Rousseau eats grass . . .


[this was the post I was working on last week, when I was shut out of my WordPress account and locked out of my own blogs for a while.  Life has gone on, but I thought I’d share this, anyway–DM] 

When the offer of the flour, wine, and firewood was at length made in as delicate terms as possible, Rousseau declined the gift on grounds which may raise a smile, but which are not without a rather touching simplicity.[110] “I have enough to live on for two or three years,” he said, “but if I were dying of hunger, I would rather in the present condition of your good prince, and not being of any service to him, go and eat grass and grub up roots, than accept a morsel of bread from him.”[111]–from Morley’s Rousseau, ii, 75

I’ve been thinking about Rousseau all week, partly because we just discussed the Confessions in my 18th Century seminar on truth-telling and autobiography, but also because David Brewer recently posted a link to this nice exhibit about JJR’s botanical interests on C18-L

Though I can’t say that much about the scientific value of JJR’s work, I have always wondered why JJR emphasized activities like botany, music copying, or engraving in the Confessions over his writing.  Do we really see him reading or writing that much during the Confessions?  Though there are some discussions of books and authors, by far the most valuable literary portions remain his comments about his own compositions and style.  So I’d hesitate to call it a literary memoir, though there are plenty of interesting scenes and character-sketches of the minor literary figures.

For that matter, I’ve always been struck by how uninspired the portraits of the famous figures are compared to the minor ones.  Gauffecourt, anyone?  Le Maitre? Admittedly, this failure–or is it unwillingness?–to analyze his rivals might reflect his self-absorption, which will not allow him to waste any insights upon others.  But it might simply reflect his lack of awareness of, or interest in, other people.

Yet the portraits of the upper-class ladies really are compelling, and wonderfully individuated.  The portraits of these women betray his fascination with their morally mixed characters, qualities not often treated approvingly in this period’s writing about women, whether written by men or by women (perhaps this is easier to do in French salon culture than in England).  Rousseau’s aim to delineate their moral complexities unites his portraits of Mamma Warens; the courtesan Giulietta; Mme de Vercellis, and so on.

Once we reach the end of the book, however, we’re still left with the mystery of why he wrote it the way he did and what he thought he was accomplishing with this retelling of his life story.  It is surely one of the least attractive pictures we have of a major writer, made all the more damaging by its source.  It is a decidedly un-monumental version of Rousseau.  To use an expression of Emily Fox Gordon’s, it resists the temptations of a “triumphalist” memoir, the lure of treating all past mistakes or errors as necessary for one’s present-day triumphs.  After all, this book makes one of the most celebrated writers of the century seem a life-long failure, and successfully wrecked his reputation for decades to come.  Nope, Rousseau’s errors seem even bigger and more inscrutable after he finishes writing about them. 

 In the seminar, we kept asking, “Why would he do that?”  And when we tired of that question, we followed up with “And why would he write about it?”

After such long and unsatisfying discussions in the seminar room, the course blog suddenly took on a new importance.   If we couldn’t understand Rousseau in the seminar room, perhaps we could pursue certain questions on the blog in a more focused way: secular autobiography?  morality?  transparency and opacity?  We also felt the need to put up more criticism of Rousseau.  And that didn’t work either. 

Since the Eighteenth Century Grad Student Caucus is busy working on Franklin’s Autobiography, I think it would be useful at this juncture to think about Rousseau and Franklin in relation to public success and failure.  Franklin never stopped trying to turn failures into public successes (this is the Horatio Alger aspect of  his story), while Rousseau worked hard to transform his public triumphs into the most conspicuous kinds of public failure.  It would be a matter of farce, if he weren’t telling the story himself.



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