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Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius Paperback – August 14, 2007

4.6 out of 5 stars 19 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Considering Rousseau's prominence and historical importance, it is surprising to discover that (according to the publisher) this is the first single-volume biography in English. Damrosch, a professor of literature at Harvard University, has succeeded in presenting an incisive, accessible and sensitive portrait of this unpleasant, infuriating "restless genius."Sometimes, indeed, perhaps a little too sensitive: Damrosch's admiration can prevent his strongly condemning where condemnation is due. Rousseau (1712–1778) was the man, we should recall, who consigned his own infants to a foundling home, who sent a miserably small sum of money to his ailing former patroness and who bought an adolescent girl for nefarious purposes. Where Damrosch truly excels is in not only masterfully explaining the originality and meaning of Émile, The Social Contract and the Confessions, but in relating those works to their author's conflicted, contradictory psyche. As Rousseau himself admitted, "I would rather be a man of paradoxes than a man of prejudices."Also, in vividly delineating the sage's final decade for the first time, Damrosch has performed a signal service: Maurice Cranston, who was writing a three-volume biography, died before completing the last part—thereby leaving readers in the dark as to Rousseau's fate. No longer. 43 b&w illus.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* "An interesting madman" in the eyes of a contemporary critic, Jean-Jacques Rousseau tested the limits of all that his age considered sane. Indeed, Damrosch asserts that English-speaking readers need this new biography largely because Cranston's definitive three-volume work (1982, 1991, 1997) ignores the strong strain of eccentricity running throughout the life of this French genius. That eccentric strain, Damrosch shows, estranged Rousseau both from the defenders of the ancien regime and from the rising generation of freethinking philosophers. Readers, therefore, see the same man horrifying aristocrats with the secular and democratic principles of his Social Contract and infuriating Enlightenment progressives with the moral pieties of his Letter to D'Alembert. Damrosch acknowledges that Rousseau cleared the ground for the orthodoxies erected by Freud and Marx, but he adduces considerable evidence that Rousseau himself never lived by any consistent body of doctrines. A gifted Harvard scholar, Damrosch translates revealing excerpts from letters, memoirs, and (of course) the infamous Confessions to show just how often Rousseau's public writings reflected erratic private impulses and not the rigor of rational logic. It was these unpredictable and wavering impulses that made Rousseau the father of five children that he abandoned at foundling homes and the author of numerous books that he subsequently could not even understand and regretted having written. A compelling portrait of a vagrant titan. Bryce Christensen
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 576 pages
  • Publisher: Mariner Books; Reprint edition (August 14, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0618872027
  • ISBN-13: 978-0618872022
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.3 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #690,180 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
This fine biography traces one of those lives that would not be credible if it were fiction. After his mother died and his father abandoned him, Rousseau wandered from place to place without receiving any formal education. He failed at just about every job he attempted. Through a course of self study, however, his genuis slowly fermented, and then, in a mind bogling 5 year period around the age of 40, produced The Social Contract plus two of the most popular and influential novels of the 17th century, Emile and Julie.

The story of his life, as told by Damrosch, serves the purpose of explaining where his philosophy came from. In Damrosch's view, Rousseau's outsider status and his ability to learn on his own provided the prespective from which he could see through the assumptions of his day and emerge with a unique view of life. Damrosch does a superb job of weaving between Rousseau's life, his personality and his philosophy.

My only slight criticism is that the substance of The Social Contract, the book for which he's best known today, fills just a few pages. I would have preferred more on that. Damrosch, a professor of literature, seems more at home analyzing the two novels and the later autobiography, Confessions, which he considers the first modern autobiography in which a person tries to look at his childhood and inner life to see how he became the person he became. Damrosch does a first rate job examining all aspects of Rousseau's thought as revealed in the novels and the autobiography.

In short, an extremely well written biography of a both intriguing and important man.
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Format: Hardcover
It is no disrespect to a biographer of Rousseau to say that his task is made considerably easier by the fact that his subject had himself, in his fifties, written such a vivid and amazingly self-revealing autobiography, the famous Confessions. Especially as far as the first half of Rousseau's life are concerned, the main task of the biographer is to recount a story that has already been written, correcting the occasional misremembering or misrepresentation, and to comment upon it. Damrosch's own writing always reads pleasantly and easily, and he also alerts us in advance to how Rousseau's descriptions of his own childhood and adolescence would inform later writings, like Julie (1761) and Émile (1762), and how much his youthful resentment about the way he was treated by social superiors would be the foundation for his later political theories.

For the first 37 years of his life, Rousseau had not revealed himself as the genius in the subtitle, though he was certainly restless: constantly on the move physically and psychologically highly labile. One wonders, in fact, how interested one would be in those 37 years if he had not shown himself a genius thereafter. I for one became a little impatient that as much as 2/5th of this long book is devoted to this early period, which by itself is not all that interesting, in which there are a lot of trivial incidents and in which we are told more about Rousseau's marginal acquaintances than perhaps we want to know.
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Format: Hardcover
Leo Damrosch is indeed sympathetic toward Rousseau. Of course, unless he or she has an ax to grind, that goes without saying for a biographer; after all, the dead have no money to pay for their portraits to be painted in words.

Damrosch portrays Monsieur Rousseau sympathetically, but, nonetheless, warts and all.

Many of those warts stem from his childhood. A mother who died shortly after his birth, with a father on the outs with his in-laws and sliding downward socially and financially, were the starters for his Geneva early development. Further traumas resulted in a lifelong fetish for punishment, along with a strong revulsion to human sexuality. (Other than with his Parisian mistress of his mid-30s and onward, by the time he was 40, Rousseau was almost virginal.)

At the same time, being poor, from a disrupted family with Rousseau eventually fobbed off by his father, he did not have much of a chance for formal intellectual development. Nor did he shine in any early apprenticeship. (Beyond Rousseau's well-known aversion to outwardly imposed discipline, Damrosch suspects he might have had dyslexia.)

But, from this, he was eventually (like a Swiss-French Abraham Lincoln) able to fulfill his drive toward greatness in learning and practical philosophical thinking.

Damrosch goes on to portray how he stood his ground against Diderot, Voltaire and others, often at great personal sacrifice and picking up more warts and flaws along the way.

The author of "The Social Contract" greatly influenced our Founding Fathers. This volume makes clear why he should be a known influence for more Americans today.

Some national reviewers suspect that this sympathy gets too much in the way of a neutral portrait.
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