I have conceived of a new genre of service to render to man; this is to offer them the faithful image of one amongst them in order for them to learn to know themselves.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau is a seminal figure in the history of reflexive consciousness. After Augustine and Montaigne he had the most powerful influence on the shaping of the literary genre of autobiography. It was Rousseau’s mission to expand dramatically the map of human consciousness, to chart new continents of subjective experience and to forge a language for their poetic and philosophical expression. He was to change profoundly the sense of what life was about, how it might be lived, shaped and interpreted. In Rousseau, more than in any other philosopher before him, the emphasis falls on the intensity of the felt life, on the specific nuance of feeling, on spontaneous states of reverie and on the heart’s power to connect with a living natural world. In his writing Rousseau was to confer to the words ‘nature’, ‘natural’ and ‘the natural man’ an aura of sublimity that was, in the eighteenth-century context of high civilisation, both revolutionary in import and prophetic in character. It was the peculiar genius of Rousseau to transform the dominant Enlightenment sensibility (which had emerged out of the Renaissance) into the Romantic sensibility which spread across the whole of Europe after his death at Ermenonville in 1778.

All his life Rousseau was preoccupied with his unstable identity, with his image, with his inner truth and with his own deep and ever-deepening sense of dislocation from others and from society in general. But this preoccupation became obsessive during the last twenty years of his life.

In 1766, haunted by his growing sense of isolation and the persecution against him, he began the serious composition of the Confessions. The twelve books took four years to complete. Then in 1772, still suffering from a harrowing sense of isolation and, at times, an acute state of paranoia, Rousseau began his next autobiographical work, Rousseau, Judge of Jean-Jacques: Dialogues. In this dialogical work the character ‘Rousseau’ converses with ‘the Frenchman’ about the writer, ‘Jean-Jacques’. As the three lengthy dialogues develop the appalling misconceptions of ‘the Frenchman’ fall away, allowing ‘Rousseau’ to spell out the essential natural goodness of the writer, ‘Jean-Jacques’. No sooner was this frenetic work of apologia finished in 1776 than Rousseau commenced writing a third autobiographical book, Reveries of the Solitary Walker. He continued to work on this experimental volume, verbally recreating his memories on each of the ten ‘promenades’, examining his state of consciousness and defending his past actions, until the end of his life. Like Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations (an early key work in the long history of reflexivity) the book was ostensibly written for himself, for his personal development and edification, and as a preparation for death. It stops abruptly half way through the tenth promenade, abandoned, without definitive summation.

The sheer bulk of Rousseau’s autobiographical writing is daunting, while the nature of the material is, in its insight and blindness, in its self- portrayal and self-betrayal, in its moral courage and its strutting vanity, as extraordinary as it is disorientating. Yet in spite of this – indeed, perhaps, because of it – Rousseau can be named (alongside Montaigne) as one of the most powerful philosophers of personal autobiography and one of most perceptive, if most erratic, practitioners.

Rousseau began the composition of his Confessions in December 1766, completing the work four years later in December 1770. The bulk of the first volume was written at Wootton Hall, in Staffordshire, where Rousseau had for a time sought refuge from the French and Swiss persecution. This had swiftly followed upon the publication in 1762 of his educational masterpiece Emile and his political treatise, The Social Contract. The actual persecution from without had released a persecution complex from within. And Rousseau began to imagine attacks and betrayals from all sides. He envisaged the philosopher, Hume, who had been responsible for bringing him to England (and who had secured him an annual stipend from George III), as a member of what he pathologically imagined to be a growing world conspiracy against him. He saw an insidious plot to rewrite and reprint his books so that no one would ever know what he himself had proclaimed. Driven by this demented phantasy, Rousseau left England the following year – on 21 May 1767 – and, under the name of Jean Joseph Renou, retired to various villages in the South-East of France where, in a state of mounting anxiety and suspicion, he completed the last six volumes of the Confessions.

As the attacks on Rousseau grew, so his tendency to paranoia increased. He felt his autobiographical writing was the only means of erasing the widespread counterfeit image of himself and of replacing it with the existential truth: I wish that one should know me with all my defects and that it should be myself, not someone with invented qualities under a persona which is strange to me. The written work was to be his personal defence against the malign allegations of the Enlightenment philosophers, the incomprehension of governments, the condemnation of the clergy and the general animosity of the misinformed public. Through the writing of his Confessions Rousseau struggled to counter the ridiculing judgements of his persecutors and, through the unprecedented honesty of his self- analysis, both reveal and redeem himself.

Thus it was that the outer social persecution and the inner state of paranoia, the first activating the second, the second magnifying the conceivable bounds of the first, prompted the birth of deep personal autobiography. Without Rousseau’s anxiety about being permanently maligned the vast acts of self-justification, the Confessions, the Dialogues and Reveries would not have existed with all their confounding characteristics of insight and delusion, of conscious honesty and unconscious dishonesty, of self- exploration and exhibitionism. But the books are not only the outcome of persecution. They are not only a febrile form of apologia. They have a deeper source within his own philosophical and introspective nature. The outer attack and the inner paranoia drove the man to defend himself, but some years before the persecution Rousseau had more calmly pondered the critical need for sustained self-analysis and self-knowledge. While he was pathologically driven to vindicate himself before his congregating enemies, the most original parts of Rousseau’s autobiographical experiment derived from these earlier lucid reflections. These probing thoughts made explicit the grounds of a new reflexive genre, transcending both memoir, apologia and spiritual autobiography.

To grasp the birth of deep personal autobiography, one must first understand Rousseau’s notion of philosophy as itself an act of self- realisation and self-elaboration. Rousseau longed to understand himself, to narrate himself, to analyse how he had become the dislocated man he felt himself to be. He wanted, above all, to locate his innate nature before it had been deflected and corrupted by what he saw as the pressures of an alien and alienating civilisation. In Rousseau there is a direct relationship between his philosophy and existence. His thinking does not emerge from the logical connecting of indubitable propositions as advocated by the Enlightenment. Rather, it arises out of the experience of the living man as sudden illumination, as a kind of cognitive trance, as a species of inner possession. The intensity of feelings, not the clarity of geometrical propositions, shapes the philosophical idiom. Ideas were experienced in the manner of agitated sensations animated by strong currents of emotion. Descartes’ I think therefore I am became in Rousseau I feel, therefore, I am. It was the dawn of Romanticism.

In the Reveries Rousseau proclaimed his own approach to philosophy and implicitly contrasted it with that of the Enlightenment philosophers:

I have met many men who were more learned in their philosophising, but their philosophy remained, as it were, external to them. Wanting to know more than other people, they studied the workings of the universe, as they might have studied some machine they had come across, out of sheer curiosity. They studied human nature, in order to speak knowledgeably about it, not in order to know themselves.

For Rousseau, the philosophy is the man seeking the true form of his own existence. The philosophy abstracts and externalises only to promote a further intensification of reflexive existence. Such a conception of philosophy – linking back to the Stoics, but radically different in emphasis and idiom – is deeply autobiographical and Rousseau in the last two decades of his life became committed to forging the language it required. As the nature of the task became more and more transparent, so his engagement with direct autobiographical writing – the task of writing the self – became greater and greater until, fired by the flames of real and hallucinatory persecution, it became the major literary and philosophical pursuit of the last two decades of his life.

As early as 1756 Rousseau had attempted an ideal portrait of himself in the fictive character of Saint-Preux in La Nouvelle Héloise, but it was during the years 1757-1758 that Rousseau sketched the premises on which his later autobiographical work was to rest. In a series of letters written to Marie d’Houdetot – his Lettres Morales – he urged a withdrawal from society and the gradual circumscription of the self within the limits prescribed by nature. In a manner reminiscent of Descartes in A Discourse on Method but with a markedly different outcome, Rousseau now sought, through the progressive bracketing out of all external influences, the illumination of his own existence: Let us begin, in a word, by gathering ourselves together in order that, as we seek to know ourselves, everything that constitutes us may present itself to us at the same time.

Rousseau labours to coincide with a self which he envisages as ‘given’, but which is not easily accessible because of the internalised pressures exerted by continuous collective exhortations and external prescriptions. The recovery of self involves, therefore, the removal of social pressures which by their nature generate not true self-affirmation but, rather, a competitive and anxious amour-propre. Against amour-propre, Rousseau places the concept of amour de soi: the former is as relative and disfiguring as the latter is absolute and fulfilling. One way of describing Rousseau’s entire autobiographical project would be to say that it seeks to show how original amour de soi is swallowed up by amour-propre and how the task of the alienated individual is then to find ways of rediscovering the lost pleasures of true self-love. This is the art of therapeia. As such it forms a psychological epic in which the central task is a return to nature: to a state of instinctive, self-regulating, self-sustaining well-being. In the case of Rousseau the tragedy was that the return to natural self-love involved the loss of all other relationships. In his last work, the Reveries, the individual and society became finally and irrevocably unhitched – the archetypal Romantic predicament.

In the Lettres Morales the emerging philosopher of autobiography is beginning to define the radical (if questionable) notion of a natural existence and the means through which it might be achieved. The next move in the shift from philosophical speculation to deep autobiography is marked by Rousseau’s four letters to Malesherbes, all composed in January of 1762. In the Confessions Rousseau refers to these letters as: four successive letters in which while explaining the real motives of my behaviour, I gave a faithful description of my tastes, inclinations and character, and all that took place in my heart.

The four letters foreshadow the main thematic elements of the Confessions. In them Rousseau struggles to depict directly his own temperament, to isolate his own distinctive features and qualities, his unique temperament. I shall, he writes, depict myself without pretence and modesty. I shall show myself to you such as I see myself and such as I am. In these letters one can already detect that concern with true and false images of his own existence and the desire to inaugurate the natural man ruled by the benign power of amour de soi. There is, also, the crucial conception of providing a chronological causal analysis of the shaping of his own temperament; to give by means of facts a kind of historical account which will make his own personality conceivable – an historical account, an account in time. The living person is seen as a temporal being, not a being simply caught in the hierarchical and spatial meshes of traditional theology. As an example, he examines the formative influence of his exposure to literature on his own idealising sensibility. This involves an excavation of very early memories and a plotting down of their influence through the course of time. The analysis – at once acute and truly pioneering in the story of the reflexive self – was to be more fully developed in the Confessions, not only about literature, but also about sexuality and morality.

Another theme explored in the letters to Malesherbes is the sheer pleasure of spontaneous reverie:

But what did I enjoy when I was alone? Myself, the whole universe, all that is, all that can be, the entire beauty of the world of sense, the whole imaginable content of the intellectual world: I gathered around me everything that could flatter my heart; my desires were the measure of my pleasures.

Such experience, often presented as an absorbed pre-conceptual drifting and merging with the most elementary sensations, became more and more cherished by Rousseau. It is essential to the late autobiographical work and informs some of the most lyrical epiphanies. The poetic climax to the Confessions is the affirmations of being alone with Nature on the Island of Saint-Pierre. The very title of the last work – Reveries of the Solitary Walker – reveals the value conferred to solitary and spontaneous states of mind in immediate relationship to the natural world. The trinity of words – ‘reveries’, ‘solitary’, ‘walker’ – all but create the lexicon of the Romantic movement that was to follow Rousseau’s death in 1778. Within fifty years the image of a solitary figure, absorbed in rapt contemplation of mountains or rough seas or wild woodland, had become a major trope of the European imagination.

At about the same time as the composition of the four letters to Malesherbes, and further testifying to the emerging autobiographical preoccupation, Rousseau wrote a number of short fragments – thirty-eight in all, which he entitled My Portrait. In these polished notes Rousseau claims:

I am an observer, not a moralist. I am the botanist who describes the plant. It is for the doctor to establish how best to use it.

I see that the people who live most intimately with me don’t know me and they attribute most of my actions, whether in good or bad matters, to completely other motives than those which have produced them.

The fragments provide a variety of reasons for writing autobiography. Rousseau wants to be recognised for the person he feels himself to be. He wants to promote self-knowledge, not only of himself but of others. Working like a botanist, he wants to be the objective observer of his own personality, acute observer not moral judge. He wants to establish a new genre, to tackle what no one had had the courage to do before: to offer the full revelation of the self, to disclose all, to conceal nothing, and to do this for the well-being of humanity. Rousseau’s claim is, in many ways, compelling, but typically fails to acknowledge his predecessors in the field: from Augustine to Montaigne. The obsession with originality at all costs – an obsession which was to mark and mar Romanticism – here begins to take hold of the psyche.

In 1761 his Dutch publisher, Rey, wrote a letter to Rousseau suggesting he might write ‘a memoir’ to be attached to a forthcoming edition of his writings. The notion of memoir was to turn quickly to confession and the notion of confession was to culminate in personal autobiography. Seen retrospectively the Lettres Morales, the Lettres à M. de Malesherbes and Mon Portrait were three exploratory preludes to the new genre of service. It took the harrowing experience of outer persecution and inner paranoia to release the full symphonic scale of the project which had been slowly gestating in Rousseau’s mind, the first and greatest expression of which was the Confessions.

In a sketch originally intended to form the opening of the book and subsequently discarded Rousseau proclaimed the daring originality of his project. To delineate all facets of his personality; to examine his own behaviour, the sordid and the trivial, as much as the noble and the good; to demarcate an underlying pattern in that behaviour by tracing his own adult dispositions back to their sources in early childhood experience; these are the ends Rousseau consciously set himself and he presented his work as an unprecedented enquiry, requiring a newly-minted language:

For what I have to say it is necessary to invent a language as original as my project. For what tone, what style to take, in order to handle this immense chaos of sentiments so diverse, so contradictory, often so vile and sometimes so sublime, by which I am perpetually agitated? What trivialities, what miseries will it not be necessary for me to expose. In what revolting details, indecent, puerile, and often ridiculous, must I not enter in order to follow the thread of my secret dispositions to show how each impression which has made a mark on my soul entered there for the first time.

As if to demonstrate his claim for the uniqueness of his venture, Rousseau, in the same sketch, makes reference to only two earlier predecessors. He refers to Cardano and to Montaigne. The latter is quickly and quite unjustly dismissed as the ‘pseudo-sincere’ man, as the man who, professing honesty, is only prepared to reveal faults which his readers will find endearing; the former is seen as being ‘more sincere’ but as being too foolish for anyone to draw instructions from his contemplation.

With these terse condemnations Rousseau leaves the analysis of possible exemplars. There is no mention of the Puritan tradition of keeping diaries and journals; no mention of spiritual autobiography or the growing practice of writing memoirs; there is no mention of Abelard, Dante, Petrarch, Descartes, or even, though he steals his title, Augustine. Seemingly unburdened by prior traditions and methods, envisaging himself as an absolute pioneer, an explorer, a veritable Robinson Crusoe (a favourite self-image) Rousseau makes his way towards the new ground of autobiographical recreation and self-analysis.

Yet, ironically, the very same sketch moves on to evoke and apply a traditional paradigm which is central to the mode of its narration. Rousseau himself reveals that his literary creation has a cultural source and that this source was the sacrament of confession, a sacrament of which, as a temporary convert to Catholicism, he himself had direct experience:

I will fulfil rigorously my title and never the most fearful nun will make a more rigorous examination of conscience than I prepare for myself… I am saying here things about myself which are very odious and of which I have a horror of wishing to excuse myself but also it is the most secret history of my soul. These are my Confessions in the full sense of that word… I wait for public discussion, for the severity of judgements pronounced on high and I submit myself to them …

The explicit and tacit conventions of the Catholic sacrament of Confession are here in full operation. There is the expectation that the person who is confessing will speak the truth, that he will accept the judgement conferred upon him and that he will seek expiation. All of these expectations are present in Rousseau’s work; at the same time there is a highly significant secular shift in the convention: Rousseau is addressing his odious actions neither to his confessor (like St. Theresa or Margery Kemp) nor, like Augustine, directly to the God who created him, but to the public. His reader becomes his intimate audience and it is the reader who is given the onerous responsibility of casting judgement upon the sinner. The reader takes on the burden of the priest’s office. The book, in brief, is a secular transmutation of the religious confessional.

This same crucial shift in audience, from priest to reader, is at work at the very opening of the Confessions where one briefly captures a definite echo of the earlier Augustinian tone of confessional writing. Even the intimate second person address of Augustine to God is momentarily reproduced:

Let the trumpet of the Day of Judgement sound when it will, I will present myself before the Sovereign Judge with this book in my hand. I will say boldly … ‘This is what I have done, what I have thought, what I was’. I have told the good and bad with equal frankness … I have unveiled my inmost self even as Thou hast seen it, O Eternal Being.

But in Rousseau the formal language of confessional piety has become inflated rhetoric and, without any doubt, the person at the centre of the opera (for it sounds like grand opera, at this point, hardly penitential) is not the Eternal Being but the defiant protagonist. It is the unique, unrepeatable individual, Jean-Jacques, flourishing his new genre of service to humanity. The passage continues: gather round me the countless host of my fellow- men: let them hear my confessions. With the locating of his necessary human audience, and a demand that his readers, too, should disclose the secrets of their own hearts and thus fulfil the autobiographical contract, Rousseau’s religious metaphors come to an end. In the fourth paragraph the dominant naturalistic narrative begins: I was born at Geneva, in the year 1712, and was the son of Isaac Rousseau and Susanne Bernard, citizens.

The reader, as intimate recipient of the narrative, is asked by its author to take on a number of semi-religious functions. Often the reader is addressed as objective judge but is, also, invited to be a sympathetic collaborator, an observing witness and, at times, all but an intimate friend and lover. The diverse roles that Augustine gave to God are here transferred to the reader. The transaction is human, not divine, interpersonal rather than sacramental. Rousseau longs to be fully recognised not by God but by the society of his readers, often his future readers. That the Confessions is, in part, a secular transformation of the sacrament is further confirmed by Rousseau’s compulsion to read them, after their completion in 1770, to small groups of people in Paris. These readings, of which unfortunately we do not have a great deal of precise information, took place in 1770 and 1771.

One meeting was purported to have lasted seventeen hours – seventeen hours of autobiographical reading – surely the longest confession ever made! Yet the passionate outpourings of Rousseau were met, not with reconciliation and recognition, but with the civilised silence of disapproval and incomprehension. We know that a certain Madame d’Epinay, alarmed by Rousseau’s readings, wrote to the lieutenant of police urging that the philosopher be forbidden from giving any further readings. We know, also, that Rousseau accepted the prohibition, thus accepting, while he lived in Paris, a double obligation neither to publish new works nor to give any further readings from his Confessions.

Deprived of any public arena for the expression of his life, for his inner testimony and its communal recognition, Rousseau was compelled to internalise his desperate need for an understanding audience. His need for the return of his own vulnerable being in the affirmative gaze of the other – a longing, no doubt, having its source in the death of his mother shortly after his birth – was a formative influence which even the acute Rousseau was not able to grasp in his own self-analysis. His compulsive response to the public ban was to compose the Dialogues. Here, the ignorant ‘Frenchman’ in prolonged discussion with ‘Rousseau’ comes to recognise the essential innocence of the writer ‘Jean-Jacques’. The natural man is good. The personal tragedy for Rousseau was that any reconciliation between himself and society could only be achieved as a literary and imaginative act. At the end of his life, composing the Reveries, Rousseau claims to be, finally, only writing for himself. Contact with all others is irreparably broken. There, pitifully, he even admits to seeking from animals the glances of recognition that he felt all other human beings refused him (and that his mother was unable to give). No doubt, the darkness of his paranoia had an intimate relationship with the denial of the returning gaze. Above all, he wants his transgressions to be both recognised and understood.

In the first volume of the Confessions the major ‘sins’ confessed with difficulty and anguish are, in chronological order: the sexual pleasure derived from Mademoiselle Lambercier’s smacking, the theft of the ribbon and his accusation that Marion had stolen it, and the insensitive abandonment of his travelling companion, Le Maître, when suffering from an epileptic fit. In the second volume the major sin, which needles Rousseau’s conscience, is the abandonment of his own children, against the wishes of their mother, to the Foundling Hospital in Paris.

The confession of one offence makes it easier to relate another and thus, by degrees, Rousseau paints the dark and perverse side of his personality. After confessing to the reader the masochistic and sexual pleasure he derived from his childhood beating, he claims: I have taken the first and most difficult step in the dark and dirty labyrinth of my confessions … Henceforth I am sure of myself; after having ventured to say so much, I can shrink from nothing. More than any writer before him Rousseau endeavours to narrate his own weaknesses, his failings, his foibles, his questionable and perverse proclivities. He informs his readers of his pathological shyness, of his habits of masturbating, his occasional bouts of kleptomania, his visit to prostitutes, his act of sexual self-exposure, his complex prostate problems, his exhibitionism and his masochistic streaks. What is distinctive in all this self-disclosure is the author’s desire to represent himself faithfully and to do so in the language of psychology rather than the language of Christian piety or theology.

To understand the foundations of his personality, Rousseau looks to early formative experience, to a complex reciprocal play between natural impulses and shaping environment, often in the uneasy dialectic between amour de soi and amour-propre. In the original opening sketch for the Confessions the pioneering psychological orientation is clear:

To know a character well it is necessary to distinguish that which has been established by nature, to see how he has formed himself, what occasions have developed him, what sequence of secret affections has rendered him thus and how he has modified himself to produce on occasions the most contradictory and most unexpected results. That which is seen is the least part of that which is. It is the apparent effect of which the internal cause is hidden and often very complicated.

It is in the application of this understanding that the prior confessional paradigm takes another revolutionary turn. This is confession not only directed openly to other human beings, it is also psychological in its mode of self-analysis and self-revelation. What Rousseau is attempting to do is to understand the forces which shape human identity and the forces are no longer supernatural but cultural and biological and, furthermore, they are located not in the present moment but in past experience: I have promised to describe myself as I am; and in order to know me in my riper years, it is necessary to have known me well in my youth. The analysis is to be profound and retrospective.

In Book One Rousseau offers two remarkable pieces of such self-scrutiny: one concerns his beating by Madamoiselle Lambercier; the other concerns his premature habit of reading. Both are courageous, pioneering acts of psychological introspection. No one before Rousseau had taken intimate childhood experiences and delineated, with precision and objectivity, their remote and permanent consequences on the life of the suffering, dislocated adult. If in Augustine there is a psycho-analysis of feeling, in Rousseau there exist the rudimentary methods of psycho-analysis, as well as a direct, unapologetic, recognition of child sexuality. Here, breaking from the past, especially with the dominant repressive doctrine of Original Sin, powerfully reactivated by the Protestant Reformation in the writings of Luther and Calvin, he anticipates Freud by more than a century.

The importance of this shift in consciousness cannot be over-estimated. To repeat one of Rousseau’s favourite images, the autobiographer was now to become a kind of botanist who examined his behaviour to evoke and classify it. Rousseau’s work pre-figured the many exacting and poetic self- analytical journeys that were to follow in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: from Wordworth’s Prelude to Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu to Jung’s Memories, Dreams, Reflections. His work inaugurated Romanticism but, as importantly, it marked the dramatic birth of deep personal autobiography and the psychological examination of intimate and often traumatic experience in the interests of truth and therapy. In the story of the self it was nothing less than a quantum leap.

I am indebted to Ronald Grimsley’s Jean-Jacques Rousseau: a Study in Self-Awareness, published by the University of Wales Press (1969). An earlier version of part of the essay has been published in Philosophy Now. For further details on the story of the self see: www.peterabbs.org

Dearest reader! Our newsletter!

Sign up to our newsletter for the latest content, freebies, news and competition updates, right to your inbox. From the oldest literary periodical in the UK.

You can unsubscribe any time by clicking the link in the footer of any email you receive from us, or directly on info@thelondonmagazine.org. Find our privacy policies and terms of use at the bottom of our website.