Monday, September 15, 2008

Rousseau and the Winds of History

I've almost finished Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Confessions, his long, rambling, endearing memoirs.

Rousseau can be infuriating: stubborn, selfish, capricious and thoughtless.  He abandoned his boyhood trade, his benefactors and his children (everyone was doing it, you see).  He is paranoid and seemingly incapable of enduring friendship.

And despite all this, there is something genuinely loveable about him.  He is so painfully, vulnerably sincere: even when he is deluded and unreasonable, he's honest about it.  He offers you the sordid, compromising details of his life, without scruple.  "I decided," he writes, "to make it a work unique and unparalleled in its truthfulness, so that for once at least the world might behold a man as he was within."  The result is an uneven, occasionally repellent work of bona fide brilliance.

I suspect I'll be coming back to Rousseau over the next few years.  But for now, I'm struck by the fickle winds of history.  In one section, Rousseau is offered a position on a very prestigious academic journal, the Journal of Learning.  He politely rejects the offer, because he doesn't want it to interfere with this writing.  But he is flattered, because of the company he would be keeping.  "I should be admitted," he writes, "to the society of some distinguished men of letters, M. de Mairan, M. Clairaut, M. de Guignes, and the AbbĂ© BarthĂ©lemy".

Who?  Apart from a few students of eighteenth-century France, no-one knows who these men are.  To most educated, intelligent twenty-first century folk, they are nothing.  And yet here is Jean-Jacques Rousseau, philosopher of Romanticism and Enlightenment (most figures choose one to make their name), seeking their company.  And, indeed, throughout the book, Rousseau is threatened and intimidated by people we haven't heard of.  They suppress, terrify, frustrate and sully him.

But most of them are only remembered because of him.  Otherwise, the winds of history have swept them away.  Only Rousseau remains, uncharacteristically rooted to the spot.

This is a reminder: today's incandescent facts are tomorrow's blown globes.  In Confessions (and so many works of biography), we recognise that most of today's bigwigs will be forgotten  Of course, most of us will join them in historical oblivion - we cannot all be Rousseau.  (And thank the dog for this.) But there is something clarifying about this; something consoling in the precariousness of pre-eminence.  

Its a truism, but a helpful one to meditate on: even after two hundred years, we can touch subsequent generations - not through wealth, conquest or unmerited celebrity, but in the enduring singularity of our character.  And just as importantly: to be preoccupied by the powerful can be a distraction from this project.

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