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. 



28 comments:

Mudpuddle said...

this book has been glaring at me from it's position on my shelf for quite a while; your post intrigues me, so through self defensive motivations, i will most likely undertake its perusal... tx

James said...

While I have read Emile, The Social Contract, and the Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men, I have not yet read this work. While I appreciate your excellent and intriguing commentary my views of Rousseau are very negative based on the reading I have done and make it unlikely that I will attempt his Confessions any time soon....

Harvee Lau said...

Sounds like a fascinating look into the author as a person.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Muddpuddle - If you give it a try feel free to come back and let me know what you think.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks James.

I have not read any of his other works. I have heard that this one was very different.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Harvee - Roussou was certainly a different and intriguing person.

Citizen Reader said...

I'd like to read it for its status as early autobiography, or even perhaps memoir? I doubt that I'll get the time for a while but I'll have to make a note of this title somewhere and get it--could be a completely different (and therefore fun) reading experience for me. Perhaps even an "unadulterated joy"? :)

Suko said...

This does sound like a fascinating autobiography. I look forward to more posts about this book, Brian Joseph.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sarah - This is a long book so time might be an issue. This is truly a unique reading experience so I would be curious to know what you thought of it.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suko - I have two more posts on the way.

Maria Behar said...

Another well-written, fascinating post, Brian!

I regret not knowing much about this philosopher, whose ideas had such a widespread influence in the history of thought. They particularly influenced the American Revolution, through one of his books, "The Social Contract". I have never read this book, nor have I read another of his famous ones -- the novel "Emile". I really should make an effort to to do so, as he is such a seminal thinker.

As you stated in your post, this autobiography is a complex work, and the picture of Rousseau I've gathered from your insights is that of a fascinating, yet contradictory, person, one who did not always look at his behavior objectively. Of course, it's not easy to look at one's behavior objectively!

This is certainly a book to make one ponder many issues, chiefly psychological ones. I wonder what Freud would have thought of Rouseeau, and if he would have taken him on as a patient, or at least as a research subject.

Thanks for your thoughts!! :)

Gently Mad said...

Hi Brian! I have a copy of Confessions, but it is in a long line of TBR and I don't know when I'll read it. I need to bump it up so I can respond to your posts with an informed view.

I do remember that he abandoned his family. I have a review coming up based on the life of Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright was a firm believer that "laws only apply to 'normal' people, not great people" such as himself.

He abandoned his wife and six children for another woman. The story is as absorbing as it is tragic.

I look forward to your future posts and I'm really going to read at least some of it before you post them.

Take care!

Tracy Terry said...

Another one of those books that has been collecting dust on our shelves. It must be relatively good though as it survived a recent sort out which saw a lot of non-fiction go to a charity shop.

Looking forward to reading more of your thoughts on this. Rousseau certainly sounds like a deliciously complex character.

thecuecard said...

Interesting Brian, I didn't realize Rousseau's book is one of the first autobiographies. As for him, he sounds like a piece of work, leaving his children and writing things that aren't true, but the book also sounds fascinating if it talks about what the times & places were like then. Does he recount a lot about those things? Or is it mostly about himself & his feelings & thoughts? cheers.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - This autobiography only goes into Rousseau's early fifties so he had not left his wife in it. His treatment of his children was poor however,

If you read this I would love to know what you thought about it.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tracy - It sounds as if you have a great collection of books.

More to come on this one for sure.I will be delving into his character some more.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan - Rousseau was really a character. It comes out in this work.

Though there is a lot of internal thoughts, this work is heavy on events and developments relating to the author's life.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Maria - So sorry I seemed to have missed your comment when you posted it.

One reason that I was interested in reading Rousseau was his influence on the American Revolutionary thinking. I have not read his more philosophical texts but I want to now.

The inability to be objective about oneself is one of the great pitfalls of autobiography and this work seems to have set the template.

As for Freud and Roseau I will be exploring that a bit in my next post.

So many books, so little time said...

Never came across this one Brian, certainly sounds interesting, maybe worth keeping an eye out for incase I happen across it.

Lainy http://www.alwaysreading.net

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lainy - I also rarely see this one sitting on the shelves of bookstores or elsewhere.

If you read this I would love to know what you thought of it.

Violet said...

It seems to me that although Rousseau had some interesting ideas, some of his behaviour was very questionable. The way he abandoned his children and his attitude towards women are things that have always troubled me. I guess he was just a product of his time, but he was forward-thinking in many ways, but not when it came to women and their rights.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Violet. I need to learn more about Rousseau aside from what is in this book.

His treatment of his children in it is unconscionable. However, he portrays himself as a bit submissive to women and in generally positive light. I will be dedicating my next post to this issue.

As I noted, I think that this is a biased account of his life and in a way, I look at the Rousseau of this work as almost fictional.

HKatz said...

I probably won't be reading his autobiography, but I appreciate your commentary and how you show Rousseau's complexity. It's also interesting that this work influenced the writing of autobiographies and the conventions of the form.

I wish there were more adults who held onto childlike curiosity and playfulness while at the same time meeting basic responsibilities (like to their kids). Getting rid of the emotional immaturity of childhood but keeping some of the better qualities.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Hila - You raise a good point. Rousseau dis show a childlike innocence in some aspects of his life. As is often, but not always the case, he combined this innocence with neglect of others. This is unfortunately all too common.

Citizen Reader said...

Saw this and thought of you:
http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/08/01/how-rousseau-predicted-trump

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Citizen.


I saw that essay on Rousseau and Trump. It is interesting. Rousseau seems to have set the template for much of our modern world. His anti elitism can really be applied to a lot more then Trump.

Caroline said...

I've been thinking of him lately.
He was such a complex perosn. Flawed, as you say. Writing about education but giving away his own kids.
I'm not sure I've read this but I read the Rêveries du promeneur solitaire, which I liked a lot.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline.

I have not read anything by Rousseau other then this.


I would like to read more and I might read Rêveries du promeneur solitaire next.