IV. LYONS, VENICE, PARIS: 1740-49

The Mably family was a new intellectual stimulus for Rousseau. The provost was the eldest of three distinguished brothers; one was the almost communist Gabriel Bonnot de Mably; another was the almost materialist Abbé Étienne Bonnot de Condillac; and Rousseau met all three. Of course he fell in love with Mme. de Mably, but she was gracious enough to take no notice of it, and Jean-Jacques had to mind his business of educating her two sons. He drew up for M. de Mably a statement of his pedagogical ideas; in part these accorded with the libertarian principles that were to receive their classical romantic exposition in Émile twenty-two years later; in part they contradicted his later rejection of “civilization,” for they recognized the value of the arts and sciences in the development of mankind. Meeting frequently men like Professor Bordes of the Lyons Academy (who was a friend of Voltaire), he imbibed more of the Enlightenment, and learned to laugh at popular ignorance and superstition. But he remained ever adolescent. Peeping into the public baths one day, he saw a young woman quite unencumbered; his heart stopped beating. Back in the stealth of his room he addressed to her a bold but anonymous note:

I hardly dare confess to you, Mademoiselle, the circumstances to which I owe the happiness of having seen you, and the torment of loving you.... It is less that figure, light and svelte, which loses nothing by nudity; it is less that elegant form, those graceful contours; … it is not so much the freshness of lilies spread with such profusion over your person—but that soft blush … which I saw covering your brow when I offered myself to your sight after having unmasked you too mischievously by singing a couplet.43

He was now old enough to fall in love with young women. Almost any presentable girl set him longing and dreaming, but especially Suzanne Serre. “Once—alas, only once in my life!—my mouth touched hers. O memory! shall I lose you in the grave?” He began to think of marriage, but he confessed, “I have nothing but my heart to offer.”44 As this was not legal tender Suzanne accepted another hand, and Rousseau retired to his dreams.

He had not been made to be either a successful lover or a good teacher.

I had almost as much knowledge as was necessary for a tutor, … and the natural gentleness of my disposition seemed calculated for the employment, if hastiness had not mingled with it. When things went favorably, and I saw the pains, which I did not spare, succeed, I was an angel; but when they went contrary I was a devil. If my pupils did not understand me I was hasty; when they showed any symptoms of an untoward disposition I was so provoked that I could have killed them.... I determined to quit my pupils, being convinced that I should never succeed in educating them properly. M. de Mably saw this as clearly as myself, though I am inclined to think he would never have dismissed me had I not spared him the trouble.45

So, sadly resigning or gently dismissed, he took the diligence back to Chambéry, seeking again the solace of Maman’s arms. She received him kindly, and gave him a place at her table with her paramour; but he was not happy in the situation. He buried himself in books and music, and contrived a system of musical notation that used figures instead of notes. When he resolved to go to Paris and submit his invention to the Academy of Sciences everybody applauded his resolution. In July, 1742, he returned to Lyons to seek letters of introduction to notables in the capital. The Mablys gave him letters to Fontenelle and the Comte de Caylus, and Bordes introduced him to the Duc de Richelieu. From Lyons he took the public coach to Paris, dreaming of greatness.

France was at this time engaged in the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-48); but as the conflict was fought on foreign soil, Paris went on with its life of gilded gaiety, intellectual agitation, theaters mouthing Racine, salons sparkling with heresy and wit, bishops reading Voltaire, beggars competing with prostitutes, hawkers crying their wares, artisans sweating for bread. Into this maelstrom came Jean-Jacques Rousseau, aged thirty, in August, 1742, with fifteen livres in his purse. He took a room in the Hotel St.-Quentin, Rue des Cordeliers, near the Sorbonne—“a vile street, a miserable hotel, a wretched apartment.”46 On August 22 he presented to the Academy his Projet concernant de nouveaux signes pour la notation musicale. The savants rejected his project with handsome compliments. Rameau explained: “Your signs are very good, … but they are objectionable on account of their requiring an operation of the mind, which cannot always accompany the rapidity of execution. The position of our notes is described to the eye without the concurrence of this operation.” Rousseau confessed the objection to be insurmountable.47

Meanwhile his letters of introduction had given him access to Fontenelle, who, now eighty-five, was too cautious of his energy to take him seriously; and to Marivaux, who, though busy with success as both novelist and dramatist, read Rousseau’s manuscript comedy Narcisse, and suggested improvements. The newcomer met Diderot, who, one year younger than Jean-Jacques, had as yet published nothing of importance.

He was fond of music, and knew it theoretically; … and he communicated to me some of his literary projects. This soon formed between us a more intimate connection, which lasted fifteen years, and which probably would still exist were not I, unfortunately, … of the same profession as himself.48

With Diderot he went to the theater, or played chess; in that game Rousseau met Philidor and other experts, and “had no doubt but in the end I should become superior to them all.”49 He found entrance to the home and salon of Mme. Dupin, daughter of the banker Samuel Bernard, and struck up a friendship with her stepson, Claude Dupin de Francueil. Meanwhile he could see the bottom of his purse.

He began to look about him for some occupation that would supplement his friends in feeding him. Through the influence of Mme. de Besenval he was offered the post of secretary to the French embassy in Venice. After a long journey made hazardous by the war, he reached Venice in the spring of 1743, and reported to the ambassador, the Comte de Montaigu. This count, Rousseau assures us, was almost illiterate; the secretary had to decipher as well as to compose documents; he presented the messages of the French government to the Venetian Senate in his own person—not having forgotten the Italian he had learned in Turin. He was proud of his new status, and complained that a merchant vessel which he visited gave him no cannonade in salute, though “people of less consequence received it.”50 Master and man quarreled as to who should pocket the fees paid for the secretary’s issuance of passports to France. With his share Rousseau prospered, ate unusually well, attended theater and opera, and fell in love with Italian music and girls.

One day, “not to appear too great a blockhead among my associates,” he visited a prostitute, La Padoana. He asked her to sing; she did; he gave her a ducat, and turned to leave; she refused to take the coin without having earned it. He satisfied her, and returned to his lodgings “so fully persuaded that I should feel the consequences of this step that the first thing I did was to send for the King’s surgeon to ask him for medicine”; but the doctor “persuaded me that I was formed in such a manner as not to be readily infected.”51Some time later his friends gave him a party, at which the pretty harlot Zulietta was to be the prize. She invited him to her room, and disrobed. “Suddenly, instead of being devoured by flame, I felt a deadly chill run through my veins, and sick at heart, I sat down and wept like a child.” He later explained his incapacity on the ground that one of the woman’s breasts was deformed. Zulietta turned upon him in scorn and bade him “leave women alone, and study mathematics.”52

M. de Montaigu, his own salary being in arrears, withheld Rousseau’s. They quarreled again; the secretary was dismissed (August 4, 1744). Rousseau complained to his friends in Paris; an inquiry was sent to the ambassador; he replied: “I must inform you how greatly we have been deceived by the Sire Rousseau. His temper and his insolence, caused by the high opinion he has of himself, and by his madness, are the things that hold him in the state in which we found him. I drove him out like a bad valet.”53 Jean-Jacques returned to Paris (October 11), and presented his side of the matter to officials in the government; they offered him no redress, He appealed to Mme de Besenval, she refused to receive him. He sent her a passionate letter in which we can feel the heat of the distant Revolution:

I was wrong, Madame; I thought you just, and you are only noble [titled]. I should have remembered that. I should have perceived that it was improper for me, a foreigner and plebeian, to complain against a gentleman. If my destiny should ever again put me in the grip of an ambassador of the same stuff, I shall suffer without complaint. If he is wanting in dignity, without elevation of soul, it is because nobility dispenses with all that; if he is associated with all that is vile in one of the most immoral of cities, it is because his ancestors have created enough honor for him; if he consorts with knaves, if he is one himself, if he deprives a servitor of wages, ah, then, Madame, I shall think only how fortunate it is not to be the son of one’s own deeds! Those ancestors—who were they? Persons of no repute, without fortune, my equals; they had talent of some kind, they made a name for themselves; but nature, which sows the seed of good and evil, has given them a pitiful posterity.54

And in the Confessions Rousseau added:

The justice and futility of my complaints left in my mind seeds of indignation against our foolish social institutions, by which the welfare of the public and real justice are always sacrificed to I know not what appearance of order, which does nothing more than add the sanction of public authority to the oppression of the weak and the iniquity of the powerful.55

Montaigu, returning to Paris, sent Rousseau “some money to settle my account.... I received what was offered me, paid all my debts, and remained as before, with not a franc in my pocket.” Re-established at the Hotel St.-Quentin, he supported himself by copying music. When the current Duc d’Orléans, hearing of his poverty, gave him music to copy and fifty louis, Rousseau kept five and returned the rest as overpayment.56

He earned too little to support a wife, but he thought that with stoic economy he could afford a mistress. Among those who ate at his table in the Hotel St.-Quentin were the landlady, some impecunious abbés, and a young woman who served the hotel as laundress or seamstress. Thérèse Levasseur was as timid as Jean-Jacques, and as conscious—though not so proud—of poverty. When the abbés teased her he defended her; she came to look upon him as her protector; soon they were in each other’s arms (1746). “I began by declaring to her that I would never either abandon or marry her.”57 She confessed that she was not a virgin, but assured him that she had sinned only once, and long ago. He forgave her magnanimously, assuring her that a virgin twenty years old was a rarity in Paris in any case.

She was a simple creature, devoid of all charm, free of all coquetry. She could not talk philosophy or politics like a salonnière, but she could cook, keep house, and put up patiently with his strange moods and ways. Usually he spoke of her as his “housekeeper,” and she spoke of him as “my man.” He rarely took her with him on visits to his friends, for she remained permanently adolescent mentally, as he remained permanently adolescent morally.

I at first tried to improve her mind, but in this my pains were useless. Her mind is as nature formed it; it was not susceptible of cultivation. I do not blush in acknowledging she never knew how to read well, although she writes tolerably. … She could never enumerate the twelve months of the year in order, or distinguish one numeral from another, notwithstanding all the trouble I took endeavoring to teach her. She neither knows how to count money, nor to reckon the price of anything. The word which, when she speaks, comes to her mind is frequently the opposite of that which she means to use. I formerly made a dictionary of her phrases to amuse M. de Luxembourg, and her qui pro quosoften became celebrated among those with whom I was most intimate.58

When she became pregnant he “was thrown into the greatest embarrassment”; what could he do with children? Some friends assured him it was quite customary to send unwanted offspring to a foundling asylum. When the infant came this was done, over Thérèse’s protests but with the cooperation of her mother (1747). In the next eight years four other children came, and were disposed of in the same way. Some skeptics have suggested that Rousseau never had any children, and that he invented this story to hide his impotence, but his many apologies for this shirking of responsibility make this theory improbable. He privately confessed his behavior in this matter to Diderot, Grimm, and Mme. d’Épinay;59 he implicitly acknowledged it in Émile; he raged against Voltaire for making it public; in the Confessions he admitted it explicitly, and expressed remorse. He was not made for family life, being a skinless mass of nerves, and a wanderer in body and soul. He missed the sobering care of children, and never quite became a man.

He had the good fortune, about this time, to find lucrative employment. He served as secretary to Mme. Dupin, then to her nephew; and when Dupin de Francueil became receiver-general Rousseau was promoted to cashier at a thousand francs a year. He adopted the gold braid, white stockings, wig, and sword by which men of letters, to get entrance to aristocratic homes, imitated aristocratic dress;60 we can imagine the discomfort of his divided personality. He was received in several salons, and made new friends: Raynal, Marmontel, Duelos, Mme. d’Épinay, and, most intimately and fatally, Fried-rich Melchior Grimm. He attended the exciting dinners at the home of Baron d’Holbach, where Diderot slew gods with what his enemies called the jawbone of an ass. In that den of infidels most of Jean-Jacques’ Catholicism melted away.

Meanwhile he wrote music. In 1743 he had begun a combination of opera and ballet which he called Les Muses galantes, celebrating the loves of Anacreon, Ovid, and Tasso; this was produced in 1745, with some éclat, at the home of the tax collector La Popelinière. Rameau shrugged it off as a pasticcio of plagiarisms from Italian composers, but the Duc de Richelieu liked it, and commissioned Rousseau to revise an opera-ballet, Les Festes de Ramire, tentatively prepared by Rameau and Voltaire. On December 11, 1745, Rousseau wrote his first letter to the literary monarch of France:

For fifteen years I have been working to render myself worthy of your regard, and of the kindness with which you favor young Muses in whom you discover talent. But, through having written the music for an opera, I find myself metamorphosed into a musician. Whatever success my feeble efforts may have, they will be glorious enough for me if they win me the honor of being known to you, and of having shown the admiration and profound respect with which I have the honor of being, sir, your humble and most obedient servitor.61

Voltaire replied: “Sir, you unite in yourself two talents which have always been found separate till now. Here are two good reasons why I should esteem and like you.”

With such love letters began their famous enmity.

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