Sunday, January 31, 2016

Literary Pilgrimage: Rousseau

My favorite philosopher is Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). By this I don't mean that he put forward my favorite philosophy, that his political and intellectual views are those with which I most identify. I mean that he is my favorite philosopher: it's the man Jean-Jacques himself whom I adore.

I've taught Rousseau in a  full-semester single-philosopher course five times now. We start with his Confessions, the first modern autobiography, which anticipated Freud in its exploration of the influence of childhood sexuality on adult character formation. We read On the Social Contract, of course, and his Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, but also his groundbreaking work proposing a "natural" model of child rearing, Emile. We weep over his novel Julie, or the New Heloise, the best-selling novel of the 18th century. We listen to the opera for which he wrote both libretto and score: Le Devin du Village (The Village Soothsayer). And we finish with his poignant, late-life meditations, Reveries of the Solitary Walker.

Rousseau signed his political works "Citizen of Geneva," but he lived much of his life in or near Paris. So I used my free day in Paris to take myself to the Rousseau museum just outside of Paris, in Montmorency, the place where he resided for five years (1757-1762) and wrote the books for which he is best remembered.

It wasn't easy to get there. Rousseau's contemporaies railed against him for living so far from the city that they could visit him only at great inconvenience. Indeed, Denis Diderot called Rousseau a hermit and caused a public rupture between the two formerly close friends when he put into the mouth of a character in one of his plays this line: "Only the wicked man is alone." In order to get to Montmorency, I had to take a train within Paris to Gare du Nord, then a train outside Paris to Enghien-les-Bains, and then a bus to Montmorency, all navigated in my very halting French.

But it was worth it.

The museum is open only in the afternoons. The door to it offers an invitation.
A beckoning path then leads the way to Rousseau's former residence.

I was the only visitor, and I think the museum guide truly had never presented her tour to someone who loved Jean-Jacques as much as I do. She showed me the little table where he would have breakfasted with his longtime companion Thérèse.
She led me to the "donjon" where he retreated to do his writing.
And she pointed out the desk at which he wrote Julie. "We call this the Julie table," she told me. I clasped my hands over my heart.
Two large paintings, illustrating incidents from his books, hang in a front room. "This one shows a time that Rousseau and two of his friends--" she began. "The cherry picking scene from the Confessions!" I squealed.
She knew me then as the devotee I am, and we fell into each others' arms. Well, so to speak.

I loved going so far, alone, with difficulty, to find Jean-Jacques in one of the few places where, for a brief time in his tormented life, he lived happily. Pilgrimage can be a communal affair, Chaucer's band  of travelers on the road to Canterbury. But pilgrimage can involve a solitary journey as well, just me and Jean-Jacques and a kindly tour guide, sharing a sweet hour on a chilly January afternoon.


  1. Hello Professor! It's Catt, I was just thinking of you and wondering if you were still teaching at Boulder. So beautiful to see your blog!

    How incredible! I think the one most favorite concept from studying philosophy at CMC is from Rousseau, heavily paraphrased something along the lines of the first person who took a piece of land and said "this is mine" was the founder of something that caused a lot of trouble later on ;-)

    I will write more to you, I am so happy to see your blog!

    Much love,

  2. It was so good to hear from you, Catt!I'm no longer teaching at Boulder - I'm teaching in Indiana at DePauw University right now - but still love remembering magical past classes at CU and the students who were in them.