Monday, March 14, 2011

The Warrior and The Wannabe: Joan of Arc Meets Jean-Jacques Rousseau

As I approach the third anniversary of my reception into the Catholic Church, I am re-reading the book that I credit with bringing me to the Church, Fr. James Martin’s My Life with the Saints, the straw that broke the back of my staggering, wayward camel. By coincidence, I am meanwhile listening, via audiobook, to a strangely parallel work: Intellectuals, by the conservative historian Paul Johnson.

Father Martin’s book tells the life stories of sixteen saints and “friends” (he includes the non-canonized Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day) and explains how their lives have influenced his. Paul Johnson tells the life stories of thirteen intellectuals of the past three centuries revered by intellectuals of today and explains how their lives were disasters. Brilliant, original writers and thinkers, Johnson’s intellectuals display, in his telling, anything but saintly qualities. Their lives—the way they treated others, in particular—stand in violent contrast with the so-called idealism and ideology of their writing. Including Marx, Tolstoy, Hemingway, and Jean-Paul Sartre, these intellectuals are a rogues’ gallery picked to enrage liberal sensibilities; most of them are figures “enlightened” Westerners have grown up revering. I studied all of them at one time or another in high school or college, and the message invariably was, These guys were wise, these guys were trailblazers, bow down to these guys.

Johnson is skeptical. He writes:

I want to focus on the moral and judgmental credentials of intellectuals to tell mankind how to conduct itself. How did they run their own lives? With what degree of rectitude did they behave to family, friends and associates? Were they just in their sexual and financial dealings? Did they tell, and write, the truth? And how have their own systems stood up to the test of time and praxis?

I thought it would be fun to imagine meetings, via time travel, or perhaps in the hereafter, between pairs of people in the two books—although in the hereafter none of Johnson’s featured players is likely to share a cloud with Martin’s saints. I begin my thought experiment with the first figure in each book, St. Joan of Arc (1412–1431) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778). If you’re any good at math, you will have noticed that they were born exactly 300 years apart.

If you’re a Catholic like me, you probably know something about Joan of Arc, while Rousseau may be one of those culturally received names that you think you might have heard something about sometime, somewhere or other. Johnson calls him “the first of the modern intellectuals, their archetype and in many ways the most influential of all.” He was “the first to combine all the salient characterists of the modern Promethean: the assertion of his right to reject the existing order in its entirely; confidence in his capacity to refashion it from the bottom in accordance with principles of his own devising; belief that this could be achieved by the political process; and, not least, recognition of the huge part instinct, intuition and impulse play in human conduct.”

Born Swiss and thirty-seven years a loser, bouncing from one job to another, Rousseau entered a national essay contest and, like a nobody who becomes an American Idol, he was launched into a career of fame and infamy. While the winning essay didn’t sell well at all, it “gave him the run of many aristocratic houses and estates, which were open to fashionable intellectuals.” Rousseau played his fame for every sou and and every roll in the hay, turning his back on his patrons and lovers almost as soon as they had embraced him, leaving dozens of scorned men and women in his wake. Before his fame came, he had taken a laundress as a mistress. While he never cast her off, he also didn’t let her sit down to dinner with his aristocratic friends. He fathered five children by the laundress and immediately committed each to a state-run orphanage, little better than an abortion in those days when most institutionalized children died in their first year of life. 

Meanwhile, he wrote The Social Contract, Emile, La Nouvelle Eloise, and his Confessions—all books taught and revered to this day in the halls of academe. After his death, Rousseau was lionized by leaders of the French Revolution, including the bloodthirsty Robespierre. One modern analyst summed up Rousseau as a “masochist, exhibitionist, neurasthenic, hypochondriac, onanist, latent homosexual afflicted by the typical urge for repeated displacements, incapable of normal or parental affection, incipient paranoiac, narcissistic introvert rendered unsocial by his illness, filled with guilt feelings, pathologically timid, a kleptomaniac, infantilist, irritable and miserly.”

But surely he had some redeeming features! The woman who he claimed was the only true love of his life, Sophie d’Houdetot, lived into extreme old age and died with this verdict on her lips: “He was ugly enough to frighten me and love did not make him more attractive. But he was a pathetic figure and I treated him with gentleness and kindness. He was an interesting madman.”

Some thought Joan of Arc was mad, but in my imagined meeting of Jeanne and Jean-Jacques, I can’t imagine the woman warrior giving Rousseau the time of day. Each of them came from the eastern borders of France (she from Lorraine, he from Geneva) and each took France by storm in their own way. But while Rousseau heeded only his own voices and appetites, Joan of Arc was responding to Another. Her mission always was outside herself: the Dauphin, Orléans, the English. And while we must imagine Rousseau dying abandoned in self-pity, Joan of Arc, though abandoned by the Dauphin after leading him to victory, died with the words “Jesus, Jesus” on her lips.

She also died a virgin, and you’d have to pity Rousseau if he ever tried to seduce La Pucelle. He would have talked circles around her (she was illiterate, she signed her name with a cross), but she would have looked right through him, and he would have run off in search of other game.

In the final analysis, Joan was a presence or rather a testament to a greater Presence. Bouncing from one bed to another, while fathering orphaned children, Rousseau was absent without let-up. “Great thought” such as his is mighty thin gruel compared with the meaty faith of Jeanne d’Arc.

Next up: Percy Bysshe Shelley meets Thérèse of Lisieux!

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