When I hear the word reverie I think distracted, abstract daydreaming: unfinished thoughts and sentences, an ebb and flow in the dreamer’s focus – a languid state and free of care. It’s probable that the actual inner-thoughts of Jean-Jacques Rousseau operated in this way: one moment musing on the distinction between Happiness and Contentment, the next observing – but not thinking consciously of – a butterfly resting on a petal. At some point on his wanderings, I’m sure his tummy grumbled or he was niggled by a stone in his shoe – all the while ruminating on Mortality or a life half lived.
The Reveries of the Solitary Walker were written between 1776 and 1778, however. Though his mind may have flitted from one focus to another, it was more than one hundred years before Édouard Dujardin would write Les Lauriers sont coupés (The Laurels Are Cut Down; We’ll to the Woods No More) introducing literature to interior monologue from which the Modernists would derive stream of consciousness and a move away from exposition and unadulterated rational thoughts.
Rousseau’s ‘reveries’ are rather carefully crafted, methodical essays that take a thought or query and follow it to a logical conclusion. They’re more formal and structured, less playful and daydreamy than I hoped for.. It’s not what I was expecting, though I should have known better given the period of its production. There are some beautifully crafted sentences and passages – his passion for botany and the natural world is never far from his thoughts – though I soon grew weary of the woe-is-me afflicted exile attitude. I have no truck with whiners, especially those of “a man who has dedicated himself to idleness.”
Yet, there is much to think about in this slim book of ten essays or ‘walks’, particularly on the nature of happiness versus contentment. In the past few years, I have myself come to his way of seeking sustainable, quiet contentment over the mad pursuit of transient thrills. I hope I succeed better than poor Jean-Jacques; though he claims to have found peace and contentment in his solitude, I never quite believed him. Which is entirely in keeping with his belief that no single state can prevail – though we should do our best to appreciate those moments when we feel this moment could and should last forever:
Happiness is a lasting state which does not seem to be made for man in this world. Everything here on earth is in a constant state of flux which allows nothing to assume any constant form. All things change round about us, we ourselves change, and no one can be sure of loving tomorrow what he loves today. All our plans of happiness in this life are therefore empty dreams. Let us make the most of peace of mind when it comes to us, taking care to do nothing to drive it away, but not making plans to hold it fast, since such plans are sheer folly.