- Rousseau’s Dance of Veils: The Confessions and the Imagined Woman Reader
I. Memoir or Confession?
Foucauldian accounts of the novel often emphasize how fiction induces readers to accept as natural ideological fictions whose effect is to constrain their ideas and actions. Nancy Armstrong argues, for example, that in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the novel helped to create the middle-class fiction of separable public and private spheres of life. 1 The novel constituted itself as a domain of feminine authority over matters of the heart and the household and helped create a new concept of identity, according to which individuals could define themselves in terms of their inner qualities rather than social status. Although this new sense of identity at first enfranchised people by helping to create concepts of individual rights and offering a rationale for modern social institutions, Armstrong asserts, it eventually became repressive. 2 Social conflict was displaced onto sexual difference and thereby contained. Novels contributed to this trend by implying that love and marriage could and should resolve class tensions, thereby not only obfuscating social inequity but also enforcing a sexual contract. 3 On women, especially, novels came to have an oppressive effect: the household became women’s domain, but that domain was sequestered from the larger political world, which was the province of men. 4 [End Page 333]
Armstrong suggests that Jean-Jacques Rousseau played an important role in separating the private from the public sphere through the use of language. By promulgating the idea that individuals could reconstitute society according to their own ideas of natural right, Rousseau helped to usher in “an age dominated by the power of discourse rather than force, by cultural hegemony rather than revolution.” 5 Ultimately, Rousseau’s model of the social contract “offered a private solution for problems that were inherently political.” 6 Rousseau’s “strange autobiographical narratives” also took part in this privatization of the subject: in the Confessions and the Rêveries, Rousseau helped to create a private sphere in which “thinking might proceed uninhibited by history and where writing itself appeared to rise from sources within the individual that were independent of the political world.” 7 In Armstrong’s view, the division between Rousseau’s political and personal writings is itself evidence of the growing separation between private and public spheres.
This account of Rousseau concurs with that of many feminist scholars. Joan Landes, for example, argues that Rousseau sought to deprive women of the public influence they wielded under the ancien régime. His vitriolic attacks on eighteenth-century salonnières helped bring about the rigid post-Revolutionary separation of public and private spheres and their characterization as masculine and feminine, respectively. Integral to Rousseau’s strategy was an attempt to prescribe not only what women should and should not do, but also what they should and should not read: women ought to read virtuous, domestic romances, while men should read more arousing romances featuring female characters consenting to men’s sexual advances. Novels were thus meant to enforce gender norms and encourage marriage and procreation. 8 Furthermore, literature in general was to be purged of “feminine” lawlessness and sophistication:
[Rousseau’s] ideal reader would divest himself or herself of the conventions of literature and the trappings of society—would turn innocent eyes on the text. In this state of natural innocence, far from the fashionable salons of society, Rousseau promised his readers that they would find truth, for it was this that mattered, not style....Rousseau asked his readers to jettison all their cultural baggage, to join in a journey toward a transcendent truth beyond literature—but also...beyond the artificiality that women especially represented. 9
It is true that in his political writings Rousseau strenuously advocates separating private from public affairs and confining women to the former. In his published manifesto against the theater, for example, Rousseau argues that no theater should be built in the virtuous republic of Geneva because at the theater women mingle promiscuously with men and lead the latter to forget their manhood. 10 Under the spell of the private, feminine world of the passions, the public, masculine world of reason and...