“I was born at Geneva in 1712, son of Isaac Rousseau and Suzanne Bernard, citizens.” This last word meant much, for only sixteen hundred of Geneva’s twenty thousand souls had the name and rights of citizen, and this was to enter into Jean-Jacques’ history. His family was of French origin, but had been settled in Geneva since 1529. His grandfather was a Calvinist minister; the grandson remained basically a Calvinist through all the wanderings of his faith. The father was a master watchmaker, imaginative and unstable, whose marriage (1704) brought him a dowry of sixteen thousand florins. After the birth of a son François he left his wife (1705) and traveled to Constantinople, where he remained for six years. Then he came back, for reasons unknown, and “I was the sad fruit of this return.”8 The mother died of puerperal fever within a week of Jean-Jacques’ birth. “I came into the world with so few signs of life that little hope was entertained of preserving me”; an aunt nursed and saved him, for which, he said, “I freely forgive you.” This aunt sang well, and may have given him his lasting taste for music. He was precocious and soon learned to read, and, since Isaac loved romances, father and son read together the romances left in the mother’s little library; Jean-Jacques was brought up on a mixture of French love stories, Plutarch’s Lives, and Calvinist morality, and the mixture unsteadied him. He described himself accurately enough as “at once haughty and tender, a character effeminate and yet invincible, which, fluctuating between weakness and courage, luxury and virtue, has ever set me in contradiction to myself.”9
In 1722 the father quarreled with a Captain Gautier, gave him a bloody nose, was summoned by the local magistrate, fled from the city to escape imprisonment, and took up residence at Nyon, thirteen miles from Geneva. A few years later he married again. François and Jean-Jacques were taken over by their uncle Gabriel Bernard. François was apprenticed to a watchmaker, ran away, and disappeared from history. Jean-Jacques and his cousin Abraham Bernard were sent to a boarding school operated by Pastor Lambercier at the neighboring village of Bossey. “Here we were to learn Latin, with all the insignificant trash that has obtained the name of education.”10 The Calvinist catechism was a substantial part of the curriculum.
He liked his teachers, especially the pastor’s sister, Mlle. Lambercier. She was thirty, Jean-Jacques was eleven, so he fell in love with her, after his own queer fashion. When she whipped him for some misbehavior he took delight in suffering at her hands; “a degree of sensuality mingled with the smart and shame, which left more desire, than fear, of a repetition.”11 When he offended further, the pleasure he took in the chastisement became so obvious that she resolved never to whip him again. A masochistic element remained in his erotic make-up till the end.
Thus I passed the age of puberty, with a constitution extremely ardent, without knowing or even wishing for any other gratification of the passions than what Miss Lambercier had innocently given me an idea of; and when I became a man that childish taste, instead of vanishing, only associated with the other. This folly, joined to a natural timidity, has always prevented me from being very enterprising with women, so that I have passed my days languishing in silence for those I most admired, without daring to disclose my wishes. . . .
I have now made the first and most difficult step in the obscure and painful maze of my Confessions. We never feel so great a degree of repugnance in divulging what is really criminal, as what is merely ridiculous.12
It is possible that in later life Rousseau found an element of pleasure in feeling himself buffeted by the world, by his enemies, and by his friends.
Next to Mlle. Lambercier’s chastisements he enjoyed the magnificent scenery that surrounded him. “The country was so charming … that I conceived a passion for rural life which time has not been able to extinguish.”13 Those two years at Bossey were probably the happiest that he ever experienced, despite his discovery of injustice in the world. Punished for an offense that he had not committed, he reacted with lasting resentment, and thereafter he “learned to dissemble, to rebel, to lie; all the vices common to our years began to corrupt our happy innocence.”14
He never advanced further in formal or classical education; perhaps his lack of balance, judgment, and self-control and his subordination of reason to feeling were in part due to the early end of his schooling. In 1724, aged twelve, he and his cousin were recalled to the Bernard household. He visited his father at Nyon, and there fell in love with a Mlle. Vulson, who rejected him, and then with Mlle. Goton, who, “while she took the greatest liberties with me, would never permit any to be taken with her in return,”15 After a year of vacillations he was apprenticed to an engraver in Geneva. He liked drawing, and learned to engrave watchcases, but his master beat him severely for some minor offenses, and “drove me to vices I naturally despised, such as falsehood, idleness, and theft.” The once happy boy turned into a morose and unsociable introvert.
He consoled himself with intense reading of books borrowed from a nearby library, and with Sunday excursions into the countryside. On two occasions he dallied so long in the fields that he found the city gates closed when he tried to return; he spent the night in the open, reported for work half dazed, and received a special thrashing. On a third such occasion the memory of these beatings made him resolve not to return at all. Not yet sixteen (March 15, 1728), without money, and with nothing but the clothes on his back, he marched on to Confignon in Catholic Savoy, some six miles away.
There he knocked at the door of the village priest, Père Benoît de Pontverre. Perhaps he had been told that the old curé was so anxious to convert stray Genevans that he fed them well on the theory that a full stomach makes for an orthodox mind. He gave Jean-Jacques a good dinner, and bade him “go to Annecy, where you will find a good and charitable lady whom the bounty of the king enables to turn souls from those errors she has happily renounced.”16 This, Rousseau adds, was “Mme. de Warens, a new convert, to whom the priests contrived to send those wretches who were disposed to sell their faith; and with these she was in a manner constrained to share a pension of two thousand francs bestowed upon her by the King of Sardinia.” The homeless youth thought a part of that pension might be worth a Mass. Three days later, at Annecy, he presented himself to Mme. Françoise-Louise de La Tour, Baronne de Warens.
She was twenty-nine, pretty, gracious, gentle, generous, charmingly dressed; “there could not be a more lovely face, a finer neck, or handsome arms more exquisitely formed”;17 altogether she was the best argument for Catholicism that Rousseau had ever seen. Born in Vevey of good family, she had been married, quite young, to M. (later Baron) de Warens of Lausanne. After some years of painful incompatibility she left him, crossed the lake into Savoy, and won the protection of King Victor Amadeus, then at Evian. Domiciled at Annecy, she accepted conversion to Catholicism, with the conviction that if her religious ritual were correct God would pardon her an occasional amour; besides, she could not believe that the gentle Jesus would send men—surely not a beautiful woman—to everlasting hell.18
Jean-Jacques would gladly have stayed with her, but she was occupied; she gave him money, and bade him go to Turin and receive instruction in the Hospice of the Holy Spirit. He was received there on April 12, 1728, and on April 21 he was baptized into the Roman Catholic faith. Writing thirty-four years later—eight years after his return to Protestantism—he described with horror his experience in the hospice, including an attempt upon his virtue by a Moorish fellow catechumen; he imagined that he had approachedconversion with revulsion, shame, and long delays. But apparently he adjusted himself to the conditions that he found in the hospice, for he remained there, uncompelled, over two months after being received into the Church of Rome.19
He left the hospice in July, armed with twenty-six francs. After a few days of sightseeing he found work in a store to which he had been drawn by the good looks of the lady behind the counter. He fell in love with her at once; soon he knelt before her and offered her a lifetime of devotion. Mme. Basile smiled, but let him go no further than her hand; besides, her husband was expected at any minute. “My want of success with women,” says Rousseau, “has ever proceeded from my having loved them too well”;20 but it was his nature to find greater ecstasy in contemplation than in fulfillment. He relieved his tumescence by “that dangerous supplement which deceives nature, and saves young men of my temperament from many disorders, but at the expense of their health, their vigor, and sometimes their life.”21 This practice, made hectic by terrifying prohibitions, may have played a secret role in promoting his irritability, his romantic fancies, his discomfort in society, his love of solitude. Here the Confessions are frank beyond precedent:
My thoughts were incessantly occupied with girls and women, but in a manner peculiar to myself. These ideas kept my senses in a perpetual and disagreeable activity. … My agitation rose to the point where, unable to satisfy my desires, I inflamed them with the most extravagant maneuvers. I went about seeking dark alleys, hidden retreats, where I might expose myself at a distance to persons of the [other] sex in the state wherein I would have wished to be near them. That which they saw was not the obscene object—I did not dream of that; it was the ridiculous object [the buttocks]. The foolish pleasure which I had in displaying it before their eyes cannot be described. From this there was but a step to the desired treatment [whipping]; and I do not doubt that some resolute woman, in passing, would have given me the amusement, if I had had the audacity to continue. . . .
One day I went to place myself at the back of a court in which was a well where the young women of the house often came to fetch water…. I offered to the girls … a spectacle more laughable than seductive. The wisest among them pretended to see nothing; others began to laugh; others felt insulted, and raised an alarm.
Alas, no girl offered to beat him; instead a guardsman came, with heavy sword and frightful mustache, followed by four or five old women armed with brooms. Rousseau saved himself by explaining that he was “a young stranger of high lineage, whose mind was deranged,” but whose means might enable him later to reward their forgiveness. The “terrible man was touched,” and let him go, much to the discontent of the old women.22
Meanwhile he had found employment as a liveried footman in the service of Mme. de Vercellis, a Turinese lady of some culture. There he committed a crime which weighed on his conscience through the rest of his life. He stole one of Madame’s colorful ribbons; when charged with the theft he pretended that another servant had given it to him. Marion, who was quite innocent of the theft, reproached him prophetically: “Ah, Rousseau, I thought you were of a good disposition. You render me very unhappy, but I would not be in your situation.”23 Both were dismissed. The Confessions adds:
I do not know what became of the victim of my calumny, but there is little probability of her having been able to place herself agreeably after this, as she labored under an imputation cruel to her character in every respect. … The painful remembrance of this transaction … has remained heavy on my conscience to this day; and I can truly say that the desire to relieve myself in some measure from it has contributed greatly to the resolve to write my Confessions.24
Those six months as a footman left a mark on his character; with all his consciousness of genius he never achieved self-respect. A young priest whom he met while serving Mme. de Vercellis encouraged him to believe that his faults could be overcome if he would sincerely seek to approach the ethics of Christ. Any religion, said “M. Gaime,” is good if it spreads Christian conduct; hence he suggested that Jean-Jacques would be happier if he returned to his native habitat and faith. These views of “one of the best men I ever knew” lingered in Rousseau’s memory, and inspired famous pages in Émile. A year later, in the Seminary of St.-Lazare, he met another priest, Abbé Gâtier, a “very tender heart,” who missed advancement because he had conferred pregnancy upon a maiden in his parish. “This,” remarks Rousseau, “was a dreadful scandal in a diocese severely good, where the priests (being under good regulation) ought never to have children—except by married women.”25 From “these two worthy priests I formed the character of the Savoyard Vicar.”
Early in the summer of 1729 Rousseau, now seventeen, felt again the call of the open road; moreover, he hoped that with Mme. de Warens he might find some employment less galling to his pride. Along with a jolly Genevan lad named Bâcle, he marched from Turin to and through the Mont Cenis pass of the Alps to Chambéry and Annecy. His romantic pen colored the emotions with which he approached Mme. de Warens’ dwelling. “My legs trembled under me, my eyes were clouded with a mist, I neither saw, heard, nor recollected anyone, and was obliged frequently to stop that I might draw breath and recall my bewildered senses.”26 Doubtless he was uncertain of his reception. How could he explain to her all his vicissitudes since leaving her? “Her first glance banished all my fears. My heart leaped at the sound of her voice. I threw myself at her feet, and in transports of the most lively joy I pressed my lips upon her hand.”27 She did not resent adoration. She found a room for him in her house; and when some eyebrows rose she said, “They may talk as they please, but since Providence has sent him back, I am determined not to abandon him.”