Jean Jacques Rousseau's Julie ou la Nouvelle Héloïse

Alexandra Schamel, lecturer in the Departments of Romance Studies and Comparative Literature at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Munich and current IES visiting scholar, gave a talk on April 11 to an audience of 20 focusing on the liminal status of Rousseau's epistolary novel, Julie ou la Nouvelle Héloïse, between the age of sensibility and early Romanticism in eighteenth-century France. The talk illustrated the difficulties the subject was confronted with in articulating its true feelings in a society of “open eyes and ears”. The powerful ethical codes at work in such a society promote the secret writing of letters that are born out of the love-wound, which ultimately replace the presence of love and, thus, provide a textual dimension to the insatiable passion that cannot be lived out in real life. Schamel explored the strategies used by the letters to create substitutive places where the discredited feeling can come to its right – strategies of transformation and sublimation which prepare the Romantic period. First, these letters result in the construction of topographies that provide some sheltered places in nature to the missed love-union. These places can be regarded as early manifestations of the mysterious romantic landscape “at the edge of infinity”. Furthermore, the letters transform the discredited passion into legitimate concepts of ontological diffusion, with melancholy, remembrance and even sacrifying death all growing into prominent Romantic attitudes. Finally, she showed how the textual dimension itself is used to send hidden messages of unconceivable passion to the beloved. Passion then seems to be present as a “third” between the concepts, a merely rhetorical phenomenon, similar to a shadow or a specter. This theoretical impact of the talk was based on Derrida's notion of the supplément, Coelen's notion of obscurité and Starobinski's studies on Julie.