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.

22 comments:

Stefanie said...

Wow, that Rousseau seems to be able to only see most women as mother figures and portrays himself as childish is really messed up. It would be interesting to know more about his relationship with his wife though I wouldn't trust Rousseau to tell the whole truth on that!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Stefanie - As I mentioned in my general commentary. I mostly comment upon this work as if it was fictional. Thus I have stayed away from comparing what is contained in it to real historical research.



JacquiWine said...

Very interesting post, Brian. I'm ashamed to say I've never read Rousseau, but then again I guess most of us have various gaps in our reading. My higher education was focused on the sciences, so I never had the chance to study some of these classic authors at college or University. It sounds as though you are finding Rousseau rather fascinating.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jacqui - There are so many Classic and worthy authors, it is virtually impossible to have read them all.

This work was so interesting as a character study. It also seems very important to in terms of literary history as it brome a lot of new ground. It is indeed fascinating.

Tracy Terry said...

Thank you for this fascinating insight into this man's relationship with women.

I can't help but wonder if he had suppressed gay tendencies.

Gently Mad said...

Wow. It seems that maybe the first woman somehow perverted Rousssuea's ability to engage in healthy relationships with women. Sad.

Of course, French people seem to have somehow gotten the whole true love thing all wrong.

I'm super generalizing, I know, in fact I'm only basing this on the literature I've read. Hopefully, Colette isn't the most accurate representation of French morals. Or Georges Simenon. Or King Louis XVI. Or...Rousseau.

You make this book sound so interesting and I am looking forward to reading it soon! Thanks Brian!

Brian Joseph said...

HI Tracy - There was an episode in the narrative where Rousseau is propositioned by a man. He reacts strongly against it. But today's standards his reaction would be considered homophobic. Of course this does not prove what his actual sexual orientation was.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - It might have been Rousseau's early experience that influenced him for life. It might have been in him by nature. It is hard to tell.

I would not generalize about French people and love, though I agree that there were several prominent French intellectuals who had questionable views on the subject.

James said...

Your commentary is fascinating, not only because the subject is so intriguing. I wonder why Rousseau had both a need to be "childish" in these relationships as well as entering so many of them. In one of the quotes he said he was unhappy. Was happiness ever what he was seeking? Or inspiration for his life and work? It does not appear that was the case, and if so that is very sad.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - My general impression of the narrative was that he happy at times, but like many people, he experienced a lot of unhappiness.

He certainly had difficulty with relationships.

HKatz said...

Maybe easier to see them as mothers, to live with the idealization rather than the realities. Though somehow his common law wife was different in this regard.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Hila - You raise a good point. I do think that Rousseau's approach to relationships was in some way easier, or more accurately, lazy.

thecuecard said...

So his common-law wife -- Did she come later? Or was he living with her while falling for other women? He seems all over the place with women. First he wants them then it's always a mistake. How unusual he acts. But it's great he wrote about all of this back in the 1700s. How fascinating to imagine lives back then.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan - If I recall correctly, several of Rousseau's platonic infatuations occurred after he and his wife were together but he did not describe affairs.

It is striking that this was written when it was.

Maria Behar said...

Excellent commentary as usual, Brian!

What an eye opener this post is!! I really should put this book on my TBR, as I'm actually not that familiar with Rousseau's work. I had NO idea that he was such a complex personality!

You know, it seems he had very ambiguous views of women. As you mentioned, the Freudian implications are very obvious. He seemed unsure as to how to relate to women. He was sexually attracted to them, but, at the same time, wanted to somehow "recover" the mother he had lost. So fascinating!

I wonder why he had those early masochistic tendencies. And how surprising, too, for the historical period he lived in. This makes me wonder how many other famous men in history who have outwardly expressed misogynistic views were secretly masochists. There could be a connection there.

Thanks for sharing your insightful thoughts!! Hope you're having a wonderful week!! :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Maria - Rousseau's life was indeed complex.

Though he did not seem to exhibit misogynistic tendencies in this work, it is possible that other men that do may combine them with masochism.

I just do not know if Rousseau's tendencies were nature or nurture. I think the evidence is clear that who we are is a combination of both. However, a paticular tendency can be one or the other, or a combination.

The Bookworm said...

It sounds like he has mom issues especially since he lost his mom at a young age. I like this though "We were both intoxicated with love".
Rousseau sounds fascinating.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Naida -He was certainly an interesting person. I think this is one of the reasons why this work is so popular.

Caroline said...

I think the contradictions between what he did, what he said he did and his philosophical/fictional work are so huge that I can't help fining him problematic.
I'll always prefer Voltaire.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline -

You raise an interesting point. So many great thinkers and artists did not reflect their ideas in their lives. With this work, we see a combination of ideas and actions and they do not always mesh. Of course, the fact that Rousseau's accounts of his life may not be reliable complicates this.

vb said...

I should tell you this..Your reviews are honest and indepth I could possibily find and in a way inspire me to read more..please keep it up and get me more books to my list.Thanks for all your review they are a treat..

Brian Joseph said...

Hi VB - It is good to hear from you. I hope that you are doing well.

Thanks for the good word.