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Rousseau on Rousseau
Theresa M. Kelley
University of Wisconsin-Madison
The Selfie Rousseau
Writing the Self
This is the only portrait of a man, painted exactly according to
nature and in all its truth, that exists and will probably ever
exist (Rousseau 3).
I am resolved on an undertaking that has no model and will have no imitator. I
want to show my fellow-men a man in all the truth of nature; and this man is to be
Myself alone. I feel my heart and I know men. I am not made like any that I
have seen; I venture to believe that I was not made like any that exist. If I am not
more deserving, at least I am different. As to whether nature did well or ill to break
the mould in which I was cast, that is something none one can judge until after they
have read me.
Let the trumpet of judgement sound when it will, I will present myself with
this book in my hand before the Supreme Judge. I will say boldly: ‘Here is what I
have done, what I have thought, what I was. I have told the good and the bad with
equal frankness. I have concealed nothing that was ill, added nothing that was good,
and if I have sometimes used some indifferent ornamentation, this has only ever
been to fill a void occasioned by my lack of memory; I may have supposed to be true
what I knew could have been so, never what I knew to be false. I have shown myself
as I was, contemptible and vile when that is how I was, good, generous, sublime,
when that is how I was; I have disclosed my innermost self as you alone know it to
be. Assemble about me, Eternal Being, the numberless host of my fellow-men, let them
hear my confessions, let them groan at my unworthiness, let them blush at my
wretchedness. Let each of them, here on the steps of your throne, in turn reveal his
heart with the same sincerity; and then let one of them say to you, if he dares: I was
better than that man’ (Rousseau 8).
I was preparing my lessons one day on my own in the room next to the
kitchen. The servant had put Mlle de Lambercier’s combs into the recess in
the chimney to dry. When she returned to collect them, she discovered that
half the teeth on one of them were broken. Who was to blame for this
damage? No one but I had gone into the room. I was questioned; I denied
having touched the comb. … I persisted stubbornly in my denials; but the
case against me was too strong… My poor cousin was accused of another
and no less serious offence. We were subjected to the same chastisement. It
was terrible… They could not extract from me the confessions they
demanded. Disciplined again… I remained immovable…Superior force had
to yield in the end before the diabolical obstinacy of a child; for this was
my steadfastness was perceived. … heaven is my witness that I was
innocent, that I neither broke nor touched the comb …This first
experience of violence and injustice has remained so deeply engraved in my
heart that any idea that is at all associated with it brings back the emotions I
felt at the time (Rousseau 18-19).
4. And, behold, my infancy died long ago, but I am still living. But
thou, O Lord, whose life is forever and in whom nothing dies-since before the world was, indeed, before all that can be called
"before," thou wast, and thou art the God and Lord of all thy
creatures; and with thee abide all the stable causes of all
unstable things … (Augustine, Confessions, Book 1, chapter vi,
paragraph #9)
5. It is a very curious thing that my imagination is never more
pleasurably active than when my circumstances are at their least
pleasant; and that, by contrast, it is never less joyful than when
all about me rejoices. My mind, always perverse, cannot submit
to present things. It will not enhance but insists on creating
(Rousseau 167).
6. soul in our soul, though various impulses stir it, there must be
one that remains master of the field” [but] its advantage is not
complete (Montaigne, “We cry and laugh,” Essays 173).
7. we are wrong to try to compose a continuous body of all this
succession of feelings (Montaigne, “We cry and laugh,” Essays
8. I had feelings before I had thoughts: that is the common lot of
humanity. But I was more affected by it than others are
(Rousseau 8). [French: Je sentais avant de penser…]
9. Among the ordinary people whose grand passions only speak at
intervals, the sentiments of nature are more often heard
(Rousseau 144)
How different a picture I will soon have to unfold! Destiny,
which for thirty years favoured my natural leanings,
them for the next thirty, and this perpetual conflict
my situation and my inclinations gave rise, as we
shall see, to
huge errors, un-heard of misfortunes, and to
every virtue,
except strength, that can bring honour to
(Rousseau 269).
I arrived and found her gone (Rousseau 129).
Although in some respects I was already a man when I was
born, in many others I remained for a long time, and still
remain, a child. I never promised to offer the public a
grand personage, which I did promise was to portray myself
as I am; and if the reader is to know me as I am in my later
years, he must have known me well in my youth (Rousseau
The Serial or Recursive Rousseau:
Constructing the Story of a Life
I was born almost dying (Rousseau 7)
This is where my life’s brief happiness begins
(Rousseau 220).
O my readers, do not deceive yourselves. I may well have
derived greater pleasure from love-affairs that finish with
this kiss on the hand than you will ever know in yours, even
though they begin, at the very least, at this same point
(Rousseau 135).
Forgetting the entire human race, I invented for myself
whole companies of perfect creatures, whose virtue was
celestial as their beauty, and of true, tender, and faithful
friends, such as I had never known here below (Rousseau
Rousseau the Writer
Two almost irreconcilable opposites are united within me, without
my understanding how this can be so: on the one hand, an ardent
temperament, keen and impetuous passions, and on the other ideas
that are confused, slow to take shape, and only ever occur to me
afterwards. It is as though my heart and my mind belonged to
different people. Feelings burst upon me like lightning and fill my
soul; but instead of illuminating, they burn and dazzle me. I feel
everything and I see nothing. I am transported yet stupid; to be able
to think, I need to be composed. The surprising thing is that I am
capable, nonetheless, of sureness of touch, penetration, subtlety
even, so long as I an not hurried; my impromptus, given time, are
excellent; but I have never, on the spur of the moment, said or done
anything worthwhile…. Hence comes the extreme difficulty I have
in writing. My manuscripts—crossed out, scribbled on, muddled,
indecipherable—bear witness to what they have cost me (Rousseau
The Economic and Political Rousseau
stealing and beating are “in some sense a contract”
(Rousseau 33).
I felt more than ever, for it had been my constant experience,
that every unequal relationship is always disadvantageous to
the weaker party. Living among wealthy people, whose
condition in life was different from the one I had chosen
myself, unable to maintain a house like theirs, I was
nevertheless obliged to imitate them in various ways
(Rousseau 502).
No one can write a man’s life except himself. His inner
mode of being, his true life, is known only to himself; and
yet in writing it he disguises it; under the cover of his life’s
story, he offers an apology (Rousseau 644).