In substance, Rousseau affirms and embraces the fictive quality

In The Confessions, Rousseau seeks to portray
“a portrait in every way true to nature” of himself.  He repeatedly insists upon the importance of truthfully
disclosing every detail, motive, and emotion to the reader, “(There is) my
indispensable duty to fulfill it in its entirety… If I am to be known I must be
known in all situations, both good and bad” (373). However, the rhetoric
governing the dialogue between author and reader necessarily modifies the
content of the confession. The autobiographical form is inherently false to the
essence of the life it aims to tell of. To overcome this irreconcilable rift
between form and substance, Rousseau affirms and embraces the fictive quality
of his narrative. By writing his experiences, he separates self as subject and
self as object, and creates the Jean-Jacques that he feels himself to be and which
is ultimately found in the narrative and its conventions. 

Rousseau portrays himself as holding an impartial silence, waiving his
right to defend himself before the tribunal on which the reader sits, “Intelligent
reader, weight this mater and decide; as for me, I am silent” (552). Rousseau
is far from his silent, but his appeals are carefully clothed with rhetoric. To
appear as if he is not influencing the reader, he removes the reader from his
screen of vision. Rousseau adamantly avoids the second person, addressing his
audience indirectly as “the reader”, or with impersonal third person forms, such
as “one may imagine” or “one would be mistaken” (24). He ponders upon
rhetorical questions that presuppose the sympathetic disposition of his
audience, “Who would believe…?” (333) and “What did I do on this occasion?”
(419) and guides the reader’s response to his actions, “One would not guess…”, “One
should not imagine…”(281). In this covert dialogue between Rousseau and reader,
Rousseau evades responsibility for abominable actions, rationalizes his
transgressions, and ultimately leaves himself without fault.

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The influence Rousseau tries to exert upon the reader portrays his deep conviction
that his true self is inherently innocent and good. His sins are in conflict
with this fundamental nature, and are thus, in some sense, acts of insincerity.

Reflecting upon an act of stealing, Rousseau writes, “Nothing could have been so far from my natural
disposition as this act. But I note it as proof that there are moments of a
kind of delirium, in which men cannot be judged by what they do” (46). He locates his true self beneath and apart from conscious reflection, “It might be said my heart and understanding do not
belong to the same individual” (74). It is imperceptible
by others, obscured by his actions, and accessible only to his imagination, “There will be more than one example in what
follows of the strange effects of that trait in my character which seems so
gloomy and misanthropic. In fact, however, it arises from my too loving heart,
from my too tender and affectionate nature, which find no living creatures akin
to them, and so are forced to feed upon fictions” (35). The cause of Rousseau’s
need to constitute in writing this self becomes increasingly apparent in the
later books of The Confessions. Rousseau is betrayed by his friends and
censured by what seemed an entire continent. In order to justify and defend his
existence before a public that perceives him as immoral, anti-social, and
selfish, he confesses with complete transparency, holding up before them the
self he feels to be true.

Rousseau constitutes his self as a subject of
examination in The Confessions by dividing the totality of the self from
the totality of the world. Through his
emotive life, he traces the development and boundaries of his own particular consciousness.

He claims, “I felt before I thought” (19), expressing his belief that the self
becomes what it is through temporal succession of emotions interwoven with his
interactions with the external world. Through this narrative of dividing self
and world, he relates the history of the self so that the self may simultaneously
create itself in writing and affirm the self it has created. The self
Rousseau creates in The Confessions is so substantial that it exists
apart from his consciousness, and he is able to examine it as an external object.

The self Rousseau forms by division is never entirely
disparate from the society or the natural world. This is evident in the
paranoia that characterizes the second half of The Confessions: having sundered
self from other, Rousseau finds the other to be alien and inhospitable. For
instance, Rousseau reacts to the appearance of a rival, Vintzenreid, at the
menage of Mme. De Warens, “Insensibly I found myself isolated and alone in that
same house of which I had formerly been the center, and in which I now led, so
to speak, a double life” (252). Interpreting this passage symbolically, the
world, which was divided in order to form an individuated self, is no longer
whole. Initially, the constitution of oneself as subject creates a feeling of
centrality and well-being. However, the division that enabled that constitution
results in isolation. By necessity, experiencing fullness of the self is accompanied
by experiencing the impoverishment of the world from which the self has been
sundered and filled.  Unsurprisingly,
Rousseau finds internal division “has throughout my life set me in conflict in
myself (23).

Rousseau’s vision of an alien and persecutory world
is exacerbated by his imagination, “I was in the most unbearable position for a
man whose imagination is easily set working” (458). However, his imagination
also creates a fortification against this world by creating a new one in which
the dissatisfied self can recreate what it has lost and once again feel at
home. When Rousseau is working as an apprentice, he is denied autonomy and is
deprived of the feeling that the world he inhabits is home. To overcome or
escape from this deprivation, he resorts to “tenderly nursing my illusions…
since I saw nothing around me I valued as much” (49). He is later more explicit
about retreating to his imagination, “It is a very strange thing that my
imagination never works more delightfully than when my situation is the reverse
of delightful, and that, on the other hand, it is never less cheerful than when
all is cheerful around me. It cannot beautify; it must create…”(166).

            Rousseau transforms deficient
reality into the imaginary, and superimposes the imaginary on the real such that
the imaginary overtakes and becomes the real. Considering this displacement of
reality, the reader may then question the reliability of Rousseau’s account and
the realness of his character as it is depicted in The Confessions. Rousseau
affirms these questions by repeatedly referring to the fictive nature of his
narrative. In his opening statement, Rousseau states his purpose as “to display
to my kind a portrait in every way true to nature, and the man I shall portray
is myself”(4). Rousseau’s choice of the word “portrait” implies that the self
he depicts through The Confessions is indeed an imaginative construct. As
Rousseau encounters the complexities of existence, the reality of oppression,
and the limitations of human possibility, he creates himself as a subject who is
able to find an alternative to, and an escape from these conditions.

It is therefore a great irony that Rousseau discovers
his imaginary reality, constructed to protect him from the uninhabitable world,
uninhabitable. The division between self and not-self, and the subsequent
exploration and celebration of the isolated self, is ultimately negated. The deprivation
entailed by Rousseau’s individuated self outweighs the compensatory gratification
it produces. Rousseau finally annihilates the boundaries of the self he imposes
with his Confessions. The imaginary world in which the self has
retreated reintegrates into the totality of the external. In contrast with the
form of his autobiography, Rousseau ultimately finds that existence is greater
than the sum of statements he is able to make about it, “True happiness is
indescribable, it can only be felt, and the stronger the feeling the less it
can be described, because it is not the result of a collection of facts but a
permanent state” (224). He later equates this “permanent state” with the
undirected activity he engages in on St. Peter’s Island “The idleness I love is
not that of an indolent fellow who stands with folded arms in perfect
inactivity, and thinks as little as he acts. It is the idleness of a child who
is incessantly on the move without ever doing anything, and at the same time it
is the idleness of a rambling old man whose mind wanders while his are arms are
still… I love… to fritter away the whole day inconsequentially and
incoherently, and to follow nothing but the whim of the moment” (591). In this
passage, Rousseau abandons himself entirely to the imaginary, and the imagining
self is annihilated. The self and nature converge into an undifferentiated whole,
and it is within this whole that the true Jean-Jacques is revealed.