Saturday, October 22, 2016

The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman

Written in 1962, Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August is a Pulitzer Prize winner. Though not for everyone, in my opinion this book deserves the accolades that it has received.   The work covers both the events leading up to the outbreak of the First World War, as well as the early months of the conflict. 

The early chapters in the book cover the diplomatic and political situation prior to the war’s outbreak. In some ways, this book is a character-based history, as it focuses on various members of the European Royalty, politicians and generals. A clear but selective picture of the diplomatic and political maneuverings prior to the war is presented. The later chapters are an account of the military and political developments that occurred during the first months of the conflict. Though the book covers action in both the Mediterranean and along the eastern front, the majority of its words are dedicated to events that occurred on the western front. 

This book is full of information and is extremely interesting to read. Yet, there seems to be gaps in the picture that Tuchman presents. I would not classify this as a comprehensive history of the outbreak of the First World War. Tuchman tends to focus on certain aspects of important events and omit others. This seems to be the result of her trying to illustrate particular themes that she deems important. Thus, this book is best viewed as the examination of particular events and themes.

For instance, regarding the causes and events leading up to the Ottoman Empire’s entry into the war, Tuchman devotes many pages to the German Warships’ Goeben and Breslau’s voyage and diplomatic/military mission to the Ottoman Empire in 1914.  This event is extremely interesting, and it is of great historical importance. It played a key role relating to the Ottoman’s entry into the war. Yet, the author provides scant information on the political events within the Ottoman government beyond that relating to the German ships and their mission. An understanding of these political maneuverings seems instrumental in understanding how and why the Ottomans entered the conflict. Such omissions exist elsewhere in this history. 

It is clear that instead of a comprehensive history, Tuchman is attempting to highlight particular points that are both interesting and important. With all of that, she accomplished her goal brilliantly. 

A good example of the many exceptional points in the narrative is highlighted in the account of one small incident that occurred at the war’s onset. When the German ambassador delivered his country’s declaration of war to the Russian minister, both men initially traded angry words. However, they both quickly came to the realization that monumental and terrible events were beginning and attempted to comfort one another. 

“The curses of the nations will be upon you!” Sazonov exclaimed. “We are defending our honor,” the German ambassador replied. “Your honor was not involved. But there is a divine justice.” “That’s true,” and muttering, “a divine justice, a divine justice,” Pourtalès staggered to the window, leaned against it, and burst into tears. “So this is the end of my mission,” he said when he could speak. Sazonov patted him on the shoulder, they embraced, and Pourtalès stumbled to the door, which he could hardly open with a trembling hand, and went out, murmuring, “Goodbye, goodbye.””

Another significant point about this book is that it is approximately half military history. I read a lot of this sort of history book when I was younger. Though I generally stay away from such works these days, I found these parts to be interesting and, at times, riveting. The fact that they were well written and understandable helped a lot. With that, if the movements of armies and ships are the kind of history that one would rather stay away from, this book may not be the best choice. 

The writing is often suburb. This high quality prose melds very well with the themes that Tuchman chooses to highlight. In the book’s opening lines, she describes the last gathering of European Royalty before the war at the funeral of Edward VII. This assembly was symbolic of the end of the era that the war brought.

“So gorgeous was the spectacle on the May morning of 1910 when nine kings rode in the funeral of Edward VII of England that the crowd waiting in hushed and black-clad awe, could not keep back gasps of admiration. In scarlet and blue and green and purple, three by three the sovereigns rode through the palace gates, with plumed helmets, gold braid, crimson sashes, and jeweled orders flashing in the sun. After them came five heirs apparent, forty more imperial or royal highnesses, seven queens— four dowager and three regnant— and a scattering of special ambassadors from uncrowned countries. Together they represented seventy nations in the greatest assemblage of royalty and rank ever gathered in one place and of its kind the last. “

This is a great history book. It is reflective of the author’s view of events. Her view is illustrated with insight, intelligence and in a convincing way. It paints a strong and coherent picture of many events that set the stage for this terrible conflict. If one does not mind a good chunk of military history mixed with a general history, this will be an informative and enjoyable read for anyone interested in this subject. 

I also read Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century which I found to be excellent. My commentary on that book is here.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad is a famous novel about the darkness that pervades both the outer world as well as the inner mind of humans. This is a short, dense novella that is full of ideas. Though the narrative is relatively straightforward, it is a story that is full of symbolism as well as philosophical and psychological musings.

Charles Marlow tells the story in first-person narration. The protagonist is a steamboat captain hired by a company that is involved in the ivory trade in the Congo during the late nineteenth century. Marlow is taking a steamboat up river. His ultimate destination is a remote trading station headed by Station Manager, Mr. Kurtz. The mysterious Kurtz is admired by the various people that Marlow encounters in both England and in the Congo. Both early and late in the story, Kurtz is portrayed as man of enormous talents and charisma who elicits near worship in people. 

As he proceeds with his journey, Marlowe is exposed to the horrors of Colonialism that include slave labor as well as indigenous people starved, beaten and worked to death. All in one passage, the European passengers of Marlowe’s steamboat unleash murderous gunfire upon a mass of helpless Congolese who have conglomerated on shore. 

When Marlow reaches Kurtz’s station, he discovers that the Station Manager has developed a messianic following among the locals. There are indications that Kurtz has led his followers to commit atrocities in their quest for ivory. Both the Europeans and the Congolese present at the station seem to worship Kurtz as a kind of god. 

The writing conveys a sense of ominousness. The story and themes of this work are fairly well known and have been written about extensively. It is an examination of the darkness within humankind. As is often the case with literary journeys, Marlowe’s trek up the river is symbolic of a journey into the worst aspects of the human soul. The themes of cultish personality, death and Colonialism are also explored within this work.

So much has already been said about this book. I want to write a few words on a specific and particular aspect of it.  Throughout the novella, images of jungle and natural world are common and play an important part that relates to the story’s themes.

Within this tale, the natural world plays a constant and ominous presence. It clearly reflects the darkness and near impenetrability of the dark angle of human nature. At times, it almost seems like a character in and of itself. 

When Marlowe first arrives in the region he observes the coast of West Africa. As he sails alongside it he observes, 

“Watching a coast as it slips by the ship is like thinking about an enigma. There it is before you— smiling, frowning, inviting, grand, mean, insipid, or savage, and always mute with an air of whispering, 'Come and find out.' This one was almost featureless, as if still in the making, with an aspect of monotonous grimness. The edge of a colossal jungle, so dark-green as to be almost black, fringed with white surf, ran straight, like a ruled line, far, far away along a blue sea whose glitter was blurred by a creeping mist. The sun was fierce, the land seemed to glisten and drip with steam. Here and there grayish-whitish specks showed up, clustered inside the white surf, with a flag flying above them perhaps. Settlements some centuries old, and still no bigger than pin-heads on the untouched expanse of their background. “

Coasts, as they are observed from ships, are given human characteristics here. They sometimes are smiling, frowning, mean, savage, and they even whisper. The particular coast that Marlow is observing exudes “monotonous grimness.” What I think is most important here is how human settlements are described as ”specks” and “pin – heads.” The symbolism seems to play a key part here. If the landscape represents the darkness and grimness in human existence, our efforts at building the pieces of civilization within it seem like insignificant specks. 

Later on, the forest takes on even more menacing characteristics,

The great wall of vegetation, an exuberant and entangled mass of trunks, branches, leaves, boughs, festoons, motionless in the moonlight, was like a rioting invasion of soundless life, a rolling wave of plants, piled up, crested, ready to topple over the creek, to sweep every little man of us out of his little existence. And it moved not.

Here we have the contrasting image of nature that is unmoving, but at the same time, a “riotous invasion.” Perhaps this is how Conrad sees the evil in the souls of people. That evil is quiet and unchanging, but it affects the world like a “rioting invasion.” “Little men” are swept out of existence before it. 

The above quotations are just two examples, among many, of a threatening landscape that is capable of crushing humanity. Such a landscape seems to be a mirror upon the worst aspects of the human psyche.

There is so much more to this short tale than I have touched on above. The images and symbolism relating to the jungle are only a small part of a very rich piece of literature. This book was surprisingly dark for its time. Within its pages, it still has a lot to tell us about the darker nature of human beings. 

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope

This post contains spoilers.

Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope is the first of The Palliser Novels series. This is another book that I loved by Trollope. Like several of the author’s books, the narrative covers parallel, but interrelated, stories.

The book’s main protagonist, Alice Vavasor, is flawed but fascinating. Alice’s marital engagements and subsequent breaking of them comprises the novel’s main thread. The book opens several years after she has ended an engagement with her cousin, George Vavasor. George is a volatile young man. Though he eventfully descends into complete perniciousness, upon the book’s opening, he is not without some positive character traits. George’s sister, Kate, plays an important role as Alice’s confidante and an early advocate for Alice’s and her brother’s engagement. 

At the story’s beginning, Alice is now engaged to John Grey, a man of high status and decency. However, he finds it difficult to express his genuine emotions. Over the course of the tale, Alice is persuaded to break her engagement with Grey and once again becomes betrothed to George Vavasor. George slowly descends into the dark depths of spite, greed, rage and violence. At one point, he physically assaults his sister Kate. As his personality spirals out of control, so does his relationship with Alice.

Another subplot involves Lady Glencora. Before the events of the novel, Glencora fell in love with Burgo Fitzgerald. Burgo lacks the social status and wealth of Glencora. He is also irresponsible and immature. Their subsequent engagement is broken up by wealthy and powerful family remembers. Glencora goes on to marry the stiff, but socially acceptable, Plantagenet Palliser. Trapped in a loveless marriage, Glencora stills pines for Burgo and eventually toys with plans to run away with him. However, as the plot develops, in typical Trollope style, we find that Plantagenet is not without his virtues. 

A third subplot involves the clownish Mr. Cheesacre and Captain Bellfield in competition for the affections of Alice’s aunt, Mrs. Greenow. This thread is mostly humorous, but Trollope’s characters always manage to show complexity and exhibit real emotion, and this segment of the story is no exception. 

I have previously read Trollope’s Chronicles of Barsetshire series. This book was darker. It included themes of violence, suicide, tragically failed love affairs and characters’ descent into moral degeneracy. Along with these darker notes comes additional complexity. Even sympathetic characters commonly engage in questionable acts, with Alice’s tendency to enter in and out of engagements being a prime example.

There are so many fascinating charters and themes within this novel. I am tempted to write in detail about several. I find that the characters are even more multifaceted then they were in The Chronicles of Barsetshire. This is saying a lot. The interaction of these characters adds to the plot’s sophistication, and it is a joy to read.

Though there are multiple directions that one can go when pondering this work, I want to devote a few words to Trollope’s examination of the men of this era. This novel delves into the subjects of repressed emotions and actions as well as their wilder and darker personality traits in all sorts of interesting ways.  In its depiction of men, it is in some ways contrarian to many other works of this era. 

Early in the narrative, Trollope seems to mislead the reader bit. Based entirely upon Alice’s temporarily negative thoughts, as well as Kate’s negative statements about him, one suspects that Grey is cold and emotionless. He is indeed, like several other male characters, very reserved and not expressive of his feelings. However, as the story proceeds, we begin to discover that deep inside he experiences real emotions, including great pain when Alice breaks off the engagement.

The passage where he reads news that Alice is engaged to George Vavasor is very illustrative, 

“I have said that he read Alice's letter with an agony of sorrow; as he sat with it in his hand he suffered as, probably, he had never suffered before. But there was nothing in his countenance to show that he was in pain.”

At another point, he is contemplating the effects of bowing out of Alice’s life. Again, we are shown how the tendency to conceal his feelings is built into him, 

“Undoubtedly, had he satisfied himself that Alice's happiness demanded such a sacrifice of himself, he would have made it, and made it without a word of complaint. The blow would not have prostrated him, but the bruise would have remained on his heart, indelible, not to be healed but by death. He would have submitted, and no man would have seen that he had been injured. “

We see something similar, though not as strong, in Plantagenet. Early on, he is portrayed as dull, unaware of the feelings of others and polite, but at the same time a little callous. Yet, Trollope does what he does so well, and Plantagenet is humanized. After being told by his wife that she does not love him, he makes a great sacrifice for her as he gives up his cherished career. He proceeds to behave nobly and without malice towards her. We find that he does love Glencora, though he shows it with difficulty. Yet even at this point of the narrative, Trollope does not gloss over his flaws, they are just shown to coexist with what are significant virtues. 

In contrast to John and Plantagenet, the personas of George and Burgo can be described as Byronic. They are romantic, attractive and have virtues, yet they have a sense of darkness about them. They are troubled and defiant. Vavasor is vengeful. Both cause understandable worry in the loved ones of the women that they are engaged to. With that, as it seems that in most Victorian novels, the virtues of such characters win out and they establish successful relationships with female protagonists. Something very unusual happens in this book, however. Unlike the fate of most such characters in literature, these two men experience moral collapse that they do not recover from. The last that we see of both men is their downward spirals into degeneracy and failure. 

The stereotypical Victorian images of the cold, emotionless and privileged man is shown to be superficial in this book. Likewise, Trollope attacks the cliché of the dark Byronic character as being not so bad or as being redeemable. In fact, these troubled men are worse than how they are initially perceived. 

I think that there are two ways to look at this. In one way, we can say that Trollope is defending the conventional men that society bestows its approval upon. We can also say that the author is reaffirming society’s distrust of the troubled and moody, but charming, outsider. This is a conservative view.  Yet, as an author who often rises to defend other, often less empowered, groups, such as women, those who rebel against arranged marriages, etc., in his other books, we can also look at this story as Trollope rebelling against false and clichéd stereotypes of socially acceptable men. 

Lest I paint too simplistic of a picture here, this is Trollope. He throws much ambiguity into the situation. Plantagenet, and to a lesser degree Grey, are shown in a critical light for being too repressed and, at times, repressive toward those around them. The men with darker personalities, especially Burgo, are portrayed at times, as possessing humanity, charm and other virtues.  The world that benefits the privileged men is also seen in a critical light. For instance, there is real pathos shown when Lady Glencora reveals how her initially loveless marriage with Palliser was arraigned. The relatives who scheme to break up and arrange engagements to support their social system are portrayed in a harsh light. 

There is a lot more to this book than I have touched on above.  These themes are just a small part of many that are included within these pages. The role of women and women’s independence is explored. This novel is also an insightful critique of politics that is still relevant today. It is a well-written story that includes a fair amount of Trollope’s witty meta-fiction. The book is full of interesting characters who interact in fascinating ways. I highly recommend this work to anyone who enjoys the literature of this time period. 

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Benedict Arnold: Patriot and Traitor by Willard Sterne Randall

Benedict Arnold: Patriot and Traitor by Willard Sterne Randall is a comprehensive and rich biography. This is a book that goes beyond a simple life story and delves into multiple aspects of the time and place in which Arnold lived. It digs into the social, religious, philosophical, political and military issues that relate to the American Revolution. 

Born in 1741 Connecticut, Arnold was raised in a middle class family that began to run into financial difficulties as he moved through adolescence. As a young man, Arnold engaged in his own commercial endeavors and built a successful shipping business. He became active in the Patriot cause as the American Revolution loomed. At the outbreak of war, Arnold distinguished himself on the Northern Front. Rising to the rank of General, he proved himself in battles that raged from Quebec, Canada down through Northern New York State.  He gained a reputation for brilliant generalship as well as courage under fire. He was primarily responsible for the American victory at Saratoga, which is considered the turning point of the war. It was in this battle that he was seriously wounded for the second time. 

Throughout his career as a Patriot general, Arnold was hounded by political opponents. Like many American officers at the time, Arnold was involved in constant political strife. A streak of vanity and combativeness in his personality precipitated and inflamed these conflicts.  Stemming from these political machinations, Arnold’s enemies in the army and Congress initiated a never-ending series of investigations and prosecutions against him. These attacks were often, but not always, unfounded.   They generally centered around financial improprieties and often related to personal vendettas. Throughout this time, he was not paid his salary, which added to his financial difficulties.

In 1779, he married Peggy Shippen. His new wife came from a Loyalist family. During his courtship, Arnold was military governor of Philadelphia. Likely as a result of his relationship with Peggy, Arnold both socialized with and protected Loyalist families, which further antagonized his enemies. It also moved him closer to Loyalist circles and their cause.

As attacks on him intensified, through Peggy’s influence and connections, he eventually established contacts with the British and initiated negations to betray the American side. Plans were hatched in which Arnold was to surrender major American fortifications as well as betray Washington and allow the British to capture the American leader.  Had the plan worked, it might have cost the Americans the war. 

When Washington discovered the plot, Arnold managed to barley escape to the safety of British lines.  Made a General and given a command by the British, he successfully led British forces on several occasions. Arnold finished the war in their service. 

After the war Arnold and Peggy lived in both Canada and England. Arnold rebuilt his shipping Empire and continued to live an active life. He engaged in warfare as a private citizen in the Caribbean during the early Napoleonic Wars. He constantly battled those who sought to besmirch his reputation. He died in 1801.

As I alluded to above, this is a big biography that extends out in all sorts of directions. I should note that among the many other subjects covered, Randall devotes quite a few pages to military history. Battles that Arnold was involved in are described in detail, as is the inner working of the command structure that he was a part of.  Some readers might find this not to their tastes. I found it unusual that this was included in a book that also contains so much in the way of social and other types of history. Personally, I enjoyed it all. 

Randall does highlight Arnold’s flaws, including his early participation in the intimidation of loyalists, his committing of some corrupt acts, his vanity and his combativeness. With that, this work is generally sympathetic to its subject. The author paints a picture of a heroic but flawed man. It illustrates how Arnold, though combative, was wronged in many ways by his country and pernicious men who should never have been in power. 

As an individual who had done so much for the Revolution, shown physical heroism and given up much of his health and wealth for the cause, the attacks on his character were difficult for Arnold to take to. They were the main motivator for him switching sides. 

Arnold’s decision to go over to the British is an ethical question. It is true that he was unfairly hounded by his enemies. More than just annoyances, these attacks  threatened the financial well-being of his family, his reputation  and the future of his military career. Nevertheless, acting as he did from selfish motives seems unethical. However, what conclusions did Arnold draw about a Revolution that turned on one of its most competent and brave military leaders and elevated capricious people to power? Though we now have the hindsight to know that these attacks only occupy a small footnote in history, a logical conclusion could have been drawn by Arnold that the Revolution was heading into corrupt and chaotic ground. He ultimately thought it better to side with the British at that point.

With the above in mind, I still find it difficult to defend Arnold’s actions. His tendency to immerse himself in personal conflict with his peers, combined with the fact that he could have left military service instead of switching sides, adds to the case against him. In the end, he betrayed his country, his comrades and his friends. 

This is an excellent biography. I have only scratched the surface of its content above. Arnold is such an important figure in American history as well as in American mythology that his life is well worth exploring. Randall covers his subject in great detail, and he does so fairly. He expands the subject to cover many aspects of the times. I highly recommend this to anyone interested in American History or in just a great biography of this fascinating historical figure. 

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Reading is a Link to the Past

Passages from the Iliad quoted below are from the Alexander Pope translation. 

There are many reasons to read. One very good reason is that books allow us to deeply connect with other minds and explore various viewpoints in detail. Furthermore, these connections and explorations can be made with authors who are very different from us. Reading can bridge gaps between politics, culture, gender, philosophes, etc. I want to write a few words about how books can bridge the gap of time.

The Old Testament, The Ramayana, Plato, Homer and the Greek playwrights, to name a few of the ancient works, at times exhibit uncanny similarity to our modern thinking and views. At other times they exhibit thoughts that seem very alien.

A modern reader exploring these ancient texts may notice a dichotomy in his or her thoughts.  First, it is striking as to what has not changed over time and across cultures. For instance, certain human emotions and traits, such as anger, jealousy, ambition, honor, a sense of fairness, friendship, etc., seem to have not changed all that much over time. Likewise, the pattern of certain human actions, particularly violence, seems very similar across the centuries. 

There is no better example of how friendship and grief have remained constant than that which is illustrated in the Iliad when the warrior Achilles grieves and becomes hysterical when he is informed that his friend Patroclus has just fallen in battle, 

“A sudden horror shot thro’ all the Chief,        
And wrapt his senses in the cloud of grief;
Cast on the ground, with furious hand he spread
The scorching ashes o’er his graceful head;
His purple garments, and his golden hairs,
Those he deforms with dust, and these he tears:        
On the hard soil his groaning breast he threw,
And roll’d and grovell’d, as to earth he grew.”

Though the language is ancient, the above sentiment and reaction seem very familiar. It is not unlike the reaction many people living in the twenty-first century have toward death.

Yet, other ideas, ideals and mores seem so different when viewed over the expanse of time. In these ancient works, there seem to be no value in certain things that we so much esteem. The concepts of equality, self-determination and the appreciation of diversity are mostly missing from the early texts. These values are the cornerstone of much that is good in our modern society. 

Love, though present in all eras, also seems to have changed. Once again, the sense of equality and communication, and mutual respect give and take between partners seems to be absent in the ancient books. 

In the very same Iliad, love and marriage between men and women is portrayed as something very close to slavery. For instance, Briseis, captured by the Greeks during the course of the war, seems to show real love for Achilles, who also shows affection for her. Yet, throughout the narrative, Achilles and the other Greeks treat her like a spoil of war and a slave.  These are just a few examples. Delving into classic works leads to many similar observations. 

It is not just the works of antiquity that seem different. Every time period, even that of a few decades past, show variation in ideas and values. The culture that surrounded a particular writer reached through time and touches us when we read particular works today.  For instance, books written in the 1960s, such as Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow or Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, exude cynicism and distrust of institutions and authority that seem unique to their time. Nineteenth century writers, such as Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, valued certain virtues such as chastity and reputation in ways that authors in different eras did not. 

Thus, a careful reading of older works can tell us a lot about the times that they were written in. It is enlightening to examine what is different, as well as what is the same, in comparison to our own time and culture. In addition, as one reads more and more, it illuminates how certain values and ideas have developed and changed over time. 

Our traditions and folklore are obvious connections to the past. Archeologists examine the physical manifestations that our ancestors left behind. Historians also often look into writing, but the writing of record keeping, diaries and everyday interactions. It is in literature and philosophy that people of the past speak to us most directly. 

Exploring ideas and values of the past is one of many benefits to reading. One can learn so much about history, culture, psychology, etc. by examining how ideas and beliefs changed, or did not change, over time.  How humans developed and maintained ideas is one of the reasons that reading the great works can help us to better understand the world. This helps us to illuminate not just the past, but our own times as well.  

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions On Individuality

I read the J. M. Cohen translation of this work. The below quotes are taken from that version.

My General commentary on this book is here.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions opens with the following, 

“I have resolved on an enterprise which has no precedent, and which, once complete, will have no imitator. My purpose is to display to my kind a portrait in every way true to nature, and the man I shall portray will be myself.   

Simply myself. I know my own heart and understand my fellow man. But I am made unlike any one I have ever met; I will even venture to say that I am like no one in the whole world. I may be no better, but at least I am different. Whether Nature did well or ill in breaking the mould in which she formed me, is a question which can only  be resolved after the reading of my book.”  

This seems the perfect introduction to Rousseau’s self-portrait. This work was one of the first autobiographies written and may have been the first in modern form. Thus, Rousseau calling it an “an enterprise which has no precedent” is accurate. The portrait of himself that he paints is also nontraditional. 

The following lines are interesting for several reasons. In particular they may be open to several interpretations,

“But I am made unlike any one I have ever met; I will even venture to say that I am like no one in the whole world. I may be no better, but at least I am different.”

Rousseau is declaring his uniqueness here. The question arises, however; is he saying that his own individuality is but just one example of selfhood in a world where everyone is unique? Or is he declaring that he is a special case in a world populated, at least in part, by individuals who are not so unique as he is? I think that the answer is not entirely clear from the text. The narrative paints a picture of the author as a very different person from the average. However, it also describes a world where there are a lot of odd and dissimilar individuals. 

Rousseau is not a character commonly described in literature. For instance, he is not the heroic type. Though he describes many hardships and injustices meted out to him, these ordeals characterize the author as something of a victim. Though at times he is seriously persecuted for his opinions, many other slights that he complains about are petty enough to remove any sense of a noble struggle and at times give the impression of whining. Furthermore, as I discussed in greater detail in my original post, the narrative is full unconventional relationships with women, further deviating from traditional literature. Thus, we have a picture of a very unusual personality and life. 

We live in a period of time where autobiographies are being produced in droves. Both mainstream and social media are brimming with people extolling and championing their individuality. Often this falls into the territory of self-absorption and narcissism. On the other hand, a look at history shows that suppression of the individual leads to human catastrophes, such as communism and other forms of totalitarianism as well as lesser forms of conformity.  Individual achievement and its celebration have driven great social, scientific and technical progress. Like many things in our world, a moderate amount of assertion of one’s self and personality yields positive results on the personal and societal levels. When it comes to our modern sense of self, a balance between individuality and community seems to be the optimal course.  Thus, if moderate doses of individuality are a good thing, Rousseau’s work can be viewed as a vital stepping-stone in how we humans express and think about these things. 

To the casual reader this autobiography might not seem so special. However, when one remembers that this work was written in 1769 and may have been the first of its kind, one begins to appreciate how groundbreaking it was.  Personally, I got the impression while reading it that I was reading a much more modern book. This is a further indication of how this book influenced thinking for centuries. 

This is a unique book, and Rousseau is a unique character. The opening lines of this work set the stage for pages and pages of distinctness. This distinctiveness helped to shape our concept of individual personality and self. This is but one reason why folks yearn to understand our culture, people in general, and the world at large.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Confessions - Rousseau’s Relationships with Women

 I read the J. M. Cohen translation of this work. The below quotes are taken from that version.

My General commentary on this book is  here

I am going to devote a few words to the role that women play in this Jean - Jacques Rousseau’s life and the way that they are depicted in Confessions. It is important to note that I have not read any of the author's more philosophical works. I understand that within those texts he expresses beliefs to the effect that he considered women inferior to men  in some ways. That attitude seems not to be reflected int his book. 

Rousseau’s interactions and feelings about women are fascinating, enigmatic and play a major part of this autobiography.  He is enraptured by a series of women throughout life. His views on them are unconventional. Early on, he shows masochistic tendencies. He describes being punished by Mlle. Lambercier, a woman who is acting like a guardian to him,

"But when in the end I was beaten I found the experience less dreadful in fact than in anticipation; and the very strange thing was that this punishment increased my affection for the inflicter. It required all the strength of my devotion and all my natural gentleness to prevent my deliberately earning another beating; I had discovered in the shame and pain of the punishment an admixture of sensuality which had left me rather eager than otherwise for a repetition by the same hand. No doubt, there being some degree of precocious sexuality in all this, the same punishment at the hands of her brother would not have seemed pleasant at all."

When he gets older, the author forms emotional attachments to one woman after another. He describes these women with praise and adoration. His often sees the opposite sex in a maternal way.  Thus, he often he prefers to keep these relationships platonic.

For instance, He develops a strong bond with Mme de Warens, or as he calls her, “Mama.” When he eventually sleeps with her, he is regretful.

"The day, more dreaded than hoped for, at length arrived. I have before observed, that I promised everything that was required of me, and I kept my word: my heart confirmed my engagements without desiring the fruits, though at length I obtained them. For the first time I found myself in the arms of a woman, and a woman whom I adored. Was I happy? No: I felt I know not what invincible sadness which empoisoned my happiness: it seemed that I had committed an incest, and two or three times, pressing her eagerly in my arms, I deluged her bosom with my tears."

The above reference to incest, “her bosom” as well as her nickname, all, reinforce the author’s view of Mme. de Warens as mother figure. This is a pattern that repeats itself throughout the book with various women.

Later in life, he claims to fall in love with another woman, Sophie d'Houdetot, who is committed to another lover. He observes,

"But I am wrong to speak of an unrequited love, for mine was in a sense returned. There was equal love on both sides, though it was never mutual. We were both intoxicated with love – hers for her lover, and mine for her; our sighs and our delicious tears mingled together. We confided tenderly in one another, and our feelings were so closely in tune that it was impossible for them not to have united in something. Yet even when our intoxication was at its most dangerous height she never forgot herself for a moment. As for myself, I protest, I swear, that if ever I was betrayed by my senses and tried to make her unfaithful, I never truly desired it. The vehemence of my passion of itself kept, it within bounds. The duty of self-denial had exalted my soul."

Once again, the author seems much more comfortable in a platonic relationship, even a platonic relationship where another man occupies the role of the woman’s lover.

Rousseau’s mother died when he was an infant and is described in idealistic terms in the narrative. One must naturally conclude that the author generally sees many of the women in his life as a substitute for his mother. He seems to easily fit into the role of the loving and slightly submissive son. He does, at times, quarrel with women and break relations with them. However, such strife is almost portrayed from the view of a disobedient child.

There seems to be a strong connection between the early masochistic tendencies and Rousseau’s later relationships. All of this gives Rousseau’s character a sense of childishness and innocent immaturity, even in the segments when he is in his forties.

Even for skeptics of Freudian analysis, there seems to be inescapable parallels to Freudianism. Furthermore, Rousseau’s acceptance of other men in the lives of the objects of his affection seems to indicate that he sees himself in a childish position in relation to these women and their lovers. Once again, the Freudian implications are obvious.

I should note another aspect to this narrative that illustrates what a complex character Rousseau was. Thérèse Le Vasseur, his common law wife, occupies a different position in this autobiography. Though she shows a lot of independence, at times even scheming against her husband, Rousseau seems to be the stronger personality in their relationship. Though he shows great love and affection towards her, he does not idolize her in the way he idolizes other women. This relationship just adds nuance to the fascinating character explored in this book. 

This work paints a fascinating picture of Rousseau the man. His attitudes and interactions with women are just one of the aspects that make the writer and this autobiography unique. This piece of the author’s personality is but one of many pieces of the puzzle that make him such a fascinating person.