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.

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