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.

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