Review: Emile

Review: Emile

EmileEmile by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If all the philosophers in the world should prove that I am wrong, and you feel that I am right, that is all I ask.

My reaction to Rousseau is very similar to my reaction to Thoreau, whose back-to-nature ethic owed much to Rousseau’s philosophy. Though constantly impressed with the breadth of their vision and the force of their rhetoric, I find the personalities of these two men—at least as manifested in their books—to be grating and unpleasant. When I am not underlining brilliant passages, I read Rousseau through gritted teeth and with frequent interruptions to roll my eyes.

I see much in common between these two Romantic devotees of nature. While Thoreau’s dour and stern demeanor is not comparable to Rousseau’s sentimental imagination, the two of them are self-involved, prickly, and vain. Both praise wild isolation at the expense of society because neither seemed to fit into the latter. Though the two of them were brilliant in the extreme, neither of them seemed to have reached the level of intellectual maturity that allows feelings to be submitted to reasons and other perspectives to be considered. Both of them fire off opinions with wild abandon, saying what feels good, without taking the trouble to thoroughly argue their points, to consider competing ideas, or even to make their own thoughts consistent.

To pick just one example of this last tendency in Rousseau, at one point he says: “Amid the uncertainty of human life, let us shun that false prudence which seeks to sacrifice the present to the future; what is, is too often sacrificed to what will never be. Let us make man happy at every age lest in spite of our care he should die without knowing the meaning of happiness.” And yet, almost immediately after this pronouncement, he insists that his titular pupil, after having fallen in love and proposed marriage, postpone the delight of union for two years—leaving his beloved to go travel—in order to learn to master his feelings. The book is rife with such inconsistency. And not only that but, as in Thoreau’s case, Rousseau’s manner of life was notoriously inconsistent with the principles he espoused, adding hypocrisy into the bargain. That a man who sent his own children to an orphanage should write a manifesto of education is rich indeed.

But Rousseau must be read and praised, this book above all, since he—as well as his American disciple—contributed a great deal to our common stock of ideas and the expansion of our cultural faculties. Under the guise of a treatise on education, Rousseau has written a universal reflection on human life, comparable to Plato’s Republic or The Brothers Karamazov for its omnidirectional scope. The novelistic device of describing himself as a tutor educating a child allows Rousseau to illustrate his philosophy of society, ethics, government, love, history, travel, religion, literature, and much else along the way, besides to his groundbreaking views on education.

Rousseau begins with his famous dictum that nature makes everything good, and it is human society corrupts our natural goodness into evil. His stated purpose is to illustrate how natural goodness can be preserved in a growing boy destined for life in society—that is, without Thoreau’s recourse of reverting to a state of nature. With this principle in mind, Rousseau blasts mothers for hiring wet nurses to breastfeed their children rather than doing it themselves. And though Rousseau’s reasons are fallacious, this advice probably did the world much good, since, in addition to the emotional bonding, breastfeeding allows important antibodies to be transferred from the mother to the infant.

After infancy gives way to childhood, Rousseau’s real educational work begins. Here he made another important contribution to child-rearing, by insisting that children’s minds are not suited to adult ideas and methods. A child is a different creature altogether and education must be suited to a child’s capacities and predilections. Lectures, sermons, and catechisms must be avoided; and using punishment and reward only corrupt the child. Instead the tutor must find ways to motivate the child to learn without ever seeming to do so. Rousseau the tutor is constantly devising tricks and schemes to get his imaginary pupil, Emile, to learn valuable lessons in a “natural” way—that is, relying on the child’s intrinsic motivation and using no explicit instruction. Everything in Rousseau’s model must simulate life and the child must work on his own conclusions following his own curiosity. The tutor is much more a guide—and, behind the scenes, an impresario—than a real teacher.

Following this procedure, lessons on magnetism and morality are woven into a magician’s act. Geography is taught by getting lost in the forest. Geometry is taught by attempting to draw and map. Botany and agriculture are taught through gardening. And so on, covering sciences, arts, and moral lessons. This way, Emile grows up into a competent, strong, and thoroughly honest boy with no social pretensions and no vanity whatsoever. At least, Rousseau assures us that this would be the result. By the time Rousseau takes Emile into Paris, as a young man, the student is disgusted at the foppery of the men, the arrogance of the philosophes, and the affected manners of the women.

More contentiously, Rousseau would not teach his pupil anything about God or religion until the age of eighteen, considering such subjects too abstruse and profound for a child to understand. He would not even teach Emile to read until shortly before that. And this is not all that occasioned scandal. Rousseau famously interrupts the story of Emile’s education to include the Profession of Faith of a Savoyard Vicar, the most well-known, influential, and controversial section of the book. Though couched in the language of philosophy, the Profession is essentially an argument against both organized religion and atheism in favor of deism, based on feeling alone. Voltaire, a deist himself, considered this the book’s only worthwhile section, only lamenting that it has been written by “such a rascal.” It was largely this trenchant criticism of organized religion that led to the book getting banned and burned in Paris and Geneva. And yet, ironically enough, the idea that inner conviction is a surer basis for faith than logic was to become a pillar of religious thought in the coming centuries.

The last section of the book consists in finding a mate for Emile. This is by far the most unpleasant part of the book. Rousseau’s view on women and their upbringing is reactionary and sexist to the utmost, not to mention unpleasantly marred by Rousseau’s own sentimental (and sexual) fantasies regarding women. Rousseau’s ideal companion for his pupil is named Sophie, and her education differs markedly from Emile’s. Sophie is to be a kind of passive doll, a creature not fit for reason or art, whose job is to caress Emile and to make his life easier. Rousseau describes their courtship with the drama of a novelist and the passion of an onanist. Both the principles and the writing are revolting.

Finally, after enduring a forced separation for his beloved—a very unnatural thing for Rousseau to recommend!—Emile settles down happily in blissful union with Sophie, and prepared to educate his own children along Rousseau’s lines.

This summary does not exactly do justice to Emile, since it omits all of the manifold digressions that Rousseau yields to in the book’s wandering course. Some of these are among the best sections of the work; others are pointless rambling. Even when he is not off in the bushes, Rousseau can be very repetitive, giving us five sentences where one would do, spending three paragraphs harping on a minor point. The final result is a book much longer than it has to be. This is Rousseau’s most conspicuous stylistic flaw, which he excuses in typical Rousseau fashion: “If this book is to be well written, I must enjoy writing it.” Unfortunately the author’s pleasure is often gotten at the expense of the reader’s. Yet the book’s best moments are masterful, rising to heights of power and lyricism that cannot be forgotten. Immanuel Kant famously had to read the book twice, the first time just for the style, the second for the content.

The flaws in Rousseau’s ideas are many and grave. Most obviously, Rousseau’s educational program is impractical in the extreme, relying on a perfectly wise tutor to devote twenty years of his life to a perfectly malleable pupil. This may be excused, however, by treating the arrangement as an explanatory device and not a real proposal to be emulated. More seriously, Rousseau’s conviction that nature is intrinsically good is, I think, incorrect and even incoherent. Natural disasters, such as the Lisbon Earthquake in Rousseau’s own lifetime, demonstrate that nature can be cruel and merciless; and in any case, how can you know what nature is, or where nature ends and human culture begins? Besides, doesn’t Rousseau advocate many “unnatural” things? The level of control exercised by his tutor over his pupil’s reality is far greater than any real parent or teacher.

Yet even when strictly viewed as an educational treatise, there is much to be praised in the book. Rousseau’s emphasis on experiential rather than theoretical learning was quite valuable. And his conviction that education must take into account the child’s development and maturity was a revolution. I also share his suspicion towards using external rewards and punishments to motivate children, since the bad is avoided and the good is sought for artificial, rather than instrinctic, reasons.

Of course the book’s merits extend much further than education. Taken together, Rousseau’s philosophy touched on every aspect of society, from philosophy to fashion, from labor to love. For all his naïveté, Rousseau seemed to have correctly sensed that his society was artificial and could not last. Thirty years before the revolution, he says: “The crisis is approaching, and we are on the edge of a revolution.” And he then goes on in a footnote: “In my opinion, it is impossible that the great kingdoms of Europe should last much longer. Each of them has had its period of splendor, after which it must inevitably decline.” Like Thoreau, Rousseau was a prophet and a true original, embittered by being misunderstood, isolated, and ostracized, whose all-too-obvious faults concealed the revolutionary reach of his vision.

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Review: The World of Yesterday

Review: The World of Yesterday

The World of YesterdayThe World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Memoires often make the best travel books. I began this book in preparation for a short trip to Vienna, and quickly discovered that I had chosen well. Whatever your opinion of Zweig, The World of Yesterday is worth reading simply for the wealth of information it contains. Few history books paint so rich and full a picture of European culture during these transformative years—above all, in Paris, Berlin, and Zweig’s original home of Vienna—from the peaceful span preceding the First World War, to the Indian Summer of the interwar years, to the terrible hardships that led to the second great conflagration.

The last two autobiographies I read were of Benvenuto Cellini (whose beautiful salt-cellar is on display at the Vienna Art History Museum) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, two very different men alike in their narcissism. Whatever faults Zweig may have had, he was not a narcissist. This is the least personal of autobiographies, almost never mentioning Zweig’s so-called “personal life”—his marriages, private disappointments, and intimate friendships. Instead Zweig focuses his gaze outward, at the world around him, the cultural milieu, the slowly shifting tides of history.

By being so self-effacing, Zweig succeeds in producing a surprisingly insightful look at his world. A delicate, sensitive, and intelligent man, Zweig was extremely well-read, and knew virtually everybody—every famous European, at least—and so was in a uniquely advantageous position to write the history of his times. To give you some idea of his social circle, Zweig knew Sigmund Freud and Salvador Dalí (he even facilitated a meeting between the two when Freud was in London), he met Auguste Rodin, James Joyce, Thomas Mann, H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, and was friends with Richard Strauss, Benedetto Croce, Rainer Marie Rilke, Romain Rolland, and Maxim Gorky, just to name the names that come to mind.

Zweig’s history is largely one of tragic loss, as he repeats again and again. He begins his life in an affluent home, the son of a successful industrialist, in a period of calm stability and cultural efflorescence in Europe. He hones his writing skill, quickly gains success, meets several famous contemporaries, travels and sees the world, and then witnesses the body of European civilization tear itself apart for the flimsiest and most fatuous of reasons during the First World War. The war eventually comes to its bloody end, Austria and then Germany suffer terribly, Zweig meanwhile becomes one of the world’s most famous and most translated authors (although the English never liked him), and then Hitler’s rise begins, forcing Zweig to flee. The book ends just as the Second World War is commencing.

Despite the tragedy that Zweig lived through (and committed suicide during), it is impossible for me not to have life-envy. Here was have a man born into wealth, who had the time and resources to dedicate his whole self to his art, who could travel wherever he pleased whenever he pleased, who achieved instantaneous success seemingly without effort, who was able to meet and befriend all of his contemporary heroes, and who was even wealthy enough to collect manuscripts of his deceased idols—in short, it would be hard to imagine circumstances more favorable to the creation of a writer than those Zweig enjoyed. If you had asked me, before reading this book, to give my prescription for creating a first-class writer, I don’t think the result would be far off.

Yet for all his cultural capital, Zweig does not come across as pretentious or pompous. He is timid, uncharismatic, and even mundane. It is easy to imagine bumping into him on the street. (Though, as Hermann Kesten wrote, the Zweig of reality was far more eccentric than than Zweig of this book.) As a writer, he is skilled, consistent, and accessible. In a word, his prose is fluent: easy to read and digest, even in large doses. He is always interesting and never overpowering, like an excellent dinner guest. The one quality he lacks is humor—a serious deficiency, but not a fatal one. Perhaps the best way to describe Zweig is that he is a sophisticated middle-brow author, which might be why the high-brow world has had trouble accepting him; unlike Milton, Zweig intended to soar a middle flight.

It is hard to criticize Zweig—the champion of European solidarity, whose message is especially important now—who asks so little and never imposes his views. But I must say that he had several blindspots.

First, I think that his narrative of events is deeply colored by his affluence. Zweig—a rich, successful, cosmopolitan intellectual—simply cannot imagine why anyone would do something so insane as to start a war. How is he to travel to Paris or to attend the theater festival in Brussels if men are fighting? His explanation of the conflict—which comes down to thoughtless stupidity—is historically unsatisfactory. And even though I, of course, agree with his anti-war ideals, I couldn’t help thinking that his social status prevented him from understanding why less fortunate people might be dissatisfied with his wonderful world.

More generally, I think that Zweig’s life demonstrates why art should not be made into a religion. Zweig did not only love art, he worshipped it. His intense focus on the objects that artistic geniuses have touched—their manuscripts and notebooks and even their furniture—reminded me of the reliquaries of Catholicism. Every time he introduces one of his famous acquaintances, he writes a mini-hagiography, obsequiously describing even his subject’s face, manners, and expressions, as if artistic skill sanctified one’s mortal frame.

I personally found it all very distasteful—how, for example, Zweig fetishized every item that was in Beethoven’s room when he died. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this, of course; but it makes it very easy to confuse aesthetic with ethical values. This confusion leads to the kind of political apathy Zweig succumbed to. When the beautiful is all that matters, why worry about tawdry things like social welfare?

Zweig had the attractive, but ultimately vain, notion that he could live aloof from politics. He never mentions anything even remotely political in his fiction; he didn’t even vote. Then he is surprised and dismayed that politics follows him everywhere. Granted, he does have a political stance: he is a pacifist, a humanist, and an internationalist. But this stance is not the product of reasoned consideration; it is the stance that allows him to continue his life as a traveling author unmolested. To steal a phrase from Michael Hoffman’s scorchingly hostile review, he is more a passivist than a pacifist. What Zweig wants from politics, in other words, is what would be necessary for him not to bother with politics.

Now, it is worth asking whether we ought to live in a world where we have no choice but to pay attention to the dreary doings of politicians. Be that as it may, Zweig certainly didn’t have a choice, which led to the irony of this most apolitical of authors structuring his autobiography according to political events.

All these criticisms notwithstanding, I think most people will find here a fundamentally sane, humane, and liberal book. For my part, Zweig supported the right causes, if not always for the right reasons. One thing, however, is left unclear: the relation of this book to Zweig’s suicide. Zweig, along with his wife, ended his own life not long after finishing this book. One might expect this to be his final message to the world; but as the translator notes, it is difficult to read this as a long suicide note. Zweig talks of a future, his future, with more books to write and years to live. The book even ends with a paean to life.

Whatever reason Zweig ended his life, one thing was certain: the Vienna of his youth, the Vienna he so lovingly describes here, is mostly vanished. If I can judge from my short visit, the city is entirely changed: Vienna nowadays is a city of tourism. Instead of the music-loving, critical, and discerning audiences Zweig describes in theaters and concerts, the city is now full of tourists who will pay periwigged salesmen to attend generic Mozart concerts, which run identical programs of greatest-hits that tireless musicians perform nightly. In the streets, English and Chinese are more commonly heard than German. Of course, Vienna is still lovely and full of cultural treasures; but these cultural treasures are of the past now, not the living present.

Did Zweig sense this change coming? Maybe not in so many words, but I think he knew that his world had forever passed into memory. There was no putting Europe back into the same postwar shape after so much destruction and death. That past now exists only in museums, grand old buildings, and books like this.

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Review: How to Live, a Life of Montaigne

Review: How to Live, a Life of Montaigne

How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an AnswerHow to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It had the perfect commercial combination: startling originality and easy classification.

With the state of the world—especially of the United States—growing more unsettling and absurd by the day, I felt a need to return to Montaigne, the sanest man in history. Luckily, I had Bakewell’s book tucked away in the event of any crisis of this kind; and I’m happy to report it did take the edge off.

How to Live is a beguiling mixture. While purportedly a biography of Montaigne, it is also, as many reviewers have noted, a biography of Montaigne’s Essays, tracking how they have been reread and reinterpreted in the centuries since their publication. This double-biography is structured as a series of answers to the question: How to live? In the hands of a less able writer, this organizational principle could easily have become a cheap, tacky gimmick; but Bakewell’s skill and taste allow the book to transcend biography into philosophy—or, at the very least, into self-help.

Bakewell herself is hardly a Montaignesque writer. Her prose is disciplined and controlled; and though she must weave philosophy, history, literary criticism, and biography into a coherent narrative, she keeps her material on a tight rein. While Montaigne serves as the “massive gravitational core” of his own essays, holding all the disparate topics together by the force of his personality, Bakewell herself is mostly absent from these pages. Instead, she gives us a loving portrait of Montaigne—the man, his times, and his book. And this was especially interesting for me, since Montaigne, despite writing reams about himself, never manages to give his readers a coherent picture of his life or his society. Bakewell’s book is thus most recommended as a compliment to Montaigne’s Essays, providing a background for Montaigne’s rambles.

Montaigne himself was interesting enough. Best-selling author; modern-day sage; dissatisfied lawyer; literary executor for his deceased friend, Étienne de la Boétie; translator of the obscure theologian, Raymond Sebond; and the reluctant mayor of Bordeaux: Montaigne wore many hats, and most of them well. He even played an important role in the negotiations and maneuverings that took place after the death of Henri III over the question of succession. Today, however, Montaigne is remembered more for his painful descriptions of his kidney stones than his political accomplishments.

The career of Montaigne’s reception was, for me, even more interesting than the story of his life. At first, he was interpreted as a later-day Stoic sage, a Seneca for the sixteenth century. In the next generation, both Pascal and Descartes didn’t like him, the former because Montaigne was too cheerful, the latter because he was too comfortable with uncertainty. The philosophes were fond of Montaigne’s secularism, though they had a very different conception of good prose. Rousseau and the romantics liked Montaigne for his praise of naturalness, his fondness for exotic customs, and his exploration of his own personality. Later, more puritanical generations chided Montaigne for his open attitude towards sex and his detached attitude toward society. Nowadays Montaigne is seen as a prophet of the postmodern, with his emphasis on shifting perspectives and the subjectivism of truth.

As far as Montaigne’s pieces of advice go, I’m happy to report that I was already putting most of them into practice. I don’t worry too much about death (no. 1), I like to travel (no. 14), and, to the best of my knowledge, I have been born (no. 3). I am particularly adept at number 4, “Read a lot, forget most of what you read, and be slow-witted,” though I’m still working on number 13, “Do something no one has done before.” Well, as much as I’d like to be original, I’m happy following in Montaigne’s footsteps; indeed, I agree with Bakewell in thinking that Montaigne’s example is more useful now than ever. I will let her have the final word:

The twenty-first century has everything to gain from a Montaignean sense of life, and, in its most troubled moments so far, it has been sorely in need of a Montaignean politics. It could use his sense of moderation, his love of sociability and courtesy, his suspension of judgment, and his subtle understanding of the psychological mechanisms involved in confrontation and conflict. It needs his conviction that no vision of heaven, no imagined Apocalypse, and no perfectionist fantasy can ever outweigh the tiniest of selves in the real world.

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