Jean-Jacques Rousseau: A New Interpretative Analysis of His Life and Works, Vol. I: The Quest, 1712-1758
Jean-Jacques Rousseau: A New Interpretative Analysis of His Life and Works, Vol. II: The Prophetic Voice, 1758-1778
There is not much left in Rousseau to respect or admire when Professor Lester G. Crocker has finished with his life and works. Professor Crocker’s analysis, resting on solid documentary research, does not aim primarily to map out the story of a life; this has been done often enough and Crocker has no new unpublished documents to add to Rousseau’s file. He simply takes this file in its present state—including the valuable material contributed by the Pléiade complete works and Professor R. A. Leigh’s edition of the complete correspondence—and subjects it to a process of systematic interpretation. From beginning to end this interpretation follows the biography step by step; the reader cannot remain indifferent to it. After a series of statements for the defense (in the studies of Guéhenno, Guillemin) and sympathetic attempts to relive Rousseau’s experience (in those of Raymond, Burgelin, Grimsley), we have here an uncompromising speech for the prosecution which is more than a mere rehash of the old charges of anarchic individualism brought at the beginning of this century by the anti-Romantics (Maurras, Barrès, Babbitt).
Not that Crocker ever underestimates Rousseau’s importance in the history of thought—he even speaks of his greatness—but this greatness is in his eyes the expression of an abnormal personality, the sublimation of a sick psyche. He has no great love for Rousseau, at best a feeling of pity. Why then dwell on him at such obstinate length? Is it just in order to subject him to a clinical analysis, to give us the anatomy of a monster? No, Crocker has a more urgent motive. He is convinced that Rousseau’s doctrinal writings, if we take them seriously and particularly if we look to them for inspiration, are a formidable source of danger, that they offer us the utopian and imaginary expression of a tendency that takes on physical reality in some of the worst features of our time: totalitarianism, the manipulation of human consciences, and the techniques of behavioral engineering.
According to him Rousseau’s theories originate in the inner conflicts which he was never able to resolve. Thus, using Jean-Jacques as a stalking-horse, Crocker has written a book about the predicament of the world we live in; in his analysis of the psychological abnormalities that Rousseau so glaringly exhibits we can detect a hidden project of denouncing and exorcizing our present ills by tracing them to their infancy. It is then as a moralist and even a political theorist that he reads and interprets Rousseau’s thought.
One cannot fail to be impressed by the ethical seriousness of this approach—here is a man of our time asking whether Rousseau can serve as a master for our time. He is not therefore posing a literary question; no doubt this is why the study of Rousseau’s art occupies so little space in the book. Professor Crocker is raising vital issues, discussing a system of thought and the psychology that lies behind it. The matter is sufficiently important for us to pardon trivial mistakes. We can leave minor rectifications to the scholars: Rousseau did not plan to write La Nouvelle Dédale but La Nouveau Dédale, and the work in question was not an opera; the Borromean Islands and Lake Como are not on the way from Geneva to Lyon; if Rousseau and Voltaire met at Madame de Graffigny’s (Vol. I, p. 217), it cannot be correct to say (Vol. I, p. 165) that the two men never met….
Subjecting Rousseau to a resolutely modern reading, Professor Crocker enables us to see more clearly why and how his “case” continues to attract so many studies and commentaries. On the one hand Rousseau’s emotional world with its “abnormal” elements, its complexity, and its apparent contradictions provokes generation after generation of psychologists to try out on it the new concepts and methods placed at their disposal by the evolution of psychological theory. On the other hand, on every issue concerning the relations between the individual and nature or the individual and the state, Rousseau’s thought contains enough extreme propositions for every age to be able to seize on certain aspects of it as particularly relevant and pressing. It may surprise us that a relatively limited body of writings should have given rise to so many different readings and that these readings should moreover have so often been equally legitimate. This is because every age brings out a new Rousseau by giving birth to cultural and political phenomena which it is not difficult to see foreshadowed in his works. So after Kierkegaard we have Rousseau’s existentialism, and after Baudelaire and the surrealists, “natural mysticism.”
It was the same with his Jacobinism, which was revealed to us by Robespierre’s government; thanks to Professor Talmon1 and now to Lester G. Crocker this Jacobinism has become a sort of totalitarianism whose features are clearly visible in our modern experience of “totalitarian democracy.” In the mirror held up to Rousseau by Professor Crocker we see him surrounded by those engineers of human happiness. Stalin, Fidel Castro, or Mao. How does Rousseau’s voice come to have so great a power of prophecy? It is because Rousseau in his turn acted as an echo and a transmitter for a whole tradition of Western thought: the Bible and Plato, Lucretius and Seneca, Plutarch and Montaigne. With his extraordinary intuition the citizen of Geneva took from them what would satisfy his heartfelt needs, but at the same time exactly what was wanted by a certain class of readers. Because he had a genius for reinterpreting the philosophy and religion of the past, Rousseau too lends himself to a constant reinterpretation of which we have not yet seen the end.
In his account of Rousseau’s inner life, Crocker uses the concepts provided by psychoanalysis, and particularly the studies (mostly by Americans) of the relations between the ego and the social milieu. In such works the major issue is the achievement of a stable personal identity. Rousseau failed to achieve this as a child, just as he failed to adapt to reality. His ambivalent relations with his father and elder brother gave rise to feelings of guilt, unworthiness, and shame; these resulted in obsessive defense mechanisms accompanied by characteristic ritual behavior. In addition we can observe a tendency to various perversions: sadomasochism, exhibitionism, latent homosexuality. Very early in Rousseau’s life appear paranoid delusions, the conviction that the outside world is hostile to him.
And there is a still richer crop of psychiatric terminology. Rousseau indulges, Crocker tells us, in regressive behavior; he is a “schizoid personality,” because he looks for identity in an imaginary world. All his life he will oscillate between the need to be dependent and the desire for independence, between shame and compensatory pride. The way in which he attains happiness for a brief period only to lose it again forthwith, and this repeatedly, fits the definition of fate neurosis Nor does he escape the label of “dementia.” But above all the model of the “authoritarian personality” which has recently been constituted by the psychosociologists is according to Crocker the one which best suits Jean-Jacques’s character and the main tendencies of his writings. The excessive profusion of terminology indicates what a complex case this is.
It can be said that in the present state of knowledge Crocker’s psychological conjectures are quite plausible—for the time being. In some cases they attach the abstract labels of our psychiatric code to phenomena which Rousseau describes as he experienced them. Here psychological interpretation simply gives us a conceptual translation of Rousseau’s own admissions. In other cases it takes the further and riskier step of suggesting what may have been the origin of these phenomena, and of reconstituting a chain of cause and effect. In doing so it lays itself open to the danger which faces every psychological explanation: starting from the work and written documents, it constructs the shape and mechanisms of a probable unconscious and proceeds to deduce the subject’s actual behavior and work as a necessary consequence of this. In Crocker’s eyes the emotional life of Rousseau’s early childhood plays an important part, since even his theoretical thinking remains conditioned by these emotional needs and provides them with vicarious or sublimated satisfaction. The work thus becomes the offspring of its supposed shadow.
It would however be wrong to see here an example of the “psychological fallacy.” We are bound to recognize that Rousseau preceded and outdid all his commentators in deliberately drawing attention to his own inner life. Lester G. Crocker’s questions concerning the search for identity are quite in order, since Rousseau was too concerned to answer them. Indeed it might have been more clearly stated that, apart from the religious moralists, he was the first writer to introduce into literature the genetic exploration of the self. It was he who first made his infantile experiences, his secret leanings, and his sexual deviations the subject of a literary work (the Confessions). It is he who invites us to examine his actions, his feelings, and his motives, who exposes to our gaze—and would ideally like to expose in its entirety—his own inner world. We cannot blame critics for being interested in it and wishing to know more about it. If there is a fallacy here, Rousseau was the first to succumb to it when he tried to explain his own life and told us what sort of life he felt himself to be born for and what circumstances had given rise to his passions, his weaknesses, etc.—in short when he built up the image of his “true self” and attempted to show the causes which had made him betray this self.
The critics, to whom Rousseau gives both facts and interpretations, generally take on trust the events he relates but cast doubt on his self-justifying and defensive interpretations. So it is with Lester G. Crocker, who repeatedly suggests “true motives” in place of those advanced by Jean-Jacques. Thus the critic substitutes his own conjectures for the assertions of the party in question, whose word he has good reason to doubt. Some readers will find that Crocker’s conjectures tend to read like certainties and combine the tone of moral superiority with that of psychological analysis. But what we must remember above all is that the position of the critic who goes back to Jean-Jacques’s childhood is not without its ambiguities. In spite of certain external documents he has to rely almost entirely on Jean-Jacques’s own reconstruction of events, even if he wants to remain quite independent in his interpretation of them. He may wish to play against him, but he has to use the cards dealt by his opponent. He is forced to play Jean-Jacques’s game, if only by virtue of consenting to play the part of judge; a recent critic, Robert J. Ellrich, in his analysis of the relation of the author of the Confessions to his reader, rightly observes:
In his book The Rise of Totalitarian Democracy (Boston, 1952).↩
In his book The Rise of Totalitarian Democracy (Boston, 1952).↩