Rousseau and Mrs. Bennet

“But I can assure you,: she added, ‘that Lizzy does not lose much by not suiting his fancy; for he is a most disagreeable, horrid man, and not at all worth pleasing.”
- Mrs. Bennet, commenting on Darcy’s behavior at the ball at which he and Elizabeth Bennett met in Pride and Prejudice.

According to a German sociologist, Harald Uhlendorff, Einsamkeit – which we can translate as solitude, or loneliness (although Alleinsein might work better for the latter) had a mostly positive use in the fifties. In the sixties, however, it began to accrue negative meanings, and is now, Uhlendorff claimed, seldom used except to denote something sad, some condition from which one would want to get away. (Wege zum Selbst, 226-227) My notes on solitude seem to entirely ignore this, besides going against the notion that the self is a social construct.

Unless I have to, I don’t like lifting a word from the mainstream of ordinary life and endowing it with special meanings. In the case of solitude, however, I think my notion of the state is well rooted in a tradition. I have not, unfortunately, read Barthes lectures on “how to live together” – I’ve only read Diana Knight’s essay on it – but from Knight, I think that Barthes, too, was after some sense of solitude that reconnected it to a tradition – for instance, that of renunciation. Myself, I’d mark a break between the Christian notion of the hermit, the person who suspends the human appetites, and Rousseau’s vision of solitude. Of course, in the first of his reveries as a solitary walker, he tells us that the solitude he seeks is reactive – it is in reaction to his disappointment with all of human society. Yet he soon develops another track, a more fruitful one, I think, of solitude as being not so much in reaction to human society as in reaction to the imperative to be of use. Solitude is the mode in which he daydreams; these daydreams are of no use to anybody. It is here, I think, that we start to meet with a form of existence that has more than a reactive force. Against Rousseau’s own cautions, I do not take the Reveries as the expression of an exception – rather, I take them as founding the possibility of a useless existence. A moment, that is, of pure uselessness – much like the oak tree in the Daoist tale I’ve referred to more than once, here.

Solitude not as communion with God, or the giving up of the appetites, and thus a form of socially instituted continuity, but as daydream, wandering and uselessness, existing below any social institution, never determined by any regime of the division of labor – this, I want to say, somewhat paradoxically, is an essential element of republican equality. This solitude, I’m going to maintain, is what is taken from women – the first and greatest theft of the patriarchy. Solitude is exactly what Rousseau does not want to restore to women.

Now, I want to be clear that sexism here isn’t something Rousseau invents. It does take a new form, a new arbitrariness, after Rousseau. Marie D’agoult is quite right to reproach Rousseau for wanting to raise women to be vain; however, Rousseau is merely assimilating a dominant theme in the prevailing old order – that of the woman as companion. This was taken from ordinary speech. My quote from Pride and Prejudice is not to show how Rousseau influenced Mrs. Bennett, but to show how the Mrs. And Mr. Bennett’s of the world influenced Rousseau. Indeed, I could walk up the street to the grocery store and find Mrs. Bennett’s assumptions staring me in the face from twenty magazines.

I’m going to write about Todorov’s essay, Living Together Alone, in the next post.


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