- Rousseau, le Chemin de Ronde by Jean-François Perrin
The major goal of this exceptional book is to show the importance of the faculty of memory in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s most important works. Jean-François Perrin argues that Rousseau’s engagement with traditional mnemonic techniques—an engagement in which he both relied on and transformed traditional understandings—is central to his literary enterprise and his systematic thought. Other scholars such as Matthew Maguire (The Conversion of Imagination: From Pascal through Rousseau to Tocqueville [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006]) have argued that what is distinctive in Rousseau is reduction of the importance of memory as it is found in, for example, Saint Augustine. Rousseau expands the importance of imagination to the point of infinity, relegating memory to a derivative status. Perrin’s treatment does not overturn this alternative, but it does show that attention to the theme of memory can yield extremely fruitful results.
One point at which Perrin succeeds completely is to show the extraordinary care with which Rousseau wrote, giving extreme attention to both clarity and rhythm in his choice of words. Perrin demonstrates convincingly that “Rousseau travaille en effet sa prose à la syllabe près” (31). He deserves to be ranked with Flaubert as a writer who laboured over his manuscripts with a view to making prose the equal of poetry. Rousseau’s attention to this consideration was exceeded only by his willingness to wrestle with the limits of the French language in order to express his new ideas clearly. This required him to develop new uses for established words. He was so successful at doing this that it is extremely difficult for readers to notice because they themselves have learned to think in the idiom given them by Rousseau. Perrin excels at uncovering instances of what he calls “coup[s] de force contre le bon usage” (80) that have now become common usages. For example, he shows how Rousseau takes the term “force expansive,” previously used only in chemistry, and makes it into the basis of his understanding of the human soul. Similarly, he sheds important new light on a subject that has been treated extensively by other scholars, namely Rousseau’s discussions of pity. Perrin focuses on the issue of identification between the observer and the sufferer (65–79). When Rousseau used them, certain terms, so familiar to the modern reader, had either never appeared in a dictionary (identification) or been used mainly in theological discussions (s’identifier). Numerous other examples of Perrin’s ingenious use of dictionaries could be given. In short, Rousseau [End Page 413] made both thinkable and speakable what had previously been neither (63). At a time when it is popular to show the ways in which a text escapes the author’s intention, Perrin offers valuable insight into Rousseau’s control over what he wants to say and how he wants to say it.
Another important aspect of Perrin’s treatment resides in his recognition that Rousseau was “sans conteste le plus politique des penseurs de sa generation” (88). As Rousseau himself says, “J’avois vu que tout tenoit radicalement à la politique” (Confessions [Paris: Gallimard. Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1959], tome 1, p. 404). He has more in common with Aristotle or Montesquieu than he does with his immediate contemporaries such as Diderot or even Voltaire, as well as religious thinkers. Scholars who focus on literary works do not always acknowledge that Rousseau’s treatments of moral, linguistic, and artistic issues are always pre-eminently political treatments. While Perrin does not write much about Rousseau’s most overtly political works, he is always attentive to the political dimension of works such as the Lettre à d’Alembert, Julie, and Émile.
Perrin devotes several chapters to examining both Rousseau’s literary techniques and substantive issues in Julie. He shows that behind the passion for which Rousseau has always been renowned lies a calculating art that resembles that of a composer who “calcule de loin, par example, la résolution d’une dissonance” (131). He also...