Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Birthday Boy

Happy birthday, you wild child!

Today, June 28, is Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s 300th birthday. Although it’s hard to imagine philosophers as squalling newborns, in Rousseau’s case, it makes sense. His whole philosophy hinges on the idea that we humans are born good but, along the way of making civilization, we manage to destroy what’s good in ourselves. From the moment the umbilical cord is cut, Rousseau essentially says, we systematically obliterate our real nature, which is one of benevolent beings happily living a simple existence.

But for someone living in any complex society since the Industrial Revolution, Rousseau’s philosophy is not only difficult to believe (aren’t education, exposure to the arts, technological progress inarguably good things?), but inconvenient to practice—even in small instances, such as bringing up his ideas for discussion in a 21st-century college class. None of this has prevented me from loving Rousseau’s complex, contradictory, and exhilaratingly exasperating philosophy ever since first encountering it as a sophomore, in a college course in political philosophy.

Why would a young college student who was just discovering the solitary joys of painting pictures become obsessed with the one and only Enlightenment thinker who ferociously attacked the very value of art (and science as well)? And why would that young college student never manage to break with the almost ubiquitously maligned Rousseau, never manage to put him to the side and forget him? Or, if she was going to stay with him, why couldn’t she have found a way to concentrate on his sweeter side—the side expressed in, for example, his Reveries, where he walks in a “lonely meditation on nature”?

By what perverse twist of fate would this painter read and reread Rousseau’s famous Letter to M. D’Alembert on the Theater (1758), which not only castigates the arts as destabilizers of people’s innate goodness (by encouraging vanity, competition, needless sophistication, and by introducing troubling ideas to people who don’t need them), but includes a lengthy foray into why women are equipped by nature—which culture can never override—to be the more modest of the sexes? Why would someone who went to college during the high point of the Sexual Revolution take to a philosopher who explains romantic love as an invention of women to keep straying males by their sides after the hot sex is over and the babies come along?

To this day, I find I am provoked by Rousseau’s furious, counterintuitive argument that theater (and by implication all the arts, as Allan Bloom convincingly argues in his introduction to his Politics and the Arts: Letter to M.D’Alembert on the Theater) enslaves us to false and superficial values. To this day I continually ponder Rousseau’s fundamental idea—that art, instead of ennobling us, and offering paths to better and more meaningful lives, mostly makes for miserable modern creatures instead of free and happy ones.

In the Letter, Rousseau’s argument—which relies heavily on Plato—is both clever and subtle. Art by nature both agitates and seduces us, Rousseau says. Its fundamental effect on us is to wreak havoc on our own lives—to make us long to get away from them. Art makes us long to become what we are not, and in longing to be what we are not, we end up self-conscious and obsessed with how we appear to others. In a word, we become vain.  To Rousseau, art is so alluring that even in the face of evidence that it can and does corrupt people, and lead them to do bad things (or at the very least, seriously consider doing bad things), we cling tenaciously to the argument that art always makes us better. (In the last century, in California, arts education organizations put out thousands of bumper stickers saying, “You Gotta Have Art”—a pun on the song lyric, “you gotta have heart.”) In truth, art makes our own lives seem dull and lacking in excitement, and makes us yearn for something else.

Moreover, because art is essentially about pleasure, artists relentlessly work to please their audiences. Artists may love to make art for it’s own sake, but they’re also considerably driven by fame. (It may not be a pop star’s fame, it may be fame among a certain, select cohort, but it’s fame nevertheless.) As for the adoration of actors—which we do today even more than people in 1758, when Rousseau wrote the Letter—Rousseau is aghast. What’s to admire in actors other than that they have an exceptional ability to fool others into believing that they are what they are not? In real life, we call such people con artists; only in art do we praise the talent of deceit.

Voltaire, who initially admired Rousseau, ended up concluding that the man had gone mad. He had a point. On several occasions, Rousseau exhibited more than a touch of paranoia, and he behaved in bizarre, anti-social, self-centered ways (like an artist, one might say) throughout his entire life. But Rousseau piques a passionate interest in those who understand the human condition to be riven by contradictory forces. We are the animal with the big fat brain who cannot reconcile our passions with the reason that our big fat brains give us.

As for those artists like me who are bored to tears by today’s platitudinous, deadening encomiums about how “art challenges us to understand” or “forces the viewer to confront” some sociopolitical issue, “negotiates” or “privileges” or “valorizes” or “maps” this or that transgendered, transgressive, nomadic, or hybridized subject, Rousseau’s brilliant railings against man’s infatuation with art offer a road back to discovering the awe lurking in art.

In addition to being a brilliant philosopher (the brilliance is in his work, not in my too-brief summary here), Rousseau was himself an artist: musical composer, novelist, and diarist confessing to every lie he ever told. He understood the power of art not just philosophically, but in a participant’s visceral sense. This meant he comprehended the power of art’s potential to make us unhappy, and wrote about it convincingly. Naturally (pun intended), a whole lot of people—especially those working in the arts, or hoping to work in them–loathe Rousseau’s philosophy. But I don’t. Reading Rousseau never fails to upset, but it keeps me aware of the downsides of art—vanity, lusting after fame, and “originality” for originality’s sake—and keeps me searching for a deeper meaning in art. So, Happy Birthday, Jean-Jacques, you terrible, wonderful, troublemaker, you.

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