Book Reviews by Heidi Boudro

The Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Reviewed by Heidi Boudro

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), the French-Swiss philosophe who conceived of the inalienable rights of man and inspired two revolutions, was 15 when he ran away from an oppressive apprenticeship. As he wrote in his Confessions, a priest referred him to a charitable, pious woman who would assist him in converting to Catholicism and starting a new life. He pictured this woman as a dour old hag; imagine his enthrallment at meeting the beautiful 28-year-old Mme. de Warens, who had converted to Catholicism, annulled her marriage, and begun her own new life.

Rousseau interrupts the narrative to discuss her merits and flaws, evidently having come to know her well. Did they, I asked myself, become involved? When? How much detail is he going to provide? I was, after quite a bit more narrative, not disappointed.

Even by today's standards, the Confessions is awe-inspiring in its revelations of affairs, humiliations, secrets, and quirks; I couldn't imagine how it was regarded in the 18th century. And how close is the Confessions to the truth, I wondered. It certainly has verisimilitude. Does he really believe everything he has written? He evidently believes the sometimes odd self-justifications that he reports. Is this the work of a narcissist? Or what?

After the first half of the Confessions, I felt compelled to seek the truth behind Rousseau's account, or, rather, what insights an objective view of Rousseau's life might reveal. The biography Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius (2005), by Leon Damrosch, was ideal for the purpose.

It's clearly written, recent, and chronological; so it follows along with the Confessions. Damrosch notes the investigations, scholarly and otherwise, into the mentioned people and events, conducted since the Confessions was published (shortly after Rousseau's death), or even earlier, as Rousseau was a famous and notorious figure. Without Damrosch's biography to read immediately after the first half of the Confessions, I would certainly have died of curiosity.

The second half of the Confessions is typically about feuds and disputes with contemporaries, less intelligible to the uninitiated. Damrosch's biography explains who these people were and gives enough background--on Rousseau's flights from country to country, for example--to make the rest of the Confessions sufficiently entertaining (though still not on a par with the first half).

Damrosch discusses how Rousseau essentially invented the modern autobiography; moreover, he says, depth psychology owes its origins to Rousseau. Rather than craft a persona for public consumption, Rousseau describes how events felt or seemed to him. He begins with childhood experiences; recalls emotions to search for a self; emphasizes atypical episodes "when he seemed to act totally out of character and yet was profoundly himself." Damrosch says that these elements were unprecedented.

Rousseau, he writes, was "tracing lifelong patterns of feeling to formative experiences and finding a deep unity of the self beneath apparent contradictions." A profoundly original approach to memoir and life, establishing, for better or worse, today's mores on self-revelation.

Copyright © 2009 by Heidi Boudro