Goethe, Diderot, and the Lost Manuscript of Rameau’s Nephew

Reading Andrew Curran’s Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely, I came across an interesting connection to something I wrote for a book my friend Zarko Radakovic and I have just finished.

Curran points out that after spending time in prison for a couple of publications (including The Indiscreet Jewels — the jewels being talking vaginas controlled by a magic ring), Diderot published only what appeared in his Encyclopedie. He kept the manuscripts of everything else he wrote over the course of his life close at hand. One of these unpublished manuscripts was the novel Rameau’s Nephew.

That title caught my eye. Schiller’s last letter to Goethe before his death was a response to Goethe’s translation of a manuscript of the novel. The translation was published a few months later.


This translation was the very first publication of Diderot’s Le Neveu de Rameau. The first publication in French was a translation of Goethe’s translation! The French manuscript used for the subsequent French edition was discovered later.

Here my translations from Schiller’s and Goethe’s last letters, part of Zarko’s and my book “We: A Friendship”:

. . . Schiller to Goethe: 27 March 1805

Tell me how you have been recently. I have finally begun to work again in all seriousness and plan not to be easily distracted. After such a long hiatus and several unfortunate incidents, it has been difficult to get back to work and I have had to force myself. Now, however, I am underway.

The cold north-east wind will slow your recovery, as it does mine, but this time I feel worse than usual at this state of the barometer.

Would you send me the French Rameau for Göschen? . . .

Good luck to you, I would love a line from you.

. . . Goethe to Schiller: 25 April 1805

Here finally the rest of the manuscript. Would you take a look at it and then send it on to Leipzig? . . .

I have begun to dictate the Theory of Colors. . . .

Otherwise I am doing well, as long as I ride daily. When I don’t, however, there is a price to pay. I hope to see you soon.

Schiller’s final letter, a long one dated 25 April 1805, included copious thoughts about Goethe’s notes that accompanied his translation of Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew.

Meine Gedanken sind meine Dirnen, Goethe’s translation of the early line reads. Leonard Tancock’s translation for Penguin Classics is My thoughts are my wenches. Supposing truth to be a woman, Nietzsche wrote. The New Yorker cartoon on my wall says: Everything about her spelled trouble. Unfortunately, it was night and I thought it spelled truffles.



About Scott Abbott

I received my Ph.D. in German Literature from Princeton University in 1979. Then I taught at Vanderbilt University, BYU, and Utah Valley State College. At Utah Valley University, I directed the Program in Integrated Studies for its initial 13 years and was also Chair of the Department of Humanities and Philosophy for three years. My publications include a book on Freemasonry and the German Novel, two co-authored books with Zarko Radakovic (REPETITIONS and VAMPIRES & A REASONABLE DICTIONARY, published in Serbo-Croatian in Belgrade and in English with Punctum Books), a book with Sam Rushforth (WILD RIDES AND WILDFLOWERS, Torrey House Press), a "fraternal meditation" called IMMORTAL FOR QUITE SOME TIME (University of Utah Press), and translations of three books by Austrian author Peter Handke, of an exhibition catalogue called "The German Army and Genocide," and, with Dan Fairbanks, of Gregor Mendel's important paper on hybridity in peas. More famously, my children are in the process of creating good lives for themselves: as a model and dance/yoga studio manager, as a teacher of Chinese language, as an ecologist and science writer, as a jazz musician, as a parole officer, as a contractor, as a seasonal worker (Alaska and Park City, Utah), and as parents. I share my life with UVU historian Lyn Bennett, with whom I have written a cultural history of barbed wire -- THE PERFECT FENCE (Texas A&M University Press). Some publications at http://works.bepress.com/scott_abbott/
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