The Confessions: How Sexual Desires, Thievery, and Illogical Reasoning Created Rousseau
Jean-Jacques Rousseau is not a paradoxical man; rather, he is dichotomous, split into two halves: an emotional, passionate, sexual half; and a less prominent logical, reasoning half. What this paper will attempt to accomplish is define a man who remains an unsolvable conundrum even to the present-day readers of his work, who have had almost 250 years to analyze his words and him. Naturally, this paper begins its discussion by describing Rousseau’s first encounters with sexual desires and how because of his natural disposition, his submissiveness and desire for the taboo allows for the same principles that constitute those desires to be transposed onto other aspects of his life. Like Rousseau’s dichotomous existence, this paper will make two arguments when explaining his limited logical side and expansive illogical side. Finally, this paper focuses on the early events that constituted his life because his foundations were created and cemented during this period. In order to understand Rousseau, one must understand his early life first.
There is a lengthy passage in “The Confessions” that would fit well in this paragraph. However, avoiding a cumbersome paragraph and eliminating the need for an egregiously long block quote, a paraphrase will suffice. Beginning on page 25, Rousseau describes the lifting of a veil of a world unbeknownst to him previously. This world, comprised of punishment and shame by the hands of a woman, scintillates his sensuality and, although still at a young age, sets a course that he is determined to follow for the rest of his life. What Rousseau admits to in this passage is his adoration for a powerful woman. As his disposition dictated of him, Rousseau found that his submissive nature corresponded well to the physical and emotional punishment forced unto him by his aunt. There are feminist interpretations of Rousseau’s confessions that this paper will not cite. If feminism is a mode of thought and an ideological movement founded by women who use it as a medium to express their grievances and attempt to achieve “equality,” then Rousseau could hardly conform to this definition. Strictly speaking, a fetish drove Rousseau’s passion for women even at a young age. In other words, he found in women an outlet to express his sexual fantasies.
However, according to Rousseau, his relationships with women did not only revolve around sex. As a young boy, he met a woman by the name of Mlle de Vulson, a woman twice his age whom he developed a romantic relationship with, or so he believed. About his relationship with her Rousseau writes, “I could have spent my whole life with Mlle de Vulson without a thought of leaving her; but when I met her my pleasure was a calm one, never bordering on passion…In company I was beside myself with love for her; alone with her, I should have been constrained and cold, perhaps bored” (Rousseau 37). Part of Rousseau valued a woman who could offer the kind of life that society expected from him. She was stability and a means to exist within proper social life; she was conformity. He seemed to adore her most when in the presence of others, yet when alone with her, he very well could have preferred to be with Mlle Goton, another woman he involved himself with at the same time he romanced Mlle de Vulson. Thus far, there are two sides to Rousseau: a sexual side driven by his submissiveness and fetishes; and a less passionate and emotional side. Perhaps it is in this side where logic and rational thinking reside.
Rousseau admits to his readers that he, although raised as a student, easily succumbed to “degenerate” habits (Rousseau 39). Rousseau admits, “So it was that I learnt to covet in silence, to conceal, to dissimulate, to lie, and finally to steal-an idea that had never before come into my head and one that I have never been able entirely to rid myself of since” (Rousseau 40-41); a significant moment in his life that provides direct insight into the part of Rousseau’s mind constituted by emotion and sex. Like the beating he received by his aunt, thievery unexpectedly struck at his emotional core. An analogous comparison between his experiences with thievery and beatings by the hands of his aunt is evident by how he describes both events. When explaining the latter Rousseau remembers, “For a long while she confined herself to threats, and the threat of punishment entirely unknown to me frightened me sufficiently. But when in the end I was beaten I found the experience less dreadful in fact than in anticipation” (Rousseau 25). His naivety for physical punishment created within his young mind a worst-case scenario, one that involved extreme physical pain. Not only did the worst-case scenario never manifest itself, he enjoyed the physical pain and emotional humiliation that accompanied the beating. It stimulated his sexual senses, and he, as a passionate, emotionally driven man, sought to repeat those emotions. Thievery rustled the same sheets. About it he writes, “Thus I learnt that stealing was not so terrible as I had thought; and I soon turned my knowledge to such good account that nothing I coveted and that was in my reach was safe from me” (Rousseau 42). In both events, how he anticipates his emotions is juxtaposed by how he experiences his emotions. Living a sheltered life, beginning at a young age, events that a more experienced child would have become aware of at an early age-stealing and punishment-became taboo for Rousseau. Rather than avoiding these things, they called to him and satisfied his desires and submissive nature.
When one remembers Rousseau, one remembers a great thinker, a product of the eighteenth-century. Yet, Rousseau, at his core, Rousseau, in his purest form, was illogical. His actions defied reason. Persuaded by a journeyman to steal asparagus in order to sell it, Rousseau benefited not from his actions yet he “…did my rascally job most faithfully for no other purpose than to please the man who made me do it” (Rousseau 41), even though he understood the consequences if his master were to catch him. He explains. “Yet if I had been caught I should have been exposed to all manner of beatings, abuse, and cruelty, while that wretch (the journeyman) would have disowned me” (Rousseau 41). He did not act while thinking with his mind; instead, he acted upon the emotions that poured from his heart, permeating into his mind, and driving his physical actions. Rousseau was a victim, a slave to his passions, and he preferred it this way. Rousseau’s slavishness can be further exemplified by describing his opinions regarding money. Money is an abstraction. It only exists if there are “things” that can be bought with it. However, money is also logical. One either has it or does not. One can spend it or save it. The more one spends the less one has. The opposite holds true, too. Rousseau’s detestation of money speaks to his aversion to logic and to his preference for emotion, passion, sensuality, etc. He explains himself in detail when he writes, “I am less tempted by money than by things, because between money and the desired object there is always an intermediary (the intermediary, in this case, is gathering enough money to purchase the desired object, which, according to Rousseau, is abrasive to his “indolent” nature), whereas between a thing and enjoyment there is none (there is no intermediary between a thing and the enjoyment that is derived from it , because having the desired “thing” implies that one’s desire has been partially satiated)” (Rousseau 46).
Rousseau exists as a dichotomous individual. He is a man divided between two halves. His emotional half carries more weight than his logical half, through natural disposition. This paper focused all of its attention on the earlier events of Rousseau’s life because the man that he became was created early on in his existence. In order to understand Rousseau as a man, his path must be traced backwards, and his history must be understood. It were these early events that laid the groundwork for the illogical, intensely emotional man that we know as Jean-Jacque Rousseau.