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three pairs of lovers with space



In March 1728, the future philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (28 June 1712 – 2 July 1778), then a boy of fifteen, fled his native Geneva for Savoy, where he was befriended by a Mme. de Warens, who began his conversion from Calvinism to Roman Catholicism. She sent him on to complete it in the catechumens’ hospice of Spirito Santo in the Savoyard capital Turin, where he arrived on 12 April 1728. The attempt to seduce him apparently occurred in the following days, as he recalled that it happened well before his baptism there on 23 April.[1]

Rousseau himself recounted the story in his The Confessions, finished in 1769 and first published in 1782. The translation here is by J. M. Cohen.[2]


The Confessions by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Book Two

Describing his arrival at the hospice:

I presented my letters of introduction and was immediately taken to the hospice for converts, there to be instructed in the faith which was the price of my subsistence. […] In this assembly-hall were four or five frightful cut-throats, my fellow pupils, who looked more like the devil’s bodyguard than men who aspired to become children of God. Two of these scoundrels were Croats who called themselves Jews or Moors, and who spent their lives, as they confessed to me, roaming Spain and Italy, embracing Christianity and having themselves baptized wherever the rewards were sufficiently tempting. […]

Turin seen from the bank of the River Dora, 1720

Over the next several days, Rousseau was given religious instructions and, finding himself much more reluctant to convert than he had anticipated, brought erudite arguments against his instructors.

During the course of these petty controversies, and whilst day after day was being wasted in arguments and idling and muttering of prayers, I had a very unpleasant little experience, which very nearly had unfortunate results for me.

There is no soul so vile, no heart so barbarous as to be insusceptible to some sort of affection, and one of the two cut-throats who called themselves Moors took a fancy to me. He was fond of coming up to me and gossiping with me in his queer jargon. He did me little services, sometimes giving me some of his food at table, and he frequently kissed me with an ardour which I found most displeasing. But, frightened though I naturally was by his dusky face, which was beautified by a long scar, and by his passionate glances, which seemed to me more savage than affectionate, I put up with his kisses, saying to myself, ‘The poor man has conceived a warm friendship for me; it would be wrong to repulse him.’ But he passed by degrees to more unseemly conduct, and sometimes made me such strange suggestions that I thought he was wrong in the head. One night he wanted to share my bed, but I objected on the plea that it was too narrow. He then pressed me to come into his. I still refused, however, for the poor devil was so dirty and smelt so strongly of the tobacco he chewed that he made me feel ill.

Next day, very early in the morning, we were alone together in the assembly-hall. He resumed his caresses, but with such violence that I was frightened. Finally he tried to work up to the most revolting liberties and, by guiding my hand, to make me take the same liberties with him. I broke wildly away with a cry and leaped backwards, but without displaying indignation or anger, for I had not the slightest idea what it was all about. But I showed my surprise and disgust to such effect that he then left me alone. But as he gave up the struggle I saw something whitish and sticky shoot towards the fireplace and fall on the ground. My stomach turned over, and I rushed on to the balcony, more upset, more troubled and more frightened as well, than ever I had been in my life. I was almost sick.

I could not understand what was the matter with the poor man. I thought he was having a fit of epilepsy or some other seizure even more terrible. And really I know of no more hideous sight for a man in cold blood than such foul and obscene behaviour, nothing more revolting than a terrifying face on fire with the most brutal lust. I have never seen another man in that state; but if we appear like that to women, they must indeed be fascinated not to find us repulsive.

I could think of nothing better than to go and inform everybody of what had just happened. Our old woman attendant told me to hold my tongue. But I saw that my story had much upset her, for I heard her mutter under her breath: Can maledet! brutta bestia! bestia![3] As I could see no reason for holding my tongue, I took no notice of her but went on talking. I talked so much in fact that next day one of the principals came very early and read me a sharp lecture, accusing me of impugning the honour of a sacred establishment and making a lot of fuss about nothing.

In addition to this rebuke he explained to me a number of things I did not know, but which he did not suspect he was telling me for the first time. For he believed that I had known what the man wanted when I defended myself, but had merely been unwilling. He told me gravely that it was a forbidden and immoral act like fornication, but that the desire for it was not an affront to the person who was its object. There was nothing to get so annoyed about in having been found attractive. He told me quite openly that in his youth he had been similarly honoured and, having been surprised in a situation where he could put up no resistance, he had found nothing so brutal about it all. He carried his effrontery so far as to employ frank terminology and, imagining that the reason for my refusal had been fear of pain, assured me that my apprehensions were groundless. There was no reason to be alarmed about nothing.

I listened to the wretch with redoubled astonishment, since he was not speaking for himself but apparently to instruct me for my own good. The whole matter seemed so simple to him that he had not even sought privacy for our conversation. There was an ecclesiastic listening all the while who found the matter no more alarming than he. This natural behaviour so impressed me that I finally believed such things were no doubt general practice in the world, though I had so far not had occasion to learn of them. So I listened without anger though not without disgust. The memory of my experience, and especially of what I had seen, remained so firmly imprinted on my mind that my stomach still rose when I thought of it. Unconsciously my dislike for the business extended to the apologist, and I could not sufficiently control myself for him not to see the ill effect of his lesson. He shot me a far from affectionate glance, and from that time on spared no pains to make my stay at the hospice unpleasant. So well did he succeed that, seeing only one way of escape, I made the same impassioned efforts to take it as hitherto I had taken to avoid it.

Rousseau with his first mistress, Mme. de Larnage (lithograph by Paul Gavarni)

This adventure put me on my guard for the future against the attentions of pederasts. And the sight of men with that reputation, by reminding me of the looks and behaviour of my frightful Moor, has always so horrified me that I have found it difficult to hide my disgust. Women, on the other hand, acquired a greater value for me, by way of contrast. I seemed to owe them a reparation for the offences of my sex, that could only be paid by the most delicate affection and personal homage. My memories of that self-styled African transformed the plainest of sluts into an object of adoration.

I do not know what can have been said to him. As far as I could see no one except Mistress Lorenza looked on him any less favourably than before. However, he never approached or spoke to me again. A week later he was baptized with great ceremony, swathed in white from head to foot to symbolize the purity of his regenerate soul. On the day after, he left the hospice and I never saw him again.


[1] He says a month before his baptism, but this is chronologically impossible.

[2] The Confessions of Jean Jacques Rousseau, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1952.

[3] Cursed dog! foul beast! [Translator’s footnote]




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