Sunday, October 12, 2014

Review of Rousseau's Confessions

Les Confessions (Confessions) by Jean-Jacque Rousseau, 1765 - 1770. Read in French. Glossy's rating: 3 out of 10.

Rousseau's Confessions give a pretty good idea of the kind of person he was: a grumpy, wimpy nerd who enjoyed being humiliated. So why did I finish this book? At a far enough remove almost any work becomes mostly about its time, and I find history interesting. Les Confessions can give a modern reader an intuitive feel for relations between Protestants and Catholics, intellectuals and their benefactors, hookers and johns, Frenchmen and Italians and many other kinds of persons of its time.

For example, I was fascinated by the extent to which Rousseau, a French-speaking citizen of the city-state of Geneva, considered himself non-French. Whenever he wrote that the French had a way of making him feel this or that, I wanted to shout at him, Elaine Benes-like, "YOU'RE French!" While describing his sojourns in the Venetian Republic and in the southern portion of the Kingdom of Savoy he had no problem calling the locals Italians. This must have been partly because distance increases our desire to generalize, but also because the existence of a state called France made the popular 18th-century understanding of Frenchness more legalistic and bureaucratic than the popular understanding of Germanness or Italianness.

Unlike the bulk of the French, the Genevans of that time were Protestants. The Reformation arose as a Germanic reaction to typically Mediterranean political corruption and inequality. Scandinavia, the most Germanic region of all, accepted Luther's ideas so enthusiastically that hardly anyone there was killed over them. The most culturally Mediterranean regions of the West (Italy and Iberia) rejected these do-gooder reforms with no less zeal. Most of the violence occurred in the middle of the Med-Nord continuum, in the areas that could have conceivably gone either way. And it makes perfect sense that there was more enthusiasm for the Reformation among the Czechs than among the Poles - the Czechs are genetically and emotionally more like Germans than the Poles are.

With all of that in mind I expected Genevans, pillars of French-speaking protestantism, to sound somewhat Germanic. But Rousseau didn't. There was a typically French sensuality in his tendency to analyze the minutia of feeling. And he displayed the generally Mediterranean liking for hyperbole, invariably telling the reader that no one had ever felt as thankful, betrayed, lonely, in love, etc. as he did during whatever episode he happened to be describing at the moment.

The early portions of this book feature a lot of regret over missed chances with women. Why do men obsess over those much more than we do about missed chances to get rich or professionally successful, which, if realized, would have naturally led to, among other things, increased popularity with women? I guess men, even rich ones, don't like to admit to themselves how important money and power are in the romantic sphere. We'd rather be loved for ourselves than for our status or possessions.

The most aberrant feature of Rousseau's sexuality and of his psychological makeup in general was his need to be humiliated by women. He was normally too embarrassed to flat-out ask them to spank him, so that particular fetish of his was only satisfied by a couple of females early on in his life. In adulthood the usual outlets for his pathology were inviting women to boss him around and constantly asking them for forgiveness for various slights. He admitted that these were poor strategies for attracting female attention, but was simply unable to change himself.

There's no doubt in my mind that both the nature of this book (confessing to poor behavior is humiliating) and the wimpiness of Rousseau's philosophy had their roots in this aspect of his personality, which already began to express itself in his childhood.

He was't latently gay though:

"She was very thin, very fair and with a chest as flat as my hand. That defect alone would have been enough to freeze me; for neither my heart nor my sense have ever been able to think of one without breasts as a woman."

And he was utterly disgusted as well as morally outraged by the few homosexual advances he received in his youth. Two of those happened in Lyon, contributing to his judgement that that city was subject to "the most dreadful corruption in all of Europe". I wonder how true this actually was.

In general it's a lot of fun to quote giants of the Enlightenment being epically illiberal by modern standards. With regard to an organization that only accepted aristocrats ("gentilhommes") and doctors of the Sorbonne as members Rousseau wrote that "If there is one justifiable source of pride besides personal merit, it's that which is derived from birth." I fully agree.

Much of the pleasure of reading a book like this comes from things said in passing which only started to sound remarkable with time. For example at one point, while surreptitiously drinking his employer's wine, Rousseau realizes that it would probably go down a little better with food.

"But how could a fine gentleman with a sword at his side go to a baker's to buy a hunk of bread?"

Think about THAT next time you go to the store. And he was working as a tutor then, practically a domestic. And was a son of a watchmaker.

While describing his stint as a junior tax official he mentions in a very matter-of-fact way that he was working 8-hour days. Was that normal for office workers at the time? If so, where and in what period did that practice originate? When 19th-century industrial workers fought for an 8-hour day, were they simply demanding to be treated like bureaucrats?

I found it interesting that Rousseau called an acquaintance who was born in Surinam an "Américain". He also talked about an uncle of his who left Geneva for Carolina ("Caroline") to help build Charlestown, for which he drew up a plan. And given my background I can't resist mentioning Rousseau's passing reference to a Genevan of his acquaintance who had once been employed by Peter the Great ("Pierre le Grand") "at the court of Russia."

The number of clergy in ancien régime France was simply stunning. When Rousseau strikes up a conversation with a random stranger, half the time it turns out be a priest or an abbé. The proportion of clerics among his neighbors, another mostly random category, seems scarcely lower. Yet the society described wasn't exactly prudish. Adultery and prostitution flourished.

The most shocking to modern Western sensibilities episode involves the purchase by Rousseau and a friend of an 11 or 12-year-old girl from her mother. This happened in Venice. The two men planned to raise the girl for future use as their exclusive disease-free concubine. In the age of syphilis prostitution carried enormous risks, and this was one strategy for avoiding them. Rousseau left Venice before the plan produced results.

By the time he started working on his autobiography Rousseau's writings and music had already made him an international celebrity. Wealthy, aristocratic people competed with each other to become his benefactors. Yet Complaints would have been a much more apt title for this volume than Confessions. Sure, his books were occasionally burned and he was exiled from a few places. But that seems to have only raised his reputation in others. And you've got to expect some conflict if you're going to write about politics.

He described an endless stream of eye-glazingly boring squabbles and grudges in the most excruciating detail while regularly repeating that he was the most uncomplaining man who had ever lived and that he was constitutionally unable to remember any wrongs that anyone had ever done him.

The end feels sad. I don't think old age necessarily has to be a swamp of defeat, depression, and extreme irritability, but if you suspect that it does, it would probably be a good idea to skip this book.