by Nanine Charbonnel
Remerciements à la traductrice, Patricia Buccellato
A new reading of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s works
How can we rid ourselves of Rousseau’s legacy ? By reading him in a new light. The philosophical oeuvre that laid the foundations of modernity is composed of profoundly illogical schemata that are meant to be perfectly logical. For the better (the struggle against injustice, the glorification of the real individual, the powerful seduction of an author who assumes the role of protagonist) but also for the worse (pseudo-science, the first instance of a definition of mankind that claims that man is not endowed with a natural inclination to relate to his fellowman, the reification of national and sexual entities, the generalisation of naturalism), Rousseau creates the fountainhead which has served as a source of inspiration for the vanguard of antagonistic extremisms. These three ambitious tomes venture to understand his place not only in the history of literature but also of metaphysics and to recognize his role as founder of a new “religion” that resorts to the schemata of Christianity so as to supplant it all the more effectively.
Served by a vivid turn of phrase, Nanine Charbonnel’s works propose a new reading of Rousseau, but also of the history of metaphysics and daring theses on Christianity, on literature and politics.
An eloquent cover
A reproduction of Gauguin’s famous painting, l’Autoportrait au Christ jaune (Self-portrait with the Yellow Christ), dating from 1889 is depicted on the cover. It constitutes a topic of discussion from the very beginning, since it is somewhat emblematic of the type of modernity for which Rousseau paved the way :
the heyday of the self-portrait with the generalisation of the mise-en-abyme (in fact there are three self-portraits in this painting: besides Gauguin’s face which occupies the centre of the picture, there is Christ’s face which bears a strong resemblance to him and, to the right, a piece of work in the form of an earthenware pot that Gauguin had shaped in his own likeness as we learn from one of his letters).
the translation into a work of art as a means of salvation : Gauguin depicts himself in front of two of his works which frame his portrait, a picture he had already painted (after a Breton calvary) and a pot he had previously turned.
the relationship with Christ which oscillates between the traditional recourse to his patronage and to Rousseau’s attribution of a place to him, a kind of open relationship, which is one of the theses developed in the book.
Before disposing of Gauguin, it needs to be said that there is no doubt but what he is the only father ever to have given the same Christian name, Emile, to two of his sons, born of two different wives. The older of the two boys was twenty and still living when his namesake was born…This is an eloquent illustration of the new spiritual reference espoused by the artist of “primitive” life.
The reader encounters a treatment of these respective themes in the three volumes of the work, Philosophie de Rousseau.
The impossible distinction between literal and figurative,
between reality and literature, between literature and philosophy
The first volume, Comment on paie ses dettes quand on a du génie (How to pay your debts when you are a genius), explains the new relationship to language and to reality established by Rousseau. The title refers to a remark made by Baudelaire about Balzac. In an article written in 1846 and which was reprinted in L’Art romantique, Baudelaire refers to the way Balzac “pays his debts” : by getting others to write his articles and by pocketing the earnings. This comment certainly does not apply to Rousseau (even though plagiarism is a major concern for him). It is the end of Baudelaire’s article which is relevant : “I wanted to show that the grand author knew how to negotiate a bill of exchange as effectively as he unravelled the most mysterious and baffling novel.”
In any event, exchange is a key operational category in Rousseau’s work. Paul de Man, (Derrida was his disciple) was the only one to have declared with reason that it is impossible to make a distinction in Rousseau’s writings between the literary works and others of a philosophical, political or pedagogical nature. Even if the impression is justified, the line of reasoning adopted by de Man to uphold his viewpoint is spurious. Nanine Charbonnel proves this by making a detailed exploration into the meanings of the sign, of the figures of speech, of the genre and comes to the conclusion that de Man and Derrida can maintain that the distinction between literal and figurative is impossible because they take Rousseau’s assertions at face value.
Accordingly, the first volume makes us grasp the pre-eminence of Rousseau’s contribution to the elaboration of a new conception of the sign, of the text (which will be used by modernity for the best and for the worst —literary creativity and philosophical error) and also establishes for the first time the actual bases of the inability to distinguish between literature and thought, fiction and reality, truth and falsehood in Rousseau’s writings.
A new relationship to Christianity
The two opening chapters of the second volume entitled À sa place. Déposition du Christianisme (In his place. Deposition of Christianity) explore the purport of the cataclysmic upheaval brought about by Rousseau’s works. Through a detailed study of his writings, they establish the nature of the substance fashioned by Rousseau : be it in the “literature” of La Nouvelle Héloïse, or l’Émile (Chapter I) or in the “thought” of the Contrat social (Chapter II), the characters or the concepts are, in fact, essentially similar.
In this respect Nanine Charbonnel’s thesis is completely new : she demonstrates how it is a question of what she has already termed in her previous studies on the Metaphor “unwarranted literalism” : by this she means that the major devices, namely the Metaphor, the Oxymoron, the Synecdoche, Hyperbole, are employed in a way that disrupts their normal modus operandi, which no longer uses them in a rhetorical fashion (i.e., as a “do-as-if”), but in a pseudo-logical one. As a result, heterogeneous entities (Metaphor) or two contradictory terms (Oxymoron), or the token and the type (Synecdoche), or fact and its exaggeration (Hyperbole) are no longer treated simply as if they were the same; the upshot is that they are considered to be actually, literally, the same.
So we can understand how, by the very nature of this inbuilt about-face, modernity can accommodate anything: the best of new forms of creativity, the worst of new, pseudo-scientific religions which are rooted in these systemic errors of signification that confer their meaning to utterances.
But Nanine Charbonnel’s reflection by no means advocates a return to the past. Her theses culminate in Chapters II, IV and V of the second volume in which she presents all the facts of the case to enable the reader to realize this: it so happens that the aforementioned disruption of thought effected by Rousseau was at work already as the mechanism of elaboration of Christian theology.
So, at the same time we are presented with :
an in-depth understanding of the way in which Rousseau (the actor and the thinker, both of whom are inextricably linked) “takes the place” of Christ in all the senses of the term, inheritance and substitution, imitation and destruction, refusal and transfer;
and a theory of Christianity unequalled at the present time, which renews the philosophical approach to that religion entirely and represents a real deconstruction of the nature of its specificity amongst monotheistic religions.
An illogical logic
In the third volume entitled Logiques du naturel (Logics of naturalness), the illogical logic at work in Rousseau is made explicit.
The contention that there is an illogical logic in Rousseau is a leitmotiv which is introduced in the preamble and which runs through all three volumes: it concerns the way Rousseau wanted to be read, without consideration for contradictions, but without overlooking what is embarrassing or irritating. Therefore, the reader must devote himself to a genuine structural investigation, the results of which are rendered in the long first chapter of this final volume, a chapter entitled Onto-logique du Bien et du Mal (Onto-logic of Good and Evil). The chapter bears the epigraph “studia la matematica”…, the well-known phrase pronounced by the Venetian courtesan, Zulietta, in response to a very unseemly remark by Jean-Jacques concerning the dissimilarity between her two nipples.
The demonstration is made that Rousseauism is entirely governed by “one” and “two”, a fact not only of structural importance, but also endowed with an anthropological meaning : the question of the relationship to others dominates all of Rousseau’s work.
Now, he pictures this question as being the choice between the sui generis-the incorruptible-the “peculiar to oneself” (singular) on the one hand and the double-half-displaced-masked by the other on the other hand. The good one and the evil two, such is the alternative that structures through and through the queries submitted to Rousseau’s analysis. Accordingly, Rousseau’s various utterances need to be apprehended either as problems or as solutions, the latter encompassing all of the possible ways of recreating “One” out of “two”.
The two final chapters of the third volume present yet another provocative hypothesis: in Rousseau the notion of natural is formulated exclusively to serve as an antithesis to the relationship with the other party. For Rousseau, “natural” refers to what is “peculiar to oneself” (singular) and not to any essential relationship between individuals.
This is the most outstanding example of “secularisation” by transfer of the sacred to the temporal, the new definition of man thus supplanting “the only God of his kind” of Christianity. But what is more, the attributes that are to be found in Rousseau’s reflection on naturalness are undeniably the same as those that characterize the inseparable association of literal and figurative (attributes substantiated by a close reading of the history of theology). Hence the theses of “unwarranted literalism” and of “peculiar to oneself” (the singular) culminate at the same point.
Not only do these three volumes throw a new light on our understanding of Rousseau, they also represent a re-reading of modernity.
A substantial General Conclusion furnishes the reader with guidelines for this re-reading.
From 1981 to 1991, Nanine CHARBONNEL taught at the University of Geneva. In 1991, she was appointed to a position of Professor of Philosophy at Marc-Bloch University, Strasbourg II where she is still teaching. She passed the agrégation examination in philosophy and has a Doctorate of Literature (D.Litt.) degree.
Connections between the author’s past and present research
Nanine Charbonnel initiated a re-reading of modernity with her trilogy, La Tâche aveugle (The Blind Task). In it she attempted to replace the successive theories of the metaphor at the heart of the philosophical debate (Les Aventures de la Métaphore, The Adventures of the Metaphor) and to create new tools to make it possible to represent modernity as a tendency to disregard the praxeological dimension (i.e., its aspect as a guide for action) and to revert to a natural type of conception of the human model. (Philosophie du modèle, Philosophy of the Model).
Accordingly, she resorts to new means to revisit the question of modernity: by re-reading the history of metaphysics in the light of the work on imitation and resemblance and by relating this work to the “semantic frame of reference” of the figures of rhetoric. She proposes to call this field of study “Transcendental Rhetoric” in reference to its Kantian influence. It associates the dialectic of reason and the difficulties encountered in the treatment of “doing as if” in thought. The notion of proper is at the heart of her re-reading along with the development of the concept of “unwarranted literalism” (unwarranted or unjustified propriety).
Others Books :
1987. L’impossible pensée de l’Éducation. Sur le "Wilhelm Meister" de Goethe [The Unfeasible Design of “l’Éducation.”. Apropos of Goethe’s “Wilhelm Meister”], Cousset (Fribourg, Suisse) : Delval, 260 pages
1988 Pour une Critique de la Raison éducative [For a Critique of Educational Reason], Berne: Peter Lang, 193 pages
1991.La Tâche aveugle [The Blind Task] I: I: Les Aventures de la Métaphore [The Adventures of the Metaphor] , Presses universitaires de Strasbourg, 310 pages
1991 La Tâche aveugle, II : L’important, c’est d’être propre [The Main Thing is to be Oneself] Presses universitaires de Strasbourg, 280 pages
1993 La Tâche aveugle, III : Philosophie du modèle [Philosophy of the model], Presses universitaires de Strasbourg, 246 pages
1997.Le don de la parole [The Gift of Speech], Berne: Peter Lang, 161 pages
1998.(coedited with Georges Kleiber) La Métaphore entre philosophie et rhétorique [The Metaphor between Philosophy and Rhetoric], Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 245 pages