Friday, 7 April 2017

Global Soothsayer

Jean Jacques Rousseau


That the authors of the American and French revolutions took many keywords from him does not mean Jean-Jacques would have approved their programmes. His own revolutions, converting (par example) from Protestant to Catholic - then back again, were expedient moves that harmed no one but himself. With the impunity of a true Swiss, he crossed the lines in wartime; and, despite wielding a seditious pen, managed his whole life to stay out of gaol, unlike his sometimes friend Denis Diderot. He was a polymath in all fields except of battle. (Like most gentlemen in those days, he set out on his wanderings with a sword, but pawned it at a tender age.) In his private life he was something of the Casanova (another contemporary), though the conquests he boasts of were of himself. Women - especially rich and powerful Madames - often took him under their wings, installed him in splendid cottages and brought him presents of honey and money. He was, in every sense, patronised by the glorious and great; yet he was not shy of writing to rulers – Frederick the Great for one – to give them a piece of his mind.
With the composition of a successful opera, he set himself apart from the other philosophers and earned their eternal disrespect. His enemies numbered almost as many as his former friends. He wrote books that were both wildly popular and burnt in public (we learn that the destruction of proscribed books was the executioner’s duty). The system of musical notation he devised anticipated sol fa (bringing him the dubious distinction of an association with Julie Andrews). He pontificated sensibly on the education of children, contributed to l’Encyclopedie, nailed inequality to the mast, put the state to rights, wrote novels (one hugely successful), botanised and even dabbled in chemistry. For his daily bread, he worked variously (and vicariously) as an engraver’s apprentice, a diplomat, estate manager and music copyist. He was a frequent guest in the top salons of the ancien régime. He declined to accept a pension from Louis XV, but was miffed when Madame Pompadour (the king’s official mistress) sang the lead role in his opera the Village Soothsayer - then neglected to honour the composer (all the more irritating since he had known the dame before she rose to glory).

So what are these Confessions for, besides providing a fount of opportunity for the artist to declare his genius? Most of us have committed shameful acts in our times, so what can this self-centred, vain hypochondriac gain from putting his hand up? His share of sins and omissions is just not all that. Actually, Rousseau spends much of the book telling - and retelling - us what a fine, decent fellow he is, every fifty pages or so confessing he is the only truly honest man of his acquaintance. So it's all the more shocking to discover the sly act he committed as a seventeen-year-old footman in the Vercellis household (in Turin). He filched a pretty ribbon, then passed off the theft on poor Marion - a cook of his own age. Admitting to his readers he’d been sweet on her, the treachery is doubled. Both of the youngsters are dismissed from their posts, the girl's only crime being to have thought better of him. Writing thirty years later, the shame of this memory still plagues him. It is an anecdote that comes early on, and would have been enough for me to curse the oaf and throw his book against the wall. But a token of Rousseau’s appeal is that I go on reading despite this, ashamed for him and trusting - as Marion might have done - he would somehow be redeemed.

He frequently admits the embarrassments of his youthful exploits, for example, passing himself off as an Englishman to impress a faux widow. With a return bout on offer, his feet grow cold and he runs in fear of being found out. Such accounts, though qualified by their incomplete exposition, persuade me of Rousseau’s ultimate sincerity. For it’s hard not to have sympathy with the basic misfortunes of his life. He lost his mother days after birth, and had nothing to remember her by but his father’s rose tinted reminiscences. This same father then farmed him out long before he had grown up. Which goes some way to explain all the romantic attachments to matronry beauties, in particular Madame de Warens – the lover he calls his Dear Maman. Timid he must not have been, bold enough to leave his native Geneva at a young age and take to wandering the country lanes of Savoy and straying into Italy. But sensitive to an excruciating degree, he writes page after page complaining of the sleights upon his person in people’s behaviour. And content with a peasant’s fare at the dinner table, he nevertheless judges those he considers his peers by their manners towards him. I take it, Rousseau was easy to please but the very devil to cross. On the other hand, he was as prone to sulks of self doubt as to piques of chagrin.

Women feature as guides and counterparts throughout the Confessions, as we have said in likely recompense for his having known no mother; but what of Rousseau's philosophy do we see in his relations with the opposite sex? Though he is not numbered amongst proto-feminists (what men were in the eighteenth century?), I don't see his reference to Madame Pompadour as Prime Minister of France as a flippant jest. He shows us the considerable power wielded by figures such as the Madames Luxembourg, d’Epinay and Dupin. Even the young Venetian prostitute he visited (the one time in his life he claims he ever paid for sex) is both fabulous and real. After his handling of her - so he tells us – the enterprising girl hardly knew whether to cry or laugh, and the scene is transformed from a smutty story into piece of reportage. BTW, this lapse into one convention of male behaviour, we are to surmise, is a case of, When in Rome... But I think Rousseau's fondest moment with women came very early on. Out for a stroll one Sunday, he bumped into a couple of fine young ladies who bade him join them on their picnic. The day he spent romping with them in the meadows, though entirely innocent (he has us believe) is the simple pastoral idyll he will strive for in female company for the rest of his life. One assumes, he and Thérèse Levasseur (his common-law wife) shared a stock of sweet nothings (though less refined) that kept him happy enough. Too bad, even those simplest pleasures had the tendency to spoil.

Misfortune, he never tires of moaning, was always waiting round Rousseau's corner. Does he exaggerate these? Well, while his book probably contains no downright lies, I doubt if we should take many episodes as literally true. More than once the contrariness of grand dames forced him to up sticks; he was stoned in the streets (and out of his home) while supposedly living under the protection of Frederick the Great. But professing himself to be a humble music copyist is ingenuous. It’s hard to believe that at the height of his fame as author, composer and star guest at salons, he spent the daylight hours laboriously copying out other people’s scores for casual clients. At the same time, he brags of the handwritten copies of his books he had made to give as presents to friends and patrons. I suspect the truth is that Rousseau exchanged copies of his own music for coin and other emoluments. These documents would doubtless have had more than just sentimental value at the time. And when he took to wearing Armenian dress (actually, something like a fez and kaftan) and began greeting people with Selaam haliakum! (sic) - he remained a welcome visitor at rich folks’ homes, not shunned as an infidel. Though at times he was unlucky in his choice of friends, on balance he led a charmed life, enviable by the standards of his days and well above the station of a watchmaker’s son. Even when his compatriots turned on him, he was offered sanctuary in England.

Unpublished in his lifetime, these Confessions (like others of his books in print) were banned all the same. At least, he was warned to stop giving private readings from them. The interest and notoriety the manuscript generated shows just how big he was in his day: stirring up storms of adoration and hate, turning the heads of kings and queens, and being a prime mover across multiple fields (music, politics, literature, education & etc.). I still find them fascinating today, four decades since I first read them. There is something in the man’s voice that draws me to him. It’s a pity he stopped writing them when he did, long before his misfortunes were over. To find out what happened when he finally landed in Britain – and why he didn’t stay long - I have to look elsewhere (and learn he made the crossing during a storm, remaining out on deck the whole way and exhibiting a surprising degree of physical stoicism). Few people get to write their own eulogy.

Postscript: I’ve always assumed Voltaire’s Candide to be a parody of Rousseau. Now that I look into the matter, I can’t find anyone who shares that notion. At least I am reminded here that Rousseau was convinced of it. But the Confessions make few references to his great rival. Perhaps because Voltaire published a pamphlet exposing the unwanted babies he and Thérèse had dumped on a foundling home? The author of a book on educating children could never really live down that disgrace. And yet, do we not detect a degree of envy in the portrayal of Candide? Is not the simpleton who ends up urging us all to "dig the garden" somehow divinely inspired? Although it seems rather hard on Voltaire that the piece he is chiefly remembered for (at least, outside of France) is a backhanded tribute to his greatest rival, I wonder if to mock Rousseau isn’t somehow to fall under his soothsayer’s spell?