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.

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