A Star Is Born

Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Transparency and Obstruction

by Jean Starobinski, translated by Arthur Goldhammer, with an introduction by Robert J. Morrissey
University of Chicago Press, 421 pp., $19.95 (paper)

What happens when a book becomes a classic? By what process does a text get set apart from all the other texts clamoring for attention? How does it survive the literary season, metamorphosed from edition to edition, reappear in paper-backs and secondhand shops, and settle at last on the shelves reserved for books here to stay?

Consider the case of Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Transparency and Obstruction by Jean Starobinski, a work that stands out as a classic of modern literary criticism. It first appeared in 1957 as doctoral thesis number 158 from the University of Geneva. It was reissued, shorn of its academic trappings, a year later by Plon in Paris. Gallimard took it over in 1971 and published it, revised and expanded by seven new essays on Rousseau, in the prestigious “Bibliothèque des Idées” series. Then Gallimard shifted it to the cheaper and more popular “Tel” series and put out new editions in 1976 and 1982. And now at last it has appeared in English, in an excellent translation by Arthur Goldhammer published by the University of Chicago Press (an Italian edition appeared in 1982, a German edition will be published later this year). So a work that began as an academic exercise has come within the range of the general reading public in several countries. It is an appropriate moment to ask what has given Transparency and Obstruction such staying power and how it stands up against studies of Rousseau that have been published since it first appeared thirty-one years ago.

Rarely has a title summed up so much: transparency and obstruction (“obstacle” in French)—Starobinski finds them everywhere in Rousseau’s work and also in his life, beginning with the crucial trauma of his childhood, his punishment for refusing to confess to a crime he had not committed.

It was not much of a crime, but it shattered the paradise in which Rousseau spent his formative years. As an adoptive member of the Lambercier family in Geneva, he inhabited what Starobinski, following the Confessions, construes to have been a world of perfect communication. Everyone in the household spoke his mind and read the mind of everyone else, not by careful study but through spontaneous effusions of the soul. It was a little utopia, a state of pure transparency. One day, however, a servant left a comb in the kitchen and, upon returning, found that it had been broken. According to appearances, Jean-Jacques stood condemned, because no one else had been in the room when the damage occurred. The Lamberciers, good people who demanded nothing more than an honest confession, asked the boy to admit his guilt. But he was innocent: he knew so inwardly, as his own best witness to himself. The Lamberciers lectured, implored, lost patience, and finally had him beaten.

Jean-Jacques’s world came crashing down. Its ruins arranged themselves in his mind as a wall of obstacles separating his inner self from the consciousness of others. By experiencing injustice, he learned to measure the disparity …

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