Saturday, October 15, 2016

Solitude Above the Human Race

Reveries of the Solitary WalkerReveries of the Solitary Walker 
by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

“Entirely taken up by the present, I could remember nothing; I had no distinct notion of myself as a person, nor had I the least idea of what had just happened to me. I did not know who I was, nor where I was; I felt neither pain, fear, nor anxiety. I watched my blood flowing as I might have watched a stream, without even thinking that the blood had anything to do with me. I felt throughout my whole being such a wonderful calm, that whenever I recall this feeling I can find nothing to compare with it in all the pleasures that stir our lives.”   ― Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Reveries of the Solitary Walker

Hyperbole*, thy name is Rousseau. In the last work by Jean-Jacques Rousseau he created a memoir like none of his other works. Autobiographical in style, it differs from the Confessions, the Dialogues, and several letters. It has no goal nor any chronological order; indeed, the ten "walks" into which it is divided provide a record of his inner feelings, a sort of barometer of his "soul".

The theme of the walks, if one exists, seems to center on Rousseau's alleged solitude - an isolation from society that is not deserved by such a great man. He spends his days contemplating himself as evidenced by this comment near the end of the First Walk: "But I, detached from them and from everything, what am I?". 
His investigation of himself, as the walks continue, appears to be sentimental - one that focuses on feeling rather than ideas (perhaps his taste for ideas had declined since the days of his early essays and great Social Contract). He ponders the nature of happiness in the Fifth Walk, however does not identify his own personal happiness with contemplation (as Aristotle or other classical thinkers might). In fact, he considers thinking a chore for him in the Seventh Walk; it is a task he used to perform fro the sake of others so that he could explain the world to them and show them how to live in it correctly (perhaps they could not hear him or were just not listening).

Rousseau's high appreciation of himself is evident from the opening sentence of the First Walk when he sets himself apart from humankind with these words: "I am now alone on earth, no longer having any brother, neighbor, friend, or society other than myself." He goes on to portray himself as the "most sociable and the most loving of humans". Overall the investigation of self in which he is engaged is so clearly and consistently directed at Rousseau's own enlightenment that the problem of why he is in this unusual condition does not arise. The final and tenth walk occurs on on Palm Sunday in 1778. He ends his reveries with a short chapter bemoaning the short period of happiness he had with a woman decades before; unsure of himself or his feelings he commits to reforming so as to be able to love. It seems that will be a losing battle.

language that describes something as better or worse than it really is.

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1 comment:

Brian Joseph said...

I recently discovered Rousseau and have only read Confessions. Though that work was fascinating in many ways, it only touched on his philosophy in limited ways. This I would like to read additional works including this.

It sounds as if his flaws are very much on display in this work as they were in Confessions. He nevertheless is a fascinating character.