Rousseau sort of turns poor impulse control into an ethos.
How can I have made it to age sixty-one without having read Rousseau’s Confessions? Before coming to Vietnam, never knowing what I’ll want to read while traveling, I downloaded several free e-books of “classic” (in the advertising sense of the term) texts, The Complete Works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau among them.
I also filled the Kindle with more than a shelf-full of serious fiction and even some poetry (which seems wrong, somehow, as e-text), but during the long flight between Frankfurt & Singapore, the Rousseau somehow bobbed to the surface of the electronic sea. I think I may have begun reading the Confessions sometime earlier, perhaps as an assigned text in college, but I’d never got a sense of the man’s voice until I was forty thousand feet above Central Europe. The text I have is that of the Penguin edition, translated by J.M. Cohen. The English sentences are graceful and wonderfully fluent, catching what must be something of the conversational style of the original. The author of the Confessions is a sort of Prince Mishkin without the Russian angst. Dostoevsky must certainly have read this book, what with his interest in Christ-like innocence. I’ve been dipping into the text a bit each day, following the young Rousseau for a few of his adventures, and then putting him aside to return refreshed to other work.
What strike me most strongly about the Confessions is that every word & sentence is saturated with a kind of longing for the lost world of childhood. Even when Rousseau is presenting his own childhood, there is a strong elegiac feel to the descriptions, a kind of pre-nostalgia. The adult Rousseau looking back on his life, I think, is writing himself back to that state of innocence. It’s a funny sort of innocence, too–that has a knowing quality about it. Mostly, though, we the innocence is perceptual and social. The boy Rousseau sees everything–including pretty young women–with an absolutely fresh eye; and this innocence of his observations of social relations is devastating, laying bare hypocrisy without the least sense of the judgmental. What a remarkable intelligence.
I’ve been enjoying fall this year, even more than usual. I grew up on the west coast in places where there was an observable but not spectacular display of autumn color. It wasn’t until I came to northern New York twenty years ago that I got the full experience or spectacular color and charged-up weather. I don’t think this year’s colors are any more intense (though they does vary a bit from year to year) — No, I think I’m more perceptually tuned-in. Maybe it’s just that I’m getting older and slower so that I see more of what’s in front of me — that’s probably part of it, but not the whole thing. Maybe it’s that I gave up drinking alcohol a couple of months ago — not that I was walking around in an alcoholic fog or anything. I suppose it’s all these things that have sharpened my sense of this season, the season of sinking down, which lasts a long time here in the north country. In August some of the leaves begin to yellow and by the end of the month the nights are a little cooler. In September, the maple trees begin to go read and brown, though the birches and many other species stay green or just begin to shade toward yellow; this is also the time of year you begin to notice more activity among the birds. Families of crows begin to congregate and migrating songbirds make stops in the dogwoods. In October the winds come up and rain begins to knock the old leaves off the trees. It is the colors of the trees at this point in the year — just past the peak of their intensity — that give me the most pleasure. Yesterday in my freshman writing class we were talking about Romantic versus Rationalist views of the world and the language we use to talk about these different approaches. It was a good discussion, but i was really knocked back on my heels when one student said, “I took a meteorology class in high school because I’ve always had a deep feeling for the weather and I was a little disappointed to find out how it all worked — it took away some of the mystery.” This is of course what Keats famously said about Newton “unweaving the rainbow” and I told the class as much, then went on to say that I, too, had always had a special feeling for the weather; that, as a child, I had had a little weather station in my room; but then added that I hadn’t found that the meteorology course I took diminished my feeling for the beauty, suggesting that one could sustain both a Romantic and a Rationalist / Realist response. I think that’s true. In fact, I think such a view is at least related to Keats’s idea of negative capability and that learning to sustain a sense of negative capability prevents one from falling either into sentimentality or the aridity of intellectualism.