Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Michel Houellebecq

I came across this article by Michel Houellebecq and decided to comment on it in order to take a short break from Jean-Jacques Rousseau; I'll return to Cranston on my next post. At the moment I feel vindicated in preferring essays to fiction, because, in the case of an essay, the author can't attribute ideas to fictional characters, and he or she therefore has less wiggle room. Houellebecq's essay reads almost exactly the same as his novels, and now at least he is taking direct responsibility for positions rather than placing them in the mouths of imaginary characters.

The essay starts out reasonably well, and along the way Houellebecq admits that Donald Trump is a "pretty repulsive" person. He provides what I think is an acceptable short summary of the role the U.S. played during World War II and its actions on the international scene since then. America helped defeat Hitler and prevented the U.S.S.R. from advancing into Western Europe. However, America's international record since then has been dismal, if you only look at Vietnam and Iraq and don't even count Afghanistan or Libya. Houellebecq correctly notes that the quality of U.S. presidents has been amazingly low since World War II. I'm thinking that perhaps Eisenhower wasn't too bad, but all of the rest have been in the mediocre-to-inferior range. Houellebecq scorns American interventionism in a manner understood by many throughout the world, but which receives little negative publicity here. Beyond this point, I think the essay goes downhill.

As a foreign observer of America, I don't think that Houellebecq is fully attuned to the nature or extent of Donald Trump's ignorance. He misattributes Trump's treaty renegotiation strategy and "America first" slogans to a rare sagacity that is beyond the capacities of most politicians. He thinks that Trump's policies, besides getting the U.S. off the backs of other countries, will benefit American workers. At this point in the essay there is an explosion of Houellebecq's ignorance, something that simmers in the background of his novels but never shows itself in the light of day. Trump's trade war is disrupting international economic activities at no benefit to any country. Of particular importance, and contradicting Trump's campaign promises, American farmers are declaring bankruptcy in droves, partly as a result of low commodity prices exacerbated by the trade war. I should also mention that there is no evidence that Trump's policies will increase the number of manufacturing jobs or middle-class incomes in the U.S. To make matters worse, Houellebecq loves Brexit and the disbanding of the EU and NATO, mistakenly thinking that the end of globalization will bring prosperity to ordinary workers. Houellebecq has also bought into the somewhat improbable suggestion that Trump, through shrewd negotiating techniques, will denuclearize North Korea. Oddly, Houellebecq even seems to like Vladimir Putin.

Thanks to this essay, I have a clearer idea of Houellebecq's intellectual deficiencies. He doesn't recognize that, like Donald Trump, he has no understanding of economics. Also, far more important in a novelist, he doesn't realize that Trump's pathology and actual skills are a detriment to his being of service to anyone other than himself. Trump came to prominence by teaming up with criminals and bullying whoever stood in the way of his business interests. He only cares about activities that will benefit him personally. This is evident in everything that he does and has resulted in one of the most incompetent executive branches in American history and the careless and irresponsible violation of the U. S. Constitution. Houellebecq doesn't mention climate change, which is being denied by Trump. He also says nothing about overpopulation or repressive regimes; Trump supports overpopulation by opposing abortions, and his primary solution for asylum-seekers seems to be to let them die on the opposite side of a wall. Houellebecq clearly hasn't done his homework, or he would have known that Trump's tax cut mainly benefits the wealthy and has inflated the budget deficit for future generations. Perhaps Houellebecq's most conspicuous omission is the way in which Trump's right-wing populism echoes the rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany during the 1930's.

Just to speculate a little, it may be that, now that Houellebecq has become internationally famous, he has started to follow in the footsteps of his friend, Gérard Depardieu, the tax dodger: Donald Trump may be just the man for nouveau-riche bourgeoisie who can never have enough money to satisfy themselves. I had been thinking about reading Houellebecq's latest novel, Serotonin, but I'm going to give it a pass. Whatever Houellebecq's motives, he is simply too ignorant to be taken seriously. After spending time reading about the French Enlightenment, it is disappointing to see just how far the standards have fallen. In order to qualify as a French intellectual, one once had to know something; today a cursory knowledge of blowjobs seems to be all that is necessary. Houellebecq is the last person anyone would want to consult regarding the problems currently facing the world.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

The Solitary Self: Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Exile and Adversity I

In 1762, after fleeing Montmorency, and having just turned fifty, Rousseau arrived in Yverdon, Switzerland, part of the Bernese republic, where he temporarily stayed with a retired Swiss banker whom he knew from Paris. His infamy, which derived from accusations of heresy in Émile and his criticism of the government of Geneva in The Social Contract, was about to relegate him to permanent refugee status. He was soon looking for a new domicile and found one in Môtiers, which was located over the Jura mountains in the principality of Neuchâtel. At this stage in his life, when he was quite famous, Rousseau had little difficulty enlisting assistance, though, as was his custom, he rejected pure handouts. Soon Thérèse joined him and resumed her role as servant and cook, and it was apparent that they sincerely enjoyed each other's company, despite the waning of sexual attraction.

Rousseau befriended George Keith, the governor of the province, an exiled Earl Marischal of Scotland who soon took on the same role as M. de Luxembourg and became his protector. The weather was cold in the mountains, and, as usual, Rousseau intermittently thought that he was about to die. He would have liked to return to Geneva and attempted to draw support there, but his opponents maintained an upper hand. Various friends made recommendations as to where he might go to avoid persecution, but, as far as I've read, he has rejected all of them. He might have visited David Hume in Scotland at that time, but he showed little interest. In Môtiers, he attempted to befriend the ordinary citizens by making ribbons with them, but he soon found their conversation boring.  He began to receive a stream of visitors and enjoyed walking in the mountains, as it was quite beautiful and reminded him of the mountainous regions near Geneva.

In his correspondences of this period, Rousseau sounds more mature than previously. Anecdotes from visitors make him seem lively, enthusiastic, friendly and a good host. In person, he never seems to have been a stuffy intellectual but rather preferred animated conversation. I have been thinking about how well he did as a public intellectual when you consider how limited his formal education was. He was remarkably well-read for someone who never attended a university. However, you have to put this in context, and if he were alive today his life could never have followed the trajectory that it did. Without the proper education, he may have found himself working in a more limited range, perhaps as a playwright but not also as a composer or philosopher. On the whole, I am inclined to think of him as an artist rather than as a thinker.

Rousseau above all conjures up the image of a romantic, a man who loves nature and language, leads a picaresque life and seems to represent high ideals. This is what seems to have made him appealing both to his contemporaries and to his readers up to the end of the nineteenth century. In comparison, Lord Byron seems like a decadent version of Rousseau, with fewer ideas. The impression I'm getting is that Rousseau was unintentionally theatrical and put an entertaining spin on his life. I'm still a little disappointed in Cranston's analysis of Rousseau as a person. He notes with surprise that Rousseau spoke highly of his father even though he had essentially been abandoned by him when he was ten, and doesn't connect this with Rousseau's abandonment of his own children. Cranston also has nothing to say about Rousseau's reaction to the fate of Mme. de Warens: she died in poverty in 1762 after years of little contact with Rousseau, and, given the importance Rousseau placed on her in Confessions, this seems incongruous with his emphasis on virtue. It seems possible that Rousseau went to extremes to obscure these unpleasant aspects of his life. He used poverty as an excuse for child abandonment and may have espoused lofty ideals in order to distract from his own questionable behavior. His sensitivity and support of morality were magnets for the aristocratic young women whose attention he craved. However, he was never able to snare them completely and had to content himself with the attentions of the less-polished Thérèse and older, less-attractive women such as Mme. de Warens and Mme. de Luxembourg. He certainly brought out the maternal instincts in the women he knew. Perhaps I'm being too hard on him, but I do get a sense of his life as an improvised act more than as a serious meditation. What is missing so far in Cranston is the recognition that, while Rousseau was charismatic and habitually presented himself as morally upright, he was more often a recipient of help than a provider of it; there is no mention that a modern reader might construe Rousseau as a self-indulgent navel-gazer.

Monday, February 18, 2019

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

The remainder of the book covers the publication of Émile and The Social Contract, followed by Rousseau's sudden departure from France. Cranston also provides a summary of the ideas in The Social Contract, and they seem incoherent to me. Rousseau advocated some sort of republic in which the democratic process occurred only in the legislature, and it is unclear to me how the members would be appointed. Rousseau hated hereditary monarchies, so they wouldn't come from there. He also hated the suppression of the poor by the rich, so they would not come from the wealthy. In some bizarre way, it seems that he wanted a theocracy that would be based on the Christian God, but without any of the trappings of Catholicism or Calvinism. He also threw in ancient Sparta as a model. To me, this is an example of the confused thoughts that scholars analyze and discuss pointlessly for centuries. Rousseau's ideas here are unacceptable to me because they require belief in the existence of God, the soul and free will. The one good idea that I was able to glean from this was Rousseau's recognition of the risks associated with allowing poorly-educated people to vote. Modern democracies have yet to design systems in such a manner that people like Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini or Donald Trump cannot rise to power in general elections.

It may be just as well that Cranston isn't devoting much space to Rousseau's ideas. On the other hand, I think that he goes overboard in chronicling the daily events in Rousseau's life; that may simply be because this middle period is extremely well documented. You find out, for example, that Rousseau's catheter got stuck in late 1761, and a couple of his fans found out about it and suggested doctors for him to consult. In the spring of 1762 he began to wear a caftan made by a local Armenian tailor, which allowed him to go out without wearing breeches and facilitated urinating with a catheter. The detailed description of every person and event pertaining to the publication of each book, however, is tedious, to say the least.

Émile appeared first in France and received a ho-hum public reception. But, in the climate of the time, certain passages were considered blasphemous, and Rousseau was initially cavalier about this, even though it might have cost him his life. He made no preparations of any kind, and then one night in May of 1762 he was suddenly warned by Mme. de Luxembourg that gendarmes were on their way from Paris to arrest him. He quickly decided to flee to the Bernese region of Switzerland on Lake Neuchâtel, since The Social Contract would have caused his arrest in Geneva. M. de Luxembourg offered him a carriage, and he departed in a nick of time, passing the gendarmes, who were coming in the opposite direction on the road. He took his papers with him and left Thérèse behind to care for the house.

Aside from the complaints that I've been making, I still find Rousseau's life interesting. It is useful to me to know how a complex person lived his life in a different age. Notwithstanding Cranston's scholarly proclivities, which sometimes seem psychologically and intellectually lacking, the series is worthwhile. I will shortly begin the last volume, which was published after Cranston died suddenly from a heart attack in 1993 at the age of 73.  That volume is much shorter than the others and includes an epilogue describing Rousseau's place in intellectual history.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

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

The process of publishing Julie continued to be a fiasco for quite some time. The first edition from Amsterdam took so long to arrive in France that a second edition printed in Paris was released first. In addition, there were pirated editions in circulation in France simultaneously. None of the editions had the same text, and they all contained errors. Nevertheless, the novel became one of the most popular of the eighteenth century, and although it didn't make Rousseau rich, it made him more famous than ever.

In 1761, Rousseau engaged in final preparations for the publication of Émile and wrote The Social Contract. His health wavered throughout the year. At one point he thought that he was going to die. A doctor diagnosed an enlarged prostate gland. For a time he concerned himself with making provisions for Thérèse in the event of his death. He also sought to find the firstborn of his abandoned children, a girl, with assistance from Mme. de Luxembourg, who contacted an agent for that purpose, but to no avail. By the end of 1761 he had recovered his health.

A few readers of Julie began correspondences with Rousseau. Most of them were women, and some were aspiring writers. He also received a surge in visitors at Petit Montlouis, and on the whole he began to experience more social contact than he liked. He began to consider moving to a more remote location. As I mentioned earlier, Cranston is not particularly good at extracting how Rousseau's ideas could be based on little more than his personal preferences. The only instance that he has pointed out so far is Rousseau's inconsistent views on theatrical performances. On the one hand, it was fine for Rousseau to write and stage theatrical productions in Paris, but on the other hand it was wrong for Voltaire to write and stage theatrical productions in Geneva. Cranston seems to say that although Rousseau did attempt to rationalize this inconsistency, his underlying reasoning had more to do with dislike of Voltaire reigning over his home turf than with any substantive principle. Where I think Cranston has completely missed the boat is in not tracing Rousseau's concept of the noble savage to his preference for limited social contacts.

Looking at many of Rousseau's life choices, it is obvious that he had an introverted personality. He moved away from Geneva to a rural area as soon as he was able to. He disliked the intense social requirements of living in Paris. Even while living in Montmorency, he preferred very small social gatherings to large ones. I think that Rousseau's idealization of earlier times in human history was mostly an overgeneralization of his personal preferences. Not knowing that he had the personality of an introvert, and that most other people were inherently more sociable than he was, he arbitrarily blamed the ills of modern civilization on society itself. It does not seem to have occurred to him that people are social creatures and that most of them don't mind things that disturb him. Thus, from my point of view as a psychologically informed introvert, the conditions that developed in Paris during the eighteenth century had mainly to do with overpopulation and the availability of jobs in urban locations. The social adaptations that occurred were caused by increases in population density, not by the evil effects of society on individuals who would otherwise have behaved according to an idealized model of pre-civilized people about whom Rousseau knew little. It is for reasons such as this that I am tempted to dismiss most of Rousseau's ideas, and I am more comfortable seeing him simply as a talented writer rather than as some sort of prophet.

I don't have many more pages left in this book and will finish commenting on it in my next post. However, there is still one volume to go – but it's the shortest of the three.

Monday, February 11, 2019

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

I'm now up to 1761 and am becoming a little tired of Cranston's slow pace. Rousseau
moved back to Petit Montlouis in late 1759, and his relationship with M. and Mme. de Luxembourg continued to flourish. By 1760 they kept permanent rooms for him in their house in Paris so that he could spend time with them there. While his relationship with Sophie d'Houdetot gradually declined, he developed new ones with other young, aristocratic women such as Mme. de Verdelin, who was a friend of Sophie, and the Comtesse de Boufflers, who was a friend of Mme. de Luxembourg. These new relationships seem to have been platonic. Although Rousseau was still only in his late forties, he and his friends were frequently ill, and they grumbled about their illnesses the same way that people do now when they're in their eighties.

In the section that I just finished, Rousseau spent much of his time in correspondence regarding the publication of Julie. It was published in 1761 in Amsterdam to avoid censorship problems in France, and production was forestalled by events such as the freezing of canals, which delayed paper shipments, and shortages of type, which limited the number of pages which could be printed at a time. In addition to this, the proofing process was painfully slow, with Rousseau receiving few pages at a time, with those containing numerous typographical errors.

While Cranston seems to be trying to offer an even-handed view of Rousseau, I think that his commentary is a little too generous. Even Rousseau seems more self-critical in his Confessions. I would have hoped that by now Cranston would have offered a more insightful explanation of Rousseau's behavior. The key term of self-criticism that Rousseau used in Confessions was amour propre, which roughly means vanity or an exaggerated sense of self-worth. If you expand upon this idea, it becomes easier to understand Rousseau's behavior, but Cranston does not explore that avenue. The pattern that I notice is that of Rousseau being extremely competitive while taking great pains to conceal his pursuit of fame. It seems to me that he engaged in gratuitous quarrels simply because he was jealous at various times of the relative success of his peers. I think that he picked fights with his closest friend, Diderot, simply because Diderot was more successful than he was. Although he never developed such a close friendship with Voltaire, that relationship also began to take a turn for the worse for no apparent reason. Cranston fails to draw attention to the fact that Voltaire published the popular novel Candide in 1759, while Rousseau was working on Julie. If Rousseau had been able to behave like a mature adult, these major breaks could easily have been averted.

As with other biographical works that I've read, it can pay off to review different sources. Regarding the game of chess, Cranston merely remarks that Rousseau played it a few times and was fairly good: he beat Diderot and a nobleman who visited him later at Petit Montlouis. According to another source I read, Rousseau played regularly when he first arrived in Paris and honed his skills for quite some time. However, Rousseau seems to have suggested to others that he had hardly played at all, which would make him appear naturally talented if he were able to defeat more experienced players. I have the impression that Rousseau was extremely competitive from the start but hid it by pretending to be a virtuous ascetic. The reality seems to have been that from the beginning he wanted to be a rock star and get all the hot chicks, although, as an introvert, he avoided excessive exposure to the public.

Another fruitful clue that I think Cranston has missed was Rousseau's inexplicable taking of offense when friends sent him gifts. By 1759, many of his friends and supporters were wealthy, yet he would complain bitterly if they sent him, for example, some venison. His standard explanation to others would be that he had chosen to live an ascetic lifestyle for philosophical reasons, and that therefore he could not accept gifts that might alter his mode of living. However, my interpretation is that he was obsessed with his social rank, and that any suggestion that he might be in need of assistance was worrisome to him, because that might blow his cover as a fake hermit. I should also mention that there is little record of what went on behind the scenes in Rousseau's daily life. It would have been interesting to know exactly what Mme. Levasseur and Thérèse, who actually lived with him, thought. My guess is that they would have found him impractical and too focused on his public image.

In the broader picture, it is easiest to see Rousseau as incredibly ambitious if you look at all of the activities in which he attempted to excel: chess player, composer, librettist, playwright, novelist, philosopher and autobiographer. While such a range was more common during his lifetime, it would still have been relatively rare. Compare him to a more recent ambitious person in the arts, Stanley Kubrick: chess player, photographer, director, screenwriter and producer – a variety of skills, but over a much narrower range. It is obvious to me that if Rousseau's primary intent had been to live a reflective, rustic life, he could easily have done that without making a furious effort to achieve fame and recognition.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

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

As it happened, one of Rousseau's neighbors in Montmorency was Charles-François-Frédéric de Montmorency-Luxembourg, Duc de Luxembourg and Maréchal de France. He was a friend of the King and a chief military advisor, and he spent much of his time in Versailles. He made several attempts to meet Rousseau by inviting him to his château, but was rebuffed because Rousseau thought that he would be treated like a peasant and take meals with the servants. Finally, the Maréchal himself actually showed up at Petit Montlouis and couldn't be avoided. Rousseau was already acquainted with the Maréchal's wife, Mme. de Luxembourg, whom he knew from his salon days in Paris. He liked her but was intimidated by her because she could be spiteful. Before long, Rousseau was visiting them at their château.

In the summer of 1759, Petit Montlouis was so badly in need of repairs that the floors were caving in and it was becoming uninhabitable. The Maréchal offered Rousseau the use of an apartment in his Petit Château, an elegant, landscaped building close to his main house, while Rousseau's landlord made repairs to Petit Montlouis. Rousseau befriended the Maréchal, remaining a little wary of his wife. Rousseau felt more at home with aristocratic people, who never thought about money or advancing themselves, than with his intellectual peers in Paris or the social climbers whom he encountered everywhere. Without changing his attire, he met and conversed informally with the Maréchal and his friends, preferring only small groups.

At this stage, Rousseau's health had improved, and he was shopping out Julie for publication and writing Émile. Cranston devotes a chapter to the content of Émile. I read it a few years ago and was not impressed. It is interesting to me only to the extent that it shows how Rousseau conceived of education, both for men and women. Most of the book reads like a manual for use by a full-time tutor who has been assigned to raise a boy named Émile who comes from a wealthy family. Towards the end, the book begins to read like a novel, when Émile meets Sophie, his ideal partner who has also been raised according to Rousseau's principles. Rousseau manages to throw his entire cosmology, which is quirky to say the least, into the book. As with everything written by Rousseau, he is good at explaining how he came to adopt certain ideas, and it is left to the reader to decide whether those ideas might have any relevance to them. Usually that is not the case.

By contemporary standards, Rousseau's scheme is bizarre. He thought that only wealthy men of high rank deserved proper educations and the right to participate in government. Women, peasants and artisans had other tasks to perform and should stick to those. This is hardly a formula for equality. Rousseau is fairly consistent in his assertion that civilization and society ruin people, and that some sort of reversion to an earlier state would be desirable. However, he doesn't appear to have known how people actually used to live. He seems to have thought that men and women just wandered around in the woods alone and mated randomly, and that when women gave birth they raised their babies on their own. Although it is true that modern marital arrangements are products of civilization, Rousseau overlooked the fact that humans have always been social animals and have lived in small groups for thousands of years. With regard to religion, he believed in God, but not in the religious institutions that dominate religious beliefs. He found religion in nature and was suspicious of Christian theology: he did not consider Christ a divine being or think that the Bible was the word of God.

One of the things that I like about Rousseau is that he can be used as a reference point for how ideas develop and change over time, which makes it easier to look at one's own life and see it in a context that remains almost invisible in the present. He was born 238 years before I was, and the belief systems of his time were quite different from those of today. Even when he was wrong about something, it is useful to see how he interpreted and challenged orthodoxy. How will your current belief system stack up in 250 years? In a broad sense, he was right that social pressures force people into modes of thought which don't necessarily suit them well. It is also true that people may generally accept ideas that have no real merit under close examination. I think that, although there were disadvantages, Rousseau was able to benefit from the fact that he did not have what then would have been considered a proper formal education, because it allowed him to think independently. Then as now, it is beyond the scope of your plodding contemporaries to transcend the popular prejudices of the day. Certainly, the relegation of thought to formal institutions such as universities and the pervasive presence of advertising tend to encourage the acceptance of dubious truths and unthinking conformity. One of my frequent complaints on this blog pertains to the apparent absence of big thinkers today, and I would be happy to have another one come along even if he or she were just as error-prone as Rousseau.