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.’

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