Tuesday, July 25, 2006


I am currently plodding through Rousseau's Emile and finding my way around. This is actually the second time I've read the work, and actually the first time I've done as close a reading as I am. The other day I patiently worked through fifteen pages, which is obscenely slow. However, Philip Reiff, who I've just remembered, once advocated spending a week trapped in a single sentence if need be, so I think this is part of my job.

Reading in the humanities is supposed to be slow and deliberate. It is not always done this way of course. Since few of us are widely read (sadly, few of us have the time to become widely read), it is all too easy to come up with a fascinating theory about a text and cherry-pick sentences to fit that theory. Even more sadly, it is not unlikely that the academic world will lay gold at your feet for coming up with a fascinating theory. And so, the standard of honesty has to be one's own. As a scholar, you must avoid the romantic alure of a pat and fascinating theory and simply puzzle through texts. When I start to see interesting patterns in things I am reading, I try to write the following in my notes: "This is how the text seems to me. Maybe this will turn out to be wrong. Let's see." The word maybe, as in "maybe I am right and maybe not" or "maybe I just don't know", is the most intellectually freeing word in the English language.

As with most of the writers of the era, Rousseau's major theme is always human freedom. However, as opposed to dealing with day-to-day social freedoms, such as the freedom to worship as one pleases, Rousseau tends to focus on the ways that people are psychologically constrained by society. When he writes in The Social Contract that man is born free, yet everywhere in chains, Rousseau is refering to the chains of false consciousness. Human society forces men to rely on each other to fulfill their various needs, and to compare themselves with each other, and forces them to behave in a constrained and artificial way that Rousseau believes would not exist in a state of nature. Camille Paglia has written that Rousseau made "nature" a watchword for the west, and it is certainly a watchword in all of his work.

Of course, the question then is, if Rousseau is right, how do we escape this situation? Should we respond to Rousseau by walking on all fours, as Voltaire joked? Is it possible to be free within society? What Rousseau has done is to set up a dichotomy between 'nature' and 'society' that actually exists within all people. Jean Starobinski called this the contrast between "être" and "paraître"- that is between being and appearing. Hunan nature is conflicted within society, warped and made unnatural. And so we have two sides to our personality- innate selfhood and social selfhood. Because Rousseau acknowledges that we cannot return to nature and expect to be happy, we have to remain in society. But, we can live in a way that nurtures and develops our innate "natures". It is possible that Romanticism was simply a negative response to the burdens of social selfhood. Rousseau's project therefore rightly culminates in the work of Freud.

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