‘Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art. It would be μóρφωσις, not ποίησις. The rules of the IMAGINATION are themselves the very powers of growth and production. The words to which they are reducible, present only the outlines and external appearance of the fruit. A deceptive counterfeit of the superficial form and colours may be elaborated; but the marble peach feels cold and heavy, and children only put it to their mouths.’ [Coleridge, Biographia ch. 18]

‘ποίησις’ (poiēsis) means ‘a making, a creation, a production’ and is used of poetry in Aristotle and Plato. ‘μóρφωσις’ (morphōsis) in essence means the same thing: ‘a shaping, a bringing into shape.’ But Coleridge has in mind the New Testament use of the word as ‘semblance’ or ‘outward appearance’, which the KJV translates as ‘form’: ‘An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form [μóρφωσις] of knowledge and of the truth in the law’ [Romans 2:20]; ‘Having a form [μóρφωσις] of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away’ [2 Timothy 3:5]. I trust that's clear.

There is much more on Coleridge at my other, Coleridgean blog.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Rousseau, Émile, ou De l’éducation (1762)

I knew of Rousseau's Émile for a long time before I ever actually sat down to read it. I knew of its influence; its huge and enduring impact on Romantic and post-Romantic attitudes to the child; the way it persuaded many to see in childhood a holy innocence rather than a knot of original sin; the way its earnestly expressed contumely for wet-nursing and swaddling babies (mothers should suckle their own children! Swaddling stifles nature!) produced a shift in attitudes to those things across Europe that prevails to this day. The way the book championed Nature as the proper environment for man, and argued that all the wickedness in the world proceeded from forcing people to live in cities ('les villes sont le gouffre de l'espèce humaine'). The way Rousseau insisted, radically, on the value of childhood as childhood, rather than as a preparation for adulthood.
What is to be thought, therefore, of that cruel education which sacrifices the present to an uncertain future, that burdens a child with all sorts of restrictions and begins by making him miserable, in order to prepare him for some far-off happiness which he may never enjoy? Even if I considered that education wise in its aims, how could I view without indignation those poor wretches subjected to an intolerable slavery and condemned like galley-slaves to endless toil, with no certainty that they will gain anything by it? The age of harmless mirth is spent in tears, punishments, threats, and slavery. You torment the poor thing for his good; you fail to see that you are calling Death to snatch him from these gloomy surroundings. ... Men, be kind to your fellow-men; this is your first duty, kind to every age and station, kind to all that is not foreign to humanity. What wisdom can you find that is greater than kindness? Love childhood, indulge its sports, its pleasures, its delightful instincts.'
Bravo to that! And Rousseau was massively and importantly right about the wrongness of 'original sin'. 'Tout est bien sortant des mains de l'Auteur des choses,' as the book's opening sentence rather splendidly puts it. 'Tout dégénère entre les mains de l'homme.' God makes all things good; man meddles with them and they become evil.

Ah But! The first but is: but now the time has come where I must actually to read the bugger. You see, I'd set it as one of the texts with which my 3rd-years needed to 'familiarise themselves' (I figured getting them to read every word of all five weary parts would be cruel and unusual of me; 'familiarise themselves' is close enough for government work). These are the students on the 'Children's Literature' course; and knowing something about Rousseau is clearly going to be needful for them. And I can hardly make them do that, and skive off myself. So in I plunged. My immediate critical reaction was: phew, that's hard work. My next critical reaction: Rousseau was as mad as a curtain-rail. A fascist curtain rail.

It's hard work because it's a long, dense and unrelenting series of instructions as to how to bring a child up properly. And by 'properly' I mean, well, 'Hitlerly'. The first four books are concerned with the education of a notional male called Émile, from birth and earliest years (in book 1: '0/2 ans : Le nourrisson'); through to what we would now call primary school, though R. thinks kids should concentrate on nature rather than books (book 2, '2/12 ans : L'âge de la nature'); to later teenage years and the need to decide a trade (book 3, '12/15 ans : L'âge de la force') and finally ('Livre IV – 15/20 ans : La puberté'; which weirdly implies Swiss kids go through puberty rather later than British ones) to the education of feeling and religion, closely allied again to Nature. The fifth part rehearses all four parts a second time, but for a women: Sophie, intended as Émile's bride. She doesn't need so much by way of l’éducation, because Rousseau's attitudes to females was gob-chokingly sexist even by eighteenth-century standards: stay home; nurture children; cook and clean. In a piece of watertight reasoning, he proves that looking after children is women's work. 'If the author of nature had meant to assign it to men he would have given them breasts.' That's his argument, yes. He'd obviously never seen this Seinfeld episode. I mean 'obviously', in the 'he died 250 years before that show even aired' sense of obviously. Here's a good English translation of Émile by Barbara Foxley, on Project Gutenberg. See for yourself.

In other words, Émile is a deeply disconcerting mixture of the progressive and the reactionary. The term 'fascist' gets bandied about a lot, usually inaccurately; and obviously it would be extremely anachronistic to try and apply it to a book published in 1762. Still: FASCIST!

Fascist in the sense that Rousseau believes the individual must be trained-up to devote his life to the needs of the Volk. Rousseau doesn't say 'Volk', of course. He's too busy watching Seinfeld re-runs to learn any German. But that's what he means. Not the brotherhood of humanity; just your own kind.
Every patriot hates foreigners; they are only men, and nothing to him. This defect is inevitable, but of little importance. The great thing is to be kind to our neighbours. Among strangers the Spartan was selfish, grasping, and unjust, but unselfishness, justice, and harmony ruled his home life.
So we should ... what? Be as grasping and unjust abroad as we like, so long as harmony obtains at home?
Distrust those cosmopolitans who search out remote duties in their books and neglect those that lie nearest. Such philosophers will love the Tartars to avoid loving their neighbour.
OK then. What of these Spartans, presented to us a role-models?
Une femme de Sparte avoit cinq fils à l’armée, & attendoit des nouvelles de la bataille. Un ilote arrive; elle lui en demande en tremblant. Vos cinq fils ont été tués. Vil esclave, t’ai-je demandé cela ? -- Nous avons gagné la victoire ! La mère court au temple, & rend grâces aux dieux. Voilà la citoyenne.

A Spartan mother had five sons in the army. A Helot arrived; trembling she asked his news. "Your five sons are slain." "Vile slave, was that what I asked thee?" "We have won the victory." She hastened to the temple to render thanks to the gods. That was a citizen.
'Citizen' is one word for what that is. 'Nutjob-monster' is another. But throughout Rousseau's book there's a real proto-Maoist emphasis on the need to subsume individuality in the needs of the State. 'A father has done but a third of his task when he begets children and provides a living for them. He owes men to humanity, citizens to the state.' State here does not mean the actually existing Swiss or French state, mind you. They're rotten to the core. Take, for examples, public universities and colleges. 'L’institution publique n’existe plus, & ne peut plus exister'.
I do not consider our ridiculous colleges as public institutes, nor do I include under this head a fashionable education, for this education facing two ways at once achieves nothing. It is only fit to turn out hypocrites, always professing to live for others, while thinking of themselves alone.
I happen to work for one of what Rousseau rather fetchingly calls 'ces risibles établissements', and can vouch for the correctness of this assessment.
Fix your eyes on nature, follow the path traced by her. She keeps children at work, she hardens them by all kinds of difficulties, she soon teaches them the meaning of pain and grief. They cut their teeth and are feverish, sharp colics bring on convulsions, they are choked by fits of coughing and tormented by worms, evil humours corrupt the blood, germs of various kinds ferment in it, causing dangerous eruptions. Sickness and danger play the chief part in infancy. One half of the children who are born die before their eighth year. The child who has overcome hardships has gained strength, and as soon as he can use his life he holds it more securely. This is nature's law; why contradict it?
Nature? THIS! IS! SPARTA! But, wait, Jean-Jacques: I'm not sure your tone here is quite Hitlerian enough, yet.
If you take the care of a sickly, unhealthy child, you are a sick nurse, not a tutor. To preserve a useless life you are wasting the time which should be spent in increasing its value, you risk the sight of a despairing mother reproaching you for the death of her child, who ought to have died long ago. I would not undertake the care of a feeble, sickly child. If I vainly lavish my care upon him, what can I do but double the loss to society by robbing it of two men, instead of one? ... A feeble body makes a feeble mind. ... The body must be strong enough to obey the mind; a good servant must be strong.
Yes! That's the proper Hitleran tone.
For these reasons I decline to take any but a strong and healthy pupil, and these are my principles for keeping him in health. I will not stop to prove at length the value of manual labour and bodily exercise for strengthening the health and constitution; no one denies it. Nearly all the instances of long life are to be found among the men who have taken most exercise, who have endured fatigue and labour. I cannot help quoting the following passage from an English newspaper, as it throws much light on my opinions: "A certain Patrick O'Neil, born in 1647, has just married his seventh wife in 1760. In the seventeenth year of Charles II. he served in the dragoons and in other regiments up to 1740, when he took his discharge. He served in all the campaigns of William III. and Marlborough. This man has never drunk anything but small beer; he has always lived on vegetables, and has never eaten meat except on few occasions when he made a feast for his relations. He has always been accustomed to rise with the sun and go to bed at sunset unless prevented by his military duties. He is now in his 113th year; he is healthy, his hearing is good, and he walks with the help of a stick. In spite of his great age he is never idle, and every Sunday he goes to his parish church accompanied by his children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren."
Support Action T-4 and you too can be shagging a young wife at the age of 113! (Here, incidentally, is the original newspaper article that Rousseau read: the Annual Register for 1760).
Fresh air affects children's constitutions, particularly in early years. It enters every pore of a soft and tender skin, it has a powerful effect on their young bodies. Its effects can never be destroyed.
Hmm. Jean-Jacques; I'm not sure I trust your grasp of human physiology.
Huddled together like sheep, men would very soon die. Man's breath is fatal to his fellows. This is literally as well as figuratively true.
But only if they've been eating garlic. Or, wait: is that vampires?
The new-born infant is first bathed in warm water to which a little wine is usually added. I think the wine might be dispensed with. As nature does not produce fermented liquors, it is not likely that they are of much value to her creatures.
Yes: no need to sterilise anything to do with babies at all YOU BLINKING IDIOT.
All children are afraid of masks. I begin by showing Emile a mask with a pleasant face, then some one puts this mask before his face; I begin to laugh, they all laugh too, and the child with them. By degrees I accustom him to less pleasing masks, and at last hideous ones. If I have arranged my stages skilfully, far from being afraid of the last mask, he will laugh at it as he did at the first. After that I am not afraid of people frightening him with masks.
This is just getting weird, now.

And that's just book 1. I'm going to stop now, because I really need to go for a little lie-down.


  1. The part where the tutor tricks the fat kid into exercising by having him race for cake - a high point of 18th century literature.

    This is a much misrepresented book. I would love to direct people who have read summarized decsriptions of it in political science or education textbooks to this post.