Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Private Writer and Public Author: Authorship and Audiences in Rousseau's Confessions

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Private Writer and Public Author: Authorship and Audiences in Rousseau's Confessions

Article excerpt

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was very critical of his publics, especially when it came to the power play, networking, and trade in intimacy that informed the role of the philosophes and hommes de lettres of salon culture. (1) And indeed, his Confessions can be read as the narrative of how be became an author who increasingly avoided contact with his contemporary publics in favor of the virtual and ideal audience of posthumous print publications. Yet he was also proud of his celebrity status, of being known among an anonymous crowd of people whom he would not be expected to know. In fact, be even relied on it in the hope that it would provide him with more work as a copyist and thereby secure his financial autonomy, providing him with a stable alternative to the dependence on gifts and patronage. (2) Moreover, to the extent that Rousseau conceived of himself as the producer not only of verbal but also of musical texts, he was intensely aware of the importance of a real, live audience. For a composer of an opera to be able to enjoy his own work, the work has to be performed, which in most cases means before a live audience. When Rousseau points this out in book 8 of the Confessions, the center of his autobiographical reflections on authorship, he adds that when it came to the performance of his opera, he wished to have it performed exclusively for him alone. Indeed, Rousseau's self-portrait as a writer, composer, copyist, and author, his narrative of how he came to inhabit different positions toward authorship, ranging from that of the impostor, who falsely claims to be able to provide valuable musical entertainment, to the censored and persecuted writer of an educational treatise, and the recluse who defers the publication of his Confessions to a posthumous date, is centered on his relationship to different kinds of contemporaneous audiences, be they the exclusive circles of the salons, the larger, and partly anonymous group of readers and critics involved in scholarly polemics and debates, the coffeehouse publics, or the theater and opera audiences at court and in the city. How Rousseau developed his concept of authorship with regard to these different audiences, implying different media of publication and dissemination, is the focus of the present essay.

According to his Confessions, Rousseau becomes a famous author all of a sudden. At one moment he is an unknown individual among the anonymous crowd of the print audience of the Mercure, an ordinary reader encountering the question of the essay competition, seized by excitement, feeling he has an important insight, jotting it down. A year later, suddenly and unexpectedly, he wins the first prize of the Academy of Dijon and becomes a public figure. Although he mentions that it was Diderot who encouraged him to finish the piece and who eventually found a publisher for it and although he also acknowledges that the abbe Raynal, the editor of the Mercure, was a good friend to him, he does not elaborate on Raynal's role. Instead, he presents the case as if he had become an instant celebrity by winning the Academy prize. Rousseau does not mention that he did not attend the award ceremony but sent a proxy and was not present when the piece was read aloud to the members of the Academy of Dijon. Moreover, his essay was not published then, but was first made available to a print audience through Raynal's summary. According to Cranston, Raynal devoted an entire year's publications of the Mercure to calling attention to Rousseau's piece. (3) Both Rousseau's actual account and these significant omissions make it clear that Rousseau is highly invested in attributing his status as a publicly known author exclusively to the quality of his writing and the originality of his thinking, not to personal connections and the publicity generated by reviews and scholarly debate. This is why he has to present himself as an author who emerges all of a sudden out of the anonymous audience of a printed journal. …

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