BN.com Gift Guide

Confessions (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

( 24 )

Overview

Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Confessions is the first modern autobiography, and arguably the most influential autobiography ever written. What we think of as the "self," our self-sufficient identity, finds its roots in the Confessions. Rousseau's great autobiography speaks to us with a voice that is as relevant today as it was revolutionary and unsettling in the eighteenth century.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau is, in the view of many, the greatest prose ...
See more details below
Paperback
$11.95
BN.com price

Pick Up In Store

Reserve and pick up in 60 minutes at your local store

Other sellers (Paperback)
  • All (7) from $1.99   
  • Used (7) from $1.99   
The Confessions

Available on NOOK devices and apps  
  • NOOK Devices
  • Samsung Galaxy Tab 4 NOOK 7.0
  • Samsung Galaxy Tab 4 NOOK 10.1
  • NOOK HD Tablet
  • NOOK HD+ Tablet
  • NOOK eReaders
  • NOOK Color
  • NOOK Tablet
  • Tablet/Phone
  • NOOK for Windows 8 Tablet
  • NOOK for iOS
  • NOOK for Android
  • NOOK Kids for iPad
  • PC/Mac
  • NOOK for Windows 8
  • NOOK for PC
  • NOOK for Mac
  • NOOK for Web

Want a NOOK? Explore Now

NOOK Book (eBook)
$0.95
BN.com price
Marketplace
BN.com

All Available Formats & Editions

Overview

Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Confessions is the first modern autobiography, and arguably the most influential autobiography ever written. What we think of as the "self," our self-sufficient identity, finds its roots in the Confessions. Rousseau's great autobiography speaks to us with a voice that is as relevant today as it was revolutionary and unsettling in the eighteenth century.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau is, in the view of many, the greatest prose stylist of the eighteenth century. He is also the most significant political theorist of the Enlightenment (of particular note are the Discourse on Inequality and the Social Contract), the greatest theoretician of education (with Emile), and author of eighteenth-century France's most successful novel, Julie or the New Heloïse. He also made important contributions to music, theater, and botany.
Read More Show Less

Product Details

Introduction


Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Confessions is the first modern autobiography, and arguably the most influential autobiography ever written. What we think of as the "self," our conception of autonomous, self-sufficient identity, finds its roots in the Confessions. Rousseau's great autobiography speaks to us with a voice that is as relevant today as it was revolutionary and unsettling in the eighteenth century. For the first time, Rousseau argues, the reader will be able to see "a man in all the truth of nature" (5), a man who will show himself "Intùs et in cute" ("inside and under the skin," 5), as the work's epigraph announces.

Rousseau is, in the view of many, the greatest prose stylist of the eighteenth century, and that alone would justify the reader's interest in his autobiography. But there are other compelling reasons for reading this work. First is Rousseau's sheer stature in European intellectual history: He is the most significant political theorist of the Enlightenment (of particular note are the Discourse on Inequality and the Social Contract), the greatest theoretician of education (with Emile), and author of eighteenth-century France's most successful novel, Julie or the New Heloïse. He also made important contributions to music (with an opera, The Village Soothsayer, his "Letter on French Music," and articles on music in Diderot and D'Alembert's Encyclopedia), to the theater (with his play, Narcissus, and his "Letter to D'Alembert on the Theater"), and to botany (with his Botanical Dictionary). Although intellectual universalism is a hallmark of the Enlightenment (it is certainly true of Voltaire and Diderot, for example), Rousseau stands out among the men and women of his age for the breadth, the depth, and the originality of his thinking.

Achievements such as these become all the more remarkable if one considers the extraordinary circumstances of Rousseau's life. Born in Geneva on June 28, 1712, the son of a watchmaker, Isaac Rousseau, and his wife, Susan, Jean-Jacques was to lose his mother ten days after his birth (although in the Confessions he gives us to understand, as if to underscore his loss, that she died in childbirth). He was then raised by his father and an aunt. But in 1722, Isaac, after a dispute, elected to leave Geneva, abandoning his son and placing him in foster care at Bossey. By the age of ten, Rousseau had for all practical purposes become an orphan. In the intervening years he received little by way of formal education.

After two disastrous apprenticeships, at the age of sixteen Rousseau fled Geneva and embarked on what was to become a lifetime of vagabondage and insecurity. Penniless and on foot, he was taken in by Mme de Warens, whose mission was to create converts to Catholicism. Rousseau had prided himself on his Genevan Calvinism, but lack of money and of prospects constrained him to renounce Protestantism. Mme de Warens dispatched the adolescent Rousseau to Turin, where he became a Catholic catechumen. Returning to Mme de Warens in Savoy, he was soon to become her lover for some seven years, and it was during this period in her provincial home, Les Charmettes, that he began a rigorous course of self-education. Almost unique among the major figures of the Enlightenment, Rousseau was almost entirely an autodidact.

In 1742, he moved to Paris, having already devised a novel system of musical notation and completed an opera and a comedy. It was in Paris that Rousseau came into contact with the luminaries of the day, most notably Denis Diderot. Diderot encouraged Rousseau to write his first published work, the Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts, and shortly thereafter to contribute articles on music to the Encyclopedia. But later, like so many of Rousseau's friends and acquaintances, he became an avowed enemy.

Without question, the most dramatic moment in the Confessions is Rousseau's recounting of his almost delirious feeling of inspiration when, walking to Vincennes to visit the imprisoned Diderot, he read a question posed for an essay competition. His response became the Discourse and resulted in almost overnight notoriety. But rather than revisit this moment happily, he instead recalls it as a turning point that was to deprive him of any possibility of leading a happy life: "All the rest of my life and misfortunes was the inevitable effect of that instant of aberration" (295).

It would be absurd to suggest that Rousseau's life "ended" on that hot summer day in 1749; he went on to write the works mentioned above and many others as well. But in a sense, that is what he would have the reader of the Confessions believe. In so doing, he also gives us a clue about what he means by the word "confession."

The autobiography is divided into two parts. Part 1, comprising Books I to VI, completes the narrative of the author's youth, telling of the happy days at Les Charmettes in the company of Mme de Warens and ending with Rousseau about to set out for Paris. He is quick to point out that Part 2, covering Books VII to XII, will tell an entirely different kind of story. At the beginning of Book VII, he writes: "What a different picture I will soon have to develop! Fate, which favored my inclinations for thirty years, contradicted them for another thirty, and from this continuous opposition between my situation and my inclinations, one will see born enormous faults, unparalleled misfortunes, and all the virtues, except strength, which can honor adversity" (233).

Rousseau attributes this rift between his youth and his mature years precisely to the "instant of aberration" he experienced on the road to Vincennes, a modern, secular counterpart of the road to Damascus. His having become both an author and a (notorious) public figure is the only reason we know Rousseau today; but it is equally the reason for the "continuous opposition" between his inclinations and his situation. One could also call it an opposition between nature (that is, Rousseau's own fundamental tendencies) and culture (the public image forced upon him through the reception of his writings).

Just prior to the passage from Book VII cited above, Rousseau concludes Book VI by reflecting on what he might have become had he continued his apprenticeship to an engraver and had he remained an obscure and commonplace citizen of Geneva. He would have died unknown but happy, rather than famous but constantly at odds with his desires. What Rousseau is therefore "confessing" is that becoming Rousseau as we know him was in fact his greatest tragedy.

The Confessions can be read as the subjective truth of an author who was misunderstood rather than revealed through his other writings, the depiction of the "real" Rousseau who was paradoxically hidden by his own words. Therein lies much of the modernity of the Confessions: Autobiography, as it is by and large still practiced today, relies on the expedient that Rousseau inaugurates, namely, revealing the "authentic," autonomous self that public life can only mask.

How and why does Rousseau take up this autobiographical enterprise? No one is completely certain why he wrote the Confessions. One reason Rousseau himself states is that his publisher, Rey, had asked him to write a vita. Another, more insidious reason is that his nemesis, Voltaire, had revealed in a scathing pamphlet that Rousseau had placed his five children in a foundling home, and that he needed somehow to justify such a decision. Rousseau also tells us that an adolescent peccadillo (the theft of a ribbon that he blamed on a coworker, resulting in both of them being fired), which he never publicly avowed, contributed to his decision to write the Confessions.

There is, however, a much more pressing reason, but one that Rousseau only broaches in the Confessions. There was a two-year hiatus between the drafting of Parts 1 and 2 of the autobiography, and Rousseau began the second part only very reluctantly. His biographers as well as his correspondence reveal that much of those two years was subsumed by his belief in a plot, conceived by his enemies (real and imagined), and already suspected before he began writing the Confessions, which completely obsessed him. His paranoid conviction was that his enemies sought not only to defame his character but also to disseminate false works in his name.

The plot against him is the abiding topic of Rousseau's second autobiography, the Dialogues; in the Confessions, it lurks largely in the background but nevertheless must be considered a primary motivation for writing the book. Thus, in the preface, Rousseau describes the book as "the only accurate monument to my character" (3). The Confessions is not merely a memorial, it is a counterattack against an unseen enemy seeking to destroy his reputation for all eternity.

As for the "how" of Rousseau's enterprise, it is necessary to consider, however briefly, the history of autobiography and of confessional writing. If his Confessions is the first modern autobiography, another work of the same title, Saint Augustine's Confessions, written in the fifth century, is the most important autobiography in the Western tradition prior to Rousseau's. Many critics have pointed to the remarkable structural and thematic similarities between the two Confessions. Rousseau's work is divided into twelve books, Augustine's into thirteen; and in each, Book VIII tells of a complete upheaval in the author's life: Rousseau's decision on the road to Vincennes to become a writer, and Augustine's conversion to Christianity in Milan. And in each episode, after their "conversions," they all but collapse under a tree: Rousseau beneath an oak, Augustine under a fig tree.

One would imagine that Rousseau, borrowing Augustine's title and apparently his confessional intentions as well, must have had the saint in mind when composing his own Confessions. Yet nowhere does Rousseau make reference to Augustine's autobiography, although we know from other writings that Rousseau had read other works by Augustine, and it is difficult to believe that the Citizen of Geneva (as Jean-Jacques styled himself) had not read and been influenced by the Bishop of Hippo's autobiography.

One reason for Rousseau's failure to acknowledge what must have been an important source for his own project is announced at the Confessions' inception; as we have already seen, he promises to portray, for the first time, "a man in all the truth of nature." He further states at the beginning of Book I: "I am not made like any of the ones I have seen; I dare to believe that I am not made like any that exist" (5). The rhetoric of uniqueness and the modern cult of the self are Rousseau's contributions, more than anyone else's, to the history of the autobiographical genre.

Those qualities, however, are precisely antithetical to the traditional Christian function of confession. In Augustine's age, confession took two forms: confessio laudis, or praise of God, and confessio peccati, or admission of sins. Augustine, like most authors in early Christendom, avails himself liberally of both of these forms. The overarching goal of his autobiography is to confess only that which reveals his sin and its possible redemption in God. Indeed, that is the goal of most works of spiritual autobiography (a genre that was still alive and well in Rousseau's day). In adopting Augustine's title and appropriating, as it were, the Christian confessional frame, Rousseau recalls and situates himself within the autobiographical tradition. Nonetheless, he does so to indicate that his book is radically different from everything that has come before.

"Unique" among his peers, Rousseau wants his book to be equally unique among autobiographies. Refusing the traditional forms of confession, he reorients it toward a new function. When Augustine tells the story of his sins and his conversion, like so many subsequent autobiographers, he is really seeking to represent a common human condition. He speaks as the Christian Everyman, whose trajectory through spiritual life we might imitate if we wish to acquire faith and to seek redemption.

Rousseau, by contrast, speaks as a unique, inimitable individual struggling to prove to his readers that despite the disastrous vicissitudes of his "situation" (his experience as author), the purity of his "inclinations" (the incorruptible goodness of his "heart," as he so often says) belies the false image of him that society has constructed. His autobiography, then, is an attempt to demonstrate what he could have been had his "situation" in his mature years coincided with his "inclinations." It is, in other words, an attempt to convince the reader that he is nothing other than an innocent victim of circumstance, no matter what his enemies might say about him.

The attempt was unsuccessful in Rousseau's own lifetime. For fear of compromising some of the people named in the book, he wanted the Confessions to be published only posthumously. However, he gave a number of private readings of a manuscript version of the text, and its existence was well-known among his contemporaries. His fondest wish, that his audience pronounce him innocent, that it dispel the false image disseminated through the plot, failed utterly to materialize. His last reading of the manuscript, at the home of Mme d'Egmont in 1771 (some seven years before his death), provoked not sympathy, nor even anger, but only stunned silence, as if no one understood his message. In Book XII, Rousseau writes: "I completed my reading in this way and everyone was silent. . . . Such was the fruit I drew from this reading and from my declaration" (550). He had not the slightest suspicion that his Confessions was to become the most influential autobiography ever written.

Given such a failure and such high stakes, it is not surprising that Rousseau continued pleading his case beyond the Confessions. In fact, the last decade or so of his life was devoted almost entirely to writing autobiographies. After the Confessions came the aforementioned Dialogues and the unfinished Reveries of a Solitary Walker, which he was still working on when he died in 1778. Today, the Dialogues is not widely read, as it is sprawling, repetitive, and often delusional. The Reveries enjoys far greater contemporary popularity and bears witness to a calmer and more peaceful Rousseau as he communes with nature while reflecting (somewhat haphazardly) on his inner states of being. But neither of these autobiographies can pose a serious challenge to the continued popularity and the status in literary history of the Confessions. It is, quite simply, the benchmark of its genre, as are Julie, the Social Contract, and Emile.

For well over two centuries, the Confessions has fascinated (and often infuriated) readers, and there is every reason to suspect that it will continue to do so into the foreseeable future. Unlike Voltaire, Rousseau, although of the highest stature as a writer and philosopher, went against the grain of his century only to be hailed at its end as the ideological father of the French Revolution, and at the beginning of the next, as the harbinger of Romanticism. In many ways he speaks more eloquently to the present than he did to his own era, and if the Confessions seems to us to resemble other autobiographies we have read, let us not forget that we owe the very shape of the modern autobiographical genre to Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 24 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(7)

4 Star

(6)

3 Star

(4)

2 Star

(5)

1 Star

(2)

Your Rating:

Your Name: Create a Pen Name or

Barnes & Noble.com Review Rules

Our reader reviews allow you to share your comments on titles you liked, or didn't, with others. By submitting an online review, you are representing to Barnes & Noble.com that all information contained in your review is original and accurate in all respects, and that the submission of such content by you and the posting of such content by Barnes & Noble.com does not and will not violate the rights of any third party. Please follow the rules below to help ensure that your review can be posted.

Reviews by Our Customers Under the Age of 13

We highly value and respect everyone's opinion concerning the titles we offer. However, we cannot allow persons under the age of 13 to have accounts at BN.com or to post customer reviews. Please see our Terms of Use for more details.

What to exclude from your review:

Please do not write about reviews, commentary, or information posted on the product page. If you see any errors in the information on the product page, please send us an email.

Reviews should not contain any of the following:

  • - HTML tags, profanity, obscenities, vulgarities, or comments that defame anyone
  • - Time-sensitive information such as tour dates, signings, lectures, etc.
  • - Single-word reviews. Other people will read your review to discover why you liked or didn't like the title. Be descriptive.
  • - Comments focusing on the author or that may ruin the ending for others
  • - Phone numbers, addresses, URLs
  • - Pricing and availability information or alternative ordering information
  • - Advertisements or commercial solicitation

Reminder:

  • - By submitting a review, you grant to Barnes & Noble.com and its sublicensees the royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable right and license to use the review in accordance with the Barnes & Noble.com Terms of Use.
  • - Barnes & Noble.com reserves the right not to post any review -- particularly those that do not follow the terms and conditions of these Rules. Barnes & Noble.com also reserves the right to remove any review at any time without notice.
  • - See Terms of Use for other conditions and disclaimers.
Search for Products You'd Like to Recommend

Recommend other products that relate to your review. Just search for them below and share!

Create a Pen Name

Your Pen Name is your unique identity on BN.com. It will appear on the reviews you write and other website activities. Your Pen Name cannot be edited, changed or deleted once submitted.

 
Your Pen Name can be any combination of alphanumeric characters (plus - and _), and must be at least two characters long.

Continue Anonymously
See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 24 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 15, 2003

    The genius as egocentric nudnik

    This is a turning point book in Western civilization, a great landmark in the exploration and discovery of the Self. Rousseau goes into more intimate and petty detail about his life than anyone has ever done before. At times this is amusing, very often it is boring. What is surprising is that it is by any standards a revelation of the genius as such a contemptible person. This is revealed especially in his relation to his own children, who he does his best to be rid of as soon as possible, and his terrible relation to the mother of his children. This work opened the way to Romantic subjectivity and the modern making the self the center of Literature and the world. The question for the reader is how much of this they will be able to take before they begin to feel sick.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 1, 2014

    Jus wanna see what this looks like

    I can read.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 10, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted December 16, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted January 24, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted December 26, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted December 28, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted January 2, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted January 28, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted December 31, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted December 11, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted December 23, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted December 31, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted November 22, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted December 26, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted December 9, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted January 8, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted December 14, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted December 29, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted May 18, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 24 Customer Reviews

If you find inappropriate content, please report it to Barnes & Noble
Why is this product inappropriate?
Comments (optional)