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.