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.


James said...

Your commentaries on Rousseau's Confessions continue to inform and interest me. This one is no exception. I had the good fortune to attend a lecture entitled "Virtue in Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Emile on this past Friday. The writer of that "novel", one that is unique in its own right, bears some resemblance to the the author of The Confessions. He exhibits an atypical form of individualism that defies easy categorization. I am not surprised that he created a modern sounding autobiography that continues to intrigue and entertain us in the twenty-first century.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - That sounds like a great lecture to have attended.

Atypical is a good description for Rousseau's life.

Gently Mad said...

Hi Brian! It would be interesting to know what Rousseau meant by his uniqueness. We are all, of course, unique, but does he mean that?

This makes me think of the biographies I am currently reading of Hemingway and Frank Lloyd Wright. They never mentioned explicitly their uniqueness in the sense that they were not only different but above everyone else, but it was often implied, at least in Wright's case.

It is certainly a balance not lose our sense of self while keeping our view of self in the context of everyone else. You are right in that it seems more and more people see themselves as special but unfortunately out of context. This produces a sense of isolation, alienation and, I believe, tragically a rise in the suicide rate.

I think that Japanese art expresses the balance. They paint either of something like flowers or animals close up, or they show a bird's eye view of something like a tiny person walking through the woods in the midst of mountains.

Take care and have a good week!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - I agree with you, balance is so important. I would like to know more about Japanese art. The balance aspect sounds so interesting.

I was thinking about what you wrote about Frank Lloyd Wright in the context of Rousseau. Though he was flawed, I never got the sense that Rousseau felt that he was above others.

Have a great week!

Maria Behar said...

As usual, you've written some very interesting, insightful commentary here, Brian! Excellent post!

With every post about this book you've published, my inclination to read it increases! What a complex, and yes, truly UNIQUE character Rousseau has turned out to be! And yet, it seems to me that his opening words state a truth that should be obvious to everyone. But then, as you've pointed out, this work was way ahead of its time. Perhaps people in that time period really never thought about the fact, which, of course, science has proven, that we are ALL indeed unique.

The whole notion of uniqueness is a highly complex one, though. True, everyone has different DNA, and unique characteristics, as well as experiences, but then -- why do some people seem to be "more unique" than others? It's an undeniable fact that most people do seem to "go with the flow", upholding the status quo, not rocking the boat, and so forth. So, I would venture to say that it's the nonconformists among us who can truly claim to be unique. it's the nonconformists who are willing to step beyond certain barriers, who are willing to take certain risks, and therefore, are the freest of all of us. Now, I'm not advocating libertine behavior, by any means. What I'm advocating here is the willingness to ignore those who say things like, "That can't be done", "That's impossible", "We've always done it this way so far, and why risk failure now?", and, my favorite HORRIBLE thing to say, "Women are not supposed to do such things."

So yes, we're all unique, but some of us, those who DARE to accomplish things deemed impossible, or inappropriate, are the most unique of all. I do wonder, though, what makes some people willing to break rules and barriers, while others just complacently live their entire lives in following "approved" behavior?

As you know, I'm a political moderate. I totally ABHOR extremes, be they of the Left or the Right. Therefore, I totally agree with your views in this post, that extreme individuality is just as bad as extreme adherence to community. The first leads inexorably to fascism, while the second leads to communism. In the end, both are dictatorships.

I need to read this book!! Psychiatrists and politicians would have a field day with Rousseau, were he alive today!!

Thanks for sharing your fascinating insights into the man and his autobiography!! :)

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Maria.

It is so fascinating how some folks seem to revel in conforming while others revel in being different. Of course there are many who are in between. In terms of uniqueness and ignoring illogical and ethical constraints imposed by others, it is so important that people do so. At the same time I think that it important to stick to both logic, as well as a moral compass when deciding which rules to break. This seems to bring balance.

Balance and moderation are the keys to so many things in life. Extremes in politics and social matters so often lead to disasters.

Felicity Grace Terry said...

Not a big reader of autobiographies. Thank you for summing up my feelings about many of them with the words self-absorption and narcissism for this is exactly how I often find them.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tracy - If only for for Rousseau, being the first, we can at least say that his self absorption was original.

thecuecard said...

His confessions do sound very modern-like. And he does seem to have a high sense of self-worth and self-regard. Whether he is likable or at times detestable -- the book seems fascinating to history & to understanding ideas from the times and what influence they had thereafter. Thx for your reflections.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan - In some ways Rousseau seems like a man of our times.

He also was such a likable, unlikable character.

Unruly Reader said...

I confess I know precious little about Rousseau. But when you say that his book feels remarkably modern, I'm really intrigued. I always like it when a classic feels fresh.

JaneGS said...

Interesting that this was the first autobiography. I think the cult of the individual is a very western notion, and seems as if Rousseau is the patron saint of individuality.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Unruly - For me Rousseau reminded me of folks of I interact with in life. That is not always true of folks written about in older works.

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

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jane - "The Cult Of Individual" is a great term. It is something that we have really developed in the West. I do think that there are Evolutionary and Biological roots to it that manifest themselves thought human history and across cultures.

The Bookworm said...

Interesting Brian. You make a good point on mentioning narcissism and social media today. So much of it is self involved. Social media can really set the stage for that.
Like you say, there should be a balance. I think we are all unique in our own ways, but a certain amount of conforming is necessary. I am off to read your other post.
I've been away from blogland for a few weeks and it's nice to visit your blog again!

So many books, so little time said...

You always have such in depth thoughts, I love it. I am not a huge one for this type of book but find myself drawn after reading your reviews. Maybe actually track down one eventually, be interesting as there is relevance to modern day despite how long ago this one was written.


Suko said...

Excellent commentary, Brian Joseph. I'm glad you found this pioneering autobiography worthwhile. It does sound like a modern or contemporary work. Rousseau definitely was ahead of his time in his work and thought.

You raise many good points about the value of individuality. I do think it's important to value individuality, although we must also learn to work and live with others in a respectful manner, of course.

I've been traveling this summer for the past few weeks, but am now back.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Naida.

Social media has changed how we think and express ourselves in so many ways. Much of it can be positive and not narcissistic too. Book Blogs are a good example of that :)

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Lainy.

I also have read very few autobiographies. With that, this being one of the first, it is kind of special.

Brian Joseph said...

Welcome back Suko.

That balance, between being an individual and still being able to work and cooperate with others, seems so elusive for so many.

Caroline said...

It is really not clear whether he thinks he, and only he, is unique or everyone is in their own way.
I'm actually tempted to think it's the first.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - It is possible that he was trying to say that a bit of both ideas were true. That is, everyone is unique, but that he was really different.

HKatz said...

I enjoy your commentary on this work, and especially the observation of needing to strike a balance between individuality and communal belonging/efforts.

Also, I think a lot of times displays of individuality don't come across as convincing because they're done as a performance for other people's benefit. So it can turn into a matter of conformity.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Hila -

You raise a really good point. Many expressions of so called individuality today are indeed conformity.

The Reader's Tales said...

I have never read J-J Rousseau's  works. His Bio really sounds interesting. Excellent post as usual :)

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks for the good word Reader's Tales.

This is the first work that I have read from Rousseau. I want to read more.