Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius Paperback – Illustrated, August 14, 2007
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"These pages...bring to astonishing life...an impossible man whose books made modern life possible....Immensely enjoyable and fast-paced." --Louis Menand, author of The Metaphysical Club and American Studies
About the Author
- Item Weight : 1.3 pounds
- Paperback : 576 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0618872027
- ISBN-13 : 978-0618872022
- Dimensions : 6 x 1.31 x 9 inches
- Publisher : Mariner Books; Illustrated edition (August 14, 2007)
- Language: : English
- Best Sellers Rank: #583,821 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
Top reviews from the United States
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Rousseau was taking courageous leaps into the inner world and was, as Mr. Damrosch suggested, the forerunner to modern psychology. The author has also taken a courageous leap to inform the reader of the total man, warts and all, and explained in depth the suffering Rousseau endured by breaking from the outwardly motivated thinkers of the Enlightenment. What Rousseau experienced through the portals of suffering was condemned and judged by those who did not understand his suffering to be their own. It is interesting Rousseau found Ovid’s words, “Barbarus hic ego sum quia non intelligor illus,” to be his belief. “I am taken for a barbarian here because they don’t understand me.” What is understandable is that for one to forge his way to individuality isolation is required. Isolation can sometimes cause paranoid states but, in the mid-18 century, this was not known, and many called Rousseau mad. I agree fully with Mr. Damrosch that Jean-Jacques was not mad. He kept writing, discovering, and finding his eternal moments. Reading this biography has allowed me to share a few of those moments.
Eighteen months after writing the above, I am ready to post my review. I have in that time read Confessions with scrutiny and I walk with Rousseau’s Reveries. I returned to the biography and reread my notes, especially the final pages where Leo Damrosch so eloquently describes those of us who, connected to the soulful and pioneering works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, are his friends. I have found this to be true.
Rousseau's first play was entitled Narcissus, or the Self-Lover, a subject that evokes no surprises from those familiar with his life and thought. A palpitating mass of feelings, with tears flooding from his eyes, he was, nevertheless, an extremely influential writer (for good or ill).
Damrosch calls him a `restless genius' and that is as positive as Rousseau probably deserves. His life was far less eventful than the intellectual and cultural currents which flowed from his writings, but he felt its moments more deeply than anyone might reasonably expect and built a career on them.
The book is a pleasure to read and it includes both contemporary illustrations and photographs taken by the author. The annotation is full, but done with a light hand so as not to impede the reader. My sole disappointment was the brief attention given to Rousseau's works. They are located within the scenes of his life and they are very briefly summarized but the focus of the book falls on Rousseau's life, not his thought and not his writings. The reader who wishes more information on the latter will have to seek it elsewhere, though the rudiments are spelled out here.
This is a serious biography that will be useful to scholars but accessible for the general reader.
His personality can best be describe as immature and "sharp at the edges". He either loved a person with all his heart, or hated them as his worst enemy. Usually, it started with the former and ended with the later, fueled by his paranoia and over-active imagination. These are traits one normally sees in a child, a black and white world view of love and hate unable to deal with the ambiguities of human weaknesses - which makes sense given Rousseau's brilliant genius combined with his abusive child-hood; lacking a mother he needed to trust someone, but at the same time could trust no one because of his abusive past. This fueled his desire for self-sufficiency and subsequent rejection of dependent relationships - thus he was naturally conflicted in an 18th C French society which was based on hierarchies of dependencies, where everyone was either the master of someone, or mastered by someone (and usually both)--Rousseau found a way to both live and preach an isolated life of self-sufficiency and inward reflection, hallmarks of the modern man. The master of no one, mastered by no one, and completely isolated from everyone. All of this is directly reflected in his works and ideas, so it is possible to fully understand Rousseau's works by understanding Rousseau the person - this biography paints the full portrait and answers many questions.
Top reviews from other countries
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. True, there emerges a good picture of the aristocratic segments of society which took Rousseau up and in which he moved with an understandable touchiness about his own status; and we also learn, for example, that Rousseau’s behaviour in placing his five children to a Foundling’s Hospital as soon as they were born (not left on the doorstep, a story later spread maliciously by Voltaire) was not as unusual in those days as one might think: more than a quarter of all newborn babies in Paris were abandoned in this way. Most of them were illegitimate, as Rousseau’s were, and some of them, like Rousseau’s later friend d’Alembert, were the illegitimate children of aristocrats.
To me the book became really interesting when Rousseau made his break-through into real originality, and from that point onwards it gains immensely in power. Damrosch's analysis of Rousseau’s writings is excellent. It does several things: it explains the ideas clearly and succinctly; it shows their originality at the time and the way they have influenced later thought, and it invariably links the ideas up with Rousseau’s psychology. In this respect Damrosch goes against some literary theorists who insist that one should read texts as if one knew nothing about the lives of their authors; but many of Rousseau’s books deliberately reflect his personal experiences in such a thinly disguised form that such arid theories are even more than usually inappropriate. Outstanding, I think, is the analysis, near the end of the book, of the Confessions, and I was particularly taken with his comparisons between Rousseau’s autobiography and the autobiographical writings of his contemporaries, Voltaire, Diderot, Hume, Gibbon, and Benjamin Franklin. (Damrosch is an American professor, and he comments: “Contemporary American culture talks the Rousseau line but lives the Franklin life”).
Damrosch’s account of Rousseau’s emotional, prickly and suffering personality amply bears out David Hume’s famous judgment: “He has only felt, during the whole course of his life; and in this respect his sensibility rises to a pitch beyond what I have seen any example of, but it still gives him a more acute feeling of pain than of pleasure. He is like a man who were stript not only of his clothes but of his skin, and turned out in that situation to combat with the rude and boisterous elements, such as perpetually disturb this lower world.”
The book is attractively illustrated with contemporary engravings and portraits and with photographs of places where Rousseau lived.