Sunday, August 7, 2016

Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions On Individuality

I read the J. M. Cohen translation of this work. The below quotes are taken from that version.

My General commentary on this book is here.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions opens with the following, 

“I have resolved on an enterprise which has no precedent, and which, once complete, will have no imitator. My purpose is to display to my kind a portrait in every way true to nature, and the man I shall portray will be myself.   

Simply myself. I know my own heart and understand my fellow man. But I am made unlike any one I have ever met; I will even venture to say that I am like no one in the whole world. I may be no better, but at least I am different. Whether Nature did well or ill in breaking the mould in which she formed me, is a question which can only  be resolved after the reading of my book.”  

This seems the perfect introduction to Rousseau’s self-portrait. This work was one of the first autobiographies written and may have been the first in modern form. Thus, Rousseau calling it an “an enterprise which has no precedent” is accurate. The portrait of himself that he paints is also nontraditional. 

The following lines are interesting for several reasons. In particular they may be open to several interpretations,

“But I am made unlike any one I have ever met; I will even venture to say that I am like no one in the whole world. I may be no better, but at least I am different.”

Rousseau is declaring his uniqueness here. The question arises, however; is he saying that his own individuality is but just one example of selfhood in a world where everyone is unique? Or is he declaring that he is a special case in a world populated, at least in part, by individuals who are not so unique as he is? I think that the answer is not entirely clear from the text. The narrative paints a picture of the author as a very different person from the average. However, it also describes a world where there are a lot of odd and dissimilar individuals. 

Rousseau is not a character commonly described in literature. For instance, he is not the heroic type. Though he describes many hardships and injustices meted out to him, these ordeals characterize the author as something of a victim. Though at times he is seriously persecuted for his opinions, many other slights that he complains about are petty enough to remove any sense of a noble struggle and at times give the impression of whining. Furthermore, as I discussed in greater detail in my original post, the narrative is full unconventional relationships with women, further deviating from traditional literature. Thus, we have a picture of a very unusual personality and life. 

We live in a period of time where autobiographies are being produced in droves. Both mainstream and social media are brimming with people extolling and championing their individuality. Often this falls into the territory of self-absorption and narcissism. On the other hand, a look at history shows that suppression of the individual leads to human catastrophes, such as communism and other forms of totalitarianism as well as lesser forms of conformity.  Individual achievement and its celebration have driven great social, scientific and technical progress. Like many things in our world, a moderate amount of assertion of one’s self and personality yields positive results on the personal and societal levels. When it comes to our modern sense of self, a balance between individuality and community seems to be the optimal course.  Thus, if moderate doses of individuality are a good thing, Rousseau’s work can be viewed as a vital stepping-stone in how we humans express and think about these things. 

To the casual reader this autobiography might not seem so special. However, when one remembers that this work was written in 1769 and may have been the first of its kind, one begins to appreciate how groundbreaking it was.  Personally, I got the impression while reading it that I was reading a much more modern book. This is a further indication of how this book influenced thinking for centuries. 

This is a unique book, and Rousseau is a unique character. The opening lines of this work set the stage for pages and pages of distinctness. This distinctiveness helped to shape our concept of individual personality and self. This is but one reason why folks yearn to understand our culture, people in general, and the world at large.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Confessions - Rousseau’s Relationships with Women

 I read the J. M. Cohen translation of this work. The below quotes are taken from that version.

My General commentary on this book is  here

I am going to devote a few words to the role that women play in this Jean - Jacques Rousseau’s life and the way that they are depicted in Confessions. It is important to note that I have not read any of the author's more philosophical works. I understand that within those texts he expresses beliefs to the effect that he considered women inferior to men  in some ways. That attitude seems not to be reflected int his book. 

Rousseau’s interactions and feelings about women are fascinating, enigmatic and play a major part of this autobiography.  He is enraptured by a series of women throughout life. His views on them are unconventional. Early on, he shows masochistic tendencies. He describes being punished by Mlle. Lambercier, a woman who is acting like a guardian to him,

"But when in the end I was beaten I found the experience less dreadful in fact than in anticipation; and the very strange thing was that this punishment increased my affection for the inflicter. It required all the strength of my devotion and all my natural gentleness to prevent my deliberately earning another beating; I had discovered in the shame and pain of the punishment an admixture of sensuality which had left me rather eager than otherwise for a repetition by the same hand. No doubt, there being some degree of precocious sexuality in all this, the same punishment at the hands of her brother would not have seemed pleasant at all."

When he gets older, the author forms emotional attachments to one woman after another. He describes these women with praise and adoration. His often sees the opposite sex in a maternal way.  Thus, he often he prefers to keep these relationships platonic.

For instance, He develops a strong bond with Mme de Warens, or as he calls her, “Mama.” When he eventually sleeps with her, he is regretful.

"The day, more dreaded than hoped for, at length arrived. I have before observed, that I promised everything that was required of me, and I kept my word: my heart confirmed my engagements without desiring the fruits, though at length I obtained them. For the first time I found myself in the arms of a woman, and a woman whom I adored. Was I happy? No: I felt I know not what invincible sadness which empoisoned my happiness: it seemed that I had committed an incest, and two or three times, pressing her eagerly in my arms, I deluged her bosom with my tears."

The above reference to incest, “her bosom” as well as her nickname, all, reinforce the author’s view of Mme. de Warens as mother figure. This is a pattern that repeats itself throughout the book with various women.

Later in life, he claims to fall in love with another woman, Sophie d'Houdetot, who is committed to another lover. He observes,

"But I am wrong to speak of an unrequited love, for mine was in a sense returned. There was equal love on both sides, though it was never mutual. We were both intoxicated with love – hers for her lover, and mine for her; our sighs and our delicious tears mingled together. We confided tenderly in one another, and our feelings were so closely in tune that it was impossible for them not to have united in something. Yet even when our intoxication was at its most dangerous height she never forgot herself for a moment. As for myself, I protest, I swear, that if ever I was betrayed by my senses and tried to make her unfaithful, I never truly desired it. The vehemence of my passion of itself kept, it within bounds. The duty of self-denial had exalted my soul."

Once again, the author seems much more comfortable in a platonic relationship, even a platonic relationship where another man occupies the role of the woman’s lover.

Rousseau’s mother died when he was an infant and is described in idealistic terms in the narrative. One must naturally conclude that the author generally sees many of the women in his life as a substitute for his mother. He seems to easily fit into the role of the loving and slightly submissive son. He does, at times, quarrel with women and break relations with them. However, such strife is almost portrayed from the view of a disobedient child.

There seems to be a strong connection between the early masochistic tendencies and Rousseau’s later relationships. All of this gives Rousseau’s character a sense of childishness and innocent immaturity, even in the segments when he is in his forties.

Even for skeptics of Freudian analysis, there seems to be inescapable parallels to Freudianism. Furthermore, Rousseau’s acceptance of other men in the lives of the objects of his affection seems to indicate that he sees himself in a childish position in relation to these women and their lovers. Once again, the Freudian implications are obvious.

I should note another aspect to this narrative that illustrates what a complex character Rousseau was. Thérèse Le Vasseur, his common law wife, occupies a different position in this autobiography. Though she shows a lot of independence, at times even scheming against her husband, Rousseau seems to be the stronger personality in their relationship. Though he shows great love and affection towards her, he does not idolize her in the way he idolizes other women. This relationship just adds nuance to the fascinating character explored in this book. 

This work paints a fascinating picture of Rousseau the man. His attitudes and interactions with women are just one of the aspects that make the writer and this autobiography unique. This piece of the author’s personality is but one of many pieces of the puzzle that make him such a fascinating person.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions

 I read the J. M. Cohen translation of this work. The below quote is taken from that translation. 

Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions is an autobiographical account of the author’s life.  Published in 1782, this is one of the earliest autobiographies written, and some consider it the first modern version of the literary style. Rousseau paints a picture of life’s ups and downs in the various European locales where he lived in. The narrative of the author’s life is engaging. It also tells us a lot about the time period, human psychology and Rousseau himself. This is an easy work to digest, as the prose is very readable. 

The first part of the book is made up of accounts of Rousseau’s travels as an adolescent and as a young man. The author’s social, religious and intellectual development is detailed. During this time, Rousseau develops numerous relationships, including friendships as well as romantic and professional associations. He also converts back and forth between various Christian sects.

As the narrative moves into the middle age period of Rousseau’s life, a large percentage of pages are devoted to Rousseau’s seemingly unending personal disputes with associates and his unusual relationships with women. I have more to say about the author’s interactions with the opposite sex in a separate blog post. As for Rousseau’s innumerable conflicts with others, these involve people who seem to drift in a grey area between friends and enemies. At times, the author shows a lot of paranoia, believing in semi-organized conspiracies against him. With that, it seems that like most people, Rousseau encountered a fair number of nasty folks in his life. Interrelated with these disputes is the constant harassment and threats the author receives from both government authorities and from mobs, as his various writings offend one religious sect or another. 

One strongly suspects Rousseau to be an unreliable narrator. At times, he is harsh on himself. But bias seems to creep in as he describes numerous conflicts with others, most of which he blames on the imperfections of his antagonists. He also glosses over some acts on his own part, including the abandonment of his children. Though this is an autobiography, I find myself thinking of the character described in this book as fictional. My musings on this work may reflect this attitude.

Rousseau is a complex character who does some very problematic things and who is infused with flaws. Yet he also displays a likeable innocence. This innocence fades a little as he gets older, but never completely disappears. 

At one point he describes how he is completely incapable of any kind of long term planning. 

“The uncertainty of the future has always made me look on longdistance projects as lures for fools. I indulge in hopes like anyone else, so long as it costs me nothing to keep them alive. But if they involve time and trouble I am done with them. The smallest little pleasure that appears within my grasp tempts me more than the joys of paradise, except, however, such pleasures as are followed by pain, and they do not tempt me at all. For I only like unadulterated joys, and those one never has when one knows that one is laying up a store of repentance for oneself. “  

At least by today’s standards the above seems to extoll short - term gratification over responsibility. Yet Rousseau describes his behavior almost as if it is a virtue. The above quote is honest in that the author is not attempting to hide what many people would consider a flaw. At the same time Rousseau ignores the downsides to these tendencies, rejects the pleasures that might also bring “pain,” and instead focuses upon “unadulterated joys.” This made me think about modern humorous caricature of the happy go - lucky, irresponsible, slightly innocent, likable loser.

This is a big, complex work, and I have only scratched the surface in my short introduction. It is impossible to comprehensively cover this book in a single blog entry. Thus, I am going to publish several posts on this book in the coming weeks. There are many other aspects to this narrative that are well worth pondering. The themes of feeling over intellect, liberty, narcissism and human interaction are among the issues addressed within its pages. I highly recommend this classic to anyone interested in this period of Europe, psychology, philosophy, or just a fascinating character study. 

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Reading The American Revolution

I often say that the American Revolution is my number one bookish interest. This statement raises questions. What exactly does it mean? Is it accurate? How does this fit in with my reading patterns?

I have been interested in, and reading books on, the Revolutionary Era since I was an early teenager. Though there have been intermittent periods of several years when I did not do any reading on this subject, in the end, I always came back to it. 

A lifetime is a long time. Other interests come and go. Often these interests burn bright for a while. My interest in the Revolution burns lower at times. It has, however, burned longer and with greater consistency than anything else. 

About ten ago, I went through a period when I had not read this subject for a long time. At this time, I made a conscious decision to resume my readings in order to retain it as a major interest. I felt that it was important to have a subject in which I specialize. At that point, if my resumption in reading had led to boredom, this intentional renewed interest would have fizzled out. Instead, I quickly realized that I should never have slacked off, and I asked myself why I had stopped in the first place. For me, this reaffirms something deep inside of me that draws me to this topic. 

Over the past two years, I have been watching the television series Turn. This series centers on the Revolutionary Period and takes place on Long Island, which is my home. Watching this program has raised my interest in this subject of late, sometimes surpassing my interest in all other subjects. Similarly, museum visits, particularly good books on the subject, and other events elevate my interest from time to time.

The more detail and nuance I absorb, I become aware of the more that I want to know. One thing leads to another. Furthermore, I tend to relate other subjects to the Revolution. Here, I connected the philosophies of James Madison to what we now call identity politics. As someone interested in modern politics and social issues, it is inevitable that I would find and ponder such connections. This subject has all sorts of other implications that relate to many other topics.

The lifetime pattern of my reading is also worth noting. When I was very young I was interested in the military history of The Revolution. I read books that sometimes dug all the way down into the detailed strategy of armies. As I matured I became less and less interested in this aspect of the subject and I became more interested in political, philosophical, economic and social histories. I also became intrigued with biographies of the principle characters. Reading the philosophers, such as John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau that influenced the Revolutionary generation also appealed to me. 

What I define as “The Revolutionary Era” also expanded. I now consider the entire Revolutionary period to include the decades leading up to the war and only ending at the Constitutional convention of 1787. 

Though I have read many books on this era some of my favorites include Gordon Wood’s The Radicalism of the American Revolution, Joseph J. Ellis His Excellency: George Washington, James Lincoln Collier’s and Christopher Collier’s Decision in Philadelphia: The Constitutional Convention of 1787, Ralph Ketcham’s James Madison: A Biography, to name just a few.

As I posted here, history in general has always been an interest of mine. About half of my history reading is dedicated to the Revolutionary Era. About twenty percent of my total reading is dedicated to it. One might argue that such a percentage disqualifies the subject from being labeled a primary interest. However, this percentage has more or less held steady throughout my life. This is roughly about the same for articles and other pieces that I now read on the Internet. Ultimately, this is lot more pages than I have devoted to any other subject. Thus, I think that it is fair to call this my number one concentration of interest.

In the end, I am fascinated by the Revolution. I will likely maintain interest in it for life. As I alluded to above, at times this interest will seem dimmer than other more transitory preoccupations, but occasionally, it will be brighter. The old adage does come to mind when I think about this subject. Slow and steady wins the race.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Never Give In (Unless You Decide To): Some Wisdom from Winston Churchill

admit that I have a thing for dramatic quotes. Thus I wanted to write a little about these words from Winston Churchill, 

"Never give in--never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy."

I think that these particular words are relevant to everyday life.  They are also relevant when we discuss and exchange ideas, debate issues, adapt viewpoints and embrace belief systems.

There seems to be a dual message contained here. The first message seems to usually garner the most attention. The basic and obvious idea is to never surrender one’s beliefs or stances in response to outside pressure. 

Folks make ethically questionable compromises for various reasons. One reason is social pressure. People often go along with ideas because they seek the approval of family, friends or coworkers.

Though such pressure can be enormous, it pales compared to what happens when more tangible consequences apply. It might not be a physical threat that one is challenged with. Often, a person’s job or financial security is threatened if one does not go along with questionable ideas or behavior. 

Of course, physical threat and coercion are the worst forms of ideological pressure. Though such things happen in democracies and in everyday interactions, this form of duress is more common under less democratic systems. 

In cases where ideological pressure is tangible, I think that we need to be careful not judge too harshly folks who do give in their convictions. Instead, the above words should help inspire us to oppose such duress and to support those who are exposed to it. The fact that Churchill came under enormous pressure to compromise with evil, and refused to do so, adds weight to these views. 

I believe there is an important secondary related message here. It is encapsulated in the words “except to convictions of honor and good sense.” Sometimes determined people seem to hang on to positions for reasons of pride or stubbornness. It is also important to be open to changing their positions based on logic or simply seeing things differently. There is no shame in changing one’s position if it is the right thing to do.

Similarly, the term “good sense” seems to be implying that sometimes we need to compromise for practical and social matters. Every discussion on what to have for dinner should not be the Battle of Britain, for instance. In my opinion, such everyday concessions are acceptable if they do not compromise ethics or basic sense. 

I believe that these words are simply great advice. They can help one navigate both intellectual and moral obstacles. They can be a source of strength in trying times. They can remind us not to stick to a position solely out of a sense a pride. This wisdom is worthy for great leaders like Churchill as well as more common folks such as myself. 

Monday, June 13, 2016

Tidbits of Wisdom in Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility

My general commentary on Sense and Sensibility is here.

Jane Austen was not the kind of writer, such as Charlotte Bronte or Hermann Melville, who attempted within the pages of a novel to sketch out a universal worldview encompassing God, humanity and everything else. Instead, Austen examined human nature through the lens of everyday personal thoughts and interactions. Austen’s examination of humanity through common occurrences can be found in almost every page of her novels. There are literally thousands of illustrations and observations on human behavior in her books. These observations are often insightful, subtle, complex and accurate. She was able to dig deep into human behavior, emotions and relations. 

Take the below quote from Sense and Sensibility. Marianne Dashwood is describing how she plans to cope with the heartbreak of being jilted by John Willoughby, 
“As for Willoughby— to say that I shall soon or that I shall ever forget him, would be idle. His remembrance can be overcome by no change of circumstances or opinions. But it shall be regulated, it shall be checked by religion, by reason, by constant employment." 
The above quote is a prime example of Austen describing a common human reaction to a common situation. Here the often-cited dichotomy between emotion and reason is examined. Marianne is distraught that Willoughby has chosen to marry another woman. Like many rejected lovers, she is unable to shake her thoughts of her paramour and is experiencing emotional distress. In the moment, she is planning to counterbalance these strong emotional thoughts with the more cerebral aspects of her psyche. As she observes, she is trying to “regulate” the negative emotion, not eradicate it. 
Based on life’s experience, one would expect that, at least for the short term, “Religion, reason and constant employment” will not completely regulate or counterbalance Marianne’s pain. People often try to distract themselves from such depressed feelings to no avail. However, in the long run, one might expect the heartbreak to ease. Such relief can in part be attributed to such distractions. Thus, the situation described here is not a simple one. 
It seems to me that Austen has very successfully gotten into her character’s head. She is also accurately portraying human nature. The voice of Marianne in this passage seems to believably reflect a young woman attempting to self-analyze herself. Her statement sounds like something people, under similar circumstances, commonly say, even in our present time. 

Is this dichotomy real? Like many things said about human psychology, it is to some extent a generalization. Yet, there is a degree of reality behind this generalization. Neuroscience teaches us that the two halves of our brains represent opposite ends of thought and behavior.  One side is analytical, and the other side carries on the more abstract thinking. In a way, Marianne is describing the interaction between the two halves of her brain. I would argue that here and elsewhere Austen has proven that she was a decent psychologist. Here, unbeknownst to herself or her contemporaries, she was dabbling in a bit of early neuroscience!

Austen was neither the first, nor the last, thinker to examine this issue. However, like many things Austen, her take on it was distinctive and aesthetically pleasing. The above quotation only comprises of two sentences. It is one of thousands of these keen insights into humanity contained in Austen’s books. It is an illustration as to why this author can be classified as one of the great artists and thinkers of all time.