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.