Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) II
Bill Long 11/20/06
The "Fifth Promenade" in the Reveries
After describing the remote, yet idyllic, little island of St. Peter, Rousseau goes on to recount his feelings about the place.
"I found the sojourn (Sept.-Nov. 1768) so charming, I carried on a life so suitable to my humor, that resolved to finish my days there, I had no other disquiet except that I might not be allowed to carry out this plan...
He could easily have lengthened the two month stay into a longer one:
"I could have passed there two years, two centuries, and the whole of eternity, without being weary one moment, although I had not, with my wife, other society than that of the receiver, of his wife and of his servants...I count these two months as the happiest time of my life, and so happy, that it would have sufficed me throughout life, without for a single moment allowing in my soul the desire for a different state."
Activity on "Fantasy" Island
So, what did Rousseau do? Well, he didn't read his books.
"Transported there suddenly, alone and unprovided for, I sent successively for my wife, my books and my little luggage, which I had the pleasure of not unlocking, leaving my chests and my trunks as they had arrived... One of my greatest delights was above all to leave my books well boxed up, and not to have a writing desk."
What did this allow him time to do?
"A delicious idleness was the first and principal enjoyment that I wished to taste in all its sweetness; and all that I did during my stay was nothing but the charming and necessary occupation of a man who is vowed to idleness," (p. 106).
He hit upon a plan for using his time:
"Since I did not wish to work any more at writing, there was necessary for me an amusement which pleased me, and which gave me no more trouble than that which a lazy man cares to give. I undertook to make the Flora of St. Peter's Island, and to describe all the plants there, without omitting one, in sufficient detail to occupy me for the rest of my days."
Since he heard that a German scholar wrote an entire book about a lemon peel, Rousseau was emboldened to think that he could write an entire one on each grain in the field, "on each lichen which carpets the rocks.." He decided to divide the island into squares, go out each morning with his magnifying glass and Linneaus' System of Nature (Hm...I thought all his books were back in the trunk..) and observe to his heart's content.
"Nothing is more singular than the ravishments, the ecstasies which I felt at each observation I had made upon the structure and the vegetable organization, and upon the play of the sexual parts in the fructification, of which the system was then altogether new to me.
So he would return each day, arms laden with exemplars of the field. In the afternon he would dine with the host and his family and then, when lunch was over, throw himself "alone into a boat which I rowed into the midst of the lake, when the water was calm," (pp. 108-109). What did he do out there?
"Stretching myself out at full length in the boat, my eyes turned towards heaven, I let myself go and wander about slowly at the will of the water, sometimes during many hours, plunged into a thousand confused but delicious reveries, which, without having any well-determined object, nor constancy, did not fail to be in my opinion a hundred times preferable to all that I have found sweetest in what are called the pleasures of life.
And then, what about evenings?
"When the evening approached, I descended from the summits of the island, and I went gladly to sit down on the border of the lake, on the shore, in some hidden nook; there, the sound of the waves and the agitation of the water, fixing my sense and driving every other agitation from my soul, plunged it into a delicious reverie, where the night often surprised me without my having perceived it. The flux and reflux of this water, its continuous sound, swelling at intervals, struck ceaselessly my ears and my eyes, responding to the internal movements which reverie extinguished in me, and sufficed to make me feel my existence with pleasure, without taking the trouble to think," 111.
One thing that Rousseau doesn't tell us about this experience is whether he felt these things in 1768, when he had experienced them, or only in 1778, when he could peacefully reflect on them. I would think that the latter is more probable; sometimes with distance things seem more attractive.
In any case, Rousseau has given us the story of pure enjoyment, of sensual pleasure, of simply letting the feelings of the moment overwhelm and define the contours of one's thoughts and feelings. He felt his existence without taking the trouble to think. Only a person very confident in the power of his creative genius could get away with such a statement near the end of his life. Such was Rousseau.
Let me take you on one more "walk" now.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long