Friday, January 25, 2019

The Noble Savage: Jean-Jacques Rousseau 1754-1762 II

1757 turned out to be an excessively melodramatic year for Rousseau, who was then forty-five. A sister-in-law of Mme. d'Épinay, Comtesse d'Houdetot, known to friends as Sophie, lived in a rented house near the Hermitage and Mme. d'Épinay's chateau, which was called La Chevrette. Although she had known Rousseau from earlier encounters, they struck out on a romantic relationship. She was eighteen years younger than Rousseau and nine years younger than Thérèse, attractive but not pretty, with a good figure and a warm personality. The relationship included a few encounters of an undetermined sexual nature, secret meetings in the woods, hiding letters to each other in a tree, etc. – all a little corny to me. Sophie belonged to an ancient aristocratic lineage and had three children, and, as was the norm for aristocratic women at that time, had a lover; he was named St-Lambert and was away at war. It appears that Rousseau's celebrity status had attracted her to him, and that he may have been drawn to her aristocratic credentials, but they still managed to form a genuinely close relationship.

Maurice Cranston makes a valiant effort to sort out exactly what transpired, and there are mountains of extant evidence in the form of letters, but the whole situation still seems murky to me. By current standards, Rousseau may have been going through a midlife crisis, with sexual boredom and early inklings of his death. Sophie became the model for Julie in his novel, and clearly he was obsessed with her. Unfortunately, Mme. d'Épinay took an interest in this and may have used Thérèse, who also must have been displeased, to intercept his letters to Sophie. Moreover, Sophie loved St-Lambert and didn't want to hurt him. The situation boiled out of control when Mme. d'Épinay decided to make a winter trip to Geneva to see her doctor, who was an acquaintance of Rousseau. She wanted Rousseau to accompany her, but he didn't want to go. This resulted in a flurry of letters full of recrimination, which left Mme. d'Épinay, her lover, Grimm, a fellow encyclopédist, and Diderot, who somehow got dragged into this, displeased with Rousseau's conduct. The turn of events may have been an early example of Rousseau's paranoia causing ill effects, and it seems to me that he could easily have prevented the outcome by exercising greater tact. If he had consulted each person face-to-face and stated his position plainly without any innuendos, it seems that the situation might have been salvaged.

That outcome, however, was ruined relationships. In a letter to Grimm, Mme. d'Épinay described Rousseau as "a moral dwarf on stilts." Grimm wrote to Mme. d'Épinay, "You know madmen are dangerous, especially if one panders to them as you have sometimes done to that poor devil through your ill-judged pity for his insanity." Diderot became involved with this fiasco, and his relationship with Rousseau was subsequently ruined. Though Rousseau managed to remain on good terms with Sophie and St-Lambert, in late 1857 Mme. d'Épinay's entourage departed for Geneva without him and he moved out of the Hermitage to a cottage two miles away in Montmorency. There was a side to Rousseau that was not at all flattering: on the one hand he seems to have been a sensitive soul who became closely attached to people, particularly maternal women, but on the other hand he was not always straightforward in his dealings with people and generated unnecessary confusion. I think that he may have unconsciously engaged in social climbing, and when confronted he took solace with sympathetic women without dealing effectively with the men. One might surmise that he does not appear to have been emotionally self-aware.

I should mention at this point that the aristocratic women who participated in the French salons of Rousseau's time seem remarkably sophisticated. By current standards they seem unusually intelligent, well-informed, sensitive and articulate, certainly more so than any American women I've ever met. One begins to get a sense of what was lost when the aristocratic institutions of France collapsed. When the hordes of bourgeoisie finally took over public life in France, the salons were replaced with boring social gatherings like those hosted by Mme. Verdurin in Proust's Swann's Way, and a little later Simone de Beauvoir avoided them like the plague. It would seem that one of the highlights of Western civilization has vanished forever. The apparent social equality that arose with the death of monarchies was accompanied by a kind of crudeness that came at an aesthetic cost.

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