Thursday, September 6, 2007

Poet-as-Primitive Nuisance-- Rousseau on the Bourgeois, the Preface to the Second Discours (1755)

In this preface, we have more of the typical, hippie rhetoric from Rousseau -- the primitive presented as noble; society as stifling and evil; childishness revered as closest to the true and good ("Child is the father of man"); and grown, civilized man as corrupt and false.

Such ideas have been reworked over and again by later generations, but it seems that Rousseau was the greatest and earliest advocate of this type of radical primitivism. The Romantic poets were the direct descendants of Rousseau, and much of his influence can be seen in their poetry, particularly in that of Wordsworth. The 20-century scholar George Steiner took the following quote from Rousseau and wrote about Nazi Germany: "It is through studying man that we have rendered ourselves incapable of knowing him." And prior to Steiner, it was Karl Marx who was greatly influenced by Rousseau's discourse, particularly in his "Communist Manifesto."

The negative portrayal of the bourgeois, too, seemed to have its start here with Rousseau, who defines them as:

"a class of men who attach importance to the gaze of the rest of the world, and who know how to be happy and satisfied with themselves on the testimony of others rather than on their own. Such is, in fact, the true cause of all these differences: the savage lives within himself; social man lives always outside himself; he he knows how to live only in the opinion of others, it is, so to speak, from their judgment alone that he derives the sense of his own existence."

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