Friday, January 06, 2006

Ruminations on Rousseau

This comes after reading the generally excellent new biography: "Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius," by Leo Damrosch.

I say generally excellent with the one noteable exception that Damrosch protests too much against the idea that JJR was a quasi-totalitarian in "The Social Contract" with his famous quote, “Whoever refuses to obey the general will must be compelled to do so by the whole body. This means nothing else than that they will force him to be free.

Sorry, Leo, but that IS totalitarian. If people don't know individually how to be free in and of themselves, how can can a general will worth following ever be established?


No matter; here is the longer, philosophical and literary rumination on the life and ideas of Jean-Jaques Rousseau.

Monsieur Rousseau — I understand and empathize with the traumas of your childhood, including your mother’s post-childbirth death, your father’s estrangement from his in-laws and his greed for your inheritance, his casting off of you and your brother, and above all, your disciplining at the hands of Mlle Lambercier and its induced arousal at the age of 11, and your early seduction by Mme de Warens at the age of 16, and your repulsion of that.

I can understand how the enticement of discipline at the hands of a woman — the first grown woman in your life — caused arousal only to be followed by the raising of fear, nay, terror, even, of sex in the arms of a woman, with seduction by the next grown woman in your life.

I can understand how with genetic, or natural, traits that you recognized are individual to each person as a child, you would be so sensitive. I can understand how your childhood upbringing intensified the expression of those traits.

But I cannot understand how, being so sensitive, you could wear your emotions on the sleeve of your coat. I even more cannot understand how you seemed to do this even more the older you got, despite your growing distrust of the philosophes and others of the intellectual and political establishment, knowing well — or so your “Julie” and “Emile” would have us think — your own temperament. A degree of reserve, even if not that of Hume, to be unburdened later, would have served you much better. A Socratic self-restraint, if you will.

I also cannot understand how, in all of the rest of your largely accurate self-analysis, you could not see the roots of your later paranoia arising from that sensitivity, especially with you wearing it openly.

And, to the degree the paranoia became an affected cloak, I cannot understand how you did not notice that oversensitivity, and your indulgence of it, in your “Confessions.” An Enlightenment program for self-improvement, a la Monsieur Franklin, but still retaining what was good and pure of the uniqueness of your character in this area, might have been good. Or, if you deliberately passed over in silence this hypersensitivity being an affectation, at least in part, I call you on this hypocrisy.

And, I point out a more noticeable hypocrisy. You very publicly deigned not to accept stipends from nobles and royalty later in life, but never inquired about what the rent might be at all of their houses, chateaux, and estates in which you stayed. Eh, bien? Monsieur knows that those do not cost nothing, yet does not mention paying for them while staying for months or even years.

Monsieur, I do see much that was good in both your thinking and feeling. You deserved better than what you got from Diderot, from Grimm, and above all from that dog Voltaire, who obviously was riven with jealousy of your deeper insights.

But, as you may have vaguely alluded at times, you often made yourself unrespectable by kicking against people who wanted to help you — who liked you.

And what of Thérèse? Not only could you not be as effusive of the intellectual and social development of women as those despised philosophes, you would not tutor her your mistress, nor move beyond her for someone of more intellect and let her life a quieter life in peace.

So, no, monsieur, you are not to be as respected as your most ardent defenders, either.

But, you are to be pitied, pitied indeed for a tormented spirit whose hair shirt you could never totally escape. I empathize, and so I pity.

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