Friday, June 29, 2012

The Confections

Somehow, I'm not surprised that a git like Terry Eagleton is a fan of Rousseau:

Above all, Rousseau is the explorer of that dark continent, the modern self. It is no surprise that he wrote one of the most magnificent autobiographies of all time, his Confessions. Personal experience starts to take on a significance it never had for Plato or Descartes. What matters now is less objective truth than truth-to-self – a passionate conviction that one's identity is uniquely precious, and that expressing it as freely and richly as possible is a sacred duty. In this belief, Rousseau is a forerunner not only of the Romantics, but of the liberals, existentialists and spiritual individualists of modern times.

I found this especially amusing, having, as it happens, just been reading J.M Cohen's translation of Montaigne's Essays last night (a vastly superior example of the genre, if you ask me, and even if you don't), where he offers a slightly different view of Rousseau's autobiographical style:

But the internal kind of false portraiture, though rarer, is even more insidious, and its classic exemplar is Jean-Jacques Rousseau. "Rousseau", says Fernandez, "gives an account of his morality in terms of his desires. He makes the person he was coincide with the person he would like to be by explaining his intentions after the event." The Confessions are full of incidents that show Rousseau pretending to emotions he never had, and that clearly belonged to an imaginary self, whose secret, by Fernandez' definition, could never be revealed. Rousseau takes it for granted that this romantic ego really was in control of events and aware of situations at the moment when they happened, that it was, in fact, capable of consciously, and sometimes mysteriously, planning his life.

Rousseau must therefore explain, though he cannot explain away, any incident in which he fell short of the ideal picture of himself which he cherished in his imagination. Montaigne never explained his actions in this way; he merely noted them down. The word that he uses to describe this recording process is constater: a verb which implies no suggestion of moral or wishful criticism. Had he been guilty of a meanness like some of Rousseau's, he would no doubt have noted it down. Indeed he notes down many things that would be to the discredit of an ideal Michel de Montaigne, if he had carried one about with him.

And Arthur included a perceptive capsule summary of him in a recent email exchange that's worth reproducing here:

Rousseau was very big on the way civilization as such, with its complexity and imposition of intricate interdependencies and competitive territorial adjacencies, pressures us to adopt false selves based on what Lacan calls the "imaginary" and what Girard analyzes as the psycho-politics of envy and scapegoating.

Rousseau's problem was that he thought that therefore science and the arts were the source of corruption, and he proposed instead a sublation of the self in the social contract based on an amorphous concept of "the general will," "forcing us to be free," opening the door, to detractors like Berlin, to totalitarian encroachments on individuality. But then he was a puritan (that is, a Genevan Calvinist by upbringing and re-conversion), and that says it all, as far as the cultural genotype he represents. He was also highly paranoid and narcissistic. I'm reading his Confessions, and what a train wreck the man's personality was (and in some sense is, for he is a persistent archetype of the modern personality; who among us can claim not to have at least a little Rousseau in him or her?). He is inevitable. Romanticism is practically unthinkable without him. Tolstoy and Proust are his wiser children. Proust at least realized that art was the solution, not the problem. Rousseau, conflicted, self-hating and self-seeking, contained both the person who made his name writing for the theater and, like a good puritan, attacking the very notion of a theater in Geneva because such frivolous entertainments would distract people from their duties as citizens! The hippie fascist is born.