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Author Jean Jacques Rousseau. Summary When it was first published in , The Confessions scandalised Europe with its emotional honesty and frank treatment of the author's sexual and intellectual development. Enter your library card number to reset your PIN. Enter your library card number.


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Perhaps very few of us believe anymore that histories are replete with clearly identifiable facts and meanings awaiting retrieval, but let us follow the logic of the claim as it applies to autobiography. If the events in one's life really do have an order that transcends that which is created or imposed by the individual him or herself, the explanation for it will be either a kind of teleology or some form of determinism.

That is to say, either events are falling one after another like dominoes, pushed forward by some specifiable initial conditions, or they are pulled forward magnetically by a telos in the future. Rousseau flirts with both forward and backward causation when explaining his life. In justifying his extensive discussion of his childhood experiences, he will say:. There is a certain sequence of impressions and ideas which modify those that follow them, and it is necessary to know the original set before passing any judgements.

I endeavour in all cases to explain the prime causes, in order to convey the interrelation of results []. However, while never officially repudiated, this model of psychological determinism fades in prominence as the narrative of the Confessions leaves childhood and approaches the present. In its place, we hear more and more frequently of a "Fate" that controls the development of Rousseau's life. A teleological principle begins drawing his life forward, a " blind fatality " begins inexorably " dragging " him to his " destruction " [].

In his attempt to understand and work through the implications of this "fate," Rousseau comes to refer to it as his catastrophe. The catastrophe is an odd device in Rousseau's writing. It stands as one pole of a relation that is sustained throughout the Confessions and many of Rousseau's other writings , the relationship between the innocence and immediacy of youth and the disaster that lies in the future.

Within this structure, each moment is always construed as falling under the governance of one pole or the other, with the latter pole providing the teleological magnet for the narrative. The events that are aligned with the principles of perfect transparency and clarity are completely self-sufficient, having no necessary connections to any moments outside themselves, but those that are regulated by the catastrophe reveal themselves as leading inevitably forward towards a looming disaster.

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The text of the Confessions , in fact, is continually bisected according to the terms of this opposition; one of Rousseau's most characteristic rhetorical moves in his autobiography is to announce a moment that divides his life into two parts. As early as Book 1, he recounts the result of his suffering a wrongful accusation as a young child at Bossey in the language of the eviction from Eden:. There ended the serenity of my childish life We lived as we are told the first man lived in the earthly paradise, but we no longer enjoyed it; in appearance our situation was unchanged, but in reality it was an entirely different kind of existence.

No longer were we young people bound by ties of respect, intimacy, and confidence to our guardians; we no longer looked upon them as gods who read our hearts We gave up tending our little gardens. But this primal fall in childhood is radically over-determined, simply because Rousseau falls too often. Lambercier [26], the construction of an aqueduct in defiance of M. As he is walking the several miles from Paris to Vincennes in order to visit and comfort the imprisoned Diderot, Rousseau happens to read an announcement in the Mercure de France of an essay contest.


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In an instant, everything changes. It is a vision so powerful that with Diderot's snake-like encouragement , he feels he simply must write it down. And in that instant, all is lost; "from that moment I was ruined. Becoming a writer, Rousseau severs the last threads connecting him to his pre-Lapsarian innocence and finds himself instead enmeshed in the high cultural life of the Parisian salons.

In a malign inversion of another biblical narrative, this time the good Saint Paul becomes Saul of Tarsus under the blinding heat of vision. What is less frequently noted is that this "fall" is only one of many. The moment that announces that Rousseau's life is henceforth under the sway of an unlucky star is repeated ad nauseam in the Confessions.

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Describing his ill-fated decision to write the first Discourse, Rousseau says "with this But sixty pages later, we find him saying that he will only now "begin to describe A representative, though by no means exhaustive sample of the dividing points thereafter runs as follows:. The fate that begins for me on this unhappy day will pursue me till my last hour" []. However, it is not simply a matter of these sharp textual divisions continuing at the close of the Confessions ; their frequency in fact increases quite significantly in the last two books of the text.

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We now encounter such divisions separated by no more than a matter of pages. The rapid divisions create a velocity, and the velocity a vertigo. As the Confessions reach their last pages, we are moving at breakneck speed into the long promised though never defined catastrophe, but each announcement of the nearness of the catastrophe quickly becomes prelude for the next such claim. And contrary to what we might expect, there is never an indication that each new report is meant to supplant the previous one.

On the contrary, there is in fact never any acknowledgement at all that, dire as the warnings sound, it has all been said before. The immanence of disaster is repeatedly invoked, but then it seems, immediately forgotten. How can a text forget its own history so completely? In the Confessions themselves, we are given support for two different answers. First, and this answer must surely apply here, one forgets by writing. In a passage that bears directly on the meaning of the autobiographical practise for Rousseau, we hear him claiming that "memory only serves me for so long as I need to rely on it; as soon as I commit its burden to paper it deserts me; and once I have written a thing down, I entirely cease to remember it" [].

Rousseau will often speak of writing according to this cathartic model, suggesting that the confessional act releases the individual of not only moral responsibility for past actions, but also of the memory itself. As an empirical claim, this is quite obviously false; within the Confessions itself, Rousseau will write about the same event more than once, and this text was anticipated by a series of letters that Rousseau wrote for his publisher wherein many of the same events had already been recounted.

The astonishing implausibility of this position, coupled with its recurrence throughout the Confessions , leads me to read it as a claim that is necessary as an aspect of the peculiar logic that is at work here. Rousseau very much wants to understand writing as a kind of purgative act, even when his own practise belies the claim.

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While the act of autobiography may impose Rousseau would say discover an order and necessity in the past, this narrativizing activity is recorded in writing , which is to say, in a location external to the body. The relationship for Rousseau seems almost Newtonian; the density and determinateness of the past in the text increases in proportion to the decrease in the memory of the confessor.

He will emerge from writing his story, he hopes, as one reborn into an absolutely clean and uncorrupted present. This confinement to the present in turn becomes the other mode through which "forgetting" is accomplished. Trapped in the present moment, the self can never achieve sufficient distance from itself to cultivate a memory in the first place.

Events become stark, context-less images that engage one entirely and then not at all. Near the end of the Confessions , Rousseau will praise his ability "to observe the same things thousands and thousands of times and always with the same interest, because I always forgot them each time: that was the way to pass eternity without the possibility of a moment's boredom" [].

As the narrative of the Confessions approaches the present, that is, as it catches up to the time in which its author is writing, Rousseau becomes almost obsessive in his reiteration of this thought, the paradox that the nearer event is harder to remember than the event far away:. The further I go in my story, the less order and sequence I can put into it.

The disturbances of my later life have not left events time to fall into shape in my head. They have been too numerous, too confused, too unpleasant to be capable of straightforward narration Now my story can only proceed at haphazard, according as the ideas come back into mind [].

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This disconnectedness of the present moment is always characterized by a lack of memory of earlier moments. It is to this present that the Confessions are drawing ever closer, the moment in which a life will have been told truly and fully, and its author entirely disassociated from it. But as this event draws closer, the cracks begin to show. The catastrophe, which had determined the teleological structure of the narrative as an indefinite point on a distant horizon, is now brought sharply into focus as an immanent event, not only through Rousseau's insistent invocation of it, but also, and more importantly, by the fact that we are rapidly approaching the present of the author.

In book ten, the task of beginning to plan the Confessions has been recorded as an event [], and by book twelve, he has begun to write it []. We now know that in the time that it takes to write the Confessions , the catastrophe must occur. The gap between the narrative and the present of the writer has been explicitly thematized and the impending collision of the two made inevitable. This would be the moment of total identity and closure, where the text had recorded exactly and completely the life which was its task to record, the moment when the author becomes entirely superfluous.

It is also, of course, an impossible moment. Must there not always be at least one more moment to record if the Confessions are to be complete? I have cited Rousseau above saying perplexingly that "events" became "more numerous" in this last, confused period, and indeed, we might expect them to become infinite as we reach the present; his autobiographical "life-story" is rapidly approaching the condition of diary , a genre of writing that is not governed by considerations of plot or development.

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Rousseau clearly understands the catastrophe to be an extra-textual event in the life he is recording, even if the nature of that event keeps changing. However, I want to suggest that its meaning goes significantly beyond any particular misfortune that Jean-Jacques may have suffered. It is instead or rather, in addition , a figure for Rousseau's troubled confrontation with the desire for totality and closure. Far from being the culminating event of the autobiography, the catastrophe may well be the impossibility in principle of completing such a text once begun.

In fact, his claim that events have become "too numerous," and that his story can now "only proceed at haphazard" is followed directly by the otherwise unrelated statement that he remembers "during the time of which I am speaking, being immersed in my Confessions Within this structure, each moment is always construed as falling under the governance of one pole or the other, with the latter pole providing the teleological magnet for the narrative.

Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau

The events that are aligned with the principles of perfect transparency and clarity are completely self-sufficient, having no necessary connections to any moments outside themselves, but those that are regulated by the catastrophe reveal themselves as leading inevitably forward towards a looming disaster. The text of the Confessions , in fact, is continually bisected according to the terms of this opposition; one of Rousseau's most characteristic rhetorical moves in his autobiography is to announce a moment that divides his life into two parts.

As early as Book 1, he recounts the result of his suffering a wrongful accusation as a young child at Bossey in the language of the eviction from Eden:. There ended the serenity of my childish life We lived as we are told the first man lived in the earthly paradise, but we no longer enjoyed it; in appearance our situation was unchanged, but in reality it was an entirely different kind of existence.

No longer were we young people bound by ties of respect, intimacy, and confidence to our guardians; we no longer looked upon them as gods who read our hearts We gave up tending our little gardens. But this primal fall in childhood is radically over-determined, simply because Rousseau falls too often. Lambercier [26], the construction of an aqueduct in defiance of M.

As he is walking the several miles from Paris to Vincennes in order to visit and comfort the imprisoned Diderot, Rousseau happens to read an announcement in the Mercure de France of an essay contest. In an instant, everything changes. It is a vision so powerful that with Diderot's snake-like encouragement , he feels he simply must write it down. And in that instant, all is lost; "from that moment I was ruined. Becoming a writer, Rousseau severs the last threads connecting him to his pre-Lapsarian innocence and finds himself instead enmeshed in the high cultural life of the Parisian salons.

In a malign inversion of another biblical narrative, this time the good Saint Paul becomes Saul of Tarsus under the blinding heat of vision. What is less frequently noted is that this "fall" is only one of many.