Jack’s Naughty Bits: Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Confessions

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Jack's Naughty Bits

We normally wouldn’t expect one of the preeminent modern philosophers to have been a flasher. But then, in the gamut of sex crimes, flashing is down there with the most innocent — not so much a Jeffrey Dahmer–level activity as somewhere between Benny Hill and Bambi. Exposing oneself, meanwhile, where one is presumably standing there next to the schoolyard just holding it instead of simply opening the raincoat for a quick peek-a-boo, seems much more sinister. Flashing is lighter, gayer, friendlier even. I’m sure the next time I get to gape at somebody’s goods in Central Park, I’ll respond to my assailant: Well, isn’t that nice.

Our good associations with flashing have not been lost on Madison Avenue. Take the late-’80s poster campaign for the promotion of museum-going: Expose Yourself to Art. It depicted a middle-aged man flashing a statue of a woman. Very amusing, but more amusing is the fact that the guy in the photo later went on to be the mayor of Portland. And Europeans think we’re prudish about our politicians and sex!

Even so, the future mayor of Portland is one thing, a canonized mainstay of Philosophy 101 is another. But Rousseau’s Confessions pulls no punches, touching on all the flounderings and failings of young J.J.’s life. Like Augustine before him, who even admitted to enjoying sucking his mother’s nipple, Rousseau puts all his dirty laundry out to view — and makes an intensely human document in the process. He’s a charmer and a character, and even when he’s flashing the neighborhood girls, our sympathies are with him. And just think: alchemists searched long and hard for the philosopher’s stone; if you were in the right place near the end of the eighteenth century, you might have had a chance to see both of Rousseau’s.

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From The Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau

I was restless, absent-minded, a dreamer. I wept, I sighed, I longed for a happiness of which I had no idea, and of which I nevertheless felt the want. This state cannot be described; only few men can even imagine it, because most of them have anticipated this fullness of life, at once so tormenting and so delicious, which, in the intoxication of desire, gives a foretaste of enjoyment. My heated blood incessantly filled my brain with girls and women; but, ignorant of the relations of sex, I made use of them in my imagination in accordance with my distorted notions, without knowing what else to do with them; and these notions kept my feelings in a state of most uncomfortable activity, from which, fortunately, they did not teach me how to deliver myself . . . Shame, the companion of a bad conscience, had made its appearance with advancing years; it had increased my natural shyness to such an extent that it made it unconquerable; and never, neither then nor later, have I been able to bring myself to make an indecent proposal . . .

My agitation became so strong that, being unable to satisfy my desires, I excited them by the most extravagant behavior. I haunted dark alleys and hidden retreats, where I might be able to expose myself to women in the condition in which I should have liked to have been in their company.

What they saw was not an obscene object. I never even thought of such a thing; it was a ridiculous object. The foolish pleasure I took in displaying it before their eyes cannot be described. There was only one step further necessary for me to take, in order to gain actual experience of the treatment I desired, and I have no doubt that someone would have been bold enough to afford me the amusement, while passing by, if I had had the boldness to wait . . .

One day, I took up my position at the bottom of a court where there was a well, from which the girls of the house were in the habit of fetching water. At this spot there was a slight descent which led to some cellars by several entrances. In the dark I examined these underground passages, and finding them long and dark, I concluded that there was no outlet, and that, if I happened to be seen and surprised, I should find a safe hiding place in them. Thus emboldened, I exhibited to the girls who came to the well a sight more laughable than seductive. The more modest pretended to see nothing; others began to laugh; others felt insulted and made a noise. I ran into my retreat . . .