Friday, March 8, 2019

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

The remainder of the book, apart from the epilogue, covers the period from 1765 to 1778, and the last chapter was pieced together from Cranston's notes and other sources by the editors after Cranston died. While there are some comments on Rousseau's character, the final chapter seems incomplete to me, though I'm not sure that Cranston would have had more to say.

Gradually, Rousseau's reputation as a heretic increased in Môtiers, aided by the local preacher. At first there were minor incidents on the streets, but then, in September, 1765, Rousseau's house was stoned, breaking windows, and he decided that he and Thérèse would have to leave. After weighing several possibilities, Rousseau moved to the Isle de St-Pierre on Lake Bienne, northwest of Bern. At this stage, he had some income from his previous publications and expected more to come from his forthcoming Collected Works and Dictionary of Music. He also accepted money from George Keith. Rousseau loved the island and imagined retiring there, but he was soon informed by Bernese authorities that he would have to leave because of his publications.

He initially traveled to Strasbourg with his dog and was treated like a celebrity. As had been suggested by friends, he decided in November to move to England with assistance from David Hume, among others. At the time, Hume was in Paris working in the office of the British ambassador, but his employment there was ending. While in Paris, Rousseau was mobbed, and he was worn out by a constant stream of social engagements. Intellectuals flocked to Paris in those days, because it was the only place in the world where they could count on being treated like royalty. A few years later, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson could be found living it up there. Rousseau had been working on Confessions in Môtiers and finished it while in Paris. Hume accompanied him to England in January, 1766.

Rousseau's English episode was truly bizarre, and I don't think it is adequately explained in the book. Immediately after arriving, Rousseau developed a persecution complex. After the usual fussing about not accepting gifts, he and Thérèse moved to the vacant Wootton Hall in Staffordshire. There isn't a very good record of what Rousseau did while he lived there, because he left no writings about it. It appears that he immediately began carrying on with the local aristocratic women, just as he had in Montmorency. He liked the house and the countryside, but Thérèse was rejected by the servants because she could not comport herself properly as the lady of the manor. His relationship with Hume was good up to a point, but it suddenly took an abrupt turn. A joke, which originated with Horace Walpole, had been circulating for some time. The joke was a fictitious letter from King Frederick II of Prussia to Rousseau. In the letter, Frederick offers to take in Rousseau and persecute him at his pleasure. The gist, of course, is that Rousseau likes to be persecuted. Rousseau eventually found out about the joke, and in his mind he linked it to Hume, who lived in the same house as Walpole. To make matters worse, the son of Dr. Théodore Tronchin, Rousseau's greatest enemy in Geneva, lived in that same house. When the joke appeared in the St. James Chronicle, Rousseau also noted that the editor was a friend of Hume. He immediately severed his relationship with Hume in an exchange of letters. Hume, wanting to protect his reputation, perhaps in a mistake of judgment, published the letters under the assumption that Rousseau would publish his. Thenceforth, Rousseau thought that he was the victim of a massive conspiracy conducted by all of his enemies, and that he was unsafe in England. He left England permanently in May, 1767.

The remaining eleven years of Rousseau's life are covered in fewer than fifteen pages, so there is far less detail in this section than there is for any other period. In 1767 he lived in Normandy under the protection of the Prince de Conti. In 1769 he moved to Monquin, near Grenoble, and married Thérèse. In 1778 he retired with Thérèse to a cottage in Ermenonville, near Paris. Throughout this period he continued to write, but produced only lesser-known works. One of them was an analysis that had been requested by Poland for its constitution. He died from a stroke on July 2, 1778 at the age of sixty-six. Initially he was buried in Ermenonville, but, after the Revolution, his body was moved to the Panthéon in Paris, where he still lies, along with Voltaire, who died a month before him. Thérèse survived him by twenty-two years.

There is hardly any discussion in the book on Rousseau's character. Since I don't find his ideas particularly interesting and think that much of his current importance comes from his vague association with the French Revolution through a few of his phrases supporting equality and individual freedom, I think that his psychological makeup is more worthy of attention. The only insightful comment in the book comes in a footnote quoting Jean Starobinski:

[Rousseau] never agreed to recognize the long-term effects of what he did. He pursued only immediate goals, hence, he never wished for all the embarrassing repercussions and dishonorable aftermath. He put his children in a public orphanage, but only because they were unwanted consequences of immediate pleasures savoured in all innocence with Thérèse.

I think that his unsupervised upbringing and extended adolescence with Mme. de Warens allowed him to develop habits that diverged considerably from social norms. No one draws attention to the fact that he was repeatedly fired from jobs and did not leave "home" with Mme. de Warens until he was thirty. While most people recognize that even if they don't like their jobs they have to support themselves, Rousseau decided that he should never have to be an employee. Furthermore, he decided that taking handouts from benefactors was a little like being an employee, so he wouldn't do that either. It also appears that, as in the case of Hume, if there were any whiff of disapproval, Rousseau would permanently disassociate himself from that person, especially if he or she wasn't an attractive young female. I think that one of the greatest omissions of this biography is the lack of follow-up on what the women in Rousseau's life who survived him had to say about him after he had died. In particular, I would have liked to know the final thoughts of Sophie d'Houdetot, the Comtesse de Boufflers, the Marquise de Verdelin, Mme. de Luxembourg and Thérèse, because they probably understood him better than others. Rousseau knew something was wrong with the way that he had handled his children, but his account of it in Confessions reads more like a rationalization than a mea culpa. Much of Rousseau's writing intentionally places him in a position of high moral authority, and it is possible that this was a cover for his actual laxity as demonstrated by his life. In that sphere he seems more like a hedonist who gave little thought to the consequences of his actions and valued relationships only when they served his needs.

There is a short epilogue that I have yet to read, and after that I'll be done.

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