2005 National Book Awards Finalist

Leo Damrosch

Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius

Houghton Mifflin

Photo credit: David Carmack

About the book

A masterful biography of Rousseau, which integrates the story of his original writings with the tumultuous life that produced them.

About the author

Leo Damrosch is the Ernest Bernbaum Professor of Literature at Harvard University. He is the author of several books, including Samuel Johnson and the Tragic Sense, Symbol and Truth in Blake’s Myth, The Imaginative World of Alexander Pope, Fictions of Reality in the Age of Hume and Johnson, and The Sorrows of the Quaker Jesus: James Nayler and the Puritan Crackdown on the Free Spirit.

Judges' Citation

Witty, pungent, and erudite, Leo Damrosch’s Rousseau renders one of the most canonical figures in Western literary and political thought into a full-bodied human, flawed, glorious, searching, and bold. Weaving a gift for story-telling into the profound learning he plies with a light touch, setting Rousseau alongside eminent friends, such as Diderot, and separating myth from amorous myth-making, Leo Damrosch gives to our times a vital and searing biography of the eighteenth-century founder of autobiography, the author of The Social Contract, and a complicated man whose daring, passionate ideas confound, please, and vex us still.


Stacy Schiff reviews Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius in
The New York Times
(November 6, 2005).



from Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius

1 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
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
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
Above all it was his father’s example that inspired Jean-Jacques.
Isaac Rousseau had plenty of faults: he was self-centered, quarrelsome,
unreliable, and capable of abandoning his family with unconcern. These are
not attractive traits, and Jean-Jacques suffered their consequences. But
Isaac was also energetic, imaginative, and affectionate, a lover of music,
books, and ideas. Most of all, his gifted son saw him as a companion, very
different from the stern authority figures of Calvinist tradition, which included
most of the relatives on the Bernard side. Isaac encouraged, or at least
permitted, Jean-Jacques to develop in his own way, and made him feel like
an equal as they shared their rather eccentric reading of the romantic novels
left by his mother. These books — the best known is Astraea by Honoré
d’Urfé — had been hugely popular in the previous century but were falling out
of favor by the time Jean-Jacques encountered them, and would soon be
supplanted by a more realistic kind of fiction. At first, when he was only six
or seven, he and Isaac read together to help the boy practice his
reading, “but soon our interest was so lively that we took turns reading them
without a pause, and spent the nights like that. We could never stop before
the end of the volume. Sometimes my father, hearing the swallows in the
morning, would say all shamefaced, “‘Let’s go to bed; I’m more of a child
than you are.’” As Rousseau later realized, precocious reading “gave me
bizarre and romantic notions of human life, which experience and reflection
have never been able to cure me of.” It also gave him something else of
immense value: a deep intuitive sense of literary style, of rhythm and
emphasis and memorable phrasing. This early immersion in literature was
crucial to his later development as one of the great masters of French prose.
(He had less experience of poetry, and was never much good at it.)
From time to time Isaac gave his son instruction of various kinds,
for example bewildering the boy with a lecture on Copernican astronomy that
helped convince him in retrospect that children are not ready to understand
abstractions. Practical illustrations were more successful. “My first and best
lessons in cosmography were received at a watchmaker’s workbench with a
polishing ball stuck with pins as the only instruments.” As for books, when
the novels gave out, an altogether different kind of reading took their place.
His mother’s uncle, the minister, had left a collection of ancient and modern
classics, and the boy read these aloud to his father as he worked. Plutarch
became his particular favorite. To him Plutarch’s Lives of Noble Greeks and
Romans was another kind of novel, displaying history not as a series of
events — something he never took much interest in at any time — but as the
noble actions of a series of heroes. Once again the imaginative boy found
himself vicariously exalted. “Constantly occupied with Rome and Athens,
living so to speak with these great men, and son of a father whose love of the
fatherland was his strongest passion, I inflamed myself with their example. I
believed myself to be Greek or Roman; I would become the character whose
life I was reading.” Once at the table he went so far as to alarm the family by
holding his hand over a flaming chafing dish, in imitation of a brave Roman
named Scaevola who allowed his hand to be burned off. His love for “my
master and comforter Plutarch” never waned; a friend said that he knew
Plutarch by heart and could have found his way in the streets of Athens
better than in Geneva.
In some ways the Geneva of Rousseau’s youth was the closest
thing to a classical city-state in the modern world. Surrounded by powerful
and often threatening neighbors, it had preserved its independence and would
not become part of Switzerland until 1814, a full century after Rousseau’s
birth. In theory Geneva was governed democratically by a General Council of
all male citizens, who were a minority of the total population; the majority
were immigrants called “inhabitants,” their descendants were “natives,” and
all lacked the rights of citizenship. In practice, however, the city was
controlled by a small group of wealthy families that made up the Council of
Two Hundred, which in turn delegated actual power to a twenty-five-member
executive known as the Little Council. No Rousseau was ever elected to the
Council of Two Hundred, which would have implied elevation to the haute
Living in the workers’ quarter with a father who loved to debate
politics, Rousseau grew up believing in the sovereignty of the people but well
aware that the governing oligarchy made a mockery of it. “A sovereign that
never performs an act of sovereignty is an imaginary being,” said the patriot
Pierre Fatio in 1707, calling for democratic reform. The Little Council had him
shot. One positive result of the Fatio affair was that the authorities were
induced to publish the Edicts of the Republic of Geneva, in effect admitting
that until then citizens had no way to read the laws they were supposed to
obey. Isaac Rousseau was in Constantinople at the time and missed the
excitement, but his father, David, supported Fatio’s protest and was
disciplined as a result.
In later life Rousseau settled on a sentimental picture of his
father, “the virtuous citizen from whom I received my being,” meditating at his
workbench on the sublime insights of political thought. “I see Tacitus,
Plutarch, and Grotius mingled before him with the tools of his trade; I see at
his side a cherished son receiving, with all too little profit, the tender
instruction of the best of fathers.” In the end no one could say that Rousseau
failed to profit from this early instruction. What he learned was that Geneva
had betrayed the city-state ideal, and The Social Contract would be founded
on a profound theory of the sovereignty of the people. Like the hero of his
novel Julie, Rousseau was a roturier, a commoner, and when he proudly
signed himself “citizen of Geneva” he was asserting membership in a patrie
or fatherland. For as a writer said in 1736, “Today there is more true nobility
in a Swiss roturier who is citizen of a fatherland than in a Turkish basha who
is subservient to a master.”
In his mid-forties, writing in praise of an idealized Geneva,
Rousseau recalled a memorable incident in his childhood when a group of
citizen soldiers finished their maneuvers in a volunteer militia.

Most of them gathered after the meal in the Place Saint-Gervais and began
dancing all together, officers and soldiers, around the fountain, onto which
drummers, fifers, and torch-carriers had climbed . . . The women couldn’t
remain at their windows for long, and they came down. Wives came to see
their husbands, servants brought wine, and even the children, awakened by
the noise, ran around half-dressed among their fathers and mothers. The
dance was suspended, and there was only embracing, laughter, toasts,
caresses . . . My father, hugging me, was overcome by trembling in a way
that I can still feel and share. “Jean-Jacques,” he said to me, “love your
country. Do you see these good Genevans? They are all friends, they are all
brothers, joy and concord reign in their midst.”

What Rousseau did not say but expected his readers to
understand was that throughout Europe militias were thought of as
embodiments of popular spirit, in contrast to the mercenary armies of their
rulers. Indeed, the citizen bands of Geneva were regarded with great
suspicion by the oligarchy. But as a boy he was most impressed by the
mood of spontaneous celebration, and he relished the all too rare experience
of belonging to a group. Eventually his native city would remember this
moment with civic pride, and today the site of his childhood home bears an
enormous stone plaque engraved with his father’s solemn injunction, “Jean-
Jacques, aime ton pays.” But since Geneva would condemn Rousseau as an
enemy of the state before it eventually resurrected him as a patron saint, it is
symbolically appropriate that the house itself is gone. It was demolished in
the 1960s during a period of urban renewal, and the plaque is an incongruous
megalith on the façade of a department store.
Notwithstanding the tender nostalgia with which Rousseau
recalled his early years, there is reason to believe that the period was more
troubling than he wanted to remember. François was six when Isaac returned
from Constantinople, and seven when Jean-Jacques’ arrival caused his
mother’s death; his resentment of his younger brother would surely have
been apparent. Still more disturbingly, Isaac Rousseau, even while claiming
to dote on his younger son, subjected him to emotional blackmail. “Never did
he hug me without my feeling, in his sighs and convulsive embraces, a bitter
regret mingled with his caresses . . . ‘Ah!’ he would say, groaning, ‘give her
back to me, console me for her, fill up the void she has left in my soul.’”
Moreover, he would imply, alarmingly, that the boy’s chief merit was that he
looked like the lost Suzanne, and would exclaim, “Would I love you like this if
you were only my son?” Interestingly, Jean-Jacques resembled Isaac as well
as Suzanne. A Genevan who met him when he was in his forties remarked, “I
recognized him on the spot, by his look of his late father, who was one of my
The family as the boy perceived it was essentially sexless, with
parent figures who were brother and sister, not mates. He had to admit that
his father was “a man of pleasure,” but he managed to believe that Isaac
observed the strictest chastity and devoted his life to grieving for his lost wife.
With this idealized example before him, Jean-Jacques was a good little boy,
but François became a very bad boy indeed. In the Confessions Rousseau
says rather vaguely that François “took up the life of a libertine, even before
he was old enough really to be one.” Official records show that at thirteen,
when François had been bound as an apprentice watchmaker, he was
committed to a house of correction “at the request of his father on account of
his libertinage” (which would have meant unruly behavior of all kinds, not
necessarily sexual). François made so little progress in his trade that four
years later, humiliatingly, he had to be apprenticed all over again to a different
What Jean-Jacques remembered most vividly about family life in
those early years was his own privileged position, along with a gratifying
conviction that he could inspire affection in his brother (whose name he
neglects to mention in the Confessions). “I scarcely saw him at all, and I can
barely say that I made his acquaintance, but I didn’t fail to love him tenderly,
and he loved me too, so far as a rascal can love anything.” When he
developed a theory of childhood Rousseau took it for granted that affection
between siblings could only be casual and shallow. “The child knows no
attachments except those of habit; he loves his sister as he does his watch.”
Given the trade that Isaac followed and François bungled, the watch was an
interesting example to choose.
On one memorable occasion Jean-Jacques had a chance to play
the hero on his brother’s behalf. “I remember that once when my father was
punishing him roughly and angrily, I threw myself impetuously between them,
embracing him tightly. I covered him like that with my body, receiving the
blows that were intended for him, and kept up that posture so well that in the
end my father let him off, whether because he was disarmed by my cries and
tears or because he didn’t want to treat me worse than him.” The incident
made so deep an impression that Rousseau re-created it in his novel Julie,
with fascinating transpositions: there an enraged father beats the young
heroine mercilessly while her self-sacrificing mother interposes and receives
the blows. Perhaps little Jean-Jacques was trying to appease François’
resentment for all the ways he had made his life worse, or perhaps he had
learned that accepting punishment was a way to extort affection. In the novel
the father remorsefully kisses his daughter’s hand and calls her his dear girl,
and she fondly declares as she relates the incident, “I would be only too
happy to be beaten every day at the same price, and no treatment could be
so harsh that a single one of his caresses wouldn’t efface it from the depths
of my heart.” For little Jean-Jacques, already predisposed perhaps to feelings
that today would be called masochistic, it had been an opportunity to
insinuate himself into an exciting emotional scene and to take his place
literally at the center.
In later years Rousseau needed to believe that his early childhood
had been a paradise of security. “My father, my aunt, my mie, our friends,
our neighbors, all those around me didn’t obey me, to be sure, but they loved
me, and I loved them likewise. My desires were so little aroused and so little
contradicted that it never occurred to me to have any.” The worst thing he
could remember doing was mischievously urinating into the cooking pot of a
disagreeable old woman named Mme Clot, who lived next door. Admittedly,
most of this period of his life remains a blank; a chronology of his life that
runs to four hundred pages has only two entries for the year 1720:

Rousseau and his father read the historians and moralists from the library of
his uncle, pastor Samuel Bernard.
Rousseau pisses in the cooking pot of Mme Clot.

To the improbable claim that his desires were never contradicted, however,
one should add what his alter ego Saint-Preux says in Julie: “Is there any
being on earth weaker, more impoverished, more at the mercy of everything
around it, with so great a need for pity, love, and protection, as a child?”
Two other anecdotes survive, not included in the Confessions but
recorded by Rousseau elsewhere, and both calculated to illustrate self-
sacrificing generosity. On one occasion when he was visiting an uncle’s
textile workshop, his fingers were crushed in a roller by a careless cousin.
He was confined to bed for three weeks, unable to use his hand for two
months, and permanently scarred, but he stoutly protected his cousin by
claiming that a rock had fallen on his fingers. Another time he was playing
the mallet game mail (what the English called pall-mall) and got into a quarrel
with a friend who whacked him on the head so violently “that if he had been
any stronger, he would have knocked my brains out.” Once again the other
boy was aghast and repentant, and once again Jean-Jacques was in a
position to forgive nobly.
However much Rousseau may have wanted to remember those
early years as idyllic, it is clear that he felt plenty of anxiety about who he
was and how much he was valued. Whenever he wrote about childhood, he
seemed determined to minimize affective relationships. His character Julie,
though an ideal mother, makes the extraordinary claim that a child of four or
five is virtually incapable of emotional response, so that “our children are dear
to us for a long time before they are able to feel it and love us in return.” Still
more strikingly, in Émile the father is relegated to obscurity, and the tutor
who raises Émile never expects love or even affection — he is thus the
opposite of the unstable and emotionally demanding Isaac Rousseau —
while the boy is brought up with the understanding that he is “indifferent to
everything outside himself, like all other children, and takes no interest in
Idyllic or not, the period at the rue de Coutance came to a sudden
and shocking end. Isaac had a passion for hunting rabbits and fowl in the
fields outside the city, and would return in the evening weary, bramble- torn,
and happy. “I remember the pounding heart my father experienced at the
flight of the first partridge, and the transports of joy with which he would find a
hare he had been seeking for a whole day.” But in 1722, when Jean-Jacques
had just turned ten, Isaac got into a disastrous quarrel as a result of one of
these excursions. Near the village of Meyrin just outside Geneva, a former
army captain named Pierre Gautier noticed two men trampling a field of his
that had not yet been mowed. One of them was Isaac Rousseau. According
to Gautier’s later testimony, when he told them to leave, Isaac threatened
him with his gun. The aggrieved landowner hurried to the village to get
reinforcements, but when he came back with some farmers the trespassers
had vanished.
Four months later, however (the exact date is recorded, October
9), Gautier was in Geneva on business and became aware of a man staring
at him meaningfully, who then said angrily, “You’re having a good look at me;
do you want to buy me?” It was Isaac, who reminded Gautier of the incident
in the fields, grabbed him by the arm, and exclaimed, “Don’t say another
word; let’s go out of town and settle this with the sword.” In fact it was
unusual for artisans to wear swords; Isaac apparently did so as a sign that
he had been unjustly reduced to the plebeian world of Saint-Gervais. It was
all the more infuriating, therefore, when Gautier retorted cuttingly that he had
drawn his sword many times but used only sticks on people of an inferior
social class. Isaac thereupon wounded Gautier on the cheek before
bystanders could separate them. When a magistrate looked into the case
the next day, several witnesses reported that Isaac had repeatedly
shouted, “Listen, you’d better remember this: I am Rousseau!” Nevertheless,
well aware that some of Gautier’s relatives were magistrates, he failed to
show up at the hearing, and when an officer went to arrest him a week later
he was nowhere to be found.
Isaac’s own story, as Jean-Jacques heard it, was that he gave
Gautier a bloody nose but never actually drew his sword, and that he chose
to leave Geneva forever rather than yield on a point of honor. Since the
authorities waited an entire week to arrest him, it seems likely that they
anticipated his flight and regarded exile rather than prison as the best
solution, ridding the city permanently of a hot-tempered and insubordinate
character. In later life Rousseau emphasized the political aspect of the affair,
regarding his father as a heroic victim of class injustice. He liked to tell the
story of a group of bourgeois who were talking and laughing in the street
when an aristocrat, suspecting that the joking was aimed at him, demanded
furiously, “Why are you laughing while I’m passing by?” One of the men
replied, “So why are you passing by while we’re laughing?”
But at the time, what Jean-Jacques must have felt most deeply
was an astonishing abandonment, by his mother figure as well as his father.
Isaac settled in the lakeside town of Nyon, fifteen miles from Geneva in the
Vaud territory governed by Berne, and Suzon accompanied him there; she
married a local man and stayed for the rest of her life. Jean- Jacques made
occasional visits to Nyon, but Isaac showed little interest in him from then
on, and Suzon seems to have pretty much disappeared from his life. Left with
two unwanted boys on their hands, the Bernard family took prompt action.
François was bound over to a demanding new master, with whom he would
be expected to live, and Jean-Jacques and his cousin Abraham Bernard were
sent to board with a pastor in the village of Bossey, three miles beyond the
city walls.

Copyright © 2005 by Leo Damrosch. Reprinted by permission of Houghton
Mifflin Company.