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AMONG THE NOTABLE BOOKS OF later times-we may say, without exaggeration, of all time—must be reckoned The Confessions of Jean Jacques Rousseau. It deals with leading personages and transactions of a momentous epoch, when absolutism and feudalism were rallying for their last struggle against the modern spirit, chiefly represented by Voltaire, the Encyclopedists, and Rousseau himself—a struggle to which, after many fierce intestine quarrels and sanguinary wars throughout Europe and America, has succeeded the prevalence of those more tolerant and rational principles by which the statesmen of our own day are actuated.
On these matters, however, it is not our province to enlarge; nor is it necessary to furnish any detailed account of our author’s political, religious, and philosophic axioms and systems, his paradoxes and his errors in logic: these have been so long and so exhaustively disputed over by contending factions that little is left for even the most assiduous gleaner in the field. The inquirer will find, in Mr. John Money’s excellent work, the opinions of Rousseau reviewed succinctly and impartially. The ‘Contrat Social’, the ‘Lattres Ecrites de la Montagne’, and other treatises that once aroused fierce controversy, may therefore be left in the repose to which they have long been consigned, so far as the mass of mankind is concerned, though they must always form part of the library of the politician and the historian. One prefers to turn to the man Rousseau as he paints himself in the remarkable work before us.
That the task which he undertook in offering to show himself—as Persius puts it—’Intus et in cute’, to posterity, exceeded his powers, is a trite criticism; like all human enterprises, his purpose was only imperfectly fulfilled; but this circumstance in no way lessens the attractive qualities of his book, not only for the student of history or psychology, but for the intelligent man of the world. Its startling frankness gives it a peculiar interest wanting in most other autobiographies.
Many censors have elected to sit in judgment on the failings of this strangely constituted being, and some have pronounced upon him very severe sentences. Let it be said once for all that his faults and mistakes were generally due to causes over which he had but little control, such as a defective education, a too acute sensitiveness, which engendered suspicion of his fellows, irresolution, an overstrained sense of honour and independence, and an obstinate refusal to take advice from those who really wished to befriend him; nor should it be forgotten that he was afflicted during the greater part of his life with an incurable disease.
Lord Byron had a soul near akin to Rousseau’s, whose writings naturally made a deep impression on the poet’s mind, and probably had an influence on his conduct and modes of thought: In some stanzas of ‘Childe Harold’ this sympathy is expressed with truth and power; especially is the weakness of the Swiss philosopher’s character summed up in the following admirable lines:
“Here the self-torturing sophist, wild Rousseau,
The apostle of affliction, he who threw
Enchantment over passion, and from woe
Wrung overwhelming eloquence, first drew
The breath which made him wretched; yet he knew
How to make madness beautiful, and cast
O’er erring deeds and thoughts a heavenly hue
Of words, like sunbeams, dazzling as they passed
The eyes, which o’er them shed tears feelingly and fast.
“His life was one long war with self-sought foes,
Or friends by him self-banished; for his mind
Had grown Suspicion’s sanctuary, and chose,
For its own cruel sacrifice, the kind,
‘Gainst whom he raged with fury strange and blind.
But he was frenzied,-wherefore, who may know?
Since cause might be which skill could never find;
But he was frenzied by disease or woe
To that worst pitch of all, which wears a reasoning show.”
One would rather, however, dwell on the brighter hues of the picture than on its shadows and blemishes; let us not, then, seek to “draw his frailties from their dread abode.” His greatest fault was his renunciation of a father’s duty to his offspring; but this crime he expiated by a long and bitter repentance. We cannot, perhaps, very readily excuse the way in which he has occasionally treated the memory of his mistress and benefactress. That he loved Madame de Warens—his ‘Mamma’—deeply and sincerely is undeniable, notwithstanding which he now and then dwells on her improvidence and her feminine indiscretions with an unnecessary and unbecoming lack of delicacy that has an unpleasant effect on the reader, almost seeming to justify the remark of one of his most lenient critics—that, after all, Rousseau had the soul of a lackey. He possessed, however, many amiable and charming qualities, both as a man and a writer, which were evident to those amidst whom he lived, and will be equally so to the unprejudiced reader of the Confessions. He had a profound sense of justice and a real desire for the improvement and advancement of the race. Owing to these excellences he was beloved to the last even by persons whom he tried to repel, looking upon them as members of a band of conspirators, bent upon destroying his domestic peace and depriving him of the means of subsistence.
Those of his writings that are most nearly allied in tone and spirit to the ‘Confessions’ are the ‘Reveries d’un Promeneur Solitaire’ and ‘La Nouvelle Heloise’. His correspondence throws much light on his life and character, as do also parts of ‘Emile’. It is not easy in our day to realize the effect wrought upon the public mind by the advent of ‘La Nouvelle Heloise’. Julie and Saint-Preux became names to conjure with; their ill-starred amours were everywhere sighed and wept over by the tender-hearted fair; indeed, in composing this work, Rousseau may be said to have done for Switzerland what the author of the Waverly Novels did for Scotland, turning its mountains, lakes and islands, formerly regarded with aversion, into a fairyland peopled with creatures whose joys and sorrows appealed irresistibly to every breast. Shortly after its publication began to flow that stream of tourists and travellers which tends to make Switzerland not only more celebrated but more opulent every year. It, is one of the few romances written in the epistolary form that do not oppress the reader with a sense of languor and unreality; for its creator poured into its pages a tide of passion unknown to his frigid and stilted predecessors, and dared to depict Nature as she really is, not as she was misrepresented by the modish authors and artists of the age. Some persons seem shy of owning an acquaintance with this work; indeed, it has been made the butt of ridicule by the disciples of a decadent school. Its faults and its beauties are on the surface; Rousseau’s own estimate is freely expressed at the beginning of the eleventh book of the Confessions and elsewhere. It might be wished that the preface had been differently conceived and worded; for the assertion made therein that the book may prove dangerous has caused it to be inscribed on a sort of Index, and good folk who never read a line of it blush at its name. Its “sensibility,” too, is a little overdone, and has supplied the wits with opportunities for satire; for example, Canning, in his ‘New Morality’:
“Sweet Sensibility, who dwells enshrined
In the fine foldins of the feeling mind....
Sweet child of sickly Fancy!-her of yore
From her loved France Rousseau to exile bore;
And while ‘midst lakes and mountains wild he ran,
Full of himself, and shunned the haunts of man,
Taught her o’er each lone vale and Alpine, steep
To lisp the story of his wrongs and weep.”
As might be imagined, Voltaire had slight sympathy with our social reformer’s notions and ways of promulgating them, and accordingly took up his wonted weapons—sarcasm and ridicule—against poor Jean-Jacques. The quarrels of these two great men cannot be described in this place; but they constitute an important chapter in the literary and social history of the time. In the work with which we are immediately concerned, the author seems to avoid frequent mention of Voltaire, even where we should most expect it. However, the state of his mind when he penned this record of his life should be always remembered in relation to this as well as other occurrences.
Rousseau had intended to bring his autobiography down to a later date, but obvious causes prevented this: hence it is believed that a...