Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Restless Genius


by Leo Damrosch

Houghton Mifflin, 576 pp., $30

"It would have been better for the peace of France if this man had never existed," remarked an early 19th-century visitor to Rousseau's grave. "It is he who prepared the way for the French Revolution." The visitor, who knew a thing or two about disturbing the peace, was Napoleon Bonaparte.

Jean-Jacques Rous seau actually would have loathed the Revolution that his writings helped inspire. In 1757, when he was living in the countryside outside Paris, there was an attempted assassination of the king, accompanied by riots, and "I thanked Heaven," he wrote in The Confessions, "for having removed me from those spectacles of horror and crime, which only would have nourished . . . the bilious humor that the sight of public disorders aroused in me."

He hated crowds, let alone angry ones. He preferred the peace and quiet of the rustic cottages usually provided for him by aristocratic admirers, where he could dream of the primitive simplicity and goodness of humanity that civilization had corrupted with its artificial desires, its luxuries and inequalities.

Rousseau, of course, didn't invent the idea of humanity's lost innocence. Aside from the archetypal eviction recounted in Genesis, the Greeks and the Romans looked back on their Golden Age, and the Chinese Taoists missed the mystical harmony between man and nature and the unforced simplicity of life that civilization, its morals and knowledge as much as its vices, had skewed.

Rousseau, who loved solitude and reverie and contemplating mountain streams as much as any Chinese sage, was a kind of Swiss Taoist. He became famous overnight at 37 by winning an essay contest with an argument that spectacularly broke with the Enlightenment's faith in science and progress. (The idea came to him, like most of his ideas, while on a long walk in the country.) He didn't actually believe that humanity could return to its lost Arcadia, but the first sentence of The Social Contract--"Man is born free, but is everywhere in chains"--became a potent nine-word revolutionary manifesto, written by a man temperamentally unsuited to revolutions.

Rousseau was an inconsistent, eloquently illogical sort of philosopher, and he tended to stray far from his own premises, in his books and his life. His name will forever be associated with the idea of the basic goodness of human nature, and some of its modern side effects, like utopian politics, primitivism, and misconceived educational and judicial reform. But the most genuinely revolutionary thing he ever thought up was probably Jean-Jacques himself, the searching, self-displaying, self-justifying protagonist of The Confessions, the book that shocked and mesmerized all of Europe when it was published after his death, the book that begins: "I am made unlike anyone I have ever met; I will even venture to say that I am like no one in the whole world. I may be no better, but at least I am different."

His life, as he recounted it, replaced the Enlightenment's purely rational individualism with a psychological drama of self-realization, the sense of a true self compromised by the demands of the surrounding society and needing some self-determining, self-expressive release. And the ideal of self-realization, however problematic in terms of social cohesion, tradition, and public decorum, has become one of the most attractive and contagious things about Western democratic-capitalist culture, and one of its most powerful weapons against its enemies, whether they deny it in the name of the state, racial or religious purity, the laws of history, Allah, arranged marriages, or something else.

As Leo Damrosch points out, Rousseau was "very much a modern individual, cut off from family and origins, self-defined, moving from place to place and from one set of relationships to another." The born outsider was born in 1712, the son of a Geneva watchmaker. He had no formal education. His mother had died just after his birth, his older brother disappeared, and his father eventually left, too, so he was forced into unhappy apprenticeships where he got into trouble for reading (he practically memorized Plu tarch) instead of working. He ran away at 16 and began a life of dreamy, aimless wandering, with stints as a servant and tutor and composer of music, plus the picaresque episodes recounted in The Confessions (baring his backside to shock some girls, recoiling from the sexual advances of other vagabonds, being seduced by a lady in a coach) and his cherished interval of domestic (and sporadic sexual) intimacy with Madame de Warens, the woman he always called "Mama," who was 13 years older than the naive teenager when she took him in.

It was one of the many things Rousseau never got over. (Damrosch notes that long before psychoanalysis, Rousseau recognized the formative significance of childhood experiences.) His life, and arguably his philosophy, became an aching search for maternal tenderness, for childhood innocence and wholeheartedness. The preoccupation with innocence was also a measure of the guilt induced by, among other things, his own birth, fatal to his mother, the shameful incident in which he got another servant fired by blaming his own theft on her, and his abandonment to an orphanage of all five of the children he had with his companion later in life, Thérèse Lavasseur, a semiliterate Parisian servant.

Brooding, earnest, and generally awkward and slow-witted in company, Rousseau impressed almost nobody on his meandering way to fame. "What? That imbecile?" was the reaction of one man who had employed the young Jean-Jacques when he heard of his success. And long after his death, Madame d'Houdetot, one of his aristocratic admirers and the object of a feverish amour-fou on his part, remembered him as an "interesting madman."

The paragons of the Enlightenment whom he admired and befriended and then turned against, such as Diderot, Condillac, Voltaire, and Hume, said much the same thing. He was too sensitive, needy, suspicious, impulsive, and unpredictable for lasting friendships, and he became, in effect, the first in the long line of alienated loners who populate modern literature.

Damrosch's essential point is that only an outsider with a self-sabotaging gift for remaining one could have had the ideas he had, ideas that broke the frame of 18th-century thought and still do some damage to our own frames as well. (Romantics, classicists, liberals, Marxists, conservatives, and anarchists have all been drawn to at least some of them.) He points out the sharp contrast between Rousseau and his American contemporary Benjamin Frank lin, who also wrote an autobiography that begins with poverty, long walks, and apprenticeships, but who pursues, instead of a thwarted inner self, a methodically constructed, socially useful self.

Rousseau wanted to recover his true self by getting rid of habits that social life called for, whereas those habits were exactly what Franklin wanted to acquire. . . . It is no exaggeration to say that Franklin and Rousseau stand at opposite poles of the legacy we have inherited from the eighteenth century. Con temporary Amer ican culture talks the Rousseau line but lives the Franklin life. When we talk about getting in touch with our true selves, we're talking like Jean-Jacques Rousseau. When we commit ourselves to careers or strive to be 'team players,' we are living like Benjamin Franklin.

Damrosch's biography is vivid and irresistibly readable (more so than The Confessions, which flounders in paranoia and self-pity in the second half), and he makes many of Rousseau's ideas seem freshly relevant. But he might as well have conceded that much of the political philosophy was little more than a series of rhetorical flights, and the speculative anthropology was as cockeyed as Margaret Mead's view of Samoa. Rousseau, like another music-loving, Alp-loving, long-walk-taking introvert a century later, Nietzsche, was good at introspection but not so good at imagining a society worth emulating. (As with Nietzsche, it had to be austere.)

Sparta? Savage tribes? City-states that ban the theater? Democracy animated by the portentously vague "General Will"? Rousseau was basically an escapist, and his political philosophy is about escape into an imaginary past or future, just as his life was about escape into one-sided love affairs, reveries, and solitary walks. He was better at writing about his own haphazard life than at rearranging life for other people. Read The Confessions, but when offered The Social Contract, don't sign on the dotted line.

Lawrence Klepp is a writer in New York.

Next Page