Wednesday, March 26, 2008
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.)
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