The Confessions: Apples!

I love food and I love to read. As a result, each month, I combine these two interests in a post about food from literature. I'll mostly be sticking with books from classic literature, so you're likely to know the storylines anyway, but just in case you don't: warning: there may be spoilers ahead.


Jean-Jacques Rousseau was born in 1712 and died in 1778. In his 66 years, he was a notary, an engraver, a secretary, a music teacher, a composer, a writer, a philosopher... and more. He lived in Switzerland, France, Italy, England. He was honored as a genius and maligned as a heretic, often at the same time. He was active in political, religious, and social issues. He wrote reference books, plays, political tracts, operas, novels, and critical essays. He made friends quickly and made enemies faster, including Voltaire, Diderot, Hume, and members of several European courts. Rousseau is most famous for The Social Contract, Discourse on Inequality, Emile, Julie, and finally, the focus of today's entry: The Confessions.
In The Confessions, Rousseau sets out to record everything that has ever happened to him. He clearly states his goal in the beginning: "I have resolved on an enterprise which has no precedent, and which, once complete, will have no imitator. My purpose is to display to my kind a portrait in every way true to nature, and the man I shall portray will be myself." He wants to be completely honest, though of course he can't help but be one-sided and biased (but that can be part of the fun of reading an autobiography).

There are two reasons that I think The Confessions is important: 1.) Jean-Jacques Rousseau was himself an important historical figure. His writings influenced the American Revolution as well as the French Revolution and much of Western thought since the 1700s. 2.) The Confessions is one of the first autobiographies that was written for the sake of writing. Oh, sure, autobiographies existed before Rousseau: Augustine, Teresa of Avila, Margery Kempe, and plenty of Puritans wrote autobiographical works... But those books were all written to serve religious purposes. They were religious confessions (Rousseau’s title plays off that theme), tales of conversions, material intending to convert the reader, etc. Rousseau wrote only to explain and expose himself. Soon after Rousseau's secular autobiography, plenty of authors jumped on board with the idea--but he started it. As a nonfiction reader/writer, I find it interesting to see how he navigated previously uncharted territory. If you (like Rousseau) had never encountered an autobiography, what would yours look like?

Rousseau wrote The Confessions in installments. At first he planned to publish them during his lifetime, but he ended up wanting them published posthumously (mostly because some important ladies were scandalized by how frankly he portrayed them and their affairs [among other things], and suppressed its publication to save their reputations). Rousseau and his books were already being banned across Europe for their supposedly heretical content; it was probably unlikely that The Confessions would have been a success during his lifetime anyway.

Mostly I found The Confessions dry and slow. Rousseau stops to reflect on almost everything, and is constantly feeling sorry for himself. It's too bad his presentation is so dry, because his life was super dramatic! In between the reflections on how sad he is or how unfairly Diderot treated him that one time, Rousseau did some wild things. In his teens he ran away and traveled across Europe, faked his way through teaching subjects he didn’t know, was involved in a few tense love triangles with a woman twice his age (with many women, actually), fought corrupt consulates in Italy, had five illegitimate children with his common-law wife, dealt with an evil, scheming mother-in-law, fell miserably in love with a woman half his age, was exiled from France and from Switzerland, had a whole town turn against him in the middle of the night, told Poland how to frame their constitution--and that's not even most of his adventures. The problem for me is that all the cool stuff gets lost in the minutiae of his day-to-day remembrances, which include who he visited, how often, whether or not the other guests were witty, how long his walk home was, and how his urinary tract was that day. He talks about organizing his papers and letters a lot. He goes on walks and reflects fondly on walks from the past--which he already wrote about 100 pages ago.

But at times, Rousseau is witty and interesting, and toward the end of the book he approaches a psychotic break as his paranoia about everything and everyone increases. Rousseau’s writing also shows us that small, seemingly insignificant scenes in our lives can have profound effects on the way we live, think, and perceive. For example, as a teenager he stole a piece of ribbon from his master, and blamed it on another servant. Both he and the girl he blamed it on were fired. Though he’s writing this 40 years after the incident, Rousseau still can't get over the guilt he feels for that event, and admits that he has been so ashamed of it all of his life that he never told anyone. He doesn’t think he’ll ever live down that lie. I think we all have moments like that; negative or positive, small events can influence who we are, who we become.

The food in today's entry comes from another such incident, in which Rousseau tried to steal an apple. Rousseau doesn’t feel guilty recounting this tale; he was an apprentice to a cruel, gruff, stingy engraver who beat him regularly and gave him very little. I think a lot of Rousseau's later influential ideas of equality and justice come from his early years, this harsh apprenticeship included.

The passage in which the apple appears is cute and playfully written. Rousseau, as a boy, is not allowed in the house's pantry, but there's a lattice at the top of it, through which he can see some delicious-looking apples.
Like the ones in my fruit bowl!
He climbs up on a stool and ingeniously combines several kitchen implements to reach the apples above him through the lattice. He finally spears one--only to discover it won't fit through the bars of the lattice. He gets MORE kitchen utensils to cut it in half--through the lattice!--and finally cuts it in half... only to watch both pieces fall back into the pantry, out of his reach. ("Compassionate reader," Rousseau says here, "sympathize with my affliction.") The next day, he returns with an idea of how to improve his method. He gets back up on the stool, takes his improvised tools and sticks them through the lattice--and suddenly his master jumps out from the pantry! He'd noticed the fallen pieces of apple the day before and decided to catch young Jean-Jacques in the act. Rousseau takes a beating from this, but also some ideas of justice, such as how people are likely to rebel against overly cruel masters/governments/judicial systems.
I don't have an apple-related recipe for you today, and I'm not sorry--it's finally getting nice enough out that my metabolism is happy with plenty of raw fruits and veggies. So just enjoy the pretty apples! (And a pear.)