“No matter if the weather is fair or foul, it is my habit to talk a walk, at five in the evening, to the Palais-Royal.” This is how Diderot begins Rameau’s Nephew. With a walk.
For the sage, the regular walk is important. Kant, that indefatigable commenter on all things under the sun, noted the importance of the walk to the scholar in The Conflict of the Faculties under the heading: “On Pathological Feelings that Come from Thinking at Unsuitable Times”. “Thinking – whether in the form of study (reading books) or reflection (meditation and discovery) is a scholar’s food: and when he is wide awake and alone, he cannot live without it. But if he taxes his energy by occupying himself with a specific thought when he is eating or walking, he inflicts two tasks on himself at the same time – on the head and the stomach or on the head and the feet; and in the first place this brings on hypochondria, in the second, vertigo.” In a note, Kant distinguishes (Kant indefatiguably distinguishes – this guy is the very Prince of distinguishers) thinking from what should be occurring in the head of our non-multi-tasker during the walk: ‘When a man of studious habits goes for a walk alone, it is hard for him to refrain from entertaining himself with his own reflections. But if he engages in strenuous thinking during his walk, he will soon be exhausted, whereas if he gives himself over to the free play of imagination, the motion will refresh him – the reports of others whom I asked about this confirm my own experience. If in addition to thinking he also engages in conversation while he is walking, he will be even more fatigues, so that he will soon have to sit down to continue with his play of thought. The purpose of walking in the open air is precisely to keep one’s attention moving from one object to another and so to keep it from becoming fixed on any one object.” The Man in the Crowd might disagree with the prospect of health Kant holds out here, for it is precisely the habit of not becoming fixed on any one object, but on one after another, on the crowd itself, on a multiplication of objects, that has brought the man in Poe’s story down in the world – made him into a human fiend.
Diderot, on the other hand, is going off to the Palais-Royal, a section of Paris built up by the Regent, the Duc D’Orleans, containing shops, restaurants, and a garden. The theater of the Comedie Francaise was there – recently, Palissot’s play, Les Philosophes, which mocked, among others, Diderot, had been put on there – and Café de la Régence was located in the garden. There was a cannon in the garden, too, that was fired by means of the light focused by a large magnifying glass, to announce the hours – the kind of clever toy that delighted the enlightened soul. Mercier, in the Tableau of Paris, devotes a chapter to the Palais-Royal, which he claims is “precisely the spot which Plato would have assigned the captive, in order to retain him without a jailer, and without violence, by the voluntary chains of pleasure…” – which I believe is a distant reference to the myth of the cave. Mercier bemoans the fact that people walk in the Palais Royal when they could have much more philosophical walks in gardens of the Palace of Luxemberg – “Whilst the Palais Royal is crowded with courtesans and libertines, the Luxemburg presents a quiet philosophic walk, and is only frequented by honest citizens with their decent families.” No doubt, the Luxemburg would have been preferred by Kant – but this is the difference between Kant and the French philosophes.
The Café de la Régence, which is where Diderot ends up, meeting by chance the nephew of the famous musician, Rameau, was a famous spot for chess players. The greatest chess player of the time, Philador, played there. Paul Metzner, in his book, Crescendo of the Virtuoso: Spectacle, Skill and Self Promotion in Paris during the age of revolution devotes a chapter to the chess players of the Café de la Regence. The place was owned by a chess amateur, M. de Kermur, sire de Légal: “For countless years he sat in the same chair and wore the same green coat, taking large quantities of snuff and attracting a crowd with his equally brilliant conversation and combinations. He had already established his reputation as the best in France when Philidor first walked into the Regence in 1740, and he continued playing into the 1780s, his own eighties, without ever having to acknowledge a superior, although he lost at least one match.” Philidor learned how to play blindfold matches from Legal, although the latter did not often do this himself.
Well, now we have a setting for the dialogue.