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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.

1.

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 between things as they really are and things as they appear to be. Yet no one could be blamed for this fall from innocence, certainly not the Lamberciers. The flaw inhered in the situation—that is, in the human condition itself, a state of opacity in which consciousnesses cross like ships in the night, sending out signals and reading them wrong.

Where Rousseau’s childhood happiness ended, human history, as he later understood it, began. The collapse of the world in the Lamberciers’ kitchen set in motion the same process as man’s fall from the state of nature, as he expounded it in the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality: all experience, of the individual and of humanity as a whole, represents an attempt to cope with the loss of transparency and to live in a world of mediation—through language, property, and the gamut of institutions that hold society together while keeping souls apart.

Thus according to Starobinski, the autobiographical impulse animated Rousseau’s writing from the beginning. In his first works, it opened onto broad social and political questions. In the end, it turned on itself and exhausted itself in solipsism:

Rousseau desired communication and transparency of the heart. But after pursuing this avenue and meeting with disappointment, he chose the opposite course, accepting—indeed provoking—obstructions, which enabled him to withdraw, certain of his innocence, into passive resignation.

Behind the writings, then, Starobinski detects a consciousness at work, exploring, ordering, combining, and transposing a set of basic themes. The work itself consisted in writing. Rousseau’s quest for authenticity committed him to a ceaseless struggle with language, because he could only be himself by finding words to release his inner voice. Yet the words were imperfect instruments of that voice, attempts to mediate between it and other people; so they were inadequate, no matter how much they moved his readers.

By pouring out his life in language, Rousseau defined the condition of the writer, not just in the eighteenth century but in the twentieth:

Only now does the full novelty of Rousseau’s work become apparent. Language has become a locus of immediate experience even as it remains an instrument of mediation…. Language is the authentic self, yet at the same time it reveals that perfect authenticity has still not been achieved, that plentitude remains to be conquered, and that no possession is secure without the consent of others. No longer does the literary work call forth the assent of the reader to a truth that stands as a “third person” between the writer and his audience; the writer singles himself out through his work and elicits assent to the truth of his personal experience. Rousseau discovered these problems; he truly invented a new attitude, which became that of modern literature (beyond the sentimental romanticism for which he has been blamed). He was the first to experience the dangerous compact between ego and language, the “new alliance” in which man makes himself the word.

Starobinski’s analysis of consciousness at work in creating literature is not the same thing as literary biography, nor is it simply textual exegesis. It combines elements of the old French genre l’homme et l’oeuvre, the study of an author and his works, with something new: the study of the author-in-the-works, that is, of the ordering consciousness implicit in the texts.

Starobinski shared this approach to literature with other members of the so-called Geneva School, notably Marcel Raymond and Georges Poulet.1 It meant that he trimmed away most references to the external circumstances of Rousseau’s life. Transparency and Obstruction has nothing to say about the social and political conflicts in Geneva, which marked Rousseau as a boy and implicated him in revolutionary agitation as an adult. It does not discuss his struggle to survive as a writer living down and out in Paris, which may have influenced his understanding of writing as much as his existential confrontation with language. It hardly mentions any of the institutions of the Old Regime, which provided the raw material for his general reflections on society and politics. Instead, it pursues another purpose.

Starobinski tried to show how a master theme—the straining for “transparency,” the struggle against “obstruction”—runs through all of Rousseau’s work, binding it together as a coherent whole. His success in this monumental task looks just as impressive in 1988 as it did in 1957. Sometimes, he shows, Rousseau located transparency in an imaginary past (the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality and the Essay on the Origin of Languages), sometimes in a future or ahistorical utopia (the Social Contract), sometimes in fiction (La Nouvelle Héloïse), sometimes in the presocialized state of infancy (Emile), sometimes in the spontaneous festivity of the common people (the Letter to d’Alembert), sometimes in rapturous communication with nature (the Reveries of a Solitary Walker), and always in the contemplation of his own soul (the Confessions).

The theme is so pervasive as Starobinski traces it from work to work that it seems almost too good to be true. Here at last is the most complex and contradictory of writers brought within the range of a dominant motif. Any book that makes so much sense of so much recalcitrant material will eventually seep into seminars and libraries everywhere. It will become a campus classic. But the success of Transparency and Obstruction should not be interpreted as a superior form of reductionism. Starobinski treats his master theme as a mode of exploring Rousseau’s works, using it to bring out complexities rather than to reduce them to a lowest common denominator.

For example, in analyzing Rousseau’s famous description of the grape harvest at Clarens in La Nouvelle Héloïse, Starobinski shows that the scene corresponds to the formula for popular festivals in the Letter to d’Alembert and for popular democracy in the Social Contract. Unlike actors on a stage, the harvesters are both performers and spectators. They devise a spectacle without props, roles, a script, or any other kind of mediation, one that unites them all in the spontaneous outpouring of communal joy. Structurally, the actor/spectator duality corresponds to the dual quality of citizen/subject in an ideal republic; and the transparent state of seeing and being seen works in the same way as the General Will: everyone participates in the expression of sovereign authority, and everyone submits to the dictate of all. What appears as abstract political theory in one part of Rousseau’s work emerges in another as prose poetry. Starobinski helps us see the connections. He brings out affinities, not merely among Rousseau’s ideas but in the way his texts work, their thematic structure, metaphors, and shades of phrasing. The book is a tour de force.

Once you submit to Starobinski’s spell, even the most obscure corners of Rousseau’s work fall into place. Rousseau’s theory of musical annotation appears as an attempt to get behind the obstruction of arbitrary signs and restore the immediacy of melodic expression. His botanizing represents an effort to capture an emotional state—the sensation of a plant-gathering expedition in a forest or on a mountainside—by fixing a specimen on a page. Even his fascination with metallurgy, which took the form of a fantasy about transforming bodies into glass, expresses an obsession with transparency. Wherever Starobinski lets his eye wander, he picks up signs of the same ordering sensitivity.

But does he overdo it? Any work that crystallizes into a classic may suffer from hardening of the arteries. It can kill a subject by exhausting it, and it may become a monument to intellectual accomplishment in the past rather than a stimulus to further effort in the future. Transparency and Obstruction certainly bears the marks of the time in which it was written. Its references reveal its genealogy: Etudes sur le temps humain (1950) by Georges Poulet, Phénoménologie de la perception (1945) by Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Genèse et structure de la phénoménologie de l’esprit de Hegel (1946) by Jean Hyppolite, De la psychose dans ses rapports avec la personnalité (1932) by Jacques Lacan. Those titles suggest the character of the currents swirling about in the world out of which Transparency and Obstruction was created: phenomenology, Hegelianism, Freudianism, existentialism. Starobinski navigated through them all, picking up ideas as he encountered them, not in order to develop a philosophical system of his own but in order to understand Rousseau.

The idea of alienation proved to be the most useful of all. It pervaded the intellectual debates of the 1940s and 1950s, but it goes back to Hegel—or, indeed, to Rousseau, not the sentimental father of romanticism but an unknown and unsettling Rousseau, who could be seen as a progenitor of existentialism.

Starobinski’s Rousseau understood man’s fall from the state of nature as a loss of “transparency”—that is, of unmediated contact with other persons. The intervening obstacles, social and cultural artifices of all kinds, opened the way for the development of civilization but closed the soul to the outer world. History therefore appears in Rousseau’s writings as a psychic trap: the more we invest in the refinement of the arts and sciences, the more we lose touch with the core of our own being.

The only way out of the trap leads through a dialectic: negate the negation. This formula appears at all the crucial points in Starobinski’s argument. He even finds a dialectic in the love triangle of La Nouvelle Héloïse. By acquiescing in the paternal interdiction of her love for Saint-Preux, Julie lets social convention triumph over natural inclination. But after marrying Wolmar, the incarnation of worldly rectitude, she reaffirms her love for Saint-Preux platonically, across the barriers of marriage and finally of death. She produces a victory for a higher form of nature: she negates the negation.

Rousseau’s political thought can also be seen to proceed dialectically by a great leap forward. In the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality he describes the negation of nature by culture. In the Social Contract he shows how a higher form of culture could negate the negation. Hegel and Engels built this insight into an account of the workings of history. Kant and Cassirer fashioned it (with additions from Emile) into a system of ethics and aesthetics.

But Starobinski keeps his argument trained on the consciousness of Rousseau. Surrounded by obstructions, his Jean-Jacques cuts himself off increasingly from contact with the outside world, turns inward in search of transparency, and finally succumbs to madness, a form of alienation that can be diagnosed as the “narcissism of innocence.”

Despite the occasional use of such terms and notwithstanding his own training as a doctor (he studied psychiatry but did not undergo psychoanalysis), Starobinski does not attempt to put Rousseau on the couch and to treat his madness as a pathological state that can be located outside his writing and invoked in order to explain it. Instead, he sees the madness as an “existential question” derived from obstructed transparency, which plays itself out in the texts.

As Starobinski expounds them, the themes of the early works run wild at the end of Rousseau’s life, creating Kafkaesque visions of inexplicable malignity. Rousseau presents himself as an elder Emile in the hands of “them,” his invisible, implacable enemies, who usurp the role of the beneficent tutor and manipulate all the signs surrounding him in order to multiply his torments. Even when he fled from his persecutors in France and Switzerland to the generous embrace of David Hume, he saw another conspirator in Hume himself. Rousseau believed that, as fellow philosophers and friends of humanity, he and Hume could have a full meeting of minds. But when they met, obstructions set in and, to his horror, he saw the features of “le bon David” decompose before his eyes, revealing another and more perfidious enemy.

Starobinski evokes Rousseau’s delirium with understanding and compassion, in beautiful pages that seem to be written from within the infernal circle of insanity:

For Jean-Jacques, to live amid persecution is to feel caught in a web of concordant signs, an “impenetrable mystery.”…The signs are infallible, but what they reveal is the impossibility of transparency. Veils are lifted, but behind them lies an insurmountable obstacle. Thus Rousseau gains nothing by interpreting one sign after another. Rather than clear up the mystery, he confronts still deeper shadows: children’s grimaces, the price of peas at La Halle, the shops in the rue Platrière all reveal the same conspiracy, the motives for which remain impenetrable. Try as he will to organize these signs and link them together in a perspicuous manner, he always ends in darkness.

In the end, the only safety lay in refusing all contact with the outer world and in seeking transparency within. But even then, “reflection,” the evil faculty of distancing oneself from unmediated self-perception, threatened at every moment to interrupt and spoil the most innocent reveries of the solitary walker. Despite the bursts of lyricism in his last works, Rousseau died in defeat, an existential hero, but a flawed one, like the anti-heroes of Camus. For a success story, one that moves from alienation to introspection to engagement, Starobinski will turn to Montaigne, the subject of his next great book.2

The greatness of Transparency and Obstruction consists in its ability to draw the disconnected threads of Rousseau’s life and works into one supremely coherent interpretation and to show how his personal drama opened a route into the major concerns of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries:

His work, which began as a philosophy of history, ended as an existential “experience” [“experiment” is also conveyed by the French]. It is a forerunner of the work of both Hegel and his antagonist Kierkegaard. Here we have two aspects of modern thought, the progress of reason in history and the tragic quest for individual salvation.

This interpretation swept everything before it in the 1950s. Transparency and Obstruction was recognized as a classic of contemporary criticism. It seemed only to face the danger that confronts any classic, that of being definitive. If a book is too convincing, it may be deemed to have had the last word on its subject. It may be put on the shelf and the subject laid to rest. Did Starobinski argue his case so forcefully that he stopped the argument?

The answer to those questions can be found by examining the way the study of Rousseau has intersected with literary criticism during the last thirty years.

2.

While some critics continued with their business as usual, others, particularly since the 1960s, attempted to link criticism with theory; and Rousseau can be found almost everywhere in those attempts. The most important works in structuralism and deconstruction lead right through his writings, and one can see in them how Rousseau provided a testing ground for some central ideas in literary theory. The point is not to pronounce those ideas right or wrong, but rather to see how they took shape in the course of a continuing debate over Rousseau. Once that ground is covered, one should be able to measure the distance that separates Transparency and Obstruction from its successors and to see what is at stake in the competing interpretations.

While Starobinski was reinterpreting Rousseau in the light of existentialism, Claude Lévi-Strauss incorporated him into structuralism. In his most influential book, Tristes Tropiques, Lévi-Strauss produced a modern version of the Confessions and confessed, to the astonishment of French intellectuals, that Rousseau had been his maître à penser in deepest Amazonia.3

It was as shocking as Rousseau’s avowal, at the height of the Enlightenment, that he found inspiration in Calvin. Marx, Freud, Saussure might do as mental baggage for an expedition in the bush. But the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, the Social Contract, Emile? Lévi-Strauss revealed that he had hugged them to his bosom. Worse, he hailed Rousseau as the father of anthropology.

This came out in a discussion of politics among the Nambikwara, one of the most primitive peoples that Lévi-Strauss encountered in Brazil. Although they had a chief, he seemed to rule through the organic welling up of sentiment among his followers. His main activity was to give away his wealth—trinkets that he accumulated and immediately dispersed—and his main compensation was in wives. Such behavior was undreamt of in the philosophies of the Third Republic. Its explanation could not be found in back issues of Temps modernes, not even in Gramsci or in Mauss. It lay in the works of Rousseau.

Lévi-Strauss did not invoke the trite and inaccurate notion of Rousseau as the champion of noble savagery. His Rousseau represented the point at which philosophy first came to grips with the problem of understanding culture as a political force. Seen from the perspective of the Social Contract, the primitiveness of the Nambikwara consisted in their ability to reduce politics to its fundamentals, to translate their way of life—their hunting and gathering and hopes and fears—directly into a power system, and to live according to the spontaneous effusion of the General Will. Such was the society that would soon be destroyed by Western civilization, a sad spectacle to the social scientist, who contemplated the impending disaster in a mood of elegiac complicity.

When Jacques Derrida confronted Rousseau a decade later in Of Grammatology, he picked apart Lévi-Strauss’s chapter on the Nambikwara in order to expose ethnocentricity at the heart of a system that pretended to abolish it. Instead of penetrating the primitive mind, he argued, Lévi-Strauss had simply made the Amazonian Other into a figment of his own imagination. The binary opposition of self/other and anthropologist/subject remained bounded by the categories of a limited social science. To deplore, as Lévi-Strauss did, the intellectual damage wrought by imperialism—Western thought penetrating Amazonia in the wake of the bulldozer, ethnocentricity polluting the rain forest even in the person of the anthropologist—was ethnocentric in itself. It meant projecting the Western notion of the innocent other on a people for whom such a notion was unthinkable. 4

The Nambikwara hardly qualified as innocents in any case. Tristes Tropiques contained plenty of evidence of their brutality, duplicity, dissension, and downright sophistication. But they provided Lévi-Strauss with a way of thinking himself out of the bush and onto the Left Bank, where he could enter into a dialogue with the classic authors of the French tradition: Montaigne, Diderot, and above all Rousseau. In effect, Derrida argued, Lévi-Strauss need never have left Paris, because Rousseau offered him everything he required: the material for a thought experiment about the organizing principle of society.

When Derrida followed that train of thought, he found that Rousseau led back to a still greater mental experiment, Descartes’s attempt at systematic doubt, which grounded “metaphysics,” as Derrida called it, in the spontaneous self-awareness of thinking. The Cartesian cogito opened up a mode of philosophizing, the “metaphysics of presence,” which ran from Descartes to Hegel. But Rousseau pointed to a fault line in that intellectual landscape—namely, writing. In thinking and even in speaking, according to Derrida’s version of Rousseau, philosophers could express the unmediated presence of their inner voice. But when they wrote, something got in the way. Arbitrary signifiers, words scratched on paper, obscured the inner ground of truth, and so writing itself became a central problem for philosophy.

Lévi-Strauss had caught a glimpse of Rousseau’s insight: hence his celebration of the Nambikwara as a people “without writing.” But Derrida went further: he saw that by treating writing as a tragically flawed “supplement” to speech, Rousseau had come close to a basic notion of deconstruction—namely, that flaws are built into the rhetoric of all texts and so all can be made to say something different from what they ostensibly mean. Supplements are derivative: they exist only in order to complete some prior entity; yet they can also serve in place of the original, as when one consults a supplement to an encyclopedia for the most up-to-date information on a given subject. In supplementarity, something is always lost and something gained. Diderot’s Supplément au Voyage de Bougainville may be a masterpiece, but it cannot equal the actual experience of making contact with the South Sea islanders along Bougainville’s itinerary. Writing, in philosophy and literature, may provide access to truth, but it cannot accede to it.

The difference between getting something right and getting it written opens up in Derrida’s reading of Rousseau to an abyss that separates nature from culture. On one side, men experience truth as an unmediated presence within themselves; on the other, they become entangled in external relations, in mediation, writing, civilization—the whole process of history that issues simultaneously in decadence and progress, in enslavement and the prospect of liberty through a social contract.

But Rousseau had not gone far enough. Why draw the epistemological line between speech and writing? Derrida asked. Why not push it back indefinitely into the inner workings of thought? Speech itself can be construed as a kind of writing, an “archiécriture,” composed of arbitrary signifiers in sound. So the inner voice does not provide unmediated presence; it yields nothing more, in Derrida’s controversial view, than endless play between signifiers and signified.5 Although Rousseau’s argument is aimed at a metaphysics of presence, it succumbs in the end to language. As Derrida interprets it, it deconstructs itself.

The next step was to deconstruct Derrida. Paul de Man undertook this task by turning his own reading of Rousseau’s Essay on the Origin of Languages against Derrida’s version of it.6 A crucial difference appeared. According to de Man, Derrida had misread Rousseau’s theory of language, confusing it with a less radical and more refutable theory of representation that was current in the eighteenth century. He made Rousseau argue that writing represents speech just as speech represents thought, whereas Rousseau actually conceived of language as a kind of figural expression similar to music. In the Essay, speech stands to writing as melody to harmony. Like melody, it conveys successive states of the soul, and therefore it has an immediacy that is lacking in representative modes of expression such as painting and literature. By putting Rousseau’s argument back together, de Man took Derrida’s apart. But that procedure raised a further question: What accounted for the curious blind spot in Derrida’s interpretation, which was otherwise so full of insight?

The answer, in a word, was Starobinski. According to de Man, Derrida failed to make contact with Rousseau’s text in its original integrity. Instead, he read it through other readings, through the whole body of critical interpretation that culminated in Transparency and Obstruction. De Man did not claim to be free of blindness himself. On the contrary, he associated blind spots with insight. But he insisted on the importance of cutting through all previous readings of Rousseau, because he pronounced the entire tradition of Rousseau scholarship to be fundamentally flawed. Like all literary history, it “stands in dire need of deconstruction.”

3.

Such was the state of play at the time of de Man’s death in 1983: readings and misreadings imposed on one another in seemingly endless succession. As the palimpsest thickened, something got lost—Rousseau himself, the historical Jean-Jacques who lived in the eighteenth century and wrote the works that appeared under his name.

To the theorists of interpretation, the notion of a “real” Rousseau seemed hopelessly naive. How could one possibly make contact with a life that disappeared two hundred years ago, or worry about authors’ lives at all, since all authors had been declared dead by Roland Barthes and nothing remained but texts and readings?7 So the theorists—or at least some of them, those aligned with Barthes and Derrida—abolished time and buried Rousseau under successive layers of their own interpretations. Insofar as he appeared in their works, he was a disembodied voice debating abstract propositions across the centuries with other philosophers, from Plato to Husserl. History did not exist.

The de-historicizing of literature forced Transparency and Obstruction out of the debate and onto the shelf. To be sure, the theorists sometimes made respectful references to it in footnotes. In fact, a hint of “transparency” can be found in Derrida’s “metaphysics of presence” along with a suggestion of “obstruction” in his notion of “supplement.” Like Derrida, Starobinski understood Rousseau’s attempt to ground truth in inner experience as a struggle with language. When he described language as “the locus of immediate experience” for Rousseau and for modern literature in general, he anticipated what Derrida would later identify as “logocentrism.” Yet Starobinski hardly appears in the theoretical debates.8 Why?

Essentially because Starobinski and his successors had incompatible understandings of the critical enterprise. He tried to comprehend Rousseau, the man and the works, in their entirety, whereas the theorists abandoned the whole notion of l’homme et l’oeuvre. He attempted to put together all the parts of the puzzle in one coherent picture. They took things apart and denied the validity of coherence itself. He set out to make sense of Rousseau. They tried to make theories. For them, Rousseau was merely “bon à penser” (good to think), as Lévi-Strauss might have put it. They used bits and pieces of his writings for purposes of their own, to establish structuralism or to disestablish it.

As the waves of theory recede, it seems safe to predict that the historical Rousseau will remain standing. Transparency and Obstruction will come off the shelf. Reincarnated in new editions and other languages—the Chicago edition includes a helpful essay by Robert Morrissey and a superior index, although for some reason it lacks the updated bibliography of the last Gallimard version—it will help us rediscover the man who inhabited the eighteenth century and transformed the topography of its culture.

Despite the mass of research on Rousseau, that task remains unfinished. It cannot be completed simply by consulting Starobinski, because, as mentioned, Transparency and Obstruction has little to offer by way of historical detail. Nor can it be done by grubbing for facts and by emptying history of theory, because deconstruction has demonstrated the rhetorical fragility of texts, including the kinds of texts that lie in archives. But new varieties of literary history are now beginning to flourish, and they have taken root by tapping the wealth of theory stored up in the human sciences, especially anthropology.

Lévi-Strauss was right to celebrate Rousseau as the father of anthropology, but Rousseau’s ideas can be applied more fruitfully to his own culture than to the Nambikwara. He invented anthropology as Freud invented psychoanalysis, by doing it to himself. Driven by the need to make sense of his own life, he studied the way he absorbed cultural systems as he passed from one society to another. By tracing his route from Geneva through Italy and Savoy to France, from the workshops of artisans through the bed of Madame de Warens and from Grub Street to the dinner tables of the aristocracy, he recognized the power of culture as a force that molds individuals and shapes entire societies. He saw the theater, novels, games, child rearing, education, language, and religion as so many ways of organizing reality and channeling behavior. He understood them not merely as vehicles for transmitting values but as forms of power in themselves. And he analyzed their operation in nearly all the genres available to him at the time—political theory, pedagogy, fiction, and autobiography.

We are now in a position to appreciate that accomplishment, because while the theorists were conjugating their ideas through Rousseau’s writings, more traditional scholars have uncovered a vast amount of information about the world in which he lived. They had never lost sight of the historical Rousseau. But they lacked the wide-angle vision of Starobinski, so each produced a Rousseau of his own or, more commonly, a fragment of Rousseau’s life and a slice of his time. The pieces need to be put together, and the task should be possible, because they are lying about in hundreds of books and articles published since the first appearance of Transparency and Obstruction. We have studies of Rousseau the embattled intellectual, Rousseau the nemesis of Voltaire, Rousseau the presiding genius of the French Revolution, Rousseau the Genevan, the politician, the deist, the misogynist, the ideologist, the botanist, the educator, the musician, the tramp.9

Best of all, we have the complete correspondence of Rousseau, edited by Ralph Leigh: forty-six volumes prepared with such exhaustive research that the footnotes virtually constitute a biographical dictionary, and the introductory essays to each volume, if strung together, would provide the most authoritative account of Rousseau’s life that has ever been written.10 Leigh died last December just as he reached the end of his labor (three more volumes documenting Rousseau’s influence during the French Revolution remain to be published, along with several volumes of indexes). It dwarfs even the accomplishment of Starobinski.

It seems clear, then, that the time is ripe for another synthesis, something comparable to the multivolume biography of Voltaire that is now underway.11 So Starobinski has not had the last word, but he will get a new hearing; for any new work must begin where he left off, and it seems unlikely that there will ever be an end to new beginnings. If the scholarship of the last thirty years demonstrates anything, it is the inexhaustible richness of what Cassirer called “the question of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.” Rousseau’s life was so strange and his works are so challenging that they seem certain to inspire feats of interpretation as long as there are texts and readers. As Transparency and Obstruction demonstrates, Rousseau not only wrote classics himself; he was the stuff of which classics can be made by others.

  1. 1

    See J. Hillis Miller, “The Geneva School” in John K. Simon, ed., Modern French Criticism: From Proust and Valéry to Structuralism (University of Chicago Press, 1972).

  2. 2

    Jean Starobinski, Montaigne in Motion, translated by Arthur Goldhammer (University of Chicago Press, 1985).

  3. 3

    Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques (Paris: Plon, 1955), chapters 28, 29, and 38.

  4. 4

    Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, tr. (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1972), part II.

  5. 5

    For a rebuttal of Derrida’s argument, which takes the inadequacy of these claims as its starting point, see John R. Searle, “The Word Turned Upside Down,” The New York Review of Books, October 27, 1983, pp. 74–79.

  6. 6

    Paul de Man, Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism (University of Minnesota Press, 1983; first edition 1971), chapter 7. See also de Man, Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust (Yale University Press, 1979), part II.

  7. 7

    Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author” in Barthes, Image, Music, Text (Hill and Wang, 1977), pp. 142–148.

  8. 8

    For surveys of the literature in which Starobinski is conspicuous by his absence, see David Lodge, ed., 20th Century Literary Criticism (London, 1972); Francis Barker et al., eds., Literature, Politics and Theory (Methuen, 1986); Cary Nelson, ed., Theory in the Classroom (University of Illinois Press, 1986); and Clayton Koelb and Susan Noakes, eds., The Comparative Perspective on Literature: Approaches to Theory and Practice (Cornell University Press, 1988).

  9. 9

    See, for example, Benoît Mély, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, un intellectuel en rupture (Paris, 1985); Henri Gouhier, Rousseau et Voltaire: portraits dans deux miroirs (Paris, 1983); Louis-Pierre Jouvenet, Jean-Jacques Rousseau: pédagogie et politique (Toulouse, 1984); Maurice Cranston, Jean-Jacques: The Early Life and Works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau 1712–1754 (Allen Lane, 1983); Carol Blum, Rousseau and the Republic of Virtue: The Language of Politics in the French Revolution (Cornell University Press, 1986); Joel Schwartz, The Sexual Politics of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (University of Chicago Press, 1984); and Asher Horowitz, Rousseau, Nature, and History (University of Toronto Press, 1987).

  10. 10

    Correspondence Generale de J.J. Rousseau, edited by R.A. Leigh (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation).

  11. 11

    Voltaire en son temps, a five-volume biography being prepared under the direction of René Pomeau. The first volume, written by Pomeau, appeared in 1985 under the title D’Arouet à Voltaire 1694–1734 (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation).

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