Jean-Jacques Rousseau undoubtedly succeeded in his effort to write an autobiography of such character that he could present himself before “the sovereign Judge with this book in my hand, and loudly proclaim, Thus have I acted; these were my thoughts; such was I. With equal freedom and veracity have I related what was laudable or wicked, I have concealed no crimes, added no virtues.” Rousseau’s revolutionary view of the human psyche led to the flowering of the autobiography as a form of expression. There are few examples before his. Rousseau’s Confessions (full title: The Confessions of J.-J. Rousseau) has been praised as perhaps the first instance of a writer’s being candid and honest with the world about the writer. The book became a model for what, paradoxically, is indeed an art form: being honest, telling all.
Only a person attempting to tell all would have revealed so frankly the sensual satisfaction he received from the spankings administered by Mlle Lambercier, the sister of the pastor at Bossey, who was his tutor. Only a writer finding satisfaction either in truth or self-abasement would have gone on to tell that his passion for being overpowered by women continued throughout his adult life: “To fall at the feet of an imperious mistress, obey her mandates, or implore pardon, were for me the most exquisite enjoyments; and the more my blood was inflamed by the efforts of a lively imagination, the more I acquired the appearance of a whining lover.” Having made this confession, Rousseau probably found it easier to tell of his extended affair with Madame de Warens at Annecy and of his experiences with his mistress and common-law wife, Thérèse Levasseur.
Rousseau records that he was born at Geneva in 1712, the son of Isaac Rousseau, a watchmaker, and Suzanne Bernard. His mother died at his birth, “the first of my misfortunes.” According to the son’s account of his father’s grief, Isaac Rousseau had mixed feelings toward his son, seeing in him an image of Suzanne and, at the same time, the cause of her death. Rousseau writes: “[N]or did he ever embrace me, but his sighs, the convulsive pressure of his arms, witnessed that a bitter regret mingled itself with his caresses. When he said to me, ’Jean Jacques, let us talk of your mother,’ my usual reply was, ’Yes, father, but then you know we shall cry,’ and immediately the tears started from his eyes.”
Rousseau describes his first experiences with reading. He turned to the romances that his mother had loved, and he and his father sometimes spent the entire night reading aloud alternately. His response to these books was almost entirely emotional, but he finally discovered other books in his grandfather’s library, works that demanded something from the intellect: Plutarch, Ovid, Molière, and others.
He describes with great affection how his Aunt Suzanne, his father’s sister, moved him with her singing; and he attributes his interest in music to her influence. After his stay at Bossey with Pastor Lambercier, Rousseau was apprenticed to an engraver, Abel Ducommun, in the hope that he would succeed better in the engraver’s workshop than he had with City Registrar Masseron, who had fired him after a brief trial. Ducommun is described as “a young man of a very violent and boorish character,” who was something of a tyrant, punishing Rousseau if he failed to return to the city before the gates were closed. Rousseau was by this time, according to his account, a liar and a petty thief, and without reluctance he stole his master’s tools in order to misplace them.
Returning from a Sunday walk with some companions, Rousseau found the city gates closing an hour before time. He ran to reach the bridge, but he was too late. Reluctant to be punished by the engraver, he suddenly decided to give up his apprenticeship.
Having left Geneva, Rousseau wandered aimlessly in the environs of the city, finally arriving at Confignon. There he was welcomed by the village curate, M. de Pontverre, who gave him a good meal and sent him on to Madame Louise de Warens at Annecy. Rousseau expected to find “a devout, forbidding old woman”; instead, he discovered “a face beaming with charms, fine blue eyes full of sweetness, a...