Monday, October 10, 2011

Rousseau's Dog (2006)

     I am somewhat ashamed to admit that it took me eight days – of actual reading – to finish Rousseau's Dog (2006).  In keeping with my desire to not fault myself for the slow progression, I am going to lay the blame squarely on all of the various and sundry foreign names with which one needed to stay familiar in order to follow the tale.  It also has much to do with my general level of unfamiliarity (especially in comparison to those I know who are degreed historians) with reading historical as opposed to philosophical or psychological texts, which is where my very limited experience lies.
     I was disappointed with Rousseau's Dog, not because it largely ignored the philosophies made famous by the two gentlemen at the heart of the story – Jean-Jaques Rousseau and David Hume – but rather because neither author brought any psychological insight to the examination of the feud between them.  Indeed, so much of the book is wasted (in my opinion, and specifically in regards to what I would have preferred) giving a wordy depiction of Rousseau's history and Hume's treatment in Paris that the actual disagreement between the two seems ancillary to author's purpose.  Rather, they seem to desire to present each philosopher as human beings, well known in their time, but respected for different purposes than they are today..  As means of a conclusion, they tepidly tread into the realm of the psyches of the two men – though to be fair, Rousseau's is an obviously troubled one throughout the account – but arrive at weak and largely unsupported conclusions (given the evidence presented in the book).
     Just as frustrating, the authors seem to chose the least interesting portions of quotes to make their points.  It is enough to (again, as in the case with Penguin Island) make me wish I were fluent in French so that I could go to the source documentation.  It is clear that the authors are unaware of the case they are making throughout the book in regards to the dispositions of both men, or so I assume judging by their curious sentiment of siding with noted paranoid Rousseau in his claims against Hume.  Many are taken as fact without introducing compelling reason to do so (often the exclusion of a direct response by Hume or the exercising of politics within Hume's personal correspondence is the reasoning offered to prefer Rousseau's accounts of events for the feud, even after establishing that Rousseau is not a reliable witness to the human interactions in which he engages).
Rousseau didn't like his portrait by Ramsay, thinking that Hume had somehow conspired to make him appear suspect.  Hume just looks like a fat British lord.
     All of that may make it seem like I didn't enjoy the book, which I did.  I just didn't enjoy it as much as I wanted to.  It is the wrong type of history for me; too concentrated on meaningful people and their unimportant events.  I find it akin to a high-minded, well researched (though only moderately well presented) gossip book.  It has little to speak to how the relationship between the two men, even in its brief state, did little to influence how their work has been received.
     The authors make a couple of factual mistakes – the most glaring (to me) being the total misrepresentation of Themistocles' time in exile in Persia – or at least present information that is well at odds with what I know from independent research aforehand .  They also, to my chagrin, attempt to place Rousseau in a high esteem with Kant, higher than that held for Hume.  I cannot speak to the truth of that, but it certainly doesn't square with what exceedingly little I know of the East Prussian's taste in literature, and his ability to value it over the philosophical work that set his mind in motion.
     Anyway, this was one of the books I abandoned reading halfway through some years ago (actually, I had left off on page 126, and the two central figures were just meeting).  One of the purposes of the reading projects is to put an end to the "started, but never finished" stable of books I have accumulated, and this is the second title removed from it (the first being Walking the Tightrope of Reason).  Rousseau's Dog was undoubtedly more rewarding than reading a Castle novel or the 26 comic book issues (I treated School: A Ghost Story as a graphic novel) tackled for the theme week .  Still, I don't think I would go to these authors to read up on Bobby Fischer (I might go with Frank Brady's book on him, though).  They convinced me that they are capable of great research and somewhat clear presentation, but they lack the tools to get at the underlying elements that interest me.

1 comment:

  1. I don't know the details of the claims Edmonds and Eidonow make about Kant's opinion of Rousseau, but my understanding was that he esteemed him fairly highly. They shared republican principles, and Kant's political writings seem to owe a lot to Rousseau.
    There is also a (possibly apocryphal) story that the inhabitants of Konigsburg used to be able to set their clocks by the daily stroll of the famously dull philosopher. The one occasion that he shocked them by failing to take his daily walk at the usual time was when he'd lost track of time, buried deep in Emile.
    Esteem relative to Hume is another matter, but there are reasons to believe that Kant admired and respected Rousseau both for his literature and his philosophy (although of course for Rousseau, the two are hardly strictly seperate).