Exhibitionism, Masochism, and Power-relationships in Rousseau¡¯s Confessions


Nancy Durbin

Washington University, St. Louis


    What compels an author to write ¡°confessions¡±: is it simply an attempt to justify one¡¯s existence, to apologize to the world for faults committed, or to clarify misinterpretations about one¡¯s actions? In the second volume of his Confessions, Rousseau attempts for the most part to defend himself against the alleged persecution of his conspirators. He explains his actions (often his writings) and how they have been wrongly interpreted, so as to prove to the world his worth and to dispel the lies that he feels are circulating about him. The first volume, much less paranoid in nature, is less obvious in its aims. What inspired him to reveal himself as he did, and to whom was he addressing his confession? To decipher Rousseau¡¯s intentions in writing these first books of his autobiography, let us first look at Foucault¡¯s definition of the ¡°aveu¡±:


Or, l¡¯aveu est un rituel de discours o¨´ le sujet qui parle coïncide avec le sujet de l¡¯¨¦nonc¨¦; c¡¯est aussi un rituel qui se d¨¦ploie dans un rapport de pouvoir, car on n¡¯avoue pas sans la pr¨¦sence au moins virtuelle d¡¯un partenaire qui n¡¯est pas simplement l¡¯interlocuteur, mais l¡¯instance qui requiert l¡¯aveu, l¡¯impose, l¡¯appr¨¦cie et intervient pour juger, punir, pardonner, consoler, r¨¦concilier; un rituel enfin o¨´ la seule ¨¦nonciation, ind¨¦pendamment de ses cons¨¦quences externes, produit, chez qui l¡¯articule, des modifications intrins¨¨ques: elle l¡¯innocente, elle le rach¨¨te, elle le purifie, elle le d¨¦charge de ses fautes, elle le lib¨¨re, elle lui promet le salut. (82¨C83)


¡°Un rituel de discours o¨´ le sujet qui parle coïncide avec le sujet de l¡¯¨¦nonc¨¦¡±: thus Rousseau presents himself as the character of his own story, or as Gutman explains, he creates ¡°a ¡®self¡¯ which can serve to define himself, to himself and to others, in the face of a hostile social order¡± (103). If he creates this character to be viewed, or read, by others, who is the ¡°interlocuteur¡± or confessor to whom he addresses himself, seeking judgment or reconciliation; and in what ways does the enunciation of his confession purify and liberate him, if indeed this is his goal?

    Rousseau does not define for himself a single confessor, nor even a certain ¡°type¡± of confessor. As he states in the dedication:


Qui que vous soyez, que ma destin¨¦e ou ma confiance ont fait l¡¯arbitre de ce cahier, je vous conjure par mes malheurs, par vos entrailles, et au nom de toute l¡¯esp¨¨ce humaine, de ne pas an¨¦antir un ouvrage utile et unique, lequel peut servir de premi¨¨re pi¨¨ce de comparaison pour l¡¯¨¦tude des hommes. (39)[1]


Thus his intention is to reveal himself to all as an example. He later refers to his ¡°semblables¡± as receiving his confession, but this refers merely to all other living humans as opposed to any certain class or type of person whom Rousseau imagines to be reading his work. In fact, he considered himself not only ¡°classless,¡± having left his homeland and thus abolishing his social status, but quite unique¡ªapart from all others. Therefore, we can assume that he is addressing himself to us all when he states:


Que la trompette du jugement dernier sonne quand elle voudra; je viendrai, ce livre ¨¤ la main, me pr¨¦senter devant le souverain juge. Je dirai hautement: voil¨¤ ce que j¡¯ai fait. . . . Etre ¨¦ternel, rassemble autour de moi l¡¯innombrable foule de mes semblables; qu¡¯ils ¨¦coutent mes confessions . . . et puis qu¡¯un seul te dise, s¡¯il ose: Je fus meilleur que cet homme-l¨¤. (43)


And as Kavanaugh points out: ¡°By calling all of mankind to the author¡¯s final judgment by an already all-knowing authority, the text begins to transform its function from confession to justification to accusation¡± (2). This is indeed the transformation we see Rousseau undergo as the work progresses, especially into the second volume. Nonetheless, even in the first volume one senses that the author¡¯s activity is more than that of simple confession so as to justify himself, but we often see there a function other than the three outlined by Kavanaugh. Indeed, as painful as he claims the process to be, in revealing the most shameful details of his life, Rousseau derives a certain masochistic pleasure which undermines the altruistic goals he establishes for himself in the opening pages. My belief is that Rousseau began his work as much to please himself as to exonerate himself, to seek the sympathy of his readers, or constitute himself as an example to all. In any case, the role of the reader as confessor is necessary in the power relationship of the confession. The confessant, like the exhibitionist, and like the autobiographical writer, requires the presence of this audience in order to accomplish his or her act of self-exposure.

    The reader of the first volume is believed by Rousseau to be sympathetic (in contrast with that of the second volume, whom the author obviously perceives as hostile); Rousseau seems to believe that he will evoke the reader¡¯s sympathy as he reveals his weaknesses, by recounting even the most embarrassing incidents and thoughts of his youth. As O¡¯Dea remarks, he provides ¡°three ¡®confessions¡¯ explicitly presented as such, one of which occurs in each of the first three books¡± (3). These consist of the spanking by Mlle Lambercier, the stolen ribbon incident, and the abandonment of his friend LeMaître in Lyon. By providing these ¡°aveux p¨¦nibles¡± in the first pages of the Confessions, O¡¯Dea explains, ¡°Rousseau clearly attempts to offer tokens of good faith to his reader. Implicit in these episodes is the argument that a man who will make such admissions can be relied upon to tell the whole truth¡± (4). I should like to examine the first two of these three incidents, along with the episode of literal exhibitionism found at the beginning of the third book, not as representative of the author¡¯s ¡°good faith,¡± but rather as forms of exhibitionism in and of themselves. By the very act of revealing them, Rousseau not only relives them but also re-experiences the pain and/or pleasure that accompanied them when they were first committed, all the while aware of the reader¡¯s presence as judge.

    It is interesting to note that Rousseau does not present the exhibitionism scene as a painful confession, though it strikes the reader as possibly the most potentially embarassing to reveal. On the other hand, he rapidly recounts having abandonned his friend who was having an epileptic fit, and refers to this confession saying: ¡°Grâce au ciel, j¡¯ai fini ce troisi¨¨me aveu p¨¦nible¡± (166). The short paragraph he devotes to the telling of this episode hardly leads the reader to believe that the author feels any great remorse over it, and thus he does not, in this admission, seem to be satisfying his confessional masochism. The exhibitionism incident is much more interesting to examine in this light.

    It is fitting that the first ¡°aveu p¨¦nible¡± be the story of the spanking received from Mlle Lambercier: here we find the origins of Rousseau¡¯s penchant for this punishment, and understand immediately the pleasure he derives from it. He introduces the incident, qualifying the fact that it is indeed unpleasant to recount, but justifying his telling of it as it is a useful example to all: ¡°Il est embarrassant de s¡¯expliquer mieux, mais cependant il le faut. . . . La grande leçon qu¡¯on peut tirer d¡¯un exemple aussi commun que funeste me fait r¨¦soudre ¨¤ le donner¡± (52). Here he explains his reactions to this ¡°supposed¡± punishment:


je la trouvai moins terrible ¨¤ l¡¯¨¦preuve que l¡¯attente ne l¡¯avait ¨¦t¨¦, et ce qu¡¯il y a de plus bizarre est que ce châtiment m¡¯affectionna davantage encore ¨¤ celle qui me l¡¯avait impos¨¦. Il fallait m¨ºme toute la v¨¦rit¨¦ de cette affection et toute ma douceur naturelle pour m¡¯emp¨ºcher de chercher le retour du m¨ºme traitement en le m¨¦ritant; car j¡¯avais trouv¨¦ dans la douleur, dans la honte m¨ºme, un m¨¦lange de sensualit¨¦ qui m¡¯avait laiss¨¦ plus de d¨¦sir que de crainte de l¡¯¨¦prouver derechef par la m¨ºme main. (52)


As he goes on to explain, the same punishment, at the hands of M. Lambercier would not have had the same effect.

    The young Rousseau from this point on associates spanking with sexuality:


Qui croirait que ce châtiment d¡¯enfant, reçu ¨¤ huit ans par la main d¡¯une fille de trente, a d¨¦cid¨¦ de mes goûts, de mes d¨¦sirs, de mes passions, de moi pour le reste de ma vie? (53)


His timidity and naïvet¨¦ impede him from pursuing any ¡°normal¡± means of seduction which might lead to his sexual initiation, but he rather continues to seek out the infliction of further spankings, as the exhibitionist incident will later reveal. Even the eventual step he finally makes into the realm of real sexual relations is the result of another¡¯s instigation, not to mention that this initiation, directed by Mme de Warens, is problematic in and of itself, being characterized by a strong sense of incest. But the roots of Rousseau¡¯s sexual problems have already often been well-defined by psychoanalytical critics, and my interest here is rather to look at the text itself as evidence of the author¡¯s masochistic desire to reveal himself to his reader.

    Of course, not all of the revelations made have sexual implications, yet one remarks that the author derives satisfaction in recounting his moral downfalls as well his sexual fantasies. If indeed it is punishment that Rousseau so enjoys, then the guilt and self-castigation that characterize the next ¡°aveu p¨¦nible¡± can be seen as a source of pleasure as well. He desires to be judged, as he clearly evokes in the opening pages where he calls all of mankind to his final judgment, and as he expresses with each confession he makes. In the case of Mlle Lambercier, while he disliked angering her, he found pleasure in his condemnation, and as he states after having recounted the incident:


J¡¯ai fait le premier pas et le plus p¨¦nible dans le labyrinthe obscur et fangeux de mes confessions. Ce n¡¯est pas ce qui est criminel qui coûte le plus ¨¤ dire, c¡¯est ce qui est ridicule et honteux. D¨¨s ¨¤ pr¨¦sent je suis sûr de moi apr¨¨s ce que je viens d¡¯oser dire, rien ne peut plus m¡¯arr¨ºter. (55)


Clearly there is more at play here than the author¡¯s need to purify himself through confession: the effect of re-experiencing his ¡°honte¡± is intoxicating, and nothing now can stop him from carrying on further. While Foucault speaks of ¡°modifications intrins¨¨ques¡± accomplished through the confession, he does not mention this as one of them. Obviously, Rousseau satisfies other needs here, in addition to those outlined by Foucault.

    The story of the stolen ribbon provides a clear case of his desire to relive his shame as well as to be judged. At the time of the incident, he pushes as far as possible the investigation of the crime, drawing out his denial and complicating his position more and more, thus deriving the most possible guilt from it. He then revives these sensations of culpability as he retells the story in the Confessions.

    It seems clear even that Rousseau, after having stolen the ribbon from his employer, wanted to be caught: ¡°je ne le cachaits gu¨¨re, on me le trouva bientôt¡± (120). He was well aware of the implications in denouncing his fellow servant, Marion, and given several occasions to reveal the truth, he let her be condemned in front of the whole household:


l¡¯assembl¨¦e ¨¦tait nombreuse, le comte de la Roque y ¨¦tait. Elle arrive, on lui montre le ruban, je la charge effront¨¦ment. (120)


    While claiming at first that the horror of guilt plagued him then and has ever since, he then sets out to justify his actions, excusing himself as actually having had generous motives in stealing the ribbon, having wanted to offer it to none other than Marion herself. O¡¯Dea carefully studies the different levels of narrative used in the recounting of this episode, pointing out that Rousseau in fact retells the story a second time, shifting all guilt away from himself. Having already revealed his unselfish motives, ¡°Rousseau goes on to develop his exculpation further,¡± explains O¡¯Dea: ¡°Even in persisting in his charges, he was not being deliberately wicked: he was overcome by ¡®la honte¡¯, an involuntary reaction against which his will cannot prevail¡± (5). He then tries to justify his actions, claiming that he was intimidated by the assemblage of judges, and finally because he was ¡°¨¤ peine . . . sorti de l¡¯enfance¡± (122). As O¡¯Dea concludes:


The reversal is complete. What had been described as the result of ¡°une audace diabolique¡± has now been attributed instead to friendship, to shame, to the intimidating attitude of others, and to the weakness of childhood. The pattern is one that readers of the Confessions soon come to recognize: moral responsibility for an apparently deliberate action is assumed momentarily in the text, but then somehow emigrates from Rousseau and lodges elsewhere. (5¨C6)


O¡¯Dea¡¯s conclusions support Kavanaugh¡¯s assertion about the function of the text changing from confession, to justification, to accusation. By turning the story around, it is as if Rousseau points the finger at his confessor, denouncing him or her for even entertaining the thought that he, the confessant, should be seen as guilty.

    It seems Rousseau¡¯s motives for and goals in admitting this crime are confused. He claims to have never been able to admit it before¡ª¡°pas m¨ºme ¨¤ Mme de Warens¡± (121)¡ªyet he desires to reveal it now to the whole world. Since, by the time he draws his conclusions about the incident, he changes his tone in such a way as to absolve himself of his guilt, the power relationship in the act of confession, as explained by Foucault, is very evident here. The relationship is such that the confessant in fact requires the presence of the confessor, as one who judges, pardons, punishes, etc.; but in the meantime, the ¡°aveu,¡± simply by being enunciated, ¡°produit, chez qui l¡¯articule, des modifications intrins¨¨ques: elle l¡¯innocente, elle le rach¨¨te, elle le purifie, elle le d¨¦charge de ses fautes¡± (83). In the episode of the stolen ribbon, then, Rousseau actually articulates these very modifications. So, by confessing his faults he achieves two ends: he indulges himself once again in the guilt and shame (as well as the punishment, as the case may be) that he experienced at the time of the occurrence, but manages as well to cleanse himself of his culpability in the process. Indeed, Rousseau himself recognizes the purifying effect of confessing the incident:

Ce poids est donc rest¨¦ jusqu¡¯¨¤ ce jour sans all¨¨gement sur ma conscience, et je puis dire que le d¨¦sir de m¡¯en d¨¦livrer en quelque sorte a beaucoup contribu¨¦ ¨¤ la r¨¦solution que j¡¯ai prise d¡¯¨¦crire mes confessions. (122)


    Coetzee¡¯s reading of the episode indicates that the impetus for committing the crime was in fact ¡°Rousseau¡¯s ¡®real¡¯ desire to exhibit himself¡± (207)¡ªan interpretation which supports my belief that the same desire inspires him to later confess it, thus re-exposing himself.[2] Of course, the most poignant example of Rousseau¡¯s exhibitionist tendancies is the episode in which he stations himself in a courtyard in Turin, where young girls came regularly to draw water from the well, where he then exposes himself to them.

    In the weeks following the ribbon theft, Rousseau lapsed into a strange temperament, feeling an agitation which he characterized as ¡°un avant-goût de la jouissance.¡± As he explains it:


je d¨¦sirais un bonheur dont je n¡¯avais pas l¡¯id¨¦e, et dont je sentais pourtant la privation. . . . Mon sang allum¨¦ remplissait incessamment mon cerveau de filles et de femmes: mais, n¡¯en sentant pas le v¨¦ritable usage, je les occupais bizarrement en id¨¦e ¨¤ mes fantaisies sans en savoir rien faire de plus. (127)


The very fact that this frenzy directly follows the stolen ribbon incident indicates that the young man¡¯s sexuality is in some way stirred up by a seemingly non-sexual infrac­tion. When he stole the ribbon, Rousseau repeatedly de­nied his guilt, thus digging himself in deeper and deeper, augmenting the potential for punishment¡ªwere he to be discovered; when in fact there is no subsequent chastise­ment, we find Rousseau absorbed in this undirected sexual turmoil. So it is obvious that for Rousseau guilt, con­cealment, and the menace of punishment are associated with sexuality, as the spanking episode has already de­fined. And Coetzee¡¯s interpretation becomes all the more logical as we find ¡°moral¡± exhibitionism leading to a de­sire for ¡°physical¡± exhibitionism.

    Rousseau¡¯s inability to define, much less act upon this desire which he is experiencing, leads him to express himself ¡°par les plus extravagantes manoeuvres¡± (127):


J¡¯allais chercher des all¨¦es sombres, des r¨¦duits cach¨¦s, o¨´ je pusse m¡¯exposer de loin aux personnes du sexe dans l¡¯¨¦tat o¨´ j¡¯aurais voulu pouvoir ¨ºtre aupr¨¨s d¡¯elles. Ce qu¡¯elles voyaient n¡¯¨¦tait pas l¡¯objet obsc¨¨ne, je n¡¯y songeais m¨ºme pas; c¡¯¨¦tait l¡¯objet ridicule. Le sot plaisir que j¡¯avais de l¡¯¨¦taler ¨¤ leurs yeux ne peut se d¨¦crire. Il n¡¯y avait de l¨¤ plus qu¡¯un pas ¨¤ faire pour sentir le traitement d¨¦sir¨¦. (127¨C28)


This ¡°traitement d¨¦sir¨¦¡± is of course not sexual intercourse, or even any sexual activity involving his penis, but rather spanking, for it is his posterior which he reveals¡ª¡°l¡¯objet ridicule¡± and not ¡°l¡¯objet obsc¨¨ne.¡± Again he associates sexual desire with the infliction of punishment, and by revealing himself this way to the young women, he hopes to provoke the exact punishment which will satisfy him sexually.

    Unable, or as Milner asserts, unwilling to admit his de­sires¡ª¡°Ne pouvant supporter de se savoir d¨¦sirant¡±¡ªRousseau attempts to attract from others the condemna­tion he feels toward himself (39). The masochistic tenden­cies in his exhibitionism are all too evident, as Milner points out:


Le masochiste ne se contente pas de jouir de sa souffrance ou de son humiliation: il a besoin d¡¯un t¨¦moin. Ici le lien est d¡¯autant plus n¨¦cessaire que le t¨¦moin est pr¨¦cis¨¦ment la personne d¡¯o¨´ vient l¡¯humiliation. (40)


I believe that the act of writing the Confessions then further fulfills Rousseau¡¯s ¡°besoin d¡¯un t¨¦moin,¡± again supporting Foucault¡¯s definition of the relationship between the confessor and the confessant: in this case, it is clear that it is indeed chastisement that the confessant is seeking from his confessor.

    Starobinski¡¯s reading of this particular episode, in Jean-Jacques Rousseau: La Transparence et l¡¯obstacle, supports again the idea that Rousseau is seeking humiliation and shame when he performs this act:


Jean-Jacques voudrait passer du r¨ºve ¨¤ la r¨¦alit¨¦ et recevoir le traitement qu¡¯il a imagin¨¦ dans ses fantaisies. Mais il ne sait ni ne veut franchir la distance qui le s¨¦pare des femmes r¨¦elles. Il n¡¯ose pas demander ce qu¡¯il d¨¦sire. Et comment pourrait-il demander sans compromettre la possibilit¨¦ de la satisfaction? . . . L¡¯¨¦v¨¦nement le plus d¨¦sirable, pour Jean-Jacques, c¡¯est celui o¨´ il pourrait rester immobile, et o¨´ la femme viendrait ¨¤ lui pour le frapper et le renvoyer ¨¤ la sensation d¨¦licieusement humili¨¦e de son propre corps. (214)


As Starobinsky clearly shows here, it is condemnation Rousseau seeks; it is punishment at the hands of the very object of his desire that will satisfy him.

    The mere fact that the author draws so little attention to his shame in this episode, relative to the other confessions he makes, indicates the role of concealment and defines even more clearly the exhibitionism in play as he recounts it. While he is revealing himself as he tells the story, he is concealing himself as well, thus rendering the confession somewhat obscure, just as in revealing himself to the young girls in the courtyard he remains at a distance from his spectators, ¡°au fond d¡¯une cour,¡± carefully stationed near access to a quick get-away tunnel (128).

    It is clear throughout the Confessions that there is a delicate balance between what is revealed and what is hidden. Rousseau admits to his reader that he prefers to conceal himself physically from his society, expressing himself instead through writing:


J¡¯aimerais la soci¨¦t¨¦ comme un autre, si je n¡¯¨¦tais sûr de m¡¯y montrer non seulement ¨¤ mon d¨¦savantage, mais tout autre que je ne suis. Le parti que j¡¯ai pris d¡¯¨¦crire et de me cacher est pr¨¦cis¨¦ment celui qui me convenait. Moi pr¨¦sent, on n¡¯aurait jamais su ce que je valais. (154)


Thus, writing becomes both a means of concealment and a means of exposing oneself. Kavanaugh explains Rousseau¡¯s need to express himself in this way:


In preferring what is written, in substituting it for the extemporaneously spoken, Rousseau both demands distance between writer and audience and aims to provoke its opposite: a beatific identification with that audience, an imaginary union beyond the play of differences, beyond hierarchies, beyond the symbolic order against whose operation he chose that distance in the first place. (34)


The same timidity and feeling of incompetency which made him expose himself from a distance in the courtyard of Turin, leads him to expose himself to his society from a distance¡ªhidden behind his writing.

    Starobinski points out that ¡°dans l¡¯ordre ¨¦rotique, Jean-Jacques adopte le m¨ºme parti¡± (215), recalling Rousseau¡¯s anecdote:


Je me souviens qu¡¯une fois Mme de Luxembourg me parlait en raillant d¡¯un homme qui quittait sa maîtresse pour lui ¨¦crire. Je lui dis que j¡¯aurais bien ¨¦t¨¦ cet homme-l¨¤, et j¡¯aurais pu ajouter que je l¡¯avais ¨¦t¨¦ quelquefois. (220)


So again, he chooses to distance himself, to hide himself from the very person to which he wishes to express himself. Just as anonymity is supposedly maintained by the confessant hiding behind the screen of the confessional, allowing him or her to speak more freely and honestly, so Rousseau feels he can expose his feelings and faults only by taking refuge behind the pen.

    As I examine the different aspects of Rousseau¡¯s act of confession¡ªhis motives, his perception of who his confessor is, and just what it is he needs from this confessor¡ªI find myself vacillating back and forth between the idea that he is exposing himself and that on the other hand he is hiding himself. Fortunately, this paradox easily explains itself the more one considers the parallel between Rousseau¡¯s writing and the episode in the courtyard of Turin. In the latter, he is too unsure of himself to be able to address directly the object of his desire; hence he decides to hide himself . . . so that he can expose himself! The same is true for his writing: only by removing himself from physical contact with society can he muster up the courage to reveal himself. And just as his masochistic tendencies are evident in the exhibitionist incident in which he is all too aware of the ridicule and shame to which he is exposing himself in performing such an act, he is also aware of the judgmental and potentially chastising eye of his reader, as he uncovers the embarrassing details of incidents like these. He relives the shame and the pain as he recounts them, thus indulging himself further. He may indeed be seeking, as many claim, to justify his existence and implore the forgiveness of the reader¡ªas Foucault¡¯s definition would imply¡ªyet this does not necessarily exclude the possibility of deriving pleasure from the confession at the same time. Rousseau was a complex man: his sexuality was problematic, his inter-personal relationships less than normal, his mental health suspect. It is only fitting that his Confessions be enigmatic as well.


Works Cited

Coetzee, J. M. ¡°Confession and Double Thoughts: Tolstoy, Rousseau, Dostoevsky.¡± Comparative Literature 37 (Summer 1985): 193¨C232.

DeMan, Paul. Allegories in Reading. New Haven: Yale UP, 1979.

Foucault, Michel. Histoire de la sexualit¨¦: La Volont¨¦ de savoir. Paris: Gallimard, 1976.

Gutman, Huck. ¡°A Technology of the Self.¡± Technologies of the Self: A Seminar with Michel Foucault. Ed. Luther H. Martin, Huck Gutman, Patrick H. Hutton. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1988: 99¨C120.

Kavanaugh, Thomas M. Writing the Truth: Authority and Desire in Rousseau. Berkeley: U of California P, 1987.

Milner, Max. ¡°Qu¡¯exhibe Jean-Jacques? A propos d¡¯une page des Confessions.¡± Revue des Sciences Humaines 79 (Oct.-Dec. 1987): 35¨C46.

O¡¯Dea, Michael. ¡°The Double Narrative of the Stolen Ribbon in Rousseau¡¯s Confessions.¡± Nottingham French Studies 23 (Oct. 1984): 1¨C8.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Les Confessions I. Paris: Flammarion, 1968.

Starobinski, Jean. Jean-Jacques Rousseau: La Transparence et l¡¯obstacle. Paris: Librairie Plon, 1967.





[1]All references are to Rousseau¡¯s Confessions, Flammarion, 1968.

[2]Cf. Paul DeMan's treatment of the Confessions as exposure in Allegories in Reading, especially 278¨C301.