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Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius by…

Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius

by Leo Damrosch

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Excellent biographical style, haven't read a biography this, well, "readable" since Dumas Malone's Thomas Jefferson. Sadly though, despite the great efforts by the author, Rousseau as a person just is not to my liking. But at the same time, I find him absolutely fascinating. He certainly fits the title's description as a genius, but most of the time you are left wondering how in the world can such a mind exist within a man of such different character. I think that is the best way to describe him, he was different; and one could consult all the references made to those who knew him and come to the same conclusion. He was often paranoid, volatile, frank and secluded, but then one reads a quote so profound and beautiful that you would swear it could not have come form the same person. So despite Rousseau and his troubles, the reader sympathizes with him and ends with a greater appreciation for him and his accomplishments. I will admit that this is the first biography of Jean-Jacques Rousseau that I have read, and one can see that the author encountered the same struggles that other biographers have in analyzing such a complex character. At some points the author feels that Rousseau relies largely on emotion (pg. 288) but then asserts that perhaps it is reason instead (pg. 304). But I think the author certainly succeeded in his efforts to such a degree that I would honestly recommend it to anyone. ( )
1 vote asukamaxwell | Jan 30, 2011 |
Until Damros published this 2005 National Book Award finalist, there has not been a good single-volume biography of Rousseau in the English language. This is because Rousseau's own auto-biography, "Confessions" (1782), is so well done and the number of sources for Rousseau's first 40 years are otherwise so weak, that writing a new biography is mostly a retelling of what Rousseau has already said. The strength of Damros' biography is to summarize Rousseau's life, his evolving thinking and his major works, including historical significance and context, while weaving in some of the best scholarship available after two centuries of reflection.

Rousseau's influences are so vital and important to so many aspects of modernity that they seem like second nature: the idea of government existing for the good of the people it governs, and not for the people to be good "subjects" of its rulers (which is why he was called the "prophet of the French Revolution"). Confessions was the first auto-biography to focus on mundane events in life, particularly childhood traumas (and adult sexual escapades), which he saw as influential in creating personality - an original idea for the time which saw childhood as a time to be forgotten. His concept of "natural man" in a natural state as the height of good, and civilization a downfall, are at the roots of Romanticism.

Rousseau's personality can best be describe as immature and "sharp at the edges". He either loved a person with all his heart, or hated them as his worst enemy. Usually, it started with the former and ended with the later, fueled by his paranoia and over-active imagination. These are traits one normally sees in a child, a black and white world view of love and hate unable to deal with the ambiguities of human weaknesses - which makes sense given Rousseau's brilliant genius combined with his abusive child-hood; lacking a mother he needed to trust someone, but at the same time could trust no one because of his abusive past. This fueled his desire for self-sufficiency and subsequent rejection of dependent relationships - thus he was naturally conflicted in an 18th C French society which was based on hierarchies of dependencies, where everyone was either the master of someone, or mastered by someone (and usually both)--Rousseau found a way to both live and preach an isolated life of self-sufficiency and inward reflection, hallmarks of the modern man. The master of no one, mastered by no one, and completely isolated from everyone. All of this is directly reflected in his works and ideas, so it is possible to fully understand Rousseau's works by understanding Rousseau the person - this biography paints the full portrait and answers many questions. ( )
3 vote Stbalbach | Feb 1, 2007 |
I really enjoyde this book.It is the only full biography of Rousseau in English and has a quiet confidence in its prose and covers both the biography and philosophy sympathetically. I was drawn to read it after enjoying reading Rousseaus dog (see below) ( )
1 vote sblake | Sep 17, 2006 |
Review by Troy Jollimore for the SF Chronicle here:


Review by Tom D'Evelyn for the Christian Science Monitor here:


Review by David A Bell for the Nation here:


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  chrisbrooke | Nov 30, 2005 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0618446966, Hardcover)

The extraordinary life of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the eighteenth-century literary genius who changed the course of history, traced with novelistic verve.

Motherless child, failed apprentice, autodidact, impossibly odd lover, Jean-Jacques Rousseau burst unexpectedly onto the eighteenth-century scene as a literary provocateur whose works electrified readers from the start. Rousseau’s impact on American social and political thought remains deep, wide, and, to some, even infuriating.

Leo Damrosch beautifully mines Rousseau’s books--The Social Contract, one of the greatest works on political theory and a direct influence on the French and American revolutions; Emile, a groundbreaking treatise on education; and the Confessions, which created the genre of introspective autobiography--as works still uncannily alive and provocative to us today.

Damrosch’s triumph is to integrate the story of Rousseau’s extraordinarily original writings with the tumultuous life that produced them. Rousseau’s own words and those of people who knew him help create an accessible, vivid portrait of a questing man whose strangeness--as punishing and punished lover, difficult friend, and father who famously consigned his infant children to a foundling home--still fascinates. This, the first single-volume biography of Rousseau in English, is as masterfully written as it is definitive.

Leo Damrosch is the Ernest Bernbaum Professor of Literature at Harvard University. He has written widely on eighteenth-century writers.

Praise for Jean-Jacques Rousseau

"Leo Damrosch's vivid biography enables us to plunge deeply into Rousseau's singular life, conjure up its crucial encounters, retrace its twisting paths, and supplement Rousseau's own claims about himself with the detailed, often contradictory testimony of the contemporaries he so unsettled and inspired." -- Stephen Greenblatt, author of Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare

"These pages bring to life the Europe of the ancien regime, a desiccated, sybaritic, superstitious, oppressive world about to be terribly and fatally convulsed. And they also bring to astonishing life a great agent of that convulsion, an impossible man whose books helped to make modern life possible. Leo Damrosch not only helps us understand Rousseau, his loves and his hates, his genius and his foolishness. He makes us see Rousseau. And, as he shows again and again in this immensely enjoyable and fast-paced story, that is Rousseau’s special and permanent fascination--because when we see him, we are seeing ourselves."-- Louis Menand, author of The Metaphysical Club and American Studies

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:25:16 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

Reconstructs the life of the French literary genius whose writing changed opinions and fueled fierce debate on both sides of the Atlantic during the period of the American and French revolutions.

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