The Nude in Autobiography
I HEARD the other day from a friend, who was very much excited over the news, that a certain great author, now engaged in writing his own life, has decided to reject the usual concealments and pretenses of autobiographers and to tell the whole naked truth about himself.
My friend is one of those metaphysically-minded men who feel lonely because it is so hard to get to know people, even in the closest relationships of life, with an absolute and complete knowledge. He is sure that the open part in his acquaintances (of which he seldom takes much advantage) is nothing compared with the unexplored “ hinterlands;” and though chary of landing on the accessible coast, he is forever longing to penetrate into the interior, where he imagines sweet oases or romantic horrors. The report about the great author had set him thinking of St. Augustine, Cellini, Rousseau, and the rest, of that heroical little band who have stripped off all their protections against social chills and presented an unflinching buff. He was even hoping — rather inconsiderately, I thought — that the new member with his modern advantages would beat the band and achieve an unparalleled self-exposure. Dazzled by the prospect, he exclaimed enthusiastically that here was a chance of really getting to know some one.
In expecting this much of candid — not candied —autobiography, my friend is apparently not peculiar. The thing is rare, and a rare value is attached to it. In the ordinary peacock memoirs it is common enough for a man to tell the whole truth about his noble side, and perhaps a trifle more. But how if we meet with a brave exception, who dares reveal the other side also ? What limit to intimacy will there be if an autobiographer discloses all those facts of his life which people generally hide through interest or shame, and which may by analogy be called “the nude”?
This is the question I wish to glance at here. It may have some pertinence in “this autobiographical age of ours,” for though Carlyle’s age is past, his phrase still receives support from publishers’ catalogues, especially if we count in the modern essayist who makes his mark by telling us more about himself than about his subject. Even though there be no very widespread danger of autobiographers turning “the other side” to us, there is some danger of our demanding it of them and feeling cheated if they do not give it. “Let us have all the facts,” Mr. John Morley exclaims in reference to an autobiography, — “the pathological as well as the others ; for they are the first thing, and the second, and the third also.” There may even be a danger of a sensitive-souled self-portraitist here and there feeling false and cowardly for withholding the other side. But, if his aim be to create as true an impression of himself as possible, does the fulfillment of that aim really demand of him. does it even permit, the revelation of the nude ?
By way of illustration I will take Rousseau’s Confessions, which, if it is a fair example, should suggest some common and perhaps necessary characteristics of such self-exposures. First, then, a word as to the fairness of this example.
Rousseau’s introduction of the nude is, by general consent, daring and thorough, and also sincere in purpose. Here are opinions on these points from two critics, different in temperament and representing two important classes of readers, — Lord Brougham, who takes a black view of Rousseau, and Mr. Morley, who can see more than one shade. Mr. Morley has written the most judicious and careful account of Rousseau and his opinions published in any language; and though Lord Brougham’s contribution is slight in form, it is noteworthy because it reflects a frequent estimate, and because it comes from one who had a thorough knowledge of Rousseau’s times, and who, as a learned jurist and a statesman, may be expected to have weighed his words.
Mr. Morley says, “ To write memoirs of one’s own life was a fashion of the times, but like all else it became in Rousseau’s hand something more far-reaching and sincere than a passing fashion. Others gave descriptions of their outer lives amply colored with romantic decorations. Rousseau, with unquailing veracity, plunged into the inmost depths, hiding nothing which might make him either hateful or ridiculous.”
Lord Brougham says, “The manifest truth and sincerity of the narrative are attested at every step by the fullness of the humiliating confessions.”
As further evidence of sincerity it may be noted that Rousseau’s boldness was not confined to paper. As he wrote, so he always acted, without minding what was thought of him. His adoption of the Armenian costume— for hygienic reasons; his sitting at his street-door making lace, — to relax himself from other work without being idle, — are trifles indicating the current. When his Narcisse, produced anonymously at the Théâtre Françpiis, fell flat, he went across to the Café de Procope, where the critics were assembled, and declared himself the author of the play, — reminding one of M. de Blowitz’s brag about his adoption of French citizenship at the end of the Franco-Prussian war: “Je me suis naturalisé vaincu.” When his gay operetta, Le Devin du Village, had triumphed, and a considerable prince asked him if he might pay him a compliment on it, “Yes, if it be short,” replied Rousseau. When this Swiss upstart had made his way into fashionable society in Paris, become a courted author àla mode, and so on, he threw up a well-paid post, turned his back on social consideration and more lucrative prospects, and set out to earn a scanty living as a copyist of music, in order to preserve his integrity and independence as a thinker and writer.
But, however bold and sincere, a man might still fail to show much of himself in a memoir, unless he was otherwise fitted for the task by his disposition and turn of mind. Seeley makes this remark in noting Stein’s failure in autobiography, which he puts down to his lack of interest in himself and his doings. Rousseau certainly did not suffer from any such lack. He was a great, though not a mean, egotist, and as truly “his own dear protagonist” as Pepys himself.
Rousseau had another valuable quality for our present purpose; he was incredibly open — not only on paper, but in life —in displaying his feelings, which he partly explains by saving that he did not lose his natural child-confidence in people till after forty. The trait was so marked in him that Lord Brougham, puzzled to explain the warm friendships that he inspired in people of undoubted worth, supposes that his “infantine openness” must have touched their pity.
And then, of course, he had the artistic power to give effect to these qualities. He combined the gifts of concrete imagery and philosophical generalization to an extent unequaled in modern times by any one but Goethe. Some critics place it first among his distinctions that he was a great describer. He had at least enough of that faculty to start a powerful stream in literature.
Altogether, it does not appear that any other aspirant to the public confessional has been better fitted for the place than Rousseau,
There is nothing indirect in his manner of approaching his task. The Confessions begin with these words: “I am undertaking a work which is without precedent and which will have no imitators. I intend to show my fellow-mortals a man in all the completeness of nature, and that man shall be myself.” And afterwards he often assumes that he is showing himself thus completely. At the end of the fourth book, for instance, he speaks of “telling the reader simply all that has befallen me, — all that I have done, thought or felt.”
Nor was Rousseau uncertain as to the chief difference between the ordinary autobiographer and himself. He definitely puts forward his introduction of the nude as the distinguishing trait of his work In the alternative commencement of the Confessions found in the Neuchâtel library he writes, “When a man writes his life, he generally makes a defense of it. The most truthful are truthful only in what they tell, while they lie by their reticences. In telling only a part of the truth they tell nothing, so intimately affected by the part suppressed is that revealed. I put Montaigne at the head of these falsely-sincere people, who try to deceive by telling the truth. He shows himself with faults, but they are all amiable. There is no man who has not hateful faults. He paints himself merely in profile. How might our idea of him be altered, could we see the blemish on the averted cheek!” It is because he has broken through these “reticences,” and shown the “hateful faults,”
— “the blemish on the averted cheek,” — that Rousseau claims to have produced “a book precious to philosophers; an illustrative study of the human heart, and the only one which exists.”
Rousseau assumes then that, unlike other autobiographers, who only give part, he has completed the circle by adding that ordinarily-missing segment, the nude. Hence the great emphasis he lays on this disclosure; it enables him, he supposes, to show the whole of himself.
If that were so, the insertion of the nude would be obligatory on every honest autobiographer. But even with this addition, is Rousseau really giving us the whole of himself ? How can he he telling us “all that has happened to me — all that I have done, thought or felt ? ” Though he had begun writing his Confessions as soon as he could spell, instead of when he was past fifty, and never stopped till a probably premature death overtook him, how could he have included more than an infinitesimal part of his experience ? Enough happens in any hour of consciousness to fill a volume.
This objection is so obvious that it may seem unimportant. But Rousseau assumes that he is giving the entire contents of his life for a definite reason. Here is the reason: “In thus telling the reader everything, I cannot mislead him. It is not for me to estimate the importance of the facts; I must give them all. It is the reader’s province to select from them, to put the elements together and decide what kind of being they compose. The judgment must be his. Were I to do this work and say: ‘Such is my character,’he might think I was deceiving him, or at all events that I was deceiving myself.” He makes the assumption in order to escape the charge of self-judgment. If he does not give all, but merely chooses out a set of specimens, he sees that he might be suspected of having chosen a set from which only one inference could be drawn.
I am far from thinking that Rousseau, though he does give only a set of specimens, has tried to deceive his readers thereby. But that point does not greatly concern us now. It is enough to note that he does not present the whole of himself, and that therefore the special importance he attributes to the nude, as the completing element, must be disallowed. The nude must take a lower place. Indeed, when once it is recognized that we are dealing with a mere selection out of a vast material, the question changes its aspect.
A little I can read.”
The question is how we can best secure that little. Will the autobiographer show more, or less, of himself by including in his selection this or that element ? In answering this, it must be remembered that the introduction of any one element will displace something else, the selection being limited, and will also alter the “values” of the rest, as happens in the juxtaposition of colors.
If the selection is to be representative of the whole from which it is taken, it is evident that it must repeat among its elements the proportions existing in the whole. How else can the autobiographer by means of a few specimens give a faithful idea of “all the completeness of his nature” ? Now, the nude has a peculiar and perhaps incalculable faculty of destroying proportion. Because it is usually concealed, it leaps forward very boldly when for once it is let out. It “thumps,” as painters say of a too glaring light. Even when it is not intrinsically shocking, the revelation of it is shocking. Few readers distinguish one shock from the other, and when the two are conjoined, the effect may be stunning.
An autobiographer is not well-placed for studying the proportions of his subject. How can he stand back from himself to get the necessary general view ? The artist who paints his own likeness has an objective model in a mirror. But where is the autobiographer’s mirror? Yet, if he does not reproduce the proportions of the whole, his selection must be false. Let him bring the nude in, with its innate protrusiveness, and the difficulty will be immeasurably increased.
This is well illustrated in Rousseau. No one perhaps has been better qualified than he was to succeed in autobiography, and yet in the event we find that he has produced as obscure and confused a portrait as was ever executed. Something of its confusion may be inferred from the readiness of some critics to regard it as the work of a madman. Mr. Morley justly protests against this no-explanation of insanity; but his own far less superficial estimate only bears stronger testimony to the obscurity.
“In no other instance,” he says, “is the common eagerness to condense all predication about a character into a single, unqualified proposition so fatally inadequate. If it is indispensable that we should be forever describing, naming, classifying, at least it is well, in speaking of such a nature as his, to enlarge the vocabulary beyond the pedantic formulas of unreal ethics, and to be as sure as we know how to make ourselves that each of the sympathies and faculties which together compose our power of spiritual observation is in a condition ol free and patient energy. Any less open and liberal method . . . leaves [him] . . . in a cloud of blank incomprehensibility.”
This insistence on the need of a very special method of approach, if we are to find in the picture anything except “a cloud of blank incomprehensibility,” is certainly right. But Mr. Morley’s remarks require one comment. He does not seem to have studied Rousseau’s work from the point of view of its technical composition. He has never apparently looked at the Confessions as a work of art involving certain laws of proportion and perspective, any violation ot which must necessarily result in some distorted effect. Rousseau himself of course did not look at his work in that light. He thought he was not giving a portrait at all, but merely raw material — “all the facts”—for Mr. Morley and others to construct a portrait out of. But he was mistaken. His book is, in fact, an artificial composition; and as such it evidently transgresses some of the laws proper to its kind. In short, Mr. Morley does not sufficiently recognize, in dealing with the entanglements of Rousseau’s character, how much of the confusion belongs, not to the character itself, but to the presentation of it.
How large the nude parts of the Confessions bulk in our general idea of that work ! Yet, chronologically, they are not so very extensive. The Confessions cover some sixty years. The nude falls chiefly within the first twenty; it is almost entirely restricted to the first twentyfive. This fraction preoccupies some critics so that they are hardly able to see the rest of the picture for it. And there is some excuse for this preoccupation, for if the first half is to be taken literally, on its “face value,” the rest of the book, as portraiture, must, to a large extent, be rejected as contradictory.
For instance, Rousseau up to twentyone appears as an “almost sordid ” miser, a liar and a thief; while the mature Rousseau was distinguished by an extremely rare disregard for money, and by what Mr. Morley calls “a minute financial probity.” Allusion has been made to his resigning a well-paid post and lucrative prospects. The same spirit appears in his strict rule to accept no presents, which he pushed so far on one occasion as to refuse a small gift of game from the Prince de Conti, causing his wise and close friend, Madame de Boufflers, to warn him against laying himself open to any charge of affectation, which might obscure “the real brightness” of his virtue. But Rousseau did not refuse trifles only. The offer of a house and garden, with his “small necessaries,” from Frederick the Great was rejected just as firmly. We find him making a loan to a begging adventurer, with the gratuitous information: “I never exact nor count on repayment.” When Malesherbes suggested a republication of one of his works for the author’s benefit, Rousseau refused to assent, on the ground that it might prejudice the interests of his original publisher.
The idea is consecrated that the youth should commit errors, and the man reform and show no sign of them. But there must be limits to this discord, if the boy is to be father of the man. “When we hear of a man being cured of some glaring defect,” says Hazlitt, “we may conclude that he never had it.” That is fairly applicable to this case, — either that, or else Rousseau’s subsequent virtue was unreal. But there would be too many of these unrealities. “Rousseau never showed the substantial quality of his mind — and without this quality he could never have written as he did — more surely and unmistakably than in controversy. He had such gravity, such austere selfcommand, such closeness of grip.” “We feel the ever-inspiring breath of seriousness and sincerity. This was because Rousseau’s ideas lived in him, and were truly rooted in him. He did not merely say that he craved reality in human relationships. These ideas were actually his mind.”
These appreciations of Mr. Morley’s are undoubtedly true. Contrast them, and all they imply, with the other picture of the mean, deceitful poltroon. The contradiction is irreconcilable within the limits of human nature.
In truth, however, this flat contradiction is an optical delusion. It does not reside in the character itself, but in the portrait. It is a case of false perspective. Rousseau had these infirmities, as every one else has them, in a way, but not in the proportions suggested by the picture. And this falsity of suggestion is due to the “thumping” power of the nude.
For it is to be observed that the nude does not only “thump” the reader’s mind,—it thumps the author’s as well. In disclosing it he will be self-conscious, and the higher his character is, the baser such flaws will seem to him, and the blacker he will paint them. So that, in this instance, the better a man is, the worse he will appear. Compare St. Augustine’s Confessions with Casanova’s Mémoires. What is a mote to the latter is a mountain to the saint. These are extreme cases, and we may be ready to discount the self-accusations of a St. Augustine. But let the haloless beware of too humble a candor ! Even the few who perceive your exaggerations may refrain from pointing them out to the vulgar through fear of condoning evil or of being suspected of like infirmities themselves. Such has been Rousseau’s fate. He continually exaggerates against himself, but very few critics allow for this. Lord Brougham admits the general tendency in a paltry and dubious instance: Rousseau says he never had a thorough knowledge of Latin; whereas, cries Lord Brougham, he made an excellent translation of Tacitus’s Histories! The inference is very disputable. But when it comes to moral shortcomings, Lord Brougham forgets his general admission that Rousseau magnifies his defects as much as his qualities. Worse than that, when Rousseau himself tries, as he sometimes does, to modify his own exaggerations, Lord Brougham sternly rules the modifications out. And in this altitude he is probably typical of nine readers out of ten. Confess a crime, and you will be believed. Palliate your share in it, and your plea, though true, will be rejected. Thereby again the nude is likely to mislead.
Rousseau, in fact, puts in the charges against himself in the heaviest type. His “self-slanders,” as Lord Brougham inconsistently calls them, are massed in damning patches. He shouts his confessions to make sure of our hearing, and to reassure himself that he is not afraid to tell. Such modifications as he has to offer he whispers afterwards. He sifts them in scalteringly, after the mass has chained the eye. Many readers overlook them, or at all events do not trouble to collect them and see “what kind of being they compose.” Thus, to return to the illustration given above, his “almost sordid avarice” proves on closer scrutiny to have been merely a prudent attention to expenditure. “Abhorring dependence above all things, and money being the instrument of independence, I was careful of what I had, though not coveting more.” “I consider money as so valueless that, when I have none, I never seek to get any, and when I have some, let a convenient opportunity arise, and I erapty my purse with the utmost freedom.” By his own choice he seldom had more than was necessary for bare subsistence. But avarice does not begin till the subsistence-line has been passed.
His thievishness, again, so alarmingly asserted, must be regarded in the light of the following modifications: (1) “My thefts were confined to trifles which it was easier to take than to ask for;” (2) “I never remember having robbed any one of a coin in my life;” (3) “I do not recollect ever casting a wishful glance at any money or valuables within my reach.”
And how distorting are his disclosures on the score of gallantry! Here the falsification arises not so much through the author exaggerating, as through the reader’s sensibilities being “thumped.” In these matters one touch of nude makes the whole world shocked, and Rousseau’s account of, for instance, his freedom from licentiousness in Venice has done his reputation far more harm than a discreet suggestion of the opposite has done in some other men’s cases. He was an affluent talker of sentiment and disagreeably vain as a philanderer. When that has been said, the foundation (excepting one other matter) of his notoriety on this side has been indicated. He passes in popular esteem for a Don Juan. Never was a vainer legend! He is included in disreputable “Galleries of Celebrated Lovers.” He might as well be included in a gallery of celebrated misers. In his central relation towards the other sex, his union with Thérèse Le Vasseur, he behaved well. And this is how he comments — self-defensively, be it remarked — on one of his sporadic courtships: “Those who read this will not fail to laugh at my gallantries, and to observe that after the most promising preliminaries my most forward adventures ended with a kiss on the hand. But be not deceived, O reader, in your estimate of my enjoyments! I have perhaps tasted more real pleasure in my affairs which ended thus, than you will ever do in yours which at least begin there.” The fashion of the times almost requiring a man to cut some figure in this direction, Rousseau has to apologize more than once, not for having been so gallant, but for not having been more so. If we keep to his acts, and bear in mind the difference between French and Anglo-Saxon standards and between those days and these, we shall find no closer resemblance in him to a Don Juan than to a Saint Anthony.
The matter excepted above is this: Rousseau gives some physiological details about himself, which are perhaps as “thumping” as anything in his book. The insertion of them has been praised by Mr. Morley on the grounds that we want all the facts, and that an autobiography should be a history of a body as well as of a mind. Doubtless, an autobiography which presented a full, scientific history of a body parallel to that of a mind, and demonstrated the correlation between the two at every step, would be of supreme utility. But how far from such an ideal are a few mentions of physical phenomena, observed on himself by an amateur in pathology, with what exactness may be imagined, and which neither he nor any one else can correlate definitely with his moral life ! It may elucidate a man’s character for us to know that he was consumptive; but further details of the disease would not increase our insight into his qualities. The comprehension of psycho-physical contacts has not yet reached that stage of minuteness; far from it. All we can say of such details at present is that they are very apt to mislead us, as they have surely done in Rousseau’s case.
Well then, what compensation is there to offset the risk, attendant on the introduction of the nude, of distorting the total effect of the picture? Will these disclosures really throw much light on particular portions of it ?
It is natural of course to expect a great deal from such unusual openness. But there may be something delusive about the expectation. Because a thing is only exceptionally revealed, it does not follow that it is exceptionally significant. The parts of the body usually covered are not the most significant, but the face, which is bare. And hidden things are not necessarily unknown. There are “secrets de Policliinelle.” The general form of the draped part of one’s body is familiar to everyone, and even of its details people can guess far more than they could of the face’s were that veiled and the rest revealed. The bodily analogy may be pertinent in another way. Where our human nature approaches our animal side, individuality diminishes rapidly. Rousseau has been praised as one “who did not dissemble his kinship with the four-footed.” In fact, some of his “nudes” carry us away from the individual to the species, and beyond that to the genus, informing us about man as animal, but not at all about Jean Jacques as Jean Jacques.
But, apart from this, do even the more personal “nudes” yield very much information as to Jean Jacques ? Less than might be expected, perhaps, for the following reason. Legally there are abstract actions, but not morally. If a man tells me, “I have committed murder,” the bare statement will not enable me to estimate his character. All men are, or should be, capable of killing in some conditions. I must know the concrete circumstances, — the motive, provocation, and so on. But when these data are supplied by the agent, they are subject to doubt. In matters involving their own interest or shame the sincerest cannot be trusted to judge accurately. Involuntary delusions interfere. So, if the agent himself speaks, we shall be uncertain; and if he says nothing, what does the abstract deed tell us ? It may be said, we shall interpret it for ourselves by the rest of his character. But is this really practicable in detail, where the case is at all complex ? Let me take an illustration from Rousseau.
One of his most celebrated “nudes” is the false charge he made when, as a wandering lad. he was a domestic servant at Turin. His mistress died, and in the confusion attending the break-up of the household he took a “little, old piece of pink-and-silver ribbon.” which pleased his fancy, and, thinking no harm of the act, did not try to conceal it. The ribbon belonged to a person who probably had sentimental associations with it and therefore raised a hue and cry. The culprit. was quickly detected. Asked before a crowd of people how he came by it, he said it had been given him by a fellowservant, Marion, a young innocent girl. Brought to confront him, Marion denied the charge, but Rousseau stuck to it. At last, the person questioning them, too busy to reach the bottom of the matter, sent the pair off without deciding which was guilty.
Rousseau says he does not know what became of Marion, and it is not certain that she suffered any material damage through his lie. But he very properly vituperates himself violently for this ugly deed. He even says that it was largely the desire of relieving his conscience in some measure of this burden which prompted him to write his autobiography. These penitential floods forty years after the event tell us nothing about Rousseau at sixteen. At last, however, he adds some account of his contemporary state of mind. “When I accused the unhappy girl, it is strange but strictly true that my friendship for her was the cause of it. She was present to my thoughts, and I took my excuse from the first idea which occurred to me. I accused her of doing what I meant to have done. Having meant to give her the ribbon, I said she had given it to me. Then I was in an agony, but the presence of so many people kept me from recanting. I did not fear punishment; but I dreaded the shame of exposure worse than death. . . . Had I been taken aside by myself, I am convinced I should have told the truth in a moment.”
This explanation has produced reams of comment, mostly unfavorable to Rousseau. It is not inconsistent with the rest of his character as given in his book. Yet Lord Brougham, while accepting the sin of course, rejects the explanation as “refined, false and absurd,” and advances another of his own, contradicting it flatly in its two main points. Rousseau pleads that he did not accuse the girl deliberately, but by a lapse of thought, and that it was not fear of punishment, but dread of shame before so many people, which kept him from correcting the lapse. Lord Brougham says that he did accuse her deliberately, and that it was physical cowardice which prompted him. What ground has Lord Brougham for this charge? Rousseau’s general character is certainly against it on the first point at least. The fact is, Lord Brougham is palpably “thumped” by the nude all through the Confessions. Such revelations shock him, apart from the intrinsic shockingness of the things revealed, and his judgment succumbs to the blows. When he wrote his own autobiography he was careful to exclude anything of the kind from it. To say the least, we cannot accept his interpretation as certain; nor yet Rousseau’s, nor any other. And yet the uninterpreted deed has no definite significance.
Then is it worth while introducing these “nudes,” if they cause so much confusion and, on the other hand, yield so little compensating information ? Sainte Beuve remarks on Rousseau’s feat — “singular perhaps but not useful.” It can hardly be doubted that, if the nude were altogether omitted from the Confessions, our idea of the author would be far clearer and truer than it is now.
These objections imply, no doubt, something further — a distrust of autobiography altogether as a means of revealing a personality. In life we do not get our clearest insight into a man when he is telling us about himself, but when we see him acting without any thought of us. More can be learned in this kind by overhearing than by hearing. When Rousseau is writing about other people, he throws a light on his personality, which is turned off when he is waiting about himself. Dryden’s epigram is almost true about the autobiographer: “Every word a man says about himself is a word too much.” And it is hardly a paradox to say that he who is least autobiographical will be most so.
Believers in direct self-revelation seem to imagine a man’s personality as a well from which he alone can draw up the contents in a confessional bucket. A truer simile might be that of a blind man holding a biased bowl. No one else can handle it; he alone can feel it; surely he must be the best judge of its bias? No, that will be seen by others, not by him, as soon as he acts and sends the bowl careering along the turf.