Foundational to Liberal Studies 819: Landscape, Politics and Poetry are the writings of Jean Jacques Rousseau. Here are some preliminary thoughts discussed in our pre-departure seminars lead by Dr. Stephen Duguid at SFU, Harbour Center.
Rousseau did live in Venice for two years and Rousseau’s “pre-Romantic” writings influenced Goethe, Byron and the Shelleys. On p. 4 of The Sentiments of Existence, David Gauthier offers a dissection of Romanticism as growing from a triple ‘malaise of modernity’ (to borrow from Charles Taylor) starting with an increasing sense of isolation followed quickly by alienation, which leads to either nostalgia (Wordsworth, et al) or a struggle for redemption via politics, education or love. In the 18th century Rousseau wrote immensely popular books on all three and by doing so more or less set the terms of the debates in the 19th century.
And how else can we even begin to understand Percy Shelley’s life unless we see him inspired by Rousseau’s definition of ‘freedom’, namely to “want what he can do and do what he wants”. And how to cope with Byron’s strange affectations and adventures without appreciating his adoption of Rousseau’s insistence that ‘convention equals slavery’. And Mary’s novel with it’s noble savage crushed by the prejudices and deceits of society and the lesson she drives home via the Creature that there is a fatal gulf between what one IS and how one Appears, with modernity caring only for the latter. And Rousseau’s warning that freedom is unlikely to be sustained by simply transferring our anxiety ridden state of dependence to a religion, movement or state. Shelley lived his life struggling with this dilemma.
From Byron’s Childe Harold as he approaches Rousseau’s ‘home place’ of Clarens:
“Here the self-torturing sophist, wild Rousseau,
The apostle of Affliction, he who threw
Enchantment over Passion, and from Woe
Wrung overwhelming eloquence, first drew
The breath which made him wretched; yet he knew
How to make Madness beautiful, and cast
O’er erring deeds and thoughts, a heavenly hue
Of words, like sunbeams, dazzling as they past
The eyes, which o’er them shed tears feelingly and fast.
His love was Passion’s essence – as a tree
On fire by lightning; with ethereal flame
Kindled he was, and blasted; for to be
Thus and enamoured, were in him the same.
But his was not the love of living dame,
Nor of the dead who rise upon our dreams,
But of ideal beauty, which became
In him existence, and o’erflowing teems
Along his burning page, distempered though it seems.
Byron was never overly generous in praise!
Sent: February-19-12 7:36 PM
Subject: Gauthier Text
Here are my notes from Chapter 1 & 2 of Gauthier’s book on Rousseau – We can go over these and especially his last two chapters in our class on Friday. Keep in mind that we are looking for Shelley and Byron ‘in’ Rousseau – an perhaps Goethe as well.
David Gauthier, Rousseau: The Sentiment of Existence
p. 2 The epiphany by the tree – for the Romantics a classic example of:
– the intuitive
– the flash of insight
– the mystery of suddenly knowing
– most important, the revealing of what is already “known”
p. 3 Rousseau makes explicit the soon to be pervasive suspicion of progress, complexity, sophistication
The evocation of “Nature”, with a capital N – what is he referring to? Not so much the nature of Wordsworth’s hills, but Nature in a more Darwinian sense.
p. 4 The idea of the ‘Fall’ – from Nature to the Modern? Link with Christianity in the idea of “redemption”
Why might Rousseau feel a sense of isolation from others and alienation from society? How does he transform his idiosyncratic story into an ‘everyman’?
p. 5 Human Nature components
2. sympathy with sentient beings
3. free will and perfectibility
p. 6 How does the quality of perfectibility lead (inevitably?) to slavery, or at least to the loss of freedom?
“The truly free man wants only what he can do and does what he pleases” – how might we see Shelley & Byron in this light?
p. 7 How is the “sentiment of existence” linked to perfectibility?
p. 8 Here we arrive a particular aspect of Rousseau’s critique of the modern: the exponential increase in desires, always just beyond our means or strengths. As the process of perfectibility establishes itself first in our cognitive abilities (our “big brain”) it quickly alters our ‘appetites’, which now require the help of others. This new “social” world invites “comparisons” of self to others, relationships which now leads to altered moral sensibilities.
p. 9 The shift in humans from self esteem to pride. We come to see ourselves only in relation to others – our very personal and originary ‘sentiment of existence’, the basis of our “freedom”, comes now to be dependent on what others (whom we can never control) think of us. This will be seen by later Romantics as a central issue and make then look, for us, like narcissists.
p. 11 The Golden Age of family and clan – the eras of “love me” – a “Second Eden” – eventually destroyed when the cry “Help me” took over.
p. 15 As the Golden Age ebbed, perfectibility took over and in comparing oneself to other the desire to be “foremost” emerged – but this desire could only be manifested in the eyes of the ‘others’ – it was not sufficient to be foremost ‘inside’ – From this need comes the culture of “appearances” . (p. 16) “Whereas previously a person would appear as he is, now he is as he appears”. A world of illusion and competition.
Chapter 2 – Emile
p. 28 Three forms of dependence:
p. 29 Problem with desire/appetite: desires deprive us of liberty by setting demands that fall outside the powers that we have or are able to attain.
p. 32 The Lawgiver (Shelley on poets?)
p. 46 Love as reciprocal (not in Emile!) – note – Gauthier sees Rousseau and having two notions of love.
Sent: February-12-12 9:50 PM
Subject: The Sentiment of Existence
Having now re-read David Gauthier’s book Rousseau: The Sentiment of Existence, what kind of thoughts can I pass on to you that might facilitate our pending discussion and, as well, illustrate how this book may help us in assessing the poetic and political ideas of Goethe, Byron and the Shelleys?The latter three in particular were immersed in Rousseau’s work, though a bit put off by some of what they saw as his rather indelicate personal revelations in his Confessions.Their favourite texts were Julie, Or the New Heloise and The Reveries of A Solitary Walker, discussed by Gauthier in chapters 4 and 7 respectively.
But it would be a mistake, I think, to devise a short cut and visit only these two chapters. Gauthier devotes a chapter to each of Rousseau’s major texts and he pursues a singular theme throughout the book, the issue of a self identifying a self, in this case Rousseau searching for Rousseau. He (somewhat controversially) delivers a trenchant critique of the solutions to the modern crises of isolation, alienation and nostalgia offered in both Emile and the Social Contract, Rousseau’s most well-known works, and concludes with an argument for a fusion with an other via love as the only viable solution.But his case will only stand if you follow his argument through.
We are not, of course, beginning a course on Rousseau, though he will pop up all over the place in our subsequent readings (in the Cenci, the Triumph of Life, Childe Harold, etc.).Rather we need to open at least one door into the cultural baggage carried by our writers, and this idea that a solution to alienation and anomie might be found in a kind of ecstatic and passionate fusion with an other – a case of two-becoming-one – rather than in politics, philosophy or education may help us understand Mary’s relation with Percy, his relation with her and Byron’s relation with Shelley and all the other intensely personal pairings in their lives.Or it may not, but it’s worth a try.
by Stephen Duguid
Additions by Janet Webster
Shelley and Byron’s quests in Italy-they both found authenticity in classicism- a purity of Rousseauian origins
Both Shelley and Byron were alienated from England
Rousseau and Byron sought familial intimacy for creating bonds of love: Rousseau with his Maman, Madame de Warrens and Byron with his step-sister, Augusta (finding the self in the other-the search for self is in relationship)