“I am resolved on an undertaking that has no model and will have no imitator.”
Rousseau was born in 1712 in Geneva in the Republic of Geneva, a city-state in the Protestant Swiss Confederacy. He was born to a watchmaker named Isaac Rousseau and his wife, Suzanne Bernard, his mother dying tragically mere days following Rousseau’s birth. He described her death as, “the first of my misfortunes.”
“By this dangerous method I acquired in a short time not only a marked facility for reading and comprehension, but also an understanding, unique in one of my years, of the passions. I had as yet no ideas about things, but already I knew every feeling. I had conceived nothing; I had felt everything. This rapid succession of confused emotions did not damage my reason, since as yet I had none; but it provided me with one of a different temper; and left me with some bizarre and romantic notions about human life, of which experience and reflection have never quite managed to cure me.”
|Les Charmettes where Rousseau lived
with Mme Warens
From the age of 10 on, Rousseau saw little of his father, who had moved away to avoid prosecution by a wealthy land owner. The boy was eventually apprenticed to an engraver, but at 15 ran away and began a rather nomadic lifestyle. In Savoy, he would be introduced to Madame Francoise-Louise de Warens, a woman 13 years his senior, whom he would forever call “Maman.” She would be his Muse and surrogate mother for the greater part of Rousseau’s life, as well his lover for a short period of time. Later, his obsessive interest in music would be used to earn money as a teacher, as well as gain him subsequent notoriety as a writer of opera and various other articles and works on the subject.
|Denis Diderot (1767)
par Louis-Michel van Loo
Upon returning to Paris, after a posting in Venice as a secretary to the Comte de Montaigue, Rousseau took Thérèse Levasseur as a lover, eventually having 5 children with her, all of whom he placed in a foundling hospital, being unwilling to bring them up due to the lack of education and undesirable social class of his in-laws whom he was supporting. With his later books on education and child-rearing, these callous actions made him the target of vicious ad hominem attacks from some contemporaries, in particular Voltaire and Edmund Burke.
“As we became better acquainted, we were, of course, obliged to talk about ourselves, to say where we came from and who we were. This threw me into confusion; for I was very well aware that in polite society and among ladies of fashion I had only to describe myself as a new convert and that would be the end of me. I decided to pass myself off as English: I presented myself as a Jacobite, which seemed to satisfy them, called myself Dudding and was known to the company as M. Dudding. One of their number, the Marquis de Taulignan, a confounded fellow, ill like me, old into the bargain, and rather bad-tempered, took it into his head to engage M. Dudding in conversation. He spoke of King James, of the Pretender, and of the court of Saint Germain in the old days. I was on tenderhooks. I knew about all of this only of what little I had read in Count Hamilton and in the gazettes; however I made such good use of this little knowledge that I managed to get away with it, relieved that no one had thought to question me about the English language, of which I did not know one single word.”
“Two or three times a week when the weather was fine we would take coffee in a cool and leafy little summer-house behind the house, over which I had trained hops, and which was a great pleasure to us when it was hot; there we would spend an hour or so inspecting our vegetable plot and our flowers, and discussing our life together in ways that led us to savour more fully its sweetness. At the end of the garden I had another little family: these were my bees. I rarely missed going to visit them, often accompanied by Maman; I was very interest in the arrangements, and found it endlessly entertaining to watch them come home from their marauding with their little thighs sometimes so laden that they could hardly walk.”
|Rousseau méditant dans un parc (1769)
par Alexandre Hyacinthe Dunouy
Rousseau was a man of numerous contradictions. On one hand, he was self-absorbed, petty-minded, overly sensitive, idealistic, peculiar, selfish, out of touch with reality, yet on the other, he was also rather lonely, at times generous, unique, creative, self-aware, and inquisitive. He is a puzzling conundrum bottled up in one person. Yes, he would have been hard to bear at times. He is one of those people with whom one could never be comfortable, as you would always be wondering if you were living up to his standards. He had a short fuse, yet also a generous heart.
How did I come to these conclusions? Well, you certainly get a sense of Rousseau’s perceived persecution that appeared expanded to gigantic proportions in his mind. Many reviewers call this obsession his “paranoia,” an imagined grand plot with machinations designed by numerous former friends, ready to invest years of their lives to bring about his downfall. Yet perhaps this behaviour is not so surprising in a man who had been raised mostly without family, obviously needing the intimacy of human companionship, yet who had never really learned or accepted the proper manners to fit easily in society; French society, in particular, follows certain constructs that do not allow for individuality.
In spite of Rousseau’s various eccentricities, I couldn’t help feel profound sympathy for him. With no one to shape his character and with his unwillingness to temper his idiosyncrasies and become homogeneous with his surroundings, Rousseau became a victim of himself, a plight for me that only excites pity.