this confession. A few months went by,
during which our renegade strengthened the bond between them. When
he thought that the Jew was totally won over and truly caught, that
his attentions had completely convinced him that he didn't have a
better friend in all the tribes of Israel...You have to admire the
man's circumspection. He didn't hurry. He lets the pear grow ripe
before he shakes the branch. Too much eagerness could've ruined his
project. Usually greatness of character comes from a natural balance
of several contrasting qualities.
ME: Leave your
reflections and go on with your story.
HIM: That's not
possible. There are days when I have to reflect. It's a sickness
which has to be left to run its course. Where was I?
ME: At the well
established intimacy between the Jew and the renegade.
HIM: So the pear was
ripe...But you're not listening to me. What are you dreaming about?
ME: I'm dreaming
about the unevenness of your style--sometimes lofty, sometimes low.
HIM: Can the style of
a vicious man be unified? He comes one night to the home of his good
friend, with an agitated air, his voice broken, his face pale as
death, trembling in all his limbs. "What's the matter with you?"
"We're lost." "Lost? How?" "Lost, I'm telling you, lost without
hope." "Explain yourself." "Wait a minute until I get over my fear."
"Come on, pull yourself together," the Jew said to him, instead of
saying, "You're an incorrigible scoundrel. I don't know what you
have to tell me, but you're an incorrigible scoundrel. You're
pretending to be terrified."
ME: And why should he
have spoken to him like that?
HIM: Because the man
was a liar and had gone too far. That's clear to me, so don't
interrupt me any more. "We're lost, lost without hope." Don't you
sense the affectation in the repetition of the wordlost? "A
traitor has denounced us to the Holy Inquisition--you as a Jew and
me as a renegade, as a disgusting renegade." Observe how the traitor
was not embarrassed to use the most odious expressions. It requires
more courage than people think to call yourself by your proper name.
You have no idea what it costs to get to that point.
ME: Of course not.
But what about this disgusting renegade...?
HIM: He's a liar, but
it's a really adroit lie. The Jew gets scared. He pulls his beard.
He rolls on the ground. He sees the guard at his door. He sees
himself dressed in the San Benito and his ownauto-da-fe being
prepared. "My friend, my dear friend, my only friend, what do we
do?" "What do we do? You show yourself, you affect the greatest
self-confidence, go on with your business as usual. The procedures
of this tribunal are secret, but slow. You must use the delay to
sell everything. I'll charter a ship or I'll get a third party to do
it--yes, a third party, that'll be better. We'll put your fortune in
it, because it's mainly your fortune they want, and we'll go, you
and I, to seek under another sky the liberty to serve our God and to
follow in safety the law of Abraham and our conscience. The
important point in these perilous circumstances we find ourselves in
is not to do anything imprudent." No sooner said that done. The ship
is chartered, loaded with provisions and sailors. The Jew's fortune
is on board. The next day, at dawn, they're going to set sail. They
can dine happily and sleep soundly. The next day, they'll escape
their persecutors. During the night the renegade gets up, steals the
Jew's wallet, his purse, and his jewels, goes on board, and sails
away. And you think that's all there is to it? If so, you haven't
got the point. When I was told this story, I guessed what I haven't
yet told you, to test your intelligence. You've done well to be a
respectable man--you wouldn't have been anything but a petty rogue.
And up to this point, the renegade has been only that--a miserable
wretch whom no one would want to be like. But the supreme part of
his wickedness is that he had himself denounced his good friend the
Israelite. The Holy Inquisition seized him when he got up and, some
days later, turned him into a fine bonfire. That's how the renegade
became the peaceful possessor of the fortune of this cursed
descendant of those who crucified Our Saviour.
ME: I don't know
which gives me greater horror--the evil of your renegade or your
style of speaking about him.
HIM: That's the very
thing I was telling you. The atrocity of the action takes you beyond
contempt, and that's the reason why I'm so sincere. I wanted you to
understand how I excelled in my art and to pull out of you the
admission that I was at least original in my degradation. I wanted
to give you the idea that I belonged in the line of great scoundrels
and then to shout to myself, "Vivat Mascarillus, fourbum
imperator!" ["Long live Mascarillus, emperor of the rogues"]
Come, Mr. Philosopher, sing along, "Vivat Mascarillus, fourbum
At that point he began to
sing a really extraordinary fugue. Sometimes the melody was serious
and full of majesty; sometimes light and playful. At one moment he
imitated the bass, at another one of the upper parts. He indicated
to me with his outstretched arms and neck the places with held notes
and performed and made up on his own a song of triumph. It showed
that he knew more about good music than about good habits.
As for me, I didn't know if
I ought to remain or run away, to laugh or grow indignant. I stayed,
intending to steer the conversation onto some subject which would
rid my soul of the horror filling it. I was starting to find it
difficult to endure the presence of a man who talked about a
horrible action, a hideous crime, like a connoisseur of painting or
poetry examining the beauties of a tasteful work or like a moralist
or historian selecting and emphasizing the circumstances of a heroic
action. I became gloomy, in spite of myself. He noticed that and
spoke to me.
HIM: What's the
matter? Are you feeling ill?
ME: A little. But it
HIM: You have the
worried look of a man upset about some distressing idea.
ME: That's it.
After a moment of silence on
his part and mine, during which he walked around whistling and
singing, to get him back to his talent I said to him: "What are you
doing at present?"
ME: That very tiring.
HIM: I was already
stupid enough. Then I went to hear the music of Duni and other young
composers, and that finished me off.
ME: So you approve of
this style of music?
HIM: No doubt.
ME: You find beauty
in these new melodies?
HIM: My God, do I
find beauty in them? I'll say I do. What declamation! What truth!
ME: Every art of
imitation has its model in nature. What's the musician's model when
he writes a tune?
HIM: Why not tackle
the issue at a higher level? What's a melody?
ME: I confess to you
that this question is beyond my capabilities. In that we're all
alike. In our memory we have only words which we think we understand
from our frequent use of them and even the correct way we apply
them. But in our minds they are only vague notions. When I say the
word "melody," I don't have ideas any clearer than yours or those of
the majority of people like you when they say "reputation," "blame,"
"honour," "vice," "virtue," "modesty," "decency," "shame,"
HIM: A melody is an
imitation using the sounds of a scale invented by art or inspired by
nature, whichever you like, either with the voice or with an
instrument, an imitation of the physical sounds or accents of
passion. You see that, by changing some things in this definition,
it would fit exactly a definition of painting, oratory, sculpture,
and poetry. Now, to get to your question. What's the musician's
model or the model of a melody? It's declamation, if the model is
alive and thinking; it's noise, if the model is inanimate. You must
think of declamation as a line, and the melody as another line which
winds along the first. The more this declamation, the basis of the
melody, is strong and true, the more the melody which matches it
will intersect it in a greater number of points. And the truer the
melody, the more beautiful it will be. That's something our young
musicians have understood really well. When one hears Je suis un
pauvre diable, one thinks one can recognize the sad cry of a
miser. If he wasn't singing, he would speak to the earth in the same
tones when he entrusts his gold to it, saying, O terre, reçois
mon trésor. And that little girl who feels her heart beating,
who blushes, who's confused, and who begs the gentleman to let her
go--would she express herself any differently? In these works there
are all sorts of characters, an infinite variety of declamations.
That's sublime--I'm the one telling you this. Go on, go on and
listen to the piece where the young man who feels himself dying,
cries out, Mon coeur s'en va. Listen to the song. Listen to
the instrumental accompaniment, and then tell me what difference
there is between the real actions of a man who's dying and the form
of the melody. You'll see whether the line of the melody coincides
completely with the line of the declamation or not. I'm not going to
talk to you about measure, which is another condition of melody. I'm
confining myself to the expression, and there is nothing more
obvious than the following passage which I read somewhere--musices
seminarium accentus. Accent is the breeding ground of melody.
Judge from that just how difficult and how important it is to know
how to deal with recitative well. There is no fine tune from which
one cannot make a fine recitative, and no fine recitative from which
a expert cannot derive a fine tune. I wouldn't want to guarantee
that someone who recites well will also sing well, but I would be
surprised if a person who sings well didn't know how to recite well.
And you should believe everything I've said about this, because it's
ME: I'd like nothing
better than to believe you, if I were not held back by one small
HIM: And this
ME: Well, it's
this--if this music is sublime, then the music of Lully, Campra,
Destouches, Mouret, and even, just between us, your dear uncle must
be a little dull.
HIM: [coming close
and whispering in my ear] I don't wish to be overheard, for
there are plenty of people who know me around here. But their music
is dull. It's not that I concern myself much about my dear uncle, if
he's "dear" at all. He's a stone. He could look at me with my tongue
hanging out a foot and he wouldn't give me a glass of water. But
he's done well with the octave, with the seventh--tra la la, rum ti
tum, too de loo--with a devilish noise. Still, those who are
beginning to understand these things and who'll no longer accept
this fussing about for music will never put up with that. There
should be a police order forbidding anyone, no matter what their
quality or condition, from having Pergolesi's Stabat sung.
This Stabat should have been burned by the public hangman. My
God, these damned Buffons [Italian writers of light opera],
with their Servante Maîtresse and their Tracollo have
given us a real kick in the ass. Previously a Tancrède, an
Issé, a Europe galante, les Indes, Castor,
and the Talents lyriques ran for four, five or six months.
Performances of Armide went on for ever. Nowadays they fall
down around each other, like a house of cards. And Rebel and
Francoeur throw fuel on the flames, saying everything is lost,
they're ruined, if people tolerate any longer this singing rabble
from the circus our national music will go to the devil, and the
Royal Academy in the cul-de-sac will have to close up shop. There's
some truth in that. The old wigs who have been coming there for
thirty or forty years every Friday, instead of enjoying themselves
the way they used to in the past, are getting bored and yawning,
without knowing why. They ask themselves the question but have no
idea how to answer. Why don't they ask me? Duni's prediction will
come true, and the way things are going, I'll eat my hat if, in four
or five years after Le Peintre amoureux de son Modèle,
there's a cat left to kick in the celebrated Impasse. Those good
people, they've turned their backs on their own symphonies to play
Italian symphonies. They thought they could train their ears for
these without having any effect on their own vocal music, as if,
except for the greater freedom afforded by the reach of the
instrument and the mobility of the fingers, the symphony was not
related to singing as singing is to real declamation. As if the
violin were not the mimic of the singer, who one day will become the
imitator of the violin, when what's difficult takes the place of
what's beautiful. The first musician who played Locatelli was the
apostle of the new music. That's so typical! We'll get accustomed to
the imitation of the accents of passion or of natural phenomena by
melody and voice, by instruments, because that's the whole extent
and purpose of music. And will we retain our taste for robbery,
lances, glories, triumphs, and victories? "Go and see if they
come, Jean." They imagined that they would laugh or cry at
scenes from tragedy or comedy set to music, that the accents of
fury, hate, jealousy, the true sorrows of love, the ironies, the
jokes of the Italian or French theatre could be presented to their
ears and they'd remain admirers of Ragonde and Platée.
I tell you in reply taradiddle, boom boom. Even if they sensed,
without interruption, with what ease, what flexibility, what
tenderness the harmony, prosody, ellipses, and inversions of the
Italian language lend themselves to art, movement, expression, turns
of melody, and the measured value of sounds, they'd still remain
ignorant of how their music is stiff, dead, heavy, ungainly,
pedantic, and monotonous. Yes, yes. They've persuaded themselves
that after having mixed their tears in with the crying of a mother
who is desolated over the death of her son, after having trembled at
the orders of a tyrant commanding a murder, they wouldn't be bored
with their fairy land, their insipid mythology, their sugary little
madrigals which display the bad taste of the poet as much as the
poverty of the art which puts up with them. Such good people! It's
not so and can't be. The true, the good, and the beautiful have
their rights. One may argue with them, but in the end one admires
them. What doesn't bear their stamp people admire for a while, but
they end up by yawning. So yawn away, gentlemen, yawn to your
heart's content. Don't be embarrassed. The gates of hell will never
prevail against the imperial power of nature and my trinity. The
true establishes itself gently--it's the father and gives birth to
the good, who is the son, and from him comes the beautiful, which is
the Holy Ghost. The strange god sets himself up humbly on the altar
beside the idol of the country. Gradually, it gets stronger. One
fine day it nudges its comrade with an elbow, and, bang crash, the
idol is on the floor. They say that's how the Jesuits planted
Christianity in China and India. And these Jansenists can say
whatever they please, but the political method which marches towards
its goal quietly, without bloodshed, without martyrs, without a
single tuft of hair being cut off, seems to me the best.
ME: There's some
reason in everything you've just said.
HIM: Reason! So much
the better. The devil take me if I've been trying to be reasonable.
It just comes out somehow or other. I'm like the musicians at the
Impasse when my uncle appeared. If I speak well it's because a boy
from a coal mine will always speak better of his trade than an
entire academy and all the Duhamels of this world.
And then there he goes
walking around, humming some tunes froml'Ile des Fous,
Peintre amoureux de son Modèle, Maréchal-ferrant, and
Plaideuse. From time to time he lifted his hand and eyes to the
sky and cried out. "Isn't that beautiful, by God? Isn't it
beautiful? How could anyone have a pair of ears on his head and even
raise such a question?" He began to get worked up and to sing very
softly. As he grew even more impassioned, he raised his voice, and
then there followed gestures, facial grimaces, and bodily
contortions. I say, "All right, there he is off his head, getting
some new scene ready." Then, in fact, he set off with a loud shout,
"I am a poor wretch...Monseigneur, Monseigneur, let me go...O
earth, take my gold. Keep my treasure safe...My soul, my soul, my
life, O earth!...There it is, my little friend. There's my little
friend! Aspettare e non venire...A Zerbina penserete...Sempre in
contrasti con te si sta..." He crammed together and jumbled up
together thirty songs--Italian, French, tragic, comic--in all sorts
of different styles. Sometimes in a bass voice he went down all the
way to hell, and sometimes he'd feign a falsetto and sing at the top
of his voice, tearing into the high points of some songs, imitating
the walk, deportment, gestures of the different singing characters,
by turns furious, soft, imperious, sniggering. At one point, he's a
young girl crying--portraying all her mannerisms--at another point
he's a priest, he's a king, he's a tyrant--he threatens, commands,
loses his temper. He's a slave. He obeys. He calms down, he laments,
he complains, he laughs--never straying from the tone, rhythm, or
sense of the words or the character of the song.
All the men pushing wood had
left their chess boards and gathered around him. The windows of the
café were filled up on the outside by passers-by who'd been stopped
by the sound. People gave out bursts of laughter strong enough to
break open the ceiling. But he didn't notice a thing. He continued,
in the grip of some mental fit, of an enthusiasm so closely related
to madness that it's uncertain whether he'll come out of it. It
might be necessary to throw him into a cab and take him straight to
the lunatic asylum. As he was singing snatches from Lamentations
by Jomelli, he brought out the most beautiful parts of each piece
with precision, truth, and an incredible warmth. That beautiful
recitative in which the prophet describes the desolation of
Jerusalem he bathed in a flood of tears which brought tears to
everyone's eyes. Everything was there--the delicacy of the song, the
force of expression, the sorrow. He stressed those places where the
composer had particularly demonstrated his great mastery. If he
stopped the singing part, it was to take up the part of the
instruments, which he left suddenly to return to the vocals, moving
from one to the other in such a way as to maintain the connections
and the overall unity, taking hold of our souls and keeping them
suspended in the most unusual situation which I've ever experienced.
Did I admire him? Oh yes, I admired him! Was I touched with pity? I
was touched with pity. But a tinge of ridicule was mixed in with
these feelings and spoiled them.
But you would've burst out
laughing at the way in which he imitated the different instruments.
With his cheeks swollen, all puffed out, and with harsh, dark sounds
he delivered the horns and bassoons. For the oboes he produced a
shrill nasal tone, and then accelerated his voice with an amazing
speed for the stringed instruments, trying to find the best
approximations for their sounds. He whistled for the piccolos,
warbled for the flutes, shouting, singing, carrying on like a
maniac, acting out, by himself, the male and female dancers and
singers, an entire orchestra, the whole musical company, dividing
himself into twenty different roles, running, stopping, looking like
a man possessed, frothing at the mouth. It was stiflingly hot, and
the sweat running down the wrinkles in his forehead and down the
length of his cheeks mixed in with the powder in his hair came down
in streaks and lined the top of his coat. What didn't I see him do?
He cried, he laughed, he sighed, he looked tender or calm or
angry--a woman who was swooning in grief, an unhappy man left in
total despair, a temple being built, birds calming down at sunset,
waters either murmuring in a cool lonely place or descending in a
torrent from the high mountains, a storm, a tempest, the cries of
those who are going to die intermingled with the whistling winds,
the bursts of thunder, the night, with its shadows--silent and
dark--for sounds do depict even silence.
His mind was completely
gone. Worn out with fatigue and looking like a man coming out of a
deep sleep or a long trance, he stayed motionless, dazed,
astonished. He directed his gaze around him, like someone disturbed
who's trying to recognize where is. He was waiting for his energy
and his spirit to return. Mechanically he wiped his face. Like
someone who wakes up to see a large number of people surrounding his
bed, totally forgetful of or profoundly ignorant about what's
happened. He first cried out, "Well then, gentlemen, what's going
on? Why are you laughing? What's so surprising? What's happening?"
Then he added, "Now that's what people should call music and a
musician. However, gentlemen, we should not deprecate certain pieces
of Lully. I defy anyone to improve on the scene 'Ah! j'attendrai'
without changing the words. We should not criticize some places in
Campra, the violin pieces of my uncle, his gavottes, his entries for
soldiers, priests, those carrying out the sacrifice...."Pale
torches, a night more frightening than shadows...God of
Tartarus, God of Oblivion." At that point, his voice grew loud,
he sustained the sounds. The neighbours came to their windows, and
we stuffed our fingers in our ears. He added, "Here's where we need
lungs, a great organ, plenty of air. But before long it will be time
to say yours sincerely good bye to Assumption, Lent, and Epiphany.
They still don't know what needs to be set to music and thus what's
appropriate for a composer. Lyric poetry has yet to be born. But
they'll get there, by hearing Pergolisi, the Saxon, Terradoglias,
Trasetta and the rest--by reading Metastasio they'll have to get
ME: So Quinault, La
Motte, and Fontenelle didn't understand any of that?
HIM: Not for the new
style. There aren't six consecutive lines in all their charming
poems which can be set to music. There are ingenious sentences,
light madrigals, tender and delicate, but if you want to see how
that's a barren resource for our art, which is the most demanding of
all--and I don't except the art of Demosthenes--get someone to
recite these pieces. You'll find them so cold, listless, and
monotonous. There's nothing there which could serve as the basis for
a melody. I'd sooner have La Rochefoucauld's Maxims or
Pascal's Pensées set to music. The cry of animal passion
should dictate the line which suits us. The expressive passages must
follow each other closely. The phrasing must be brief, the sense cut
off, suspended, so the musician can use the whole piece and each of
its parts, leaving out a word or repeating it, adding a missing
word, turning and re-turning it, like a polyp, without destroying
it--all that makes French lyric poetry much harder than is the case
with languages with inversions which in themselves offer all these
advantages. "Cruel barbarian, plunge your dagger in my breast.
Here I am ready to receive the fatal blow! Strike. Dare....Oh, I
faint, I die....A secret fire lights up my senses....Cruel love,
what do you want with me...Leave me to the sweet peace I enjoyed...
Give me my reason...." The passions must be strong. The
tenderness of the composer and the poet should be extreme. The aria
is almost always the peroration for the scene. We have to have
exclamations, interjections, suspensions, interruptions,
affirmations, negations--we call, we invoke, we cry out, we groan,
we cry, we laugh openly. No wit, no epigrams, none of these neatly
crafted thoughts. That's too far from simple nature. And don't go on
thinking that the role playing of theatrical actors and their
declamation can serve us as models. Bah! We need something more
energetic, less mannered, more true. The straightforward language
and common voice of passion are all the more necessary for us
because our language is more monotonous and less stressed. The cry
of an animal or a man in passion will provide them.
While he was saying these
things to me, the crowd which had surrounded us had moved away,
either because they couldn't hear anything or were taking less
interest in what he was saying. For in general human beings, like
children, prefer to be amused than to be instructed. They'd gone
back, each to his game, and we remained alone in our corner. Seated
on a bench with his head leaning against the wall, his arms hanging
down, and his eyes half-closed, he said to me, "I don't know what's
the matter with me. When I came here, I was fresh and in good form.
And now, here I am beaten up and shattered, as if I'd hiked thirty
miles. Something came over me all of a sudden."
ME: Would you like
HIM: Yes, I'd like
that. I feel hoarse. I haven't got any energy, and my chest hurts a
bit. It happens to me almost every day, just like that--I've no idea
ME: What would you
HIM: Whatever you
like. I'm not hard to please. Poverty has taught me to adjust to
They served us some beer and
lemonade. He fills a large glass and drains it two or three times,
one after the other. Then, like a man with renewed energy he coughs,
moves around, and starts again.
"But in your view, my Master
Philosopher, isn't it something really odd that a foreigner, an
Italian, a Duni, should come to teach us how to use accents in our
music, to adapt our melodies to all the movements, measures,
intervals, all the forms of speech, without hurting our prosody? And
yet it wasn't all that difficult to do, not like drinking the sea.
Anyone who'd ever heard a beggar asking for a hand out in the
street, a man carried away by anger, a jealous and furious woman, a
despairing lover, a flatterer, yes, a flatterer, softening his
voice, drawing out his syllables in a voice like honey--in short,
anyone who'd ever heard passion of some sort or other, provided that
its energy made it worthy of serving as a model for a composer,
should have recognized two things: first, that the syllables, long
or short, have no fixed length, nor even a set relationship between
their lengths and, second, that passion uses prosody almost as it
likes--it can work across the greatest intervals. A man who cries
out in the depths of his grief, 'Ah, what an unhappy creature I am,'
lifts the opening syllable of exclamation to the highest and
shrillest note and brings the others down to the most solemn and low
notes, going through the octave or an even greater interval, giving
to each sound the quantity which suits the turn of the melody,
without offending the ear, and without either the long or the short
syllables maintaining the length or brevity of normal speech. How
far we've come since the time when we used to point to the
parenthetical comments in Armide --"The conqueror of Renaud,
if anyone can be"--or "Obey, don't hesitate" from Indes galantes--as
amazing moments of musical expression! Right now these amazing
moments make me shrug my shoulders with pity. The way art is
improving, I don't know where it'll end up. So while we're waiting,
let's have another drink."
He had two or three more
drinks, without knowing what he was doing. He was going to drown
himself without realizing it, as if he was totally exhausted, if I
hadn't moved the bottle, which he kept looking for absent mindedly.
Then I spoke to him.
ME: How is it that
with such fine discrimination and such a strong sensibility for the
beauties of musical art, you are also blind to the beautiful things
in morality and equally insensible to the charms of virtue?
HIM: I suppose it's
because there's a sense for some things which I lack, a fibre which
I wasn't given, a loose fibre which one can pluck firmly but which
will not vibrate, or perhaps it's because I've always lived among
good musicians and bad people, so that it's made my ear become very
refined and my heart deaf. And then there was something about
heredity. My father's blood and my uncle's blood are the same. My
blood is the same as my father's. My paternal molecule was hard and
stubborn, and this damned first molecule has swallowed up the rest.
ME: Do you love your
HIM: Do I love the
little savage? I'm crazy about him.
ME: Are you seriously
concerned about stopping the effects in him of this damned paternal
HIM: I've been
working on it--but without much effect, I think. If he's destined to
become a good man, I won't do him any injury. But if the molecule
wants him to become a scoundrel like his father, the troubles I've
taken to make him a decent man could be very harmful. Education
would work against the tendency of the molecule, and he'd be pulled
apart, as if by two opposing forces, and would stagger all over the
place along the road of life, as I seen in countless people, equally
awkward in doing good or bad. Those are the ones we call
"types"--which is the most frightening of all labels, because it
indicates mediocrity and the final degree of contempt. A great
scoundrel is a great scoundrel, but he's not a type. It would
require an enormous length of time before the paternal molecule
could reassert its mastery and take him to the state of perfect
debasement where I am. He'd lose his best years. So I'm doing
nothing about it at the moment. I'll let him come along. I'll keep
my eye on him. He is already greedy, glib--a lazy thief and a liar.
I'm afraid he's true to his heredity.
ME: Why not make a
musician of him, so he'll be just like you?
HIM: A musician! A
musician! Sometimes I look at him and grind my teeth, telling him,
"If you ever learn a single note, I believe I'll wring your neck."
ME: And why on earth
would you do that?
HIM: It doesn't lead
ME: It leads to
HIM: Yes, when one
excels, but who can promise himself that his child will excel? The
odds are ten thousand to one that he'll be nothing but an unhappy
scraper of strings, like me. You know, it would probably be easier
to find a child suited to govern a kingdom, to make a great king,
than one to make a great violin player.
ME: It seems to me
that agreeable talents, even mediocre ones, among a people without
morals, lost in debauchery and luxury, would enable a man to advance
rapidly along the road to fortune. I myself once heard the following
conversation between some sort of patron and a kind of protégé. The
latter had been recommended to the former as a pleasant man who
could be of service to him. "Sir, what do you know?" "I know
mathematics passably well." "All right, but after you've taught
mathematics ten or twelve years you'll be covered with mud from the
streets of Paris and you'll be entitled to an income of between
three and four hundred pounds." "I've studied our laws, and I'm well
versed in our legal system." "If Puffendorf and Grotius were to
return to earth, they'd die of hunger beside some road marker." "I
know a lot about history and geography." "If there were parents
who'd set their hearts on a good education for their children, your
fortune would be made, but there are none." "I am a competent
musician." "Well, why didn't you say so right away. Just to show you
what you can gain from such a talent, I have a daughter. Come around
every day between seven and seven-thirty in the evening until nine.
You'll give her lessons, and I'll give you twenty-five louis per
year. You'll have breakfast, lunch, and dinner with us. The rest of
the day will belong to you. You can do with it whatever works to
HIM: And what became
of this man?
ME: If he'd been
wise, he'd have made a fortune, which is the only thing you seem to
HIM: No doubt. Gold,
some gold. Gold is everything, and the rest, without gold, is
nothing. So instead of cramming his head with fine maxims which he'd
have to forget or else be nothing but a beggar, whenever I have a
louis, which isn't often, I stand in front of him. I pull the louis
out of my pocket. I show it to him with admiration. I raise my eyes
to the ceiling. I kiss the louis right in front of him. And to make
him understand even better the importance of this sacred coin, I
stammer out the words, I point out to him with my finger everything
one can acquire with this coin--a fine frock, a pretty hat, a tasty
biscuit. Then I put the louis in my pocket. I walk around with
pride. I lift up my coattails and strike my hand against my fob
pocket, to make him understand that it's the coin in there that
gives rise to the self-assurance he sees in me.
ME: One could do no
better. What if it happens one day that, deeply impressed with the
value of the louis...
HIM: I see where
you're going. One has to close one's eyes to that.. There is no
principle of morality which doesn't have some inconvenience. At the
worst, one has a bad fifteen minutes, and then it's all over.
ME: Even after such
courageous and such wise opinions, I continue to think that it would
be good to make him a musician. I'd don't know any way one can get
close to important people more quickly, pander to their vices, and
make a profit from one's own.
HIM: It's true, but I
have plans for a faster and more assured success. Oh, if the child
were only a daughter! But since we can't do what we want, we have to
take what comes and get the best we can from that. And for that, one
shouldn't be stupid, like most fathers who give a Spartan education
to a child destined to live in Paris. They couldn't do any worse if
they were intending to make their children unhappy. If education is
poor, it's the fault of my country's customs, not mine. Whoever's
responsible, I want my son to be happy or, what amounts to the same
thing, honoured, rich, and powerful. I know a few of the easiest
ways to arrive at this goal, and I'll teach him those early on. If
you criticize me, you wise men, the mob and my child's success will
absolve me. He'll have gold--I assure you--and if he has a lot of
that, he won't lack anything, not even your estimation and respect.
ME: You could be
HIM: Well then, he'll
go without, like plenty of other people.
In everything he said there
were so many things one thinks about and acts upon but which one
does not say. And, to tell you the truth, that's the most remarkable
difference between my man and most of those around us. He admitted
the vices he had, which are those other men possess, but he wasn't a
hypocrite. He was neither more nor less abominable than they were.
He was only more candid, more consistent, and sometimes more
profound in his depravity. I trembled to think what his child could
become with a teacher like him. It's certain that after educational
ideas so strictly tailored to our morality, he would go far, unless
he was prematurely stopped along the way.
HIM: Come now, you
needn't be afraid. The important point, the difficult point which a
father has to attend to above all is not so much to give his child
vices that will make him wealthy or foolish behaviour that will make
him valuable to great people--everyone does that, if not
systematically, as I do, at least by example and in lessons--but to
give him a sense of proportion, the art of dodging shame, dishonour,
and the law. Those are dissonances in the social harmony which he
must know how to set up, prepare, and resolve. Nothing is so insipid
as a sequence of perfect chords. There has to be something which
acts as a spur, which breaks up the light and scatters its rays.
ME: That's very good.
With this comparison you bring me back from morality to music, which
I'd strayed from in spite of myself. I thank you for that, for, to
be perfectly frank with you, I like you better as a musician than as
HIM: But I'm very
second-rate in music and much better as a moralist.
ME: I doubt it, but
even if that were true, I'm a good man, and your principles are not
the same as mine.
HIM: So much the
worse for you. Ah, if I only had your talents.
ME: Leave my talents
out of it. Let's get back to yours.
HIM: If only I knew
how to express myself like you. But my way of speaking is such a
devilish mixture--half from the people of the literary world, half
from the street market.
ME: I speak badly. I
only know how to speak the truth, and that's not always welcome, as
HIM: But I envy your
talent not because I want to speak the truth but in order to tell
lies well. If I could write, do up a book, turn out a dedicatory
epistle, intoxicate a fool with his own merit, insinuate myself
close to women.
ME: In all that
you're a thousand times more capable than I am. I wouldn't even be
worthy to be your pupil.
HIM: How many great
qualities wasted. And you aren't even aware of their value.
ME: I collect back
everything I put into them.
HIM: If that were the
case, you wouldn't have this coarse coat, this muslin vest, these
wool socks, these thick shoes, and this ancient wig.
ME: I agree. One must
be very inept if one is not rich after stopping at nothing to become
wealthy. But the fact is there are people like me who do not
consider riches the most precious thing in the world--strange
HIM: Very odd. We
aren't born with this frame of mind. One has to acquire it, because
it's not natural.
ME: Not natural to
HIM: No, not to men.
Everything living, including human beings, seeks benefits for itself
at the expense of whoever they belong to. And I'm sure that if I
left the little savage to go his own way, without speaking to him
about anything, he'd want to be richly clothed, splendidly fed,
liked by men, and adored by women, and would like to gather round
him all the fine things of life.
ME: If the little
savage were left to himself so that he retained all his imbecility,
uniting the little reason possessed by a child in the cradle with
the passionate violence in a man thirty years old, he'd wring his
father's neck and sleep with his mother.
HIM: That proves the
need for a good education. Who'll argue about that? And what's a
fine education if not one which leads to all sorts of pleasures,
without danger and without inconvenience?
ME: I almost share
you opinion, but let's not explore that.
HIM: Why not?
ME: Well, I'm afraid
we may only appear to agree and, if we once enter into a discussion
of the dangers and the difficulties which need to be avoided, we
won't agree any more.
HIM: And what's the
problem with that?
ME: Let's leave it,
I'm telling you. For I know I could never teach you about these
things and it's much easier for you to teach me about music--things
I don't understand and you do. Dear Rameau, let's talk music. Tell
me how it comes about that with your ability to feel, to remember
and deliver the finest passages of the grand masters with the
enthusiasm which inspires you and which you transmit to others,
you've done nothing worth anything.
Instead of answering me, he
began to shake his head. Then, raising his finger to the sky he
added, "The star! My star! When nature made Leo, Vinci, Pergolese,
and Duni, she smiled. She assumed an imposing and serious expression
when she formed my dear uncle Rameau, whom people will call the
Great Rameau for ten years and then, in a little while, won't
mention any more. When nature did up his nephew, she made grimace
after grimace, and then grimaced again." While he uttered these
words, he made all sorts of faces--disgust, disdain, irony--and he
seemed to be kneading in his fingers a piece of dough and smiling at
the ridiculous shapes he made with it. This done, he threw the
misshapen idol far away from him and said, "That's how nature made
me and threw me away, alongside other idols, some with shriveled
stomachs, short necks, huge eyes outside their heads, apoplectic,
others with wry necks, wizened, with a vibrant eye and a hooked
nose. All of them started to laugh when they saw me. And I put my
two fists against my sides and exploded with laughter when I saw
them, for fools and madmen amuse each other. They seek each other
out. They attract each other. If, on my arrival here, I hadn't found
ready made the proverb which says "A fool's money is the inheritance
of a man with brains" I'd have invented it. I felt that nature had
put what was legitimately mine into the safe keeping of these idols,
so I devised thousands of ways of getting it back for myself.
ME: I know these
methods. You've told me about them, and I admired them a lot. But
with such resources, why haven't you attempted creating a fine work
HIM: That's what a
man of the world said to Abbé Le Blanc....The abbé replied, "The
Marquise of Pompadour takes me by the hand, leads me right to the
threshold of the Academy, and there she removes her hand. I fall
down and break both my legs." The man of the world answered him,
"All right, abbé, you must get up and bash in the door with your
head." The abbé replied, "That what I tried to do, and do you know
what happened to me? I got a bump on my forehead."
After this little story, my
man began to move around with his head held down and a pensive and
demoralized expression. He sighed and wept. He was upset. Raising
his hands and his eyes, he banged his head with his fist, hard
enough to break his forehead or his fingers, and he added, "It seems
to me that there could be something in there, but no matter how hard
I knock or shake it, nothing emerges." Then he began shaking his
head and hitting his forehead again even more firmly, saying,
"Either no one is in there or they won't answer."
A moment later, he took on a
proud attitude. He raised his head, laid his right hand over his
heart, walked along and said, "I feel. Yes, I do feel.." He imitated
for me a man who was getting annoyed, who was indignant, who was
feeling moved, who was issuing orders, who was begging. He
improvised speeches of anger, sympathy, hatred, love. He sketched
out passionate characters with a surprising delicacy and fidelity.
Then he added, "That's it, I think. It's coming along. That's what
it is to find a midwife who knows how to stimulate and bring on the
labour pains and make the child emerge. When I'm alone, I take up my
pen, intending to write. I bite my nails. I wear out my forehead. No
good. Good night. The god is absent. I'd persuaded myself that I had
some genius, but at the end of a line I read that I am a fool, a
fool, a fool. But how does one feel, raise oneself, think, or
describe anything with energy when one hangs out with people like
those it's necessary to see in order to live, in the midst of the
comments one makes and hears and gossip like this, 'Today the
boulevard was charming. Did you hear the little Marmotte? She played
enchantingly. Mr. Someone-or-Other has the most beautiful dappled
grays in harness you could ever imagine. As for lovely Madame
So-and-So, she's beginning to get past it. At the age of forty-five,
does one have one's hair done like that? That young What's-her-name
is covered with diamonds which didn't cost her much.' 'You mean to
say which cost her a lot?' 'Not at all.' 'Where did you see her?'
'At L'Enfant d'Arlequin perdu et retrouvé. The scene of
despair was acted out as never before. The Punch at the fair can
really shout but has no finesse, no soul. Madame Such-and-Such has
given birth to two children at once. Each father will have his own.'
Do you think stuff like that spoken, repeated, and heard every day
inspires and leads to great things?"
ME: No. It would be
more worthwhile to shut yourself up in your attic, drink water, eat
dry bread, and find your real self.
HIM: Perhaps. But I
don't have the courage for that. And then to sacrifice one's
happiness for an uncertain success. And what about the name I carry?
Rameau! To be called Rameau--that's embarrassing. Talent is not like
nobility which can be passed on and whose lustre increases as it
goes from grandfather to father, from father to son, from son to
grandson, without the grandparent requiring his descendant to have
any merit. The old stock branches out into an enormous line of
fools, but who cares? It's not like that with talent. In order to
acquire nothing more than the reputation of one's father, it's
necessary to be more skilled than he is. You have to have inherited
his fibre. I lack the fibre. But my wrist is flexible, the bow
moves, and the pot boils. If it's not glory, well, it's food.
ME: In your place, I
wouldn't assume it's all said and done with. I'd make an attempt.
HIM: And you think I
haven't tried. I wasn't fifteen years old when I first said to
myself, "What are you up to, Rameau? You're dreaming. And what are
you dreaming about? That you'd like to have done or do something
which excites the admiration of the universe. Well, then, you just
have to blow on your fingers and wiggle them. Just get started, and
you'll be there." At a more advanced age, I repeated what I'd said
to myself in my childhood. Today, I'm still repeating it, and I'm
standing by the statue of Memnon.
ME: What do you mean
talking about the statue of Memnon?
HIM: That's obvious
enough, it seems to me. Around the statue of Memnon there were
numberless other statues which the sun's rays struck just as much,
but Memnon's statue was the only one which produced a sound. Who's a
poet? Well, there's Voltaire. And who else? Voltaire. And a third?
Voltaire. And a fourth? Voltaire. And musicians? There's Rinaldo da
Capoua, Hasse, Pergolese, Alberti, Tartinin, Locatelli, Terradoglias;
there's my uncle, and little Duni who's nothing to look at, no
figure, but who feels, my God, who has melody and expression. The
others around this small number of Memnons are just so many pairs of
ears stuck on the end of sticks. And we're beggars, so poor it's a
miracle. Oh, Mister Philosopher, poverty is a terrible thing. I see
her crouching there, with her mouth gaping open to receive a few
drops of icy cold water dripping from the barrel of the Danaids. I
don't know if she sharpens the mind of the philosopher, but she has
a devilish way of cooling off the head of a poet. People don't sing
well under this barrel. The man who can get himself under it is only
too lucky. I was there, and I didn't know how to keep my place. I'd
already done that stupid thing once before. I'd been traveling in
Bohemia, Germany, Switzerland, Holland, Flanders, all over the
ME: Under the leaky
HIM: Under the leaky
barrel. The man was a rich Jew who was happy to splash his money
around. He liked music and my silly jokes. I played music--just the
way that made God happy--and I played the fool. I didn't lack
anything. My Jew was a man who understood his law and who observed
it strictly in every detail, sometimes with a friend, always with
strangers. He got himself in bad trouble which I must tell you
about, because it's amusing. In Utrecht there was a charming
prostitute. He was attracted to this Christian and sent her a
messenger with quite a large letter of credit. The strange creature
rejected his offer. The Jew grew desperate. The messenger told him,
"Why are you so upset by this? You want to sleep with a good-looking
woman. Nothing is easier, even to sleep with one more beautiful than
the one you're chasing. That's my wife. I'll let you have her for
the same price." No sooner said than done. The messenger keeps the
letter of credit, and my Jew sleeps with the messenger's wife. The
due date for the letter of credit arrives. The Jew allows the letter
to be challenged and disputes its validity. A trial. The Jew tells
himself, "The man will never dare to reveal what right he has to
possess my letter, and I'll not have to pay him." At the hearing, he
interrogates the messenger, "This letter of credit, who did you get
it from?" "From you." "Is it for a loan?" "No." "Is it for the sale
of merchandise?" "No." "Is it for services rendered?" "No, but
that's not the point. I'm in possession of the letter. You signed
it, and you can discharge it." "I didn't sign it." "So then I'm a
forger?" "You or someone else who you're acting for." "I'm a coward,
but you're a scoundrel. Believe me, don't push me to the limit. I'll
tell everything. I'll dishonour myself, but I'll sink you." The Jew
paid no attention to the threat, and at the next hearing the
messenger revealed the entire affair. They were both reprimanded,
and the Jew was condemned to pay off the letter of credit, and the
money was applied to the relief of the poor. At that point I left
him, and came back here. What was I to do? I had to do something or
die of poverty. All sorts of plans went through my head. One day, I
was going to leave tomorrow to join up with a troupe traveling
through the provinces--I'd be equally good or bad in the theatre or
in the orchestra. The next day, I was dreaming of getting someone to
paint for me one of those pictures attached to a pole which people
set up in a public crossroad, where I'd have shouted my head off,
"There's the town where he was born. Here he is leaving his father
the apothecary. Here he is arriving in the capital, looking for his
uncle's residence. Here he is on his knees before his uncle, who is
chasing him away. Here he is with a Jew," and so on and so on. The
next day, I'd get up firmly resolved to join up with the street
singers. That's not the worst thing I could've done. We could've
gone to give a concert under my dear uncle's windows. He'd have
collapsed with rage. But I chose something else.
At that point he stopped and
assumed, in succession, the pose of a man who's holding a violin,
turning his arms to tighten the strings, and then the pose of a poor
devil worn out with exhaustion, with no energy, whose limbs wobbled,
ready to die if someone didn't throw him a piece of bread. He showed
his extreme need with the gesture of a finger pointing towards his
half open mouth. Then he added, "You see what I mean. They'd toss me
the loaf, and three or four of us, all famished, would fight over
it. So go on, then--think grand thoughts, create beautiful things in
an environment of such distress."
ME: That's difficult.
HIM: From one tumble
to the next--I fell into that job. I was in clover. Now I've left
it. Now I have to scrape the gut once again, and come back to that
gesture with my finger pointing towards my gaping mouth. Nothing's
very stable in this world. Today at the top of the wheel, tomorrow
at the bottom. Damned circumstances lead us along, and lead us
Then, drinking up what
remained at the bottom of the bottle, he spoke to the man next to
him: "Sir, would you be so good as to give me a pinch of snuff.
That's a lovely box you have there. Are you a musician?" "No." "All
the better for you, for they're poor buggers, a pitiful bunch.
Destiny wanted me to be a musician, while in a mill in Montmartre
there's perhaps a miller or a miller's helper who never listens to
anything but the sound of the ratchet but who'd have made up some
fine songs. Rameau, go to the mill--the mill that's where you
ME: Whatever a man
devotes himself to, nature has destined him for that.
HIM: She makes some
strange blunders. In my case, I'm not looking down from that height
where everything merges into one--where the man who prunes a tree
with cutters and the caterpillar who eats the leaves seem nothing
but two different insects, each doing his own work. Go and perch on
the epicycle of Mercury and from there, like Reamur who classifies
flies into seamstresses, surveyors, and harvesters, you can divide
up the human species into woodworkers, carpenters, roofers, dancers,
singers--whatever you like. I won't get involved in it. I'm in the
world, and I'm staying here. But if it's part of nature to have an
appetite--for it's always appetite I come back to, to the feeling
which is always present in me--I find that it's not part of a good
order if one doesn't always have something to eat. It's a damnable
economy with men who cram themselves with everything while others
whose stomachs are just as demanding as theirs and have a recurring
hunger like theirs have nothing to chew on. The worst thing is the
way our need compels us to a certain posture. The man in need
doesn't walk like another man--he jumps, he grovels, he wriggles, he
crawls. He spends his life taking up and carrying out various
ME: What are these
HIM: Go and ask
Noverre. The world offers many more positions than his art can
ME: So there you are,
too, if I can use your expression or rather Montaigne's, perched on
the epicycle of Mercury, contemplating the different pantomimes of
the human species.
HIM: No, no I'm
telling you. I'm too heavy to raise myself so high. Those misty
regions I leave to the cranes. I move around from one piece of earth
to another. I look around me, and I take up my positions, or I amuse
myself with positions which I have derived from others. I'm an
excellent mimic, as you're going to see.
The he begins to smile, to
imitate a man admiring, begging, obliging. He sets his right foot
forward, his left behind, with his back bent over, his head raised,
with his gaze looking directly into another person's eyes, his mouth
half open, his arms stretched out towards some object. He waits for
his orders. He receives them. He dashes off, comes back. He's done
the job and is giving an account of it. He attends to everything. He
picks up what falls down. He puts a pillow or a footstool under
someone's feet. He holds a saucer. He goes up to a chair. He opens a
door. He closes a window. He pulls the curtains. He observes the
master and mistress. He is immobile, his arms hanging down, his legs
lined up straight. He listens. He seeks to read what's on their
faces. And he continues, "That's my pantomime, almost the same as
what flatterers, prostitutes, valets, and beggars do."
The antics of this man, the
stories of Abbé Galiani, and the extravagances of Rabelais sometimes
force me to me profound reflections. They are three stores where I
have acquired for myself some ridiculous masks which I put over the
faces of the most serious people. I see Pantalon in prelate, a satyr
in a judge, a pig in a monk, an ostrich in a minister, and a goose
in his first deputy.
ME: But by your count
there are lots of beggars in this world, and I don't know anyone who
doesn't do some steps in that dance of yours.
HIM: You're right. In
the entire kingdom, there's only one man who walks. That's the king.
All the rest take up positions.
ME: The king? Isn't
there more to it that that? Don't you think that, from time to time,
he finds beside him a little foot, a little curl, a little nose
which makes him go through a small pantomime? Whoever needs someone
else is a beggar and takes up a position. The king takes up a
position before his mistress and before God. He goes through the
paces of his pantomime. The minister goes through the paces of
prostitute, flatterer, valet, or beggar in front of his king. The
crowds of ambitious people dance your positions in hundreds of ways,
each more vile than the others, in front of the minister. The noble
abbé in his bands of office and his long cloak goes at least once a
week in front of the agent in charge of the list of benefices. My
goodness, what you call the pantomime of beggars is what makes the
earth go round. Everyone has his little Hus and his Bertin.
HIM: That's a great
But while I was speaking, he
was imitating in a killingly funny way the positions of the persons
I was naming. For example, for the little abbé, he held his hat
under his arm and his breviary in his left hand; in his right hand
he lifted up the train of his cloak. He came forward, with his head
a little inclined towards his shoulders, his eyes lowered, imitating
the hypocrite so perfectly that I believed I was looking at the
author of the Refutations appearing before the Bishop of
Orleans. For the flatterers and for the ambitious he crawled along
on his belly--just like Bouret at the Ministry of Finance.
ME: That's done
extremely well. But there's one creature who can do without
pantomime. That's the philosopher who has nothing and who demands
HIM: Where's there an
animal like that? If he has nothing, he suffers. If he's not asking
for anything, he'll get nothing, and he'll be suffering for ever.
ME: No. Diogenes
mocked his needs.
HIM: But we have to
ME: No. He went about
HIM: Sometimes the
weather was cold in Athens.
ME: Less so than
HIM: People eat
ME: No doubt.
HIM: At whose
ME: At nature's.
Where does the savage turn? To the earth, to animals, to fish, to
trees, to grasses, to roots, to streams.
HIM: A bad menu.
ME: It's a big one.
HIM: But badly
ME: Still, it's
nature's table that serves to cover our own.
HIM: But you'll admit
that the work of our cooks, pastry cooks, sellers of roast meats,
caterers, and confectioners adds something of their own to it. With
the austere diet of your Diogenes, it wouldn't do to have organs
that were easily upset.
ME: But you're wrong.
The habits of the cynic were the habits of our monks, with the same
virtue. The cynics were the Carmelites and Cordeliers of Athens.
HIM: I'll take you up
on that. Diogenes also danced his pantomime, if not in front of
Pericles, at least in front of Lais or Phryne.
ME: You're wrong
again. Other people used to pay a prostitute well who gave herself
to him for pleasure.
HIM: But what
happened if the prostitute was busy and the cynic was in a hurry?
ME: He'd go back to
his barrel and manage without her.
HIM: And you're
advising me to imitate Diogenes?
ME: I'll bet my life
it's better than crawling, demeaning and prostituting oneself.
HIM: But I need a
good bed, a fine table, warm clothing in winter, cool clothing in
summer, spare time, money, and lots of other things which I prefer
to owe to charity than to acquire by work.
ME: That's because
you're a good-for-nothing, greedy coward--with a soul of mud.
HIM: I think I've
told you that.
ME: Things in life no
doubt have a price, but you've no idea of the sacrifice you're
making to obtain them. You dance, you have danced, and you'll
continue to dance the vile pantomime.
HIM: It's true. But
it hasn't cost me much and isn't costing me any more for all that.
And that's the reason I'd be making a mistake to take up some other
way of getting along which would bring me grief and which I wouldn't
keep up. But I see from what you've told me that my poor little wife
was a sort of philosopher. She was as brave as a lion. Sometimes we
didn't have any bread or any money. We'd sold just about all our old
clothes. I'd throw myself at the foot of our bed and rack my brains
to find someone who could lend me an écu which I wouldn't repay. She
was as happy as a lark. She'd sit down at her keyboard and accompany
herself while singing. She had a voice like a nightingale. I'm sorry
you never heard her. When I had some concert to go to, I'd take her
with me. On the way I'd say to her, "Come on then, Madame, make them
look up to you. Display your talent and your charm. Up with you.
Knock them out." We'd arrive. She's sing. She'd rise to the occasion
and knock them out. Alas, I lost her, the poor little thing. Apart
from her talent, she had a small mouth, big enough to put your
finger in, her teeth were a row of pears, her eyes, feet, skin,
cheeks, breasts, limbs like a deer, thighs and buttocks all fit for
a sculptor's model. Sooner or later, she'd have had the Farmer
General. What a walk she had, what a rump! Oh God, what a rump!
And there he was starting to
imitate his wife's walk. He took little paces. He held his head
high. He played with a fan. He wiggled his backside. It was the most
agreeable and ridiculous caricature of our little prostitutes.
Then, picking up the thread
of his remarks, he added, "I used to walk with her everywhere--to
the Tuileries, to the Palais Royal, on the Boulevards. It was
impossible that she'd go on living with me. When she crossed the
road in the morning without a hat in a really short skirt you'd have
stopped to look at her. And you could've encircled her waist in your
fingers without pinching her. The men who followed her, who watched
her mincing along on her small feet and measured that large rump
whose shape was outlined by her thin petticoats, walked more
quickly. She'd let them come up. Then she'd turn around suddenly
confronting them with her two large, black, shining eyes. That
stopped them in their tracks. For the front part of the medal was as
good as the back. But, alas, I lost her. And my hopes for a fortune
have all vanished with her. That's the only reason I married her. I
confided all my schemes to her, and she had too much intelligence
not to see how right they were and too much judgment not to approve
Then there he was sobbing
and crying, as he said, "No, no, I'll never get over it. Ever since,
I've taken to wearing bands and a skull cap."
ME: From grief?
HIM: If you like. But
the real reason is to have my bowl on my head....But look at the
time. I have to go to the opera.
ME: What's playing?
HIM: Something by
Dauvergne. There are quite a few fine things in his music. It's a
pity that he wasn't the first to write them. There are always a few
dead people who upset the living. That's just the way it is.
Quisque suos patimur manes [Each of us has ancestors we must
endure]. It's half past five. I hear the bell sounding for
vespers for the Abbé de Canaye and for me. Farewell, Mister
Philosopher. Isn't it true that I'm always the same?
HIM: Well, I hope
this misfortune keeps going for only another forty years. The man
who'll laugh last, will laugh best.