Venice: Had ’em all

“I would rather be a man of paradoxes than a man of prejudices…”
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile

If you type “Venice, Loneliness” into the database at the British Library there is one result: Leo Damrosch’s fantastic biography of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. If you type in “Venice, Love”, there are many more options, many of them Mills & Boon fictions.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau lived in Venice for over a year between 1743-4. He worked as Secretary to the French Ambassador, a man named Montaigu. “I made my duties my sole pleasures,” Rousseau writes in “The Confessions”.

We are the stories we live in, as well as the ones we tell. And discovering that the Rousseau I imagined, or ignorantly created, in Chambery, a picture of a man communing with nature and his lover at “les Charmettes”, is as close to a “story” as it is a truth, isn’t a shock, but it is a reminder of how easy it can be to believe the propaganda: in this case the local tourist literature in France.

Rousseau stands to some as a romantic hero of the individual trying to find a route into “honesty”: to find him living in the Querini palace, in the Canareggio district of Venice, busily and rather badly drawing up official letters, and making the diplomatic gestures required of the de facto head of the French Embassy is strange. Strange and for me somehow rather human, proving that almost nothing is as black and white as it might seem.

Venice had lost much of its status by this time, was not the powerful trader nation of the fifteenth or even sixteenth century, nevertheless it must have fascinated Rousseau. Venetians refused to meet foreigners, its nobles were forbidden to speak outside the Republic. His employer, the Ambassador Montaigu, “wrote ineptly and spoke no Italian,” so Rousseau had a free run at many things. For six months in 1744 he ran the Embassy, whilst Montaigu was in a country house on the Brenta. His greatest pleasure here was to listen to music: perhaps it is not well known that Rousseau was an acclaimed musician, and lyricist, as well as everything else: one of this operas was played at the wedding festivals for Louis XV and Marie Antoinette. How many “revolutionaries” can claim that, I wonder?

A while ago I decided that it is the “Betwixt” that must be central to the remainder of this journey, and so I return to Rousseau here in Venice because the creation I found in Chambery is less than half the story, in fact is almost an irrelevance, however easy it is to be beguiled by the idyllic location, and the perfect house with its glorious Alpine views. Here too are such things.

Reading his works, and academic texts about him, what is striking is how much he achieved, given a late start: Rousseau’s artistic life doesn’t begin until he’s around 32, 33. Since strong claims can be made that Rousseau: developed a political theory which deeply influenced the founding fathers and the French revolutionaries; that he helped to invent modern anthropology; that he wrote highly influential theories of education; that “The Confessions” virtually created what we know as “autobiography”; and that modern psychology owes him an immense debt, then half pictures won’t suffice. And this entry is just a start.

Who would have thought of Rousseau and Venice; even more, who would have thought of Rousseau, like Tom Coryat, meeting with beautiful courtesans – and failing miserably. With one named Zulietta, he gets to her bedroom, where she shows him two pistols…”I endure their caresses, but I don’t intend to endure their insults, and I won’t miss the first one who behaves like that,” she warned him. Unsurprisingly given Rousseau’s complex sexual landscape – he enjoyed being beaten, and being “submissive” – things didn’t work with Zulieta, despite her charms, she told him: “Little John, leave the ladies alone, and study mathematics…” the thing is: Rousseau writes this in his Autobiography (the word Autobiography was not invented until the C19th) : a confession so honest as to be painful.

What sets Rousseau apart from his Enlightenment contemporaries – he was friends with Diderot, Hume and Voltaire later in life, though would fall out with each – is his social Betwixt-ness. His humble, poverty-wracked nomadic wanderings through France from an early age – which brought him twice to ChambÈry – his jobs working on a Land Registry, for a Police chief in Lyon, copying music; his being sent by his eventual lover, Madame de Warens, to a hospice in Turin (which means he made the same journey as Tom and I, over the Mont Cenis pass and down through the Susa valley) where he was probably abused, all add to the texture of a man who became a major European literary celebrity, and then a political refugee. And now – I think – something of a forgotten man. A restoration of this very “European” sensibility is required, I feel.

“Mobile and rootless, cut loose from the ties of kinship and locality, he was very much a modern, and a fundamental aspect of his modernity is that he relied on friendship to create a personal equivalent of community. But though he yearned for intimacy in friendship, he was never much good at it.” Leo Damrosch writes.

“Rousseau was unhappy all his life because he sought the kind of friend of which ten or so, perhaps, have existed from Homer’s time until our.” Stendhal said.

Casanova remembers him differently, as: “equally undistinguished either in his person or his wit…the eloquent Rousseau had neither the temperament to laugh nor the divine talent of calling forth laughter…”

One of the things this trip teaches is that everywhere has somebody, or something, they can commemorate. From the fallen Australian soldiers whose graves fleck northern France, to the mystic Hildegarde of Bingen in Germany (to come). On the other hand Venice, like Casanova – one of its more colourful sons – appears to have had them all. Not only this but Venice’s stories encompass, (or are on my mind this morning) law, race, art, sex, travel itself, music, trade, and Islam (there’s a show on now at the Duke’s Palace about the relationship Venice has enjoyed with Islam). It can throw up a Guggenheim birthday celebration (later this month) and Bob Sinclair, a famous dance DJ, doing something on the Lido.

So too the lives of the great: they are full of stories that pull interpretation one way or another. I often feel this tacking sensation when trying to appreciate Tom Coryat, who is a minor player in all this, but was the first English tourist – and that is important as I face the Venetian Tourist “experience”.

Rousseau believed that paradoxes were puzzles that exposed contradictions at the heart of experience. Much more than this, he gave us at the end of this life a stunning psychological last act, an autobiography that defines a new moment in literary honesty.

In his biography of Rousseau, Damrosch argues that: “Contemporary America talks the Rousseau line but lives the Franklin life.” By which he means that Benjamin Franklin’s famous autobiography “encourages readers to construct a public life, while Rousseau’s confessions challenges them to make a journey into the self.” And “These are the fundamental tensions in modern life, and their first great analyst was Jean-Jacques Rousseau”.

The relation of the public and the journey into the self is one of the major paradoxes of Venice too. Perhaps even of blogging itself.

About robhunt510

Writer, artist
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