HomeGroupsTalkZeitgeist
Big news! LibraryThing is now free to all! Read the blog post and discuss the change on Talk.
dismiss
This site uses cookies to deliver our services, improve performance, for analytics, and (if not signed in) for advertising. By using LibraryThing you acknowledge that you have read and understand our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy. Your use of the site and services is subject to these policies and terms.
Hide this

Results from Google Books

Click on a thumbnail to go to Google Books.

The Confessions by Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Loading...

The Confessions (1784)

by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingConversations / Mentions
2,540223,983 (3.54)1 / 86
'No one can write a man's life except himself.'In his Confessions Jean-Jacques Rousseau tells the story of his life, from the formative experience of his humble childhood in Geneva, through the achievement of international fame as novelist and philosopher in Paris, to his wanderings as an exile, persecuted by governments and alienated from theworld of modern civilization. In trying to explain who he was and how he came to be the object of others' admiration and abuse, Rousseau analyses with unique insight the relationship between an elusive but essential inner self and the variety of social identities he was led to adopt. The bookvividly illustrates the mixture of moods and motives that underlie the writing of autobiography: defiance and vulnerability, self-exploration and denial, passion, puzzlement, and detachment. Above all, Confessions is Rousseau's search, through every resource of language, to convey what he despairsof putting into words: the personal quality of one's own existence.… (more)
  1. 10
    Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius by Leo Damrosch (wildbill)
  2. 10
    Jean-Jacques Rousseau pedagoog een introductie by I. Van Der Velde (gust)
  3. 00
    'Tis Folly to Be Wise by Lion Feuchtwanger (JuliaMaria)
    JuliaMaria: Die Bekenntnisse sollten erst nach dem Tode von Rousseau veröffentlicht werden. Der Roman von Feuchtwanger behandelt den Zeitraum kurz vor dem Tode und danach.
Loading...

Sign up for LibraryThing to find out whether you'll like this book.

English (18)  French (2)  Dutch (1)  All languages (21)
Showing 1-5 of 18 (next | show all)
194 ROU
  alessandragg | Apr 23, 2020 |
Jean-Jacques Rousseau

The Confessions

Wordsworth Classics, Paperback [1996].

8vo. ix+[xv]+ 643 pp. Anonymous translation. Introduction by Derek Matravers [v-ix]. Cover: portrait of Rousseau by Maurice Quentin de la Tour (1704–88).

First published in French as Les Confessions, 1782.
This translation first published, 1904.
This edition first published, 1996.

Contents

Book One (1712–1719)
Book Two (1728–1731)
Book Three (1728–1731)
Book Four (1731–1732)
Book Five (1732–1736)
Book Six (1736)
Book Seven (1741)
Book Eight (1749)
Book Nine (1756)
Book Ten (1758)
Book Eleven (1761)
Book Twelve

==================================================​

To begin with full disclosure, Rousseau style, I had two ulterior motives for reading this book: Somerset Maugham’s strong words about it and my own curiosity to compare it with Gibbon’s Memoirs. The opening paragraphs also helped. Rousseau opens with a big bang:

I am commencing an undertaking, hitherto without precedent, and which will never find an imitator. I desire to set before my fellows the likeness of a man in all truth of nature, and that man myself.

Myself alone! I know the feelings of my heart, and I know men. I am not made like any of those I have seen; I venture to believe that I am not made like any of those who are in existence. If I am not better, at least I am different. Whether Nature has acted rightly or wrongly in destroying the mould in which she cast me, can only be decided after I have been read.

Let the trumpet of the Day of Judgement sound when it will, I will present myself before the Sovereign Judge with this book in my hand. I will say boldly: ‘This is what I have done, what I have thought, what I was. I have told the good and the bad with equal frankness. I have neither omitted anything bad, nor interpolated anything good. If I have occasionally made use of some immaterial embellishments, this has only been in order to fill a gap caused by lack of memory. I may have assumed the truth of that which I knew might have been true, never of that which I knew to be false. I have shown myself as I was: mean and contemptible, good, high-minded and sublime, according as I was one or the other. I have unveiled my inmost self even as Thou hast seen it, O Eternal Being. Gather round me the countless host of my fellow-men; let them hear my confessions, lament for my unworthiness, and blush for my imperfections. Then let each of them in turn reveal, with the same frankness, the secrets of his heart at the foot of the Throne, and say, if he dare, “
I was better than that man!”’

The book almost lives up to its opening. Rousseau is a frank and fluent writer, mightily long-winded but very elegant and very readable (at least in this anonymous translation; no idea how elegant or readable he is in the original French). There is only one problem with him. He is no Gibbon.

Gibbon’s autobiography was written a decade or so after Rousseau’s was published (decade or so after it was written). It would be difficult to think of two books which belong to the same genre and the same times yet are more different. Posthumous publication is the only thing they share. Gibbon’s book is at least five times shorter. He left it unfinished, but I doubt it would have been much longer had he lived to finish it. Rousseau is witty, but his wit is crude and monotonous compared to Gibbon’s much more subtle and versatile sense of humour. Rousseau is a reflective fellow who doesn’t neglect his own intellectual and emotional development, but compared to Gibbon he sounds anecdotal and superficial.

The greatest contrast lies, of course, in the personalities of these two great and greatly different men. Gibbon is a supremely sane and well-adjusted individual. He couldn’t care less what you think of him. Rousseau is neurotic and paranoid. He is anxious for your approval. As Derek Matravers argues in his concise introduction, Rousseau wrote his Confessions as a sort of psychotherapy. Only it was not enough to unburden himself on paper. He had to vindicate himself both in his own eyes and in those of his readers. This makes for an authorial voice that does get tiresome after a while. I found it useful to read something else every two or three books.

There is another, more general problem with style. Gibbon was aware of it, but I wonder if Rousseau was. This is the danger, especially in a practised writer, to give a false idea of his life and personality; not deliberately, but quite unconsciously, simply by dramatising himself as a side effect of his craft. This danger is obviously greater in writers of fiction who attempt to write their autobiographies, but even their non-fiction colleagues, if they are true professional writers, are liable to present a different self in their writings.

For all I know, Gibbon’s calm and rational personality may have been at least partly fictional. But I rather doubt that. Rationality is a pose hard to assume and almost impossible to maintain in the course of a whole book, never mind how experienced a writer you may be. Rousseau’s case is radically different. He is the definition of passionate and impulsive nature; and if this is just as hard to simulate, it is much easier to exaggerate. And this does seem to be the case with Rousseau. He is a rhetorician par excellence. It is always difficult, and sometimes impossible, to tell how much of his narrative is genuine feeling and how much rhetorical effect. Here is one random example:

I am a man of very strong passions, and, while I am stirred by them, nothing can equal my impetuosity; I forget all discretion, all feelings of respect, fear and decency; I am cynical, impudent, violent and fearless; no feeling of shame keeps me back, no danger frightens me; with the exception of the single object which occupies my thoughts, the universe is nothing to me. But all this lasts only for a moment, and the following moment plunges me into complete annihilation.

There is obviously much truth in this passage. Even more obviously, there is much exaggeration. You can confirm every word, including the twist in the end, with other passages from the same book. But they are the same florid mixtures of matter and art. How do you tell one from the other?

On the whole, I believe Rousseau is a truthful judge of his colourful life and disturbed mind. But I would suggest taking his effusions with a pinch of salt: the more rhetorical the language, the bigger the pinch. If you don’t follow this advice, you might conclude that the most traumatic event of his childhood was the unjust accusation of breaking a lady’s comb!

I would even go further and say that Rousseau is most revealing when he is least rhetorical. For instance, he is surprisingly restrained when he relates how he saw for the last time, at the age of twelve, his cousin Bernard, one of his best childhood friends. Yet few incidents demonstrate better how self-absorbed Rousseau was; his sense of self-importance was of cosmic proportions. Not for a moment does our narrator consider the possibility that Bernard might not want to come with him or at least try to stop him for any other reason but the orders of his parents. Rousseau cannot even conceive that somebody might care for him less than he cares for them.

Keeping in mind these caveats, let’s look at the shock value of this book. What are these things that “have profoundly shocked the sensibility of mankind”, not to mention impressed a man as hard to shock as Maugham?

As a child, “I had the faults of my age: I was a chatterbox, a glutton and, sometimes, a liar.” He was a practical joker, too. Once he made water in a neighbour’s saucepan because the lady was “the most confirmed old grumbler I have ever known”. He discovered the pleasure of stealing. He never stole money or valuables; only small things of no importance, for the thrill of it. There was only one exception to this rule. He was involved in a grand theft of asparagus together with a fellow who “conceived the idea of stealing some of his mother’s young asparagus and selling it in order to provide himself with two or three breakfasts.” So much for Rousseau’s “childish offences”.

Possibly the most disturbing episode from Rousseau’s idyllic childhood is the sensual pleasure he experienced from the “corporal chastisement” administered by Mademoiselle Lambercier, the 30-year-old sister (Rousseau was eight at the time) of a Protestant minister in Bossey, a little village in eastern France, where the boy was sent to “learn, together with Latin, all the sorry trash which is included under the name of education.” It was a real sexual awakening. Perhaps the whole thing is best left in the author’s own words (considerably abridged):

...for I have found in the pain, even in the disgrace, a mixture of sensuality which had left me less afraid than desirous of experiencing it again from the same hand. No doubt some precocious sexual instinct was mingled with this feeling, for the same chastisement inflicted by her brother would not have seemed to me at all pleasant.

[...]

When my feelings were once inflamed, my desires so went astray that, limited to what I had already felt, they did not trouble to look for anything else. In spite of my hot blood, which has been inflamed with sensuality almost from my birth, I kept myself free from every taint until the age when the coldest and most sluggish temperaments begin to develop. In torments for a long time, without knowing why, I devoured with burning glances all pretty women I met; my imagination unceasingly recalled them to me, only to make use of them in my own fashion, and to make of them so many Mlles Lambercier.

Even after I had reached years of maturity, this curious taste, always abiding with me and carried to depravity and even frenzy, preserved my morality, which it might naturally have been expected to destroy.


[...]

In this manner, then, in spite of an ardent, lascivious and precocious temperament, I passed the age of puberty without desiring, even without knowing of any other sensual pleasures than those of which Mademoiselle Lambercier had most innocently given me the idea; and when, in course of time, I became a man, that which should have destroyed me again preserved me. My old childish taste, instead of disappearing, became so associated with the other, that I could never banish it from the desires kindled by my senses; and this madness, joined to my natural shyness, has always made me very unenterprising with women, for want of courage to say all or power to do all.

As you can see, for all of his protestations of brutal candour, Rousseau is evasive in a classic 18th-century fashion. What he means here remains elusive. Apparently he liked sex with a touch of masochism. Whether it was merely some mild spanking or lots of bondage and bloody whipping, we shall never know. Whatever it was, Rousseau, if he is to be believed, never enjoyed it except in his imagination. He never asked any woman, however intimate he was with her, “to grant me the only favour of all which was wanting.” There was one and only one exception – “in my childhood, with a girl of my own age; even then, it was she who first proposed it.”

As usual, Rousseau is very proud of his frankness. He even regards this sensual digression as a milestone in the course of his book:

I have taken the first and most difficult step in the dark and dirty labyrinth of my confessions. It is easier to admit that which is criminal than that which is ridiculous and makes a man feel ashamed. Henceforth I am sure of myself; after having ventured to say so much, I can shrink from nothing.

Then there is the notorious incident with the ribbon. Rousseau’s kleptomania and his fear of disgrace really got the better of him there. As the world well knows, he falsely accused a servant girl, one Marion, of stealing an “old red and silver-coloured ribbon”. He did so in her face and in the presence of their masters with “infernal impudence”. He continued to be tormented by this dastardly act for the next forty years or so. Indeed, the episode contains a striking admission about the therapeutic nature of Confessions:

This burden has remained to this day upon my conscience without alleviation; and I can affirm that the desire of freeing myself from it in some degree, has greatly contributed to the resolution I have taken of writing my Confessions.

Rousseau is not always the culprit. Sometimes he is the victim. During his Catholic conversion which was “spent in arguing, mumbling prayers, and doing nothing, a disgusting little adventure happened to me”. This is how he begins a harrowing description of sexual harassment by “a Moor” and a fellow candidate Catholic. When he found himself alone with this “wretch”, our narrator almost got raped. He leaves little to the imagination:

I could not understand what had been the matter with the wretch. I believed that he was attacked by epilepsy, or some other madness even more terrible; and in truth, I know nothing more hideous for any cool-blooded person to see than such filthy and dirty behaviour, and a frightful countenance inflamed by brutal lust. I have never seen another man in a similar condition; but if we are like it when we are with women, their looks must certainly be bewitched, for them not to feel disgusted at us.

Even in the 21st century, with quite a lot of sexual abuse by Catholic priests on record, it is almost shocking to read something like this. Even if Rousseau exaggerated the incident, I very much doubt he invented it. The most shocking part is that he complained to his superiors and was accused of “making a great fuss about a trifle”. It was explained to him that while the action is highly immoral and forbidden, the desire for it is not, and that he (still in his teens!) ought to feel almost flattered that he was considered worthy of affection. It was common practice, apparently. Eight days later, the Moor in question “was baptised with great solemnity, dressed in white from head to foot, in token of the purity of his regenerated soul.” Rousseau never saw him again, but neither did he forget the experience:

This adventure assured me for the future against the attempts of the “Knights of the Cuff”; and the sight of people who were supposed to belong to their order, by recalling to my mind the appearance and gestures of my frightful Moor, always inspired me with such horror, that I had difficulty in concealing it. On the other hand, women, to my mind, gained much by comparison; it appeared to me that I owed them tender feelings and personal homage by way of reparation for the insults of my sex; and the ugliest strumpet became in my eyes an object of adoration, when I remembered the false African.

(A footnote in this edition helpfully explains that “Knights of the Cuff”, Chevaliers de la manchette, means “pederasts”. There are plenty of such footnotes about the translation or some of Rousseau’s more obscure allusions. They were supplied, it seems, by the anonymous translator. There are also some footnotes by Rousseau himself, apparently added some time after the main text was written.)

The only other homosexual episode in the book is when Rousseau is picked up on the streets of Lyon for a one-night stand by a nameless Abbé who “had the same tastes as my Jew of the hospice, but did not show them so brutally.” They ended up in bed, Rousseau politely declined the priestly advances, they spent “the rest of the night quietly” and separated like friends.

What else “shocking” is there? Well, Rousseau discovered, as every boy (and quite a few girls) at a certain age, the joys of masturbation:

I had brought back, not my mental and moral, but my bodily virginity. I had felt the progress of years; my restless temperament had at last made itself felt, and its first outbreak, quite involuntary, had caused me alarm about my health in a manner which shows better than anything else the innocence in which I had lived up to that time. Soon reassured, I learned that dangerous means of assisting it, which cheats Nature and saves up for young men of my temperament many forms of excess at the expense of their health, strength, and, sometimes, of their life. This vice, which shame and timidity find so convenient, possesses, besides a great attraction for lively imaginations – that of being able to dispose of the whole sex as they desire, and to make the beauty which tempts them minister to their pleasures, without being obliged to obtain its consent. Seduced by this fatal advantage, I did my best to destroy the good constitution which Nature had restored to me, and which I had allowed time to strengthen itself.

Oddly enough, Rousseau considers himself unsuccessful with the fair sex: “My want of success with women has always been caused by my excessive love for them.” Your guess is at least as good as mine how much of this statement is pure rhetoric. The same goes for his emphatic defence of platonic adoration: “No; there is no enjoyment equal to that which a virtuous woman, whom one loves, can afford.” This doesn’t sound too unlikely, however. I can well believe that Rousseau, like many highly imaginative men before and after him, found that sex in the flesh is never quite so extraordinary as you imagine it. As for “I am more afraid of a pretty young woman in deshabille than of anything else in the world”, I can well believe that, too. The narrative contains some exquisite examples of it:

She received me while she was dressing herself. Her arms were bare, her hair dishevelled, and her dressing-gown disarranged. Such an introduction was quite new to me; my poor head could not stand it; I was troubled and confused; in short, I fell madly in love with her.

Of course there are countless affairs with women – sometimes described at length, sometimes briefly; sometimes lasting years, sometimes merely one-night stands with prostitutes – but these can hardly shock anybody today. I am including here the ménage à trois with Madame de Warens, whom Rousseau always called “mamma”, and another of her lovers. This delightful short story is the centrepiece of Book Five. If the author is to be believed, “mamma” proposed the arrangement lest he was seduced by another, more predatory and less scrupulous, lady who was chasing the young philosopher at the time.

Rousseau spends plenty of space analysing his feelings. He felt uneasy about the liaison. He had become like a son to her, so it felt like incest. He loved her passionately, of course, but he “loved her too well to desire to possess her.” After years of complete spiritual intimacy, their bond had become “more affectionate, more tender perhaps, but also less sensual.” All the same, as you can easily guess, Rousseau had not the strength to refuse. He accepted the part and played it to the best of his ability. The first time – the very first time, for “mamma” took his virginity – sounds like a dreary experience:

The day, more dreaded than wished for, at length arrived. I promised everything, and kept my word. My heart sealed all my vows, without desiring their reward. However, I obtained it. For the first time I found myself in the arms of a woman, a woman whom I adored. Was I happy? No; I tasted pleasure. A certain unconquerable feeling of melancholy poisoned its charm; I felt as if I had been guilty of incest. Two or three times, while pressing her in ecstasy to my arms, I wetted her bosom with my tears. She, on the other hand, was neither sad nor excited; she was tender and calm. As she was by no means sensual and had not looked for enjoyment, she felt no gratification, and never experienced remorse.

Last and least shocking of all, Rousseau had five children and sent all of them to an orphanage. I really don’t know why this is often cited as something so heinous. Rousseau’s reasons are vague and confused, but that is immaterial. If there ever was a man unfit to be a father, he was that man. That’s why he did the right thing. No father at all is a much lesser crime than a bad father.

This is more or less all you will get if you read the book for the “shock value”. You might find yourself in the position of Cecil Rhodes who hired classical scholars to translate all of Gibbon’s Greek and Latin quotations and was disappointed by the meagre amount of salacious stuff they contained[1].

You wouldn’t be much better off reading the book for information. Rousseau wrote Confessions when he was in his mid-fifties and with the best part of his life behind him. But while the narrative is beguiling, it is also chronologically confused, full of trifling digressions, and almost completely devoid of details about the times he lived through or even about his own works. He is apt to spend pages on end lost in repetitious descriptions of his hypochondriac and hypersensitive self, not to mention the grand melodrama of all those conspiracies with the author as an innocent victim and everybody else as a diabolical schemer. This is so from the beginning, but in the so-called “second part”, which the author solemnly announces in the beginning of Book Seven, it does become more pronounced. Books Nine and Ten, in particular, are quite a slog. So many intrigues! So petty! So inane!

But the fantastic personality remains the same and makes the book much easier to read than it would have been in the hands of a black-and-white saint or sinner. Rousseau is not unlike the greatest characters in fiction: you can never really get to the bottom of him. Just when you think you’ve got his number, he eludes you into yet another baffling counterpoint. He is full of self-pity and self-love, self-awareness and self-delusion, kindness and callousness, courage and cowardice. He is noble and ignoble, calm and irascible, witty and tedious, smart and witless, exasperating and yet endearing. Above all, he is dreadfully paranoid:

The roof under which I am has eyes, the walls around me have ears. Beset by spies and watchful and malevolent overlookers, uneasy and distracted, I hurriedly scribble a few disjointed sentences, which I have scarcely time to read over, still less to correct. I know that, in spite of the barriers set up around me in ever-increasing numbers, my enemies are still afraid that the truth may find some loophole through which to escape.

And awfully susceptible to feminine charms:

She had a scar on her bosom where she had been scalded by some boiling water, which was only partly hidden by a neckerchief of blue chenille. This mark sometimes drew my attention to the place, and, in a short time, no longer on account of the scar.

Now and then, he drops casual revelations. They usually have the duration and suddenness of lightning. But also its power of illumination:

The more I have seen of the world, the less I have been able to conform to its manner.

A mean action does not torture us when we have just committed it, but long afterwards, when we recall it to mind; for the remembrance of it never dies.

If you want to sum up the whole book in two short quotes, these are the ones. Somerset Maugham certainly summed up the author with devastating accuracy as “weak-willed, petulant, vain and miserable creature” and the “sort of man who pays no attention to his good actions, but is tormented by his bad ones.”

Like I said and Maugham knew, there is just about anything in Rousseau’s multifarious and contradictory personality. He can be ludicrously snobbish (“How could a fine gentleman, with a sword by his side, go into a baker’s shop to buy a piece of bread?”) and then downright sensible (“Gambling is only the resource of those who do not know what to do with themselves.”) He can bore you with deistic fantasies about praying among nature, without any “petty handiwork of man interposed between myself and God”, but then he slips into shockingly secular observations such as “the best means of obtaining the blessings which are necessary for us from the giver of all true blessings, was to deserve, rather than to ask for, them.” Not the best grammar perhaps, but certainly the best advice. No wonder the life is just as improbable as the character.

All his life Rousseau remained a good-for-nothing bum that took up almost everything and finished next to nothing. He was, among other things, engraver, music teacher, land surveyor, music copyist, composer, tutor, a secretary to the French ambassador in Venice and even a secretary to a Greek prelate who was collecting funds for the restoration of the Holy Sepulchre. For some time in his youth he was a hobo who travelled on foot and didn’t mind sleeping on the street – or so he says. Mostly he was a sponge on good souls like Madame de Warens or not so good ones like Madame d’Epinay. He apparently made some money from his writings, but he spent all of it almost as quickly on himself as well as on others.

He loved music and wanted to become another Rameau, but he lacked the application, not to mention the talent, although he did compose at least one successful opera. He thought he was born to be a botanist, but he never did much about that either. At one time he was smitten with astronomy, but nothing came out of that. He finally found himself as a philosopher, or at least a controversial writer on some matters of social and political philosophy. Indeed, he became a true professional writer in every sense of the phrase, writing for a living as well as from a strong inner compulsion despite all difficulties of the craft (“however great a man’s natural talents may be, the art of writing cannot be learnt all at once”), not to mention the notoriety, scandals, arrest warrants, exile and misery that his writings brought him. Oddly enough, he became a professional writer only in his forties. He later calls writing “a fatal profession, which I had already abandoned” – and then sits down to revise Dictionnaire de Musique and to write Confessions.

It was an adventurous life that reads much like a picaresque novel. I guess Rousseau would have agreed with Tennessee Williams that he always found life “immeasurably exciting to experience and witness, however difficult it was to sustain.”[2]

Rousseau knew anybody who was somebody in the 18th century and the endless gallery of other people is one of the book’s minor delights. Their portraits are just as unsparing as the author’s self-portrait, yet livelier and more alive than many characters in fiction, barbed and yet remarkably generous for so selfish a man. La Maitre, a Parisian musician, is described as “a good composer, very lively, very gay, still young, tolerably good-looking, not very intelligent, but, on the whole, a good fellow.” Rousseau notoriously abandoned the poor fellow on the street after he had a fit. On the other hand, he can be surprisingly kind and generous to the boorish young fellow who unexpectedly supplanted him in the affections of Madame de Warens. Go figure!

Famous figures usually fare less well. Rousseau had a knack for quarrelling with everybody and a temper to match. Voltaire is dismissed early enough with a cynical nod as an opportunist and a bigot. Amazingly, Rousseau claims he never read Candide (1759). Diderot doesn’t cut a much better figure as a meddlesome busybody. If he, Rousseau and their friends are anything to go by, the 18th-century Frenchmen (and women) had voracious appetite for the pettiest quarrels in the politest and most hypocritical language. But, on the whole, famous people are seldom mentioned on these pages, and then briefly. Rousseau keeps the spotlight on himself.

In a stark contrast, Rousseau speaks at length and with touching tenderness and great affection about his closest friends, including “mamma” and Thérèse le Vasseur, his (un)official wife whose lack of education and even mental resources was balanced by gentleness and common sense which Rousseau found irresistible. He is even more effusive about his male friends. The Spaniard Altuna was “one of those rare individuals, whom Spain alone produces, too seldom for her own glory.” Gauffecourt was “one of the most amiable men who have ever existed” and his affection for the author ended only with his death. He is described with a sensitive understanding Rousseau is seldom given credit for:

Certainly, this charming man had his faults like others, as will be afterwards seen; but, if he had not had any, he would, perhaps, have been less amiable. To make him as attractive as possible, it was necessary that he should sometimes require to be pardoned.

I cannot tell you about Gauffecourt’s major fault. That would be a major spoiler. It forms one of the great twists in the end of Book Eight.

Of course, just as he exaggerates himself, Rousseau is apt to exaggerate others. Two and a half centuries later, it is impossible to say, nor is it terribly important, how accurately he reported all those quarrels, intrigues and conspiracies he is so obsessed with in the last books. Probably the truth, as usual, is somewhere in the middle. The chances are that Rousseau was sometimes treated shabbily by close friends he trusted too much. Equally likely, Rousseau himself could hardly have been an angelic creature against whom everybody conspired with merciless persistence, and his fervid imagination probably invented treacherous designs from the smallest snub.

It is certainly true that sometimes Rousseau cannot resist an almost malicious sting in the tail. He usually does that with minor characters. One M. de Verdelin was “old, ugly, deaf, harsh, brutal, jealous, covered with scars, and one-eyed; in other respects a good sort of fellow, when one knew how to take him”. Madame de Vercellis is an even better example. She was a woman of certain coldness (because she was not crazy about our narrator) but great kindness and fortitude. This is how Rousseau describes her death after a long and agonising illness:

At length we lost her. I saw her die. Her life had been the life of a woman of talent and intelligence; her death was that of a philosopher. I can say that she inspired me with a feeling of esteem for the Catholic religion, by the cheerfulness of soul with which she fulfilled its instructions, without carelessness and without affectation. She was naturally of a serious disposition. Towards the end of her illness, she assumed a sort of gaiety, which was too regular to be unreal, and which was only a counterpoise to her melancholy condition and was the gift of reason. She only kept her bed the two last days, and continued to converse quietly with everybody to the end. At last, speaking no more, and already in the agonies of death, she broke wind loudly. “Good!” she said, turning round, “a woman who can fart is not dead!” These were the last words she uttered.

Apart from all those vivid portraits and the author’s outrageous, and outrageously relatable, personality, Confessions would have been worth reading had it contained nothing but Rousseau’s flashes of wisdom. He can come up with passages of surprising subtlety and depth, putting things in a way as profound and eloquent as anybody has ever put them. And he digs deep. Here is a man intensely interested in the human animal, and unusually perceptive on the subject:

I venture to say that he who only feels love does not feel what is sweetest in life. I know another feeling, less impetuous, perhaps, but a thousand times more delightful, which is sometimes combined with love, but is frequently separated from it. This feeling is not simple friendship either; it is more voluptuous, more tender. I do not believe that it can be felt for a person of the same sex; at any rate, I was a friend, if ever a man was, and I never felt it in the presence of any of my friends. This is somewhat obscure, but it will become clear in the sequel; feelings can only be satisfactorily described by their effects.

It is not obscure at all. Maugham calls the same thing “loving-kindness” and describes it even better[3]. Rousseau is wrong about the non-existence of this feeling in same-sex relations, but otherwise he is spot-on.

Rousseau is also stimulating on the art of writing. He delves much deeper than most writers would care to analyse themselves, going all the way down to the fundamental tug of war between thought and feeling. This is a passage of pure beauty, and I wonder if this state of affairs is not rather common among writers and other artists (or even in science and other professions presumably more dependent on intellectual labour):

This sluggishness of thought, combined with such liveliness of feeling, not only enters into my conversation, but I feel it even when alone and at work. My ideas arrange themselves in my head with almost incredible difficulty; they circulate in it with uncertain sound, and ferment till they excite and heat me, and make my heart beat fast; and, in the midst of this excitement, I see nothing clearly and am unable to write a single word – I am obliged to wait. Imperceptibly this great agitation subsides, the confusion clears up, everything takes its proper place, but slowly, and only after a period of long and confused agitation. Have you ever been to the opera in Italy? During the changes of scene, there prevails upon the stage of those vast theatres an unpleasant disorder which continues for some time: all the decorations are mixed up, things are pulled about in different directions in a manner most painful to see, which produces the impression that everything must be upset. Gradually, however, complete order is restored, nothing is wanting, and one is quite astounded to see an enchanting spectacle succeed this long continued disorder. This mode of procedure is almost the same as that which takes place in my brain when I attempt to write. If I had known how to wait first and then to restore in all their beauty the things represented therein, few writers would have surpassed me.

Rousseau was quite wrong – of course! – in thinking that he was in any way unique. If he were, nobody would be reading his confessions well over two hundred years later. The truth is rather the opposite. He is the closest approximation to Everyman I have ever met in print. This sounds strange, but a good case can be made for it. That’s what I’ve been trying to do so far. That’s what Maugham observed, too. He wondered if any reader, if he is honest with himself, could read Confessions without asking himself something like “After all, is there so much to choose between him and me? If the whole truth were known about me, should I, who turn away shocked from these revelations, cut so pretty a figure?” (Indeed, Rousseau himself almost asks pretty much the same question in the third paragraph of the first chapter!)

One last example. Book Three contains one powerful passage in which Rousseau, far from referring merely to his own disordered mind, describes a fundamental defect of human nature:

Two things, almost incompatible, are united in me in a manner which I am unable to understand: a very ardent temperament, lively and tumultuous passions, and, at the same time, slowly developed and confused ideas, which never present themselves until it is too late. One might say that my heart and my mind do not belong to the same person. Feeling takes possession of my soul more rapidly than a flash of lightning; but, instead of illuminating, inflames and dazzles me. I feel everything and see nothing. I am carried away by my passions, but stupid; in order to think, I must be cool. The astonishing thing is that, notwithstanding, I exhibit tolerably sound judgment, penetration, even finesse, if I am not hurried; with sufficient leisure I can compose excellent impromptus; but I have never said or done anything worthy of notice on the spur of the moment.

No wonder Rousseau was the patron saint of the Romantics[4]. And yet, very few people, if they are honest with themselves, would fail to see something of them in this quote.

Maugham was right, yet again, that Rousseau’s Confessions is not a book that you can read “without some disturbance to the self-complacency which is our chief defence in our dealing with this difficult world”. Every great book does that. Despite plenty of flaws with the tone, the content and even the language, despite being violently uneven in parts, there is no doubt about the greatness of this book. Too bad it is so little read nowadays.

Whether or not you like Rousseau is entirely irrelevant. He does raise important and timeless issues: the difference between private and public self, and by “public” I mean the perception of your friends as well; the presence of some “odious vice” even in the “best of men”, as the author, “all things considered”, modestly considered himself (for sure he is not alone there!); the all too human weakness to excuse your own errors with tortuous reasoning and blame everybody else with blissful ignorance. These are only three perennial problems to which Confessions does offer plenty of answers, not necessarily pleasant ones.

Besides, Rousseau is a fascinating personality in his own right, jumping from the pages with almost shocking vividness. After the last page you’ll feel like you’ve known him all your life. You’ll probably never quite forget him until the end of your life. You could certainly do a lot worse than following some of his practical advice, even if he didn’t:

Conscious of my real feelings, I let them say what they pleased, and went my way.

__________________________________________________​
[1] I have learned that delightful bit of gossip – I have no idea how true it is – from Hugh Trevor-Roper. See his introduction to Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, Everyman’s Library, 1994, Vol. 4, p. lxiv.
[2] “Facts About Me” (1952), reprinted in Where I Live: Selected Essays, New Directions [1978], p. 62.
[3] The Summing Up (1938), Chapter 77.
[4] For a most amusing discussion of this idea, see Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy (1945), Book Three, Chapter 18. ( )
  Waldstein | Sep 1, 2019 |
A model of self analysis, engagingly endless. The self doubt of the exceptional is reassuring. My copy's cover is a detail of a drawing of Rousseau by Maurice Quentin-de-la-Tour. ( )
  deckla | Apr 5, 2016 |
Book Description
Widely regarded as the first modern autobiography, "The Confessions" is an astonishing work of acute psychological insight. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78) argued passionately against the inequality he believed to be intrinsic to civilized society. In his "Confessions" he relives the first fifty-three years of his radical life with vivid immediacy - from his earliest years, where we can see the source of his belief in the innocence of childhood, through the development of his philosophical and political ideas, his struggle against the French authorities and exile from France following the publication of "Emile". Depicting a life of adventure, persecution, paranoia, and brilliant achievement, "The Confessions" is a landmark work by one of the greatest thinkers of the Enlightenment, which was a direct influence upon the work of Proust, Goethe and Tolstoy among others.

My Review
I listened to the audio of this book and found it very interesting. I liked Rousseau's honesty and found him to be a very brilliant man. He had a very entertaining insight of human nature but I found him to be a bit bizarre at times. He was a truly fascinating person, and this classic work of autobiography and the Enlightenment period is not to be missed. ( )
  EadieB | Jan 19, 2016 |
I listened to the audio of this book and found it very interesting. I liked Rousseau's honesty and found him to be a very brilliant man. He had a very entertaining insight of human nature but I found him to be a bit bizarre at times. He was a truly fascinating person, and this classic work of autobiography and the Enlightenment period is not to be missed. ( )
  EadieB | Jan 19, 2016 |
Showing 1-5 of 18 (next | show all)
no reviews | add a review

» Add other authors (36 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Jean-Jacques Rousseauprimary authorall editionscalculated
Cohen, J.M.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Crocker, Lester G.Editorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Gagnebin, BernardEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Glover, William SharpIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hedouin, EdmondTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Koenig, Catherinesecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Mallory, W. ConynghamTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Matravers, DerekIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Matravers, DerekTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Pontalis, Jean-BertrandPréfacesecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Raymond, MarcelEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
You must log in to edit Common Knowledge data.
For more help see the Common Knowledge help page.
Series (with order)
Canonical title
Original title
Alternative titles
Original publication date
People/Characters
Important places
Important events
Related movies
Awards and honors
Epigraph
Dedication
First words
1712-1719 I have resolved on an enterprise which has no precedent, and which, once complete, will have no imitator.
Quotations
I love to busy myself about trifles, to begin a hundred things and not finish one of them, to come and go as my fancy bids me, to change my plan every moment, to follow a fly in all its circlings, to try and uproot a rock to see what is underneath, eagerly to begin on a ten-years task and to give it up after ten minutes: in short, to fritter away the whole day inconsequentially and incoherently, and to follow nothing but the whim of the moment.
Last words
(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
Disambiguation notice
This is the complete, original Confessions, only combine with single volumes or complete sets, and not with individual volumes of multi-volumes versions, selection of excerpts, or study guides.
Publisher's editors
Blurbers
Publisher series
Original language
Canonical DDC/MDS

References to this work on external resources.

Wikipedia in English (1)

No library descriptions found.

Book description
Haiku summary

Quick Links

Popular covers

Rating

Average: (3.54)
0.5
1 6
1.5 2
2 18
2.5 4
3 42
3.5 12
4 54
4.5 6
5 30

Penguin Australia

An edition of this book was published by Penguin Australia.

» Publisher information page

Is this you?

Become a LibraryThing Author.

 

About | Contact | Privacy/Terms | Help/FAQs | Blog | Store | APIs | TinyCat | Legacy Libraries | Early Reviewers | Common Knowledge | 146,744,822 books! | Top bar: Always visible