Sunday, December 30, 2018

Jean-Jacques: The Early Life and Works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau 1712-1754 IV

Rousseau arrived in Paris relatively well-prepared at the age of thirty, especially if you compare him to another writer, Stendhal, who arrived as an uninformed teenager a few decades later. He had the appropriate letters of introduction and already knew which salons he should attend. Though he still had some of the characteristics of a country bumpkin, Parisians cut him slack, since that was how they thought of the Swiss. His timing may also have been lucky, since he immediately met Denis Diderot, who was a year younger and had himself just arrived from the boondocks. They immediately became friends. Although he sometimes misread the salon hostesses, Rousseau did well in salons, because he was both eloquent and interesting in conversation. One must also note that, off the bat, he was incredibly ambitious and wanted to associate with the best people possible and make a good impression on them. His first major attempt to impress people was the presentation before an assemblage of luminaries a new system of musical notation that he had invented himself. They listened closely and set up a special committee to consider it further. Unfortunately, the committee didn't think that it merited implementation, and Rousseau was crushed. Rather than accept this verdict humbly, Rousseau wrote a book on the notation and published it at some expense to himself. The book didn't change matters, but many Parisians who had an interest in music read it, and at least it improved his name recognition and gave him some standing.

He seems to have had a knack for impressing upper-class women, and, since his financial status remained dire, he managed to enlist Mme. de Broglie, a marquise, to help him. In no time at all she had found him a position as secretary to the Compte de Montaigu, the newly appointed French Ambassador to the Venetian Republic. Rousseau arrived in Venice in September, 1743. Venice, with its gaiety, appealed to Rousseau, and he made friends. His job involved writing letters daily to Versailles and other diplomatic offices. The War of Austrian Succession affected France and Venice during his tenure. However, Rousseau seems to have been more competent than his boss, Montaigu, and he tended to exceed his authority. Montaigu didn't compensate him fairly according to the terms of his employment, and Rousseau's financial status remained fragile. In the summer of 1744, Rousseau and Montaigu were on very bad terms and had an argument in which Montaigu lost his temper. According to Montaigu, he "dismissed the man like a bad valet for the insolence he allowed himself." By the end of August, Rousseau was unemployed and on his way back to Paris. The episode with Montaigu and its aftermath had a lasting impact on Rousseau's thought. While most of the people he spoke to agreed with him that he had conducted himself properly, they accepted as a matter of course that Montaigu had to be shown deference in light of his aristocratic credentials and position. Rousseau wrote that this "sowed the seed of indignation in my soul against our stupid civil institutions, in which the real public interest and genuine justice are always sacrificed for the sake of any kind of apparent order which is actually detrimental to real order, and only adds the sanction of public authority to the oppression of the weak and the iniquity of the strong."

There is another event from the Venice period that is worth mentioning, as it is one of the few that I still recall from reading Confessions a few years ago. Rousseau had an awkward rendezvous at the house of a beautiful woman named Giulietta whom he had met at a party the day before. He noticed that one of her nipples was deformed:

I carried my stupidity to the point of speaking to her about her nipple. At first she treated my remark as a joke, and in her lighthearted way she did things that should have made me die for love. But as I continued to betray a residue of unease which I could not hide, in the end she blushed, adjusted her clothes, and moved without saying a single word towards the window. I wanted to sit there beside her, but she turned and sat on the sofa, then quickly rose and walked around the room fanning herself. Finally, she said to me in a cold, scornful voice: "Jacko, give up women and study mathematics."

When Rousseau went to see Giulietta a day or two later, she had departed for Florence.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Jean-Jacques: The Early Life and Works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau 1712-1754 III

Mme. de Warens was living in an apartment in Chambéry with Claude Anet when Rousseau arrived. Anet was a few years older than Rousseau and had accompanied her since she had departed Switzerland. He was a herbalist who prepared potions for her, and he also watched over her financial affairs, as she was susceptible to unprofitable money-making schemes presented to her by charlatans. Rousseau got a clerical job at the Survey Office, which he enjoyed initially, but he soon found it repetitious, and he didn't like his coworkers, who were crude by his standards. Although Mme. de Warens was sexually involved with Anet, she had a good reputation in Chambéry, and mothers brought over their daughters for musical events. After a few months, in 1732, just before the age of twenty, Rousseau left his job and began to provide music lessons for the girls.

At about the age of twenty-one, Rousseau was approached by Mme. de Warens, who delivered a rather serious speech about sex. For reasons that are not entirely clear, she had decided that they should begin to have a sexual relationship. In all likelihood, she had noticed his attraction to some of his students, and she probably had well-formed opinions regarding the sexual needs of men and how they ought to be addressed. Thus, they entered a long sexual relationship that was awkward and problematic. It was awkward in the sense that Rousseau thought of her as his mother, calling her maman, and he probably had no lustful feelings toward her; similarly, she may have had no lustful feelings toward him. Furthermore, as Cranston speculates, Mme. de Warens's sexual relationship with Anet created a sexual triangle, which may have caused Anet to become ill or suicidal. There was probably a lot of sexual tension in the household, though Rousseau doesn't refer to this in his autobiographical writings. In 1734, according to Rousseau, Anet became ill and died. Thereafter, Rousseau took on some of Anet's responsibilities, though he had no success in keeping Mme. de Warens's life organized. Her financial situation, which had always been precarious, became more so.

In 1735 or 1736, they decided to lease a house outside of town in the rural area of Les Charmettes in order to escape their gloomy apartment in town during the warm months. This episode in Rousseau's life became a watershed for his intellectual development. Mme. de Warens attempted to earn money through agriculture, which included fruit trees, beehives and some livestock, while Rousseau read widely and increased his appreciation of rural life. They would return to the apartment in town for the winters.

After Rousseau turned twenty-five in 1737, he received a small inheritance from his mother's estate in Geneva. He used much of the money to buy books and build up his library. However, since he had been experiencing ill health for some time, he also decided to make a trip to Montpellier in search of medical advice. Though he disliked Montpellier and did not find any useful advice, he met an older, upper-class woman while on the road there; she took an interest in him, and they had a short tryst. While staying in Montpellier, he wrote letters to Mme. de Warens, though her replies were erratic. Upon his return to Les Charmettes, he found that Mme. de Warens had replaced him with a Swiss hairdresser named Jean-Samuel-Rodolphe Wintzenried, who was six years older than he was. Wintzenried was more physically robust than Rousseau and better-suited to farm-related tasks. Though Rousseau once again became part of the household, this was the beginning of the end for his relationship with Mme. de Warens. When she and Wintzenried moved back to town for the winter he remained in Les Charmettes and became somewhat of a hermit. He continued his studies and took an interest in astronomy. He acquired a telescope, and, seeing him outside at night, some of his neighbors thought that he was practicing witchcraft. Mme. de Warens and Wintzenried returned to Les Charmettes in the summer of 1739. Rousseau could not tolerate the living arrangements, and it was agreed that he would eventually leave. That did not occur until the spring of 1740. Mme. de Warens found him a position as a tutor in Lyon, and he subsequently spent a year there.

The time spent in Lyon was productive for Rousseau, though he decided that he was not cut out to be a tutor. His employer and Lyon in general were far more advanced intellectually than anything that he was used to, and in some ways Lyon was more like Paris at the time, a center of the early Enlightenment in France. Thus, when he decided to quit his job in Lyon, he chose Paris as his next destination. First he returned to Les Charmettes in late 1741, where Mme. de Warens was wintering at the time. She nursed him back to health from an illness, he sold all his possessions to raise funds, and in the summer of 1742 he headed for Paris. It is possible that he might have remained at Les Charmettes, but, besides the friction caused by the presence of Wintzenried, Rousseau, at the age of thirty, felt more strongly that he should make a career for himself. Moreover, Mme. de Warens's financial state was increasingly dire, and he did not want to become an additional burden on her.

Although the amount of detail in this biography sometimes becomes a little tedious, I am still finding the book extremely rewarding. The odd thing about Rousseau is that, despite having lived centuries ago, his life is so well-documented that you can know more about him than you are likely to know about any of your contemporaries. What appeals to me the most is the way that he developed at his own pace and formed his ideas organically rather than being force-fed information in an academic setting and then, at the age of twenty-two, following a boring career for several decades. On the negative side, science had advanced so little by his lifetime that religion still managed to have an undue influence over his thoughts. Still, the rebel in me finds much to like in Rousseau in our age of specialization and conformity. He lived the way many would now if given a choice.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Jean-Jacques: The Early Life and Works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau 1712-1754 II

I am slowly plugging away at the book and will probably pick up my reading over the next few days. I hope that I won't bore my readers too much with Rousseau, because I'm going to be on him for a long time. With the wealth of information available to Cranston, along with his skill as an essayist, I am finding the work more engrossing than fiction. The reader gets a strong sense of what it would have been like to live Rousseau's life, including the altogether unfamiliar environment of eighteenth-century Europe. Some novelists, such as George Eliot, are able to pull off something similar in the form of a novel, but I find that the amount of knowledge necessary to do that effectively exceeds the mental capacity of most authors.

Rousseau's early years were full of naïveté and trial-and-error attempts to find his way in the world. There is a richness to the text, in that Rousseau himself was relatively honest in his autobiographical accounts and in that Cranston is there to correct him when he has misremembered an event or distorted or omitted one to create a certain image of himself. The trip to Turin seems to have been a complete fiasco. Rousseau converted to Catholicism with no religious conviction whatsoever and then took the only job for which he was qualified: domestic servant. He wasn't even good at that and eventually was fired. All was not lost, though, because he learned a little Italian and Latin and was exposed to wealthy, educated families. Turin was also a major cultural center compared to Geneva, and Rousseau heard good music for the first time in his life. While in Turin he corresponded with Mme. de Warens, and he ended up back in Annecy after about two years and lived in her house for a time.

Mme. de Warens herself could be the subject of a biography. She was an impetuous organizer who liked to help people but often lacked follow-through, and disastrous consequences sometimes ensued. She disliked her hometown, Vevey, a Germanic Protestant town northeast of Geneva, and had escaped to Savoy, abandoning her husband, to live in a French-speaking environment. The manner of her departure inadvertently ruined her husband financially, and he ended up moving to England penniless. Furthermore, even by our standards, she was sexually promiscuous. However, if she had not taken Rousseau under her wing, it would by no means have been certain that he would have gone on to his illustrious career. Cranston describes her as follows:

Mme. de Warens was a paradoxical person, and Rousseau did not always understand her. On the one hand, she adored practical organization; on the other, her mind was always dwelling on mystical ideas; she was both pure and sexually experienced; she was at once cunning and naïve, selfish and generous; and while she entertained liberally, she bought very few clothes for herself and ate almost nothing. 

When Rousseau returned to Annecy, she talked him into studying theology at a local seminary, but he had no academic skills and was soon expelled. He liked singing, so she then convinced him to learn music with a choirmaster. When the choirmaster decided to quit his job and move to Lyon, Mme. de Warens suggested that Rousseau accompany him, perhaps to get him out of her hair for a while because of some intrigue she had to attend to in Paris. Rousseau went to Lyon but abandoned the choirmaster and returned to Annecy only to find that Mme. de Warens had mysteriously disappeared. Soon after, Rousseau was recruited to escort one of Mme. de Warens's maids to Switzerland, which he did, followed by various misadventures there, among which he passed himself off as a music teacher. He also served as a translator for a man who presented himself as a Greek monk raising money for a charity but was actually a con artist. In attempting to locate Mme. de Warens, he worked briefly as a music copier in Lyon, though he wasn't competent at that either. Finally, when he was about nineteen, he reconnected with Mme. de Warens, who had moved to Chambéry, still in Savoy, because of a political upheaval. She was dependent on the King of Sardinia for the pension that she lived on, and Chambéry was an administrative headquarters for Savoy. Soon Rousseau had moved in with her again.

I've got a long way to go, as Rousseau lived to the age of sixty-six.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Jean-Jacques: The Early Life and Works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau 1712-1754 I

I've barely started this first in a series of three volumes by Maurice Cranston (1920-1993) and am already enjoying it, because Cranston has a deep understanding of his subject and writes well. Furthermore, Rousseau was such an influential historical figure that there is more information available on his life than one could hope to find on most others who lived in his era. By way of an introduction, I should explain why I think Rousseau is significant. In one respect, he addressed a visceral feeling that I experienced on my own without having read him: a love of the outdoors and the appeal of rural living. I grew up in suburbs and did not experience rural life at all until I was eighteen. Up to then I had no way of knowing why I hadn't felt comfortable in the environments which I had inhabited. On my own, I also recognized the distortions and filters placed by society on reality, and, although I didn't get around to reading Rousseau for many years, he was the first writer I came across who explained this in a satisfactory manner. His ideas were echoed by Henry David Thoreau, but I found Thoreau to be a weaker writer and thinker.

On the other hand, some of Rousseau's ideas, which have been widely adopted, are in need of reexamination in light of advances in science and world changes since the eighteenth century. This is because he was writing in a comparatively unpopulated world a century before Darwin. In particular, Rousseau's idea of the freedom of the individual is badly in need of reexamination. I recently watched a 1952 interview with Bertrand Russell, in which he elucidated what he thought were the three major problems facing the world then. First, he thought that a world government was needed to control weaponry and resolve local disputes. Second, he thought that greater economic equality between nations was necessary to reduce the potential for wars. And third, sounding rather Malthusian, he suggested that the rights of individuals need to be curtailed somewhat, particularly when it comes to population growth. As you can see, not much has changed on these fronts since 1952, and you can now add climate change to Russell's list. Where Rousseau needs to be revisited is in his idea of individual freedom, which has become enshrined in modern democracies and, in my view, despite improvements in living standards, has wreaked havoc on the world from the Industrial Revolution to the present. I find it odd that none of Rousseau's successors, including Karl Marx, have presented a system which addresses the inequality and environmental destruction caused by capitalism or the failures of totalitarian regimes. Though Marx was cognizant of economic inequality, he seems to have been oblivious to the abuse of power by autocratic leaders. He seems to have thought that the proletariat possesses a mysterious virtue that is somehow absent from the bourgeoisie. What about Hitler and Stalin? By the same token, American reverence for the Declaration of Independence, an obsolete document reflecting some of Rousseau's ideas, seems inappropriately sentimental and alarmingly shortsighted given the current state of world affairs.

Rousseau was born in 1712 to a wealthy, upper-class mother and a middle-class father, who worked as a watchmaker. His mother died of puerperal fever two days after his baptism, and he spent his first years in her house in the wealthy, elevated neighborhood of Geneva overlooking the poorer neighborhoods near the lake. Rousseau was doted on by one of his mother's sisters, but, when he was five, his father, whose financial fortunes had deteriorated, sold the house and moved to the artisan quarter of St. Gervais. It is said that both of Rousseau's parents were spirited and independent, but also that his father was somewhat unstable. He insisted on carrying a sword, which was above his rank, and occasionally he got into fights. When Rousseau was ten, his father engaged in a quarrel which led to a trial in which he was tried in absentia and found guilty. He moved permanently to the Bernese territory at Nyon and left his son in Geneva in the care of his wife's brother, Gabriel Bernard.

Rousseau was promptly sent with one of his cousins to the nearby town of Bossey, then in Savoy, to be taught by the local Calvinist pastor. It was there that he first experienced the pleasures of rural life. Occasionally he was disciplined by his tutor's sister, and apparently he enjoyed being spanked by women. Later, due to some misunderstanding, both he and his cousin were severely disciplined by their tutor, and thereafter they disliked Bossey. After two years they returned to Geneva and lived at Rousseau's uncle's house. However, his uncle's family considered him a poor in-law and soon rid themselves of him. Initially he was sent to be an apprentice for a notary, but he was soon expelled. He was then sent to an apprenticeship with an engraver, and although he liked engraving, he disliked the engraver and his family. At the age of twelve he considered himself socially superior to them and couldn't tolerate their vulgarity, lack of reading or the beatings that he had to endure for disciplinary reasons.

In those days, Geneva was still a walled city with a gate that closed in the evening. Occasionally Rousseau would be beyond the wall with friends when the gate closed, and he would receive a beating from his master the next day. As he approached the age of sixteen, he had completed only three years out of five of his apprenticeship. One day, when he was locked out, he decided to leave Geneva and abandon his apprenticeship. He took refuge in Catholic Savoy, where he learned that he could receive support from the Catholic Church by converting from Calvinism. To this end, he walked to Annecy, where he met Mme. de Warens, who was twenty-nine at the time and liked young men. She was separated from her husband, a wealthy landowner, and assisted the Catholic church in recruiting converts. Europe abounded with grifters who specialized in taking advantage of church money for their livelihood on the pretext of conversion, and Rousseau soon found himself walking to Turin with a couple of them for religious training. He arrived in Turin with his possessions stolen, and his companions disappeared.

Of course, Rousseau returns to Savoy for his interlude with Mme. de Warens, as famously described in Confessions, but I haven't reached that episode yet. Cranston is good at comparing historical facts with Rousseau's recollections in his autobiographical works. Of particular interest so far is Rousseau's positive depiction of his father, who, in a practical sense, seems to have abandoned him at the age of ten.