“Let’s be clear. There is simple ass kissing, and there is metaphorical ass kissing.” –Rameau.
The dialogue between Diderot and Rameau’s nephew seems, like a normal conversation, to touch on one thing and then another. The theme of it, though, keeps returning to Rameau – how he lives, and how he lives with himself. Rameau is a flatterer, a backbiter, a crook (escroc), a go-between, a lover of good food and riches. But he is also endowed with good taste, or at least steady, classical taste – he doesn’t delude himself about the quality of Voltaire’s work, but he does comfort himself with the badness of the worst of Voltaire's moral character. To illustrate his world, he tells several anecdotes. Now,the curious thing about these anecdotes is that they operate as a test. It gradually becomes clear that there is a competition, a game, going on between Diderot, the moi in the dialogue, and Rameau, the lui.
What is this game?
It is a test we all go through as kids: the test of disgust. The test, as it happens on the playground, consists of being told something disgusting, or being the witness of something disgusting, and not giving vent to any sentiment, any shrinking, any shame. LI is not, by the way, trying to disparage this particular sequence of our common education. There is something that pisses me off about people who are too particular, too grossed out about blood and shit and the whole general stink of life – the full diaper, the squashed cockroach.
So let's not load the dice. I have zigzagged against the buffoon, but this swerve should be seen within a dialectical history of the disappearance of the sage. Look at this as a plea for the counterbalance, as well as an indictment for social murder.
Perhaps there is something in this playground test that is particularly male – although I’m cautious about this kind of gender generalization. In William Miller’s anatomy of disgust, he quotes the case of the wild boy of Aveyron, reported by Doctor Itard: ‘The well documented early nineteenth century wild boy of Aveyron had no sense of pure and impure, was extraordinarily filthy, was not “toilet trained”, and clearly disgusted Jean Itard, the doctor who supervised him and to whom we owe our knowledge of the case. Itard’s evidence, however, is not without some problems. Although the boy would sniff like an animal at everything no matter how malodorous, he would not eat everything. “A dead canary was given him, and in an instant he stripped off its feathers, great and small, tore it open with his nails, smelt it, and threw it away” The boy was not exactly omnivorous. He was initially willing to eat a canary, but this particular canary had an unappetizing odor. Certain odors might indeed have disgusted him, although his aversion might have been more simply constituted, that is, it might have given rise to no thoughts of contamination and pollution. We would surely like to know how he felt about his hands after discarding the bird.” Contamination [Ansteckung] is, in fact, the word Hegel uses to speak of one moment in the struggle of Enlightenment – borne by an intelligence that is founded on universal principles, and yet confronts, as an individual, the belief of the masses – as it carries out its social strategy of stripping belief from its supports: “The communication of the pure intelligence [Einsicht – understanding] is thus comparable to that of a scent in an unresisting atmosphere. It is a penetrating contamination, which does nothing at first to call attention to itself against the indifferent element, in which it insinuates itself, and thus cannot be guarded against. Only when the contamination has spread is it something for the consciousness, that had carelessly permitted it.”
Thus, in one sense the Nephew of Rameau recapitulates a primal, playground scene, the moment in which shame and shamelessness engage in a ritual contest. However, there are limits to a test that is so structured that victory must go to the shameless. These limits are embodied in the moment that the surrounding silence, the spectatorial silence, the silence of accommodation, is broken. The ‘consciousness’ – which in this passage in Hegel is embodied in the institutions of the state, the church, and the third power of the bourgeoisie – finally reacts. In so reacting, they claim dominion over shame itself. But the Café de la Regence lies, for a moment, outside of those institutions. While the pure intelligence of chess (a use of virtuosity about which Diderot was doubtful) is being played around our pair, the game of shamelessness procedes without witnesses, so to speak, allowing Rameau to bare not only himself, but the shamemaking institutions themselves, and the political strategy they have taken against the ‘contamination’ of the enlightenment philosophes. This is the beginning of a wobble – that wobble which, in the history of the pairing of the buffoon and the sage, will eventually turn the buffoon against the sage and, at the same time, seem to ordain the sage’s place for the buffoon. Diderot represents both himself as the philosophe, being half jokingly led through this trial (and getting in his own strokes as well) and the common sense, the massed, silent witness, which is the aftermath that supposedly belongs to the writer – although the trajectory of the manuscript of the Nephew of Rameau provides an ironic commentary on that writerly certainty. As Jacques D. once wrote, in an essay on Poe’s Purloined Letter, another story about the competition between shame and shamelessness – about provocation as an instrument of power - "a letter can always not arrive at its destination".