Sunday, March 3, 2019

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

In 1763, George Keith, the governor of Neuchâtel, retired to Scotland, while Rousseau remained in Môtiers. Rousseau continued to write, and his next major work was Letters from the Mountain, which was directed specifically at the government of Geneva and was published in 1764. This caused him additional trouble in Geneva, and finally Rousseau gave up on effecting any changes there or making a return. Once again, Cranston is boring me to tears with superfluous details, which are doubly irrelevant as I don't care much about politics or Rousseau's political ideas. It appears that Voltaire actively worked behind the scenes to damage Rousseau's reputation in Geneva while outwardly pretending to like him. Cranston has yet to provide an adequate explanation of why Voltaire disliked Rousseau so intensely. One problem may have been incompatible personalities: Rousseau was charming and needy, while Voltaire, in Cranston's description, was witty and sarcastic. It may also have been a simple matter of professional rivalry, but I don't think that Cranston provides either a satisfying explanation or sufficient information for the reader to arrive at one. Some of Rousseau's contemporaries did think that Rousseau was crazy, but Cranston seems to downplay this possibility – he had a conflict of interest in the sense that, as a biographer, he presumed that Rousseau was worthy of study.

Life in Môtiers itself was a mixed bag for Rousseau. During the winters he became infirm, and he developed sciatica. Suffering pain, at one point he contemplated suicide. Then it seems that each year, when spring arrived, he began hiking, and suddenly he became robust again. Visitors could hardly keep up with him in the mountains, and he started a new hobby, botany, though he was only interested in it pictorially and not scientifically.  Thérèse didn't like Môtiers and thought that they were unpopular with the locals. Although in theory Rousseau should have liked them, as they would demonstrate the benefits of rural life, uncorrupted by cities, he actually preferred sophisticated people who were capable of engaging in stimulating conversation. Montmorency had been quite close to Paris, whereas Môtiers was in the middle of nowhere.

Rousseau continued old correspondences and started new ones. Cranston likes to draw attention to instances in which Rousseau demonstrated bad manners. With Rousseau in his fifties, friends were beginning to get old and die. He seems to have been terrible at letters of condolence, and in the ones he wrote he tended to change the subject almost immediately to the suffering that he was undergoing. He was particularly insensitive when writing to Mme. de Luxembourg after M. de Luxembourg had died. He also developed a flirtatious correspondence with one of his young female admirers, who went to the trouble of having a painting made of herself and then shipping it to him: he barely acknowledged its receipt, and the relationship collapsed for a while before recovering later.

Another area in which I find Cranston a little obtuse is in his lack of recognition that Rousseau loved attention whenever it associated him with higher social status. If Rousseau had been a true "hermit," as he had made himself out to be, he would have detested contact with the outside world. Yet, the more famous he became, the more visitors he wanted to see. Mind you, his favorite visitors didn't simply get brief audiences with him: they actually stayed with him in his house and ate meals with him prepared by Thérèse. A young, ambitious James Boswell, visiting from Scotland, stopped by and flirted with Thérèse, who was nineteen years older than he was. Someone representing Corsica wrote to request that he draft a constitution for the country, and he accepted with alacrity.

At this point in his life, with the mixture of fame and notoriety, and how he chose to handle it, Rousseau seems more interesting to me. Even so, his indifference to and avoidance of science, I think, made him a marginal thinker in historical terms. I will make two more posts before finishing and will try to wrap my final thoughts in the second post.

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