The Charms of Selfishness

Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Jean-Jacques Rousseau; drawing by David Levine


It is best to think of biography, with all its utilitarian obligations, as a craft, and autobiography as an art. But this makes difficulty for a biographer of Rousseau. For the main, and often the sole, source of information about his early life is his autobiographical Confessions, which is an incomparable work of art (for me the greatest by far of his books), and there is something repugnant in its being dismantled, interspersed with commentary, and turned into the mere raw material of biography. (One would not treat Wordsworth’s Prelude so.) Perhaps there is no alternative; and up to now biographers of Rousseau have always taken this course. But it might be allowed to the reviewer of Leo Damrosch’s excellent new biography to skirt around the problem.

The dust jacket blurbs of Damrosch’s book, and of its predecessor, Maurice Cranston’s Jean-Jacques (1983), describe them as “definitive”—but that is absurd, and grows the more so as Rousseau scholarship progresses. Cranston, in his introduction, complained of previous biographers of Rousseau “feasting” on his Confessions, to the neglect of his letters and of manuscript sources. No such criticism can be made of Damrosch, who is plainly soaked in Rousseau’s letters, and the letters and documents of his friends and enemies, published in R.A. Leigh’s magnificent fifty-volume edition. His book, and especially the narrative part, is, one might say, in a high state of organization: the narrative has an admirable and flexible rhythm and pace, relevant quotations spring immediately to his hand, and the source referencing is beautifully adapted to the needs of readers. His approach to Rousseau’s life and personality is matter-of-fact, humane, and decently worldly-wise, and he has no obvious axe to grind.

He faults Cranston for not making sufficient use of recent brilliant interpretations of Rousseau’s “motives and conflicts.” His own exegeses of Rousseau’s books and ideas are lucid and sympathetic, though as will be seen I am inclined to quarrel with him over a famous and important passage in On the Social Contract. Occasionally in the narrative part his generalizations seem a little oversimplified. “It was his [Rousseau’s] experience as an apprentice and lackey,” he writes, “that gave him the authority to analyze inequality as he did.” The remark does not get us very far, indeed it borders on fallacy. He is also rather too fond of the threadbare—or as it were work-shy—formula that such-and-such a phenomenon would be of the greatest interest to a psychoanalyst. These are trivial faults.

Rousseau was born in 1712, the son of Isaac Rousseau, a Genevan watchmaker. His mother died soon after giving birth to him, and he was looked after by his father’s youngest sister, of whom he would have the tenderest memories. His father, being pressed for money, had to sell his late wife’s house, and the family moved downhill to the workers’ quarter. Isaac, we are told, was quarrelsome and unreliable but…

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