Musique et Langage chez Rousseau

Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 2004
pp. xiv + 257, ISSN 0435 2866

Rousseau’s writing on the subjects of music and language was, until relatively recently, understood to occupy a rather marginal place in his output as a whole. The work on the nature and origin of language wasmore or less entirely overlooked, while the sporadic interest shown by twentieth-century musicologists in Rousseau’s musical and music-theoretical concerns was, if both genuine and productive in documentary terms, primarily motivated by the fact that Rousseau was a famous philosopher and a posthumously credited architect of the French revolution. However, as the foundations of the assumed link between Rousseau and France’s great moment of iconoclasm emerged as less stable, there has been a growth in critical attention on those areas of his output where relationships to his theories of public polity and private morality were less obviously prominent.

A notable moment in this shift was, of course, the publication in 1967 of Jacques Derrida’s early masterpiece De la grammatologie (Paris: Minuit; translated in 1976 as Of Grammatology). While this coincided with a general renewal of interest in the French Enlightenment, Derrida’s work was the first extended study of the central text in Rousseau’s linguistic and musical thought – the Essai sur l’origine des langues (OEuvres complètes, volume 5 (Paris: Gallimard, 1995)), translated as Essay on the Origin of Languages in The Collected Writings of Rousseau (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1990–), volume 7 (trans. John T. Scott), in 1998 – in which the problems of the text were not attributed to internal weakness and rhetorical overbite, or to the circumstances of its reportedly somewhat botched composition. Instead, Derrida’s critical reading of the Essai was intended to show how its problems reflect wider and more serious faultlines, in eighteenth-century conceptions of mimesis and signification as well as in the metaphysical armoury Rousseau co-opts for the purposes of mobilizing his by-and-large received linguistic and musical theories.

It is somewhat surprising, therefore, to find that Derrida merits a mere half dozen cursory references in this new volume of essays, Musique et langage chez Rousseau. Since the publication of De la grammatologie, of course, much important work has been done (by Robert Wokler, Elisabeth Duchez and others) to establish both the genealogical and the theoretical importance of Rousseau’s musical writing in relation to his philosophical and literary concerns, and the scope of contemporary scholarship in this area obviously both differs from and exceeds Derrida’s concerns. So while one would neither expect nor hope to find the contributors to this volume deferentially trudging over the same ground as that covered in a book originally published nearly forty years ago, it goes without saying that where the relevance and value of Derrida’s work remains, it should not be covered over by work that treads the same paths, but with less dexterity and scope.

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