Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Confessions by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

I read The Confessions laboring under two handicaps, or compelling Rousseau to labor under them, which I suppose was not fair to him at all. To begin with, I approached it already having read Paul Johnson's book Intellectuals some years ago. Johnson began his study of the influence of secular, usually politically passionate and liberal modern intellectuals with Rousseau, in a chapter entitled "An Interesting Madman." And he generally eviscerates this Enlightenment sage as a veritable psychopath and a liar, responsible for endless future mischief and to be distrusted above all in, and because of, The Confessions.

And I read the book using a method that a professor of mine once said was absolutely vital for graduate school, when one has to "read" three books per week every week, each semester, for years. I am not in grad school nor do I ever intend to be, but the method sounded intriguing, considering how many great books there are waiting to be read in this world. So I read Rousseau's opening chapter, a middle chapter, and the closing chapter. And I flipped through parts of the rest. That part about reading a middle chapter always struck me as risky. Suppose you pick a middle chapter which happens not to be the vital one, especially in a huge book? I chose The Confessions' Book Seven, got a little bored, and moved to Book Eight, at the very start of which the author announces, "With this one starts the long chain of my misfortunes ...."

I did not get too far into the book before I began to agree with Johnson that this man probably was insane. He starts abruptly, with admissions of having been whipped in childhood and liking it, admissions salacious enough to make the reader sit up and think, good God, so he is going to tell the truth. (A short, eerie passage reveals that when his family realized he liked it, they quickly gave up that form of punishment.) And he admits that going to the opera as the guest of a friend, but then sneaking out of the theater, returning his ticket, and pocketing his friend's refund money, was "a disgraceful theft." But he leaves such titillations behind after the second book or so, and instead writes about his beautiful self, about his splendid behavior and the long parade of malicious wretches, originally so loved and so kind, who dragged him into the miseries and corruptions which he will explore in time.

He seems to be incapable of getting any distance from himself. Early on, he records that as a grown man in his thirties, he righteously snubbed an older woman with whom he fancied he had had a rocky affair as an eleven-year-old boy twenty years before. He wasn't joking. As for the disgraceful theft, he reasons that after all he hadn't made use of the money as it was intended, namely to see the opera; anyway, money is absurd. And over and over, he is the glorious soul who, for example, walked six miles in the heat, fainting with exhaustion, to visit the imprisoned Diderot; he is the noble creature who cannot have done wrong in abandoning his five children to the Foundling Home (where, Johnson says, he knew they would die), because -- he was Jean-Jacques. How could he, whose virtues and mind were perfect, do wrong? "No, I feel, and boldly declare -- it is impossible. Never for a moment in his life could Jean-Jacques have been a man without feelings or compassion, an unnatural father." He is the glorious, principled man who in later life refused a pension from some misliked aristocrat, in spite of Diderot's exhorting him to take it if only to support Therese -- the mother of his five children.

The whole point of Rousseau's life and thinking was the search for freedom from the moral constraints of law and society. At the beginning of Book Eight he describes learning of the topic for a literary competition sponsored by the Dijon Academy in 1749: "Has the progress of the sciences and arts done more to corrupt morals or to improve them?" "The moment I read this," he states, "I beheld another universe and became another man."

He seems to be implying that here for the first time he saw the possibility that morals can change and that they can come from fallible, changeable, human sources: the arts and sciences, for instance. And that therefore, a true, free man must guide himself gloriously without reference to them. It's hard for the reader to judge, though, whether here we have a great genius naturally developing his thoughts outward in great and new directions, or whether we have the grown-up version of the dreadful young boy who urinated in the neighbors' cooking pots, and is now thrilled to find a philosophical excuse for doing so all through adulthood. "[I strove] to uproot from my heart all tendencies to be affected by the judgment of men, and everything that might deflect me, out of fear of reproach, from conduct that was good and reasonable in itself." His essay for the Dijon Academy, by the way, won the prize.

Of course, what he never acknowledged was that in order to be the free spirit who denied foolish laws' and customs' hold over men, he trusted the rest of society to hold to those customs and be decent to him while he offended them. When he went for the first time bearded and shabbily clothed to the opera, as a moral statement of freedom, he trusted the rest of the house not to hiss him all the way home, or at least to the barber's. He was perhaps the first hippie. And, on that larger matter which did trouble his conscience permanently, no one ever entered his bedroom in the middle of the night and knocked him on the head for having abandoned five infants in succession to the Foundling Home, announcing "If I begin to pander to opinion over one matter, I shall pretty soon be doing so over everything" while swinging the stick.

In The Confessions we hear comparatively little of his philosophy spelled out. It is strange, when we do, to note the abrupt change in tone, perceptible even through a translation. The same change in tone occurs when he writes about writing. The misty, refulgent maniac vanishes, and a professional adult replaces him, asking hard questions about the origins of politics and how to improve his prose style. We do hear a great deal, especially toward the end, of friendships' blossoming and fading, and of the peregrinations necessary when ancien regime rulers sent out arrest warrants for him upon the publication of a new, freedom-filled book.

This most influential writer of the last two centuries, according to Paul Johnson, seems never to have been in real danger, but rather to have spent much of his life living in charming, secluded homes provided for him by well-fixed admirers, especially women, and writing. Ill-health dogged him, as it dogged everyone. The image of him dressed in his Armenian caftan -- more comfortable considering his medical problems -- and sitting making lace alongside the neighboring women is striking. Emile, The Social Contract, and the Profession of Faith of a Savoyard Vicar all helped create aspects of the modern world that we take for granted, from seemingly minor things like comfortable clothes for children especially, to major assumptions, as that the beauties of nature and the innocence of primitive cultures have always been corrupted by (Western) civilization.

At the time, these thoughts were new. He traveled to Britain, home of liberty, for safety once and there met three great men -- Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke, and David Hume -- none of whom "thought much of him," according to the preface to this Penguin edition. Most interesting, that.

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