He was intensely attracted to her, like any youth in proximity with a femme de trente ans. He furtively kissed the bed on which she had slept, the chair she had sat on, “nay, the floor itself when I considered she had walked there”28 (here we suspect that romance got the better of history); and he was furiously jealous of all who competed with him for her time. She let him purr, and called him petit chat (little cat) and enfant; gradually he resigned himself to calling her Maman. She employed him to write letters, keep her accounts, gather herbs, and help in her alchemical experiments. She gave him books to read—The Spectator, Pufendorf, Saint-Évremond, Voltaire’s Henriade. She herself liked to browse in Bayle’s Dictionnaire historique et critique. She did not let her theology discommode her; and if she enjoyed the company of Father Gros, superior of the local seminary, it might be because he helped to lace her stays. “While he was thus employed she would run about the room, this way or that as occasion happened to call her. Drawn by the laces, M. le Supérieur followed grumbling, repeating at every moment, Tray, Madame, do stand still’; the whole forming a scene truly diverting.”29
It was perhaps this jolly priest who suggested that though Jean-Jacques gave every sign of stupidity he might digest enough education to make him a village curé. Mme. de Warens, glad to find a career for him, agreed. So in the fall of 1729 Rousseau entered the Seminary of St.-Lazare, and prepared for priesthood. By this time he had become accustomed to Catholicism, even fond of it;30 he loved its solemn ritual, its processions, music, and incense, its bells that seemed to proclaim, every day, that God was in his heaven, and that all was—or would be—right with the world; besides, no religion could be bad that charmed and forgave Mme. de Warens. But he had received so little formal education that he was first subjected to a concentrated course in the Latin language. He could not suffer its declensions, conjugations, and exceptions patiently; after five months of effort, his teachers sent him back to Mme. de Warens with the report that he was “a tolerably good lad,” but not fit for holy orders.
She tried again. Having observed his flair for music, she introduced him to Nicoloz Le Maître, organist at the Annecy cathedral. Jean-Jacques went to live with him through the winter of 1729-30, consoled by being only twenty paces from Maman. He sang in the choir and played the flute; he loved the Catholic hymns; he was well fed, and happy. All went well except that M. Le Maître drank too much. One day the little choirmaster quarreled with his employers, gathered his music in a box, and left Annecy. Mme. de Warens bade Rousseau accompany him as far as Lyons. There Le Maître, overcome with delirium tremens, fell senseless in the street. Frightened, Jean-Jacques called the passers-by to his aid. He gave them the address which the music master was seeking, and then fled back to Annecy and Maman. “The tenderness and truth of my attachment to her had uprooted from my heart every imaginable project, and all the follies of ambition. I conceived no happiness but in living near her, nor could I take a step without feeling that the distance between us was increased.”31 We must remember that he was still only eighteen years old.
When he reached Annecy he found that Madame had left for Paris, and no one knew when she would return. He was desolate. Day after day he walked aimlessly into the countryside, comforting himself with the colors of spring and the pretty chatter of doubtless amorous birds. Above all he loved to rise early and watch the sun lifting itself triumphantly above the horizon. On one of these rambles he saw two damsels on horseback, urging their reluctant mounts to ford a stream. In a burst of heroism he caught one horse by the bridle and led it across, while the other followed. He was about to go on his way, but the girls insisted upon his accompanying them to a cottage where he might dry his shoes and stockings. At their invitation he leaped up behind Mlle. G. “When it became necessary to clasp her in order to hold myself on, my heart beat so violently that she perceived it”;32 at that moment he began to outgrow his infatuation for Mme. de Warens. The three youngsters spent the day picnicking together; Rousseau progressed to kissing one girl’s hand; then they left him. He returned to Annecy exalted, and hardly minded that Maman was not there. He tried to find those mademoiselles again, but failed.
Soon he was on the road once more, this time accompanying Mme. de Warens’ maid to Fribourg. Passing through Geneva “I found myself so affected that I could scarcely proceed, … the image of [republican] liberty so elevated my soul.”33 From Fribourg he walked to Lausanne. Of all writers known to history he was the most devoted walker. From Geneva to Turin to Annecy to Lausanne to Neuchâtel to Bern to Chambéry to Lyons he knew the road and drank in gratefully the sights, odors, and sounds.
I love to walk at my ease, and stop at leisure; a strolling life is necessary for me. Traveling on foot, in a fine country, with fine weather, and having an agreeable object to terminate my journey, is the manner of living most suited to my taste.34
Uncomfortable in the society of educated men, shy and wordless before beautiful women, he was happy when alone with woods and fields, water and sky. He made Nature his confidante, and in silent speech told her his loves and dreams. He imagined that the moods of Nature entered at times into a mystic accord with his own. Though he was not the first to make men feel the loveliness of Nature, he was her most fervent and effective apostle; half the nature poetry since Rousseau is part of his lineage. Haller had felt and described the majesty of the Alps, but Rousseau made the slopes of Switzerland along the northern shore of the Lake of Geneva his special realm, and he sent down through the centuries the fragrance of their terraced vines. When he came to choose a site for the home of his Julie and Wolmar he placed them here, at Clarens between Vevey and Montreux, in a terrestrial paradise mingling mountains, verdure, water, sun, and snow.
Unsuccessful in Lausanne, Rousseau moved to Neuchâtel: “Here, … by teaching music, I insensibly gained some knowledge of it.”35 At nearby Boudry he met a Greek prelate who was soliciting funds for restoring the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem; Rousseau joined him as interpreter, but at Soleure he left him and walked out of Switzerland into France. On this walk he entered a cottage and asked might he buy some dinner; the peasant offered him barley bread and milk, saying this was all he had; but when he saw that Jean-Jacques was not a tax collector he opened a trapdoor, descended, and came up with wheat bread, ham, eggs, and wine. Rousseau offered to pay; the peasant refused, and explained that he had to hide his better food lest he suffer additional taxation. “What he said to me … made an impression on my mind that can never be effaced, sowing seeds of that inextinguishable hatred which has since grown up in my heart against the vexations these unhappy people bear, and against their oppressors.”36
At Lyons he spent homeless days, sleeping on park benches or the ground. For a time he was engaged to copy music. Then, hearing that Mme. de Warens was living at Chambéry (fifty-four miles to the east), he set out to rejoin her. She found work for him as secretary to the local intendant (1732-34). Meanwhile he lived under her roof, his happiness only moderately lessened by the discovery that her business manager, Claude Anet, was also her lover. That his own passion had subsided appears from a unique passage in the Confessions:
I could not learn, without pain, that she lived in greater intimacy with another than with myself. … Nevertheless, instead of feeling any aversion to the person who had this advantage over me, I found the attachment I felt for her actually extended to him. I desired her happiness above all things, and since he was concerned in her plan of felicity, I was content he should be happy likewise. Meantime he entered perfectly into the views of his mistress; he conceived a sincere friendship for me; and thus … we lived in a union which rendered us mutually happy, and which death alone could dissolve. One proof of the excellence of this amiable woman’s character is that all who loved her loved each other, even jealousy and rivalry submitting to the more powerful sentiment with which she inspired them; and I never saw any of those who surrounded her entertain the least ill will among themselves. Let the reader pause a moment in this encomium, and if he can recollect any other woman who deserves it, let him attach himself to her if he would obtain happiness.37
The next step in this polygonal romance was just as contrary to all the rules of adultery. When she perceived that a neighbor, Mme. de Menthon, aspired to be the first to teach Jean-Jacques the art of love, Mme. de Warens, refusing to surrender this distinction, or desiring to keep the youth from less tender arms, offered herself to him as mistress, without prejudice to her similar services for Anet. Jean-Jacques took eight days to think it over; long acquaintance with her had made him filial rather than sensual in his thoughts of her; “I loved her too much to desire her.”38 He was already suffering from the ailments that were to pursue him to the end—inflammation of the bladder and stricture of the urethra. Finally, with all due modesty, he agreed to her proposal.
The day, more dreaded than hoped for, at length arrived. … My heart confirmed my engagements without desiring the prize. I obtained it nevertheless. I saw myself for the first time in the arms of a woman, and a woman whom I adored. Was I happy? No. I tasted pleasure, but I know not what invincible sadness poisoned the charm. I felt as if I had committed incest. Two or three times, while pressing her with transport in my arms, I deluged her bosom with my tears. As for her, she was neither sad nor gay; she was caressingly tranquil. Since she was hardly at all sensual, and had not at all sought pleasure, she had in this no ecstasy, and she never felt remorse.39
Recalling this epochal event, Rousseau ascribed Madame’s maneuvers to the poison of philosophy.
I repeat, all her failings were the result of her error, never of her passions. She was well born, her heart was pure, her manners noble, her desires regular and virtuous, her taste delicate; she seemed formed for that elegant purity of manners which she ever loved but never practiced, because, instead of listening to the dictates of her heart, she followed those of her reason, which led her astray. … Unhappily, she piqued herself on philosophy, and the morality which she drew from it spoiled that which her heart proposed.40
Anet died in 1734. Rousseau left his post with the intendant and took over the management of Madame’s business affairs. He found them perilously confused, near bankruptcy. He brought in some income by teaching music; in 1737 he received three thousand francs falling due from his mother’s legacy; he spent part of this on books, and gave the rest to Mme. de Warens. He fell ill, and Maman nursed him tenderly. As her dwelling had no garden, she rented (1736) a suburban cottage, Les Charmettes. There “my life passed in the most absolute serenity.” Though he “never loved to pray in a chamber,” the outdoors stirred him to thank God for the beauty of nature, and for Mme. de Warens, and to ask the divine blessing on their union. He was at this time firmly attached to the Catholic theology, with a somber Jansenist tinge. “The dread of hell frequently tormented me.”41
Bothered by “the vapors”—a then fashionable form of hypochondria—and thinking that he had a polypus near his heart, he traveled by stagecoach to Montpellier. En route he eased his melancholy by allegedly consummating a liaison with Mme. de Larnage (1738), mother of a fifteen-year-old girl. Returning to Chambéry, he found that Mme. de Warens was trying a similar cure, having taken as her new lover a young wigmaker named Jean Wintzenried. Rousseau protested; she called him childish, and assured him that there was room in her love for two Jeans. He refused to “thus degrade her,” and proposed to resume his status quo ante as son. She professed consent, but her resentment at being so readily surrendered cooled her affection for him. He retired to Les Charmettes and took to philosophy.
Now for the first time (c. 1738) he became conscious of the Enlightenment breezes that were blowing from Paris and Cirey. He read some works of Newton, Leibniz, and Pope, and browsed in the maze of Bayle’s Dictionnaire. He took up Latin again, made more progress by himself than formerly with teachers, and managed to read bits of Virgil, Horace, and Tacitus, and a Latin translation of Plato’s Dialogues. Montaigne, La Bruyère, Pascal, Fénelon, Prévost, and Voltaire came to him as a dizzy revelation. “Nothing that Voltaire wrote escaped us”; indeed, it was Voltaire’s books that “inspired me with a desire to write elegantly, and caused me to endeavor to imitate the colorings of that author, with whom I was so enchanted.”42 Insensibly the old theology that had been the frame of his thoughts lost its form and rigor; and he found himself entertaining without horror a hundred heresies that would have seemed scandalous to his youth. An almost passionate pantheism replaced the God of the Bible. There was a God, yes, and life would be meaningless and unbearable without him; but he was not the external, vengeful deity conceived by cruel and fearful men, he was the soul of Nature, and Nature was fundamentally beautiful, and human nature was basically good. On this and Pascal Rousseau would build his philosophy.
In 1740 Mme. de Warens found a post for him as tutor to the children of M. Bonnot de Mably, grand provost of Lyons. He parted from her with no reproach on either side; she prepared his wardrobe for the trip, and wove some garments for it with her own once entrancing hands.