Spectacles of Hate: Regarding the Disfigurement of Jean-Jacques

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Bacon, “Figure with Meat”, 1954

Particular facialities are bound to power formations which are themselves inseparable from all the interactions in the social field…A face is always tied to a landscape as its foundation in such a way that it shuts off in itself, shrivels away in the grips of an apparatus of power, or reopens on a line of flight in order to provide an exit toward other possibles.—The Machinic Unconscious[1]

De son côté il voudrait les éloigner, ou plutot s’en éloigner parce que leur malignité, leur duplicité, leurs vues cruelles blessent ses yeux de toutes parts, et que le spectacle de la haine l’afflige et le déchire encore plus que ses effets. Ses sens le subjuguent alors, et sitôt qu’ils sont frappés d’un objet de peine, il n’est plus maître de lui…C’est pour écarter de lui cet objet de peine don’t l’aspect le tourmente qu’il voudrait être seul.—Dialogues[2]

            In his first book published in Englishtitled The Sublime Object of Ideology, Slavoj Žižek only once turns to Rousseau briefly in order to find an example that illustrates the difference between two different forms of identification as formulated by Jacques Lacan. Surprisingly, Žižek does not consider any of Rousseau’s works that might more easily succumb to a Lacanian psychoanalytic reading, however superficial or profound it might attempt to be. (For example, the Social Contract could lend itself to the consideration of the instantaneity of the creation of subjectivity and sovereignty enacted retroactively according to a certain creative fiction, i.e. convention as political fantasy/ideology; Confessions as the retroactive taking responsibility of the past as overcoming of Otherness by the subject, as substance becomes subject, as presupposition of the Big Other’s existence; Émile as thinking beyond the entry of the I into the symbolic, as analysis through the looking-glass or mirror stage, etc.).Yet the reference in a perhaps arbitrary but curious way turns to the Dialogues, one of Rousseau’s later and perhaps lesser known books; to a certain extent, it singularly crystallizes and indicates some of the problems of the reception of Rousseau’s texts by his contemporaries that are taken up in this work. Žižek writes:

We find the same split in a late writing of Rousseau, from the time of his psychotic delirium, entitled ‘Jean-Jacques jugé par Rousseau’ (Jean-Jacques judged by Rousseau). It would be possible to conceive this as a draft of the Lacanian theory of the forename and family name: the first name designates the ideal ego, the point of imaginary identification, while the family name comes from the father—it designates, as the Name-of-the-Father, the point of symbolic identification, the agency through which we observe and judge ourselves. The fact that should not be overlooked in this distinction is that i(o) is always subordinated to I(O): it is the symbolic identification (the point from which we are observed) which dominates and determines the image, the imaginary form in which we appear to ourselves likeable. On the level of formal functioning, this subordination is attested by the fact that the nickname which marks i(o) also functions as a rigid designator, not as a simple description.[3]

At first sight this reading seems convincing, but after looking over it carefully it becomes quite apparent that Žižek has not particularly bothered to read the Dialogues, notably because he bases his entire reading of the structure of the work on the subtitle, which is problematic for a number of reasons; if he had read the work in the slightest, then this characterization of the motive and mechanism of the work—which proceeds far too smoothly to not raise any red flags—would have to elaborate a more complex vision of what is at stake there.

            Before all else it should be noted that Žižek does not present us with the correct subtitle of the Dialogues: instead of the actual subtitle Rousseau juge de Jean Jacques we are given Jean-Jacques jugé par Rousseau. There are several misleading factors at play in this error: the wrong subtitle completely removes the ambiguity explicit in the original. The word ‘juge’in the subtitle can be read either as a noun or as a verb, indicating an ambiguity that may actually do more for making his point about the role of the Name-of-the-father in the function of symbolic identification; on the other hand, if we consider the word from its standpoint as a verb, then we realize that the correct version utilizes the present tense rather than the past tense or past participle. This indicates that the act of judging is not only going on and has been going on for some time, but has not and may never reach an ultimate state of completion, thus pointing to an opening towards events that are still to come. Perhaps more interesting and also less comprehensible, Žižek not only removes the ambiguity in the word ‘juge’ but also reverses the order of the names themselves (which is important if we consider how much stress he puts on the function of these names). This reversal places ‘Jean-Jacques’ in the status of subject of the subtitle rather than its object; this is precisely why the preposition ‘de’ must be changed to a less ambiguous and more straightforward ‘par’, or, reading it the other way around, because the names are reversed in order, a completely different preposition must be used so as not to simply reverse the entire meaning of the subtitle itself, which would completely contradict his argument on the functions of the names at play. Finally, it should be noted that the verb form not only implies a mistranslation from the present tense to the past tense, but also a transformation of an active voice to a passive voice—which correlates with the shift in names that places the subject Rousseau into the position of object of the preposition. This reduces the stakes of the entire work to a passive process that completely misrepresents the active engagement of the ongoing performance that will be the central point of interrogation and contention.

            While this mischaracterization of the subtitle serves less as proof and more as a symptom concerning Žižek’s (non)reading of the Dialogues, there is a more obvious difficulty in the simple opposition of Jean-Jacques (referred to simply as J.J. throughout the text) and Rousseau that the subtitle implies is much more complex than an opposition between imaginary and symbolic identification. First of all, within the first ten pages we are shown that there are a profusion of divisions that are not so simple at first sight. The interlocutors of the Dialogues are Rousseau—who claims to have never met the infamous J.J. and who supposedly does not represent the same person as J.J. himself—and a generic speaker simply designated as a Frenchman. Rousseau argues within the first ten pages of the first dialogue that J.J. has to be considered as at least two separate individuals: “sa vie est coupée en deux parties qui semblent appartenir à deux individus differents, dont l’époque qui les sépare, c’est-à-dire, le temps où il a publié des livres marque la mort de l’un et la naissance de l’autre”.[4] The ‘epoch’ that separates the one J.J. from the other will be reiterated throughout the text as that of a forty year span, which more or less approximates the span of his writing career. Nevertheless, the Frenchman will continue to attribute to a single J.J. a number of crimes and at times will somewhat contradict himself by attacking his books while also claiming that he could not have written them, specifically the operatic work the Devin du village and the other works on music, since the general public simply does not believe that J.J. can read music[5]. After defending this notion of two J.J’s for almost another twenty pages, the speaker Rousseau will claim: “Mais je dis et je soutiendrai toujours qu’il faut qu’il y ait deux J.J., et que l’Auteur des livres et celui des crimes ne sont pas le même homme”.[6]

Here one could argue that this division is necessary in order to make Žižek’s point: the speaker Rousseau (and the author of the Dialogues) would then seem to want to conserve an imaginary point of identification (his J.J. rather than the Frenchman’s)[7], but this argument falls flat when we realize the contrary positions of the interlocutors. While the Frenchman has not read J.J. beyond a few scattered sentences, Rousseau has never met[8] J.J.: therefore the positions from which each speaker is ‘judging’ J.J. leads to a certain parallax[9] that requires at least two J.J.’s for the discussion to first find a ground upon which the speakers can begin to reach a certain reciprocity. In this sense, the main concern of the work is not to conserve the imaginary identification for a position from which Rousseau can appear likeable to himself, nor is it to show how this position is always already dominated by the position from which we are observed and observe ourselves[10] (symbolic identification). Instead, what will be at stake is the very fact that the symbolic identification is what will be put in question and ‘judged’ on the very basis that it neither allows the accused to speak, be heard or understood: thus what will be put in question is the very position from which J.J. is observed and judged—not to conserve a likeable image, but instead to submit the accusers and would-be judges of J.J. to a certain judgment so that any image or any identification whatsoever can appear and take on consistency. This would mean that—contra Žižek—we should (mis)read the subtitle in a strikingly different way, namely as Rousseau juge [les juge(ment)s] de Jean-Jacques.

Nevertheless, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s ‘paranoia’ reveals itself consistently throughout the work when we are told by both speakers of the ‘complot’, ‘conjuration’, and ‘ligue’ against J.J.; while each of these words implies a conspiracy, each word implies a host of meanings that needs to be unpacked. ‘Complot’ can be read as ‘plotting-together’, allowing us to understand the full implications of ‘ligue’ as a unified and almost universal confederation of individuals actively involved in the plotting against J.J.; this gives the word ‘conjuration’ its more immediately Latinate meaning that invokes its legal and bond-creating affinity, insofar as conjurare both means to plot together but more strictly to swear or make an oath together,[11] thus highlighting its highly political and quasi-legal, juridical or de jure status. But what is at the basis of this league of conspirators, and how can this basis help us to make more sense of the importance and structure of the Dialogues in its genesis?

Here it would be necessary to take into consideration the Discours sur l’origine et les fondements de l’inégalité parmi les hommes in order to shed light on some of the factors at play in the Dialogues. The last sentence of the first part of the second discourse could easily serve as a preface to the Dialogues: “Il me suffit d’offrir ces objets à la consideration de mes Juges: il me suffit d’avoir fait en sorte que les Lecteurs vulgaires n’eussent pas besoin de les considerer”.[12] This statement is evidently prophetic, because when we consider it in light of the Dialogues written thirty years later, it eerily reveals how Rousseau will never have done with the Judges and vulgar Readers[13] that continually disfigure his work. Considering this statement après coup, we could argue that here already there is a latent paranoia concerning the way in which Rousseau fears his work will be unjustly mangled and mishandled by his future readers.

This fear of disfigurement,[14] which is not simply synonymous with castration since it follows from a different logic, can only be understood as a consequence of Rousseau’s early distinction between l’Amour propre and l’amour de soi-même: while the latter is a natural inclination inherent in all animals that involves the production of virtue which is directed by reason and modified by pity, the former leads to honor[15], reputation, exchange of gazes, judgment, comparison and all the other “maux” that are inherent to the social field. In an extremely important footnote to the second discourse that stands in the middle of a dispute with Hobbes against understanding the state of nature as the war of all against all, Rousseau will describe the logic of l’Amour propre that will be essential for grasping the circumstances in which we find J.J. in the Dialogues:

Ceci bien entendu, je dis que dans nôtre état primitif, dans le veritable état de nature, l’Amour propre n’éxiste pas; Car chaque homme en particulier se regardant lui-même comme le seul Spectateur qui l’observe, comme le seul être dans l’univers qui prenne intérêt à lui,comme le seul juge de son propre mérite, il n’est pas possible qu’un sentiment qui prend sa source dans des comparaisons qu’il n’est pas à portée de faire, puisse germer dans son ame; par la meme raison cet homme ne sauroit avoir ni haine ni desir de vengeance, passions qui ne peuvent naître que de l’opinion de quelque offense recue; et comme c’est le mépris ou l’intention de nuire et non le mal qui constitue l’offense, des hommes qui ne savent ni s’apprecier ni se comparer, peuvent se faire beaucoup de violences mutuelles, quand il leur en revient quelque avantage, sans jamais s’offenser réciproquement.[16]

It is the exchange of comparisons and gazes that gives rise to social inequalities and forms the basis for l’Amour propre; in fact, the only way in the Dialogues for the speaker Rousseau to make sense of the conspiracy, hatred, and envy against J.J. is to proceed from an understanding that takes into account the circumstances “d’un Auteur don’t les succès passés blessent l’amour propre de ceux qui n’en peuvent obtenir de pareils” (139). Reversing the logic of imaginary identification of which we spoke above, it becomes more obvious to see how Rousseau reveals the fact that it is a question of his work continually being disfigured purposefully by others so that they may instead appear more likeable to themselves.[17] Thus the accused reverses the accusation and returns to the reading public their own inverted image, claiming that the feigning behind the disfigurement and painting of Rousseau is in reality a symptom of their own depiction of their self-disfigurement.

 While this will remain a part of the struggle that dominates Rousseau’s later writings, the consistent logic behind Rousseau’s oeuvre shows that there is no way to absolutely separate ourselves from these types of mutual violences because our own being is ineluctably tied to the state of society and requires l’Amour propre to a certain extent as one of the virtual aspects of the perfectibility of the individual and/or the species.[18] While arguing that the intimacy and enjoyment of friendship can only be nourished and appreciated in the retreat from the social field, Rousseau will remind us that there is no complete isolation or escape into a state of nature to which we can return or in which we can immerse ourselves:

mais je sais aussi qu’une solitude absolue est un état triste et contraire à la nature…Notre plus douce existence est relative et collective, et notre vrai moi n’est pas tout entire en nous. Enfin telle est la constitution de l’homme en cette vie qu’on n’y parvient jamais à bien jouir de soi sans le concours d’autrui (227).

Thus we learn that the perfectibility of the social self that is implied by l’amour propre necessarily requires associations with others, insofar as affectionate feelings nourish the soul and the communication of ideas enlivens the spirit (227).  Due to this situation, J.J. will have to face up to the very aspect of that which gives the most distress and yet also the most pleasure to him while in society: that of the spectacles of faces, including their sensible signs and their physical traits/traces.[19]

            Rousseau reveals the logic of the transparency of the heart that is revealed in the spectacle of the face for J.J. in this way:

Tant qu’il est seul il est hereux et quand le spectacle de la haine le navre, ou quand le mépris et la derision l’indignent, c’est un movement passage qui cesse aussitôt que l’objet qui l’excite a disparu. Ses emotions sont promptes et vives mais rapides et peu durables, et cela se voit. Son cœur transparent comme le cristal ne peut rien cacher de ce qui s’y passé; chaque movement qu’il éprouve transmet à ses yeux et sur son visage.[20]

While the signs of the eyes reveal the transparency of the heart, its negative and menacing signs are only able to affect him with the presence of the face that bears them. Similarly, in the eighth promenade of Rousseau’s Les Rêveries du promeneur solitaire, we find that Rousseau can enjoy himself during the intervals in which he finds himself alone: “je m’oubliais en quelque façon moi-même”.[21] While Rousseau can escape the bounded coordinates of himself in the absence of faces, their very presence constitutes the one appearance that yokes him back down to his sub-jectivity, which is another way of saying that the senses overturn his self-mastery or sovereignty down to the status of subject:

Cette action de mes sens sur mon cœur fait le seul tourment de ma vie. Les jours où je ne vois personne, je ne pense plus à ma destine, je ne la sens plus, je ne souffre plus, je suis hereuex et content sans diversion, sans obstacle. Mais j’échappe rarement à quelque atteinte sensible, et lorsque j’y pense le moins, un geste, un regard sinister que j’apercois, un mot envenimé que j’entends, un malveillant que je recontre, suffit pour me bouleverser (158).

Even though the presence of a sinister gaze is enough to rattle Rousseau as he has grown old, the peace of mind he finds walking alone is in fact a perfectibility that he has developed over the years; nevertheless, it is ironic to understand that Rousseau gives credit to his enemies for this development. As he recalls in the eight promenade, it is only in his old age that the escape to nature was able to give him solace and render him truly solitary; during his youth—before he was a writer or at least submitted to calumny and conspiracy—these same walks were considered “insipides et ennuyeuses” (159). To a certain extent, Rousseau at that time lacked the ability to dissociate the faciality of ‘le salon’ from the landscapity of the nature that he intended to enjoy. This nature was deprived or covered over by what can only be referred to as the spectral and spectacular residue of social life:

le souvenir de la compagnie que j’y avais laissée m’y suivait, dans la solitude, les vapeurs de l’amour-propre et le tumult du monde ternissaient à mes yeux la fraîcheur des bosquets et troublaient la paix de la retraite. J’avais beau fuir au fond des bois, une foule importune me suivait partout et voilait pour moi toute la nature (159).

It is only after learning how to separate the adhesive residues of l’amour propre that Rousseau can truly enjoy himself and the absence of faces in the midst of nature. The ideal circumstances for Rousseau would be for him to be able to efface himself before others (in a spatial and temporal sense), and to some extent render himself unrecognizable, even if the status of incognito for him seems virtually impossible to attain: “Je sens pourtant encore, il faut l’avouer, du plaisir à vivre au milieu des hommes tant que mon visage leur est inconnu” (172). As he makes clear, why choose a society that always grimaces at him, when instead “la nature me rit toujours”? This allows us to see that the face and voice of nature provides solace because it allows him to recover for himself a face that is truly unknown, a becoming-imperceptible that can only be found amidst what Rousseau might call a pure humanity: “C’est l’humanité pure qui me donne le couvert” (175).

            Nevertheless, the faciality of others is not exactly a complete horror story for Rousseau, and the ninth promenade abounds with examples of those who receive him with expressions of good will. These examples more or less boil down to the two categories of individuals that would be most likely to fall outside of the conspiracy against him in general, namely that of the immigrant and that of the child.[22] However, these singular instances also reveal the importance of general gatherings of faces that can be witnessed in the description of feasts in the ninth promenade. Here it would be important to understand that this love of feasts abides when the focus of the spectacle is not on Rousseau’s face[23] and when the joyful spectacle can be said to be innocent, i.e. transparent to the depths of the heart without the intermediary of a mask. This willingness to distinguish between the simulation of joy and the actual presence of joy cannot always be distinguished with certainty[24], but the presence of joy on the faces of children specifically seems to be beyond doubt insofar as they have not fully acquired the malignity that comes with  a mocking demeanor.

            Yet strikingly the love of feasts apparently goes hand in hand with the love of happy faces: “parmi tant de visages gais, je suis bien sûr qu’il n’y a pas un cœur plus gai que le mien” (171). As the ninth promenade reveals explicitly, the most enjoyable feasts are the little ones that Rousseau can himself procure for children. When Rousseau gets the opportunity to purchase some apples from a little girl—who, we are told, guards them like a dragon hoarding its treasure—he is able to get her to share with the other children. On remembering this event, he recounts:

J’eus alors un des plus doux spectacles qui puissant flatter un cœur d’homme, celui de voir la joie unie avec l’innocence de l’âge se répandre autour de moi…j’ai trouvé qu’elle consistait moins dans un sentiment de bienfaisance que dans le plaisir de voir des visages contents” (170, emphasis added). 

The innocence of the faces that Rousseau enjoys in his promenades is reminiscent of the innocence that Rousseau continually attributes to J.J. in the Dialogues; this avowal of J.J’s innocence goes so far as to describe him as a big child, somewhat like the way in which the second discourse theorizes the savage in the state of nature more or less as a robust child. However, in the beginning of the second dialogue, J.J.’s innocence is disfigured when we learn of the frightening portraits that have been painted of him. Arguing against their similarity to the real J.J., Rousseau finds himself facing his own face, albeit in an altogether new, disfigured and completely alien form. Rousseau is put into contradiction with himself regarding his own face—which is a characteristic symptom of psychosis when this misrecognition occurs in a mirror—turned into that of a one-eyed monster:

je m’attendais à voir la figure d’un Cyclope[25] affreux…et croyant trouver sur son visage les traits du caractère que tout le monde lui donne, je m’avertissais de me tenir en garde contre un première impression si puissante toujours sur moi (187).

This ‘guard’ that Rousseau must bring against the portrait is particularly important when we consider that the first dialogue ends with Rousseau claiming to seek out J.J. in order to witness the man in the flesh himself. What he particularly guards against is the way in which these portraits have determined the public opinion of J.J. from outside and thus the way in which they have given birth in an illusory way to the J.J. that Rousseau himself disputes all along: “Voilà l’idée que l’histoire de ces différents portraits a fait naître à J.J.” (193). Deciding not to be influenced by the prejudices that disfigure J.J. before he has been allowed to speak, be heard or be read, Rousseau advises the Frenchman that we “laissons tous ces étranges portraits, et revenons à l’original”. This desire to relocate the original in its pure state and penetrate it is for Rousseau the only true way to judge a man’s character: “je résolus…de l’observer moins par des signes équiovques et rapides que par sa constant manière d’être” (194).

Thus we find that one of the most consistent refrains in the primary preoccupations and concerns of the Dialogues is to remove the equivocation of the disfigurement that plagues the name of the author J.J.: both interlocutors are tasked with recovering the original state through which the works and even the faces of this author is signed by this name. Therefore, returning full circle to where we began, it would be more helpful to argue against the cursory Lacanian reading put forth by Žižek by recognizing that, far from settling for the subjection of imaginary identification to symbolic identification, it is more appropriate to see how the text scrambles these coordinates and undermines the very principle foundation upon which J.J. is observed and upon which (Jean-Jacques) Rousseau observes him(self). For the Dialogues reveal how little we can trust the disfiguring mask that covers over this symbolic identification, pointing towards an outside where a space can be left open from which J.J. can be seen to be nowhere and no one, an incognito subjectivity that resists the observation and panopticon of gazes. This is J.J.’s utopia, which is not a happy place but the opening onto new possibles; perhaps it is unsustainable in toto but also recursive in essence, leading us not to succumb to the vulgarity and l’amour propre of his contemporary readers and not to give up on the desire for sustaining the intensities of a real dialogue and encounter with his works that will perhaps leave us disfigured from the depths of the eyes to the transparent core of our heart.


[1] Guattari, Félix. The Machinic Unconscious. Trans. Taylor Adkins. Semiotext(e): Los Angeles, 2011, p. 80-81.

[2] Rousseau. Dialogues: Rousseau juge de Jean-Jacques. Flammarion: Paris, 1999, p. 243.

[3] Žižek, Slavoj. The Sublime Object of Ideology.  Verso: London, 1989, p. 108.

[4] Dialogues, ibid., p. 75.

[5] This will be interrogated in the first and second dialogues, where it becomes a point of contention for the speaker Rousseau to argue that J.J. definitely has a musical sensibility and ability, even if the Frenchman will continue to try to disfigure him as simply a copyist of musical signs.

[6] Ibid., p. 90-91.

[7] It will be noted that by the end of the second dialogue there is no more contention about whose J.J. is in question; in fact, up to a certain point each speaker will refer to ‘votre J.J.’, but at a certain point there will be a change of  reference to ‘nôtre homme’ simply to refer to J.J. from then on.

[8] This will occupy the central concern of the second dialogue and will retain us later on.

[9] This parallax is fundamental for understanding the importance of the Dialogues: rather than a simple splitting of Rousseau/J.J., the historical author (Jean-Jacques Rousseau) divides himself—or has his speakers do this—into at least two J.J.’s from the start, and we should not leave out the initial splitting that a speaker Rousseau and a speaker named a Frenchman entails. (I would also point out that these two interlocutors should be read as the ‘fictive’ or ‘created friends’ with which Rousseau the speaker tells us J.J. surrounds himself while he is alone) (243). With these two interlocutors later on, after the one has met J.J. and the other has read him, we can discern that in a sense there will arise a new J.J. (who will still be in contention somewhat) because, at the beginning Rousseau has read J.J.’s work with his own eyes and the Frenchman has seen him with his own eyes. Nevertheless, the Frenchman’s manner of regarding J.J. is reduced to a gaze through the eyes of others—specifically when we learn from Rousseau that the Frenchman has never seen anything but a ‘painted’ or depicted illusion created by others (which is precisely the position of symbolic identification that is in question). Therefore, a simple correspondence between an imaginary and symbolic identification would completely undermine the ongoing process that necessarily involves misunderstandings, misrepresentations and misrecognitions due to the parallax(es) that separate the speakers and that will become the motor and central concern of the Dialogues themselves.

[10] In fact, the crucial point of the Dialogues and specifically the second dialogue as a whole is to undermine the very assertion that the point from which we are observed does not have a certain efficacy over the way in which Jean-Jacques Rousseau wants to see himself, precisely because this point of observation is itself for J.J. the Author a product of a certain amour-propre of others and a certain (false) envious comparison. While this gesture could be written off as a symptom of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s paranoia (which would then be the full-fledged disease, so to speak, of amour-propre), I believe that this gesture would be the height of misreading because it indicates in its own symptomatic way a desire or unwillingness to read. Instead of allowing for an encounter of reading to take place, one writes off the writing, disfigures it, ‘paints’ over it. More importantly, what remains to be explained is the fact that this outburst of paranoia does not undermine his previous theoretical positions but reveals itself to follow them very closely and amplify them throughout the Dialogues.

[11] This would bring the ‘ligue’ against Rousseau to be susceptible perhaps to the logic laid forth by the Social Contract (specifically the end where the state of nature looms menacingly as the work comes full circle). It also comes strikingly close to the logic at the end of the second Discourse, where Rousseau details the exclusivity that allows for privileged individuals to enjoy and be happy to the extent that others are deprived of those same acquisitions. Furthermore, it should be noted how the Dialogues can be seen to be dealing with not a natural inequality, but a moral or political inequality due to the common convention of those participating in the conspiracy against him. As we shall show later, this makes more sense when we conceive—as the epigraph above from the Dialogues indicates—that J.J. simply has to separate himself from society in order to rid himself of the negative effects of hateful gazes. This accords well with the conception of the state of nature in which the ongoing comparisons induced by amour-propre lead feelings of revenge, inequality, exclusion, etc.

[12] Rousseau. Discours sur l’origine et les fondements de l’inégalité parmi les hommes. Gallimard: Paris, 1969, p.93.

[13] A good example of this can be found in the first part of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground. Describing a certain incredulity towards the form of autobiography itself, the underground man remarks:

can one be perfectly honest with oneself and not be afraid of the whole truth? Apropos of this I would point out that Heine claims that true autobiographies are almost impossible and that a man will most certainly lie about himself. In his opinion, Rousseau, for example, undoubtedly lied about himself in his Confessions—even lied deliberately, out of vanity. I’m convinced that Heine is right; I can understand perfectly well how one can sometimes accuse oneself of all sorts of crimes solely out of vanity and I even understand very well the nature of that vanity. But Heine was passing judgment on a man who was making a public confession. But I’m writing for myself alone and declare once and for all that if I’m writing as if I’m addressing readers, then it’s purely for show, since it’s easier writing like that. It’s only a form, an empty form. I shall never have any readers. I’ve already said as much. Dostoevsky. Notes from Underground. Trans. Ronald Wilks. Penguin: London, 2009, p. 36.

Nevertheless, this assertion belies the fact that there and elsewhere Rousseau is writing for a hostile audience that will continue to disfigure both his authorship and his written works. Furthermore, as the Dialogues makes abundantly clear, Jean-Jacques will become the scapegoat for a number of crimes that he never committed—this makes it easier to understand that the events recounted by the Confessions are not written out of vanity per se but against the lies that are already in circulation around this name. In this sense, Heine and Dostoevsky fail to recognize the way in which the Confessions are already a response to lies that are already in vogue. Finally, it can be seen how Dostoevsky and Heine come strikingly close to the arguments made in The Sublime Object of Ideology, insofar as the vanity ascribed to Rousseau’s pen seems to be reduced to a willingness to recuperate a position of imaginary identification from which Rousseau can appear likeable to himself. But this would be to overlook the position of inequality in which J.J. becomes mired through the quasi-omnipresence of the overarching conspiracy that dominates the conversations in the Dialogues. Rather than writing in an empty form, Rousseau is addressing a literary space and readership that is always already overly and overtly full (of opinion, among other things). The Dialogues can then be understood as a process of emptying this space to allow for the presence of an unmediated reception.

[14] As the famous signature page of the Confessions shows, the question of disfigurement dominates the concern of Rousseau’s later writings:

Voici le seul portrait d’homme, peint exactement d’après nature et dans toute sa vérité, qui existe et qui probablement existera jamais. Qui que vous soyez, que ma destine ou ma confiance ont fait l’arbitre du sort de ce cahier, je vous conjure par mes malheurs, par vos entrailles, et au nom de toute l’espèce, de ne pas anéantir un ouvrage unique et utile, lequel peut server de première pièce de comparison pour l’étude des hommes, qui certainement est encore à commencer, et de ne pas ôter à l’honneur de me mémoire le seul monument sûr de mon caractère qui n’ait pas été défiguré par mes ennemis.

Confessions. Gallimard: Paris, 1973, p. 31 (emphasis added). As the very beginning of the second dialogue makes clear, the disfigurement of Rousseau’s texts goes hand in hand with the disfigurement of his painted portrait itself.

[15] As Rousseau shows, l’Amour propre and the honor that comes with it—along with the sense of justice—is partly behind the impetus for writing the Dialogues: “Mais celui que se sent digne d’honneur et d’estime et que le public défigure et diffame à plaisir, de quell ton se rendra-t-il seul la justice qui lui est due?”. “Du sujet et de la forme de cet écrit” in Dialogues, ibid., p. 61.

[16] Discours, ibid., p. 149, Note XV (emphasis added).

[17] This is eloquently captured in the beginning of the second dialogue when Rousseau relates a poetic quatrain that J.J. has placed under his portrait: “Hommes savants dans l’art de feindre / Qui me pretez des traits si doux, / Vous aurez beau vouloir me peindre, / Vous ne peindrez jamais que vous”, Dialogues, p. 189.

[18] It remains to be seen whether or not l’Amour propre is a continuation of the inherent perfectibility of pity and l’Amour de soi; there is an indication that Rousseau might consider l’Amour propre as a strengthening of the individual and a weakening of the species; this type of account seems to accord with Nietzsche’s view of decadence in modernity.

[19] This connection of extremes in the realm of faciality is particularly revealing when we consider his enigmatic statements concerning the level of intimacy involved with the appearances of faces: Rousseau claims for J.J. an ability that equals anyone else when it comes to the subject of love in a face-to-face situation; on the other hand, he is the worst at the subject of gallantry when in a circle, i.e. a profusion of faces. There is always a question of whether or not the individuals in the circle—which should remind us of the Cabana scene from the second discourse where we find the individuals of the tribe dancing and singing in a circle around the communal tree—are not always already seeing J.J. through the eyes of others: “S’il y a un complot, tout par son effet deviant facile à prouver à ceux-mêmes qui ne sont pas du complot, et quand ils croient voir par leurs yeux, ils voient, sans s’en douter, par les yeux d’autrui” (321). Furthermore, as Rousseau points out in the following paragraph, the face-to-face has the advantage of being a close-up or a position of immediacy transparent to the heart through the eyes (looking into the depth of the eyes), whereas the circle only reveals the latter, flattening that dimension of depth, reducing it to the two-dimensionality of a sort of painting whose copy is claimed by public opinion to be better than the original: “ ‘C’est un homme d’esprit en peinture, c’est un sot en original’ “ (237). Although standing it on its head, this opinion of J.J. displays another instance of the ways in which the metaphor of disfigurement already implies the functions of substitution that will be one of the requirements for the development of perfectibility.

[20] Dialogues, p. 280-81.

[21] Rousseau, Rêveries du promeneur solitaire. Flammarion: Paris, 1997, p. 149.

[22] With Rousseau’s hope, of course, that children in general will beforehand not find his old face disgusting:

Les enfants n’aiment pas la vieillesse, l’aspect de la nature défaillante est hideux à leurs yeux, leur repugnance que j’apercois me navre; et j’aime mieux m’abstenir de les caresser que de leur donner de la gene ou du dégoût…si je pouvais voir encore dans quelques yeux la joie et le contentement d’être avec moi, de combien de maux et de peines ne me dédommageraient pas ces court mais doux épanchements de mon cœur? Reveries, ibid., p. 165.

[23] This may be why Rousseau prefers to spectate rather than participate in feasts himself.

[24] Perhaps this is why Rousseau complains in L’Essai sur l’origine des langues that French lacks both the vocative and a typographical way of indicating irony: the former would make it possible to indicate the invocation of direct  speech that would occur in a face-to-face conversation, whether present or absent; on the other hand, the lack of the ability to indicate irony explicitly through some sort of mark or trace allows all the better for ‘méchants’ to disguise their amour propre by masking it ambiguously as something else. This equivocation of irony and the vocative is obviously only present in writing, although the former can be disguised by the omission of accentual changes. Cf. the note in L’Essai. Gallimard: Paris, 1990, p. 80.

[25] Here we have the opposite of what Guattari will evoke when he brings up the concept of abstract faciality: “[This] corresponds to what Ulysses replied to the Cyclops when he asked him for his name: Nobody—it’s nobody in person! [Personne—c’est personne en personne!]”. Machinic Unconscious, ibid., p.76. In this sense, for J.J. or Rousseau himself, the positions are reversed: rather than being in the place of Ulysses with an unknown face as an abstract personage of pure humanity, we find the disfigured depiction of a monstrous faciality that is indicative of the way in which the name of J.J. is attached to a menacing visage.

The Author

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  1. Pingback: La vie selon Nicolas Machiavel : « En politique le choix est rarement entre le bien et le mal, mais entre le pirenet le moindre mal. » « Maï Savoir Is Riche

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