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In the trumpet blast of rhetoric that launches his Confessions, which this book justly salutes as the flagship of modern autobiography, Jean-Jacques Rousseau redefines the genre. Unlike Augustine, who presents himself as a sinner redeemed by Christ, Rousseau makes no explicit claim to moral superiority. Instead he radiates audacity. He dares to believe, he says, that he is autre: unique, unprecedented, inimitable, unlike anyone else who has ever lived or will ever live. He dares to show himself in every light — contemptible as well as admirable, méprisable et vil as well as bon, généreux, [et] sublime. He dares to strip before all mankind as if revealing his soul to God at the Last Judgment. His personal revelation — j'ai dévoilé mon intérieur — thus supplants the Book of Revelation. And unlike Augustine, who begs God's forgiveness for his transgressions but would never presume to "contend . . . in judgment with Thee" (Confessions 1.5), Rousseau dares to believe that the all-embracing truth of the story of his life will ultimately vindicate him — with God and with any reader who might presume to judge him. By a rhetorical masterstroke, he invites us to judge him and then dares any one of us to claim — after we have read his story — that we are better than he.

The Confessions, then, is driven by Rousseau's absolute confidence that the whole truth of his life will irrefutably prove his essential goodness. In the end he declares, "I have told the truth" (J'ai dit la vérité). Anyone who disputes my story knows only lies and impostures — des mensonges et des impostures. And even without having read my writings, he fearlessly adds, anyone who examines with his own eyes my character and morals and disposition and is capable of thinking me un malhonnte homme — a dishonest, indecent man — is himself un homme à étouffer, a man to be choked. Skeptics beware! Having begun by claiming that he has "killed" none of his misdeeds — Je n'ai rien tu de mauvais — Rousseau ends by threatening to kill anyone who doubts him.

As the crucial word malhonnête shows, Rousseau stakes everything on the truth of his story, which is inseparably bound up with his claim to goodness. He cannot be decent, good, and virtuous unless he has honestly and unflinchingly reported everything he has done in his life. He aims thereby to justify himself, which Patricia Meyer Spacks has identified as the leading purpose of autobiography. But with a daring that might almost be called Rousseauvian, O'Rourke challenges Rousseau's truthfulness. He takes the Confessions as a paradigmatic specimen of self-misrepresentation: of lying about the moral meaning of crucial actions in the author's life, especially those that injured others. This is not just a matter of incidental fictions falsified by independently accessible facts, such as the claim that he was lovingly received by his father in 1730 even though Isaac Rousseau had by then virtually disowned his son for turning Catholic. Nor is it just a matter of rationalizations or evasions unwittingly employed by a writer who firmly believed in the innocence of his heart. We must read the Confessions, O'Rourke argues, in light of what Rousseau wrote about himself afterwards — first in Emile and then in the "Fourth Walk" of his Solitary Reveries.

In Book 8 of the Confessions, Rousseau writes that he consigned his illegitimate children to l'éducation publique (a foundling hospital) because he lacked the pouvoir — the means and physical capacity — to raise them himself, and because he believed they would do better as workers and peasants than as adventurers like himself. At the beginning of Emile, however, he plainly says that nothing exempts a man from the duty to feed and raise his own children, and in the "Fourth Walk," he admits that he deserves to be mocked by his enemies because he has tried to excuse a course of action that was in fact inexcusable. "Nothing that Rousseau could tell himself [about the abandonment of his children]," O'Rourke writes,

enabled him to understand and justify his own behavior. . . . The Confessions allows itself a great deal of latitude with facts while it claims a scrupulous fidelity to moral truth, but it finally founders on Rousseau's inability to reconcile his actions with what he believes to be the truth of himself. [61-62]

Embedded in this provocative argument about the great crevasse in Rousseau's book is the argument that he radically reconstructs the genre of the libertine confession as an apologia pro phallo suo [my phrase, I must confess], a celebration of sexual energy prefiguring the revolutionary overthrow of a repressive authoritarianism. For one thing, Rousseau's shift in focus from sexual intercourse (which he long eschewed) to masturbatory excitement implicitly bares the hitherto hidden purpose of libertine literature, whose tales of inexhaustible virility are meant for the voyeur reading with just one hand on the book. Secondly, Rousseau's account of his erotic experiences does not fit the panoptic model of power formulated in Foucault's Discipline and Punish (1975). Rejecting this model, O'Rourke applies instead the confessional model explained in Foucault's History of Sexuality (1976-84), where power relations are said to arise "from below" between individual subjects at the "especially dense transfer point" of sex (qtd. 13).

In confessional autobiography, the writer becomes an exhibitionist overseen by a reader whose voyeuristic and judgmental power the writer seeks to evade, deceive, or overthrow — just as Rousseau disarms the reader at the outset of the Confessions. The judgment in question is essentially ethical, because the reader is repeatedly challenged to weigh the autobiographer's claim to goodness against the ways in which he and his sexual partners treat each other and the moral consequences of their acts. "If sex," O'Rourke writes, "is not a liberation from power but is itself a site of power, and autobiography is the story of the self that emerges from these eroticized transactions of power, then the inevitable metadiscourse of autobiography is ethics" (14).

O'Rourke pursues this thesis through two authorial autobiographies — the Confessions and Wordsworth's Prelude — and three first-person fictional narratives: those of Mary Shelley's Victor Frankenstein, Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, and Vladimir Nabokov's Humbert Humbert. In one obvious way this is an odd mix. Autobiography, he says, differs from other literary forms because it may damage "an author's real life . . . if her readers judge her to be an immoral person" (14). Is this equally true of authorial autobiography and first-person fictional narratives? Do we fault Mary Shelley because Victor Frankenstein finds himself ultimately blameless? Though O'Rourke would surely say no, he argues that the fictional narratives treated here share with authorial autobiography a powerful tendency to suppress the moral consequences of sexual or pro-creative acts. Wordsworth, says O'Rourke, achieves "his imaginative reunion with nature [only] after he expunges from his autobiography his repetition of Rousseau's greatest fault: his abandonment of an illegitimate child" (14). Likewise, Victor Frankenstein and the creature he strives to abandon "re-enact Rousseau's obsessive puzzlement over the discrepancy between his originally benign intentions and the damage he has caused to others," which also recalls the generally overlooked point that Wordsworth's Prelude "charts the cost . . . of his Poetic vocation" to his sister and his closest friends (14).

This line of inquiry prompts more questions about the kind of guilt memorialized — or suppressed — in Rousseau's paradigmatic Confessions. In the wake of the guilt it leaves behind, does Rousseau's abandonment of his children finally overwhelm the guilt he feels for having falsely accused Marion of theft? The latter, he says, was so painful to contemplate that before the Confessions he never revealed it to anyone, not even Madame de Warens, to whom he later claims he opened his heart as to God. And if (as O'Rourke seems to imply) the story of Marion was the equivalent of copping a plea — admitting and even dramatizing a single act of betrayal involving a fellow servant while barely mentioning a series of abandonments involving his own progeny — why does O'Rourke fail to mention Rousseau's abandonment of his friend Le Maitre in the midst of an epileptic fit, an act highlighted by his third confession? We might also ask if Rousseau's comments on his children after he finished the Confessions should be considered somehow part of it, as O'Rourke implies. And if those later comments are integral to the Confessions, can we fairly accuse Rousseau of lying about the morality of deeds that he eventually admits were inexcusable? But whether or not we can, the Confessions exemplifies a profound conflict in autobiography. As this book shows, Rousseau cannot reconcile what he declares and what he describes, cannot square his claim to be honnête — decent and trustworthy — with his description of deeds that left others in the lurch.

In The Prelude, O'Rourke argues, Wordsworth covertly discloses comparable sins. While overtly telling us how his experience of nature elicited the innately creative power of his mind and thus made him a poet capable of redemptive prophecy for his own time, he also allows us to see that he has abandoned Annette Vallon and their illegitimate child as well as sacrificing Coleridge on the altar of his own poetic ambitions. The case for the second point seems to me considerably stronger than the case for the first — even if we discount the fact that no one could know anything about Annette from The Prelude alone. But Coleridge is quite another matter. Along with his praise for Coleridge's "bright-eyed Mariner" and "Lady Christabel" in the final book of the poem, Wordsworth's salute to Coleridge as a "joint laborer" in the cause of secular redemption is undermined by the fact that Wordsworth sharply criticized the "Rime" in the second edition of Lyrical Ballads and rejected "Christabel" for it, thereby making Coleridge feel that "the Poet is dead in me" (March 1801). Likewise, Wordsworth's address to Coleridge as his would-be equal or virtual "twin" in Book 6 does not hide the fact that Coleridge has lost out "in his erotic competition with Wordsworth" (89), for in 1804 — when Wordsworth wrote Book 6 — Coleridge was enroute to Malta, leaving both Dorothy and the Hutchinson sisters in Wordsworth's possession. But it is not clear to me that Wordsworth recognizes what he has done to Coleridge or that this can explain the guilt that Wordsworth repeatedly expresses for what W.J. T. Mitchell calls "some unnamed crime" (qtd. 71).

O'Rourke,. however, finds the crime implicitly named in the linked stories of the Maid of Buttermere (seduced, abandoned, and theatricalized), the prostitute seen with her "beautiful" but presumably doomed little child at a London theater, and the foul-mouthed slut that Wordsworth met on the road to Cambridge as a boy of seventeen, when he first heard "the voice of woman utter blasphemy — / Saw woman as she is to open shame / Abandoned, and the pride of public vice" (7. 418-20). The almost apocalyptic shock of this sight, "splitting the race of man / In twain" (7. 436-27) is indeed "pretty dramatic," as O'Rourke says (71). But does the drama really spring from Wordsworth's remorse over his abandonment of Caroline Vallon? In the passage just quoted, the word "abandoned" describes the moral state of the woman, not her child, who is nowhere mentioned. To find the child, we must associate her with the London prostitute whose "beautiful" child is presumably doomed to a life so miserable that he may end up envying the dead child of the Buttermere Maid. But inconveniently for O'Rourke, neither of these illegitimate children is said to have been abandoned, and the same is true for the illegitimate child of Vaudracour, whose affair with Julia is commonly read as a disguised version of Wordsworth's affair with Annette Vallon. So far from abandoning his child after its birth, Vaudracour spends every daylight hour by its cradle, and after Julia is banished to a convent, he cares for the child himself until it dies "by some mistake / Or indiscretion" of his own (9. 907-08). Does this bizarre gaffe signify the otherwise unspeakable crime of abandonment clawing at Wordsworth's conscience? Or can the "bold, bad man" who seduced the Buttermere maid (7. 323) somehow stand — as O'Rourke also suggests — for a 22-year-old Englishman who may well have been less sexually experienced than his 26-year-old French lover?

Wordsworth's parting from a pregnant Annette in late 1792, when England was about to declare war on France and she was determined to stay there, likewise complicates the would-be parallels. Even if this parting can somehow be construed as re-enacting Rousseau's abandonment of his children, how do we explain his possible return to France in September 1793, when in the midst of war he may well have tried "to see, marry, or rescue Annette" (Kenneth Johnston, The Hidden Wordsworth, 358), or his recorded visits with mother and child in 1802 (the soonest he could see them again) and 1820 — by which time Caroline was married with children of her own? Is this truly Rousseauvian? I don't for a moment doubt the value of this line of inquiry, for along with his repeated intimations of guilt, Wordsworth's suppression of his erotic experience in The Prelude surely prompts us to probe the connection between the two. But O'Rourke's way of linking them leaves many questions unanswered.

Far more persuasive, in my view, is O'Rourke's chapter on Frankenstein. Read in the light of Mary Shelley's 1838 essay on Rousseau's life and works, Frankenstein becomes a searching critique of the contradictions in Rousseau, whose "genius and aspiration after virtue" cannot hide the "flagrancy" of what he did to his children (qtd. 99). Like Rousseau, O'Rourke contends, "Victor and the creature find a similarly inexplicable gap between the benevolence of their intentions and the outcome of their actions." (111). But as O'Rourke reads it, Frankenstein is also a covert autobiography, a novel said to have been sparked by a dream of re-animation ("the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together") that may in turn be traced to Mary Shelley's dream — recorded in her journal of 1815 — of reviving her dead infant daughter. Like Victor, the 19-year-old author of Frankenstein was "the perpetual survivor of a relentless series of domestic deaths" — her mother, who died shortly after giving birth to her; her two half-sisters (both suicides), and her first child, who (after she wrote the novel) would shortly be followed to the grave by her second and third. Partly for this reason, O'Rourke challenges the well-established belief that Frankenstein elevates domestic affections over solitary ambition. Mary Shelley, he argues, treats the family not just as a site of affection but also as a threshing floor of rivalry and selective survival, where some (like Mary herself) live on and marry but others (like Justine and William) are killed and still others — notably the creature — are cruelly rejected by the seemingly kindest of families.

Given O'Rourke's focus on "survivor guilt," I do not know why he fails to mention that it was also experienced by Rousseau, whose mother likewise died in giving birth to him: "Je coûtai la vie à ma mre, et ma naissance fut le premier de mes malheurs." Nevertheless, this book shows how deeply Frankenstein questions the premise of Rousseau's Confessions, which is that its author is always more sinned against than sinning, that his suffering or "victim trauma" exceeds that of anyone else and supersedes both "structural or survivor guilt" and "perpetrator guilt." In particular, O'Rourke shows how Rousseau's account of his theft of the ribbon and his incrimination of Marion is re-enacted by the creature's incrimination of Justine (for the murder of William) and Victor's obsession with his own anguish when Justine is executed. "Like Rousseau, " O'Rourke writes, "Victor believes the greatest suffering accrues not to the victim but to the guilty perpetrator" (127). His "hyperboles of victimization" recall the ways in which Rousseau suppressed his guilt and exposed what Mary Shelley called "that vein of insanity, that made him an example among men for self-inflicted suffering" (qtd. 127-28).

In O'Rourke's reading of Jane Eyre, suffering is largely something inflicted on those around its eponymous heroine — on all those who stand in the way of her union with a thoroughly domesticated Rochester, including the undomesticated Rochester whom we meet at first. Contesting the notion that Jane's "intrinsic" integrity is last rewarded by the "perfect concord" of her marriage, O'Rourke argues that she is the beneficiary of a "moral luck" which leaves others in the lurch: Bertha Mason, the abandoned wife who at last conveniently immolates herself, and Adele and the Morton school children, both abandoned by a new wife who must give all her time to Rochester. (If "abandoned" sounds too strong a word for Jane's sending of Adele to boarding school, O'Rourke shows how the condescending philanthropy of Jane's final paragraph on Adele marginalizes her as the charity cousin.) The story of Jane and Rochester shows once again that sex is an active battle for power. He piques her jealousy by courting Blanche, but is twice punished by fire for his previous misdeeds: first for the affair that begot Adele, and then for attempting a bigamous marriage to Jane. Though not of course ignited by Jane, these two fires neatly reverse the balance of power between her and Rochester, wholly allaying "her fear of occupying the dependent, potentially infantilized place of a wife" (137). Just as importantly, Rochester's would-be "choice" of Jane over Blanche represents no romantic triumph of virtue over superficial charm but is rather a product of necessity: Rochester could never have bigamously married into a powerful family without being found out.

To buttress this bracingly tough-minded reading of Jane's autobiography, O'Rourke turns to Villette, the fictive autobiography of Lucy Snowe. Villette, O'Rourke argues, implicitly critiques the romantic vision of Jane Eyre. While Jane Eyre suggests that a woman can love one man only and cannot live without him, Villette offers Lucy two versions of romantic love, and she goes on living even after one man marries someone else and the other is killed. She's rewarded with nothing. While Jane ends up with both an inheritance and a respectable lineage (lucky again), Villette "denies the fantasy that trust in one's intrinsic value will lead to a privileged place in the extended kingroup of the national family" (164). The result is a narrative that somehow combines "the self-justifying fully modern form of the post-Rousseauian autobiography" (158) with a story that leaves its heroine herself in the lurch, and its reader with a troubling question: "is Lucy Snowe's romantic privation somehow a matter of desert, or is she just unlucky?" (163). But O'Rourke's argument about these two books leaves us with at least two more questions. If Villette implicitly exposes the unreliability of Jane Eyre's narrative, does Lucy Snowe speak reliably for Charlotte Bronte herself? And if so, how does Lucy's story expose — wittingly or unwittingly — the ethical cost that her own life has exacted from others?

O'Rourke has no trouble answering this question as applied to the narrator of Lolita. Against the claims of "free artistic expression" and "aesthetic bliss" over "community standards," O'Rourke insists that we judge Humbert Humbert as we have been asked to judge previous autobiographical narrators: by the effect of his actions on others. More precisely, against HH's claim that Lolita seduced him — a claim largely accepted by critics ranging from Trilling to Rorty — O'Rourke insists that we give equal weight to the story repeatedly told by Lolita herself: "you raped me." The touchstone text for this argument is a Nabokovian novel called The Enchanter, written in the late 1930s but not published until it posthumously appeared in 1986. In The Enchanter, which draws on Nabokov's own memories of being sexually molested as a child by his Uncle Roka (as revealed in Speak, Memory), a stepfather horrifies his stepdaughter by exposing his penis and then — when her screams at this "monstrosity" bring the police — suicidally throwing himself in front of an oncoming truck.

By turning a monstrous pedophile into the aesthetically refined lover of an enchanting young girl, Nabokov — O'Rourke argues — re-enacts Freud's switch from his seduction theory (patients' neuroses spring from the memory of having been seduced by their elders in childhood) to his fantasy theory (patients fantasize seduction to repress the memory of having desired their elders). But Nabokov's novel does not simply switch from one perspective to another. It deploys both. Drawing on Genette's theory of narrative, O'Rourke argues that the novel generates two contradictory stories — one (the received version) making HH the target of Lolita's seduction and the other making him her predator. In this revisionist version, Quilty is a character that HH invents to bear the burden of his guilt, and in murdering Quilty he re-enacts the concluding suicide of The Enchanter. At the same time, O'Rourke contends, the second half of Lolita "follows the arc of Rousseau's paranoia in the second half of [Rousseau's] Confessions" (181).

Here and elsewhere, I don't think O'Rourke distinguishes adequately between the fictive elements of actual autobiography, where the urge to justify oneself can lead to irresolvable contradiction, and the strategies of autobiographical fiction, where a narrator fully controlled by the author is made to tell one story overtly while "unwittingly" disclosing another. (In this respect, a notable precursor of Lolita is Henry James's Turn of the Screw.) But like the rest of this book, O'Rourke's reading of Lolita is deeply informed by his study of the relevant texts (both literary and autobiographical) as well as of the history of critical reception. Furthermore, in shifting the focus of criticism from aesthetics to ethics and from the politics of panoptic power to the battleground of sex and confession, O'Rourke repeatedly shows what ethics can do for the study of literature. From now on, no one who writes about autobiography can afford to ignore this lucid, penetrating, and richly provocative book.


O'Rourke, James. Sex, Lies, & Autobiography: The Ethics of Confession (Charlottesville, VA: U of Virginia P, 2006. xii + 215 pp. Bibliography and Index.

Last modified 15 December 2008