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Geneva learns to love Rousseau

Rousseau as depicted at the Rousseau museum (Espace Rousseau). Liu Jun

Reminders of the man seen as one of Geneva's greatest sons are everywhere in Geneva.

This content was published on May 19, 2006 - 08:52

No wonder the Calvinist city fathers regarded Jean-Jacques Rousseau as a dangerous and destabilising influence.

"We know of Rousseau from childhood. We sing the melodies he wrote," says Jean Starobinsky, Emeritus Professor at Geneva University and probably the leading authority on the author of the "Social Contract".

Rousseau is rightly seen as one of Geneva's greatest sons, having revolutionised political thinking, and taken philosophy, ethics and religious thought up new and exciting avenues.

Rousseau was born in Geneva's Old Town, just a stone's throw from St Pierre's Cathedral. He grew up in the St Gervais district, then on the "wrong" side of the river. The house in which he grew up is now a department store – although it's decorated with a large mural bearing Rousseau's words recalling how his father had told him always to love his hometown.

Social Contract street

In the district of St Jean, several streets bear the names of his most famous works and acquaintances: Rue du Contrat Social, Sentier du Promenade Solitaire, Rue du Vicaire Savoyard, Rue d'Ermenonville.

But the places in Geneva where one can best appreciate Rousseau's life are largely posthumous. The best known is perhaps the Île Rousseau, a small island that stands at the point where Lake Geneva and the River Rhone meet.

There's no evidence that this patch of land held any particular significance for Rousseau, but it has come to be identified with him. A famous statue of the great man was erected on the island by the city fathers who, somewhat reluctantly, agreed more than 50 years after his death to recognise Rousseau's immense contribution.

The statue, sculpted by Pierre Pradier, is surrounded by a screen of poplar trees, no doubt to shield the good people of Geneva from Rousseau's provocative ideas.

This public park was modelled on an island of poplars at Ermonville near Paris, where Rousseau spent many happy hours in the twilight of his life. Despite standing barely 50 metres from one of Geneva's busiest roads, the Mont Blanc Bridge, the Île Rousseau, is now a haven of relative peace in the heart of the city.

Important manuscripts

The Jean-Jacques Rousseau museum is a small, single-room shrine found in the University Library, in the Parc des Bastions. As you enter, the leading lights of Calvinism look down disapprovingly from the Reformation Wall.

The museum contains some of Rousseau's most important manuscripts including his first published poem; novels and discourses with Rousseau's jottings in the margin; letters to the likes of Voltaire, with whom Rousseau had a close, but often acrimonious, relationship; French parliamentary rulings condemning his works; and his musical compositions.

"Unlike Voltaire, Rousseau kept all his manuscripts and annotations," says Charles Wirz, the museum's director and secretary of the Rousseau Society. Disconcertingly, we are watched over by Rousseau's death mask, done on the day after he died by Jean-Antoine Houdon.

More can be learned about Rousseau's life and works by venturing outside Geneva, and following the route he took when he fled the wrath of his fellow Genevans.

He first went to Yverdon, on the southern edge of Lake Neuchatel, and then, chased from there, he fled to Môtiers, in the beautiful Travers Valley, which today lies in canton Neuchatel, but was then ruled by Prussia. He also lived for a while on St Peter's Island, in Lake Biel, but was again forced to flee by the forces of Bern.

"Rousseau had a real flare for picking beautiful places to stay," says Jean Starobinsky. Today, perhaps inevitably, there are small Rousseau museums in both Môtiers and on St Peter's Island.

His ability to describe these places was influential in bringing other writers to Switzerland. Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron visited the Lake Geneva region on the strength of Rousseau's novel, "La Nouvelle Héloïse".

It was Rousseau's readiness to explore and talk frankly about human emotions, his belief that the true path to happiness lay in a return to nature and his reputation as a solitary and persecuted genius that struck a chord with the Romantics.

It was during their time exploring the region that Byron wrote the "Prisoner of Chillon" and Shelley's wife, Mary, wrote "Frankenstein".

"During his life he was like a guru. He had many visitors who sought his advice. After his death, people would make pilgrimages to Clarens. In the 19th Century, an almost holy legend surrounding Rousseau took hold," Starobinsky says.

Return to Geneva

It is said that "La Nouvelle Héloïse", one of the most influential novels of its age, made Rousseau as many friends among the reading public as the "Social Contract" and "Emile" made him enemies among magistrates and priests.

Rousseau had left Geneva at the age of 16 and converted to Catholicism. But after his groundbreaking works had earned him fame in France, Geneva was more than happy, in 1754, to welcome him back. He, in turn, returned to the Calvinist fold.

"But his political and religious views scandalised Geneva," says Starobinsky.

The liberal views on education he espoused in "Emile", his advocacy of a more individual approach to religion and his condemnation of the aristocratic oligarchy that ran Geneva saw him fall out with the city fathers. In 1762 they forced him into exile and burned his books.

In fact, in the "Social Contract", Rousseau had taken Geneva as his model for the kind of society where men could be free. But it was not the Geneva of Rousseau's time, but the city as Calvin had envisaged it 200 years previously.

While living as a fugitive in Môtiers, in the Jura mountains, Rousseau produced his coruscating "Letters Written from the Mountains", which described his native city as a place run by 25 despots.

"Rousseau saw that democracy in Geneva did not work as a democracy," Starobinsky says.

There is much in today's society that Rousseau would object to. But one of his key aims – to have a society in which people are free and can have their say - is now a fundamental right. And that, in no small measure, is down to Rousseau.

"He was one of the most eminent enemies of hypocrisy," Starobinsky concludes.

by Roy Probert in Geneva (first published in 2001)

In brief

Rousseau was also a celebrated composer.

Rousseau's opera, Le Devin du Village (village fortune teller),which was written in 1752, influenced Mozart when he composed Bastien und Bastienne 16 years later.

Much of St Peter's Island in canton Bern where Rousseau spent two months in exile is now a protected reserve.

The room in which he stayed at the island hotel has been set up as a memorial.

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