The early life of a genius.

I finally started Rousseau’s Confessions this week. A few standout passages from the first hundred pages or so:

I soon acquired… not only an extreme facility in reading and comprehending, but, for my age, a too intimate acquaintance with the passions. An infinity of sensations were familiar to me, without possessing any precise idea of the objects to which they related- I had conceived nothing- I had felt the whole. This confused succession of emotions did not retard the future efforts of my reason, though they added an extravagant, romantic notion of human life, which experience and reflection have never been able to eradicate.

Relatedly:

I shall doubtless incur ridicule by thus modestly holding myself up for a prodigy- I am content. Let those who find themselves disposed to it, laugh their fill; afterward, let them find a child that at six years old is delighted, interested, affected with romances, even to the shedding floods of tears; I shall then feel my ridiculous vanity, and acknowledge myself in an error.

! On his time under a particularly oppressive employer:

My master’s tyranny rendered insupportable that labor I should otherwise have loved, and drove me to vices I naturally despised, such as falsehood, idleness, and theft. Nothing ever gave me a clearer demonstration of the difference between filial dependence and abject slavery, than the remembrance of the change produced in me at that period. Hitherto I had enjoyed a reasonable liberty; this I had suddenly lost. I was enterprising at my father’s, free at Mr. Lambercier’s, discreet at my uncle’s; but, with my master, I became fearful, and from that moment my mind was vitiated.

Accustomed to live on terms of perfect equality, to be witness of no pleasures I could not command, to see no dish I was not to partake of, or be sensible of a desire I might not express; to be able to bring every wish of my heart to my lips–what a transition!–at my master’s I was scarce allowed to speak, was forced to quit the table without tasting what I most longed for, and the room when I had nothing particular to do there; was incessantly confined to my work, while the liberty my master and his journeymen enjoyed, served only to increase the weight of my subjection. When disputes happened to arise, though conscious that I understood the subject better than any of them, I dared not offer my opinion; in a word, everything I saw became an object of desire, for no other reason than because I was not permitted to enjoy anything.

This was at least partly a product of his reading Roman, republican literature:

These interesting studies, seconded by the conversations they frequently occasioned with my father, produced that republican spirit and love of liberty, that haughty and invincible turn of mind, which rendered me impatient of restraint or servitude, and became the torment of my life, as I continually found myself in situations incompatible with these sentiments. Incessantly occupied with Rome and Athens; conversing, if I may so express myself, with their illustrious heroes; born the citizen of a republic, of a father whose ruling passion was a love of his country, I was fired with these examples; could fancy myself a Greek or Roman, and readily give into the character of the personage whose life I read; transported by the recital of any extraordinary instance of fortitude or intrepidity, animation flashed from my eyes, and gave my voice additional strength and energy.

And finally, a snippet from his endless romanticism as he timidly and unsuccessfully courted several women:

My local situation should likewise be considered — living with a pretty woman, cherishing her image in the bottom of my heart, seeing her during the whole day, at night surrounded with objects that recalled her incessantly to my remembrance, and sleeping in the bed where I knew she had slept. What a situation! Who can read this without supposing me on the brink of the grave? But quite the contrary; that which might have ruined me, acted as a preservative, at least for a time. Intoxicated with the charm of living with her, with the ardent desire of passing my life there, absent or present I saw in her a tender mother, an amiable sister, a respected friend, but nothing more; meantime, her image filled my heart, and left room for no other object. The extreme tenderness with which she inspired me excluded every other woman from my consideration, and preserved me from the whole sex: in a word, I was virtuous, because I loved her.

Ever read the words of a more honest and endlessly fascinating soul?

 

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