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.

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