Rousseauism in Pushkin’s Plague

While reading Survival and Memory by Anderson, you may have read over a part where she mentions the “Rousseauism” in Walsingham’s response to the song. She actually says the following:

Walsingham’s mixture of admiration and condescension toward [Mary’s] song is worthy of an aristocrat in a Paris salon in 1770 toying with fashionable Rousseauism: it’s very sweet, of course, and unquestionably touching, but sophisticated people like ourselves really can’t be expected to regard it as anything more than a brief diversion.

But what did Rousseau actually have to say about death? In Émile, Rousseau states that the fear of death is unnatural.

Do you want to find men of a true courage? Look for them in the places where there are no doctors, where they are ignorant of the consequences of illnesses, where they hardly think of death. Naturally man knows how to suffer with constancy and dies in peace. It is doctors with their prescriptions, philosophers with their precepts, priests with their exhortations, who debase his heart and make him unlearn how to die. (Emile, Book I, 182)

Rousseau’s argument that men have only learned their fear of death from threatening doctors, philosophers, and priests plays out interestingly enough in A Feast During the Plague.  The priest serves as a reminder of society and its norms in a community where such norms are on the backburner and the numbing of feelings is first on the list. To make a Rousseauist reading of Pushkin’s play is to say that the priest is attempting to instill an unnatural fear of death in the revelers. And the action of the revelers? Contrary to Anderson’s argument of their true isolation behind the façade of a community, Rousseau could argue that they are simply living the natural way of life, before society came in and messed everything up. In a disoriented society in the eye of a plague, perhaps the state of nature comes back with full force and no one cares about your opinions, Priest.

Below is a picture of Rousseau so you all can appreciate his fur hat.



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