The Mad Ones Are Best

Stacy Schiff reviews the new biography Jean-Jacques Rousseau: An Unruly Mind by Leo Damrosch in the NYTBR:

He did manage to indulge one of his greater talents, that of falling out with those who meant him well. Rousseau set such high standards for friendship that he was better off alone; by his 50’s the hypersensitivity bordered on mania. "Persecution has elevated my soul," he explained, courting it again and again. He quarreled with David Hume, the Scottish philosopher who had offered him asylum, and with whom he was never reconciled. In the delusional aftermath (Rousseau admitted later that he had succumbed to "an attack of madness"), he set about composing one of the earliest self-analyses in the history of literature.

The paradox was perfectly consistent with the life. "Confessions" was published only posthumously; it was some time before Rousseau’s ideas seeped into the drinking water. In his own day he was provocative but also outlandish. As Damrosch puts it, Rousseau was after all understood to be "describing a state of nature that never existed, a political system that never could exist and an educational scheme that never should exist." Social inequality, the will of the people, inalienable rights were meaningless concepts when Rousseau began ranting about them. Imagination was out of fashion; he was tiptoeing around the as-yet-undiscovered unconscious. He advocated idleness in the age of Adam Smith. If he suffered for being so much out of step with his own century, he can too easily be overlooked in ours. Without founding a school – it would have been inappropriate – Rousseau stands squarely if unsystematically at the root of democracy, autobiography, Romanticism, child-centered education, even psychoanalysis.

I have to admit a soft spot for Rousseau and this biography sounds like a great deal of fun.

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