- Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius
The biographer of an individual known primarily as an author, and especially of someone identified foremost as a philosopher, faces a difficult choice akin to the mind-body problem in philosophy. The would-be biographer can choose to write the life of the individual human being, the life of the body in time and space, and then interpret the subject's writings or thought in terms of the life lived. Or [End Page 574] the aspiring biographer might instead compose an intellectual biography, a life of the mind, and then treat the incidents of the subject's life as background to the independent, even disembodied, creation of that mind. Of course, this is an overly schematic characterization of the problem, but the biographer nevertheless customarily and perhaps even necessarily confronts at least a decision about emphasis. Ars longa, vita brevis?
The title of Leo Damrosch's biography of Rousseau reveals this very tension between mind and body: Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius. Was it Rousseau's "genius," his thought, "restless" in the sense of developing or changing? Or was Jean-Jacques himself, the individual, the "restless" one, characteristically—not philosophically—peripatetic? Damrosch clearly opts for the restless man, and his biography is foremost a telling of the eventful life of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Since the events of Rousseau's career as a thinker and author are part of his doings from day to day and year to year, at least after a certain point in his life, they too are included in Damrosch's biography, but the life of the mind is seen by Damrosch largely in terms of the life of the man. In other words, Damrosch has chosen to write the life of the individual rather than to compose an intellectual biography.
As a life of Jean-Jacques Rousseau from his birth in Geneva in 1712 to his death in Ermenonville in 1778, Damrosch's biography is generally a success. The promotional materials from the publisher claim—with an exclamation of surprise given Rousseau's prominence and historical importance—that Damrosch's book is the first single-volume of Rousseau in English. This claim is not quite true, since F.C. Green published a "life and writings" biography in 1956, and it is also a bit disingenuous, since there are several multi-volume biographies, including Lester Crocker's (1968–73) acerbic two-volume treatment and Maurice Cranston's (1983–1999) fine three-volume effort. Then there are numerous biographies of Rousseau in French, notably the charming and thoughtful analysis by Jean Guéhenno (1948–1952; English trans. 1966) and the recent informative and witty treatment by Raymond Trousson (1992–93). Damrosch acknowledges his debt to these previous examinations of Rousseau's life, notably Cranston's, and he also gladly admits the influence of previous analyses of Rousseau's thought, foremost Starobinski's (1958; English trans. 1988). Damrosch's biography will not supplant Cranston's as the best English-language analysis of Rousseau's life, but Cranston's work is nearly twice the length of Damrosch's; his work will also fail to topple Starobinski from his pedestal, but then that does not appear to be Damrosch's intention. All this aside, Damrosch has indeed written the best one-volume of Rousseau's life in English to date.
Damrosch's biography is, as I have noted, primarily a life of Rousseau the man. The first third of the biography follows Rousseau's own account of his early life in the Confessions quite closely, which is understandable given the relative sparseness of other sources, although Damrosch marshals what other information he can, sometimes making corrections to the details of Rousseau's own chronicle. Damrosch's dependence on Rousseau in this portion of the book has two drawbacks. First, his account of Jean-Jacques's early life is relatively flat, and it is not really until Rousseau reaches Paris, and especially when he encounters Diderot and then becomes the thinker and writer we know today, that Damrosch's analysis comes to life. Indeed...