- Rousseau Among the Moderns: Music, Aesthetics, Politics by Julia Simon
Julia Simon’s study presents a new take on Rousseau. Unlike conventional thematic treatments emphasizing his literary or political writings, Simon takes the time to focus on Rousseau’s work in a field that he always claimed as primary to his identity, but that scholars have traditionally overlooked: his writings on music. While there have been collections of essays, even entire conferences, devoted to this theme (few of which receive critical mention in this volume), Simon argues that understanding key concepts in Rousseau’s musical oeuvre yields a new understanding of his political ideas that unifies his intellectual production in new and important ways.
Simon embarks on this enterprise with a multifaceted analysis of how musical performance can create a sense of community. She writes from within her experience both as a musical performer and as a deep reader of Rousseau, tackling in a coherent manner his writings on music as a way of reading his theoretical writings and concerns. In so doing, Simon interweaves a complex understanding of how the ever-changing challenges of performance—including issues of tempo, harmony, and measure—inevitably presage the tensions between the individual and the community as highlighted in Rousseau’s political writings. She goes on to analyze the different musical approaches taken by Rousseau and Rameau as functions of relative and absolute value, while exploring the social and political issues implicated in these themes. Simon then treats Rousseau’s approaches to “authentic” or “folk” music, exploring some of the tensions implicit within the hierarchy of music established by its systematization. Finally, she has something to say about Rousseau’s notion of the redemptive power of music, which she links to what she terms its “aesthetic modernity”: that is, music’s perpetual ability to adjust to new challenges and emotions. [End Page 425]
While there have been books and articles that analyze Rousseau’s contribution to music, this is one of the first to locate his approach within the controversies regarding music taking place in the eighteenth century. Simon’s book also links Rousseau’s broader aesthetic themes in his writings on music to the questions raised by different approaches to the modernisms of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Simon’s strongest chapter is her second one, on “Singing Democracy.” Here she makes the connection between Rousseau’s dynamic concept of music as a performative art and the more complex notion of the General Will, particularly the challenges of its articulation. Some of these themes are carried over into the fourth chapter, centering on what Simon terms “folk music.” She analyzes the possibility of the management of the audience as they are seduced into thinking that their responses are allowed to develop naturally, when in fact they are being subtly but effectively manipulated.
Interestingly, though, it is here that Simon pulls her punches. While she does take note of the implicit hypocrisy of the grape-harvest festival at Clarens, with its self-proclaimed “equality” of all the denizens of that estate, Simon fails to probe the ironic quality of Rousseau’s texts. As it turns out, the author of these letters in La Nouvelle Héloïse is Saint-Preux, who throughout the pages of this novel, is not distinguished for his perspicacity. Simon also fails to consider other texts dealing with the notion of manipulated performativity, perhaps because these texts do not deal directly with music per se. But these texts—including the famous distinction between the Actor and the Orator in Lettre à d’Alembert, and the evocative description of the “matinée à l’Anglaise” at Clarens in La Nouvelle Héloïse—do treat notions of theatricality, a concept Simon does not hesitate to consider in other chapters. In this context, the omission is puzzling. More baffling is the lack of attention to Rousseau’s presentation in Lettre à d’Alembert of his notion of the perfect festival, which includes what might well be considered a manipulative, even sinister, version of a “transparent” celebration at a social dance...