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Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

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Thursday, August 13, 2009

a walk of her own


I have not been entirely happy with the way I am developing the theme of solitude in the previous posts – perhaps I am simply bumping against the limit of developing an idea in the hit and run of a blog. I have been concerned from the outset not to make this another totalizing history – that melancholy child of universal history, but here and there, I do just that, or make just those gestures, impose unconsciously the manicheanism of the sides, of the bad and the good in deathgrapple. To shake this out of one’s head is an intellectual victory that is never enough, for it creeps back in the next day. So it goes.

I started out with Marie D’Agoult’s account of the revolutionary tradition in achieving women’s rights – which, appropriately enough, is found in her history of the revolution of 1848. The trend line, here – in as much as the trend line is under my control – is to try to show something about women and the culture of happiness. This is vitally important, as, from one perspective, one could say that the culture of happiness has been uncommonly favorable to women – bourgeois women, peasant women, proletariat women. The aliens from happiness culture, in fact, often seem to suffer from nasty cases of misogyny.

And yet and yet… In the turn towards the republican idea in the 18th century, as Maria D’Agoult notes, women were left out. There is an old tradition of blaming Rousseau for this or that aspect of the French revolution, and it always does something that I am careful not to do, erasing the mediation between intellectual and social history. But there is, as I’ve pointed out, a moment in Rousseau’s work in which both D’Agoult’s criticism and the countering idea, that Rousseau was actually an enlightened figure with regard to women, both have some justification. Examining that moment, in which the difference between men and women speaks in a new way, and the equality between men and women is foreclosed upon in an old way, brings to light a theme that is separated from Rousseau’s political and cultural politics – the theme of solitude. Todorov, for instance, speaks of Rousseau’s notion of solitude as an exception that applies to Jean-Jacques alone, or at least to the rare extra-societal figure. That notion of solitude, conveniently enough, conflates the solitary with the stranger. I have already, in several posts in 2997 and 2008, alluded to the importance of the adventurer in understanding the libertine fissure in the old order - the adventurer who loiters about the village economy, the society of the limited good, the dependence of the little on the great tradition. The adventurer who sails the ocean with his fevers, and destroys populations. The adventurer who becomes a politician in the late nineteenth century.

Like the adventurer, the solitary is not a type categorized by any division of labor. I’m concerned – and here I depart from Rousseau, having taken a hint – though, with solitude as an existential and original condition that founds equality. It is at this moment, in this dream of an exceptional solitude, that an almost unnoticeable division occurs between solitude and individuality. Intellectual historians have noticed that individualism – a word that was first coined in France at the end of the eighteenth century – connoted something disrespectable and a-social up to about the 1830s. Solitude was, of course, eclipsed by individualism. That eclipse inflects, in particular, the history of women. In founding equality on access to solitude, one is not promoting a lifestyle of solitude. Rather, one is promoting the kind of community that allows, in its very structure, access to solitude as one of the basic interstices of the moral life. It is not the community of the hermit or the shut in, but as a possibility available to every member of the community to walk unseen. To change the title of Virginia Woolf’s essay slightly – an essay about the lack of solitude for women, by the way - equality for women means, here, ‘a walk of her own.’ A solitary promenade of her own.

Rousseau was not, of course, the first to discover the conjunction of daydream, meditation, walking, and solitude. There is a famous letter from Descartes to Guez de Balzac, written in 1631, about the solitary walk. It has been translated a number of times into English – some of the translations are a little bizarre. I’m going to translate the famous bits here, and then – I’m going to move on. I want to go to Madame de Stael and Jane Austin next.

On to Descartes, then.

Guez de Balzac was a school friend from La Fleche. He has now fallen into obscurity even in France, and was never very famous in the English speaking world. His fame in the seventeenth century was as a refiner of the language, a rhetor. Or a corruptor of the language – as Stephen Gaukroger points out, Balzac’s style was the court style. In 1631, the court was on a collision course with the nobility – the proto-Fronde. And the Fronde was friendly to the Gassendi circle. Frondeurs were prominent patrons of Epicurian thought. Moliere’s Dom Juan is definitely a Frondeur.

Descartes’ letter to Balzac begins with a movement that startles us, so much does it evoke the Descartes of the Meditations:

“I lifted up my hand against my eyes to see if I was not dreaming when I read in your letter that you had a plan to come here, and still I dare not rejoice at the news otherwise than as if I had only dreamt it: however, I don’t find it strange that an intellect (esprit) as great and generous as your own cannot accommodate itself to these servile constraints to which one is obligated in the court; and since you sincerely assure me that God has inspired you to quit the world, I would consider myself to sin against the Holy Spirit if I tried to turn you from your holy resolution; but you must pardon my zeal if I press you to chose Amsterdam for your retreat, and to prefer it, I wouldn’t say not only to all the convents of the capuchins and chartists, where necessarily good men do retire, but also to the most beautiful spots in France and Italy, and even to that celebrated hermitage in which you stayed last year. However well stocked a country house, it always lacks an infinity of commodities which are only found in the cities; and the solitude that one hopes to find there is never quite perfectly encountered after all. I’d like to see you find a canal that would make the greatest talkers daydream, a valley so solitary that it can inspire them to transports and joy; but unfortunately, it can also be the case that you will have a quantity of little neighbors that will importune you on occasion, and whose visits are more discommoding than those you receive in Paris: instead in the great city where I live, there being no man except me who is not engaged in the market, each is so attentive to his profit that I can remain there all my life without being seen by anyone. I go walking every day among the confusion of a mass of people with as much liberty and repose that attends you in your country lanes; and I never consider the people that I encounter otherwise than I would the trees I would meet in a forest, or the animals I would pass there; even the noise of their tumults no longer interrupts my reveries any more than they would be interrupted by some stream: and if I makes some reflection on their actions, it is with the same pleasure that you have to see the peasants who cultivate your countrysides; for I see that all their work serves to embellish the place of my residence, and to make it the case that I lack nothing. If you find pleasure to see the fruits in your vineyards growing and to exist there in such abundance under your eyes, don’t you think that there is as much to see coming here ships which carry us abundantly all the products of the Indies, and everything that is rare in Europe? What other place could one chose in any other part of the world where all the commodities of life and all the curiosities that could be wished for are as easy to discover as here? In what other country can one enjoy such entire liberty, where one can sleep with less inquietude, where there are always armed men on foot expressly to guard you, where poisonings, betrayals and calumnies are least known, and where there still exists remants of the innocence of our ancestors?”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

In the Discourse on Method, Descartes explains that he is writing in French because he would like to be understood by women...

Amie