Kristeva on Diderot
The Foreigner: Alter Ego of the Philosopher
In the Enlightenment, the “good savage” becomes the foreigner and Kristeva notes that ‘philosophical fiction became poeopled with foreigners who invited the reader to make a twofold journey’: the journey to an unknown place and the journey into one’s own society and identity in comparison (133). The foreigner is, ‘the figure onto which the penetrating, ironical mind of the philosopher is delegated—his double, his mask’ (134). Kristeva intends to use the example of Diderot and his Rameau’s Nephew.
The Strange Man, the Cynic, and the Cosmopolitan
Rameau’s Nephew is a dialogue by the French philosopher, Denis Diderot, but it was never published or even distributed in manuscript in the author’s lifetime. The dialogue takes place between Diderot (Moi, “Myself”, the philosopher and believer in virtue) and Jean François Rameau (Lui, “He”, a parasite, a failed poet and composer and believer in expediency), nephew of the great composer Jean-Philippe Rameau. The contrariness of the opposition means that each cancels the other out. Here is a summary from The Oxford Encyclopaedia of the Enlightenment:
[F]or Moi, whose materialism recognizes no ethical absolutes, it is extremely difficult—even impossible—to rule out anything by principle. And Lui is ready to bring back into the picture all those untidy items—the pleasures of selfishness and immediate gratification, freedom from those unnatural social constraints termed “principles”—that Moi is most anxious to ignore. As the dialogue proceeds and the strength of Lui’s arguments grows more apparent, the two characters appear less like contraries than like two sides of the same coin, with Lui playing the disturbing underside of Moi, the unthinkable consequences of his own materialism and his own repressed desires. Lui’s perspective becomes so pervasive that, at times, the two characters seem on the verge of fusing into the same persona. The union apparently never happens, and so, at the end, Moi and Lui are back in their separate, contrary characters, as if nothing had changed. The start of the opera is at hand; the world goes on as before. (“Denis Diderot”)
Kristeva tries to discover who this Lui or Nephew is. He could be ‘[t]he philosopher’s opponent’, ‘his hidden self’, ‘[t]he opposite other’, ‘the nocturnal double’ or ‘the confrontation between Myself the philosopher and the strange He’ (134-135).
Rameau’s Nephew does not want to settle down—he is the soul of the game that he does not want to stop, does not want to compromise, but wants only to challenge, displace, invert, shock, contradict. Negation, this is understood, not only of conscience and morality but of the will as passion: a twisting of sexuality—and then a negation of such negations. (135)
Kristeva explains how the Nephew is thrown out of a party when he is discovered as an other, yet this was precisely the reason that he was invited to the party in the first place. This strangeness excels in ‘witticism and pantomime’ (135). In witticisms, language is, ‘a liberating process: clash of opposites, pleasure springing up, truth of laughter’ (135). Regarding pantomime, the Nephew ‘mimes those he talks about’ and ‘his own feelings’ thus refusing to take on a single viewpoint but a multiplicity of identities (136). This spreads even into Diderot’s sentence which is imbued with ‘articulation of opposites’ and a syntax with, ‘the benefit of the fragment-objects of the polyphonic musician’s body’ (136).
Kristeva notes that the Nephew allies himself with Diogenes the Cynic. Diogenes believed in wisdom as an act rather than thought; he led his life in accordance with nature rather than laws of society; and he upheld ‘shamelessness’ symbolized by the dog (Kristeva calls him a ‘dog-man’ (137)). Diogenes was also remembered for his erratic behaviour; he walked the streets of Athens during daylight hours with a lighted lantern searching for an honest man and lived in a tub, which he carried around with him. Kristeva also recalls ‘the incisive expressions of the cynics: their art of argumentative paradox, whereby they assume the position of their opponents and uphold in turn two contradictory points of view; their mockery of vices ands social conventions, which leads to ethics of naturalness and licentiousness, both aggressive and wanton’ (137). Kristeva describes the cynic then as ‘the other of reason’ who ‘discredits himself in order to have us face our shameful otherness’ (137). Diogenes was a model for Diderot and the Nephew is ‘the cynic’s cynic’ (138).
Kristeva turns now to Menippus, who satirized (in Greek) the follies of men and philosophers in a serio-comic style, using a mixture of prose and verse. Diderot writes of Menippus’ writing with enthusiasm and Bahktin believes that he was the founder of dialogism and Kristeva notes: ‘The Nephew’s pantomime is faithful only to Menippus’ rhetoric, not to Diogenes’ virtue’ (138).
The strange man, spasmodic and pantomimic, would be the inhabitant of a country without power, the sociological symptom of a political transition. If he claimed strangeness to the point of idiosyncracy [sic] […] would it not also be because political institutions that are undergoing a crisis no longer insure the symbolic identity of the power and the persons? Myself the philosopher generalizes human instability, which he suspects lies with all as soon as there is dependency on the other. […] Being frank to the point of strangeness reveals modern man on a political level as a man without a country. His pantomimic positions could only be assumed by cutting through the kingdom, by going across the borders of wobbly sovereignties. Into cosmopolitanism. (140)