Wednesday, April 4, 2012


I have recently been reading the Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. From the beginning it is clear that the world needs a lot more people like him. Not for the political philosophy which, as I recall, is a bit authoritarian and statist for my taste (I’ll take another look), but as a model of how to live life, and how to write about the life he lived. When our young wonder how they should live their lives so as to get the very most out of them, a good answer would be that they should read Rousseau and, I would not say act like him in every way, but they should think like him, become like him, and act in consequence.

He cared nothing for anyone else’s judgement of his actions, but he had his own morality by which he judged himself, often rather harshly. Not for Jean-Jacques the fear of what people might think, the cringing with shame as he goes against fashionable morality, the kowtowing to other people’s prejudice. He sets out to live, and he does so, on his own terms, in a very successful and wonderfully free and refreshing manner. At least, that’s the way he tells it.

The book is full of instructive anecdotes. While at Venice as secretary to an incompetent ambassador he considers the question of women. After a couple of prostitutes leave him with a horror of syphilis, and his deep regard for his friends leads him to stop sleeping with their mistresses, he decides he’ll just have to get one of his own. Lovers, however, being expensive and inconvenient, he finally arranges to share one with a close friend. Thus, they shop around a bit and finally invest in a 12-year-old girl whose mother was a bit short of cash just at that moment.

Lovely and charming was this child. She sang well and they provided her with a clavichord and a singing master, she entertained them and they were all happy. Theirs was a happy household while they waited for her to be of an age when they could seduce her (nothing suggests that seduction would have meant rape or any other form of coercion, they would have expected to win her by the usual means). They both came to love her, as one does a lovely, charming and talented child, in a way that quite excluded the purpose they had originally formed. They determined that their child would be found a good husband, and a portion settled on her, as good fathers, surrogate or otherwise, do so determine. Rousseau left Venice before she reached puberty, but he gives us to understand that his friend did what they had both considered to be right.

I wouldn’t recommend the purchase of a prepubescent mistress, it just doesn’t feel right, but if you do find yourself in that position, the actions of Jean-Jacques, as he describes them, anyway, are an excellent guide to what your subsequent behaviour should be.

I haven’t finished the book yet. I look forward to being further instructed.


James Higham said...

Thus, they shop around a bit and finally invest in a 12-year-old girl whose mother was a bit short of cash just at that moment.

And that's the recipe for a happy life for her, is it?

CIngram said...

Probably better than the one she had, given that her mother wanted to sell her. And it appears to have turned out well, though not as any of those involved had intended or expected. But as I said, it's not something I would recommend, I just found the way he told the story strikingly free of both self-judgement and self-justification.