Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Restless Genius

By Leo Damrosch
Houghton Mifflin. 566 pp. $30
Friday, December 16, 2005

Chapter One

The Loneliness of a Gifted Child

"I was born in Geneva in 1712," Rousseau wrote in his Confessions, "son of Isaac Rousseau citoyen and Suzanne Bernard citoyenne." He was always proud of that citizenship, and when he became a prominent writer in Paris he signed himself Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Citoyen de Genève. But by then he had abjured the Protestant faith and thereby lost his citizenship rights in Geneva. Still later his books would be publicly burned there, and a standing warrant lodged for his arrest if ever he should return.

The birth on June 28 was inauspicious. "I was born almost dying," he claimed without further explanation; "they had little hope of saving me." And a true disaster made his birth "the first of my misfortunes." Three days after he was baptized in the great cathedral on July 4, his mother died of puerperal fever. Half a century later, when he wrote his treatise on child development, Rousseau declared that a small child has no way of understanding death. "He has not been shown the art of affecting grief that he doesn't feel; he has not feigned tears at anyone's death, because he doesn't know what it is to die." But his own early experience was of being required to grieve for a mother whom he resembled disturbingly and had somehow killed, and this burden of guilt haunted his later life. If he was indeed born almost dying, he may well have felt that it would have been better if he had died in her place. Throughout his life he tended to see motherhood in a sentimental light; in middle age he wrote solemnly to a young man seeking advice, "A son who quarrels with his mother is always wrong ... The right of mothers is the most sacred I know, and in no circumstances can it be violated without crime."

There was a lot Rousseau seems never to have known about his parents, including their ages; he thought his father was fifteen years younger than he actually was. He was even less well informed about his ancestors. Like many Genevan families, the first Rousseaus immigrated from France when Protestants began to be persecuted there. Didier Rousseau, Jean-Jacques' great-great-great-grandfather, arrived in Geneva in 1549 and went into business as a wine merchant. He had been a bookseller in Paris and may well have gotten into trouble, as his famous descendant did two centuries later, for subversive publications. It would be pleasant to think that Jean-Jacques was proud of this ancestor who had accepted exile for his beliefs, but there is no evidence that he ever heard of him.

Didier's descendants became industrious tradespeople and artisans, leaving little trace in official records, but Jean-Jacques' father, Isaac, was an interesting character. He took up watchmaking as a trade, not surprisingly, since his grandfather, father, and brothers were all watchmakers. But he also loved music and played the violin well, and as a young man he abandoned the workshop to become a dancing master. Dancing was no longer forbidden by the Calvinist theocracy of Geneva, but it was not in good repute, and the Consistory - a committee of pastors and laymen that oversaw morals - limited it to foreign residents who refused to give it up. After a short time Isaac ended this dubious experiment and returned to the family trade, in which he eventually qualified as a master craftsman. Over the years, however, his volatile temper repeatedly got him into trouble. In 1699 he provoked a quarrel with some English officers who drew their swords and threatened him; it was he who was punished, since the authorities were anxious to propitiate foreigners. A similar incident would one day result in his virtual disappearance from his son's life.

As Jean-Jacques understood it, his own origin was a sad chapter in a great romance. His mother's family was socially superior to the Rousseaus and disapproved of the daughter's alliance with a humble watchmaker, even though the pair had been inseparable since early childhood. According to the story in the Confessions, Suzanne advised Isaac to travel in order to forget her, but he returned more passionate than ever. She had remained chaste, they swore eternal fidelity, "and heaven blessed their vow." Meanwhile Suzanne's brother Gabriel fell in love with Isaac's sister Théodora, who insisted on a joint wedding, and so it was that "love arranged everything, and the two weddings took place on the same day."

The facts that can be extracted from the records tell a rather different story. Suzanne's father, Jacques Bernard, had been jailed for fornication, and a year later was required to pay the expenses of an illegitimate child by a second mistress. He then married a third woman, Anne-Marie Marchard, and Suzanne was born six months later. When Suzanne was only nine her father died, in his early thirties, and the family took care afterward to erase his memory as much as possible. The kindly pastor Samuel Bernard, who raised her, and whom Jean- Jacques always believed to be her father (he died eleven years before the boy's birth), was actually her uncle.

Suzanne was good-looking, musically talented, and evidently a spirited young woman. In 1695, when she was twenty-three, she was summoned before the Consistory to be rebuked for permitting a married man named Vincent Sarrasin to visit her. Equally provocatively, she showed an interest in the theater, which was illegal in Geneva except for street performances. One day in the Place Molard, "near the theater where they sell medicines and play farces and comedies, the maiden lady Bernard was seen dressed as a man or a peasant." Further inquiry established that she was disguised as a peasant woman, not as a man, and according to witnesses she claimed she wanted to see the farces without being recognized by her would-be lover, Sarrasin. She herself swore that none of this ever happened, but the Consistory delivered a stern verdict: "Persuaded, notwithstanding her denial, that we are well informed as to the truth of the said disguise, for which we have censured her severely, ... we exhort her solemnly to have no commerce at all with M. Vincent Sarrasin."

Eight years later, when she was thirty-one, Suzanne married Isaac Rousseau. This was not particularly late by the standards of the time. The age of majority was twenty-five, and in France as well as Geneva the average marriage age was twenty-eight, reflecting insistence on financial security and serving as well to hold down the birth rate. But the twin weddings Jean-Jacques evoked in the Confessions were a fairy tale. Isaac's sister did marry Suzanne's brother, but that happened five years earlier, barely a week before the birth of their child, a circumstance that provoked a stern condemnation by the Consistory. The infant died immediately, and this too was a story that Jean-Jacques never heard anything about. Instead he was encouraged by his family to harbor a highly romantic idea of his parents' and their siblings' irresistible attraction and triumph over obstacles.

Isaac and Suzanne began their married life in comfortable circumstances, in the Bernards' elegant house at Grande Rue No. 40 in the fashionable upper town. It was customary for daughters to receive generous dowries and for sons to get smaller sums but to be established in a trade that would support their families. Isaac Rousseau had 1,500 florins from his father, equivalent to 750 French livres, not a fortune but not insignificant either: a family could get by on 200 livres per year and could live comfortably on 1,000. Suzanne, meanwhile, brought 6,000 florins, along with a piece of land in the Jura, a walnut wardrobe, a green leather writing case, and six coffee spoons. Nine months later their first son, François, was born.

Before long the family found itself in financial difficulty, in part because of a general economic downturn, and it seems likely that Suzanne's mother, with whom they were living, made life increasingly disagreeable for her improvident son-in-law. At any rate, only three months after François' birth, Isaac departed for Constantinople, where he became watchmaker to the sultan. (That at least was his story; there is no evidence to confirm that he was so employed.) His departure was not quite so extraordinary as it might seem today, since Genevans were described by a contemporary as "the greatest vagabonds in the world," and in Isaac's immediate family one uncle lived in London, another in Hamburg, and a brother in Amsterdam; his brother-in-law lived in Venice and died in South Carolina, and a cousin traveled to Persia. Still, as Raymond Trousson comments, Constantinople was a long way to go to get away from a mother-in-law. While there, Isaac lived in a Genevan community whose Calvinist pastor mentioned him in a letter to his colleagues at home (praising them for "shining the torch of your piety and erudition in the midst of the shadows of the Papacy"). We know almost nothing of what Suzanne's life was like while Isaac was away, but Jean-Jacques believed she was happy. He recorded an impromptu poem she was said to have made up when walking with her sister-in-law, about the husbands who were also brothers and the wives who were also sisters, and he especially relished the story that the senior French diplomat in Geneva lost his heart to her, though without ever compromising her virtue.

A year after his mother-in-law's death in 1710, Isaac Rousseau, having been absent for fully six years, finally came home, attracted no doubt by the 10,000 florins that Suzanne had inherited. Jean-Jacques was born nine months later and named after a wealthy godfather, who unfortunately died soon afterward. Then came the shocking loss entered in the official records: "On Thursday 7 July 1712, at eleven in the morning, Suzanne Bernard, wife of M. Isaac Rousseau, citizen and master watchmaker, aged thirty-nine, died of continued fever in the Grande Rue." All told, they had spent only two years of married life together.

Isaac stayed on in his late wife's house, and his unmarried youngest sister, also named Suzanne, moved in to help with François and the new baby. As an adult Jean-Jacques could only guess at what his earliest years were like, for although he more than anyone else taught the world to pay attention to early childhood experiences, "I don't know what I did before the age of five or six." Looking back through the clouds of the troubled times that were to follow, he imagined it had been an era of idyllic contentment. "The children of kings could not have been cared for with more zeal than I was during my first years, idolized by everyone around me." Certainly he formed a close bond with his aunt Suzon, as he called her. In The Confessions he praised her as "a maiden lady full of graces, intelligence, and good sense" and fondly remembered his happiness watching her embroider and listening to her sing. "Her cheerfulness, her sweetness, and her pleasant face have left such strong impressions on me that I still see her manner, her expression, her attitude; I recall her little affectionate sayings; I could say how she was dressed and how she wore her hair, not forgetting the two curls that her black hair made on her temples, after the fashion of those days." He was especially grateful for the love of music she inspired in him, singing a prodigious number of songs "with a small, very sweet voice." In later life it always moved him to tears to sing one of them in particular, a pastoral air about the dangers of love, and he admitted that he avoided trying to locate the original words. "I'm almost certain that the pleasure I get from remembering this air would fade if I got proof that others sang it besides my poor aunt Suzon."

Jean-Jacques would not have understood at first that Suzon was not his actual mother. Sixty years later, when she was past eighty and he had become famous, she dictated a letter to him (her eyesight was probably failing) in which she said that she always had "a maternal tenderness" for him, and signed herself "your affectionate and tender friend and aunt." In another letter the friend who transcribed her message added, "We've talked about you as the dearest object of her affection." In the Confessions Rousseau would say, "Dear aunt, I forgive you for having kept me alive, and it grieves me not to be able to give you, at the end of your days, the tender care you lavished on me at the beginning of mine." A few years later, when she died at the age of ninety-three, he paid a further tribute: "It is through her that I'm still attached to something of value on this earth, and no matter what people do, so long as I retain that I will continue to love life."

There was another female figure in the boy's life: his nursemaid or mie, Jacqueline Faramand, a cobbler's daughter only sixteen years older than himself. Long afterward a Genevan whose father had likewise been cared for by Jacqueline said that she was adored for her kind heart, generosity, and gaiety. He remembered her saying that when the little Jean-Jacques unluckily tore a book and was locked up for several days in a garret, "the good Jacqueline was his sole consoler during that time." After Rousseau became a celebrity he wrote to tell her that he had never ceased to love her, adding rather grimly that she too was to blame for his continued existence. "I often say to myself amidst my sufferings that if my good Jacqueline had not taken such pains to preserve me when I was little, I would not have suffered such great misfortunes after I grew up."

When François was twelve and Jean-Jacques five, a drastic change occurred. Increasingly pressed for cash, Isaac sold his wife's house for the impressive sum of 31,500 florins. Supposedly the money was to be held in trust for the two boys until they reached the age of twenty-five, and Isaac was to live on the interest in the meantime, but over the years he managed to get his hands on most of the principal as well. The family moved down the hill and across the Rhône to the rue de Coutance in the artisans' quarter of Saint-Gervais. Geneva was a small city at the time, with about 20,000 inhabitants (Lyon had 100,000 and Paris at least half a million). The distance between the two houses was not great, but there was a potent symbolic distinction between the upper and lower town, the inhabitants du haut and du bas, and this move was a painful descent from the privileged heights of the Bernard family, who had never cared much for their Rousseau in-laws.

Isaac, Suzon, and the two boys occupied the fourth of five stories in an apartment house in a neighborhood of watchmakers, engravers, and silversmiths. Isaac's bedroom and workshop faced the street in order to get the best light for his exacting trade. On the other side, looking out on what is today the rue Rousseau, were a large kitchen and a bedroom that Jean-Jacques probably shared with Suzon. As it happens, the rue Rousseau got its later name from a misunderstanding. After the French Revolution his admirers preferred not to believe that he had been born in the fashionable upper town, and they installed a plaque - reverently viewed by such pilgrims as Stendhal, Dumas, Ruskin, and Dostoevski - on a different house in Saint-Gervais, one that had belonged to David Rousseau, his cold and ungenerous grandfather, with whom he seems to have had virtually no relationship.

Many of Geneva's Protestant refugees from France had been skilled craftsmen, and the little city grew wealthy from trades such as watchmaking and jewelry, in a system by which bankers supplied raw materials and distributed work among a host of small workshops. Two men out of every ten, in fact, were watchmakers. Jean-Jacques always liked to think of himself as un homme du peuple, and his familiarity with skilled labor contributed to his scorn for "those important persons who are called artists rather than artisans, work solely for the idle and rich, and put an arbitrary price on their baubles." The artisan class was particularly proud of its intellectual abilities. "A Genevan watchmaker," Rousseau wrote, "is a man who can be introduced everywhere; a Parisian watchmaker is only fit to talk about watches." And indeed a British visitor commented, "Even the lower class of people are exceedingly well informed, and there is perhaps no city in Europe where learning is more universally diffused"; another at midcentury noticed that Genevan workmen were fond of reading the works of Locke and Montesquieu.

The artisans of Geneva not only read about politics, they lived it, in a campaign of resistance to the privileged class that governed Geneva and would one day commit Rousseau's Social Contract to the flames. It has recently been demonstrated that the block in Saint-Gervais where the Rousseaus lived had more political agitators than any other. Even foreigners were struck by the open displays of class feeling, as an English aristocrat commented half a century later when he climbed nearby Mont Salève and was offended there by "a gang of bandylegged watchmakers, smoking their pipes, and scraping their fiddles, and snapping their fingers, with all that insolent vulgarity so characteristic of the Ruebasse portion of the Genevese community."

(Continues...)


© 2005 Leo Damrosch