Dr. Johnson may have been correct in saying that “Rousseau was a very bad man,” but none can argue that his ideas are among the most influential in all of world history. It was Rousseau, the father of the romantic movement, who was responsible for introducing at least two modern day thoughts that pervade academia: (1) free expression of the creative spirit is more important than strict adhesion to formal rules and traditional procedures, and (2) man is innately good but is corrupted by society and civilization.
The Confessions is Rousseau’s landmark autobiography. Both brilliant and flawed, it is nonetheless beautifully written and remains one of the most moving human documents in all of literature. In this work, Rousseau “frankly and sincerely” settles accounts with himself in an effort to project his “true” image to the world. In so doing he reveals the details of a man who paid little regard to accepted morality and social conventions.
My own confession is that when I started to listen to "Confessions" I knew very little of Rousseau and his works. I chose it simply because I was told he wrote it in Paris in 1770 (although I am yet to confirm whether this "fact" is indeed correct). As I am planning my first trip to Paris next year, for a memoir writing course, I was looking for inspiration from the father of the modern memoir.
I loved listening to this book, the early part of his life at least, because I am only now just wading into the second half which is, by Rousseau's own account, much more melancholy than the first.
The arrogant, haughty voice of the narrator adds to the formality and air of self importance with which Rousseau undertook his requirement to write his "Confessions" and compliments the book perfectly. In fact, I found myself smiling broadly through the majority as he regales tales of his youth and his romantic perceptions of such. I particularly enjoyed the ordinariness of his life, his insecurities and his character flaws. It has a "real" quality that is refreshing to encounter in our world where entertainment particularly is often, in my opinion, overdramatized, over produced and over stylized.
I have thoroughly enjoyed this book thus far.
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According to the audiobook information, this is the J.M. Cohen translation (the same as the Penguin Classics edition). That is inaccurate, unless Cohen produced two separate translations. But this is not a major problem, as Rousseau's original French is rendered into clear and supple English in this Audible edition.
Rousseau has never been a thinker I admired. In my view the philosophical core of his ideas (conveyed in other books) form the toxic legacy of modern leftist ideology. Yet his contradictions (championing a sort of extreme individualism while pushing collectivism) are very interesting, and anyone who loves the written word will have to admit that he was a highly gifted writer. And this very important book is one of the West's defining cultural monuments. If Rousseau seems sometimes oblivious to the consequences of some of his own ideas, it must be said that some of the foundational principles he adheres to (rejection of orthodoxy, skepticism toward authority,etc.) are beautifully stated.
_The Confessions_ is his autobiography, startling even now for its frankness. Almost straight out of the gate he tells us how his lifelong penchant for masochistic sex was formed in his childhood, when his female guardian (some 15 years his senior) regularly administered corporal punishment for bad behavior. One of the most disturbing incidents in the novel details an ugly episode of sexual abuse by an older man. Quite gross.
But the book remains worth reading not for its capacity to titillate, but because it stands as the example par excellence of a man telling us how he came to be who he is.
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