A Waistcoat soaked in Tears

Douglas Johnson

About Rousseau, as about Romanticism, it is tempting to use the word ‘disorderly’. Maurice Cranston showed us in the first volume of this, the most masterly of biographies how he had spent his early life as a wanderer and adventurer, he had been an itinerant tutor, a humble music-copier, an ambitious composer; the lover of a Swiss countess and the secretary to a diplomat; he had become a fashionable writer with an obsession about preserving his independence; he was an uneasy Catholic who needed a religion and who thought that he had found it in Protestantism; he was someone who discovered that his waistcoat was soaked in tears but who had not been aware that he had been weeping.

This second volume, which begins in the autumn of 1754, has Rousseau living in Paris with his mistress Thérèse and her mother (two people who had to pay dearly for the immortality he bestowed on them) before he buries himself in the rustic retreat of Montmorency. He is still a man subject to the strongest of emotions, capable of moving easily from melancholy to indignation, from humility to pride and petulance, from friendship to jealousy and enmity. He could declare his love for the whole of the human race and then practise the deepest personal selfishness. ‘We are taught to forgive our enemies,’ he once said, ‘and that is a very fine virtue, but it does not suit me.’ His judgment on Voltaire can only too easily be applied to himself. ‘With the finest pen of the century, that man has a heart that is prone to generate his own misfortune and sometimes that of others.’ It is not surprising that, at different times, there were those amongst his contemporaries who believed that Rousseau was mad, and that there were many later critics who considered that ‘the noise made by Rousseau’ was one of the strongest proofs ever given of human stupidity. His was surely a tale of bile and vanity.

As Maurice Cranston unfolds his meticulously documented account, however, we find that an orderly pattern begins to appear in this restless existence. He had written his Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, and copies were available in Switzerland, when a basket containing a gift of butter was sent to Thérèse’s mother, Madame Levasseur. By mistake it was delivered to the nearby house of a certain Comte de Lastic, who promptly accepted it. Learning of this, Thérèse’s went to claim the butter, but the servants shooed her away. Rousseau, whose Discourse had named property as the source of conflict and injustice in human relations, wrote a letter filled with vicious irony. He had, he said, explained to Madame Levasseur that there would be no point in having servants if they were not employed to drive away the poor when they came to claim their rights. He also ‘had made her realise at last that it is an honour for her to have her butter eaten by a count. She therefore instructs me, Monsieur, to express her appreciation of the honour you have done her and regret for any inconvenience she may have caused you, together with the hope that the butter proved to be to your taste.’

One understands why Rousseau should have written such a letter in response to an incident that was highly appropriate to his most recent publication. But typically, he allowed himself to be persuaded by Madame d’Epinay (his protectress at the time) not to send the letter. Equally typically, he read it aloud in the Paris salons and shrugged off the matter with the remark that henceforth Monsieur le Comte de Lastic might rob all the good women of Paris of their butter without any protest from him.

An even more striking coincidence concerns the writing of the novel Julie (better-known, later, as La Nouvelle Héloïse). Rousseau was at this time living in the Hermitage, Madame d’Epinay’s former hunting-lodge on her estate at La Chevrette, near the forest of Montmorency. He had been deeply offended by an article in Diderot’s Encyclopédie where the mountain folk of the Swiss canton of the Valais had been described as crétins. He started to prepare a rejoinder but soon abandoned the idea. However, he decided to use the description of the scenery of the Valais, which he had already written, in a pastoral love story set by the shores of Lake Geneva. The character of Saint Preux, the tutor, is based on Rousseau himself, and that part of Switzerland was associated for him with his first mistress, Madame de Warens: but it is not clear who Julie was. Nor is it clear how far Rousseau had proceeded with this work – which he constantly revised and reshaped – when he fell in love with Madame d’Epinay’s sister-in-law, Madame d’Houdetot. And this was because she brought his imagined Julie to life. He called her ‘Sophie’, her middle name, because it was nearer to ‘Julie’. Madame d’Houdetot was not exceptionally beautiful, but she was as Rousseau liked women to be – small, with an ample bosom. Just as Saint-Preux told Julie how the sight of her breasts excited him, so Rousseau told the same to Madame d’Houdetot. He had explained to the artist who was to provide the illustrations for the novel that she had to be depicted with these particular physical dimensions. When Rousseau and Madame d’Houdetot could not meet, they wrote letters, sometimes as many as six a day, and of such an intimate nature that they were desperately secret. We are well into the epistolatory novel that is Julie. As Cranston points out, one of the very rare occasions when Rousseau uses the word ‘romantic’, so frequently associated with him, is when he refers to Madame d’Houdetot’s ‘romantic air’.

But this was not all. Some time later, when relations with Madame d’Houdetot had cooled, Rousseau met the Duc de Luxembourg, a Maréchal de France, and his wife. Although he did not fall in love with her, he was seriously attracted and admired her greatly. She had had a somewhat scandalous past, but perhaps more relevantly, her beauty was enhanced by an ample bosom (Diderot commented that Rousseau had found a remedy for his bile by sucking the milk from the great breasts of Madame de Luxembourg). They established an undeniably intimate relationship. Rousseau would sit by her bedside and read her passages from Julie.

But what was curious was that he sent her an appendix to the novel, which was not to form part of the printed version. It told the story of one of the characters in Julie, Lord Edouard Bomston, who had supposedly spent some years in Rome, dividing his life between an unscrupulous former mistress, who was a Marchesa, and a repentant former courtesan. This only came to an end when he fell under the moral influence of Julie. Why did Rousseau give this story to Madame de Luxembourg as a special present? Afterwards he was worried that she might see something of herself in the portrait of the Marchesa. Cranston believes that she never thought in these terms. After all, he argues, she had never been accused of anything other than sexual promiscuity, which was the ‘rule of the day’ in French society at the time. This might be an overstatement. And he does not envisage the possibility that Rousseau could well have seen some similarity between the past history of Madame de Luxembourg and the story of Lord Edouard’s Marchesa and found it necessary to express it, although he afterwards became nervous about having done so.

Another sign of symmetry appears when Emile was condemned by the Paris Parlement to be seized, shredded and burned, and when it ordered that the author should be imprisoned. As Rousseau escaped to Switzerland (and it is with his arrival there that this volume ends) he read the Biblical story of the Levite of Ephraim. This describes how the Benjamites rape and kill the woman whom the Levite claims to be his wife. He then cuts the body into 12 pieces and sends one to each of the 12 tribes of Israel, who are thereby urged to take vengeance against the Benjamites and to slaughter them. The story ends with still more violence as the males of the tribe of Jabesh are killed and their virgins forcibly married to the Benjamites so that they can restore their numbers.

This story of vengeance impressed itself on Rousseau as he contemplated how he would revenge himself against all those enemies who were seeking to suppress his writings and who had succeeded in forcing him to flee from France. He wrote a prose poem on the Levite of Ephraim, and whilst admitting that it was not amongst his finest works, he nevertheless cherished it most.

Perhaps one should not be surprised by the existence of this symmetry. Rousseau always claimed that his work possessed its own unity. He said that although he had written on many different subjects, he had always had the same principles, beliefs, maxims and opinions. Critics might say that this so-called unity existed because he was only interested in himself. ‘To fall in love with oneself,’ Wilde remarked, ‘is the beginning of a life-long romance.’ It could be a recognition of this truth that has led a group of American scholars, embarked on the considerable project of publishing the complete works in translation, to begin with the curious, and often neglected, Rousseau: Judge of Jean-Jacques, usually known as the Dialogues. This he wrote some five years after his return to France from exile. When it was completed, in 1766, he tried to deposit the manuscript on the great altar of Notre Dame, hoping that news of its existence would thus reach the King and make it more difficult for his enemies to suppress it. But when he entered Notre Dame he found that his way to the altar was barred by a grill he had never seen before. He felt that Heaven itself was collaborating with the iniquitous work of men and he left the church, never to return. He tried other ways of securing his manuscript, which included entrusting it to a young Englishman, Brooke Boothby, whom he had known in Derbyshire. It was he who published a version of the first Dialogue in Lichfield, after Rousseau’s death, but it was not until 1958 that the complete work appeared in Paris.

It was because he was dissatisfied with the Confessions, which he had begun writing in England in 1766, that Rousseau embarked on this unusual work. He decided that he could not relate his life as autobiography, recounting and assessing incidents as they occurred chronologically. He did not want the public to read the Confessions simply for entertainment, as a specimen of ‘agreeable, rapid reading’. Nor did he wish to be judged by this public. Therefore he set out to write a self-portrait, and he did so in dialogue form, a form which he had already used and which enabled him to escape from the tyranny of narrative. The Dialogues are therefore, in Foucault’s words, ‘Anti-Confessions’.

The work consists of three dialogues between someone named ‘Rousseau’ and someone named a ‘Frenchman’. Neither ‘Rousseau’ nor the ‘Frenchman’ have met Jean-Jacques (who has been reduced to his Christian name). ‘Rousseau’ knows the works and admires them, but knows nothing of the author’s reputation. The ‘Frenchman’ has never read any of the works but he knows a great deal about the author and about the hostile gossip that is the common currency of Paris. ‘Rousseau’ therefore decides to go and see Jean-Jacques and the ‘Frenchman’ decides to read his books. The ensuing dialogues try to establish the sort ol man Jean-Jacques is and to decide about the nature of his writings. Within this complex structure, one that is not assisted by repetitions and by endless complaints, there is a striking autobiographical experiment, investigating the problem of the observed and the observer. It revolves around Rousseau’s descriptions of the conspiracies which were organised against him and about which he wrote abundantly both in his private correspondence and in published works.

There are those who believe that this preocupation with plots and enmities reveals two distinct persons. There was the Rousseau who was lucid, and who wrote many important theoretical works, but there was also the unbalanced and paranoid Rousseau whose writings about himself must be disregarded: Paul de Man has suggested that modern critics have fulfilled Rousseau’s fantasies about persecution. There were, in fact, many of his contemporaries who also wished him harm, such as Grimm, Voltaire, Diderot, d’Holbach and various former associates. Rousseau can’t be charged with suffering from paranoia when he thought about these people.

It is suggested here (and one of the editors of this translation, Christopher Kelly, has suggested elsewhere) that the conspiracy against Rousseau was deeper than a mere attempt to show that he was a monster and to cast discredit by attributing to him works he had never written or opinions he had never held. His opponents, seeking to create some new and ideal society in accordance with their ideas, realised that their real enemy was Rousseau’s system of nature, whereby man is made happy and good by nature, but society depraves him and makes him blind, miserable and wicked, all the more so as he moves away from his primitive constitution. Rousseau understood this hostility and did not imagine it. He always claimed that he was not a philosopher but a simple, truthful man who refused to lose himself in metaphysical abstractions or in the elaboration of useless subtleties. He sought reality in the depths of his own being and he was therefore the enemy of the Enlightenment.

Professor Cranston will have to deal with these autobiographical problems in the third volume of his great work. He has already considered some of Rousseau’s allegations concerning Emile and his own belief that delays in publishing this book were not simply the result of inefficiency but rather the result of a Jesuit conspiracy. Cranston points out how strange it is that Rousseau should have entertained these suspicions at a time when the Jesuits were being persecuted within France. But he also admits that there is good evidence of Jesuit hostility to Emile, and significant confusion concerning the role played by a certain Abbé de Graves in the entourage of Malesherbes, the official Director of Publications.

What is important here are the details Cranston gives us. With regard to publication we know about the delays that were caused by the author, about his fussiness over the thickness of the paper and the stitching of the binding, about the difficulties of having books published in Holland. Such details, presented with an alert scholarship, make this an outstanding work. The fiery, emotional and touchy Rousseau needed, and has found, a cool, British biographer.