Book Review: Reveries of a Solitary Walker by Jean-Jacque Rousseau

I am now alone on earth, no longer having any brother, neighbor, friend, or society other than myself.

It’s pretty hard for me to review this book, given that I… don’t actually know how I feel about it. As a work of literature, it’s quite interesting and was probably very novel in its time. Rousseau is clearly a gifted writer, and I enjoyed the excessive, convoluted, flowery style of his prose. It seemed in tandem with the rambling, chaotic, stream-of-consciousness content in this work. He establishes from the very beginning that he wrote this for himself, as a form of self-reflection and, in some ways, self-retribution. It’s all typical diary entry stuff; there’s very little narrative structure to be found here, no clear direction in any of his Reveries (he starts each essay writing on a particular topic, only to inevitably yield to whatever other topics spring to mind as he does). Lots of repetition, contradictions, and confusing elements that really only make sense if you’re familiar with Rousseau’s biography and other works. It makes about as much sense as any of the entries found in my own journals – which is fine, since that is essentially what this is.

Even in our keenest pleasures there is scarcely a single moment of which the heart could truthfully say: ‘Would that this moment could last for ever!’ And how can we give the name of happiness to a fleeting state which leaves our hearts still empty and anxious, either regretting something that is past or desiring something that is yet to come?

My biggest gripe is to do with whether or not I empathize with Rousseau’s meditations. It’s easy to accuse him of having a persecution complex, but if you keep in mind the violence and hostility he suffered prior to his self-imposed exile, he isn’t necessarily exaggerating or imagining all of the reasons he has for being so paranoid. This is the mind of a man who was alienated by society and now attempts to find reprieve in nature and solitude. A lot of it comes off as him trying to convince himself that he’s content with his situation, but evidence of his inability to leave the past behind bleeds through the pages anyway. He continuously claims that he doesn’t care about people’s opinions or the injustice they’ve inflicted on him, only to then launch into extensive tirades about why they’re all the worst and how misunderstood his poor soul is. There’s an inane amount of self-pitying, although it does eventually give way to attempts at rising above his situation. I have to say that this sentiment did not come across as entirely convincing to me, which I’m guessing is the product of Rousseau’s own lack of conviction that he is as serene as he claims to be. He says that he has “seldom related what is praise-worthy” in himself, yet over the course of his Walks he refers to himself as being “humane, benevolent, and charitable”, as well as saying “I am good, and do nothing but what is right”. Contradictions such as these are peppered all over his recollections; it raises the question of whether he failed to see them as such, or if he glossed over them due to a refusal to perceive things as they are. The paradox between the tendency of humans to vacillate between self-awareness and its complete opposite is perfectly captured here.

To say that this was enjoyable to read might be a stretch. He does churn out some very insightful aphorisms and ideas, though these are somewhat difficult to isolate from the wider pool of chaos that his Reveries contain. He suggests that untruths are excusable under certain conditions and even refuses to refer to them as lies, but rather fictions. Strangely, despite his hatred for lying, he realizes that he has never experienced remorse for these inventions and seeks to understand why. This leads to him deconstructing the definition of a lie: “concealing a truth we ought to divulge is to lie”, yet when we who is “not bound to speak the truth, advances the contrary” we are not lying. Do we have an obligation to the truth if not always bound by it? Rousseau reaches the conclusion that it’s possible for untruths to exist without weighing on the conscience. This is achieved when one conceals truths that have no utility or effect on anyone – without the intention to deceive.

In all the ills that befall us, we are more concerned by the intention than the result. A tile that falls off a roof may injure us more seriously, but it will not wound us so deeply as a stone thrown deliberately by a malevolent hand. The blow may miss, but the intention always strikes home.

That being said: his sadness, dismay, and bitterness with the world is so pathetic and pitiful that I couldn’t help feeling sorry for him. I don’t know enough about his life to judge whether he truly deserved all that befell him, but I think most people will be able to relate in some way to his expressions of anxiety and loneliness in the world.

I was made for life, and am dying without having enjoyed any of it.

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