Seeing through Rousseau
To see, or rather to show sight in its proper light, is a fairly good description of what Rousseau says he is up to in the Dialogues.1 Whereas in the Confessions he proposed to “show my fellow men a man in the full truth of nature” (“montrer à mes semblables un homme dans toute la vérité de la nature”) (1:5), Rousseau juge de Jean-Jaques (the actual title of the Dialogues) takes this project either one step further or one step back, depending on how you look at it. In the preface to this text he writes: “It was necessary for me to say how, if I were another man, I would see a man like me” (“il fallait nécessairement que je dise de quel oeil, si j’étais un autre, je verrais un homme tel que je suis”) (1:665). Between the seemingly straightforward "Here is the man I am” of the Confessions and this otherwise contorted demonstration of the Dialogues, there had intervened the general failure of Rousseau’s contemporaries to see the man he had taken such pains to show them.2 It is easy to suppose how, unable logically to conclude that the fault was his, that he had obstructed public view rather than set himself in plain sight, Rousseau had to diagnose an obstruction, malformation, or distortion within the very faculty of sight he had counted on to apprehend his true nature. After all, there is little point in showing someone what to see—“a man,” for example—if that person does not even know how to use his own eyes. The experiment of the Confessions had shown that, with few exceptions, Rousseau was surrounded by unsighted creatures who persisted in “seeing” not the man who had placed himself squarely in the light but only dim figures in the shadows with which the light contrasted. The Dialogues, therefore, would undertake to show nothing more or less than sight, which is in itself nothing. The text is not a Letter on the Blind but a letter to the blind, and therein lies the considerable if not impossible dilemma it has posed for itself.
In a sense, one can say that Rousseau never resolved this dilemma; that is, he never figured out to whom he could show this letter once it was written. Addressing it first as he did to divine providence only confirmed the dilemma without resolving it. In another sense, however, the terms in which the dilemma is posed—the visual terms—are themselves made obsolete or at least irrelevant by the performance of the Dialogues.
Saying What You See
This performance requires, as we have seen, a division of the “je” among at least three positions: “il fallait nécessairement que je dise de quel oeil, si j’étais un autre, je verrais un homme tel que je suis.” There is the “je” who says “What if I were another?"; there is then this other “je” who offers his judgment on the man he sees; and there is finally the man like me, “un homme tel que je suis.” These are the three positions implicit in every so-called autobiographical writing—The Confessions, for example—where writer, narrator, and principal character of the narration are presumed by the conventions of what Philippe Lejeune calls the autobiographical pact to be identifiable by the same name.3 But the Dialogues depart from Lejeune’s schema in a manner that is finally troubling for any effort to define the limits of the genre because, precisely, the text does not break with or abandon the convention; on the contrary, it remarks that convention and exploits it to the limit. In so doing, the Dialogues demonstrate the essentially fictional resource at the source of autobiography, the fiction of “si j’étais un autre” which is conventionally covered over and forgotten by convention.
The programming sentence of this text, however, remarks the fiction not only in a thematic mode but also in a grammatical one. Its syntax assigns not three but four positions to “je,” although the second and third positions are logically identified with each other: “de quel oeil, si j’étais un autre, je verrais …” The fact that there is a surplus articulation of the “je” should not be overlooked because it is this surplus, precisely, of a necessary articulation (“il fallait nécessairement que je dise”) over sheer imagination which will prevent the eventual judgment from closing off the difference in the “je” which has been opened up. In other words, “si j’étais un autre,” because it must be enunciated and not merely imagined or thought, carries the “je” beyond the possibility of a logical reduction of its two posited versions. Forgetting the excess of articulation can only produce another, uncritical fiction that the autobiographical work disavows even though it lends itself to the masquerade: the fiction that the subject is the same thing as the words deployed to name experiences.
The work to which Rousseau gave the title Rousseau juge de Jean-Jaques prevents this kind of forgetting at every turn. Its formal conventions distinguish four discursive positions. The interlocutor named “Rousseau” manifestly cannot be confused with the subject of his long discourses, identified only by the initials “J. J.” The writer who signals his activity at regular intervals with notes at the bottom of the page is also not to be confused with either one or the other. On the other hand, the name “Rousseau” and the initials “J. J.” constantly provoke the sort of logical identification or reunification of Jean-Jacques with Rousseau which is held off or deferred by their formal and discursive differentiation. The fourth position, however, that of the other interlocutor identified only as “le Français,” stands somewhat outside the circle of the other three, outside, at least, the circle of the proper name “J. J. Rousseau.” It is this position of a certain remove that preserves, as we shall see, the only possibility of a continued articulation of “je’s” stifled truth.
There is much at stake in this playing with the conventions of autobiography. To show sight, to show “de quel oeil je verrais un homme tel que je suis,” the Dialogues must uncover the space of fiction. It uncovers, that is, the space conventionally forgotten in the autobiographical gesture of showing not sight but an object for sight—to wit, “a man.” If, then, the Dialogues are to be read as a corrective supplement to the Confessions, it is because the latter would have hidden its fictional spacing behind the figure of “a man” which functions finally as a blind, screening from view the intervals spacing out a set of positions never rigorously identical with each other. “Man,” in other words, is a totalizing figure. But it is also a figure that screens from sight the fictional operation of a narration that calls itself a “showing.” The fiction that the Dialogues contrive finally to bring into the open by spacing out the “man” in question is the fiction of visual perception, sight or showing as a figure for reading. Which is to say that the Dialogues proposes to show that “showing,” “seeing,” and “sight” are all figures that blind one to the necessity of reading and that they do so all the more effectively because, taken literally, they promise the contrary of blindness.
The demonstration would proceed dialectically, that is, by means of a dialogue that gradually reduces the difference between the two interlocutors with regard to the subject of their conversation: J. J. Indeed, these double initials may be taken as an emblem of the difference that propels the dialogic machine—the difference between the man J. J. and the signature J. J.—and, most important, the relation of one to the other. The interlocutor named “Rousseau” has read and admired works signed “J. J.” but has never seen their author. The interlocutor designated only as “le Français” has never read or seen “J. J.,” but this has not prevented him from endorsing the negative opinion of his peers concerning both the man and his writings. By the end of the first dialogue, this experiential difference between the interlocutors has been reduced to the difference between seeing and reading. The end of the dialogue, spoken by le Français, proposes an exchange of these functions:
Listen, I do not like J. J. but I hate injustice more, and still more betrayal. You have told me things that strike me [qui me frappent] and on which I want to reflect. You refused to see this unfortunate man and now you have decided to do so. I refused to read his books; I, like you, have changed my mind and for good reason. You go see the man, I will read the books; and then we will meet again. (1:772)
The second dialogue opens by recalling the terms of this contract:
Le Français: Well, Sir, have you seen him?
Rousseau: Well, Sir, have you read him? (1:773)
The floor is then given over to the interlocutor “Rousseau’s” account of what he saw in his meetings with J. J., his conclusions as to the latter’s character, and his renewed convictions that this character has been directly responsible for the works he has admired. He believes, in other words, J. J.’s signature to be genuine. Thus, it would seem that a fictional space between ‘’Rousseau” (the author) and “J. J.” (the man) has been opened up only so as to collapse their difference in an identificatory illusion of perfect transparence and total visibility. And with this, the difference between showing a “man” and showing “sight,” between seeing and reading, also tends to collapse.
But nothing is harder to show than the collapse of this difference, of fiction and of the space of reading, because the play with mirrors is playing constantly on two registers and every proposition advances on the back of its contradiction. On one side, “Rousseau’s” encounter with J. J. is given as a model of man’s capacity to see and therefore to judge his semblable (“comment je verrais un homme tel que je suis” in the programming sentence), to enter fully the interiority of an other and give it its due; on the other side, the same encounter serves as a demonstration of precisely how such interior vision remains impossible except as a phantasm of identification. This phantasm is allowed or put in place by what is given as the fiction of "Rousseau’s” difference from J. J. (the “si j’étais un autre” of the text’s program), but at the same time and with the same stroke, transparency is denounced as nothing but a fiction or phantasm. Likewise, behind the phantasm’s presumption of transparent judgment is what we take to be the extratextual truth of Rousseau’s identity with J. J. (which is why he can describe him from the inside as it were), but the extratextual reference also denounces the judgment as a false model of one man’s encounter with another. “Seeing” these contradictions (and seeing no way out of them) defines and determines the experience of reading the Dialogues, whose dialectic cannot overcome the difference that drives it, the difference spacing the repetition of J. J.’s double name.
Two mutually exclusive meanings fight for control of the Dialogues: on the one hand, the text seems to have no purpose other than to get one to see J. J., as “Rousseau” does after the first dialogue; on the other hand, it urges one to refuse to see him, as “le Français” does until the very end, and to read instead the works one has avoided reading before. Because his final consent to see J. J. closes the last dialogue, the Frenchman’s encounter with the author of the works he now admires is deferred beyond the end of the text and outside the space of reading—both his and ours. It is therefore impossible to decide whether such a text wants to precipitate its reader’s identification with an imagined transparency, its author, or whether it wants to denounce precisely that phantasm as the blindness that prevents reading. To decide that question, one would have to have access to some notion of Rousseau’s intent or aim or desire in a space that is not at all that of reading but of interior or immediate understanding. Which is to say, one would have to have recourse to the very identificatory mechanism, to the phantasm of transparent vision, that one has yet to determine is a valid description of the intent of a work like the Dialogues.
Although this dilemma no doubt always affects reading, it clearly absorbs the principal interest of the Dialogues where it is not just left to lurk in the margins. The acuteness of the dilemma (and the acuity with which it is formulated by this text in various ways) may be measured by the symptomatic discomfort that so often accompanies efforts (such as this one) to say anything whatsoever about the experience of reading it.4 Besides silence, the most frequent response to the Dialogues is a diagnosis of Rousseau’s persecutory delusions, of which the text would be a massive, inoperable symptom. But even this kind of dismissal of the work ends up confirming the seriousness of the dilemma that has been posed, since the judgment that the author is mad functions as a defense against the madness that may await the reader who takes the text too seriously. Nor would it seem that Rousseau held the key to the enigma of his text, that he, as its author, alone could escape the dilemma it posed. One need only recall some of the hesitations he recorded about the disposition of the thing once finished, his indecision about whether to abandon it (as he says he has done at the beginning of the Rêveries) or to hold on to it in the hope that he would finally figure out what to do with it. The fear that the Dialogues would never find an adequate reader, rather than giving proof of paranoia, could just as well be understood as a terrible lucidity about the fundamental unreadability of a work that destroys so effectively the conventional limits between fiction and autobiography. The alternative between lucidity and stupidity is perhaps not so easily decided.5
The Phantasm of the Writer
There is still a sense, however, in which it could be useful to speak of the Dialogues as a symptomatic work. It is the sense that Jean-Claude Bonnet has suggested in an article concerned largely with the Enlightenment’s invention of a “public image” for its living writers.6 Bonnet considers the Dialogues in the context of this invention and thereby shifts somewhat that text’s symptomatic indications from a particular toward a general, social, or historical condition that he names “le fantasme de l’écrivain.” The ambiguous genitive of that phrase nicely dislocates the situation of the phantasm because it places it between the writer and the reader, in the imaginary or fictional space of their face-to-face identification. But what interests Bonnet is how the phantasm can and has produced an institutionalization of “l’espace biographique”7 in which such imaginary identifications are consecrated as a complement (even a necessary one) to “l’espace littéraire.” He illustrates this process of institutionalization by reviewing several notorious instances of a reader become privileged witness to a writer’s life: Boswell recording the life of Johnson, Eckermann recalling his conversations with Goethe. Seen in this light, the Age of Enlightenment would have issued in the Age of the Executive (or Executor) Secretary, the posthumous guardian of the great writer’s public image.
The place that must be reserved for Rousseau’s Dialogues in the history of this institution is at once central and in the margins, if not in a different orbit altogether. It is as if in that text Rousseau had spelled out all the rules others would have to follow but could do so only in the manner of an exception. Bonnet tends to explain this dissymmetry by distributing it between the system of the work or the “literary space,” on the one hand, and the “biographical space” on the other, pointing out, for example, that “in real life” Rousseau shunned contact, broke off most of his relations, and thus never met up with his Boswell or his Maria van Rysselberghe, even though the system of the Dialogues is ordered around this very kind of encounter with the anonymous Frenchman which is announced at the end. There even comes a moment when, to sharpen this contrast, Bonnet has recourse to the biographical testimony of d’Escherny commenting on Rousseau’s tendency to present himself as other than he, d’Escherny, knew him to be: “I saw him too often and at too close range to endorse the innocence of his judgments; yet I loved him and esteemed him no less for all that. He knew it and although he feared me somewhat because he saw that I saw through him [il voyait que je le pénétrais] and that his weaknesses did not escape me, he loved me nonetheless.”8 Bonnet signals no irony at this point in his procedure. This is remarkable because the quote from d’Escherny could clearly serve as an example—in fact a very good one—of the sort of identificatory phantasm part of whose history Bonnet is concerned to retrace. Rather than an example from within the institution of biographical space or of authorship, however, this testimony is brought in, as it were, from the outside and applied like a tool that splits Rousseau’s case into “l’homme” and “l’oeuvre”—in Bonnet’s terms, “la vie réelle” and “le système de l’oeuvre.” As a result of this gesture, no effective difference or distance remains between the first- and the second-degree biographical discourse, between the biographer and the biographer’s historian. Bonnet’s history, that is, becomes at this point an example of what it is describing. The point is not that the literary historian thereby falls into inconsistency; on the contrary, there can be no more persuasive demonstration of the consistency and continuity of the structures of phantasmatic identification which, Bonnet argues, we have in some measure inherited from the Enlightenment.9 Notice, however, that this continuity or repetition inscribes the reference to l’homme-l’oeuvre Rousseau within a phantasmatic space that the literary historical discourse can no longer claim to describe from without. The question of whose “fantasme de l’écrivain” we are talking about is—if possible—more undecided than ever.
On the Dépositaire
The vanishing point of Bonnet’s project to trace a history of “l’espace biographique” occurs somewhere in the margins of the Dialogues. This is probably more than a coincidence. But his history does manage to bring out an irreducible irony of that work: having invented the job of the writer’s heir and literary executor, having provided in effect a step-by-step training manual for future Boswells10 and Eckermanns, having shown the way to secure the future of a work, the Dialogues went wanting for a duly named and authorized dépositaire. This is the term with which Rousseau designates the safekeeper of his legacy—his-life-his-work—both within the fiction of the Dialogues but more insistently in its margins, in an epilogue that recounts the series of failed atttempts to dispose of that text, to identify its dépositaire. The temptation, as we have seen, is to explain that failure by contrasting life and work, biography and fiction. A closer look at the position reserved for the dépositaire suggests, however, why biography, the story of a life, leaves almost everything still to say about the essential impossibility structuring that position. Almost everything is left to say, that is, about the dépositaire in relation to Rousseau’s death as he lived and wrote it, but also in relation to the death of the author as the necessary condition for the survival of the work.
We can approach the way the dépositaire articulates this death in the work by remarking first that the dépositaire is not necessarily the destinataire of the Dialogues. This other figure, nevertheless, hovers ghostlike over the concluding pages of the epilogue, where Rousseau makes a final calculation of the best strategy for passing on his text:
To multiply copies incessantly in order to place them here and there in the hands of people who approach me would be to tax my strength to no avail. It is not reasonable to hope that of all the copies thus dispersed, a single one of them will arrive intact at its destination [une seule parvint entière à sa destination]. I am thus going to limit myself to one copy, which I will pass among those acquaintances whom I believe to be the least unjust and the least prejudiced… . Experience warns me that none will listen to me, but it is not impossible that there will be one who does listen, whereas it is impossible that men’s eyes will of themselves open to the truth [que les yeux des hommes s’ouvrent d’eux-mêmes à la vérité]. This suffices to impose on me the duty of making this try, without expecting any success. If I do nothing but leave the text in my wake, this prey will not escape the rapacious hands [cette proie n’échappera pas aux mains de rapine] who are only waiting for my last hour so as to grab everything and burn it or falsify it. (1:987)
Destination functions here first in the sense of point of arrival on some trajectory, the destined purpose of a thing or the use for which it was intended. In this sense, the destination of the Dialogues is the event of the final revelation of the truth about Jean-Jacques: “que les yeux des hommes s’ouvrent à la vérité,” that men see the truth in Jean-Jacques, or see Jean-Jacques in his truth. But it is impossible, writes Rousseau, that men’s eyes will open of themselves to admit the truth, and this impossibility imposes on the destinateur an obligation to see, as far as possible, to the safe delivery of the intention of his message, to survey and verify its passage through a series of relays. In this sense, the destination of the Dialogues is the act of a will directing their transmission which in the passage just quoted is defined over against two versions of the absence of will: first, leaving things to chance by scattering copies of the manuscript here and there, and second, doing nothing, leaving the manuscript to be found and disposed of at the death of the author. The latter version, which incites the rhetoric of beastly brutality that has been a constant throughout the Dialogues (“cette proie n’échappera pas aux mains de rapine,” etc.), situates most clearly the disaster threatening destination. Identifying a dépositaire is supposed to prevent this disaster.
If, however, among those who will have read me, there is found a single manly heart or even just a sensible mind, my persecutors will have wasted their time and soon the truth will break upon the eyes of the public. The certainty that, if this unhoped-for good fortune comes my way [si ce bonheur inespéré m’arrive], I will not mistake it for an instant encourages me to try once again … if, against all expectation, there is one to be found who is struck by my reasons [que mes raisons frappent] and who begins to suspect the truth, I will not have a moment’s doubt as to this effect, and I have the sure sign [le signe assuré] for distinguishing him from the others even if he chooses not to confide in me. It is he whom I will make my dépositaire [De celui-là je ferai mon dépositaire]. (1:988)
In this anticipatory projection of a recognition scene with his dépositaire, one can but recognize a principal trait of Rous-seauian écriture as Jacques Derrida has allowed us to understand it: writing as the transcription of a dream of the transparent and immediate sign, a system of s’entendre-parler (hearing/understanding oneself speak).11 In this transcription of the dream, “le signe” that will identify the dépositaire can be said to be “sure” because it never leaves its originating orbit, but circulates back to its source unaltered. The destination of s’entendre-parler takes the form of a circle, leaving from and returning to the same point. The dépositaire who inspires the dream is himself featureless, a kind of blank surface waiting to be imprinted or struck by Jean-Jacques’s seal: “if there is one to be found who is struck. . .” As a kind of nonresisting surface, the dépositaire would not oppose, conceal, distort, or otherwise cause to deviate the truthful sign impressed upon it. He—or it—would simply repeat it, reproduce it. The transmission of the Dialogues to the dépositaire could thus be said to resemble nothing so much as an author’s control of printed copy against the original manuscript. Rousseau certainly knew that, among the relays of destination, the printing operation was always fraught with risk,12 the reason, perhaps, this transfer is envisioned only “against all expectation” and as “this unhoped-for good fortune.” Nevertheless, in the dream the good fortune “m’arrive,” it happens to me, it comes to me and comes back to me.
The Return on Deposit
But the dream does not end with the transfer to the dépositaire.
It is he whom I will make my dépositaire, without even determining whether I can count on his probity. … If he has foresight and knows how to wait, his good reasoning ought to make him faithful to me. I would go further and say that even if the public persists in its same attitude toward me, still the natural order of events will sooner or later lead it to desire to know at least what J. J. would have said had he been given the liberty to speak. Let my dépositaire show himself at that point and say to them [Que mon dépositaire se montrant leur dise alors]: So you want to know what he would have said? well, here it is [et bien, le voilà]. Without taking my side, without trying to defend my cause or my memory, by being simply my reporter [en se faisant mon simple rapporteur] … he can cast a new light on the character of the judged man: it is always a trait added to his portrait to know in what terms such a man dared to speak of himself. (1:988)
Here it is, then, “le voilà”: the destination of the Dialogues, its arrival at an unhoped-for good fortune. The scene is produced by a redoubled speculation: Rousseau speculates on the eventual speculation of his dépositaire. The return on all this speculative investment seems at first almost negligible: just another trait added to his portrait. But the apparently modest expectation of gain cannot entirely conceal the unheard-of coup or killing that Rousseau stands to make on this futures market. When the dépositaire shows himself, presents himself, and says “le voilà,” the ambiguity of that demonstrative declaration suddenly lays bare the incalculable stakes of the game. A first ambiguity operates at a juncture with the identificatory phantasm that substitutes seeing an author for reading an author’s text. Because “le voilà” is said in response to the desire to know “what J. J. would have said had he been given the liberty to speak,” it may be heard either as “here it is” (i.e., what he would have said, the manuscript of the Dialogues) or as “here he is,” J. J. himself, at last given the floor. This latter sense, of course, is at best a figuration and at worst a hallucination since it supposes the impossible return of a J. J. able to speak after his death. But might not the “le voilà” of the dépositaire find its most desired resonance in precisely such an impossible scene of return, against every expectation, of a ghostly or resurrected or never-dead J. J.? There is as well a second ambiguity concerning the address of the phrase. In the legal sense of the term, the dépositaire (who is not the destinataire but, as Rousseau is careful to point out, a “simple rapporteur,”) is someone who says “here it is” to the depositor when he returns to claim his deposit.13 The dépositaire is not the destinataire but rather a figure who can relay, rapporter J. J. across the space of his double destination of himself to himself as l’homme-l’oeuvre, reconciling the difference of the one in the other, doing the impossible of giving J. J. back in death what he could never claim in life.
The essential impossibility of this return and of the unification beyond duplication will have to leave the Dialogues forever in the hands of a dépositaire, will have to keep the circle of destination open. The restricted economy of that circle is overrun since J. J.—l’homme—cannot return to claim the full value (with interest) of Rousseau—l’oeuvre. There is no saving the text from the necessity of the other or the proxy, and no economic calculation can close the interval of their difference. The dépositaire bears finally no resemblance to the legal or economic figure of the same name. Indeed, there is no possible resemblance to anyone at all. We have already seen how Rousseau expects to have no trouble recognizing his dépositaire when he arrives, but we can now ask whether the impossible destination of the text must not also bar such a scene of recognition. This is to suggest that the two moments of the deposit—entrusting it and then recovering it—are structured by the same impossibility of return. In other words, the first moment of recognition is already inhabited or haunted by the impossibility of the second moment of return. In the potential déposi-taire, the sign by which Rousseau would recognize the vouchsafing of his truth is finally indistinguishable from an image of himself beyond death or in death, beyond, that is, all possibility of recognition. Given this inevitable association, we should not be surprised that Rousseau had far less difficulty recognizing in all those around him his own disfigured image and concluding that he was surrounded by mortal enemies who wished him dead. Because the appearance of the dépositaire must occur at the limit between the recognizable and the unrecognizable, between the identification of the same and the radical difference of the other, any figure it can assume is immediately menaced with disfiguration or else menaces to disfigure.14
The Promise of “le Français”
The Dialogues would seem to remain suspended before this limit, before the featureless and unrecognizable dépositaire. Within the text, he—or it—is called “le Français,” at once Everyman and No Man, a mere surface that has taken the imprint of general opinion regarding J. J. “Le Français” is the pivoting term of the reconfiguration of J. J.’s image, the eventual dépositaire who will give face and voice to an absence no longer able to speak or appear. He—or it—is the place of the promise to keep safe J. J.’s deposit, to share with the interlocutor “Rousseau” the risks of guarding J. J.’s unpublished writings. The partage of their dialogue thus concludes with the agreement to partager, to share the deposit, but it is “le Français” who explicitly engages himself to keep the depositor’s promise, who performs the speech act called a promise: “I offer to share with you the risks of this deposit and I promise to spare no trouble to bring it one day before the eyes of the public just as I received it” (“je m’offre à partager avec vous les risques de ce dépôt, et je m’engage à n’épargner aucun soin pour qu’il paraisse un jour aux yeux du public tel que je l’aurai reçu”) (1:975). Such a promise has every appearance of being a wishful fiction, offered as it is by no one really. But this is not necessarily to say that nothing happens when Rousseau makes his deposit with “le Français.” Perhaps, on the contrary, the delusion is to imagine that a “real” dépositaire could rescue the charge of truth from the corrosive disfigurement of fiction. While that may well have been a delusion Rousseau shared, the text of the Dialogues nevertheless consigns itself to le français—not a man but a language. This is the fourth, irreducible position of articulation whose necessity, as we remarked at the outset, exceeds the circle of Rousseau’s self-judgment, or of any judgment. In several senses of the phrase, le Français is a figure of speech; specifically, he—or it—is a prosopopeia, an animation of the language to which and in which the Dialogues have been deposited. It is this figure of animated language that promises, in turn, to give “voice” to the author beyond his grave. He promises, that is, to continue signing “J. J. Rousseau.”
Le français is Rousseau’s only—and only possible—dépositaire. Although it gives no one and nothing to see, it goes on promising “to show a man in the full truth of nature,” it continues to repeat “le voilà.” And we, of course, are still trying to see through that false promise of a signature.
1An earlier version of this chapter was read at the 1986 Dartmouth Colloquium on Modern Literature and Theory. The theme chosen by the organizer, Virginia Swain, was “Lumières et vision.”
2There is a general tendency to read the Dialogues as a reply to the failure of the Confessions; see, for example Michel Foucault’s introduction to the text. However, to posit such a causal or otherwise narrative relation between the two texts is to propose a biographical fiction, a unity of the subject, which may very well be what has been put at risk by the proliferation of autobiographical texts. E. S. Burt is particularly persuasive in questioning precisely this sort of nar-rativizing tendency.
3“Autobiography (the story telling the life of the author) supposes that there is an identical name for the author (who figures, by his name, on the cover), the story’s narrator, and the character in question. This is a very simple criterion.” Lejeune, Le Pacte autobiographique (Paris, 1975), 23–24. As Paul de Man has already remarked in “Autobiography as De-Facement,” in The Rhetoric of Romanticism (New York, 1984), 71, Lejeune’s model ignores altogether any specificity of the signature, which is not simply the proper name of an author.
4It is a measure, perhaps, of this discomfort that the Dialogues have, as far as I know, never been translated into any language. There are, however, notable exceptions to this general avoidance. Besides E. S. Burt’s Rousseau’s Autobiographics, see Christie McDonald’s “The Model of Reading,” in The Dialogue of Writing: Essays in Eighteenth-Century French Literature (Waterloo, Ont., 1984).
5Geoffrey Bennington states the dilemma for readers of Du contrat social who cannot know if the lawgiver is a “grande âme” or a charlatan. His reading also extends the dilemma to other works bearing that signature: “Rousseau’s final reliance on posterity and providence to clear his name cannot escape this structure, and this explains the irony and the tragedy or—perhaps better— stupidity of the measures taken to ensure the survival of the Dialogues. The ’originary discrepancy’ which gives rise to politics and history, writing and prejudice, also dictates that Rousseau … should ‘end’ in anguished concern over the survival of his texts, his signature and his devise. Rousseau’s ‘madness’ could be read as an effect of the insistence of the charlatan in the legislator and this insistence can never be eradicated, insofar as texts cannot be guaranteed by legislation, devise or signature, but stand clear of authorial control” (171).
6Bonnet, “Le Fantasme de l’écrivain,” Poétique 63 (September 1985).
9Bonnet explicitly assumes this inheritance although he first acknowledges that “during the last twenty years, the questioning of the biographic method … inspired the most important advances of theoretical reflection” (259). The past tense of that acknowledgment signals that the historian’s initial gesture is to establish a break with a recent past. He thus situates himself in a present, but one that turns out to be eternal: “However, it is useless to claim the end of the biographical theme and the author. It is not so much that they are back after having been banned for several years but rather because they have never ceased to be there in other forms and by means of new sorts of investigations” (260; italics added). Thus, the break that is initially signaled is not a break at all; but in that case, one can only wonder what function is being served by the fiction of a periodization of “theoretical reflection.” One is tempted to read the gesture as a half-effaced wish that theoretical reflection were indeed a thing of the past, having been replaced by “biographical theme and the author.”
10Rousseau confided a copy of the first dialogue to a young Englishman who had come to see him and made a good impression. Rousseau later regretted his impetuousness, believing that he had been mistaken to trust him. By an ironic coincidence, the young man was James Boswell, who very soon after Rousseau’s death arranged to publish the manuscript he had been given.
11Rousseau “dreamed of the simple exteriority of death to life, evil to good, representation to presence, signifier to signified, representer to represented, mask to face, writing to speech.… And what must dream or writing be if, as we know now, one may dream while writing? And if the scene of dream is always a scene of writing?” (Derrida, Of Grammatology, 315–16). The Dialogues quite explicitly put J. J.’s writing under the sign of the transparent sign by means of “Rousseau’s” allegory of “le monde idéal” at the beginning of the first dialogue; see in particular p. 672.
12See above, chap. 2.
13For an excellent study of the depositor’s contract in Rousseau’s thought, see Felicity Baker, “Remarques sur la notion de depot,” Annales Jean-]acques Rousseau 37 (1966–68).
14One could also take into account the double and contradictory senses of the verb deposer in French: to put in a safe place, but also to cause to fall, to bring down, especially in a political sense, to deprive of power. If we follow the second thread, a candidate for the dépositaire of Rousseau’s opus might turn out to be the large dog who knocks him off his feet in the Deuxième promenade and precipitates the false rumors of his death.