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    Venality, theatricality, and the dark side of sociability: Le Neveu de Rameau as a prostitution narrative

    Lewis, Ann (2016) Venality, theatricality, and the dark side of sociability: Le Neveu de Rameau as a prostitution narrative. In: Hanrahan, J. and Pierse, S. (eds.) The Dark Side of Diderot / Le Diderot des ombres. French Studies of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries 34. Oxford, UK: Peter Lang, pp. 87-110. ISBN 9783034318488.

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    Abstract

    Diderot’s Le Neveu de Rameau is a famously enigmatic text: at the level of its genesis, its idiosyncratic genre and its dizzying array of open-ended themes – little can be pinned down with certainty. Of the many thematic strands running through the dialogue, however, one major element has received relatively little critical attention, despite its dominating presence in the text: prostitution. The text opens with a series of references to this theme: in particular, the highly suggestive Palais-Royal setting, and the provocative statement by the narrator ‘Moi’, that: ‘J’abandonne mon esprit à tout son libertinage. Je le laisse maître de suivre la première idée sage ou folle qui se présente, comme on voit dans l’allée de Foy nos jeunes dissolus marcher sur les pas d’une courtisane à l’air éventé, au visage riant, à l’oeil vif, au nez retroussé, quitter celle-ci pour une autre, les attaquant toutes et ne s’attachant à aucune. Mes pensées, ce sont mes catins.’ In its suggestion of the materiality of the thought process, driven by erotic desire rather than rationality, and subject to inconstancy and caprice – this comment frames the structure of the text as a whole, and immediately establishes the theme of prostitution as one which operates at a figurative as well as literal level. It is these figurative and many-layered resonances which I will analyse in this article, drawing together the many episodes, anecdotes and observations in which courtisanes, pimps and prostitutes feature. Indeed, there are few scenarios in the dialogue that do not include some kind of reference to prostitution, and the text’s concluding sections structurally reinforce its significance. The protean figure of the Neveu, ‘Lui’, who is associated successively with the figure of Diogenes, a court jester, and the Fool, is also aligned with that of a prostitute (as well as pimp), in his embodiment of a parasitic existence, in his idleness, fondness for pleasure and luxury, and in his status as performer. This article will explore the way in which the text’s insistent references to and permeating metaphors of prostitution are used as a double (and doubly symbolic) reflection: on society and its values, and on the activity of prostitution itself. 1. ‘I […] let my thoughts wander in complete abandon, leaving them free to follow the first wise or foolish idea that comes along, like those rakes we see in the Allée de Foy who run after a giddy-looking little piece with a laughing face, sparkling eye and tip-tilted nose, only to leave her for another, accosting them all, but sticking to none. In my case my thoughts are my wenches.’ Rameau’s Nephew, in Reameau’s Nephew and D’Alembert’s Dream, transl. by Leonard Tancock (Penguin Classics, 1966), p.33.

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