Aimez-Vous Rousseau?

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

by Jean Guéhenno, translated by John Weightman, translated by Doreen Weightman
Columbia, 776, (2 vols.) pp., $17.50

All men of obscure birth feel an instinctive kinship with him.” They feel it, says Mr. Guéhenno, if they have felt the least urge to break free from the limitations of their station, for this urge will have involved them in adventures and indignities similar to his. But most men feeling this urge are not men of genius: They are either more adroit and enterprising than Rousseau was or, if they lack the skill or energy or boldness that bring success, they are more easily resigned to their lot. The man of genius, especially if he is a man of letters or an artist, is possessed by the need to be himself, and seeks to impose himself on others, to exist for them, on his own terms. He does not impose himself by getting power or wealth, or by conventional success of some other kind; he does not seek an exalted place in the world as they see it but a place of his own which requires him to disturb that world. He is, as M. Guéhenno puts it, a monster, and never more so than when his genius is introspective. For then he torments himself and all who come near to him. Close to, he is insufferable, though at a distance—such is the power of his words—he can fascinate. The intensity of his feelings and the subtlety and urgency of arguments aimed, consciously or unconsciously, at justifying or condemning himself, ensure that he seems always to be speaking from the heart. But who speaks from the heart speaks sincerely; or so we often say.

The story of Rousseau’s life, we are told, is “a drama of sincerity.” And it is above all this story that M. Guéhenno seeks to tell, for he has little to say about Rousseau’s social or political theory, and says that little only to help him make some point about the man. He discusses his novel La Nouvelle Héloise 1761) at considerably greater length than any other of Rousseau’s works, though it contains much less of his philosophy of man and society than does the Discourse on the Origins of Inequality (1754) or Emile (1762) or The Social Contract (1762). Or at least it is a less systematic exposition of that philosophy, for the characters in the novel moralize and philosophize incessantly. They dissect minutely their own and one another’s actions and motives, and pass easily from talking of themselves to talking of mankind. The novel is a story of love and friendship, and M. Guéhenno treats it as a fantasy in which the writer revels in what life has denied him. In the midst of writing it, excited by his own dreams, he fell in love for the first and only time, and unhappily. For M. Guéhenno’s purpose, which is to reveal what sort of man Rousseau was, this long novel is, together with the Confessions, the most important of his works.

THE STORY HE TELLS could …

This article is available to Online Edition and Print Premium subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.