We get an exceptionally pleasant picture of Jean-Jacques in Boswell’s report of five visits to him in December, 1764. The inescapable idolator had solemnly sworn (October 21) “neither to talk to an infidel, nor to enjoy a woman, before seeing Rousseau.”68 On December 3 he set out from Neuchâtel for Môtiers-Travers. At Brot, halfway, he stopped at an inn, and asked the landlord’s daughter what she knew about his prey. Her reply was disconcerting:
“Monsieur Rousseau often comes and stays here several days with his housekeeper, Mademoiselle Levasseur. He is a very amiable man. He has a fine face. But he doesn’t like to have people come and stare at him as if he were a man with two heads. Heavens! The curiosity of people is incredible. Many, many people come to see him, and often he will not receive them. He is ill, and doesn’t wish to be disturbed.”69
Of course Boswell went ahead. At Môtiers he put up at the village inn and
prepared a letter to M. Rousseau, in which I informed him that an ancient Scots gentleman of twenty-four was come hither with the hopes of seeing him. I assured him that I deserved his regard. … Towards the end of my letter I showed him that I had a heart and soul. … The letter is really a masterpiece. I shall ever preserve it as proof that my soul can be sublime.70
His letter—in French—was a subtle mixture of deliberate naïveté and irresistible adulation:
Your writings, Sir, have melted my heart, have elevated my soul, have fired my imagination. Believe me, you will be glad to have seen me.... O dear Saint-Preux! Enlightened Mentor! Eloquent and amiable Rousseau! I have a presentiment that a truly noble friendship will be born today.... I have much to tell you. Though I am only a young man, I have experienced a variety of existence that will amaze you. … But I beg you, be alone.... I know not if I would not prefer never to see you than to see you for the first time in company. I await your reply with impatience.71
Rousseau sent word that he might come if he promised to make his visit short. Boswell went, “dressed in a coat and waistcoat, scarlet with gold lace, buckskin breeches, and boots. Above all, I wore a greatcoat of green camlet lined with foxskin fur.” The door was opened by Thérèse, “a little, lively, neat French girl.” She led him upstairs to Rousseau—“a genteel black [dark-complexioned] man in the dress of an Armenian.... I asked him how he was. ‘Very ill, but I have given up doctors.’ “Rousseau expressed admiration for Frederick, scorn for the French—“a contemptible nation,” but “you will find great souls in Spain.” Boswell: “And in the mountains of Scotland.” Rousseau spoke of theologians as “gentlemen” who “provide a new explanation of something, leaving it as incomprehensible as before.” They discussed Corsica; Rousseau said he had been asked to draw up laws for it; Boswell began his lasting enthusiasm for Corsican independence. Presently Rousseau dismissed him, saying that he wished to go for a walk by himself.
On December 4 Boswell returned to the siege. Rousseau talked with him for a while, then dismissed him: “You are irksome to me. It’s my nature, I cannot help it.” Boswell: “Do not stand on ceremony with me.” Rousseau: “Go away.” Thérèse saw Boswell to the door. She told him, “I have been twenty-two years with Monsieur Rousseau; I would not give my place to be queen of France. I try to profit by the good advice he gives me. If he should die, I shall have to go into a convent.”72
Boswell was at the door again on December 5. Rousseau sighed, “My dear sir, I am sorry not to be able to talk with you as I would wish.” Boswell “waived such excuses,” and stirred conversation by saying “I had turned Roman Catholic and intended to hide myself in a convent.” Rousseau: “What folly!” … Boswell: “Tell me sincerely, are you a Christian?” Rousseau “struck his breast and replied, ‘Yes, I pique myself on being one.’ “Boswell (who suffered from melancholy): “Tell me, do you suffer from melancholy?” Rousseau: “I was born placid. I have no natural disposition to melancholy. My misfortunes have infected me with it.” Boswell: “What do you think of cloisters, penances, and remedies of that sort?” Rousseau: “Mummeries, all of them.” Boswell: “Will you, sir, assume [spiritual] direction of me?” Rousseau: “I cannot.” Boswell: “I shall come back.” Rousseau: “I don’t promise to see you. I am in pain. I need a chamber pot every minute.”73
That afternoon, in the maison du village, Boswell wrote a fourteen-page “Sketch of My Life,” and sent it to Rousseau. It confessed one of his adulteries, and asked, “Is it possible for me yet to make myself a man?” He returned to Neuchâtel, but was back at Rousseau’s door on December 14. Thérèse told him her master was “very ill.” Boswell persisted; Rousseau received him. “I found him sitting in great pain.” Rousseau: “I am overcome with ailments, disappointments, and sorrow. I am using a probe [a urethral dilator]. Everyone thinks it my duty to attend to him. … Come back in the afternoon.” Boswell: “For how long?” Rousseau: “A quarter of an hour, and no longer.” Boswell: “Twenty minutes.” Rousseau: “Be off with you!”—but he could not help laughing.
Boswell was-back at four, dreaming of Louis XV. “Morals appear to me an uncertain thing. For instance, I should like to have thirty women. Could I not satisfy that desire?” “No.” “But consider, if I am rich, I can take a number of girls; I get them with child; propagation is thus increased. I give them dowries, and I marry them off to good peasants who are very happy to have them. Thus they become wives at the same age as would have been the case if they had remained virgins, and I, on my side, have had the benefit of enjoying a great variety of women.” Then, having made no impression with this royal hypothesis, he asked, “Pray tell me how I can expiate the evil I have done?” Rousseau made a golden answer: “There is no expiation for evil except good.”74 Boswell asked Rousseau to invite him to dinner; Rousseau said, “Tomorrow.” Boswell returned to the inn “full of fine spirits.”
On December 15 he dined with Jean-Jacques and Thérèse in the kitchen, which he found “neat and cheerful.” Rousseau was in good humor, with no sign of the mental disturbances that were later to appear. His dog and cat got along well together and with him. “He put some victuals on a trencher, and made his dog dance around it. He sang … a lively air with a sweet voice and great taste.” Boswell talked about religion. “The Anglican Church is my choice.” Rousseau: “Yes, but it is not the Gospel.” “You have no liking for Saint Paul?” “I respect him, but I think he is partly responsible for muddling your head. He would have been an Anglican clergyman.”
Mlle. Levasseur: “Shall you, sir, see Monsieur de Voltaire?” Boswell:
“Most certainly.” Then to Rousseau: “Monsieur de Voltaire has no liking for you.” Rousseau: “One does not like those whom one has greatly injured. His talk is most enjoyable; it is even better than his books.” Boswell overstayed his welcome, but when he left, Rousseau “kissed me several times, and held me in his arms with elegant cordiality.” When Boswell reached the inn the landlady said, “Sir, I think you have been crying.” “This,” he adds, “I retain as a true eulogium of my humanity.”75