ROUSSEAU: The Self-Made Saint by J. H. Huizinga

ROUSSEAU: The Self-Made Saint

Email this review


Huizinga, son of the Johan Huizinga who wrote The Waning of the Middle Ages, writes of Rousseau with an elegant rancor which suggests that to debunk the noxious Jean-Jacques has been his dearest wish since infancy. Indeed, the man invites this treatment: maudlin, treacherous, egomaniacal, churlish, pompous, inconsistent, intellectually sloppy, and supremely convinced that on the whole God had approached adequacy only in creating Jean-Jacques. Nothing is easier than to damn Rousseau out of his own mouth, and Huizinga goes joyously through the correspondence documenting the most perverse snobbery (he used to charm dinner guests by repeating the stupid remarks of his illiterate mistress), cruelty (he forced her to give up all of their five children), amour-propre (""Show me a man better than me, a heart more loving, more tender, more sensitive. . .""). Huizinga's style maintains a fastidious distance from the untidy ardor of Jean-Jacques: crisply epigrammatic and urbane, full of pretty little bons mots that rapidly become insufferable. An air of priggish resentment dominates his repeated insistence that this ridiculous poseur has simply put one over on posterity. He pays little attention to the intellectual forces that shaped Rousseau, except in order to deny him any claim to originality (the treatment of Geneva Protestantism is particularly cavalier). As for Rousseau's own effect on European life and letters, Huizinga ingeniously argues that the revolutionaries and Romantics and a few later artists may have thought they were being influenced by him, but how could writings so diffuse and self-contradictory have influenced anyone? The question is best answered not by inventing unconscious conspiracies of self-delusion, but by thinking of George Eliot's remark that ""it would signify nothing to me if a very wise person were to stun me with proofs that. . . [Rousseau] was guilty of some of the worst bassesses that have degraded civilized man,"" for the experience of his genius has ""made man and nature a fresh world of thought and feeling to me.

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 1975
Publisher: Grossman/Viking