Confessions by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

“I am resolved on an undertaking that has no model and will have no imitator.”

Have you every felt so completely sorry for someone that that emotion eclipses any others that he might stir up inside you?  Have you ever encountered someone who simply is a unique soul, a person who, no matter what they do, does not fit in easily with society?  Have you ever been charmed by someone and then repelled at the same time?  All these thoughts and emotions were boiling up, mixing together, as I read Rousseau’s Confessions, the autobiography of his life.


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.”  


Reading his mother’s romance books at such a young age, with his father, appeared to shape Rousseau’s character in an unusual way:

“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.”

Curiously, Rousseau’s experience with books and their  affect on human character are echoed by themes in other classics including, Madame Bovary, Eugene Onegin, and Anna Karenina.
Les Charmettes where Rousseau lived
with Mme Warens
source Wikipedia

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.  

In 1742, Rousseau moved to Paris and became close friends with Denis Diderot, another enlightenment thinker, and his renown as a philosopher was born.  His first major-philosophical work, Discours sur les Sciences et les Arts was presented to the Academy of Dijon in response to the question, “…whether the Restoration of the arts and sciences has had the effect of purifying or corrupting morals.”  In it, Rousseau offered a thorough critique of civilization, seeing it not as a chronicle of progress, but instead as a history of decay.  For Rousseau, no one is innately good, but instead must cultivate a rational knowledge to gain control of nature and therefore, self.  
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.  

Through most of his life, Rousseau dealt with various health issues including being unable to urinate without the use of a probe, odd romantic attachments, including a passionate unconsummated obsession with Sophie d’Houdetot, who inspired his novel, Julie, breaks with various friends and acquaintances upon his retirement to the country, and various and numerous attacks of persecution and threats.  When Rousseau wrote that all religions had value, in that they all encouraged men to virtue, an intense uproar exploded against him, and he was finally forced to flee to England with the help of the Scottish philosopher, David Hume.  In 1767, he returned to France under an assumed name and finally in 1770, he was officially allowed to return.  
While the tone of Confessions often oozed of lament and discontent, especially during the latter half, Rousseau also showed a rather mischievous sense of humour:

“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.” 

One cannot talk about Rousseau’s life without mentioning his passion for nature.  Once removed to the country, he was in his element, his retirement not only giving him an escape from the petty intriguing of Parisian society, but also gratifying his love of long rambles in the woods, his eventual interest in botany and his joy of solitutde.

“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
source Wikipedia

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.

The Plague by Albert Camus

“The unusual events described in this chronicle occurred in 194-, at Oran.”

Albert Camus was born in 1913 in Algeria.  His father was killed at the Battle of the Marne in World War I and he and his brother were raised by their mother in a state of poverty.  He became a journalist, and during World War II, moved to Paris where he worked for an underground newspaper, and it was then that he began to craft his “philosophy of the absurd.”  The Stranger, published in 1942, was followed by The Plague in 1947, and in 1957 Camus won the Nobel Prize for Literature.  Tragically he died in a car accident in the south of France at only 46 years old.

Often Camus is lumped in with the existential philosophy, but he rejected that appellation, claiming himself an absurdist.  What is an absurdist?  Well, I like to think of them as existentialists with hope.  Absurdism is an idea that man is longing for meaning and clarity in a world that contains neither.  The conflict between the search for a purpose and the lack of one, creates absurdism.  Yet while Camus felt a meaninglessness in life, he wondered if man could create his own morality and follow it, even though his achievements would be fruitless.

St. Macarius of Ghent giving aid
to the plague victims (1672)
Jacob van Oost
source Wikimedia Commons

The Plague is set in the town of Oran in Algeria, a town perhaps like any other, yet the citizens are so ingrained in their day-to-day activities, there is no real life or passion within its walls.  When the plague arrives, their lethargic outlook and self-centred actions initially prevent them from seeing the danger that is so obviously present, as evidenced by the number of rats dying throughout the town.  As the plague is finally realized and claims its victims, Camus employs a scientific and philosophical examination of how the people react to the pestilence, what emotions and actions are brought to the forefront and the significance of their struggle to survive, not only the plague but the day-to-day trials that they must face.

The Plague (1898)
Arnold Böcklin
source Wikimedia Commons

Camus shows the futility of attempted comprehension of the events, when the priest, Father Paneloux, declares the plague a judgement from God on the sins on the people.  In reality, the plague is not a moral judgement, nor anything that can be explained rationally, and therefore it is futile to try to rationalize it; one must simply accept the circumstances.  The plague means death, no more nor less than any other death, and the only reaction should be to battle against it.  Another character, Grand, decides to write a story perfect in its execution, but finally realizes his hopes are impossible.  As we meet more and more characters in Oran, we see its paralysis in the life of these men and women who choose actions that are meaningless and therefore self-isolating.  Because perfection cannot be obtained, a type of helplessness is portrayed, yet in a few characters we see another option.  While some victims have quietly succumbed to the inescapable death, others choose to fight, which gives their struggle significance within the inevitable.

Each character plays an important part in Camus’ philosophy, almost like a symphony, as Camus presses the loud pedal with one, and the soft with another. I’m still not sure how I feel about this tactic.  On one hand, it really gives the reader the ability to scrutinize each person’s part in the plague and, of course, Camus’ philosophy, but on the other, the story perhaps suffers. With such close dissection, the humanness fades into the background as the emphasis is given to worldview over plot, and in some cases the plausibility of the character and his/her actions is sacrificed to communicate Camus’ pet beliefs.

 

Plague in Ashod (1629)
Nicolas Poussin
source Wikimedia Commons

With the existentialist worldview, the novel would have signified defeat in the face of a world devoid of hope and purpose, but Camus spurs us to vigilance and action. He may not believe in truth or God, but one gets the feeling that he wants to believe.  It is as if he is waiting …… waiting for a sunbeam in a storm or a flower in the desert, and while he waits, he fights for the right to hope in what he tells himself is impossible.

Ultimately Camus struggled against his own belief system.  When the Nazi’s invaded France, he actively worked against them.  He made a judgement that their actions were wrong and attempted to stop them, showing that he did indeed believe there was something worth fighting for in the world.  Unlike the existentialists that I’ve encountered, Camus confronted the implications of his unbelief — and ultimately offered a solution, or at least a compromise with regard to his dilemma: while he still held to the absence of meaning within life, that did not mean that the search could not be rewarding.  At the end of his book, The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus concludes, “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.  One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”


A Read-Along with Bookstooge – January 2015

 

The Princess by Anton Chekhov

Portrait of Anton Chekhov (1886)
Isaac Levitan
source Wikiart

This short story is my fourth read for my Deal Me In Challenge 2015.

What happened to Narcissus when he looked at his own reflection in the pool? This beautiful hunter from Boeotia fell in love with himself, and in fact was so deeply infatuated, in his self-obsession he fell into the pool and drowned.  Not a very fitting end for one with so much promise.

Narcissus (1594-96)
Caravaggio
source Wikipedia

In Chekhov’s story we meet the Princess, a lovely young woman who arrives at an isolated monastery for a night’s stay.  She is so thrilled to be there, gushing effusively about the setting and the priests and brothers who have received her.  She wants to forget her life in the city and the monastery and its occupants give her the tools to do so.  But the reader soon realizes that her arrival, instead of being a moment of interest and delight, is instead looked upon with discomfort and even dread by the good brothers of the monastery, and one feels that the Princess, in spite of her outward joie-de-vivre and vivacious personality, is only noticing the benefits that she gets from her visit, without concern for anything or anyone around her.

Soon she meets Mikhail Ivanovitch there, a doctor whom she’d earlier employed in her service, but instead of a warm reception for her, the doctor’s replies drip icicles.  Our poor, puzzled Princess cannot understand ….. why the reserve, especially when she condoles with him upon the death of his wife, an event that is certainly sad, but of course, life must go on.  When she mentions the mistakes she’s made in life and the doctor agrees, she begs him to enlighten her.  Perhaps she should have been more careful in what she asked for.  Directly he begins to catalogue her offenses, taking her to task for her lack of sympathy, her greed, her complete disdain for the feelings of others ………. in fact, the whole system of life that she has built around her is false and cruel, breeding those traits, and choking out any love or caring.  She has replaced God with herself, and therefore is no longer able to understand the creation in which she lives.

Oh!  The Princess is hurt, she is distraught, she is devasted!  That cruel, uneducated, ill-bred man!  How could he speak so to her, to HER, a princess?!  She must use her only defence against these horrid accusations, and so she begins to cry.  The doctor is immediately contrite and leaves her.  When they meet the next day, the princess is once again herself, gay and blithe as she prepares to leave, expecting everyone to admire and entertain her even as she promises to come again soon.  The unpleasantness of the day before is blotted from memory as once more she strives to be the centre of the world.

The Unsmiling Tsarevna (1916-26)
Niktor Vasnetsov
source Wikiart

In spite of the inclination to laugh at the princess’ stupidity and complete self-absorption, this story is quite a tragic one.  Her character is certainly one of a narcissist, and anything that exists around her, merely exists for her alone.  She is devoid of the character traits that make one truly human and, therefore, is not much better than a beast.

On November 15, 1888, Chekhov wrote to his publisher, stating that he was writing a story about a “vile woman”.  Three days later Chekhov wrote, “I want to write protest stories this season ——  I must learn the knack, but it bores me because I’m not used to it,” which makes one wonder if the doctor’s social protest was supposed to be the hub of the story.  In any case, both character’s roles offered a ripe opportunity for social and psychological examination.  This was an excellent story that certainly makes me want to read more of Chekhov’s works.

Deal Me in Challenge (#4) – Six of Clubs


The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi

“There was, once upon a time …….”

The Adventures of Pinocchio was originally serialized in the two years prior to its publication in 1883, and was written by the Italian children’s writer Carlo Collodi.  Initially Collodi had Pinocchio die a rather gruesome death at the end of chapter 15 (which is rather reminiscent of Hilaire Belloc’s instructional children’s poetry), but his editor urged another ending, so the reader was finally treated to an extra 21 chapters and a wise addition it was!  The book has been translated into 240 languages and remains an icon in children’s literature.

Pinocchio begins as a talking block of wood that is given to a woodcarver named Gepetto, who carves him into a puppet and tries to teach him sense, responsibility and moderation.  Yet instead of being grateful to his creator, Pinocchio follows his own selfish inclinations and calamitous adventures are the result of his self-indulgent, thoughtless decisions.

From being defrauded of his money by a Cat and a Fox, nearly roasted in a fire, hung by his neck on a tree, arrested and thrown in jail, turned into a donkey, and eaten by a fish, one wonders why Pinocchio doesn’t learn his lesson and become a good boy. But through these disastrous adventures, we see changes in Pinocchio that are like small flickering lights in the inky darkness of his character.  Initially his zest for fun is nearly uncontrollable but, while it can seem doubtful on the surface, he steadily learns from each adventure, and at each temptation, he is able to put up more resistance.  Pinocchio wants to be good, but his conscience is at continual war with his boyish enthusiasm and his childish lack of forethought and discipline.  The blue fairy, who is like a mother to him and attempts to aid in his moral development, is harsh in her instruction, but Pinocchio benefits from this treatment, knowing she is looking out for his best interests.  And in spite of her firmness, love is always in her actions:

“I saw from the sincerity of your grief that you had a good heart; and when boys have good hearts, even if they are scamps and have bad habits, there is always something to hope for: that is, there is always hope that they will turn to better ways …”

Eventually Pinocchio learns how dangerous it can be to follow your impulses of the moment, and that responsibility and hard work bring a maturity that is rewarded in a way, that fun and pleasure can never match.

    

Was I imagining it, or were there a number of Biblical allusions in the story? When Pinocchio buried his money, it reminded me of the parable of the talents, where the servant chooses selfishly to bury his money instead of making good use of it.  With the large fish swallowing Gepetto, of course, this alluded to Jonah and the whale.  And finally, all Pinocchio’s catastrophic adventures that come about by his poor life choices and his eventual change of heart, are on parallel with the story of the prodigal son, who finally returns home to the one who truly loves him and has his best interests at heart.

The Return of the Prodigal Son (1773)
Pompeo Batoni
source Wikipedia

In spite of some of the more bloodthirsty episodes, this was truly a heart-warming story.  That sentence sounds odd, I know, but I really appreciated the reality of Collodi’s message.  The company we keep has an enormous influence on the character that we will develop, and each of our decisions in life carry an import, sometimes with consequences that are not easily realized. For me, the most shocking part of the story was the episode where the Cat and Fox hung Pinocchio in a tree expecting him to die, but honestly in some bad decisions the outcome could be death, and it’s important to realize that.

Finally, I’ll share a few pictures by illustrator Fritz Kredel from my 1946 edition that are rather fun:

2015 Books In Translation Challenge

Okay, she’s done it again.  Just like last year, Jean @ Howling Frog Books has tempted me into another challenge.  And I love books in translation, so how could I resist?

Jen @ The Introverted Reader is hosting the challenge and the rules are as follows:

Read translations of books from any language into the language that you’re comfortable reading.  You can read any genre and age range.  Crossovers with other challenges are fine.  Any format that you chose is acceptable.  The challenge will run from January 1 through December 31, 2015.  

Levels:
Beginner:  1 – 3 books
Conversationalist:  4 – 6 books
Bilingual:  7 – 9 books
Linguist:  10 – 12 books

Since my challenges are more concentrated on English literature, I have no idea how I’ll do with this challenge.  Time will tell!  And please pop over to The Introverted Reader if you’re interested in joining us!

My List

  1. Meditations – René Descartes
  2. The Adventures of Pinocchio – Carlo Collodi
  3. The Plague – Albert Camus
  4. Erewhon – Samuel Butler (original in Latin)
  5. Confessions – Jean-Jacques Rousseau
  6. Beowulf 
  7. Ecce Homo – Friedrich Nietzsche
  8. What Is To Be Done? – Nikolai Chernyshevsky
  9. Money – Émile Zola
  10. Mein Kamp – Adolf Hitler
  11. The Story of My Experiments with Truth – Mohandas Gandhi
  12. The Canterbury Tales – Geoffrey Chaucer
  13. Notes from the Underground – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  14. Selected Essays – Michel de Montaigne
  15. Rule of Saint Benedict