Friday, January 15, 2016

Book #62 - Confessions (Jean-Jacques Rousseau)

Tonight I'm sipping on a can of Olympia Beer.  Yep, Olympia a can.  Olympia was once a popular beer in the Pacific Northwest, and in the 1970s Olympia Brewing Company was the 9th largest brewer in the United States.  You can even see Clint Eastwood drinking an Olympia in the movie "Magnum Force".  That's right, classic 1970s cool and manly Clint Eastwood, not the crazy old Clint who talked to a chair at the 2012 Republican National Convention.  But then Olympia Beer faded.  Business mistakes were made, and the brewery got bought, then bought again.  Today Olympia is brewed by the Pabst Brewing Company and is hard to find.  And when you find it, like I did, you can enjoy that delicious golden taste, that, um...well, OK, it's kind of a swill beer.  BUT, and it's a big but, this stuff cost me $8 for a 12-pack.  Yeah, sure, I could afford a $15 six-pack of some limited-batch Belgian quadruple IPA, but when I see 12-pack of beer for $8 my inner college student kicks in and I just buy it.  Then I drink the swill and use it as inspiration to type out more swill, which you are now reading.  So be it.  Hold on, time for another can...

Oh yeah, that's delicious.  Well, OK, maybe not delicious, but it's definitely cool and wet.  I put a slice of lime in this one, which helps the taste, plus it prevents scurvy.  Yeah, that's it...I mostly drink this stuff for my health.

And speaking of health, I've been getting what seems like over 1000 e-mails a day, wondering where I am and if I died and if I will ever continue with this blog and my project of reading these 105 books before I die.  And by "what seems like over 1000 e-mails" I actually mean no e-mails.  Regardless, no, I am not dead, and no, I have not given up this blog or on my reading.  Nor have I gotten Alzheimer's or any other brain disease which is preventing me from finishing this project.  Um, at least as far as I know.  Although maybe the Olympia will have this effect...that remains to be determined.  But the reality is that I just haven't read anything on my blog list for quite awhile.  Sometimes you have to put down the classics and just read some crappy stuff for a bit.  You know, to cleanse the palette...which is exactly what this Olympia is doing.  Of course, it's also re-polluting my palette as well.

Anyway, to start out 2016 on a blog-positive note, I got a frenzy of inspiration and plowed through Jean-Jacques Rousseau's "Confessions".  Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) was a French dude and one of the philosophes, which was the name given to the intellectuals who spearheaded the Enlightenment in the 18th century.  The Enlightenment was an intellectual movement that promoted reason and liberty and tolerance, and pushed back against the abuses of religious orthodoxy and absolute monarchy.  That much I knew before reading this book.  But aside from Voltaire's "Candide" (which it turns out was partially written in response to Rousseau's optimism) I'd never read anything by an Enlightenment writer.  This book wasn't a quick read, but I ended up enjoying it more than I thought I would.  Indeed, it's one of those books that I almost enjoy more when I think back upon it than when I was first reading it.

Rousseau's "Confessions" is considered the first non-spiritual autobiography.  Augustine wrote his "Confessions" over a thousand years earlier, but that work is more about his religious and spiritual journey (or so I'm told...I haven't read it yet, but it is on my blog list).  Rousseau starts out his confessions with the words "I have resolved on an enterprise which has no precedent and which, once complete, will have no imitator. My purpose is to display to my kind a portrait in every way true to nature, and the man I shall portray will be myself."  And while he doesn't confess as much as a more modern autobiography would, I can imagine that the details he goes into would have shocked the good folk living in the late 1700s.  It's like the equivalent of an 18th century reality show!  For example in the early part of the book he talks about two sexual proclivities of his.  One started when he was about 10 years old, and was boarding with a minister and his wife.  He got into trouble and the wife spanked him, and from then on he seems to have gotten greatly aroused by spanking, especially by older women.  He also as a boy had a penchant for exposing himself to women in public places.  Hehe, whatever turns you on, bro!

One of the fascinating things to me about Rousseau's life story is how different it was growing up in the 1700s than now.  Rousseau's mother died a few days after he was born, and he was raised by his dad until he was 10, when his dad had to flee Geneva (where Rousseau was born) to avoid a lawsuit. At this point, Rousseau's uncle raised him a bit, but then shipped him off to the aforementioned minister's to live for awhile.  At age 13 he apprenticed with an engraver who would beat him, so he ran away and met a Catholic priest who introduced him to a 29 year-old noblewoman Françoise-Louise de Warens.  He ended up living with her on and off (and eventually became her lover), but also wandered around the countryside supporting himself as a servant, as a tutor, or just off of various scams.  I mean the dude just totally bounced around.  There was no high school to college to grad school to job life-path like there is today.  It seems that people, including Rousseau, just had to wing it.  It made me wonder how many other geniuses like him just fell by the wayside because they couldn't figure out how to survive in such a harsh world.  It was also apparent that just knowing someone who could help you went a long way.  It was totally who you knew, who could recommend you to someone else, who knew someone who could help you, etc.  That still matters a lot today, but not as much as back then, I think, when no one had SAT scores or college transcripts to help back them up.

At the age of 31 Rousseau finally got his first "real" job, working as a secretary for the French ambassador to Venice.  Everyone there seems to have recognized his talent and intelligence except for the ambassador, who treated him like shit and stiffed him much of his pay.  He left in disgust after about a year and moved to Paris.  It was here that stuff really started to happen for him.  First, he met his girlfriend and eventual wife Thérèse Levasseur.  Thérèse was an uneducated seamstress, who he ended up knocking up about five times.  When they were born, Rousseau insisted that she give up the babies to an orphanage, which she did.  It's not clear to me why he insisted on this.  He says at various times in the book it's because he couldn't educate them like he wanted, or he wasn't rich enough to raise kids, or he simply didn't want them growing up around Thérèse's family, who frankly sound like a bunch of 18th century Parisian rednecks.  Regardless, the whole giving up his children thing strikes me as a dick move, as it struck some of his contemporaries too, apparently.

It was also in Paris that he met and became good friends with Denis Diderot.  Diderot is a key figure in the Enlightenment, and was the organizer of a huge project called the Encyclopédie.  The Encyclopédie was the world's first encyclopedia, and in it Diderot attempted to write down and systematize all the world's knowledge.  Diderot enlisted many of his fellow Enlightenment intellectuals and writers to write articles for the Encyclopédie, with Rousseau being one of them.  This, along with a winning essay contest entry he wrote about whether science and the arts were morally beneficial, won him widespread fame and regard as a writer.  He also wrote music, and had a successful opera called "The Village Soothsayer" performed in 1752.  Things were looking good for him after his early years of floundering about.

But his lifestyle of an independent writer and intellectual in 18th century France never really got easy.  He seems to have been often been dependent on rich patrons to put him up in nice country houses where he could write and think real hard.  (Side note - it cracks me up that it appears that country houses in those days were located a mile or two outside of town, where today you would probably find strip malls and fast food franchises).  And as his fame magnified and his ideas became more well known, he was persecuted by local authorities everywhere for his writings, which the conservative authorities of the day found shocking and sacrilegious.  His books got burned and warrants were issued for his arrest.  Indeed after the period covered by the "Confessions" (they end in 1765 and Rousseau died in 1778) Rousseau had to flee the continent altogether and go hang out in England for awhile to escape persecution.  But what was even more of a problem was his falling out with various noblemen and noblewomen and patrons and fellow intellectuals.  This was one of the more confusing parts of the "Confessions" for me.  Rousseau has falling outs with a lot of people, including his old buddy Diderot.  Rousseau claimed that Diderot and a mutual friend of theirs, a journalist named Grimm, conspired against him.  To me it seemed like, yeah maybe that happened, but it also seems like Rousseau could be a bit of a prickly character himself, so it made it hard for me to believe one could get the whole story from this book alone.  Rousseau also gets in fights with wealthy patrons.  He seems to have hated the idea of being dependent on anyone, and even declined a pension offer from the king of France just because he wanted to be an independent thinker and his own man.  Admirable, yes, but one does have to play the game to get along.

One other thing that's hard to glean from this book alone is exactly why Rousseau became such a popular figure among the people, and why he was so reviled by the authorities.  For this, I would have to read his other works.  I may do this, but if I do it will be awhile (after all, I have to finish my reading for this blog!).  Alas, I will just have to take this part on faith for the time being.  But regardless, this book was a fascinating look at life in the 1700s, and you really feel like you get to know Rousseau, warts and all.  I only wish he were here, so I could offer him a cold can of Olympia and ask him why the hell he abandoned his kids, as we sat back and watched some soft core spanking porn on Cinemax.  Knowing him as I do from reading this book, I think we'd have a good time...until he tasted the Olympia.