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David Michael Levin ROUSSEAU'S CURSE Pretext Rousseau is the author of a text he called his Confessions. ' But neither a text nor a confession can exist without a reader, or an other. Like it or not, we readers are participants in the rite of Rousseau's confessions. Do we have anything to confess? When the reading of a confession uncovers the spelling of a curse, so that the self-accused author appears to accuse his readers, the discoverers of the curse can no longer pretend their neutrality and innocence. In fact, the detectives must assume the identity of the accused. In such a special case, then, the inevitable work of textual interpretation magically doubles as the story of a mysteriously elusive "crime" and its final, or anyway presumed detection. But, as in the very best of such stories, neither the skillfully executed crime nor its invisible author—if indeed these terms denote anything at all—need be what they seem. So perhaps the only thing we can say for sure here is that the spelling of the curse is the curse of spelling. And this puts us on the track of a mystery as ancient as the art of writing itself—a mystery whose story the scholars of hermeneutics have thus far preferred to ignore. The mystery I have in mind is the secret affinity between writing and death. A careful hermeneutic approach to Plato's critique of writing, however, may give us a crucial clue. For what binds written language to the power of death is its role in mourning, its incarnation in the form of shadows: black configurations of shadows placed for visibility against the white of the paper. In Plato's Myth of the Cave, the crime of writing is dimly adumbrated. Writing is idolatry, worship of false images, shadows. Rousseau's Confessions, written near the end of his life in the shadow of death, does not escape the shadows of doubt and suspicion which we, his readers, having discovered our own selves inscribed into the darkness of the text, cannot easily refrain from casting. But as soon as we recognize in the shapes of these shadows a suspicion for which 76 David Michael Levin77 we are responsible, we must confess our fatal complicity in the closing of the hermeneutical circle. Commentary on the Text If Rousseau's Confessions does not read like the typical memoir, neither does it read like the typical confession. A final twist awaits us. We read with a certain innocence, or faith, not prepared for the transitive conclusion: the text, as it happens, will bequeath a monstrous and impossible burden. What is the reader to do? How could it be that this man, who seemed to honor us, and won our trust with the candor of his revelations, should so boldly, by one cross conceit, vanish, only to leave us double-crossed and within a labyrinth which, as he would have us believe, we ourselves have wrought? What are we to make of his work? At first, the Confessions appears to be a work of light: with dazzling clarity of mind and courage no less prismatic, Rousseau proposes to take his readers into the gloomy chasms of his soul. "My purpose," he declares, "is to display to my kind a portrait in every way true to nature, and the man I shall portray is myself" (p. 17). That this, however, is not the whole of his intention, we learn through a neighboring sentence. For he says: "Let the last trumpet sound when it will, I shall come forward with this work in my hand, to present myself before my Sovereign Judge, and proclaim aloud: 'Here is what I have done' . . ." (p. 17). And yet, even this does not fully disclose his design, since he concedes, somewhat later, that "it is as if, feeling my life escaping from me, I were trying to recapture it at its beginnings" (p. 31). But in the end, as in the beginning, darkness and light are one. And indeed, deep into the Seventh Book, we see that the author's light does begin to dim, and that he no longer speaks with much assurance. Nor is...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 76-84
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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