Volume One, No. 4 January 2003

j_spot online edition ISSN 1481 8 5842




The Tragedy of Teleology

D.G. Wright

University of Toronto



"In telling the story of my travels," says Rousseau, "as in travelling, I never know how to stop" [167].1 Applied reflexively to the text of the Confessions, the statement is revealing in a number of ways. The six hundred pages of the Confessions suggest an author who is either unable or unwilling to stop writing about himself. At the completion of the first section of the Confessions —the shorter, self-contained memoir written as a recollection of his first thirty years—Rousseau declares that it is time to stop writing. And yet less than two years later, he felt the need to devote a further three hundred and fifty pages to the events of his next twenty four years. "[I]n spite of my resolution I take up the pen once more" [261]. Why?

His own response —his justification for breaking his self-imposed vow of literary silence —provides one form of answer: "Since my name is fated to live, I must endeavour to transmit with it the memory of that unfortunate man who bore it, as he actually was and not as his unjust enemies unremittingly endeavour to paint him" [373]. Increasingly in his later years, Rousseau believed that he was the victim of a plot instigated against his reputation by Voltaire, Mme.d'Epinay, his erstwhile friend Diderot, and above all, by the loathsome Grimm, the ringleader of "the d'Holbach clique." At times he fears that the source of the evil transcends even Grimm, and that there is perhaps a supernatural origin for the dread conspiracy, a "Providence who summoned me to these great ordeals," and "removed with His own hand every obstacle that might have saved me from undergoing them" [19]. Faced with such opposition, any response has but the thinnest chance of succeeding, but clutching at the hope that his words might one day find a fair hearing, Rousseau attempts to leave to posterity what he calls a "witness" in his favour [525]. The Confessions —especially its second part —is meant to be that beyond-the-grave witness, a means of defending his good name after he is gone.

The worst aspect of the conspiracy is its dark silence. He is "surrounded by impenetrable darkness" in which the "machinations" of his enemies is always concealed [458]. If only the charges against him would be made publically he is certain that he could lay them to rest, but in their absence, he must both anticipate and refute them. And yet, once he has undertaken to defend himself against charges which have not yet been made, there is obviously no end to what can —or perhaps should —be said; Rousseau has committed himself to the impossible task of refuting whatever accusations the present and future ages may choose to level at him. The only possible strategy in such a scenario is the one that Rousseau in fact adopts, namely, to provide a complete and honest account of his life, thereby providing posterity with the means of independently adjudicating these questions. It is in this spirit that we find Rousseau making the following remark early in the Confessions:

I must present my reader with an apology, or rather a justification, for the petty details I have just been entering into... Since I have undertaken to reveal myself absolutely to the public, nothing about me must remain hidden or obscure. I must remain incessantly beneath his gaze, so that he may follow me in all the extravagances of my heart and into every least corner of my life. Indeed, he must never lose sight of me for a single instant, for if he finds the slightest gap in my story... he may wonder what I was doing at that moment... I am laying myself sufficiently open to human malice by telling my story, without rendering myself more vulnerable by any silence [65, my emphasis].

Against the silence of his enemies, Rousseau opposes his endless verbosity, his relentless self-exposure. As well as giving us reason to suppose that Rousseau never entirely did overcome his youthful predilection for exhibitionism, this "statement of purpose" reveals both the desire for totality which is so characteristic of the Confessions, and the impossibility of achieving such a goal within autobiography. Rousseau can aspire towards being honest in his chronicle (though even this is problematic), but how could he possibly hope to be complete?2 In what follows, I will be exploring the tension between this desire for totality and its inevitable postponement as it is organized in the Confessions around the recurring figure of the disaster or catastrophe. My claim will be that Rousseau's decision to structure his autobiography teleologically makes it impossible for him to satisfactorily complete his text without, in the same act, disconnecting himself from the life that it recounts.


One of the most distinctive features of the Confessions is that it is presented not only as a journal of Rousseau's feelings and experiences, but also as a kind of story. There is a plot to Rousseau's life, a plot whose thread he keeps losing and subsequently rediscovering. It is not simply that Rousseau struggles with the artistic task of recasting his life as a story, though this is also true. What is most remarkable, rather, is that Rousseau believes that the "story" itself is immanent in his own history, awaiting discovery and explication but not creation.

As what we might today call a paranoid personality3 , Rousseau most frequently understands himself to be a victim of this plot, the "system... adopted by those who control my destiny" [456]. So comprehensive is the plot in which he is embroiled that, on inspection, each detail of his life turns out to speak of the dark machinations of his foes. Of these details, he says, "although they do not seem very enlightening in themselves, once one seizes the thread of the plot they will shed light on its development" [542]. Just as each movement in a classical tragedy can be read as an inevitable step towards the catastrophe with which it must conclude, so too is Rousseau's life, on his own reading, hurtling towards an inevitable disaster.

It shouldn't have been like this. Within the autobiography, Rousseau is fond of telling us about the life he was meant to live. Though the details of this alternate existence vary from page to page, what remains constant is his insistence that this alternate Rousseau is more authentically "Jean-Jacques" than the one whose history is a matter of public record. Counter-factual Rousseau had a life mapped out as well, an anticipatable story lying immanent in his nature. As an interlude in the story he must narrate for us, as a prelude to a life-story that will remain untold, he tells us the following:

Before I abandon myself to my fatal destiny, let me turn for a moment to the prospect that would normally have awaited me... Nothing suited my character better, nor was more likely to make me happy than the calm and obscure life of a good craftsman... I should have passed a calm and peaceful life in the security of my faith, in my own country, among my family and friends. That was what my peculiar character required... I should have been a good Christian, a good citizen, a good father, a good friend, a good workman, a good man in every way. I should have been happy in my condition...Then, after a life —simple and obscure, but also mild and uneventful— I should have died peacefully in the bosom of my family. Soon, no doubt, I should have been forgotten, but at least I should have been mourned for as long as I was remembered. But instead....what a picture I have to paint! [50-1]

This "other" Jean-Jacques could not possibly have told his story, living each day in the blissful innocence of unreflective labour, but it would have been a better life than the one we are reading. But alas, something happened, something intervened. There was a fall out of the "real" world and into a duplicitous history, into writing, and with this fall comes the possibility of a story. While his "real-but-unlived" life might have led to some rather uninteresting reading, given that it involves no more than the endless repetition of menial tasks, Rousseau's autobiography is quite definitely a developmental narrative, with origins, ends, and a narrative arc connecting the two. Or at least, it aspires to being so.

The decision to structure his Confessions as a plot reveals Rousseau's commitment to the belief that the past is amenable to this kind of narrative reordering, that the events that have occurred in one's life are appropriately organized as a developing story that centres on the self. Given this tacit belief, the text itself is constituted —in part— as a sustained effort at imposing the stamp of narrative necessity on what would otherwise appear to be the merely contingent events of the past. "I do not know what is before my eyes," he says, "I can see clearly only in retrospect, it is only in my memories that my mind can work" [116]. Memory, in the Confessions, is not simply a gallery of fading impressions, but is also understood as an active faculty, a clarifying and organizing force that reveals the order and meaning that remains merely latent in the events of the present. But in spite of this recognition of the role that he, through memory, inevitably plays in the organization of past events, Rousseau is entirely unwilling to countenance the possibility that he is willfully imposing an order and meaning on events that themselves carry no intrinsic meanings or connections to each other. The Confessions in general betray very little awareness of the problems of constructing a history, personal or otherwise, and tend to assume without further ado that events allow for no more than a single correct interpretation. 4A remarkable, and perhaps wilful blindness one might think, in an author rightly credited through his earlier work with awakening the world to the creative aspect of history.

Perhaps very few of us believe anymore that histories are replete with clearly identifiable facts and meanings awaiting retrieval, but let us follow the logic of the claim as it applies to autobiography. If the events in one's life really do have an order that transcends that which is created or imposed by the individual him or herself, the explanation for it will be either a kind of teleology or some form of determinism. That is to say, either events are falling one after another like dominoes, pushed forward by some specifiable initial conditions, or they are pulled forward magnetically by a telos in the future. Rousseau flirts with both forward and backward causation when explaining his life. In justifying his extensive discussion of his childhood experiences, he will say:

to know me in my latter years it is necessary to have known me well in my youth... the first features to engrave themselves on my mind have remained there, and such as have subsequently imprinted themselves have combined with these rather than obliterated them. There is a certain sequence of impressions and ideas which modify those that follow them, and it is necessary to know the original set before passing any judgements. I endeavour in all cases to explain the prime causes, in order to convey the interrelation of results [169].

However, while never officially repudiated, this model of psychological determinism fades in prominence as the narrative of the Confessions leaves childhood and approaches the present. In its place, we hear more and more frequently of a "Fate" that controls the development of Rousseau's life. A teleological principle begins drawing his life forward, a "blind fatality" begins inexorably "dragging" him to his "destruction" [486]. In his attempt to understand and work through the implications of this "fate," Rousseau comes to refer to it as his catastrophe.

The catastrophe is an odd device in Rousseau's writing. It stands as one pole of a relation that is sustained throughout the Confessions (and many of Rousseau's other writings), the relationship between the innocence and immediacy of youth and the disaster that lies in the future. Within this structure, each moment is always construed as falling under the governance of one pole or the other, with the latter pole providing the teleological magnet for the narrative. The events that are aligned with the principles of perfect transparency and clarity are completely self-sufficient, having no necessary connections to any moments outside themselves, but those that are regulated by the catastrophe reveal themselves as leading inevitably forward towards a looming disaster. The text of the Confessions, in fact, is continually bisected according to the terms of this opposition; one of Rousseau's most characteristic rhetorical moves in his autobiography is to announce a moment that divides his life into two parts. As early as Book 1, he recounts the result of his suffering a wrongful accusation as a young child at Bossey in the language of the eviction from Eden:

There ended the serenity of my childish life... We lived as we are told the first man lived in the earthly paradise, but we no longer enjoyed it; in appearance our situation was unchanged, but in reality it was an entirely different kind of existence. No longer were we young people bound by ties of respect, intimacy, and confidence to our guardians; we no longer looked upon them as gods who read our hearts... [W]e began to be secretive, to rebel, and to lie... We gave up tending our little gardens. [31]

But this primal fall in childhood is radically over-determined, simply because Rousseau falls too often. As Avrom Fleishman puts it, "the Confessions may be seen as a succession of Edenesque landscapes in each of which primal innocence and happiness are partially achieved, invariably to be followed by a fall —merited or unmerited— and expulsion."5 The awakening of sexuality with Mlle. Lambercier [26], the construction of an aqueduct in defiance of M. Lambercier [34], an asparagus theft and a subsequent apple theft [41 and 43 respectively], and the closing of the gates of Geneva that left him outside the city of his birth —a sinister and fatal augury of the inevitable fate which from that moment awaited me" [49] — are each described as if they were the prime cause that led to his eviction from Eden.6 The most famous of these "falls" is of course the "illumination" on the road to Vincennes. As he is walking the several miles from Paris to Vincennes in order to visit and comfort the imprisoned Diderot, Rousseau happens to read an announcement in the Mercure de France of an essay contest. "Has the progress of the arts and sciences contributed to corrupting or purifying morals?", Rousseau reads, as he pauses under a tree. In an instant, everything changes. He falls into a swoon, and is suddenly privy to a knowledge previously concealed from the mind of mortal man — "I beheld another world; I became another man" [328]. It is a vision so powerful that (with Diderot's snake-like encouragement), he feels he simply must write it down. And in that instant, all is lost; "from that moment I was ruined." [328]. Becoming a writer, Rousseau severs the last threads connecting him to his pre-Lapsarian innocence and finds himself instead enmeshed in the high cultural life of the Parisian salons.

It is often said —and rightly— that this paradigmatic moment in the text is constructed as a kind of fall. In a malign inversion of another biblical narrative, this time the good Saint Paul becomes Saul of Tarsus under the blinding heat of vision. What is less frequently noted is that this "fall" is only one of many. The moment that announces that Rousseau's life is henceforth under the sway of an unlucky star is repeated ad nauseam in the Confessions. Describing his ill-fated decision to write the first Discourse, Rousseau says "with this... begins the long chain of my misfortunes, in its very beginnings" [326]. "All the rest of my life and of my misfortunes followed inevitably as a result of that moment's madness" [328]. But sixty pages later, we find him saying that he will only now "begin to describe... a terrible and fatal epoch in a life unparalleled among human kind" [389]. A representative, though by no means exhaustive sample of the dividing points thereafter runs as follows:

"And now begins the long tissue of my life's misfortunes" [415].
"But it is time to come to the great revolution in my destiny, to the catastrophe which divided my life into two such different parts" [441]. "In the midst of this temporary prosperity a catastrophe was preparing afar off which was to signalize its end" [489].
"Expect nothing but insults and disasters henceforth. The fate that begins for me on this unhappy day will pursue me till my last hour" [538].
"Here begins the work of darkness" [544]
"It is time to come to my catastrophe..." [585].

The last citation I have offered here —"It is time to come to my catastrophe" —occurs on page 585; twenty pages from the end of his work, Rousseau's writing is still governed by the promise of an impending disaster, and by the assurance that we have now, at last, entered the half of the book in which this end game will be carried out. However, it is not simply a matter of these sharp textual divisions continuing at the close of the Confessions; their frequency in fact increases quite significantly in the last two books of the text. We now encounter such divisions separated by no more than a matter of pages. The rapid divisions create a velocity, and the velocity a vertigo. As the Confessions reach their last pages, we are moving at breakneck speed into the long promised though never defined catastrophe, but each announcement of the nearness of the catastrophe quickly becomes prelude for the next such claim. And contrary to what we might expect, there is never an indication that each new report is meant to supplant the previous one. On the contrary, there is in fact never any acknowledgement at all that, dire as the warnings sound, it has all been said before. The immanence of disaster is repeatedly invoked, but then it seems, immediately forgotten.

How can a text forget its own history so completely? In the Confessions themselves, we are given support for two different answers. First, and this answer must surely apply here, one forgets by writing. In a passage that bears directly on the meaning of the autobiographical practise for Rousseau, we hear him claiming that "memory only serves me for so long as I need to rely on it; as soon as I commit its burden to paper it deserts me; and once I have written a thing down, I entirely cease to remember it" [328]. Rousseau will often speak of writing according to this cathartic model, suggesting that the confessional act releases the individual of not only moral responsibility for past actions, but also of the memory itself. As an empirical claim, this is quite obviously false; within the Confessions itself, Rousseau will write about the same event more than once, and this text was anticipated by a series of letters that Rousseau wrote for his publisher wherein many of the same events had already been recounted. The astonishing implausibility of this position, coupled with its recurrence throughout the Confessions, leads me to read it as a claim that is necessary as an aspect of the peculiar logic that is at work here. Rousseau very much wants to understand writing as a kind of purgative act, even when his own practise belies the claim. 7

But when this is tied to his model of memory as an active, organizing principle, the results are noticeably odd. While the act of autobiography may impose (Rousseau would say discover) an order and necessity in the past, this narrativizing activity is recorded in writing, which is to say, in a location external to the body. The relationship for Rousseau seems almost Newtonian; the density and determinateness of the past in the text increases in proportion to the decrease in the memory of the confessor. An autobiography, on this model, that contained the completed story of its author, would be accompanied by a spectral and solipsistic narrator confined entirely to the present —an amnesiac with no clear connection to the life that has just been told.8 To undo the damage brought about by an unmerited fall, to rid himself of a false and duplicitous history, Rousseau writes himself out of his life. He will emerge from writing his story, he hopes, as one reborn into an absolutely clean and uncorrupted present.

This confinement to the present in turn becomes the other mode through which "forgetting" is accomplished. Trapped in the present moment, the self can never achieve sufficient distance from itself to cultivate a memory in the first place. Events become stark, context-less images that engage one entirely and then not at all. Near the end of the Confessions, Rousseau will praise his ability "to observe the same things thousands and thousands of times and always with the same interest, because I always forgot them each time: that was the way to pass eternity without the possibility of a moment's boredom" [592]. As the narrative of the Confessions approaches the present, that is, as it catches up to the time in which its author is writing, Rousseau becomes almost obsessive in his reiteration of this thought, the paradox that the nearer event is harder to remember than the event far away:

The further I go in my story, the less order and sequence I can put into it. The disturbances of my later life have not left events time to fall into shape in my head. They have been too numerous, too confused, too unpleasant to be capable of straightforward narration... Now my story can only proceed at haphazard, according as the ideas come back into mind [574].

Events in the present are confused and uncertain, in no fixed order —simple images, moments. This disconnectedness of the present moment is always characterized by a lack of memory of earlier moments. It is to this present that the Confessions are drawing ever closer, the moment in which a life will have been told truly and fully, and its author entirely disassociated from it.

But as this event draws closer, the cracks begin to show. The catastrophe, which had determined the teleological structure of the narrative as an indefinite point on a distant horizon, is now brought sharply into focus as an immanent event, not only through Rousseau's insistent invocation of it, but also, and more importantly, by the fact that we are rapidly approaching the present of the author. In book ten, the task of beginning to plan the Confessions has been recorded as an event [478], and by book twelve, he has begun to write it [574]. We now know that in the time that it takes to write the Confessions, the catastrophe must occur. The gap between the narrative and the present of the writer has been explicitly thematized and the impending collision of the two made inevitable. This would be the moment of total identity and closure, where the text had recorded exactly and completely the life which was its task to record, the moment when the author becomes entirely superfluous.

It is also, of course, an impossible moment. Must there not always be at least one more moment to record if the Confessions are to be complete? I have cited Rousseau above saying (perplexingly) that "events" became "more numerous" in this last, confused period, and indeed, we might expect them to become infinite as we reach the present; his autobiographical "life-story" is rapidly approaching the condition of diary, a genre of writing that is not governed by considerations of plot or development. But before this can happen —before Rousseau can resign himself to recording each ephemeral experience as it occurs— he must first record the long-promised catastrophe that signals the end of the story.

Rousseau clearly understands the catastrophe to be an extra-textual event in the life he is recording, even if the nature of that event keeps changing. However, I want to suggest that its meaning goes significantly beyond any particular misfortune that Jean-Jacques may have suffered. It is instead (or rather, in addition), a figure for Rousseau's troubled confrontation with the desire for totality and closure. Far from being the culminating event of the autobiography, the catastrophe may well be the impossibility in principle of completing such a text once begun. In fact, his claim that events have become "too numerous," and that his story can now "only proceed at haphazard" is followed directly by the otherwise unrelated statement that he remembers "during the time of which I am speaking, being immersed in my Confessions... News that I was so engaged was, so far as I can judge, the real cause of the storm which was raised" [574]. One need not be a card-carrying Freudian to believe that Rousseau has said more than he knew here. From the first moment of declaring that he will "tell it all," Rousseau is trapped in Zeno's paradox, asymptotically approaching completion, of creating a work that contains everything in the life of its author, but betrayed in this desire by the time it takes to write. The present moment of writing, by his own rules, must inevitably escape the control of memory; it cannot be presented as past in the text without revealing the lacuna of the present in which the author exists. And so the Confessions cannot legitimately reach the catastrophe that provided its teleological structure, but must remain perpetually in catastasis, the moment of heightened action in a tragedy that precedes and prepares but does not reveal the eventual end.

If it is true that Rousseau desires to present himself to the world as a tragic hero, the victim of sinister plot, it is also true that this ultimate downfall would at least provide closure and a sense of meaning to his life. But without this definitive ending, the final significance of the various events he has described must remain indefinite. Tragedies, like all teleological structures, reveal their meanings only backwards. Without reaching that decisive point, everything remains tentative, almost meaning something in so far as it alludes to this future event, but still open to radical and revelatory change through what transpires in the final act. Rousseau's story, and perhaps the life that it reflects, is trapped in this highly-charged but indeterminate state until its plot can be resolved. And so, the "catastrophe" planned and plotted with such care by Rousseau's enemies is also the recognition that he can have no access to a final and definitive account of his life, in a story which has promised us just this.

This denial of totality is one face of the catastrophe; once begun, the narrative of the Confessions can never be completed, but can only lose itself in the succession of images that constitute the present. If the disaster has another face, it must be the confrontation with death that presents the sole means of escape from this first catastrophe. The Confessions aims at absolute totality in the presentation of the self, a condition that, when mediated by writing, is impossible; the author remains over and above the last written word, existing at least in the time opened up by the act of writing itself. Only death could hope to complete the life, and yet, one's death is an event that cannot be written. The promise of death is inevitably entailed in the heuristic premise of autobiography —that a life will be told— and serves as the only thoroughly justifiable reason for completing the narrative. And yet death could only complete the protagonist's identity by, in the same gesture, denying him forever the possibility of becoming the author who could complete his text.

And where does this put the narrator, that now-genial, now-worried voice who is telling the tale? On which side of the catastrophe does the autobiographer stand? On the side of death, I would suggest. Rousseau is telling his whole life, and the telling —he has told us— will include an account of the catastrophe that was to "signalize its end." Such a story can only be told by someone who is no longer a part of that life, someone who has passed over into the beyond.9 "I can well say that I did not begin to live until I looked on myself as a dead man" [218], Rousseau says. It is equally true that he only became able to write his life through assuming the position of his own eulogist. Paradoxically, he is writing a life that cannot end from the perspective of a man who is already dead. 10


To return once more to my initial question, why can Rousseau not quit writing? On this reading, because of the impossibility that forms his personal catastrophe; he can complete his autobiography neither while he lives nor after he dies, though its completion is essential. But he does of course finish writing the Confessions without actually dying, thereby out-manoeuvring the logic of his situation. How?

As Jean Starobinski aptly points out, Rousseau has a characteristic fondness for doubling himself.11 I have already noted the curious manner in which Rousseau opposes his lived life of excruciating self-awareness to his "natural" life of rustic simplicity, but we can see much the same opposition in the relationship between Emile and his tutor, Saint-Lambert and Wolmar (in his novel Julie), and most of all, in the "Jean-Jacques" and "Rousseau" of the Dialogues. The same technique is employed at the end of the Confessions as Rousseau divides himself and his narrative into two distinct lines, each line embodying a different response to his catastrophe.

As the text reaches a point of maximal incoherence in its final book, it becomes impossible for Rousseau "to impose any order or connexion" on events: "I can do no more than record them in the scattered and isolated form in which they come to mind" [579]. The chaos and disorder repeatedly emphasized here is carried through to the last page of the journal —it can hardly be called a narrative anymore— and the last recorded events are themselves explicitly confused: Rousseau tells us that he believed he was leaving Switzerland for Berlin, when he was in fact en route to England, a result of what he refers to as a "new disaster" that will be described more fully in "the third part of my Confessions, if ever I have the strength to write it" [605]. The book thus ends in an incoherent jumble of false impressions, coupled with the promise of a sequel, which renders seriously problematic whether or not the story has actually ended. It would be more accurate to speak of it as trailing off indefinitely... Rousseau has not abandoned writing —in this voice at least— but he can do no more than record the series of his impressions up to the inevitable point of death. In the first of two strange reversals, the very proximity of the catastrophe ultimately cancels the teleological force it had provided earlier; the velocity of events overpowers Rousseau's ability to retrieve them in memory as anything other than atomic moments. Reflection can no longer get any purchase on a story, but neither can it forgo registering each new and inexplicable event as somehow freighted with undisclosed and perilous significance. Like Sisyphus, the narrator is confined to a senseless Hell of purposeless activity.

And yet in the midst of this disorder, a second Rousseau interrupts the text to enact a narrative of death and rebirth that neatly inverts the eviction from paradise that began his reflective life. While living briefly in Motiers during his long run from Paris to Geneva to England, Rousseau is awakened in the night as his house is pelted with "a hail of stones" [586], the peasants having savagely turned on him . The threat to his life seems to have been quite real in this "catastrophe at Motiers" [585]. But at this moment in the text when he is closest to a real, literal death, when by his own admission he is incapable of meaningfully narrating events, he calmly remarks: "I took this opportunity to carry out a plan which I had been considering for several months, but which I have not yet been able to mention, for fear of interrupting the thread of my story" [587, italics mine]. The secondary narrative thus begun after (almost) dying finds Rousseau "taking leave of [his] age" and "bidding the world farewell" [590], as he sets out to live "the life of the blessed in the other world" [591], "inconsequentially and incoherently... follow[ing] nothing but the whim of the moment" [591-2] on his island of Papinamia.12 In narrative recollection, Rousseau is able to both enact his own death and experience that which follows it, collapsing into the eternal moment of perfect immediacy he praises as the experience of a child, forever bound through lack of memory to an endless reverie. In this alternate ending to the Confessions, the catastrophe is reached, only to be inverted at the moment of totality into the paradise of an eternal present that had always been its opposite pole. The Confessions is thus completed, releasing the now superfluous author to an ephemeral existence in a restored Eden. In what reads as a dream-sequence, Rousseau describes his life on his island retreat in a manner that conjures up the archetypal connections between "crossing the lake" and the peaceful passage through death into the afterworld:

Often when the weather was calm I went off alone... [and] rowed out into the open lake. The moment I left the bank I almost leapt for joy... Then I rowed alone all about the lake, sometimes approaching the shore but never landing. Often, letting my boat drift with the wind and the current, I gave myself up to aimless dreams which, foolish though they were, were none the less delightful. Sometimes I cried out with emotion: 'O Nature! O my mother! I am here under your sole protection'... I could have wished the lake were an ocean [594].13


The catastrophe is thus susceptible to unexpected reversals in meaning; in either storyline, the force it exerts is radically altered in form at the moment when it is most clearly in play. As I have read the figure of the catastrophe, it therefore must strongly resist any attempt at a description conducted solely along any one axis. The catastrophe, instead, is chiasmic; oppositions are not resolved by its presence, but are repeatedly transvalued, their interrelation and mutual dependence exposed.14 From a distance, it is a teleological principle, aligned with temporality, organization, and a strong subject position. The gravitational / narrative pull of the catastrophe inscribes a provisional meaning on the events of Rousseau's life and holds out the promise of an achievable totality. But then, in proximity, it abruptly disavows these capacities. As the text enters the event horizon of the catastrophe, there is a disruption in temporality; events become harder to name, harder to place, and the dimensions and density of the subject caught within this matrix are rendered malleable, permeable. There are thus "two worlds" brought together by the catastrophe, to borrow Starobinski's phrasing: "one infinitely open, the other a closed prison. Rousseau lives in both... Either he is excluded from everything or at one with the entire universe. He is an innocent victim of an unprecedented conspiracy, or he is godlike in his pleasure in himself and in all things."15

The text remains ambivalent about the changes brought about by this proximity to disaster, in one voice experiencing them as eternity, innocence, and evanescence, while in another as chaos, dissolution, and judgement. And this is an ambivalence from which Rousseau never escaped; The Reveries of the Solitary Walker, composed ten years later, are thoroughly permeated by this relentless oscillation, where Jean-Jacques is now in Heaven, now in Hell, within the recollection of each event. But where the Reveries, as the name implies, begin and end with the narrator already thoroughly embedded in a metaphysics of the transitory, what we see in the Confessions is the tragedy of its protagonist, irresistibly drawn by the inner logic of his private teleology to a place outside the reach of any organizing or unifying force. The blind fatality of Rousseau's earlier life is transformed through the catastrophe into either a "darkness ...profound and impenetrable" [584], or, more favourably, into the peaceful exemption from temporality in which he could have wished his lake were an ocean. 16


1. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Confessions. Translated by J. M. Cohen [Penguin Classics: New York, 1953]. All citations are to this source. [return to text]

2. Paul de Man extends the point that I am exploring in the Confessions to incorporate all autobiography: "The interest of autobiography... is not that it reveals reliable self-knowledge —it does not— but that it demonstrates in a striking way the impossibility of closure and of totalization" ["Autobiography as De-Facement," in The Rhetoric of Romanticism. Columbia University Press: New York, 1983], p. 71. [return to text]

3. A diagnosis of which we should be cautious, apt as it seems; starting with Rousseau's self-diagnosis, each generation has offered its own version of the truth about Rousseau's mental and / or physical illness. For an excellent discussion of the varying diagnoses, see Jean Starobinski's essay "On Rousseau's Illness" in his Transparency and Obstruction. Translated by A. Goldhammer [University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1980]. [return to text]

4. In a noteworthy exception, Rousseau does come to recognize that his belief that the Jesuits were conspiring to delay the publication of Emile was his own paranoid delusion [p. 524]. It stands as an exception however, not as the moment of critical awakening, for he does not conclude from this that there is in fact no Great Plot at all, but only that the Jesuits are not behind it. [return to text]

5. Avrom Fleishman, Figures of Autobiography. [University of California Press, Berkeley, 1983], p. 95. [return to text]

6. True to the teaching of the second Discourse on the original goodness of humanity, "the fall" is never construed as Rousseau's fault. Unlike the situation in his biblical source, it is in fact the god's who sin here, imposing an arbitrary eviction that leads to rather than responds to a capacity for reflection and sin. It is fascinating to read these various "falls" against Augustine's account of entering "more deeply into the stormy society of human life" through learning to use language [Confessions. Translated by John Ryan. Image Books: New York, 1960, book 1, chapter 8], or against his famous pear-theft narrative. However, given the common biblical source for each of these writers, and given that Rousseau has already demonstrated a strong investment in the Eden story in his earlier writings, I must reject Ann Hartle's otherwise intriguing proposal that we read Rousseau as consciously and systematically responding to Augustine's text [The Modern Self in Rousseau's Confessions: A Reply to Saint Augustine. University of Notre Dame Press: South Bend Indiana, 1983]. [return to text]

7. It is often said that Rousseau conflates confession with absolution in his text, as if the act of revealing one's sins to the public necessarily led to forgiveness. If there is a psychological justification for this view, it is to be found in the fact that Rousseau no longer feels that his past sins belong to his present life once he has recorded them. [return to text]

8. There are other agendas at work in the Confessions (I certainly don't deny it), but this reasoning leads to a radical, anti-Proustian reconstrual of the function of autobiography. The concepts of "purge" and "forgetting" may have as much of an explanatory role as the more common "retrieval" when we ask why one writes an autobiography. [return to text]

9. Rousseau's more explicitly philosophical works anticipate this structure, given that they are so frequently presented in the oracular voice of a somehow non-historically bound self looking down and describing the grand processes of history. "To philosophize is to practice dying," says Socrates, and at least sometimes, this can mean writing from outside of life, from no fixed address. Paul de Man remarks in this respect that the "dominant figure" of autobiography is always "prosopopoeia, the fiction of the voice-from-beyond-the-grave" ["Autobiography as De-Facement," p. 77]. [return to text]

10. None of this is entirely unique to Rousseau. Instead, it is an aspect of the autobiographical form that Rousseau inherits from his famous predecessor. Saint Augustine's Confessions also hurtles headlong towards death, the moment in which its protagonist collides with his own finitude, but for Augustine, this happens in religious conversion. Deeply wedded to a sacramental understanding of the move from mortal to immortal life, Augustine intends quite clearly to show the "death" of his former life. "Let me not be my own life: Badly have I lived from myself: I was death to myself: in you I live again" [Augustine, Confessions, 12:10]. Rather than suddenly discovering himself trapped by the logic of his project, Augustine's choice of literary forms is guided from the start by an awareness that his protagonist will not survive the narrative. But of course, it is also governed by his abiding faith that there is new life on the other side, and he narrates the story from the position of one reborn, not in the "view from nowhere" of an author pretending to be dead. Rousseau, however, will not sacrifice the certainty of his own self-interpretation, nor abandon his desire for completion and totality. And the Final Judgement that would decisively close his accounts did not coincide with the last word written in his text. [return to text]

11. Tranparency and Obstruction, p. 215. [return to text]

12. "The happy land of sleep:" a place invented by Rabelais as the retreat for the Papal court where "one does nothing" all day; Rousseau in fact was living on Saint Pierre in the middle of the lake of Bienne. [return to text]

13. This short vignette in the Confessions is lovingly expanded in the Reveries to encompass almost the whole of the fifth walk, which surely stands as one of Rousseau's most beautiful pieces of writing, an antidote to the paranoia of the Dialogues. [return to text]

14. Elizabeth de Mijolla generalizes this point: "Rousseau inconsistently assigns, and invariably reassigns, meanings to his recurring figures --never quite fixing the sequence of his life's events, even the epochs of his 'happiness' and his 'misfortunes,' never quite fixing the significance of his individual symbols" [Autobiographical Quests. University of Virginia Press: Charlottesville, 1994], p. 98. [return to text]

15. Transparency and Obstruction, p. 220. [return to text]

16. I would like to thank my anonymous referees at the Journal of Social and Political Thought. Their suggestions have already made this a better paper, and have prompted some interesting new lines of research. [return to text]