In his last unfinished work, Reveries of the Solitary Walker, composed in the two years before his death in 1778, Jean-Jacques Rousseau set forth his vision for a writing life lived beyond the confines of community: “So now I am alone in the world, with no brother, neighbour or friend, nor any company left me but my own… [D]etached as I am from them and from the whole world, what am I? This must now be the object of my inquiry.”
After a scandal erupted in 1762 about the unorthodox religion in one of his books, Rousseau spent the next eight years in exile from Paris, wandering around Switzerland, England, and the French provinces. Having previously occupied a place at the center of civilized society—secretary to the French ambassador in Venice, friend of the philosopher Diderot, protected by rich patrons, “acclaimed, made much of, and welcomed with open arms”—Rousseau became gripped by the paranoid belief that he was an object of universal derision. “The most sociable and loving of men has with one accord been cast out by all the rest. With all the ingenuity of hate they have sought out the cruellest torture for my sensitive soul, and have violently broken all the threads that bound me to them.”
By the time he returned to Paris in 1770, Rousseau was one of the most famous men in Europe, known popularly by his first name and revered by many of his contemporaries. In spite of this celebrity, he chose to live quietly with his companion Thérèse in a modest flat near the Palais-Royal, occupying his time with music, botany, and country walks.
“Alone for the rest of my life”—in Rousseau’s eyes, female companionship did not obviate his own special class of solitude—“since it is only in myself that I find consolation, hope and peace of mind, my only remaining duty is towards myself and this is all I desire… Let me give myself over entirely to the pleasure of conversing with my soul, since this is the only pleasure that men cannot take away from me.”
Claiming to be no longer concerned about his reputation—“the desire to be better known to men has died in my heart”—Rousseau decided that his next project would be a simple one: he would walk, he would think, he would write down the thoughts that came to him. His Reveries would be nothing less than a faithful record of his friendless perambulations and the daydreams which occupied them. “I will give free rein to my thoughts and let my ideas follow their natural course, unrestricted and unconfined. These hours of solitude and meditation are the only ones in the day when I am completely myself and my own master, with nothing to distract or hinder me, the only ones when I can truly say that I am what nature meant me to be.”
In Rousseau’s scheme of things, solitude was the natural human state. By stepping outside of society, by distancing oneself from other voices, one was facilitating a return to oneself. But being with oneself is one thing; writing about the state of being with oneself, another. There are ten walks in the Reveries (“First Walk,” “Second Walk,” et cetera), and although some of them may well record the thoughts that occurred to Rousseau as he ambled around Paris, what they amount to are carefully crafted reflections on his life and earlier writing. The Reveries are not the spontaneous jottings of a dreamer, nor do they attempt to mount an illusion of such spontaneity. Rather, they are the work of a stationary body—a bent back, a cramped wrist, a strained eye, an aching temple—as it worked to broaden and deepen certain fleeting images, particular flashes of insight, into a sustained, intelligible vision.
“I shall content myself with keeping a record of my readings without trying to reduce them to a system. My enterprise is like Montaigne’s, but my motive is entirely different, for he wrote his essays only for others to read, whereas I am writing down my reveries for myself alone. If, as I hope, I retain the same disposition of mind in my old extreme old age, when the time of my departure draws near, I shall recall in reading them the pleasure I have in writing them and by thus reviving times past I shall as it were double the space of my existence.”
I feel it is safe to contradict Rousseau on this: such a sentence—so elaborately constructed, so fine—was not written for the author’s sole benefit. It was not scribbled into his diary and put away. Not enjoyed in private before being burned in his fire. Rather it was turned around. Broken up. Pieced into shape. Tinkered with and worried over. With the expectation, the presumption even, that it would be published and consumed by others. Rousseau’s demands on his sentences were great, as were his demands on his imagined audience. Unable to realize his ideal of true friendship between men, despairing of human incapacity for social harmony, he retreated to his natural state, communed with himself in nature—and what he found there, unvanquished, as vital as ever, was his longing for society. The Reveries are the result of Rousseau’s discovery that the physical state of detachment from community does not erase community from the mind; that, on the contrary, detachment inflates the importance of community in one’s thinking about the self, and fuels the desire to make oneself known to community, even if only to convey one’s condemnation of it.
This is not to say that nature (as opposed to human society) plays an insignificant role in Reveries. On several occasions, Rousseau describes the feelings inspired in him by the landscapes he encounters. He feels happiness and tranquillity when walking through open fields. He expresses delight on noticing specific rare plants. In “Second Walk,” on seeing a star-filled sky, he experiences nothing less than a moment of rapture: “I was conscious of nothing else. In this instant I was being born again, and it seemed as if all I perceived was filled with my frail existence. Entirely taken up by the present, I could remember nothing; I had no distinct notion of myself as a person, I did not know who I was, nor where I was… I felt through 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.”
Likewise, Rousseau does not fail to produce long passages of philosophizing. Much of “Fourth Walk,” for instance, is devoted to a discussion of truth and falsity. And in “Sixth Walk” he tackles the question of causality in human actions.
But underneath the calm layered over the melancholy, coming after the ecstasy, threaded through the philosophical reasoning, is anxiety. In articulating his new solitude, Rousseau cannot help returning, over and over again, to the old community that he claims to have left behind: “Lonely mediation, the study of nature and the contemplation of the universe lead the solitary to aspire continually to the maker of all things and to seek with a pleasing disquiet for the purpose of all he sees and the cause of all he feels. When my destiny cast me back into the torrent of this world, I found nothing there which could satisfy my heart for a single moment. Regret for the sweet liberty I had lost followed me everywhere and threw a veil of indifference or distaste over everything around me which might have brought me fame and fortune.”
Rousseau’s expressed distaste for fame and fortune masks an obsession with those whom he believes possess the authority to apportion such fame and fortune. His disregard for the opinion of others is actually a susceptibility to those opinions, a susceptibility of an acuteness that today would be called neurotic. Looking at himself through the eyes of society, he is “a monster,” “a poisoner,” “an assassin,” “a horror of the human race,” “a laughingstock.” He imagines passersby spitting on him. He pictures his contemporaries burying him alive. Rumors about him are, he believes, circulating in the highest echelons: “I heard even the King himself and the Queen were talking about it as if there was no doubt about it.” There is simply no one left in society who does not harbor “some secret animosity” toward him, who does not “take part in the universal conspiracy” against him.
Responding to these imagined attacks, in the course of his protestations of innocence, Rousseau makes a second discovery. Human judgments, he realizes, are made not about a thing but about one’s perception of a thing: “[I]nstead of me they will never see anyone but the Jean-Jacques they have created and fashioned for themselves so that they can hate me to their heart’s content. I should be wrong then to be upset by the image they have of me; I ought to take no real interest in it, since it is not me that they are seeing.”
This is Rousseau at his most ingenious. How right he is. Anyone professing to be judging him would, it is true, be judging a figment of their own minds, which they mistake for him. How could they be judging the real Rousseau when it is impossible to subsume a material man, with all his contents, into the immaterial world of thoughts? Close your eyes, torturers, and see where your Rousseau has gone! Yet here Rousseau himself has a blind spot. He fails to see that what is the case for others must also be the case for himself. Rousseau, too, in his judgments of society, has fashioned for himself a figment, which he chooses to hate in the most exquisite mode possible: disdain. “I have regained my peace and tranquillity and lead a quiet and happy life in the midst of them, laughing at the incredible tortures my persecutors are constantly inflicting on themselves while I live in peace, busy with my flowers, stamens and such childish things, and never giving them a moment’s thought… My contemporaries will always be as nothing in my eyes… I feel too much above them to hate them.”
Here Rousseau—man of letters, dedicated to the uncovering of privately reasoned truths to counteract the fraudulent assumptions of society—is being disingenuous. To say one is not thinking of a thing is, in fact, to think about that thing. To call one’s enemies nothing is to call them something. To pity oneself, to assign for oneself the role of victim—“when I reach places where there is no trace of men I breathe freely, as if I were in a refuge where their hate could no longer pursue me”—far from being a diminishment of oneself, is the back route, the concealed pass to the self’s most bountiful feeding grounds.
For Rousseau, solitude is the promise of immunity from the hatred of others. Reveries is his attempt to build a quarantine out of words. Piled around himself are his judgments of society, which he believes society’s own judgments cannot penetrate. But then these self-made walls end up closing in on him, oppressing him just as the society’s walls had once done. In his enclosure, cut off from his tormentors, the one who must be made to suffer is himself. “God is just; his will is that I should suffer, and he knows my innocence… Let men and fate do their worst, we must learn to suffer in silence, everything will find its proper place in the end and sooner or later my turn will come.”
Enclosed in his self-isolation, Rousseau sets himself the task of conceiving a pure kind of writing, one protected from all contact with society. A writing independent of received opinions. A writing free of “hair-splitting metaphysical subtleties” and “the sophistries of the eloquent,” A writing “adopted by my reason, confirmed by my heart and bearing the seal of my conscience uninfluenced by passion.” A writing made by and meant for himself alone. And in this, Rousseau fails. Not because he does not try hard enough; not because he is not brilliant enough, but rather because the task he sets himself is impossible. His writing, like all writing, must by necessity come contaminated by the writing of others, and it will always already be thus.
Where does writing come from? The answer—for Rousseau, for me, for you, for us—is other writing. This is the problem that Rousseau is really fleeing from; his failure to ever really shake this problem off is what, more than any slander society can fling at him, accounts for his suffering.
Like Rousseau, it might appear to us that our writing comes from a realm of experience entirely separate from words on a page: from the world “out there” or from our experience “in here.” But this is an illusion. What happens in life—what we do, what happens to us, what we hear about, what we witness, and how we experience all of that within—does not come to us in a pure state in the present but is mediated through our minds, which orders and interprets the information (which by now has passed into the past) according to stories it has previously constructed to judge and to explain such information. What stories are we telling about the world and our inner experience? They are the world and our inner experience, as our mind knows them. Whatever these stories are, when we come to write them down—as fiction or as nonfiction—we begin to see that we are no longer dealing with “the outer world” or “inner experience,” but have entered negotiations with the way these stories have already been told, with what has already been written (which is how we gain our understanding of the world in the first place).
It is by reading about what has happened to us as a text—images, events, body language, emotions—that we build our life stories. And it is by reading how others have interpreted those texts of their own that we learn how to write.
There is no mystery to creation. To create is to respond. The question is not, What am I writing about?, but rather, What am I responding to? No writing exists that is not a response to something in the past. This is as true for writing set in the so-called present and the so-called future as it is for writing set decades or centuries ago. There is no writing that is not an attempted act of communication: it is alone among art forms in its primary desire to contain transmissible meaning; meaning that, once transmitted, will engender further meaning. What we learn from Rousseau is that, in the act of writing, we are responding not to a thing but to our belief about a thing. A description of a thing is, at base, a statement of belief. And all statements of belief—even those that appear to be deeply personal, like “I love you”—are restatements of the beliefs of others (which is not to say we do not feel love, but that what we name as love, we learn from stories).
Which is all to say: writing, as a pursuit, is less daunting than Rousseau makes it out to be. By letting go of the idea that our writing must be absolutely ours, that it must come exclusively from us, untouched by outside influences, we come closer to seeing writing for what it is, and we stop being so afraid of it.
For really it is quite simple. If we can think of something, it already exists. Other people, in other places, at other times have passed it to us, and now it is ours. How do we know it is ours? Because we are thinking it. And from this thought springs another, and that is ours, too. Join the two thoughts together. Turn them around. Break them up. Splice them. Then we have begun.
We do not need to invent anything. All we have to do is find where to begin, and then to speak, embellishing nothing, denying nothing and without the intent to manipulate anyone. How good the result turns out to be will depend, not only on how much writing we have read, and how closely we have read it, but also how skillfully and confidently we have made that writing our own.
Rousseau writes: “Nothing that comes from the outside can be prolonged within me.” Yet anything that enters his writing from the inside must also have come from the outside (for he was not born with it), and anything that enters his writing from the outside must also have come from the inside (for, in order to understand the writing of others, we seek their reflection within ourselves).
This year—2020—the term “self-isolation” has expanded its meaning for writers: from a voluntary separation intended to protect our writing minds from the distractions of community, to a government-ordered separation for the purpose of protecting the physical health of the community. In the normal course of events, when we, as writers, are kept from our desks, we often dream of being at our desks; now that we have been confined to our bedrooms and studios and sheds, how do we feel in ourselves? Are we longing, all of a sudden, for the community that, just days ago, we had treated as an obstacle to our creativity, an annoyance to cancel out?
To be alone—even when we desire it—necessarily constitutes a loss. When we write, we write for ourselves in order that, one day, our selves might be read by others. This longing for contact, for human society, is apparent in every word we place on the page. As writers, we are in a state of constant agitation to get away, to nature, to silence, to that ideal place that will give us the space to hear ourselves and the time to write it all down. But, at the same time, we will never be able to overcome our longings for closeness, for communion. Contained within writing is a rebellion: against certain systems, against certain ideas, against certain people. And, at the same time, writing is a plea for belonging.
At this moment, I am picturing a woman declaiming poetry from her balcony. A child calling a telephone hotline to hear a bedtime story. A man in a face mask and plastic gloves delivering a book to my neighbor’s door, leaving it on the mat and ringing the doorbell and waiting there, a safe two steps away, until my neighbor appears in her dressing gown and picks it up: hundreds of pages of someone else’s writing sterile under a plastic wrapping.
Now—the wrapping off, the cover opened—that writing is hers; she will recognize much of it; what appears new or strange to her will merely be those things she didn’t know she knew.
When we publish our writing, we are not sending something away from its home; rather, we are sending something back from whence it came. Once we have rehoused it in someone else’s hands; once we have been told it is bad, and once we have been told it is good; once we have gained the attention we have always wanted, and once we have pretended never to have wanted such attention; once all of that is done, and we are satisfied and unsatisfied both, we will be ready, again, to isolate ourselves, of our own volition, as we attempt to commune through words with others.
Gavin McCrea is the author of Mrs. Engels. His second novel, The Sisters Mao, will be published in Spring 2021.