Thursday, October 20, 2011

Who is Jean-Jacques Rousseau iii

I was destined to be rejected by every profession. Although M. Gâtier gave the least unfavourable account of my progress that he possibly could, it was obvious that my results .. did not serve to encourage me in my further studies [in seminary]. The bishop and the superior, therefore, lost interest in me, and I was returned to Mme de Warens as a creature not even fit to be trained as a priest. I was a nice enough lad otherwise, they said, and had no vices; which was her reason for not abandoning me even in the face of so many discouraging judgements against me.

You and I have just been introduced to one of the indispensable women in the history of literature, who did not write a thing but whose benign influence on this 'sweetest lever ever' of modernity wrought irreversible change in expectations of the novel and in discussions of female sexuality. Everywhere one turns, in the education and various rustications of the young Jean-Jacques Rousseau, accident and happenstance keep pointing the great rocket miraculously away from custom and practice, to that radical concept so few could imagine yet, without his writings - human equality.

At the age of 19, in 1732 - the year of the birth of Beaumarchais - Rousseau effectively flunked out of the lowest order of intellectual training a gentleman could pursue in France, but he clung to his benefactress' music text, describing himself precisely in the terms Beaumarchais would employ to characterise Cherubino in Le Mariage -

I have a passionate temperament, and lively and headstrong emotions. Yet my thoughts arise slowly and confusedly, and are never ready till too late. It is as if my heart and my brain did not belong to the same person .. I feel everything and I see nothing .. 

So there I was, settled at last in her house, Rousseau recalled of returning to Mme de Warens, a pensioned favourite of the Sardianian court, whom he would refer to as Mamma even when the difference in their ages 'made no difference'. Here, the young man who saw nothing and felt everything would discover the substance of the cornerstone of feminist literature in the French language, which he would write, himself: thinking as a woman at an age when males are obsessed with discovering how to seem to think as themselves. The turmoil he underwent in his passion for his benefactress was prodigal, the result is Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse, 1761.

The novel reconstitutes the story of Héloïse and Abélard from her point of view, observing and expressing her feelings as richly diffuse and infinitely multifaceted in affection. In a pointed footnote in the passages of the Confessions from 1732, Rousseau explicitly compares his gladness to be received in the house with that of his novel's hero, returning to his former lover's home after 4 years, shared with her husband and children. Rousseau would think for 29 years, before the novel would come to him. 

I will venture to say that anyone who feels no more than love misses the sweetest thing in life. For I know another feeling, less impetu-ous perhaps but a thousand times more delightful, which is sometimes joined with love and sometimes separate from it. This feeling is something other than friendship, something less temperate and more tender. 

Jean-Jacques Rousseau
The Confessions
op. cit.

Denis Hollier, editor
A New History of French Literature
  Ronald Rosbottom
  The Novel and Gender Difference
Harvard University Press, 1989©

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