Philippe Lejeune


Rousseau and the Autobiographical Revolution

My aim is to analyse, through the two preambles to Rousseau’s Confessions, the revolution he brought about in the practice of autobiography. Published after his death, in 1782 and 1789, the Confessions, even before being translated, were read by cultivated people across Europe: to what extent did this text help, positively, to establish a shared “model,” or negatively, to encourage each country to construct its own model in response to different problems? Pending a future colloquium on this question, I will confine myself to examining the upheaval that Rousseau caused by looking at his preambles, veritable “Declarations of the Rights of Man and the Autobiographer.” The preamble that appears at the head of the definitive version, which had been known since 1778, is short, apocalyptic, provocative, and wildly contradictory, and dismantles the system of religious confession: here, God is no longer the judge of man but a mere witness to Rousseau. It is more important to be truthful than to have been good, a public challenge made by Rousseau to the rest of mankind, thereby inventing what we might call an autobiographical competition. In the preliminary manuscripts (the Neuchâtel Manuscript), which remained unknown for many years and which reflect the metadiscourse scattered throughout the Confessions, we find a different version, long, closely argued, and serene, that leaves aside the religious issue to develop, in a completely secular space, an original line of thinking about the threefold revolution – psychological, social and literary – that he would bring about. In terms of psychology, he stated that he had found a method of breaking the vicious circle according to which a science of man is impossible because there can be no comparisons when each individual knows only himself, hides his true self from others, and judges others by what he often mistakenly thinks he knows about himself. Rousseau therefore offers each of us a point of comparison by revealing his life using a new method: tracing the history of the personality, going back to early childhood and giving an exhaustive account of every memory that comes to mind. To these two rules, which anticipate the practice of psychoanalysis, Rousseau adds a refusal to draw conclusions, leaving the reader to act as judge. In social terms, he shatters the model of the Memoir: neither social rank nor the historical interest of events justify autobiographical writing, but solely the quality of the author's observations of the social world. In literary terms, lastly, he rejects le beau style and all affectation to invent “a language as new as my project” by following the course of his moods, modeling his style on his tone of voice, and playing on the tension between past and present: Rousseau’s key notion, one that remains valid today, is that autobiography has no pre-existing form, that it is an adventure in search of a form, and that its very truth lies in that form. Perhaps that is the meaning that we should charitably give to the somewhat crazy first sentence of the final preamble: "I am resolved on an undertaking that has no model and will have no imitator"? Every genuine autobiography would be unique...


In the world of international life writing studies, the name Philippe Lejeune hardly needs any introduction. Leading European critic and theorist of autobiography, Lejeune is among world’s influential life writing theorists, author of a landmark work The Autobiographical Pact (Le Pacte Autobiographique, 1975) hat has played a central role in legitimizing autobiography’s role in literary history. Yet, The Autobiographical Pact is only a starting point for Lejeune’s rich research trajectories into many different areas and practices of life writing, such as, e.g., the diary, web-based life writings, family narratives, and anthropological life writing, etc.


Philippe Lejeune has taught French Literature at Université Paris-Nord from 1970 to 2004. He has been working on autobiography (L’Autobiographie en France, 1971, Le Pacte autobiographique, 1975, Je est un autre, 1980, Moi aussi, 1986, Les Brouillons de soiI, 1998, Signes de vie, 2005) and on diary (« Cher cahier… », 1990, Le Moi des demoiselles, 1993, « Cher écran… », 2000, Un journal à soi. Histoire d’une pratique, with Catherine Bogaert, 2003). Selections from his works have been published in English (On autobiography, Paul John Eakin ed., Minnesota University Press, 1989 ; On diary, Jeremy D. Popkin and Julie Rak ed., University of Hawai’i Press, 2009). In 1992 he has co-founded APA (Association pour l’autobiographie), an archive devoted to unpublished autobiographical writings by ordinary people.