Julie, or the New Eloise
The famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau has quite a few books on my book list and “Julie, or the New Eloise” (“La Nouvelle Héloïse”) is his first entry.
Rousseau is one of those characters many people have heard of, but very few actually read anything by. As a philosopher he was extremely influential, coining the term “The Noble Savage” which nicely summarizes his philosophy. According to Rousseau the natural state, uncorrupted by civilization, is the ideal and the state we must strive to return to. All faults of men are learned faults and artifacts. Feeling and emotion is better than facts and learning and honesty to yourself and others is the highest virtue. In a world still governed by religious dogma Rousseau’s ideas were quite radical even if they ultimately aimed for the same thing as the church, that of the virtuous soul.
“Julie, or the New Eloise” must be seen in this light. It is very much a moralizing tale, exemplifying his ideas by letting emotions and passions run free and somehow succeed in achieving sublime virtue.
This epistolary tale consists letters sent between a young man known as Saint-Preux, the love of his life, the young Baroness Julie Etange, Her cousin Clare, Julie’s latter husband Wolmar and Saint-Preux friend the English Lord Bomston.
Saint-Preux is a teacher hired to train Julie and Claire and at the opening of the story they are sending highly emotional, frantic even, love letters to each other. Theirs is a secret, forbidden love, and while they know it is impossible, they are loath to give it up. Julie’s father is very much against this match, Saint-Preux has no title, and when he learns of it, it is game over and Saint-Preux flees. That Lord Bomston makes him his protégé does nothing to mollify the father.
Saint-Preux goes sailing around the world on a British ship for four years and both Claire and Julie get married. Wolmar was promised to Julie by her father, but rather than being a disaster this is now a great thing because Wolmar is really nice and Saint-Preux is invited to come live with them in wonderful threesomeness.
I was not super excited about this novel. These two lovebirds are so too much. They are obsessing more than anything. Of course, being in love you get carried away, but this was completely hysteric. It got better when the crisis occurred. At this point there was more bite to the story, but the later part was, frankly, weird. It is full of tests of the characters worthiness, praise of chaste virtue and everybody are each other’s BFF’s. The commune they form would by all rights be doomed, yet it is supposed to work because they are all so good and honest people. Seriously?
There were gems, though. While both Julie and Saint-Preux are religious beings, Wolmar is not. As the story goes, he studied all the religious directions with a cold and discerning mind and found the mysticism inconsistent and counter intuitive. He could not reconcile the mystic doctrines and decided not to believe in God. He is however the most Christian and humane characters of all involved, more worthy to the name than any believer. Of course, him being an atheist is his greatest “flaw”, but it still feels like a great kick in the butt on religious orthodoxy. Apparently, Rousseau himself got in trouble with the church for making up his own mind.
Rousseau still have a number of books to impress me, but this one was a miss.