May I Write in the First Person Now?
Rousseauvian Reflections on a Preferred Pronoun
|Justin E. H. Smith||Oct 19, 2020|
Beginning next week, on alternating Mondays I will be offering a subscription-only dispatch. In his Philosophies for Sale, the first-century Greek-language philosopher-satirist Lucian of Samosata imagines a Stoic slave explaining to his potential buyer why he insists on charging a fee to his students, in spite of the accusation of those, notably Socrates, who see the acceptance of remuneration as the mark of a false philosopher, of a “mere” sophist. “You see,” the Stoic bullshits, “I do not take pay on my own account, but for the sake of the giver himself: for since there are two classes of men, the disbursive and the receptive, I train myself to be receptive and my pupil to be disbursive.” Dear readers, I would like to train you to be disbursive too, at least those of you in a position to manifest this virtue, and would also like to improve at least somewhat my own excellence in the art of reception.
But there is another very good reason to move to a hybrid free/subscriber model, and that is that it creates a special venue, an inner sanctum, for the true devotees to partake of what we may rightly call the real stuff, as opposed to the demotic and diluted over-the-counter version that may safely be made available to more casual readers. I am no Straussian, but if the esoteric/exoteric distinction does not accurately characterise the history of thought up until now, that does not mean we are unfree to make it work for us going forward. In the subscription-only venue we will be at leisure to explore topics lying beyond the interests you have perhaps come to associate with my natural range and inclination. I hear there is a delightful new television program about a certain American ingenue named Emily, for example, who ends up in Paris of all places. Perhaps I will have occasion to review it.
In this strange new territory, this OnlyFans for Ideas, comparative study suggests the hybrid model works best. So, again, to sum up: a fortnightly piece of original writing, as promised, on philosophy, culture, politics, art, history, etc., available to all who are interested; and on alternating fortnightly Mondays an original piece of private and perhaps more unexpected writing for subscribers only. Do you want to read both? Then get a subscription. If you like what you’re reading, then share it too. And if you’ve already subscribed, then thank you sincerely for your support. —JEHS
Moving to a partially subscriber-only model is not the only way I have already tergiversated in this space. You will recall that while I carried on and on about myself in the first missive, I also promised that in subsequent instalments the autobiographical dimension would fall away, and the person behind the writing would for the most appear only indirectly. And yet I have in the past weeks consistently inserted myself, the author, into every topic I have touched. Why do I keep doing this? Is this not a variety of self-absorption? And if so may we perhaps distinguish between vicious and virtuous instances of what is ordinarily taken to be an unmitigated vice?
I believe Jean-Jacques Rousseau can assist us in answering this question. I have been reading his Confessions these past weeks (completed in 1770, published posthumously in 1782), and have found this work surprisingly helpful for understanding Rousseau as a thinker. Over the years I’ve taught The Social Contract a number of times; I read La Nouvelle Héloïse (1761) a long time ago; and more recently, inspired by Pankaj Mishra’s interpretation of the dispute between Voltaire and Rousseau concerning national sovereignty and empire in Eastern Europe, I’ve had occasion to read the latter’s Considerations on the Government of Poland (1772).
I basically share Mishra’s view that Rousseau is a crucially important counter-Enlightenment figure before this tendency found its more familiar home in Germany, and that the debate with Voltaire over the fate of Poland is therefore key to understanding what has been at stake in numerous instances, over the subsequent centuries, of conflict between the pseudo-universalism of hegemons, on the one hand, and local demands for self-determination on the other, between the imposition of external power under the guise of an objective norm and the preservation of organic folk-ways. In this conflict, I generally have more sympathy for the side defended by Rousseau, and I take Voltaire to be a disgraceful apologist for imperialism. I understand how, on a certain genealogy, Rousseau gives us the Taliban while Voltaire leads to George W. Bush, and I don’t really like either of these results at all. But what is good for society is always fragile and subject to corruption, and to throw in for Rousseauvian romantic communitarianism as against Voltairean rationalist universalism is not to endorse any implicit “come what may” clause.
Anyhow it seems now I never understood why Rousseau held the positions he did, until I understood who Rousseau the person was, and I never understood who Rousseau the person was until I read the Confessions. So this is at least one reason, and the most obvious one, to welcome the first-person voice intermixed with, or supplementary to, the substantive claims of an author: it fleshes out the claims, and gives them a sense they can only have when anchored in a life. Something so basic and familiar as the claim that man was born free but everywhere is in chains turns out itself to be at least in part a universalisation of what it is like to start life as the son of a watchmaker in Geneva, who enjoys conversing freely between generations in a loving household, if one marked by tragic loss, reading whatever comes his way and searching out his own path in life, only to land, soon enough, in the workshop of an abusive master, to flee from there, to end up locked in a Catholic boys’ home in Turin able to read nothing but the catechism, and other such gradual narrowings of his initial God-given condition.
In a sense the theory of The Social Contract is something like a variation on the principle according to which ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny: one is never freer than in childhood (the developmental psychologist Erik Erikson even speculated that infants imagine themselves to be all-powerful, to do nothing but what they wish at every moment, and are totally unaware of how utterly dependent they are), and ageing is always a slow accumulation of new links of chain. This is perhaps our general plight as individuals, but the plight may reveal itself more sharply when childhood is particularly happy, and late-life physical decline is marked by an unusual share of indignities, as was the case for Rousseau.
Among Rousseau’s confessions are a handful of grave sins. He abandons his music teacher, whom he has been assigned to accompany to Lyon, when the poor old man is in the middle of an epileptic fit. In the house in which he works as lackey in Turin, he blames a servant girl for having given him a decorative ribbon that he has himself stolen; the other staff members believe him and not the girl. I do not know whether this is a case of what Kate Manne would call “himpathy”, but it is impossible for me to read it and not feel a great wave of Rousseaupathy, of feeling-with-Rousseau all the infinite guilt he also feels —which is why he is confessing it in the first place—, for all the rotten things I’ve done.
But most of his sins are not nearly so grave. The passage that has come to be known as l’idylle des cerises perhaps best captures Rousseau’s moral character. Walking in the countryside as an adolescent, young Jean-Jacques helps a pair of gay demoiselles to move their horses across a stream. They pretend to “arrest” him, and he rides on the back of one of the two horses, holding on to one of the girls around her waist. His heart is racing from the closeness of her. She tells him that her heart is racing too, which, he reflects, is practically an invitation to move his hand up and to feel it. But he doesn’t do it. He is not a libertine, nor what was called in the era a “gallant” (a social category that, unlike libertine, seems to have entirely vanished), but rather a sensualist and a naturalist. He values above all experiences that flow freely. Thus the great love of his life, the much older Mme. de Warens, whom he called Maman and who called him petit in turn, is the only person with whom he was ever able to speak without worrying about what he was going to have to say next — the only person except, briefly, for those two girls, with whom it came most naturally to him to climb a tree and to throw down cherries for them to catch in their mouths.
Though guilty of lies, young Rousseau he is astoundingly innocent in sexual matters (he claims not to have known what semen was at the age of sixteen, when he was sexually assaulted by a fellow catechist, a Croatian boy he calls ce misérable Esclavon, who ejects at him une substance gluante et blanchâtre), yet the sensual pleasure he experiences in free-flowing causerie appears to him genuinely more powerful than any path of action open to the sexual libertine. When on the day of the cherry idyll the kids finally gave up looking for wine, having gone around begging the area’s peasants to provide them some, Rousseau inadvertently let slip a gallantry to the effect that the very company of the girls was quite intoxicating enough. That was the only thing he regretted about the day; he would have regretted it equally if he had copped a feel while on horseback too, not because it would have been unwelcome for her, but because it would have been out of character for him.
Rousseau’s personal idylls —few and far between, yet the moments in life he finds it most urgent to capture in the Confessions— are his own state of nature. Nature, as such, is essentially good, and what corrupts it is artifice. It is artifice that makes most social situations so terribly awkward for Rousseau, particularly those that take place in Paris (may I just once use the internet word relatable?) And it is contempt for artifice that both underlies the philosophy of education in Rousseau’s Émile (1762) and that determines him, for better or worse, to a life of autodidacticism and desultory reading. I will not, even here, use that other internet word, “ADHD”, for Rousseau’s own understanding of what might be called his chronic deficit of attention is not self-pathologising, and arises rather from the conviction that not only are society and tradition and rules oppressive, but so is any expectation of loyalty to the here-and-now: “My mind, impatient with any sort of yoke, cannot subject itself to the law of the moment; even the fear of not learning prevents me from being attentive.”
Rousseau’s two most audacious assertions in the Confessions, and there are many indeed, come in its first few paragraphs. The first of them is that he is “undertaking an enterprise of which there has never been an example, and the result of which will never have an imitator.” That enterprise is the veracious and adequate transfer of the person of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the soul if you dare to speak of souls, from a living body into a book. The second assertion is this: Je sens mon coeur et je connais les hommes. I feel my heart and I know men. The sentence is ambiguous in multiple ways, but the meaning that comes through most plainly to me is the causal one: because I have examined my own heart, I therefore understand humanity in general.
The first audacious assertion is partially belied by the second. Other authors before Rousseau set out to disclose the human condition by writing of their own individual experience. Michel de Montaigne, notably, two centuries before Rousseau, credited with having invented the genre of the essay, turns to this sort of first-person, tentative, modest exploration of ideas because it seems to him that all an individual person can ever do is to essay. But Montaigne’s skeptical retreat into his own small world is at the same time a sort of surreptitious claim to universality: he may well only know his own private world, because he is a human being and that is all we are given to know; but you too, reader, are a human being and so with the addition of a simple mutatis mutandis clause, my private world is yours too.
Montaigne’s work is thus in some respects a secularised mirror of the genre of Catholic confessional poetry and the more formalised genre of spiritual exercises coming out of Spain in the same century. John of the Cross, Teresa of Ávila, and Ignatius of Loyola had an even more limited view of what an individual human being is capable of on his or her own — nothing at all, in fact; we are literally but nodes of darkness and sin until we recognise our dependence on God and his infinite love for us. We are nothing, but the way to articulate this point most forcefully, in a manner that speaks to our general condition, is to shift to the first-person, to allow the node of nothingness to speak for itself.
Scholars are generally agreed that the Loyolan exercises were in turn a key source for René Descartes’s Meditations of 1641, which proceed through a method of radical doubt, a razing of all casually held beliefs, in order next to build knowledge back up on certain foundations. In keeping with the spirit of the times, Descartes as a self-styled “modern” philosopher worked hard to conceal his sources, and to pretend that he had not had a rigorous education in ancient philosophy and Christian devotional literature during his time at the Jesuit college of La Flèche. This means that there is no mention of St. Ignatius, nor any of St. Augustine, who was equally important to him, and whose Confessions were later the explicit model for Rousseau’s work of the same name.
Descartes for his part got at least some inspiration for the Cogito argument (that is, the argument that I can know I exist from the fact that I am thinking) from Augustine’s On the Trinity. But Augustine’s version of the argument, which we might call the Dubito, is part of a larger concern to show that even in doubting God’s existence, we find further strengthening of the conviction that he must exist, since doubting is a variety of thinking (Descartes would agree here), and thinking is something of which only a being whose existence depends entirely on God is capable. Thus Descartes’s argument echoes Augustine’s, but the ancient philosopher’s version of it is decidedly theocentric, while the modern philosopher’s version is, you might say, egocentric. We get the Cogito argument for the certain existence of the self in Meditation Two; the first proof of the existence of God comes only in Meditation Three.
Not that Descartes is being “selfish”, not exactly, but only that he takes the existence of the self as the absolute starting point for the construction of any positive philosophy. And in this he is moving beyond not just the Christian precedents that also adopt a sort of egocentric method in the course of establishing the total dependency of human beings on God, but also beyond Montaigne’s skeptical and secular restriction of egocentrism to the essay, which does not dare to make any positive claims about the way the world is beyond the particular ego who happens to be writing.
So in spite of Rousseau’s audacious claim, the Genevan author is in fact building on some fairly important precedents. He takes from Augustine the need, now for the most part gutted of its theological framing, to account for his sins; and he takes from Descartes the expectation of building up something positive from himself as starting point. This is not a foundationalist epistemology or a “first philosophy”, or even “a philosophy” at all in the proper sense. It is rather a demonstration of the possibility of knowing humanity through proper attention to one’s own heart, and it is thus, if I may speak once again like the internet, a true proof-of-concept of the sensualist and anti-rationalist account of human nature and of the origins of human society expounded in The Social Contract and elsewhere. The Confessions are thus an example of self-absorption in the service of humanity — not the first, but certainly among the best.
In my first two scholarly books, published in 2011 and 2015 respectively, I was completely invisible as authorial persona, effaced according to the rules of the discipline from which I was still working hard to obtain validation. In 2016, like the world as a whole, I began to go a bit crazy. My book published that year, The Philosopher: A History in Six Types, was a peculiar little experiment, which I would dare to call “postmodern”, in the technical sense that it incorporates a pastiche of several different approaches and registers, and it takes playfulness as part of its methodology. One of its approaches, alongside fake ethnographies and fictional excursuses in which I attempt to write in the style of, e.g., Margaret Cavendish, is the first-person confessional.
This all seemed well-received at the time, and it gave me pleasure, and in my next book, 2019’s Irrationality: A History of the Dark Side of Reason, I indulged that pleasure, it seems to me now, in excess. The book looks to me, and I think to many who have read it or tried to read it, like an unwieldy thing, like the dream car Homer Simpson designs when, for reasons I can’t recall, he is given carte blanche to do so by the heads of an automative company, and so, naturally, being Homer Simpson, he comes up with some ridiculous land yacht with a pair of steer horns as hood ornament, a convertible top that snags on the tennis ball at the end of the outsized antenna, and so on. That’s my book, basically. But I added bells and whistles that even Homer could not add, as his self-absorption is of a different nature, and his carte blanche automotive project was limited in a way that my carte blanche authorial project was not: the most gaudy elements of Irrationality are the parts in which I talk about myself, my weaknesses, my fears.
I resolved that this would not happen again, that in my next book, and in my book after that, I would adopt the ideal omniscient narrator’s voice, the vaunted view from nowhere, “the Perry Anderson”, as I like to call it. And so I got all the way through a draft of the first chapter of The Living Mirror: A Philosophy of the Internet (appearing in 2021, title still subject to change), as if I, the author, had nothing to do with it; same thing for chapter 2. But I just couldn’t keep it up. By chapter 3 I found myself reflecting on my own experiences, my predicament under Brooklyn quarantine, using Zoom, looking out melancholically on the theatre of the world through my screen like some latter-day Robert Burton. Damn. There I was, doing it again.
Again and again, in spite of my genuine wishes, in spite of my genuine awe and admiration every time I get my hands on a new Andersonian tour de force, I just can’t do it. I’m too self-absorbed. Whether I can wrangle this vice and domesticate it into some sort of virtue in the end, even perhaps to serve humanity through it, is very much an open question for me. Tout ce que je peux dire à présent, c’est que mon coeur bat si fort que je ne peux pas ne pas le sentir, et il ne me reste que de transcrire en quelque sorte ce que l’organe me dicte. Mais finalement ce qui m’intéresse moi aussi, c’est de connaitre les hommes. Hmm. Maybe I should keep doing like Aristotle’s Masterpiece and all the old home medical guides with the most embarrassing parts kept at a cautious distance by use of a “foreign” language (incidentally, gluante et blanchâtre means “sticky and whitish”, though you almost certainly figured that out).
Rousseau acknowledges fudging many of the events he relates from his life — placing them out of chronological order, replacing one person with another from his memory, making them come out the way he would want them to be, through the filter of his own subjectivity, rather than the way they in fact were. I should not have to say that this should not count against him.
We are all familiar with the strange rules of genre separation today, between memoir and “autofiction”, which compelled James Frey to go on Oprah and perform his abject contrition when it was revealed that much of his 2003 memoir of addiction, A Million Little Pieces, was made up. Of course it was made up! To impose narrative cohesion on a life —i.e., to write a memoir— is to make things up. In fact, even to attach yourself to your own personal identity over time is to ride along on a fictional conceit, though one so necessary to just staying alive at all that in most situations we do not dare to treat it as anything other than brute fact. But what is ordinarily counted as necessary myth is just the sort of thing honest writing should be expected to undo, and so the naïve belief in a tenable distinction between memoir and autofiction impoverishes both genres.
The bald-faced, stultifying literalism that informs this distinction, and that shapes the rules of the publishing industry in general, is of a piece with so many other aspects of our cultural moment — notably, the belief that our fellow-feeling with members of a given cultural community, an “ethnicity”, can only be legitimated by a DNA test that proves common descent. It is a literalism that knows nothing of the literary imagination, but keeps talking as though it does.
As usual, my contention is that the primary culprit for this degradation is the internet, and social media above all. You might know that by now social-media sites such as Twitter have evolved numerous subcommunities that are designated by names such as “Geology Twitter”, “Skaters’ Twitter”, “Foo Twitter” (“Foo” being a slang term of amity in some Californian Latino subcultures), and so on. Some of these “Twitters” are quite wonderful to discover, yet it is always dispiriting to see the way in which all of them move along in a process of convergent evolution towards what can only be called “reification”. If “Foo” was a sort of informal address a decade ago, within another ten years social media could well succeed in turning it into a kind of person. This is thus the Foucauldian analysis of nineteenth-century clinical diagnosis as the source of new kinds of people (the “homosexual”, the “neurotic”), but on speed. In the twenty-first century, it is not self-styled experts, but algorithms and user engagement, that serve as the motor of production of new social kinds. The results are nothing short of disastrous for those of us still concerned to preserve the virtues of cross-community solidarity and human fellow-feeling.
There is no Twitter more dispiriting than “Writers’ Twitter”. There you will find people sharing inane memes and lists of “tips” that, while various in their tone and focus, all reduce writing to a sort of lifestyle. A favourite topic of discussion are the routines and circumstances of famous authors: what time of day Virginia Woolf begins to write, what inspiring decorations Stendhal kept on his desk, how much coffee Balzac drank, and so on. The distal idea of all this seems to be that if you study these routines, and duplicate them, you too have a shot at being a great writer. I myself study YouTube videos teaching “Travis style” alternating bass thumb-picking for guitar, but this is very different; this is the sort of thing you must study under someone else in order to master it. But as for writing it is simply and totally irrelevant to know the furnishings and the daily schedules of your favourite authors. Banish those memes!
I am particularly sensitive about all this because, working in a French university and living in a cramped and expensive city, I have no office, neither at home nor at work. I write on my back on the couch, propped up by a pillow — unless circumstances force me to write somewhere else, in which case I make the necessary adjustments. But none of this matters; it has nothing to do with what writing is. In guitar-playing I despise the “gear Nazis”, the people who love to go on and on about what kind of equipment you need. Guitar-playing is something that happens in your brain and hands (and also, I would argue, in the celestial spheres); it requires some sort of external support, but that is incidental. Writing requires a pen or a computer or the like, too, I suppose, but this is not something we really need to discuss. What brand of typewriter did old Hem use? What brand of whiskey did he drink? Who gives a shit.
This is all more important than it may seem, as it is being driven by the same forces that are driving the current Cambrian explosion in social kinds, the “asexuals”, the “introverts”, the “empaths” (not to mention the “himpaths”), and so on. These are the junk products of a fleeting historical ontology, and it is safe to say they will not be socially salient for long; we’ll come up with other ways of talking soon enough, which will make these current categories sound as awkward and benighted as “hysteric” does now.
Like these designations of purported personality types, and like sexual and ethnic identities, vocations, too, are being hastily reified and marked out by easily stereotyped external signs (brand of typewriter, brand of pen, brand of coffee). But writing is not like this. Nothing is in fact like this, but especially not writing. Writing is an activity of the spirit, one that usually implicates the hands and some sort of external implement as well, though there are ways of getting by without either of these. Sometimes it takes place in communion with the ancestors, sometimes in harmony with the celestial spheres, but it cannot be an expression of subcultural belonging, especially not when the subculture in question is the subculture of writers.
Writing can be undertaken in a variety of combinations of persons and numbers. Current fashion dictates a wide preference for the first-person plural, where “we” is understood not as humanity, but as subculture or targeted demographic. Another venerable option is the first-person singular, which, in the hands of the right individual, may get significantly closer to humanity with the “I” than writing is generally expected to do today with the “we”.
Rousseau, for example, often wrote in the first-person singular. In the end the lesson of his work is the same as that of the self-abnegating confessional authors of the Christian tradition: individuals come and go; they are, in some way or other, nothing. Only laying bare the human condition matters, and I can do this, Rousseau understood, or go some way toward doing this, if you will just permit me to carry on about myself.