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.

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