Thursday, June 28, 2012

Happy Birthday, Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Today is the 300th birthday of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, born June 28, 1712, in Geneva.  I teach a "single philosopher" course on Rousseau regularly; it is one of my two "signature courses." (The other is Intro to Ethics.)  I consider something to be a signature course if you would get a very different course (not necessarily a worse course, but definitely a different course) if you took it from somebody not me.

My Rousseau course is different from anybody else's because I love Rousseau more than anybody else does.  Most of all I love the passionate intensity with which Rousseau engages life, the intensity of what he would call his "sentiment of existence."

 His autobiography, The Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, was the first great modern autobiography, striking for its shockingly candid confessions about childhood sexuality (Rousseau had a predilection for "chastisement"), deeply regretted misdeeds (he cast blame upon a fellow servant girl for the theft of a ribbon he himself had pilfered, leading to her dismissal and likely ruination), and bizarre life choices (he had a prolonged sexual relationship with a female mentor, Madame de Warens, whom he regarded as his "maman"; he had five children with the woman who later became his wife, an illiterate chambermaid, and gave them all away to a foundling asylum).  "How can you like such a person?" I'm frequently asked. I like him because he tells us all of this without hesitation in a book that makes for riveting reading on every page. My students always tell me how glad they are that we begin and end the course with reading the Confessions.

We also read Rousseau's novel, Julie, or the New Heloise, the best-selling novel of the 18th century.  I have to admit that my students are less pleased about this, as the novel is extremely long, told in letters that run to twenty or thirty pages in some places, recounting the doomed love between Julie and her tutor, who is given the alias of St. Preux. His real name is never disclosed, presumably so that readers can suspect that it might be none other than Jean-Jacques himself. In his treatise on education, Emile, which reads in places like a novel, the fictional tutor of the fictional child, Emile, is actually called Jean-Jacques. The man did not have a small ego.

But he had prodigious talents that would justify a large ego. His Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, a hymn to what humankind has lost as we moved from "savage man" living in an amoral, innocent state of nature to the corrupt artificiality of civilized society, was a founding document of romanticism. His On the Social Contract was a founding document of the French Revolution's call for radical democracy. The child-centered educational methods of Emile are influential to this day. His late-life collection of essays, Reveries of the Solitary Walker, are masterpieces of French prose. Oh, and he also wrote an opera (score and libretto) that was the toast of Paris - Le Devin du Village (The Village Soothsayer).

So happy birthday, my dear Jean-Jacques. I wish I could be in Geneva for the festivities. Instead, I'll observe the day with a solitary walk, filled with reveries of a tormented, brilliant, paranoid, sensitive, witty, narcissistic, fascinating genius.

No comments:

Post a Comment