Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Jean Jacques Rousseau: Inventing a Literary Genre

Phan studied the works of Enlightenment philos...Image via Wikipedia

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 - 1778), musician, vagabond, philosopher, prose stylist, novelist, educator, and acknowledged father of the French Revolution and Romanticism, remains today a colorful character --both derided and revered.

In this article I will focus on his Confessions to explore his contribution not only to the genre, but also to writing. While Rousseau was a serious writer, deep as an ocean in his philosophy, yet shallow as a brook in his Confessions.

Rousseau moves in Augustine's shadow: Thus begins Rousseau's Confessions: "I am commencing an undertaking, hitherto without precedent, and which will never find an imitator." Only a fool or a genius could dare open a book with a statement that will prove to be wrong in its two assertions.

Asserting that the undertaking is not "without precedent" is wrong because Augustine's Confessions is a definite precedent; and furthermore, Rousseau himself cites Augustine's book in his own Confessions. Today, Rousseau's Confessions have a constellation of imitators.

To be fair we must say that Augustine's Confessions followed the traditional catholic confessions in which the offender would seek to expiate his sins by means of a voiced acknowledgment of his transgressions. With Rousseau confessions become more of a psychological and fictional narrative, initiating in this sense a 'modern' way of autobiographical confessions.

Faced with severe criticism from his enemies, Rousseau decides to write a book that would show him as "a man in all the truth of nature." In the process he assures us that every bit of detail that he tells us nothing but pure fact: "This is what I have done, what I have thought, what I was. I have told the good and the bad with equal frankness. I have neither omitted anything bad, nor interpolated anything good."

Yet, Voltaire wrote that Rousseau placed his five sons in orphanages. Who shall we trust? Is Rousseau a hypocrite attempting to cleanse his personal record with a sanitized 'confession?'

Rousseau on psychology and language: While Augustine pondered the mansion and many chambers of memory, Rousseau theorized on 'the self,' the problem of identity, and language. In his "Essay on the Origin of Languages" (Essai sur l'origine des langues) he speculates on the possible sources of speech. But it is in the Confessions that he puts into practice those sources of speech: the signs and supplements of the original objects and presences.

Rousseau writes: "I would never finish if I were to describe in detail all the follies that the recollection of my dear maman made me commit when I was no longer in her presence. How often I kissed my bed, recalling that she had slept in it, my curtain, and all the furniture in the room, since they belonged to her and her beautiful hand had touched them, even the floor, on which I prostrated myself, thinking that she had walked upon it."

As Derrida has made clear, Rousseau is using signs --written words-- to bring about a presence ('maman') that is absent. And though such absence will never materialize, it has the power to move him as if it were the real "thing-in-itself." Therefore, the bed, the curtains, the furniture, the room itself, are all signs that enable him pursue 'the recollection' and thus by means of mental impressions and signifiers create the signified.

In his own informal way Rousseau anticipated not only Freudian psychology, but also the work of Ferdinand de Saussure, Structuralism, Deconstruction, the linguistic turn, and other theorists.

One has to wonder if the much admired work of many writers of the 19th and 20th centuries would have gotten so far, had not Rousseau laid the foundations? In spite of the fact that many intellectuals have little respect for his personal adventures, lies, and the grotesques acts of a rascal, his work is serious and original.

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