Friday, March 27, 2015

The Confessions, by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Title:  The Confessions

Author:  Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Date Published:  1782 (completed by 1769)

Challenges:  The Classics Club; The Well-Educated Mind (biographies); Literary Movement Reading Challenge (Enlightenment)

Though Confessions falls under the Enlightenment literary time period, Rousseau wrote as an early Romantic.  He lived by the seat of his emotions and full of contradictions, which maybe explains why he was not very stable.  He was a contemplative wanderer (drawn to serenity in nature and the country) and an emotional wreck.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau may be known as the philosopher whose ideas inspired the French Revolution, but Confessions was more personal and introspective than philosophical.  He did not include great details about his social, political, or educational concepts in this autobiographical work, particularly those ideas from The Social Contract and Émile, and that left me even more curious. 

In the first half of Confessions he seemed a typical energetic, young boy, curious about his world. His father taught him to love reading, and it was from books that he developed a romantic view of the world and life.  But very early on he believed his life was burdened, beginning with the loss of his mother, immediately after his birth.   He ran away from a difficult apprenticeship as a teenager, and found himself in the care of a much older woman (who was like a mother to him, and whom he worshiped obsessively); then they became intimate lovers, and it was simply a very odd relationship, indeed.

To add to his complications, Rousseau suffered from poor health and moved from job to job.  He learned to become a music teacher, which was totally hysterical because he knew nothing about music.  But he eventually taught himself and genuinely contributed to the field.  He even wrote operas. 

from Confessions

By the second half of his story, after his (mother-figure) lover rejected him for being absent too long, he moved in together with a young woman and her family.  At some point, the woman, whom he was certain was his soul mate, became pregnant, and he convinced her to give the baby to the State orphanage.  According to Rousseau, they did this four more times.  Later he claimed it was out of fear of poorly raising his children under his current situation: he was not well-off; he would not be a good father; and he was prone to wander. In addition, he disliked his young lover's family, and did not want them to influence his children.  (That is usually why couples move out and have their own home, but I digress.) He did eventually marry this poor girl many years later.  

In continuing the topic of lovers, he became obsessed with another young woman, who was married and had a second lover herself.  He was so sure that this was love, and it was this woman who became the subject of his highly praised romantic novel Julie or The New Heloise.  But this intimate relationship proved to be ruinous, which was bound to happen.

Speaking of disastrous, Rousseau, while a solitary man, also adored and prized his friendships very much.  Many of them were people he shared his ideas with, people he admired, and people he trusted.  And because he later lived in the public eye - given his position in administration, the popularity of his operas, and his published literary works - he was often criticized and challenged by others, including Voltaire who opposed his ideas. His philosophical notions caused such uproar that book burnings and threats to his liberty and his life haunted him everywhere.  Even his home country, Geneva, rejected him.

After Rousseau became an expert in the fields of education and child rearing, thanks to Émile, it was no wonder that he was criticized, given the abandonment of his children. If he was such a champion of mothers nursing their babies, as opposed to hiring wet nurses, why did he never gave the mother of his own children the opportunity to nurse her babies?  Like I said, he was contradictory.  But then again, hearts can change.

from Confessions

Everyone had a reason to be against him.  Religious orders were angry with him because he rejected original sin and saw all religions equal.  But he also blamed arts and sciences for the corruption of men, which he believed were born good but affected by their external influences.

Personally, Confessions was an amusing read, and I enjoyed the translation, but it was also a temperamental roller coaster ride for me.  I started off feeling allured by his sweet, innocent charms, but then I was put off by some of his odd behaviors that bordered perversion.  (In my day we called what he did "flashing.") But I forgave him for that.  

His peculiar relationship with an older woman left me perplexed.  (And I thought Madonna invented the Boy Toy in the 1980s.)  By the time he shared the story about five children he had with his young lover, which they gave up to the State, I changed my mind about him drastically and only saw his selfishness.  

His unstable and infatuated love interest with a married woman was truly problematic, especially because it was coupled with his lustful fantasies.  Though he was not entirely explicit, I think it was too much personal information for me.  

from Confessions 

Finally, he was a bit arrogant about himself and his high expectations of how others should treat him. But by the time it was apparent that friends, acquaintances, and the world had turned against him, I had pity for him.  Compounded by his poor health, every day was a bad day for Rousseau, even if he did bring it on himself.  If I could, I would have given him a hug because he really needed one.

So what is to be done now?  Regretfully, I remember nothing about Rousseau's ideology from my college philosophy class.  I am curious to understand his philosophical ideas, and why he was opposed, now that I have been acquainted with the man.  At some point, I'd like to read Émile, The Social Contract, and maybe even Julie.  I want to know what materialized from the mind of this complex man after reading the inside story of his heart. Then I can go back to his Confessions and say, "Ah, that is why he thought as he did."

P.S.  I took this quote from John Taylor Gatto, a school teacher.  When I see it, it makes me think of Rousseau.  Perhaps this is what he was striving for; that in writing Confessions, he created a different way to write about a life - a personal, introspective autobiographical story.


o said...

Such a good review! :) I read this a while ago - I found I much preferred the first half, and somehow I kind of lost the energy needed for the second half.

Cleo said...

Woo hoo! We finished! Can you believe it? Wasn't Rousseau a character? I just loved him for most of the story but occasionally I'd come across something quite repellent and wonder if made a good choice. I did find that Rousseau admitted his faults quite readily; much of the time this concession was sincere yet there were certainly times I found him to use this device to garner sympathy from the reader.

A question for you ....... did Rousseau really believe man was born good? I thought he didn't, which was why the cultivation of reason was necessary. I'll have to look it up, or better yet, read some of his other works. I, also, have an overwhelming curiosity to read his other books. I have to check and see if I have his Discourses. I know I don't own the others, so perhaps a trip to the bookstore is in order.

BTW, thanks so much for letting me tag along on your biographies odyssey. I'm having lots of fun and probably wouldn't have chosen to do it without a push!

Cleo said...

I know exactly what you mean, O. The tone of the second part was completely different from the first; did you find that too, Ruth? The first part was almost whimsical and fresh, but the second part was full of near-whining at times, complaints and thoughts of conspiracy. I much preferred the first part to the second, but if you just keep going through the second, either you get used to it, or it gets a little better; I haven't figured out which yet. :-Z

Carol Apple said...

Whew! What an energetic bizarre individual Rousseau must have been. He must have been quite charismatic to get as famous as he got and to charm the number of women he did. I know a little about his philosophy and had read somewhere about how he abandoned his children. Neither of these things tend to make me feel warm toward him. But I suppose I need to read The Confessions and The Social Contract, because from what I understand his thinking has had quite a profound influence on social policy that we hare still experiencing today.

Ruth said...

Isn't that amazing? I read somewhere that he may have even inspired the likes of Marx, and yet I still don't get the impression that this man was influential or effective; after all, according to him, he had not a friend in the world. (Even Tolstoy grumbled about him in War and Peace!) I definitely need to read some more to make sense of this.

Ruth said...

He was quite humorous and candid about his faults; he wasn't shy about how he felt regarding his embarrassing weaknesses. I did feel that some was for sympathy, too.

If I were not so lazy, I'd go into my house and get my copy b/c there is a place where he talks about external forces influencing human behavior (my wording), and I underlined it b/c it is typical of people who think man is born good but his environment corrupts him. He certainly believed that every man needed to live in the country or with nature b/c it would bring out the best in him. (Well, I couldn't argue with that b/c I totally agree, but probably not in the way he thinks of it.) So I'll have to find it, and I'll get back to you.

And I am so grateful to have another mind reading these bios with me. There used to be four other women that I kept up with, but I sort of passed them up and they have stopped blogging about TWEM books. So it is really nice to have someone else to read along with again.

P.S. Are you ready for Franklin? I just started reading him today, but I am going to focus on Woolf this whole weekend, so I probably won't start Franklin again until May.

Ruth said...

Thanks, o! This is definitely true for me, too. I think he always had good memories about his youth, but he became very bitter about his adulthood.

Ruth said...

Cleo: I got a little tired of his complaints about people, for it was constant. I found it a little weary at times to keep hearing about the same problems; but at some point it broke me, and I just felt so sorry for him.

Cleo said...

Ruth: during the first few chapters of the second part, it got a little annoying but I realized that people were making judgements on him based on his writing and not really due to any contact with him, since he was in the country. I can imagine people gossiping about him and, given Rousseau's sensitivity, his (over) reaction. And while his mind connected him with other people, he was really rather isolated, which earned him some sympathy from me. Given his life experience, his character was understandable, however it's unfortunate that he didn't meet some people who could turn his character in a more positive direction.

Heidi’sbooks said...

I read The Social Contract not too long ago in the histories. (I started with the histories, then the dramas, now I'm in poetry.) It turned me off to read Confessions, but it's on the TWEM list--so I probably will read it eventually.

Cleo said...

I've joined two WEM groups on the WTM forums that have fizzled so I sympathize.

I've started Franklin and am enjoying his biography immensely. Another interesting character and, again, frank in his assessment of himself. I'm beginning to think men were more honest historically. They admit their escapades and follies even though they know it may put them in a bad light during their times; nowadays when people admit their escapades and follies, it's because they think they'll be admired for them. Hmmm ....

Ruth said...

Excellent! So I get to read it for my histories. I'm probably going to disagree with everything he says, but hey - at least I'll get to read it and maybe it will feel differently now that I know the complicated man behind the ideas.

I wonder how you will read through Confessions after getting a taste of his political views first, as his unmasks himself in his autobiography.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Wow. Cleopatra's review made me want to read Rousseau, your review makes him sound fascinating. I didn't realize that his ideals influenced the French Revolution. All the more reason to read Confessions. It is sad how people run after true love but their own selfish (sinful) nature gets in the way.

Ruth said...

He was a interesting and troubled.

His love life was complicated b/c he was looking for a mother figure, given that he never was able to enjoy that part of his growing up. And his sin nature did cloud his judgment.

Nonetheless, an interesting read if you get the chance to read it.