Lord Byron and the History of Desire

Lord Byron and the History of Desire

Lord Byron and the History of Desire

Lord Byron and the History of Desire

Excerpt

Assemble about me, Eternal Being, the numberless host of my fel-
low-men; let them hear my confessions, let them groan at my
unworthiness, let them blush at my wretchedness. Let each of them,
here on the steps of your throne, in turn reveal his heart with the
same sincerity; and then let one of them say to you, if he dares: I was
better than that man.

—Rousseau, Confessions


The very large circular assemblage imagined in our epigraph, with Jean-Jacques Rousseau at its center, may form in the presence of an “Eternal Being” who will judge the merits of his rivals. But such a configuration also occurs in the quotidian world, for example at the start of the Reveries of the Solitary Walker, where the philosopher finds himself the focus of another kind of unanimous attention, “un accord unanime”: “So now I am alone in the world, with no brother, neighbor or friend, nor any company left me but my own. The most sociable and loving of men has with one accord been cast out by all the rest." “Cast out”: one may picture the same universal gathering, except now their backs are turned. But they are thinking of him, obviously, if only to arrange for his unanimous expulsion. Centrality is attainable even when all seems lost—even because all seems lost. It may not require ethical superiority. Mere difference may do the trick: “If I am not more deserving, at least I am different.” But difference draws and deserves attention. And nothing is more different about Rousseau than his extraordinary victimization, his suffering: “If I have not the celebrity that attaches to rank or birth, I have another, which is more my own and which I have purchased more dearly; I have the celebrity of my misfortunes. They have resounded throughout all Europe, a source of wonderment to the wise and of sorrow to the good, all of whom came in the end to see that I, much better than they, had recognized this learned and philosophical age for what it is.”

The present book proposes to begin by taking these familiar passages seriously. Rousseau did recognize something about the Europe of his age . . .
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