Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Self-portrait


Manesse Bibliothek der Weltliteratur, published in 1960


This book in the Manesse series of world literature is based on Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “Confessions”, autobiographical records of the born Genevan that span the first 53 years of his life. These confessions, often referred to as the first modern autobiography, are first published in several volumes in 1782 and 1789. In this edition they are completed by a collection of loose manuscripts, titled “Mein Bildnis” (“Self-portrait”), to which we will pay special attention in this review. 


The title of the “Confessions” openly refers to what was the most famous autobiography at the time, the “Confessiones” of Saint Augustine. But while Augustine’s work is a religious one, which can be understood as a confession of guilt as well as a Christian confession of faith, Rousseau’s confessions are of a different nature. They are seminal because they record the author’s personal and, above all, secular experiences, his childhood and his existence as a social being in society.


So in the confessions the reader, in more than 60 short entries, learns all sorts of things about Rousseau the man, his childhood, his first love, his travels, the things he likes and dislikes, his love of Switzerland. This book is not necessarily one for reading from the first to the last page. This treasure chest of intelligent thoughts and anecdotes lends itself beautifully to browsing. In the chapter on passions and aversions, for instance, we learn much about Rousseau’s relation to money. As the son of a lower middle class family with 14 siblings he hardly has a lot of it, something that will not change significantly throughout his life. Money, to him, is above all one thing: a nuisance. If he doesn’t have any, he has to worry about procuring it. If he has some, he doesn’t want to spend it from fear of being out of money again. But what bothers him more than anything is that money itself is never a source of joy, only the things it can buy are. And to acquire these things – delicious food or excellent wine, he needs to go out in public, haggle, pay for overpriced goods and eventually still go home with goods of poor quality – all of this being things he heartily dislikes.


Humility is probably not the first word that comes to mind when you try to describe Rousseau. He opens his confessions with the announcement that his work is unique in the history of mankind and he himself an exceptional human being. But it would be a mistake to reduce his complex and many-faceted personality to its confident or maybe even arrogant tones. In other reports the author is refreshingly honest and approachable. He exposes his neurotic and sociophobic side, and admits to being scared even by the buzzing of a fly and being too nervous in the company of others to utter a full sentence. Here, the idea of the self-portrait from the book’s title comes into play. In the manuscript collection the author points to the difficulty, impossibility even, to represent himself accurately and faithfully without presenting himself even a little bit. So perhaps the episodes of his life can be understood as fragments of a mirror that’s broken into a thousand pieces. Through those fragments we can never see the whole man at once, but we can look at individual facets that, despite their sometimes contradictory nature, slowly come together to build a more complete whole. Rousseau writes that he often understands the world intuitively before being able to put this experience into language: “I feel all, but see nothing.” Perhaps that holds equally true for the reader.


by Teresa Teklić

Signet Sunflower Foundation