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The Secular Commedia Comic Mimesis in Late Eighteenth-Century Music

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Chapter 1

Comic Flux and Comic Precision

It's call'd a Polypus . . .

And {apos}tis a reptile of so strange a sort,

That if {apos}tis cut in two, it is not dead;

Its head shoots out a tail, its tail a head.

Sir Charles Hanbury Williams, Isabella; or Odes (1740)

Le Neveu de Rameau, the disquieting dialogue-satire by Denis Diderot, contains a long passage in which the eponymous Nephew lectures his interlocutor, a Diderot-like figure, on the merits of Italian over French opera. Opera criticism is not the dialogue's principal preoccupation, but rather the far more somber issue of cynicism's clash with moral philosophy. Yet about two-thirds of the way through, the discussion veers off into a peculiar musical topicality: the usually cynical Nephew begins to argue ardently for one side in the well-known mid-eighteenth-century Parisian culture war known as the guerre des bouffons (the Italian, as it happens). The passage is often plucked out of context by music historians and anthologized as one more piece of documentary evidence for that noisy quarrel.1

Indeed, I was in the process of so treating it myself when I was arrested by a curious image the Nephew uses in his opera discussion.2The image is buried in the middle of this oft-excerpted passage and passes by so quickly that it rarely disturbs the casual reader. The third or fourth time through, however, its mild incongruity begins to nag. It occurs in a harangue that the Nephew is delivering on the nature of the language most appropriate for opera libretti. Here is his description of the ideal style:

It is the animal cry of passion that should dictate the melodic line, and its expressions should be pressed out urgently, one after the other; the phrase must be short, the meaning cut off, suspended; the musician must be able to make use of the whole and of each of the parts-to omit a word or repeat it, to add a word that is missing, to turn the phrase backward and inside out like a polyp, without destroying it.3

At first the Nephew's fleeting mention of the polyp seemed to be no more than a whimsical solecism, wholly in character for an eccentric creature from whose trains of thought one does not demand complete coherence. Like most modern readers, I was ignorant of the nature of Diderot's particular polyp, having only vague marine and medical associations with the word.4But a brief investigation led me to an unlikely site of exploration for a music historian studying the habits of musical comedy-the freshwater ponds of eighteenth-century naturalists-and to the tale of an important biological discovery that rapidly insinuated itself into the literary and philosophical discourse of the period.

The scene of Diderot's dialogue is an imagined encounter in a Parisian café, sometime between 1760 and 1762, between a philosophe-narrator (so he establishes himself in his brief exposition) and the actual nephew of the actual composer Jean-Philippe Rameau. The author designates them Moi and Lui, respectively. The Nephew, Jean-François Rameau, was both in truth and in Diderot's fiction a music teacher and professional parasite (the Nephew seeing little difference between these two occupations). Again in both truth and fiction, he was a man of extravagant changeableness-as Moi describes him early on, "a compound of elevation and baseness, of good sense and folly."5 In the words of the writer Jacques Cazotte, who as an old school chum had known the actual Nephew, "That strange man nursed a passion for glory and never found any way of attaining it."6Talented, but living in the shadow of his famous uncle, whom he professed to despise, he is pictured here as choosing in company to burlesque the madman, delivering brilliantly cynical critiques of human nature from behind this façade. He mounts an extraordinary performance for Moi, who at first pretends mere amusement at the antics of his old acquaintance. But he is clearly transfixed by Rameau's strange blend of nihilism and innocent candor.

The discussion of the virtues of Italian opera occurs toward the climax of the dialogue. The Nephew exults in the crushing blow delivered to the operas of his detestable Uncle by the Italian juggernaut that triggered the guerre des bouffons. The 1752 production in Paris, by an Italian buffo troupe, of Giovanni Battista Pergolesi's intermezzo La serva padrona (The maid mistress) on the hallowed neoclassic stage of the Opéra provoked passionate responses from Parisian intellectuals, including Jean-Jacques Rousseau's notorious Lettre sur la musique française, a devastating critique of the musical potential of the French language.7 The Italians took the capital by storm, causing a national crisis of confidence in the powers of French music.8 Two camps formed, rallying around the King (for the French) and the Queen (for the Italians). Rameau "the great" was the figurehead of the French camp, while Rousseau, Diderot, and other philosophes took up their cudgels for the Italian. Earlier in the dialogue the Nephew had gleefully reported, "These cursed bouffons, with their Serva padrona . . . have given us a real kick in the ass" (a vulgarism that is also a topical pun, since the French word for ass here is "cul," and the stuffyAcadémie Royale de Musique, known less formally as the Opéra, stood at the end of a cul-de-sac, a fact of which the Nephew reminds us a few sentences later).9If it stood alone, this portion of the dialogue would be no more than it seems-an eccentric and polemical but surprisingly substantive account of that famous tempest in a salon de thé. (Later, in the Confessions, Rousseau, claiming responsibility for the controversy, suggested that by stirring it up he had saved the monarchy from a far worse fate.)10

The aesthetic doctrine advanced by the Nephew in the polyp passage is nothing out of the ordinary; it could have come straight from Rousseau's Essai sur l'origine des langues. Libretto language, the philosophes argued, should voice "the animal cry of passion"-that is, the short and disjunct exclamatory expressions of the movements of the soul that they ascribed to the invention of the Italians.11In La Nouvelle Héloïse Rousseau has that paragon of sensibilité, Saint-Preux, praise Italian opera texts as revealing "the powerful and secret link between passion and sound."12In the Lettre sur les sourds et muets Diderot had judged the French language incapable of such direct passionate utterances: French, he argued, is a language of logic but not of poetry; it traces out brilliant thought sequences, tight trains of reasoning, but cannot capture the semaphoric gestures of the passions-"hieroglyphs," Diderot termed them.13As the Nephew explains, "This makes French lyric poetry much more difficult than in languages with inversions, that by themselves offer all these advantages."14French libretto poetry had a fatal propensity to stiffly well-turned phrases and measured aphorisms-a style appropriate to the Maximes of La Rochefoucauld or the Pensées of Pascal, but not to the direct representation of human nature on the comic stage. In an impassioned speech just after the polyp metaphor occurs, the Nephew cries out, "We need exclamations, interjections, suspensions, interruptions, affirmations, negations; we call out, we invoke, we shout, we groan, we weep, we laugh out loud. No wit, no epigrams; none of these pretty thoughts. It's too removed from simple nature."15 Simple nature is represented in this dialogue by the image of the polyp.

What, then, is a polyp, and what light can it shed on the subject of the comic musical theater? As I hinted at the start, my own associations with polyps had been more medical than zoological, involving Ronald Reagan, who so candidly, in the fine tradition of our nation's ailing presidents, brought intestinal polyps to the nation's attention. (Closer to musical home, Haydn suffered for a good deal of his life from a nasal polyp.) Polyps, however, come in two classes, the zoological and the pathological. In its earliest usage, the word "polyp" in both French and English designated not only morbid growths in human organs but also large, free-floating shell-less mollusks of the class of Cephalopods, like the octopus and the cuttlefish or squid. Their distinguishing characteristics are a large amorphous body and a plethora of feet. ("Polyp" is from the Greek poly and pous, "many-footed," and the Greek name for octopus was "polupous.") The identification of medical polyps with these mollusks is at least as old as Horace, a semantic transference that was probably suggested by the tentacle-like ramifications shared by the two organisms.16Owing to the ability of these mollusks to change colors in order to blend with their background, "polyp" earned an extended meaning that was something like "Protean." (The connection of polyps with Proteus is easy to establish: the god of changes was from the sea, and zoology salutes mythology by calling the common amoeba, another amorphous organism, Amoeba proteus.) A 1583 Mammalia cited in the Oxford English Dictionary notes that "the Polipe chaunge themselves into the likenesse of everie object," and a 1606 wordbook extends this with the statement that "inconstant persons are sometimes said to be Polypes." The original polyp was a marine chameleon.17

In the mid-1700s, even as the use of the term "polyp" to designate these Cephalopods was becoming obsolete, the name was transferred to a newly discovered organism, another Protean creature.18 This new organism was Protean, however, in displaying a different sort of adaptive behavior-its refusal to be classified firmly as an animal or a plant. In 1740 the young Genevan naturalist Abraham Trembley, examining the teeming aquatic animal and plant life he had captured in powder jars on a country estate where he was a tutor, discovered a peculiar "insect" later to be dubbed the freshwater polyp or hydra.19This creature exhibited stunning generative and regenerative behaviors never observed before. It "budded" new offspring like a plant, popping out a little protuberance like the nub of a branch that would rapidly separate to become a new polyp. And, even more amazing, when cut into any number of pieces (Trembley first tried two, then four, and then was emboldened to chop it into innumerable little bits), each piece would regenerate into a fresh polyp! Driven in a spirit of Baconian thoroughness to torture his "little aquatic Being" to the utmost, Trembley even managed to turn it inside out, performing a retournement or inversion, as he called it. With the aid of a boar's bristle, he made the tiny creature's inside its outside and fixed it permanently in this position, despite its efforts to right itself, by driving another bristle through its body near its lip. Fastened firmly thus, the polyp continued to live, eat, and reproduce quite capably.

The discovery made by this meticulous young naturalist was stunning to both biologists and philosophers (the distinction between the two being far less clear-cut in the mid-eighteenth century than it would become over the next fifty years). By 1741, through the busy network of correspondence by which scientists communicated in this period, the news of this discovery had traveled to Paris to the Académie des Sciences, and to the Royal Society in London. There is an extensive description of Trembley's discovery in the first edition of the Encyclopédie. The existence of the polyp raised grave questions about the constitution of natural beings, some so radical that even its discoverer was unwilling to countenance them. Rhetoric ran high: in the Histoire de l'Académie des Sciences the ever-regenerating polyp was compared to a phoenix rising from the ashes, and a disciple of the great naturalist Réaumur reported the furor in the grand ironic vein: "A miserable insect has just shown itself to the world and has changed what up to now we have believed to be the immutable order of nature. The philosophers have been frightened, a poet told us that death itself has grown pale."20 The polyp appeared to be an animal, not a plant, because it was capable of locomotion: it could detach itself from one position and take up another. Its discoverers classified it as an insect.21 Yet like a plant it could produce offspring without benefit of mating; in its hollow transparent core it appeared to have none of the organs hitherto considered necessary to animals; and, most importantly, once chopped into pieces, each fragment could produce a new and separate creature. If animals have souls, where in these fragments could the soul of the original polyp reside?

Long-standing distinctions between plant and animal, soul and body, were challenged by this discovery, forcing notions of the discrete to give way to the continuous, the formed to the formless, the divine unitary to the mundane and messy manifold. In previous theories of generation, God and Chance had battled it out for the position of final cause. Now Nature was being inserted as a mean between the two extremes. In Cartesian rationalism the separation between the thinking soul and the soulless but animate body (mere "extended substance") had enforced the opinion that animals, lacking rationality, were machines without souls-automata. Generation was caused by the serendipitous collisions of drifting molecules. This unpalatable theory had been partially displaced in the late seventeenth century by a teleological biology more in conformity with Christian principles, in which generation took place by means of a limited number of preformed germs or seeds-fully formed "animaliculi" planted there at the time of the Creation. Each contained a minuscule version of itself, which at birth sprang fully formed, organized to "grow" its miniature organs to maturity. When these germs ran out, the world would end.

The polyp put paid to both hypotheses. It demonstrated that soul-matter is infinitely divisible, so that neither an externally installed soul nor a preexistent germ could survive the random cutting of the polyp's substance. The power of generation, growth, and change must be immanent in the very matter of the polyp, not implanted by divine ordinance. Hence the polyp revealed living matter's capacity for autonomous activity, its ability to direct its own somatic and psychic development.22 This living example of the continuity of matter challenged teleology, blurred the distinctions between creatures, and plunged thinkers like Diderot into revolutionary, evolutionary thoughts about the mutability of species.23

Any doubt that Diderot had in mind Trembley's stunning discovery in the passage from Le Neveu with which this chapter opened is allayed by diction that can be no mere coincidence: Trembley's word for the turning of the polyp inside out was retournement, and the Nephew uses the words tourner et retourner to describe the torturing of the libretto phrase (having just previously in this same passage described music as the most violent of the arts). The scientific literalism of the polyp simile, intentionally comic in its incongruity, suggests various local meanings. Perhaps the mention of the animal cry of passion in the same breath as the description of this most voiceless of animal specimens could be meant to twit Rousseau for his famous discussion of the relation of language and the cry of passion in the Essai. (No one emerges well from this dialogue.) And the polyp as Cephalopod seems to have been proverbial in French parlance for its tenacity-it just sticks to things. The Nephew has something of this quality in himself.

The central intention of the passage, however, is to characterize the new opera; clearly Diderot meant to connect this astonishing discovery of contemporaneous natural science with the powers of opera buffa. And this connection resonates powerfully with other claims made by the philosophes for the significance of this moment in operatic history. The polyp image may seem strange to us, but it is no stranger than equating the animal cry of passion with the comic periods of La serva padrona-which is precisely what the philosophes did. What is convention to one is nature to another. La serva padrona-and indeed mostopere buffe-strike modern audiences as convention-ridden, although delightfully so. They are praised for their brilliant use of comic stereotypes, simplistic but efficient reductions of human behavior.24But the polyp metaphor suggests that the philosophes saw the new opera in a different light. It made its appeal to them as a natural organism: to Rousseau, to Diderot, opera buffa seemed nature itself. Unlike those Cartesian machines of the tragédie lyrique that projected the motions of the passions of the soul with eloquent froideur, the genre manifested a new vitalism-a "principle of motion and rest in itself" (to crib from Aristotle's definition of nature)-the volatility of its matter.25 Its appeal was the potential infinity of its divisibility and the power of its being to survive and adapt in fragmentation. It was constructed out of materials resembling Diderot's hieroglyphs-fragmentary gestures that, no matter how tiny, still retained their identities, so that their brief yet precise representations were understood.

In the dialogue these representations are brought into being by the Nephew, the ventriloquist, who "does all the parts." Here we have a suggestion of that other polyp, the Cephalopod, the "marine chameleon," with its ceaseless capacity for mutation into others' shapes. The Nephew, who speaks so fondly of the Protean, is a polymorph himself, a Proteus of the pantomime, who keeps up a relentless running mimicry of all the beings discussed in the dialogue, and finally, in a climactic moment, enacts an entire opera buffa. In these repeated pantomimes, the Nephew takes on an endless parade of different shapes, fragmenting his identity nearly beyond recognition. The Diderot figure describes one of these virtuoso performances: "He mimicked a man who's growing angry, who's indignant, who grows tender, who gives commands, who begs, and delivered without preparation speeches of anger, sympathy, hatred, and love. He sketched the characters of the passions with amazing finesse and truth."26 The Nephew's Protean nature is foregrounded at the outset by the epigrammatic fragment Diderot affixed to the dialogue, a quotation from a satire of Horace: "Vertumnis, quotquot sunt, natus iniquis" (loosely, "he who is born under the variable Vertumnus's hostile star"). The Etruscan deity Vertumnus was "the changeable god of the seasons, 'an Italian Proteus.'"27The large saltwater polyp (Cephalopod) is as peculiar a natural organism as its tiny freshwater namesake. Like Horace's god Vertumnus, it has a kind of "negative capability": without voice, intentionality, or shape of its own, it is defined by taking on the shapes of other beings, which it does ceasele