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The Full Revelation of the Self: Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the Birth of Deep Autobiography

Peter Abbs recounts how Rousseau undertook a psychological self-examination a century before psychoanalysis.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the great 18th century philosopher, was preoccupied throughout his life with his own unstable identity, with his image, with his inner truth and with his ever-deepening sense of dislocation from others and from society in general. But this preoccupation became obsessional during the last twenty years of his life. In 1766, haunted by a growing sense of isolation and persecution, staying at Wootton Hall in Staffordshire, he began the serious composition of his Confessions. The twelve substantial books took four years to complete. Then in 1772, still suffering from an acute sense of isolation, not to say an occasional overwhelming paranoia, Rousseau began his next autobiographical work, Rousseau, Judge of Jean-Jacques: Dialogues. No sooner was this febrile work of apologia finished in 1776 than Rousseau commenced writing a third autobiographical work, The Reveries of a Solitary Walker. He continued to work on this, recreating his memories, following his spontaneous states of consciousness, and defending his past life, until his death in 1778.

The sheer bulk of Rousseau’s reflective autobiographical writing is daunting, while the nature of the material, in its insight and its blindness, in its self-portrayal and its self-betrayal, in its moral courage and its strutting vanity, is as extraordinary as it is disorientating. Yet in spite of this – indeed, perhaps, because of it – Rousseau can be named, unambiguously, the first significant philosopher of deep personal autobiography, and one of its greatest, if most erratic, practitioners.

The Inner Drives Towards Self-Analysis

Rousseau longed to understand himself, to narrate himself, to analyse how he had become who he was. He wanted, especially, to locate his integral nature as it was before it had been deflected and corrupted by the inexorable pressures of alien and alienating civilization. A number of years before the persecution set in and paranoia clouded his vision, Rousseau’s philosophical thinking had already developed radically towards the need for self-analysis and self-observation. Without a doubt, the most evocative and original parts of Rousseau’s autobiographical experiment come from this inner source, not from the persecution and the paranoia – which tended to produce only defensive rationalization and tiresome bombast; the predictable self-pleading of the misunderstood fugitive.

To grasp the genesis of deep autobiography with Rousseau, we have first to understand his notion of philosophy as an act of self-realization and self-elaboration. His first Discourse, Discours sur les sciences et les arts, which won the prize from the Academy of Dijon on 9th July 1750, had been a formulation of insights felt during a revelatory experience on the road to Vincennes in October of the previous year, not unlike that of Paul on the road to Damascus. Here is Rousseau’s testimony in the Confessions:

“One day I took the Mercure de France and, while reading, as I walked, I came upon the subject proposed by the Academy of Dijon as a prize essay for the following year: Has the progress of the arts and sciences contributed more to the corruption or purification of morals? From the moment I read these words, I beheld another world and became another man… on my arrival at Vincennes I was in a state of agitation bordering on madness.”

This is a typical Rousseauian response. Thus Rousseau’s philosophy does not emerge from the logical connecting of indubitable propositions, as advocated by Descartes. Rather, it arises as sudden illumination, as a form of trance, as a species of inner possession. The intensity of the feelings rather than the clarity of geometrical propositions determines the philosophical idiom. “In vain,” protested Rousseau, “do you argue this point with me; I feel it, and it is this feeling which speaks to me more forcibly than the reason which disputes it.” In brief, I feel therefore I am.

In the Reveries, Rousseau implicitly contrasted his goal for philosophy with that of other Enlightenment philosophers:

“I have met many men who were more learned in their philosophising, but their philosophy remained, as it were, external to them. Wanting to know more than other people, they studied the workings of the universe, as they might have studied some machine they had come across, out of sheer curiosity. They studied human nature, in order to speak knowledgeably about it, not in order to know themselves.”

On the contrary, for Rousseau the philosopher is the man seeking the nature of his existence: philosophy abstracts and externalises only to promote a further intensification of reflection. Such a conception of philosophy – linking back to the Stoics, but radically different in emphasis and idiom – is deeply autobiographical, and in the last two decades of his life Rousseau became more and more committed to the new language it required. As the nature of the task became clearer to Rousseau, so his engagement to ‘direct’ autobiographical work – the continual exploratory writing of the self – increased, until, under the pressure of both real and imagined persecution, it became the major unifying literary and philosophical pursuit of the last two decades of his life.

Early Forays Into Autobiographical Reflection

During 1757-1758 Rousseau wrote his Lettres Morales for Marie d’Houdetot. In these letters he urges a withdrawal from superficial externalities and the gradual circumscription of the self within natural limits. In a manner reminiscent of Descartes’ Discourse on Method, but with a markedly different outcome, Rousseau now seeks the illumination of his existence, through the progressive bracketing-out of all external pressures:

“Let us begin, in a word, by gathering ourselves together in order that, as we seek to know ourselves, everything that constitutes us may present itself to us at the same time. As for me, I think that the one who knows best of what the human self consists is the nearest to wisdom; and that just as the first outline of a drawing is made up of the lines which complete it, man’s first idea is to separate himself from all that is not himself.”

Rousseau labours to coincide in understanding with a self which he envisages as given but not easily accessible because of the pressures exerted by continuous exhortations and demands. The recovery of self involves, therefore, the removal of social pressures, which by their nature generate not true self-affirmation but, rather, a competitive and anxious amour propre [self-regard]. Against amour propre, Rousseau places the concept of amour de soi [true love of self]. The former is as relative and disfiguring as the latter is absolute and fulfilling.

In the Lettres Morales the philosopher of autobiography is beginning to articulate the radical notion of a natural existence and the strategies through which it might be achieved. In the same spirit Rousseau claimed elsewhere, “Whoever has the courage to appear always what he is will sooner or later become what he must be.” The assumption, once again, is that the self is biologically provided, present with its latent nature, and that the task of the individual is to make that nature actual.

The interplay of the two polar concepts, amour de soi and amour propre, informs all of Rousseau’s autobiographical writing. One rather abstract way of describing Rousseau’s entire autobiographical project would be that it seeks to show how original amour de soi is swallowed up by amour propre, and how the task of the alienated individual is then to find ways of rediscovering the lost pleasures of a true love of themselves. This project is a psychological epic in which the central task is a return to nature – to a state of instinctive, self-regulating, self-sustaining well-being. The tragedy in the case of Rousseau was that the return to natural self-love involved the loss of all his other relationships. In his last work, the Reveries, the individual and society became finally and irrevocably unhitched.

A major move in the gradual shift from philosophical discourse to deep autobiography is marked by Rousseau’s four letters to Malesherbes, all composed in January 1762. In the Confessions Rousseau refers to these letters as: “four successive letters in which, while explaining the real motives of my behaviour, I gave a faithful description of my tastes, inclinations and character, and all that took place in my heart.”

These letters foreshadow the main thematic elements of the Confessions. In them Rousseau struggles to depict directly his temperament, his distinctive features and qualities. “I shall,” he writes, “depict myself without pretence and modesty. I shall show myself to you such as I see myself and such as I am.” In these letters one can already detect a concern with true and false images of his existence and the desire to inaugurate the natural man ruled by the benign power of amour de soi. Here is, also, the crucial conception of the idea of a chronological causal analysis of the shaping of his temperament – to give, as Rousseau says, “by means of facts a kind of historical account” which will make his personality “conceivable.” In these letters to Malesherbes he celebrates his moods when he is alone, his personal reverie:

“But what did I enjoy when I was alone? Myself, the whole universe, all that is, all that can be, the entire beauty of the world of sense, the whole imaginable content of the intellectual world: I gathered around me everything that could flatter my heart; my desires were the measure of my pleasures. No! Never have the greatest voluptuaries known such delights, and I have obtained a hundred times more enjoyment from my chimeras than they have from realities.”

Such experience, often a kind of absorbed pre-conceptual drifting merging with the most elementary sensations, became increasingly cherished by Rousseau, and forms an essential part of all the late autobiographical work.

At about the same time as the composition of the letters to Malesherbes, and further testifying to his emerging autobiographical preoccupation, Rousseau wrote a number of short fragments (thirty eight in all), which he entitled My Portrait. Here Rousseau’s claims include:

“I have conceived of a new genre of service to render to man: this is to offer them the faithful image of one amongst them in order for them to learn to know themselves.”

“I am an observer, not a moralist. I am the botanist who describes the plant. It is for the doctor to establish how best to use it.”

“I see that the people who live most intimately with me don’t know me and they attribute most of my actions, whether in good or bad matters, to completely other motives than those which have produced them.”

My Portrait provides a variety of reasons for writing autobiography. Rousseau wants to be recognized for the person he feels himself to be. He wants to promote self-knowledge – not only for himself but for others. Working like a botanist, he wants to be the objective observer of his personality – observer not judge. He wants to create a new genre – to tackle what, in his view, no-one had had the courage to do before: to offer the full revelation of the self, to disclose all, to conceal nothing, for the realization of our full humanity.

In 1761, Rey, his Dutch publisher, wrote a letter to Rousseau suggesting he might write ‘a memoir’ to be attached to a forthcoming edition of his writings. In the outcome, the notion of memoir was to turn quickly to confession, and the notion of confession was to culminate in personal autobiography: in the twelve massive volumes of the Confessions.

The Emergence of a New Reflexive Genre

Rousseau proclaimed the daring originality of his project in a sketch originally intended to form the opening of the Confessions (but subsequently discarded): to delineate all facets of his personality; to examine his behaviour, the sordid and the trivial, as much as the noble and the good; and to demarcate an underlying pattern in that behaviour by tracing his adult dispositions back to their sources in early definitive experience. These are the ends Rousseau consciously set himself, and he presented this work as an unprecedented enquiry, requiring a new-minted language:

“For what I have to say it is necessary to invent a language as original as my project. For what tone, what style to take, in order to handle this immense chaos of sentiments so diverse, so contradictory, often so vile and sometimes so sublime, by which I am perpetually agitated? What trivialities, what miseries will it not be necessary for me to expose? In what revolting details, indecent, puerile, and often ridiculous, must I not enter in order to follow the thread of my secret dispositions to show how each impression which has made a mark on my soul entered there for the first time?”

Yet, ironically, the very same sketch moves on to evoke and apply a traditional paradigm. Rousseau reveals that his literary creation has a cultural source, and that this source was the sacrament of confession – a sacrament of which, as a temporary convert to Catholicism, he had direct experience:

“I will fulfil rigorously my title and never the most fearful nun will make a more rigorous examination of conscience than I prepare for myself. Never will she reveal more scrupulously to her confessor all the innermost recesses of her soul than I am going to display to the public: It only matters that you begin to read me at my word, for you will not go far without seeing that I wish to hold to it… I am saying here things about myself which are very odious and of which I have a horror of wishing to excuse myself, but also it is the most secret history of my soul. These are my Confessions in the full sense of that word. It is just that the reputation which will follow the work will expiate the sins which the desire to conserve my earlier reputation had made me commit. I wait for public discussion, for the severity of judgements pronounced on high, and I submit myself to them…” (My italics.)

One can see at once how both the explicit and tacit conventions of confession are in full operation. There is the expectation that the person confessing will speak the truth; there is the expectation, furthermore, that he will speak from the heart; that he will narrate his mortal sins as well as the venial; that he will accept the judgement conferred upon him; and that he will seek expiation. At the same time there is a highly significant secular shift. Rousseau is addressing his odious actions neither to his confessor, as St. Theresa or Margery Kemp did, nor, like Augustine, directly to God, but to the public. His reader becomes his intimate audience, and it is the reader who is given the onerous responsibility of casting judgement upon the sinner. The reader takes on the priest’s burden. Indeed, the reader is asked by its author to take on a number of semi-religious functions. Often he is addressed as objective judge; but he is also invited to be a sympathetic collaborator, observing witness, and at times all but an intimate friend and lover. The diverse roles that Augustine gave to God are in Rousseau radically transferred to the reader. The transaction is human not divine, interpersonal rather than sacramental. Rousseau longs to be fully recognized, not by God, but by the society of his readers, often his future readers: “since my name is destined to live, it is incumbent upon me to endeavour to hand down with it the remembrance of the unfortunate man who bore it such as he really was, not such as his unjust enemies incessantly endeavour to represent him.” That the Confessions is in part a secular transformation of the sacrament is further confirmed by Rousseau’s compulsion to read it to small groups of people in Paris in 1770 and 1771. One meeting was purported to have lasted seventeen hours. Seventeen hours of autobiographical reading – surely the longest ever recorded!

In the first volume of the Confessions, the major sins confessed with difficulty and anguish are, in chronological order, the sexual pleasure derived from Mademoiselle Lambercier’s smacking, the theft of a ribbon and his accusation that Marion had stolen it, and the insensitive abandonment of his travelling companion, Le Maitre, when he suffers an epileptic fit. In the second volume, the major sin which needles Rousseau’s conscience is the abandonment of his children to the Foundling Hospital, against the wishes of their mother.

Psychological Examination of Childhood Experience

The confession of one offence makes it more easy to relate another, and thus, by degrees, Rousseau paints the dark and perverse side of his personality. After confessing the masochistic sexual pleasure he derived from his childhood beating, he claims: “I have taken the first and most difficult step in the dark and dirty labyrinth of my confessions… Henceforth I am sure of myself; after having ventured to say so much, I can shrink from nothing.” Thus, more than any writer before him, Rousseau narrated his weaknesses, his failings, his foibles, his questionable and perverse proclivities. He informed his readers of his pathological shyness, of his habit of masturbating, his occasional bouts of kleptomania, his visits to prostitutes, his act of self-exposure, his complex prostate problems, his exhibitionism, and his masochistic streaks. What is distinctive in all this self-disclosure is the author’s desire to represent himself faithfully and to do so in the language of psychology rather than the language of Christian piety. To understand the foundations of his personality, Rousseau looks to early formative experience, to a complex reciprocal play between natural impulses and the shaping environment. In the original opening sketch for the Confessions the pioneering psychological orientation is clear:

“To know a character well it is necessary to distinguish that which has been established by nature, to see how he has formed himself, what occasions have developed him, what sequence of secret affections has rendered him thus and how he has modified himself to produce on occasions the most contradictory and most unexpected results. That which is seen is the least part of that which is. It is the apparent effect of which the internal cause is hidden and often very complicated.” (My italics.)

So this is confession not only directed openly, to other human beings, it is also psychological. Rousseau is attempting to understand the forces which shape human identity, and the forces are no longer supernatural but cultural. Furthermore, they are located not in the present moment but in past experience: “I have promised to describe myself as I am; and in order to know me in my riper years, it is necessary to have known me well in my youth.” The analysis has to be in depth and retrospective.

No-one before Rousseau had taken intimate childhood experiences and delineated with precision and objectivity their remote and permanent consequences on the life of the suffering, dislocated adult. In Rousseau there exists the rudimentary methods of psychoanalysis, as well as a direct, unapologetic recognition of child sexuality. Here breaking from the past, especially from the dominant repressive doctrine of Original Sin, he anticipates Freud by more than a century. In humanity’s long story of self-figuration and self-narration, Rousseau’s championing of the essential goodness of childhood represents a quantum leap of the first order.

Rousseau’s original analysis speaks eloquently for itself. At the age of eight he is punished by Mademoiselle Lambercier for some minor offence. At first he is threatened and then finally beaten:

“For some time she was content with threats, and this threat of punishment that was quite new to me appeared very terrible; but, after it had been carried out, I found the reality less terrible than the expectation; and what was still more strange, this chastisement made me still more devoted to her who had inflicted it. It needed all the strength of this devotion and all my natural docility to keep myself from doing something which would have deservedly brought upon me a repetition of it; for I had found in the pain, even in the disgrace, a mixture of sensuality which had left me less afraid than desirous of experiencing it again from the same hand. No doubt some precocious sexual instinct was mingled with this feeling, for the same chastisement inflicted by her brother would not have seemed to me at all pleasant.” (My italics)

Rousseau then delineates the subsequent indelible effects of this experience. In this comparatively trivial event he sees that a major propensity has been established for the rest of his life:

“Who would believe that this childish punishment, inflicted upon me when only eight years old by a young woman of thirty, disposed of my tastes, my desires, my passions and my self for the remainder of my life, and that in a manner exactly contrary to that which should have been the natural result? When my feelings were once inflamed, my desires so went astray that, limited to what I had already felt, they did not trouble themselves to look for anything else. In spite of my hot blood, which has been inflamed with sensuality almost from my birth, I kept myself free from every taint until the age when the coldest and most sluggish temperaments begin to develop. In torments for a long time, without knowing why, I devoured with burning glances all the pretty women I met; my imagination unceasingly recalled them to me, only to make use of them in my fashion, and to make of them so many Mlles Lambercier.”

These acute and detailed descriptions of childhood which form the locus classicus of self-narration and self-understanding, are introspective and psychological. Given Rousseau’s premise that our individual characters are largely shaped by early experiences, the art of the autobiographer is not to examine motives and seek forgiveness, as in the confessional, so much as to delineate the influences of specific, contingent circumstances on good natural impulses. In this way, once he has had the courage to face the dislocations of his experience, the individual works to understand the pattern which brought them about.

The importance of this radical shift in interpretation cannot be over-estimated in the story of reflexive self-consciousness. To repeat one of Rousseau’s favourite images, the autobiographer was now to become a kind of botanist who examines his own behaviour and attempts to describe and classify it, holding back judgement. Here Rousseau’s work boldly prefigures the dangerous and difficult self-analytical journeys that were to follow. It marks the dramatic birth of deep personal autobiography and the psychological analysis of human experience.

© Peter Abbs 2008

Peter Abbs is Research Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Sussex. Recent books include The Flowering of Flint: New and Selected Poems (Salt) and Against the Flow: Education, the Arts and Postmodern Culture (Routledge). Please visit www.peterabbs.co.uk.

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