Review of Confessions by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

I only plan to read a few autobiographies in my life.

I would consider reading Mark Twains and Casanova as well. Rousseau’s reputation is immense. As soon as I began listening to the audiobook I felt at home in the author’s style. It was a long and rambling account of his life, going over his loves, his financial woes and his artistic ambitions with a fine-toothed comb.

Rousseau was also accomplished in the field of music and produced a couple novels as well. His status was not easily won, coming as he did in the wake of Voltaire and Diderot. by hook or by crook Rousseau was determined to succeed in a life of letters or through his musical compositions. He does not beat around the bush about his goofing off, lack of direction and focus, and describes troubling medical afflictions which beset him most of his life.

The value of this classic, I think, lies in its uncanny ability to give the reader a sense of life during that time. I’ve always enjoyed accounts of travel and hard luck stories, and the Confessions has a little of everything. During that time it was rare to find anything as personal and intimate as this written about oneself. Rousseau could have easily disguised all of his adventures and hopes and dreams as a novel, but chose to more boldly represent the facts of his life and convey to the reader the unfiltered sensory details of his times.

The writing mingles straightforward narrative with philosophical musings. He includes few caricatures of family and friends, instead tending toward balanced portraits of individuals. More than once he was met with various forms of adversity, whether by not selling a piece of work he had labored over or losing a precious connection in his circle of friends through some political or personal squabble. But just as often he is beset with good fortune and lands at the right place at the right time.

In some ways his life reminded me of Goethe. he sought after something sublime in the human spirit, but struggle to articulate it in a number of forms. Goethe, ultimately, was more successful, but Rousseau gave it a fair shake and turned out a classic or two in the process. By reaching toward perfection in one’s art, one must crash against the established norms, and pursue a personal definition of artistic perfection without regard to transitory critical assessments.

This is a valuable and fun-to-read book containing much wisdom. It exudes the air of a classic but is far more approachable than I expected.