Monday, February 04, 2008

French Whine: The Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Considered an early example of "warts and all" autobiography and long considered a classic of the western canon, Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Confessions is a bizarre book.

The first portion, covering the philosopher's life up until 1741, is pleasant enough - a picaresque study of a wandering eccentric youth told, at times, with an alarming frankness.

The second part, chronicling his life as a writer with growing influence, gets stranger as the narrative progresses. Put simply, Rousseau had a full-blown persecution complex, and he relates in excruciating detail his perceptions of a growing cabal of opponents who have apparently (from his perspective, at least) committed themselves to making his life a veritable hell on earth. Prominent among Rousseau's tormentors are the encyclopediests Diderot and d'Alembert, as well as various members of the French aristocracy. The reasons for this persecution are never really explained by Rousseau, but the Confessions turns into one long protracted whine.

To himself, Rousseau was a noble, pure-hearted soul with never a mean or false word against anyone, unfairly attacked and hounded by those whose motives he claims never to have understood. Reading this, I longed for a good, objective biography of the writer - one that could explain just what the hell was really going on. Years ago, I read and enjoyed Rousseau's Reveries of a Solitary Walker, a series of writings which attempt to justify the author's character, with reference to his past indignities. The Confessions, which I believe predate that more melancholy work, doesn't clarify anything, other than Rousseau's paranoia and misanthropy. He protests that he is aloof from humanity, seeking nothing more than solitude and a life devoted to the contemplation of nature, while at the same time revealing his own penchant for gossip and intrigue. The Confessions strikes me as the writing of an entirely self-absorbed, deluded man.

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