Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Jean-Jacque Rousseau (1712-1778) — World's First Yippie?

Rousseau's "Fifth Walk" is from his unfinished work Reveries of the Solitary Walker, written between 1776 and 1778. Presumably autobiographical, it begins with Rousseau's safe arrival on the Island of Saint-Pierre after having been stoned at Motiers. In the chapter "The Fifth Walk," Rousseau in fact does very little walking, spending most of the time in a boat floating around a lake, where he is exposed to no external stimulus other than a few natural sights and sounds, and is left alone with his reveries that have "no distinct or permanent subject.”

Like Flaubert, who in an 1852 letter to his mistress wrote, “What seems beautiful to me, what I should like to write, is a book about nothing, a book dependent on nothing external,” or, better yet, like Larry David, who with Jerry Seinfeld co-created "Seinfeld," sitcom about nothing, Rousseau's pursuit of art is the pursuit of pure form, and his ideal book would have as little external stimulus— or "subject"— as possible.

In his "Fifth Walk," Rousseau expresses the desire to write an entire book for each blade of grass. “They say a German once wrote a book about a lemon-skin," he notes. "I could have written one about every grass in the meadows, every moss in the woods, every lichen covering the rocks— and I did not want to leave even one blade of grass or atom of vegetation without a full and detailed description” (84). Such “full and detailed description,” he elaborates, would be filled with numerous subjective impressions, thus marking a major shift away from the "scientific" naturalism of the 19th century and toward the interiority of 20th-century modernism.

Many have long considered Jean-Jacque Rousseau to be the world’s first yippie, and for several reasons. For starters, he was one of, if not the first writer of the Enlightenment to express such outright contempt for the city and city manners, saving his praise for "uncorrupted and natural" things, such as country folk, the wild scenery of the provinces, virginal maidens, and man in his natural state.

Second, in many ways his anti-intellectual tendencies prefigure some common attitudes of later-day yippies, who also challenged the supposed primacy of reason over emotion, urging everyone to "just stop thinking and get in touch with their feelings." Rousseau, sounding in the 18th century every bit the modern-day yippy, writes, “It was enough to make me pleasurably aware of my existence, without troubling myself with thought” (87).

Third, the last century's excessive preoccupation with the self may have had its start with Rousseau, whose inward turn here in this lake seems to mark the beginning of an intellectual movement that came to focus more and more on the needs and desires of the subjective individual, and which culminated with the rise of psycholanalysis in the 20th century. "The movement which does not come from outside us arises within us at such times,” he writes, sounding more like a contemporary hippie guru than an 18th-century philosopher (90).

And fourth, the breakdown of distinctions between internal and external phenomena can be seen as the first step toward the philosophical relativisms of later centuries. Due in part to Rousseau's influence, "reality" went from being an outer, mind-independent state of things to a participatory act, where the internal and external could be suffused only through the medium of imagination. “I could not draw a line between fiction and reality [while in the boat],” Rousseau confesses (90). Kant, and later the Romantic poets, would build upon this thesis; but it would be another two centuries before the yippie and hippie movements of America would take Rousseau's legitimate ideas to ridiculous extremes. (More on this subject later.)

This article is copyrighted © 2005 - 2008 by Beholdmyswarthyface.


Anonymous said...

Thx, again, Ryan! Here are some other points from my notes.

-Do I sense a Buddhist influence in Rousseau here?

Hōjōki-esque passage: “everything is in constant flux on this earth. Nothing keeps the same unchanging shape, and our affections, being attached to things outside us, necessarily change and pass away as they do. . .” (88). Happiness not possible because we are attached to fleeting things, and when the thing is gone, emptiness remains (Buddhist influence?). Instead, we should go with the flow, in order to achieve happiness, as I do here on the Island of Saint-Pierre. “What is the source of our happiness in such a state? Nothing external to us, nothing apart from ourselves and our own existence; as long as this state lasts we are self-sufficient like God” (89).

Also: “Set from from all the earthly passions that are born of the tumult of social life, my soul would often soar out of this atmosphere and would converse before its time with the celestial spirits whose number it hopes soon to swell. I know that mankind will never let me return to this happy sanctuary, where they did not allow me to remain” (91).


Anonymous said...

Indeed, Floubert kind of is the Larry David of French literature. Let us look at two of his letters.

Letter 1: October 9, 1852, letter to mistress. speaking of Madame Bovary. On involution/ironic distance, he has this to say: “It will be the first time, I think, that a novel appears where fun is made of the leading lady and her young man.” (Is this true?)

He goes on:“There is little action. But I maintain that images are action” (January 15, 1853 letter to Louise Colet).

Letter 2: to Louise Colet, January 12 or 14, 1852. He writes that the "distinctions between thought and style are a sophism”; that ever-present in him is the struggle between realism and romanticism; that form eclipses content; that like in Larry David's "Seinfeld," his goal is to write a "novel about nothing”: “What seems beautiful to me, what I should like to write, is a book about nothing, a book dependent on nothing external, which would be held together by the strength of its style, just as the earth, suspended in the void, depends on nothing external for its support; a book which would have almost no subject . . . I believe that the future of Art lies in this direction” (January 16, 1852)

Also, he advocates an anti-lyrical novel, in which the author’s self not at all present.

In the third letter, he makes clear his anti-biographical, anti-Romanticism tendencies; his Joycean objectivity. He talks about the need to write with the illusion of truth: “Madame Bovary is based on no actual occurrence. It is a totally fictitious story; it contains none of my feelings and no details from my own life. The illusion of truth (if there is one) comes, on the contrary, from the book’s impersonality. It is one of my principles that a writer should not be his own theme. An artist must be in his work like God in creation, invisible and all-powerful; he should be everywhere felt, but nowhere seen”

He calls for art “with the exactness of the physical sciences.”

He also points out that having nervous sensibilities doesn’t make you an artist: “If all you needed to be a poet were to have sensitive nerves, I should be [a greater poet] than Shakespeare.” He gives the example of children who are made sick by listening to music. “It is the same with art. Feeling does not make poetry; and the more [pp?] you are, the poorer you will be.”“The less one feels," he goes on, "the more fit one is to express it in its true nature.”

That is all for now.