The Writing of Paranoia - Jean-Jacques Rousseau - ANTOINE LILTI

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A N T O I N E L I LT I The Writing of Paranoia: Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the Paradoxes of Celebrity On Saturday, February 24, 1776, Jean-Jacques Rousseau visited the cathedral of Notre Dame carrying a manuscript. This manuscript, on which he had been working for four years, was entitled Rousseau, Judge of Jean-Jacques; it was meant as a denunciation of a plot against Jean-Jacques and a defense of his innocence. Not knowing to whom he should give the manuscript, as he suspected his closest frie
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   ANTOINE LILTI The Writing of Paranoia: Jean-Jacques Rousseauand the Paradoxes of Celebrity  O n Saturday, February 24, 1776,Jean-Jacques Rousseau visitedthe cathedral of Notre Dame carrying a manuscript. This manuscript, on which he had been working for four years, was entitled Rousseau, Judge of  Jean-Jacques  ; it was meant as a denunciation of a plot against Jean-Jacquesand a defense of his innocence. Not knowing to whom he should give themanuscript, as he suspected his closest friends of belonging to the conspir-acy, Rousseau preferred to confide his text to “Providence.” And so he de-cided to leave the manuscript on the great altar of Notre Dame, in the hopethat it would be found and given to the king. God and the king: nothing less was needed to break the circle of conspiracy and do justice to Jean-Jacques.But a terrible surprise was waiting for him. As he approached the altar, hefound that the chancel was separated from the nave by a grate that he hadnever before noticed, and that blocked his way. It was a dreadful shock: “I was overcome by a dizziness like a man with apoplexy, and this dizziness wasfollowed by an upheaval of my whole being” wrote Rousseau in a text hecomposed afterwards, and added to the manuscript as an appendix. 1 “Allthe more struck by the unforeseen obstacle because I hadn’t told anyone of my project, I believed in my initial transport that I was seeing Heaven itself collaborate in the iniquitous work of men.” And this revelation tore fromhim a “murmur of indignation.”Did God himself belong to the plot? Is it possible to imagine a morestriking image of paranoia? It is worth noting that this famous episode, afterall, is only known to us because Rousseau himself tells the story, in a text in which the denunciation of the plot takes on such incredible dimensions, ap-proaching delirium, that the suspicion of madness weighs on every page. It ishardly an unremarkable fact that this text, of which critics long held an ex-ceedingly poor opinion, is one of the least read and least discussed of its53  ABSTRACT This article proposes a historical account of Rousseau’s paranoid writings by showinghow he experienced the contradictions of celebrity, which deeply transformed his status as a writerand his relations with readers. It thus stresses some hitherto unnoticed paradoxes of the eighteenth-century public sphere./ R  EPRESENTATIONS 103. Summer 2008 © The Regents of the University of California. ISSN 0734–6018, electronic ISSN 1533–855X, pages 53–83. All rights reserved. Direct requestsfor permission to photocopy or reproduce article content to the University of California Press at http:// www.ucpressjournals.com/reprintinfo.asp.DOI:10.1525/rep.2008.103.1.53.  author’s works. Yet it is precisely on this text that I would like to concentrateto address the question of Rousseau’s madness from the perspective of socialand cultural history.Is it reasonable to bring up yet again the question of Jean-JacquesRousseau’s paranoia? The topic has given rise to a considerable numberof diagnoses and controversies, both medical and methodological. Early psychopathological approaches to paranoia owe a great deal to Rousseau,as psychiatrists in the early twentieth century made the “case of Rousseau”a privileged subject of analysis, offering a multitude of hypotheses and ver-dicts. 2 Literary critics have generally rejected the psychiatric categories that cast Rousseau within retrospective diagnoses, but they remain divided on thepertinence of psychoanalytic approaches. One of the most famous of thesecritics, Jean Starobinski, has left an enduring mark on the field of Rousseaustudies with a reading of the texts that is based both on a stylistic analysis andon an interpretation partially inspired by psychoanalytical concepts. Yet theextreme rigor and care with which Starobinski described the psychologicalstructure of Rousseau’s personality, based on a painstaking reading of thetexts, has not prevented other authors from challenging the legitimacy of such approaches. Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man rejected the idea that Rousseau’s psychology could be accessible through his writings, as if thereexisted a sort of “pre-text” of which the works were a product, and to whichthey served as a key. 3  As for philosophers and historians of ideas, they havemostly tried to confine the question of Rousseau’s madness to the “extratex-tual” sphere of his biography, the better to preserve the integrity of his theo-retical and philosophical works ( The Social Contract  ,  Emile  , The Discourse on Inequality  ). It is true that Rousseau’s adversaries did not hesitate to disqualify his work by relating it to his madness. But for this very reason, Rousseau ex-perts have often succumbed to the opposite temptation: namely, to safe-guard the theoretical coherence of the work—especially its philosophicalportion—by excluding the most disturbing texts in which Rousseau de-nounced the conspiracy of which he claimed to be the victim.But can we really rule out Rousseau’s paranoia in this way? The wager Iam making in this article is that it is possible to analyze his paranoia from thehistorian’s perspective—not, of course, in order to determine the truth of Rousseau’s madness, still less to treat him as a pathological personality, but rather to probe his paranoia for what it reveals about the transformation of the status of writers in this period and, more broadly, about the ways peopleseek for social and personal recognition. For what we call Rousseau’s para-noia, the most visible sign of which was a syndrome of persecution, was first and foremost, as we will see, a distorted understanding of the way other peo-ple saw him. 4 It is therefore a pathology of recognition that operates in therelationship between Rousseau and his readers and concerns the well-known R  EPRESENTATIONS 54  public personality that he became. It therefore requires us to confront thefollowing question: why did the most famous and celebrated writer of his day become convinced that he was unanimously hated by his contemporaries?Could this paradox not have something to teach us about the status of authorsin Enlightenment society and about literary success as a “test of greatness”? 5 Inother words, the problem of Rousseau’s paranoia is not a biographical one,and still less a psychopathological one. It is a problem of social history, whichputs celebrity, as a particular form of consecration, into question. As an object of historical enquiry, celebrity has not received enough at-tention. It is too often assumed that celebrity is a recent notion, associated with mass media or even with contemporaneous transformations of the pub-lic sphere, but I argue that the mechanisms of celebrity and the uses of the word can be traced back to the eighteenth century. 6 In French, the word célébrité  (translated in English as either celebrity or fame) has been in fre-quent use since the second half of the eighteenth century and the Frantext lexical database reveals a historical peak during the decades 1760–80. Inthese same years when Rousseau was writing Rousseau, juge de Jean-Jacques  , hiscontemporary Nicolas Chamfort coins this definition of celebrity: “the privi-lege of being known by people who don’t know you,” stressing the essentialdistinction between reputation—in small networks of mutual acquaintance—and celebrity. Celebrity, thus, can be defined as a specific form of notoriety,in which a person is well known, during his lifetime, by people who don’t know him personally but who may identify with him. This new mode of so-cial recognition, different from glory, reputation, or even fame, appeared, at the end of the eighteenth century, to be a consequence of important socialand cultural shifts, with the growth of publishing, the rise of literacy, and thedevelopment of newspapers. 7 Celebrity brought about unexpected resultsfor certain writers who had to come to terms with their public image, withthe expectations of their readers and their admirers, and with discoursesand rumors about them. If the century of the Enlightenment has often beenpresented as the one that saw the birth of modern public opinion, it is also,as we shall see, that of the first celebrities: specifically, those great writers to whom one pays quasi-ritual visits and writes letters. 8 Rousseau’s celebrity, like Voltaire’s, has been much studied. But what isintriguing is Rousseau’s ambivalent feeling of anguish about celebrity. Thequestion I am addressing here is therefore not whether Rousseau was in-sane, but rather what his obsession with persecution tells us about dramaticchanges in the way writers were recognized and legitimized. My hypothesis isthat Rousseau experienced in a particularly sharp manner the paradoxes of celebrity, to which he was exposed more than others because he became,during his own lifetime, such a famous person and such a successful author.But the image of himself that the public reflected back at him was one that  The Writing of Paranoia: Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the Paradoxes of Celebrity  55  Rousseau could neither accept nor escape. What his paranoid writing revealsis his difficulty in maintaining his own image of himself while in the publiceye. But the paradox is that Rousseau himself eagerly sought celebrity andstrongly put forward his personal image as an author writing for a wide pub-lic, not just for social elites. He constantly blurred the distinction between in-timacy and publicity, making his private life a public matter and a literary topic. Thus what we call his paranoia may be deeply rooted in his concep-tion of reading and his representations of an ideal public.In order to support this hypothesis, it seems pertinent to examine thecore of the paranoid syndrome rather than its margins, so as to grasp thespecificity of Rousseau’s writing. Let us, therefore, begin with this too littleread, yet crucial text: Rousseau, Judge of Jean-Jacques  , to understand it throughthe lens of Rousseau’s trajectory as a writer and to reinterpret this trajectory,in turn, in light of a text that fully expresses all the contradictions of his posi-tion as an author. In the Heart of Conspiracy  The text entitled Rousseau, Judge of Jean-Jacques  , but also known asthe  Dialogues  , was written between 1772 and 1776 in a discontinuous pro-cess, by successive accretions, which makes it quite difficult to date the dif-ferent parts with any precision. It was written in a context of solitude andisolation, during Rousseau’s last stay in Paris. It was only published after hisdeath: 1780 for the first dialogue and 1782 for the complete text (in vol-ume 11 of Rousseau’s first complete Works  ). 9 Curiously, the release of thisunpublished work drew little attention. Those who reacted to the text in-sisted on the madness of the author, often in very strong terms. For thecritic Jean-François La Harpe, this piece of writing was “the strangest per-haps to have ever existed, and the most shameful for the human spirit.” 10  Jacques-Henri Meister did not doubt that “in writing this Rousseau was per-fectly insane,” and the Mémoires Secrets de la République des Lettres  speaks of a“dark imagination, exalted to the point of delirium.” 11 Even more signifi-cant, admirers of Rousseau such as Johann-Gottfried Herder convincedthemselves that the book was a forgery published by Rousseau’s adversariesin order to harm him. 12 Later commentators were no more indulgent to- ward the text. Rousseau specialists, and literary critics in general, either ne-glected it or treated it with contempt. It was not until the 1930s that apositive judgment appeared. In this “expression of delirium” Pierre Tra-hard saw a “powerful and dark work, where our own well-bounded inanity finds nothing but madness.” 13 But it was Michel Foucault who first devoteda serious study to the  Dialogues  , in the preface to its first freestanding publi-cation in 1962. 14 R  EPRESENTATIONS 56
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