In December, 1750, Rousseau suffered so severely from his bladder ailment that he was confined to his bed for six weeks. This misfortune increased his tendency to melancholy and privacy. His rich acquaintances sent him their own physicians, but the medical science of the time had not equipped them to help him. “The more I submitted to their direction, the yellower, thinner, and feebler I became. My imagination … presented to me, on this side of the tomb, nothing but continued sufferings from the gravel, stone, and retention of urine. Everything which gave relief to others—ptisans, baths, and bleeding—increased my tortures.”88
Early in 1751 Thérèse presented him with a third child, which followed its predecessors to the foundling asylum. He later explained that he was too poor to bring up children, that they would have been ruined by being reared by the Levasseurs, and that they would have played havoc with his work as a writer and a musician. His sickness had compelled him to resign his position and income as cashier for Dupin de Francueil; henceforth he supported himself chiefly by copying music at ten sous the page. Through the negligence of Diderot, or the parsimony of the publishers, Rousseau received nothing from the sale of his Discourse. His music proved more profitable than his philosophy.
On October 18, 1752, through Duelos’ influence, Rousseau’s operetta, Le Devin du village, was presented before King and court at Fontainebleau, and with such success that it was repeated there a week later. A performance for the public in Paris (March 1, 1753) won a wider acclaim, and the retiring author found himself again a celebrity. The little intermède, for which Rousseau had written both words and music, was almost an obbligato to the Discourse: the shepherdess Colette, saddened by the flirtations of Colin with urban demoiselles, is instructed by the village soothsayer to win him back by flirtations of her own; Colin, jealous, returns, and together they sing ballads praising rural as against city life. Rousseau attended the première, and was almost reconciled to society:
There is no clapping before the King; therefore everything was heard, which was advantageous to the author and the piece. I heard about me the whispering of women, who appeared as beautiful as angels. They said to one another, in a low voice: “This is charming; this is ravishing; there is not a sound that does not go to the heart.” The pleasure of giving this emotion to so many amiable persons moved me to tears; and these I could not restrain in the first duet, when I observed that I was not the only person who wept.89
That evening the Duc d’Aumont sent him word to come to the palace the next morning at eleven to be presented to the King; and the messenger added that the King was expected to give the composer a pension. But Rousseau’s bladder vetoed the plan.
Will it be believed that the night of so brilliant a day was for me a night of anguish and perplexity? My first thought was that after being presented I should frequently want to retire; this had made me suffer very considerably at the theater, and might torment me the next day, when I should be in the gallery or in the King’s apartment, amongst all the great, waiting for the departure of his Majesty. My infirmity was the principal cause which prevented me from mixing in polite companies and enjoying the conversation of the fair. … None but persons who are acquainted with this situation can judge of the horror which being exposed to the risk of it inspires.90
So he sent word that he could not come. Two days later Diderot reproved him for missing such a chance to provide more fitly for himself and Thérèse. “He spoke of the pension with more warmth than, on such a subject, I should have expected from a philosopher. … Although I was obliged to him for his good wishes, I could not relish his maxims, which produced a heated dispute, the first I ever had with him.”91 He was not without some profit from his Devin. Mme. de Pompadour liked it so well that she herself played the part of Colette in its second presentation at the court; she sent him fifty louis d’or, and Louis sent him a hundred.92 The King himself, “with the worst voice in his kingdom,” went around singing Colette’s sad aria “J’ai perdu mon serviteur”—a premonition of Gluck.
Meanwhile Rousseau prepared articles on music for the Encyclopédie . “These I executed in great haste, and consequently very ill, in the three months that Diderot had allowed me.” Rameau criticized these contributions severely in a pamphlet, Erreurs sur la musique dans l’Encyclopédie (1755). Rousseau amended the articles, and made them the basis of a Dictionnaire de la musique (1767). His contemporaries, excepting Rameau, rated him “a musician of the very first order”;93 we should now consider him as a goodcomposer in a minor genre; but he was without question the most interesting writer on music in that generation.
When a troupe of Italian opera singers invaded Paris in 1752, a controversy flared up on the relative merits of French versus Italian music. Rousseau leaped into the fray with a Lettre sur la musique française (1753), “in which,” said Grimm, “he proves that it is impossible to compose music to French words; that the French language is altogether unfit for music; that the French have never had music, and never will.”94 Rousseau was all for melody. “We sang some old song,” he wrote in his Rêveries, “which was far better than modern discord”;95 what age has not heard that plaint? In the article “Opéra” in his Dictionnaire de la musique he gave a cue to Wagner: he defined opera as “a dramatic and lyrical spectacle which seeks to reunite all the charms of the beaux arts in the representation of a passionate action. … The constituents of an opera are the poem, the music, and the decoration: the poetry speaks to the spirit, the music to the ear, the painting to the eye. … Greek dramas could be called operas.”96
About this time (1752) Maurice-Quentin de La Tour portrayed Rousseau in pastel.97 He caught Jean-Jacques smiling, handsome, and well-groomed; Diderot condemned the portrait as unfair to the truth.98 Marmontel described Rousseau as seen in these years at d’Holbach’s dinners: “He had just gained the prize … at Dijon.... A timid politeness, sometimes … so obsequious as to border on humility. Through his fearful reserve distrust was visible; his lowering eyes watched everything with a look full of gloomy suspicion. He seldom entered into conversation, and rarely opened himself to us.”99
Having so forcefully denounced science and philosophy, Rousseau was ill at ease among the philosophes who dominated the salons. His Discourse had committed him to the defense of religion. Mme. d’Épinay tells how, at a dinner given by Mme. Quinault, the hostess, finding the talk too irreverent, begged her guests to “respect at least natural religion.” “No more than any other,” retorted the Marquis de Saint-Lambert, lately Voltaire’s rival for Mme. du Châtelet, and soon to be Rousseau’s for Mme. d’Houdetot. Mme. d’Épinay continues:
At this answer Rousseau became angry, and muttered something which made the company laugh at him. “If,” he said, “it is cowardice to allow anyone to speak ill of an absent friend, it is a crime to allow anyone to speak ill of his God, who is present; and I believe in God, Messieurs.” … Turning to Saint-Lambert I said, “You, Monsieur, who are a poet, will agree with me that the existence of an eternal being, all powerful and supremely intelligent, is the germ of the most beautiful enthusiasm.” “I confess,” he replied, “that it is beautiful to see this God inclining his face to the earth, … but it is the germ of the follies—” “Monsieur,” interrupted Rousseau, “if you say one word more I shall leave the room.” In fact he had left his seat, and was seriously meditating flight, when the Prince de—was announced,100
and everybody forgot the subject of the debate. If we may believe Mme. d’Épinay’s Memoirs, Rousseau told her that these atheists well deserved eternal hell.101
In the preface to his comedy Narcisse— which was played by the Comédie Française on December 18, 1752—Rousseau renewed his war on civilization. “The taste for letters always announces in a people the commencement of a corruption which it very soon accelerates. This taste arises in a nation only from two evil sources … : idleness, and the desire for distinction.”102 Nevertheless he continued till 1754 to attend d’Holbach’s “synagogue” of freethinkers. There one day Marmontel, Grimm, Saint-Lambert, and others heard the Abbé Petit read a tragedy that he had composed. They found it lamentable, but praised it handsomely; the abbé had too much wine in him to perceive their irony, and swelled with content. Rousseau, resenting the insincerity of his friends, fell upon the abbé with a merciless tirade: “Your piece is worthless; … all these gentlemen are mocking you; go away from here, and return to be vicar in your village.”103 D’Holbach reproved Rousseau for his rudeness; Rousseau left in anger, and for a year he stayed away.
His companions had destroyed his Catholicism, but not his faith in the fundamentals of Christianity. His boyhood Protestantism came to the surface again as his Catholicism subsided. He idealized the Geneva of his youth, and thought that he would be more comfortable there than in a Paris that irked his soul. If he returned to Geneva he would regain the proud title of citizen, with the exclusive privileges that this implied. In June, 1754, he took the coach to Chambéry, found Mme. de Warens poor and unhappy, opened his purse to her, and went on to Geneva. There he was welcomed as a repentant prodigal son; he seems to have signed a statement reaffirming the Calvinist creed;104 the Genevan clergy rejoiced in the reclamation of an Encyclopedist to their evangelical faith. He was reinstated as a citizen, and thereafter proudly signed himself “Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Citoyen”
I was so impressed with the kindness shown me … by the [civic] council and the [ecclesiastical] consistory, and by the great civility and obliging behavior of the magistrates, ministers, and citizens, that … I did not think of going back to Paris except to break up housekeeping, find a situation for Monsieur and Madame Levasseur, or provide for their subsistence, and then return with Thérèse to Geneva, there to settle for the rest of my days.105
He could now appreciate more thoroughly than in his boyhood the beauty of the lake and its shores. “I preserved a lively remembrance of … the farther end of the lake, and of this, some years afterward, I gave a description in La Nouvelle Héloïse”. The Swiss peasants entered into the bucolic idyl he was to write in that novel: they owned their farms, were free from poll tax and corvée, busied themselves with domestic crafts in winter, and stood contentedly apart from the noise and strife of the world. He had in mind the small city-states of Switzerland when he described his political ideal in Le Contrat social.
In October, 1754, he left for Paris, promising to be back soon. Voltaire arrived in Geneva two months after Rousseau’s departure, and settled down at Les Délices. In Paris Jean-Jacques resumed his friendship with Diderot and Grimm, but not as trustfully as before. When he learned that Mme. d’Holbach had died, he wrote the Baron a tender letter of condolence; the two men were reconciled, and Rousseau again sat at table with the infidels. For three years more he was, to all appearances, one of the philosophes; his new Calvinist creed sat lightly on his thoughts. He was absorbed now in seeing through the press his second Discourse, which was to be more world-shaking than the first.