Wednesday, January 30, 2019

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

As far as I've read, Rousseau is forty-seven and has spent two years in the rundown cottage in Montmorency, which was known as Petit Montlouis, because it was on a larger estate named Montlouis. Since Mme. Levasseur had moved back to Paris, he was alone with Thérèse. His health was poor because of urinary problems and a hernia, and the house was cold during the winter due to a lack of heat; he thought that he didn't have long to live. He became increasingly religious and said that he wanted to go to heaven. Initially he had few visitors and spent most of his time writing. His main work during this period was an essay titled A Letter to Monsieur d'Alembert on the Theatre. D'Alembert had written an article for Diderot's Encyclopédie in which he discussed Geneva and argued for adding a theater there to give a spark to the arts. The Calvinists had banned theaters because they thought that they had a corrupting effect on the population. Rousseau was on neutral terms with d'Alembert but was miffed because he hadn't been consulted. His essay supported the ban and included barbs against Voltaire and Diderot. At the time, Voltaire was living in Geneva, and Rousseau assumed that the essay was for his benefit, because a theater would allow him to stage his own productions there. The veiled criticism of Diderot had nothing to do with the article or Geneva and served only to solidify their split. Rousseau had been on cordial terms with Voltaire, but his essay caused a breach. Other than this essay, Rousseau continued to work on Julie and maintained correspondences, some of which pertained to copyrights and publishers who had cheated him out of money. At this stage he was entirely self-financing and paying rent.

Cranston is good at providing important biographical details, but I am finding him weaker when it comes to analyzing Rousseau's psychodynamics. Rousseau's behavior was considered unusual then, and it would be now. In the absence of discussion on this topic, I am piecing together a model to try to make sense of this. Some of Rousseau's antisocial behavior probably stemmed from his urinary problems, which made it necessary for him to urinate very frequently, making normal social interactions awkward. Part of it may also have had to do with the fact that Rousseau was not an extroverted person and tended to be shy. Another part may have had to do with the fact that he was not accustomed to urban living as he encountered it in Paris and felt uncomfortable there. He seems to have had a theatrical flair, so it may have been easiest for him to invent a persona as a hermit, an ascetic and a citizen of Geneva. One of the areas in which he was most confounding was in his reluctance to take ordinary steps to secure a sufficient income. He could easily have accepted an undemanding job that would have covered his expenses, or he could have found a suitable patron whose support he accepted graciously, but he did neither. I'm not sure whether he was stubborn, stupid, or both.

There were other complexities which are subtler and more difficult to resolve. He seemed to develop frictions with his friends among the Parisian philosophes, not always with clear causes. One aspect of this may simply have been male rivalry. His relationships with women were no less problematic, perhaps because he was more emotionally dependent on them than on men. For the time, Mme. de Warens had met his needs, though he cannot be said to have loved her as much as he loved Sophie, who was doubly unavailable as a spouse and mistress. His relationship with Thérèse seems to have been based primarily on sex until his mid-forties, whereupon she became a mere servant.

Perhaps what I like to speculate on the most about Rousseau are the inconsistencies of his ideas and his role in the Enlightenment, though ideas are not the main focus of Cranston's biography. I get the sense that Rousseau was not a great thinker, but that he was able to leverage the abilities he did have to the best possible effect. I think that he was unusually capable at looking inward and identifying what was most important to him, and then use this as a basis for his writings. That included an appreciation of nature and rural life. Though he probably made many blunders in writing Émile, he understood that a certain kind of life would be the right one for him and would allow him to express who he was; this countered the ideas of his more scientific friends, who, at the time, were thinking of humans as blank slates. In at least this respect, Rousseau was far ahead of his time. In other areas, I'm not so sure that he warrants much attention, except as a compelling writer, primarily in his autobiographical works.

The main incongruity that I see is Rousseau's endorsement of Calvinism while pursuing a completely improper relationship with Thérèse. That relationship was not one of equals, and I have seen no evidence that she had say in the disposal of the five children that they produced together. Would she have liked to have kept them? It is possible that she concurred with Rousseau that they couldn't afford them, but there is no record of her having a voice in the decision. Outwardly, Thérèse may as well have been a sex slave with no rights. Rousseau conveniently labeled himself a Calvinist while living in France, when his behavior would have landed him in jail in any puritanical jurisdiction. The moral high ground that he took in his writing is absurd if you look closely at his actual behavior. It should also be noted that while he was willing to accept charity at the expense of friends who could ill afford it, I see no evidence that he ever extended himself to help anyone else. Thérèse, his lifelong companion, lived in poverty just as he did. Arguably, she was an unpaid sex worker.

In regard to the Enlightenment, Rousseau did not seem to fit in well with it in a broad sense, unless you include his political theories. Compared to the other philosophes of his era, he was notably conservative and anti-scientific. I think perhaps that this was an early demarcation that still manifests itself in the rift between the arts and the sciences. Literary types and scientific types remain poorly integrated.

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