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The Economy of Maternal Loss in Rousseau's Confessions Mary Jane Cowles JEAN-JACQUES ROUSSEAU, whose literary self-accusations inaugurated the modern autobiography, is certainly one of literature's most notorious breast-beaters. It is ironic, yet appropriate, too, that this thinker, whose theology rests upon a concept of humanity free from original sin,1 should wallow so tirelessly in an atmosphere of guilt and self-justification in his autobiographical writing. For the speculative assertion of a guiltless origin serves to imaginatively veil feelings of self-blame and ultimately provides Jean-Jacques with a kind of compensation for such feelings. Indeed, as much as Les Confessions dramatically exhibit the workings of guilt, they also reveal a contradictory logic of compensation. Rousseau's narrative begins with his own pre-history—the story of his parents' romance and marriage, of his father's absence following the birth of an older brother, and his father's return. The purpose of this brief sketch in the very first pages of Lei Confessions is to found the maternal legend, to mark a place for the mother in the narrative which will serve as a reference point for later developments in Jean-Jacques's life. It is also, but for its tragic conclusion , a charming, nearly pastoral romance, an idyll replete with obstacles to his parents' marriage, departure and suffering, return, continued perseverance and its reward. It represents exactly the kind of tender, virtuous love—a form of the word tendre occurs three times in the three paragraphs devoted to their romance—that Rousseau idealizes in all his writing. Thus, Jean-Jacques's birth proves that he is the fruit and the object-to-be of his parents' desire—at least in his version of it. Unfortunately, however, his birth occasions an expulsion from this paradise of tendresse: "Dix mois après, je naquis infirme et malade; je coûtai la vie à ma mère, et ma naissance fut le premier de mes malheurs " (I, 7). Many critics have noted that this birth can be said to constitute the source of Jean-Jacques's diffused guilt:2 the mere fact of his existence is criminal since he "cost his mother her life." But for others, such a view is too simplistic . According to Starobinski in La Transparence et l'obstacle, "Le sens de la faute n'est pas ce qui résulte de la mort de sa mère ou de l'abandon de ses enfants. C'est bien plutôt ce qui l'incite à abandonner ses enfants, et à interpr éter la mort de sa mère comme un crime qui lui serait imputable" (295). In Vol. XXXIX, No. 2 11 L'Esprit Créateur drawing attention to this contradiction, Starobinski echoes Freud: "In many criminals, especially youthful ones, it is possible to detect a very powerful sense of guilt which existed before the crime, and is therefore not its result but its motive. It is as if it was a relief to be able to fasten this unconscious sense of guilt on to something real and immediate."3 In an attempt to locate the source for Rousseau's feelings of guilt, Pierre-Paul Clément speculates that they arise from a constellation of factors, including: the puritanical attitudes of his mother-substitute, tante Suzon; the precariousness of her status, since she was just a "borrowed" mother; Jean-Jacques's continued need to please her, in part by repressing his own sexual feelings; a family structure dominated by the "false," that is, asexual, couple of father and aunt; the repetition of this "false" couple later at Bossey in the brother-sister pair (the minister Lambercier and his sister Gabrielle); the father's idolization of Jean-Jacques and his brother's subsequent jealousy; Jean-Jacques's early and chronic urinary malady; and, finally, the repressive and omnipresent morality of Genevan society (79-87). Clement's arguments convincingly paint a fuller picture of the etiology of Rousseau's behaviors, reflected in Les Confessions and elsewhere: exhibitionism , masochism, persecution complex, latent homosexuality, to name a few. However, what I propose to examine here is precisely Rousseau's interpretation of the maternal as the site and sign of culpability, the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1931-0234
Print ISSN
0014-0767
Pages
pp. 11-19
Launched on MUSE
2010-06-24
Open Access
No
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