Transparency and the obstacle

Joe Tilson, Transparency I: Yuri Gagarin April 12, 1961, 1968.


Commentary on the book by Jean Starobinski

“One day I was studying my lesson alone in the room next to the kitchen. The maid had put Miss Abby's combs to dry. Lambercier. When she came to get them, there was one, with all its teeth broken on one side. Who is to blame for this disaster? Only I had entered the room…” (Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Confessions).

Jean Starobinski's beautiful book marked a fundamental turning point in the reading and interpretation of Rousseau's work. But above all, after having revolutionized, for several decades now, this crucial chapter in the history of philosophy, Starobinski's book is fully up to date – no text on Rousseau since then can aspire to comparison with this precociously classic and persistently contemporary book.

Starobinski's originality consists in reading, in Rousseau's works, not only the exposition of a theory, but also the expression of a certain rhythm of life, the exceptional destiny of a singular conscience. What the book aims at is the repetition of some key themes, which display the truth of both the writings and that of Jean-Jacques: such is the case of the central themes (or images) of transparency and obstacle. Beneath the concepts constructed by the philosopher, in the “swampy labyrinth” of the autobiographical narrative, in fictional narratives, we rediscover the obsessive (almost hypnotic) permanence of some images that show both the form of a work and the style of an existence.

But what is the hermeneutic force of these images of transparency and obstacle? How can the images of perfect visibility and the veil it conceals instruct us about the essence of Rousseau's philosophical and political thought? From the beginning, the autobiographical narrative of the “Confessions” leads the reader towards particularly overdetermined categories. Categories that seem to arise spontaneously from the remembrance of existence, as well as from the effort of self-understanding and self-justification.

I am referring to the childhood episode, in Bossey, of the broken comb, which shatters Rousseau's image of paradise and throws him into the infernal world of invisibility and guilt. Such an episode is nothing more than a small episode in the life of a child, but it soon takes on a symbolic weight that goes beyond it and ends up impregnating and qualifying Jean-Jacques' existence in its entirety. This event marks the end of “the serenity of my childhood life” and the first impulse that will define an incomparable destiny.

Childhood is defined as the space of innocent play, in transparent nature, under the benevolent gaze of the gods: the child slides over appearances, “barely scratching the ground”, (“grate légerement la terre”), flat surface that does not hide any unknown background; – and the happiness of this “superficial” game is confirmed by the eyes of the gods that do not seem to aim at any secret afterworld beyond the immediately visible one. It is this total visibility or publicity that finds its end and its negation in the episode of the broken comb. At that moment and for the first time, the child discovers, in the greatest helplessness, that there is the invisible, since his innocence is not perceptible to the supposedly omniscient gaze of the gods, who, for this very reason, suddenly cease to exist or abandon the visible world.

Childhood experience is the soil and humus of thought: the trivial theme of the difference between essence and appearance is fed, in Rousseau, by a living experience that would never fade. And the scheme of this experience will serve as a model for theoretical reflection: it is this veil that infiltrates between souls (and which also prevents access to Nature, which begins to seem “deserted and dark…, covered by a veil that hid the beauties”), it is this same veil that will be invoked at the level of theory, to account for the passage from good nature to the essential perversity of social life. Jean Starobinski insists on the isomorphism between this dialectic of being and seeming (in the infantile discovery of injustice and violence, or in the tragic discovery of the persuasive impotence of the innocent conscience) and the dialectic developed in Rousseau's political anthropology, from the first to the second Speech: “The terms that Rousseau uses to describe the consequences of the incident of the broken comb”, says Starobinski, “are strangely similar to the words with which, in the first Discourse, he describes the “cortage of vices” that erupts at the moment when that one no longer dares to be what one is”.

Since innocence becomes a secret, all existence becomes secret: for those who have been wrongly accused, there is no other recourse but to hide. If only appearances have weight, it is necessary to create the necessary appearance, escaping the field of immediate presence. If the "spectator's" eye has become blind to the evidences of the innocent heart, nature itself becomes invisible to any eye; and, the entirely superficial and visible world of paradise is replaced by the universe of depths (where the surface of the earth is no longer “scratched”, but where one tries to tear out its entrails), where everything is hidden, mediate and distant. The evident parallelism between autobiographical texts and political texts only finally became evident after Starobinski's book: Rousseau uses, to describe his childhood discovery of injustice, the same language that he uses, in theoretical texts, to write the birth of injustice in the history of the human species.

The coincidence of images and language does not simply refer to a parallelism between the ways of describing personal destiny and the destiny of humanity, but also to the very heart of the work, or to the secret place where these two genres of writings are articulated. The interpretation must go beyond the surface of the work towards the silence that precedes it and from which it derives its deepest meaning. Because the experience of rupture is also the experience that explains the project of writing itself: for Rousseau, Starobinski explains, writing only becomes necessary with the experience of the impossibility of immediate communication.

If it is true that a veil covers the evidence of an innocent heart, it is necessary to flee, to hide under the Author's mask: writing is the measure that, suppressing the immediate, makes possible a future return to immediacy. The work is, therefore, nothing more than an ephemeral mediation between two silences, the provisional expression of the solitude of someone who, having lost paradise, never completely renounced the return. And if, finally, Rousseau ends up condemned to solitude, if he is forever walled up within the limits of his Work, it will not have been by his decision, but by the “work” of the veil and the obstacle that ended up being thrown between him and humanity. .

Is it not in similar terms that Proust defines Elstir's trajectory? There we will also find the same itinerary traversed by Rousseau (as we can reconstruct it, thanks to Starobinski), from the first project of writing to regain the immediate presence under the benevolent gaze of the “gods”, to the final solitude and calm of the “Rêveries”: provisional solitude discovers the absolute value of solitude and ends up becoming indifferent to the Other, “as if he had landed on a foreign planet”.

*Bento Prado Jr. (1937-2007) was professor of philosophy at the Federal University of São Carlos. Author, among other books, of some essays (Peace and Earth).

Originally published in the newspaper Folha de S. Paul, notebook Letters, on January 11, 1992.



Jean Starobinski. Transparency and the obstacle. Translation: Maria Lúcia Machado. São Paulo, Companhia das Letras, 428 pages.


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