Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless Geniusby Leo Damrosch Published 01 Nov 2005
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The extraordinary life of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the eighteenth-century literary genius who changed the course of history, traced with novelistic verve.
Motherless child, failed apprentice, autodidact, impossibly odd lover, Jean-Jacques Rousseau burst unexpectedly onto the eighteenth-century scene as a literary provocateur whose works electrified readers from the start. Rousseau’s impact on American social and political thought remains deep, wide, and, to some, even infuriating.
Leo Damrosch beautifully mines Rousseau’s books--The Social Contract, one of the greatest works on political theory and a direct influence on the French and American revolutions; Emile, a groundbreaking treatise on education; and the Confessions, which created the genre of introspective autobiography--as works still uncannily alive and provocative to us today.
Damrosch’s triumph is to integrate the story of Rousseau’s extraordinarily original writings with the tumultuous life that produced them. Rousseau’s own words and those of people who knew him help create an accessible, vivid portrait of a questing man whose strangeness--as punishing and punished lover, difficult friend, and father who famously consigned his infant children to a foundling home--still fascinates. This, the first single-volume biography of Rousseau in English, is as masterfully written as it is definitive.
Leo Damrosch is the Ernest Bernbaum Professor of Literature at Harvard University. He has written widely on eighteenth-century writers.
Praise for Jean-Jacques Rousseau
"Leo Damrosch's vivid biography enables us to plunge deeply into Rousseau's singular life, conjure up its crucial encounters, retrace its twisting paths, and supplement Rousseau's own claims about himself with the detailed, often contradictory testimony of the contemporaries he so unsettled and inspired." -- Stephen Greenblatt, author of Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare
"These pages bring to life the Europe of the ancien regime, a desiccated, sybaritic, superstitious, oppressive world about to be terribly and fatally convulsed. And they also bring to astonishing life a great agent of that convulsion, an impossible man whose books helped to make modern life possible. Leo Damrosch not only helps us understand Rousseau, his loves and his hates, his genius and his foolishness. He makes us see Rousseau. And, as he shows again and again in this immensely enjoyable and fast-paced story, that is Rousseau’s special and permanent fascination--because when we see him, we are seeing ourselves."-- Louis Menand, author of The Metaphysical Club and American Studies
"Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius" Reviews
This biography actually deserves 4.5 stars. It is a wonderfully engaging and thorough account that makes a very good case that Rousseau, among his contemporaries, is the thinker most present in our current self-consciousness. 'Our' meaning those of us who have inherited the enlightenment and the discourse and institutions of political thought generated during this period.
Damrosch is an excellent guide and writer. The story of Rousseau's life is quite amazing, and the author weaves in relevant psychological analyses and translates myriad secondary sources to illuminate the subject very well, without being cumbersome in his prose. The accomplishments of Rousseau given his mercurial personality and spartan determination to be authentic are incredible. He may not have been that admirable in some of his actions, or even despicable, but it is not easy to dismiss his character as entirely wanting of moral integrity. It's a fascinating story that inflected my understanding of Rousseau's theories with depth and appreciation. (Disclaimer: I teach Rousseau and the history of political philosophy).
Given this disclaimer, my only critique is that I thought the theories of Rousseau could have been explored a bit more thoroughly and with greater intricacy. This quality is something I think Ray Monk achieved with his biography of Wittgenstein.
However, this is a fantastic and incredibly learned text that I was lucky enough to read parts of in Paris and Provence.
Leo Damrosch is a talented biographer and Jean-Jaques Rousseau is a subject worthy of Damrosch’s attention. So it is no surprise that RESTLESS GENIUS was a finalist for the National Book Award. It is a very worthwhile book. But it also disappoints. This is no fault of Damrosch’. The disappointment is due entirely to Rousseau, whose life seems to have careened between episodes of humiliation, the drudgery of continual hypochondria and wild bouts of paranoia – all of which were self-inflicted.
I expected that the man who inspired generations with soaring rhetoric such as “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains” would have lived a life characterized by at least a modicum of dignity. But there is nothing dignified about the life Rousseau led. He seems to have been a willful, childish and small man.
Among his many contradictions, he was known in his lifetime as a leading and highly original expert on the subject of childrearing. Yet, he had as many as four children with his common law wife (the total is unknown – which is telling), but put each of them up for adoption as newborns and severed all ties with them. He couldn’t be bothered, it seems.
His relationships with women were pathetic. Craven supplicant and selfish tyrant were roles that came naturally to him. Damrosch might have been guilty of giving more attention to this subject than warranted. There is little of interest in Rousseau’s embarrassing flirtations.
He also had an inexplicable run-in with David Hume, who had come to his rescue. Rousseau’s writing was frequently controversial with the authorities. Some of the time, his writing was banned and he himself was subject to potential arrest. During such a period in Paris, David Hume offered to bring Rousseau to England where the censors were less powerful and Rousseau could write in peace. Rousseau accepted the offer, but once in England accused Hume of spying on him. Hume probably was not completely blameless (there is evidence he screened Rousseau’s mail), but what is clear is that among their contemporaries Hume was universally regarded as a man of great goodwill and humor, whereas Rousseau was known to be unable to maintain relationships with others without conflict and drama. Posterity has judged that Hume was the wronged party and that Rousseau’s accusations were a symptom of his chronic paranoia.
Of course, Rousseau’s greatest feud was with Voltaire, who seems to have despised Rousseau. Voltaire was France’s great man of the Enlightenment. He was convinced that civilization, culture and education would elevate humankind to our potential if only we would embrace science and free ourselves of superstition and backward political institutions. Voltaire’s point of view prevailed among the intelligentsia of France, until Rousseau began his eloquent critique of civilization and the human condition. Today, it is not clear whether the Enlightenment or the Romantic movement has had more influence on later generations. But as between Voltaire and Rousseau, there is no lack of clarity. Voltaire influenced many, but Rousseau was founder, and in many ways, the very soul of the movement that began to question and push back on the rising tide of the Enlightenment. Without Rousseau, there could be no Immanuel Kant or Karl Marx. In the pantheon of great thinkers in the Western tradition, Rousseau outshines Voltaire.
And that is the point. Though I found Rousseau the man to be a great disappointment. The author of Discourse on the Sciences and Arts, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, On the Social Contract and Emile will always be a man who deserves our attention. Damrosch did us a service by bringing Rousseau to life in RESTLESS GENIUS. We may as well know the man behind the brilliance, even if we do not like him.
This is a beautifully written, sensitive and thoughtful biography of Rousseau. Damrosch admires Rousseau's Confessions and uses them to structure much of the book. He gives such a convincing portrait of Rousseau's personality that I felt as though I knew the philosopher. At the same time Damrosch avoids simple psychological reductions and assesses what is known and not known about Rousseau. He presents clear summaries of Rousseau's works, shows how they were received and argues convincingly for their importance in the emergence of 'modern' ways of thought. It is a long book, but I had trouble putting it down until I finished it.
An engaging biography. The author rightly emphasizes the stunning originality of Rousseau's thought, which constitutes no philosophical system or the product of systematic inquiry. It consists, rather, of reflections on the issues and topics that happened to interest him or that he felt compelled to examine. He formulated new, and enduring, perspectives on nearly every subject he considered. "Emile", for example, remains the point of departure for any progressive theory of education. Even Freud acknowledged that psychoanalysis began with Rousseau. Rousseau invented the modern autobiography. On and on.
The author explores the pattern of Rousseau's life, his way of being in the world, that enabled and sustained his independence of mind, the very source of his originality: his pursuit of solitude, his persistent rejection of patronage, his rejection of any relationship that required or even suggested a need to compromise authenticity and personal autonomy. A very difficult way to live indeed. Yet Rousseau acknowledged that to live differently was nothing less than impossible.
Damrosch has written a insightful and brilliant book about Rousseau. He doesn't sugarcoat Rousseau's difficult life, but treats Rousseau with honesty and respect, acknowledging his weaknesses as well as his strengths. I knew nothing much about Rousseau, and I was very surprised by some of his actions. And the jealousies and vendettas among the famous people around Rousseau is mind-boggling. An eye-opening book, to say the least. I highly recommend it.
A very well written account of Rousseau's life which acts a window into a truly remarkable era in European thought.