Rousseau on the Couch

By Jonathan Marks

Posted June 15, 2006

In the Confessions, the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau reports this detail of his life with the mentor and lover of his youth, Mme de Warens: "One day at table, just as she was putting a morsel in her mouth, I cried out that there was a hair in it. At once she spat the food on to the plate. I picked it up greedily and ate it." Maurice Cranston, the late professor of political science at the London School of Economics who wrote the definitive, three-volume biography of Rousseau (1982; 1991; 1997), recounts this incident in his opus, then devotes a paragraph to Rousseau's theory and practice of masturbation. It is not that Cranston has an unseemly interest in these matters. It is rather that Rousseau himself drew attention to them and seemed to think them important. This is also why Cranston informs us that Rousseau longed to be spanked by women, pretended to be people he wasn't, and succumbed to paranoid delusions.

Enter Leo Damrosch, the Ernest Bernbaum Professor of Literature at Harvard University: Cranston "almost willfully ignores the stranger aspects of Rousseau's experience." What more does Damrosch, the author of Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius, want? The answer to that question helps explain why his otherwise entertaining and informative new biography is unreliable for those wishing to understand Rousseau.

Damrosch wants to show how Rousseau's ideas "emerged from his life." But to do so, he must emphasize that life's stranger aspects. These point toward Rousseau's anxieties and yearnings, and, above all, it was these that his works sought to resolve. Nodding to Freud, Damrosch posits that art is the means by which artists who "cannot bear the constraints of reality" transpose "their desires into a fantasy realm" and there gain the "mastery" they want. In suggesting that Rousseau's neuroses and masterpieces spring from the same source, Damrosch follows one of Rousseau's most formidable interpreters, Jean Starobinski, calling his Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Transparency and Obstruction (1979) "the finest single study of Rousseau." Starobinski set out to "discover the images, obsessions, and nostalgic desires that more or less constantly governed [Rousseau's] conduct and work." For that purpose, Cranston's guiding principle of "collecting the facts that emerge from the evidence available and setting them down as straightforwardly and fairly as possible" is inadequate.

But Damrosch's attempt to explain Rousseau's writings in terms of his anxieties and longings is, at best, not very helpful. I begin with a trivial but illuminating example. In the Confessions, Rousseau sometimes gets his timeline wrong. For example, he claims he lived in his uncle's home in Geneva for two or three years, but the record shows that he lived there for only half a year. Damrosch explains that Rousseau remembered the time as longer than it was because he was relatively happy then. This explanation seems plausible enough. Rousseau, whose longing for happiness was constantly frustrated, needed to imagine that the rare periods of happiness he experienced were longer than they really were. But in the next chapter, Damrosch explains why Rousseau remembered a walking trip that lasted nearly three weeks as just one week in this way: "[a]s he often did when recalling happy times, Rousseau thought the journey had been much more rapid than it was." This explanation, too, seems plausible enough. Rousseau, whose longing for happiness was constantly frustrated, tended to imagine that the rare periods of happiness he experienced were shorter than they really were. The problem is not that Damrosch contradicts himselfósince Rousseau's constantly frustrated longing for happiness really could be behind both memory lapsesóbut rather that no evidence can be offered in favor of either explanation.

Here is a less trivial example. Rousseau famously asserts in Emile, or On Education that a child raised according to his age "loves his sister as he loves his watch" and "knows no attachments other than those of habit." Damrosch explains that Rousseau, full of anxiety about his "unstable and emotionally demanding father" imagines childhood so as to "minimize affective relationships." Children who naturally take no interest in others are safe from needy fathers. Still, like Rousseau's frustrated longing for happiness, his dissatisfaction with his father has more than one possible outcome. The same father who abandoned Rousseau and who was often emotionally distant could be trotted out to explain why Rousseau might have imagined childhood so as to maximize affective relationships. To understand why Rousseau, who was free to dream of loving and being loved by an emotionally stable father, instead describes children as indifferent to others, one might be tempted to refer to his observations of and reflections on children, or to his intentions as an author. Damrosch, however, resists that temptation, presumably because he thinks that unconscious anxiety trumps conscious intention. That position has a respectable philosophical pedigree, but at least in this case, it is hard to see how Rousseau's anxiety about his father explains anything at all about his description of children. One might add that the asociality of children in Emile mirrors the asociality of natural man in Rousseau's Second Discourse. Rousseau's radical individualism, as Damrosch observes in passing, is at the core of his assault on modernity. But why reflect seriously on this assault if we understand it as an offshoot of Rousseau's inability to cope with the demands of his emotionally overbearing father?

Consider also Rousseau's understanding of women. Damrosch, addressing Rousseau's professed reluctance to have sex with Mme. De Warens, claims that Rousseau's "ideal of womanhood entailed a purity that excluded sexuality." But in Emile, the young man's bride, Sophie, an ideal of womanhood if ever there was one, wants to have sex with her husband and is moved to hold herself back in part because such self-control will be rewarded with better sex. It is almost accurate to say that Rousseau's ideal of womanhood entailed a purity that excluded immodesty, but only almost accurate, since Rousseau's argument in favor of modesty hinges on the premise that modesty is sexier than immodesty. That is, it does not assume that women have or should have less interest in sex than men have. Perhaps Emile's chief teaching concerning sex in marriage is that it should be for the pleasure of the woman as well as the man, never merely her duty. Damrosch, founding his interpretation on an unprovable premise about Rousseau's personal discomfort with feminine sexuality, misses the whole direction of Rousseau's argument.

Finally, consider Rousseau's unwillingness to follow his contemporaries in publishing anonymously. Christopher Kelly has written a marvelous book that centers on Rousseau's "remarkable boldness in stating things that risked persecution." In the course of Rousseau as Author: Consecrating One's Life to the Truth (2003), Kelly draws on Rousseau's detailed reflections on language, authorship, and citizenship to reconstruct his novel and profound understanding of his own activity and that of other philosophers. Damrosch's explanation of Rousseau's boldness is simpler and less illuminating: Rousseau risked persecution because he wanted to be persecuted. Rousseau, whose mother died shortly after giving birth to him, and whose father sometimes reminded him of his role in her death, felt guilty. Nodding once again to Freud, Damrosch compares Rousseau to "people who cannot relinquish neurotic symptoms because their feelings of guilt require punishment." Rousseau's hypochondria, paranoia, and courting of persecution are all to be understood in terms of his guilt and the need to alleviate it. In making this argument, Damrosch commits his greatest injustice against Rousseau, calling Rousseau himself as a witness: "Persecution has elevated my soul. The love of truth has become dear to me because it has cost me so much." Needless to say, admitting that one has benefited from unwanted suffering is a long way from admitting that one has unconsciously courted suffering.

Damrosch's recourse to Rousseau's guilt to explain his actions as a writer both distorts those actions and discourages us from meditating on them. Rousseau was not uncalculatedly bold as an author, as might befit a man who hoped to be persecuted. As Damrosch acknowledges, Rousseau had good reason to think, when he published his most controversial works, Emile and The Social Contract, that he had the backing and approval of powerful figures, including Malesherbes, director of the press under Louis XV and France's chief censor. He was not simply reckless. More broadly, as Kelly observes, Rousseau's writing "involves both openness and discretion," which invites reflection of the kind Kelly undertakes on how Rousseau's practice as a writer was shaped by his theoretical understanding of the social and political consequences of enlightenment. Damrosch's approach, which misses Rousseau's discretion and explains his openness as more pathological than theoretical, invites no such reflection. Moreover, while Rousseau's understanding of the political and social consequences of enlightenment is more or less available to us in his writings, his unconscious desire to be persecuted can only be gleaned from the kind of psychoanalysis at a distance for which no patient worth his salt would be willing to pay.

Had Damrosch limited himself, as Cranston tried to do, to setting down as clearly as possible the facts that emerge from the evidence available to us about Rousseau, his account would be more useful. As it stands, it covers well and in lively prose much of the same ground that Cranston does, and in far fewer pages. It also covers some ground that Cranston did not live to coveróroughly the last 10 years of Rousseau's life.

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There are two reasons it is useful to know about Rousseau's life. First, if Rousseau, as he asserted, was genuinely attempting to live out the principles set forth in his writings, then these facts might help us understand those principles. Second, if Rousseau deliberately set out in his autobiographical works to achieve a moral or philosophical purpose, then knowing how Rousseau shaped or distorted the facts of his life, or even made things up, might help us understand this purpose. Such knowledge depends on the availability of an impartial account of Rousseau's life. Both reasons for knowing about Rousseau's life, however, assume that we need to understand what Rousseau meant, that we want to know about Rousseau's life in order to know about Rousseau's thoughts. Because Damrosch's approach depends on the postulate that thoughts, like neuroses, are governed by unconscious wishes, Damrosch cannot help supposing that he knows more than Rousseau does, or implying that Rousseau's thoughts are the least interesting thing about him.

To Damrosch's credit, he resists the pull of the theory that guides him. He praises Rousseau for the originality and lasting importance of his ideas and warns "that it would be condescending to imagine that we see what Rousseau could not." Unfortunately, he issues this warning one sentence before he distorts Rousseau's words to bolster his case that Rousseau unconsciously wanted to be persecuted. As Damrosch elsewhere acknowledges, this "is exactly the line on Rousseau's suffering that he most resented." Damrosch does not want to condescend to Rousseau, but his theory leaves him no choice.

About the Authors

Jonathan Marks is assistant professor of Philosophy and Political Science at Carthage College and the author of Perfection and Disharmony in the Thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (Cambridge University Press).