In Search of A/The Point of Life

REVERIES OF A SOLITARY RUNNER I: Following the footsteps of Rousseau and his final work, Reveries of a Solitary Walker (1776-1778)

One of the images we collected in our solitary runs - a picture of peace and a fecal-matter-smeared wall and the defecator in Nondon.

The philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote Reveries of the Solitary Walker (Les reveries du promeneur solitaire) between 1776-1778. When he died in 2 July 1778 at the age of 66, the work remained incomplete. The autobiographical series of essays is structured as 10 walks that Rousseau undertook in Paris alone. The work was written just after Rousseau ’emerged from the darkest passages of his life’ (says Peter France in the introduction to this 2004 Penguin edition, which we read at the Waterstones at Gower Street in Nondon one difficult midmorning), after many years of exile. During these final 2 years of his life, Rousseau felt misunderstood and unhappy. Rather than a work that is about walking, or has walking as a subject matter, Rousseau uses the act of walking as a medium, as a form, to express his final thoughts, before his death. Although Rousseau was not a runner, we identify with his sentiments as a solitary wanderer, and especially so in these unshiny days of ours. Bitter but at peace with himself (or rather resigned to his fate, whatever ‘fate’ might mean), Rousseau’s contemplations remind us of those of the other hermit-philosopher-poets, EM Cioran and Fernando Pessoa. We are also reminded of Viktor Sjostrom’s character in Ingmar Bergamn’s powerful Wild Strawberries (1957), who is also a bitter man looking back at his past, laden with regrets. While there is a salvaging epiphany at the end of the film/road-movie of sorts (and much quiet humour – Bergman or Scandinavian style, if we could say so? – throughout the film – some of which Woody Allen later played up), it is a nicely dark and murky. This is one of our favourite works of art of all times that continues to haunt us all these years and lifetimes, to our death(s). As Rousseau expresses in Emile (published 1762): ‘Every attachment is a sign of insufficiency […] A truly happy being is a solitary being.’ As we draft ours, Rousseau’s pre-death message in the Reveries of a Solitary Walker enables us to feel a certain delirium – as much as despair and desperation:

WALK 1

Everything is finished for me on earth. People can no longer do good or evil to me here. I have nothing more to hope for or to fear in this world; and here I am, tranquil at the bottom of the abyss, a poor unfortunate mortal, but unperturbed, like God Himself.

A recent event as sad as it was unexpected has finally extinguished this feeble ray of hope and shown me that my earthly destiny is irrevocably fixed for all time. Since then, I have resigned myself utterly and recovered my peace of mind.

…realizing eventually that all my efforts were in vain and my self-torment of no avail, I took the only course left to me, that of submitting to my fate and ceasing to fight against the inevitable. This resignation has made up for all my trials by the peace of mind it brings me, a peace of mind incompatible with the unceasing exertions of a struggle as painful as it was unavailing.

Even physical suffering would take my mind off my misfortunes rather than adding to them. Perhaps the cries of pain would save me the groans of unhappiness, and the laceration of my body would prevent that of my heart.

Actual misfortunes have little effect on me; it is easy for me to accept those which I suffer in reality, but not those which I fear. My fevered imagination builds them up, works on them, magnifies them, and inspects them from every angle. They are far more of a torment to me imminent than present; the threat is far more worse than the blow. As soon as they happen, they lose all the terrors lent to them by imagination and appear in their true size. I find them far less formidable than I had feared, and even in the midst of my suffering I feel a sort of relief. In this state, freed from all further fear and from the anxieties of hope, I shall learn from mere habit to accept ever more easily a situation which can grow no worse; and as my awareness of it is dulled by time they can find no further way of reviving it. So much good my persecutors have done me by recklessly pouring out all the shafts of their hatred. They have deprived themselves of any power over me and henceforward I can laugh at them.

Everything external is henceforth foreign to me. I no longer have any neighbours, fellow-men, or brothers in this world. I live here as in some strange planet on to which I have fallen from the one I knew. All around me I can recognize nothing but objects which afflict and wound my heart, and I cannot look at anything that is close to me or round about me without discovering some subject for indignant scorn or painful emotion. Let me therefore detach my mind from these afflicting sights; they would only cause me pain, and to no end. Alone for the rest of my life, 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.

WALK 2

These hours of solitude and meditation are the only ones in the day during which I am fully myself and for myself, without diversion, without obstacle, and during which I can truly claim to be what nature willed.

Today there is more recollection than creation in the products of my imagination, a tepid languor saps all my faculties, the vital spirit is gradually dying down within me, my soul no longer flies up without effort from its decaying prison of flesh, and were it not for the hope of a state to which I aspire because I feel that it is mine by right, I should now live only in the past. Thus if I am to contemplate myself before my decline, I must go back several years to the time when, losing all hope for this life and finding no food left on earth for my soul, I gradually learnt to feed it on its own substance and seek all its nourishment within myself.

The country was still green and pleasant, but it was deserted and many of the leaves had fallen; everything gave an impression of solitude and impending winter. This picture evoked mixed feelings of gentle sadness which were too closely akin to my age and my experience for me not to make the comparison. I saw myself at the close of an innocent and unhappy life, with a soul still full of intense feelings and a mind still adorned with a few flowers, even if they were already blighted by sadness and withered by care. Alone and neglected, I could feel the approach of the first frosts and my failing imagination no longer filled my solitude with beings formed after the desires of my heart. Sighing I said to myself: What have I done in this world? I was created to live, and I am dying without having lived.

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.

WALK 3

Secluded meditation, the study of nature, and contemplation of the universe force a solitary person to search with tender concern for the purpose in everything he sees and the cause of everything he feels.

When death is already at the door, is it worth learning how we should have lived?

The sad truth that time and reason have revealed to me in making me aware of my misfortune, has convinced me that there is no remedy and that resignation is my only course. Thus all the experience of my old age is of no use to me in my present state, nor will it help me in the future.

Since the days of my youth I had fixed on the age of forty as the end of my efforts to succeed, the final term of my various ambitions. I had the firm intention, when I reached this age, of making no further effort to climb out of whatever situation I was in and of spending the rest of my life living from day to day with no thought for the future. When the time came I carried out my plan without difficulty, and although my fortune at the time seemed to be on the point of changing permanently for the better, it was not only without regret but with real pleasure that I gave up these prospects. In shaking off all these lures and vain hopes, I abandoned myself entirely to the nonchalant tranquillity which has always been my dominant taste and most lasting inclination. I quitted the world and its vanities, I gave up all finery–no more sword, no more watch, no more white stockings, gilt trimmings and powder, but a simple wig and a good solid coat of broadcloth–and what is more than all the rest, I uprooted from my heart the greed and covetousness which gave value to all I was leaving behind. I gave up the position I was then occupying, a position for which I was quite unsuited, and set myself to copying music at so much a page, an occupation for which I had always had a distinct liking.

All the sharpest torments lose their sting if one can confidently expect a glorious recompense, and the certainty of this recompense was the principal fruit of my earlier meditations.

WALK 5

Everything is in constant flux on this earth. Nothing keeps the same unchanging shape, and our affections, being attached to things outside us, necessarily change and pass away as they do. Always out ahead of us or lagging behind, they recall a past which is gone or anticipate a future which may never come into being; there is nothing solid there for the heart to attach itself to. Thus our earthly joys are almost without exception the creatures of a moment; I doubt whether any of us knows the meaning of lasting happiness. 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? But if there is a state where the soul can find a resting-place secure enough to establish itself and concentrate its entire being there, with no need to remember the past or reach into the future, where time is nothing to it, where the present runs on indefinitely but this duration goes unnoticed, with no sign of the passing of time, and no other feeling of deprivation or enjoyment, pleasure or pain, desire or fear than the simple feeling of existence, a feeling that fills our soul entirely, as long as this state lasts, we can call ourselves happy, not with a poor, incomplete and relative happiness such as we find in the pleasures of life, but with a sufficient, complete and perfect happiness which leaves no emptiness to be filled in the soul….What is the source of our happiness in such a state? Nothing external to us, nothing apart from ourselves and our own existence; as long as this state lasts we are self-sufficient like God. The feeling of existence unmixed with any other emotion is in itself a precious feeling of peace and contentment which would be enough to make this mode of being loved and cherished by anyone who could guard against all the earthly and sensual influences that are constantly distracting us from it in this life and troubling the joy it could give us. But most men being continually stirred by passion know little of this condition, and having only enjoyed it fleetingly and incompletely they retain no more than a dim and confused notion of it and are unaware of its true charm. Nor would it be desirable in our present state of affairs that the avid desire for these sweet ecstasies should give people a distaste for the active life which their constantly recurring needs impose upon them. But an unfortunate man who has been excluded from human society, and can do nothing more in this world to serve or benefit himself or others, may be allowed to seek in this state a compensation for human joys, a compensation which neither fortune nor mankind can take away from him.

WALK 6

I have never been truly suited for civil society, where everything is annoyance, obligation, and duty, … my naturally independent temperament always made me incapable of the subjection necessary to anyone who wants to live among men.

There are types of adversity which elevate and strengthen the soul, but there are others which depress and crush it; such is the one of which I am a victim. If there had been the slightest leaven of evil in my soul, this adversity would have fermented it to excess and driven me into a frenzy, but it only succeeded in reducing me to inactivity. Unable to do good to myself or anyone else, I abstain from acting; and this state, which is only blameless because I cannot avoid it, makes me find a sort of satisfaction in abandoning myself completely and without reproach to my natural inclination. No doubt I go too far, since I avoid opportunities for action even when I think nothing but good can come from them. But knowing that I am not allowed to see things as they are, I refrain from judging by the appearances my enemies give to things, and however alluring the motives for action may seem, it is enough that they have been left within my grasp for me to be sure they are deceptive.

I have never believed that man’s freedom consists in doing what he wants, but rather in never doing what he does not want to do, and this is the freedom I have always sought after and often achieved, the freedom by virtue of which I have most scandalized my contemporaries.

WALK 7

Seeking refuge in mother nature, I sought in her arms to escape the attacks of her children. I have become solitary, or, as they say, unsociable and misanthropic, because to me the most desolate solitude seems preferable to the society of wicked men which is nourished only in betrayals and hatred.

WALK 8

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.

Since by the light of reason I could see nothing but absurdities in the explanations I tried to give for everything that happened to me, I realized that, as all its causes and operations were unknown and incomprehensible to me, I should ignore them completely, that I should regard all the details of my fate as the workings of mere necessity, in which I should not seek to find any intention, purpose, or moral cause, that I must submit to it without argument or resistance since these were useless, that since all that was left to me on earth was to regard myself as a purely passive being, I should not waste the strength I needed to endure my fate in trying to fight against it. This was what I told myself. My reason and my heart assented, yet I could feel that my heart was not entirely satisfied. Whence came this dissatisfaction? I searched and found the answer: it came from my self-love, which, having waxed indignant against mankind, still rebelled against reason.

WALK 9

Happiness is a lasting state which does not seem to be made for man in this world. Everything here on earth is in a continual 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. I have seen few if any happy people, but I have seen many who were contented, and of all the sights that have come my way this is the one that has left me most contented myself.

…if my pleasures are brief and few in number, it is also true that when they come they give me an intenser enjoyment than if I were more used to them. I ruminate on them so to speak, turning them over frequently in my memory, and few as they are, if they were pure and unmixed, they would perhaps make me happier than in my days of prosperity. In extreme poverty a little is enough to make one rich; a beggar is gladder to find one gold coin than a rich man to find a purse full of money. People would laugh if they could see how my soul is affected by the slightest pleasures…

It is only when I am alone that I am my own master, at all other times I am the plaything of all who surround me.


WE ARE STILL RAISING MONEY FOR OUR RUN FOR SHELTER AT THE 2011 NONDON MARATHON  NEXT SUNDAY- PLEASE HELP! ANY AMOUNT IS APPRECIATED!

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