Thursday, June 28, 2012

In the Footsteps of Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Jean Jacques Rousseau
June 28 marks the three hundred anniversary of the birth of Franco-Swiss  philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Born in Geneva in 1712, the son of a watchmaker, Rousseau escaped an abusive employer at age 15 to find refuge in Confignon where a priest placed  him  under the protection of Madame de Warens, a noble lady living in Annecy.  Rousseau spent at least sixteen years of his youth traveling around the region of Rhone Alps making stops notably in Lyon, Annecy and Chambery.   To commemorate the anniversary of this philosopher of the Enlightenment, Rhone-Alps is hosting a number of events from concerts, exhibitions, readings and theatrical performances. The Rhone Alps is a large region in  eastern France that borders Switzerland and Italy.  At the time of Rousseau, the region was partly held by the house of Savoy.

Following in the footsteps of Rousseau, our first stop is Annecy where in 1728 the future writer met Madame de Warens.  Her mission was to help protestants convert to Catholicism.  Upon meeting young Rousseau, Madame de Warens sent him to Turin where he abjured his protestant faith and was baptized on 24 of April 1728.  A year later, he will return to Annecy to enter the service of Madame de Warens, a 30-year-old noblewoman.  He found at first in Madame de Warens a substitute mother (he had lost his mother at birth) and called her "Maman".  She also encouraged him in pursuing his  readings, poetry writings and music compositions.  At 20 years of age, Rousseau entertained a "liaison amoureuse" with his protectress whom he considered the greatest love of his life.

When Madame de Warens moved to Chambery in 1731, then the capital of Savoy,  Rousseau followed her after a brief stay in Paris.  He pursued his passion for musical composition and gave music lessons to the young ladies of the Chambery gentry.  A statue of the philosopher stands in the garden "du clos des Savoiroux " attesting to the time he spent in the Savoyard city.

Les Charmettes 
Nearby, is the charming Maison des Charmettes, Madame de Warens' country house where Jean Jacques Rousseau stayed from 1736 to 1742.  This was an idyllic refuge for Rousseau and where he spent the happiest time of his life, a good deal alone in the middle of nature constructing his "storehouse of ideas" and where he took pleasure in studying botany. The Charmettes has been a pilgrimage site where  Stendhal, George Sand and other admirers of Rousseau have come to impregnate themselves of the "soul" of Rousseau. Today the house is the Museum devoted to Jean Jacques Rousseau. The French style garden has a large collection of medicinal and condimental herbs, vegetables and fruit trees commonly used in the 18th century.

In 1741, Jean-Jacques Rousseau leaves les Charmettes to take a a position in Lyon as a tutor to well-to-do young boys. It lasted six months but during this time he reflected on education and child rearing.  Later in the novel Emile he wrote : " The noblest work in education is to make a reasoning man, we expect to train a yound child by making him reason! This is beginning at the end; this making an instrument of a result. If children understood how to reason they would not need to be educations" he also said "What is the goal of education of a young man but to making him happy".  Concepts that resonates well today.

In July 1742 Rousseau moved to Paris to pursue a career in music and to present to the Academie des Sciences  a new system of numbered musical notation that he fought would make him rich.  His system, is based on a single line, displaying numbers representing intervals between notes and dots and commas indicating rhythmic values.  The Academy rejected it believing it was impractical.  

Rousseau travelled extensively throughout his life --including Paris, Venice, Geneva, Bienne, Basel and even London.  He wrote about politics, philosophy, education, botany, musical treatises and composed operas. His ideas were considered instrumental in the cause of the French Revolution.  He died in 1778 (two month after Voltaire!) and was interred 16 years later at the Pantheon in Paris as a National hero. In his Confessions (considered to be the first major modern autobiographical work), Jean Jacques Rousseau narrates  the events of his life and how his experiences shaped his philosophy. Happy Birthday Monsieur Rousseau!!

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