A review of The Reveries of the Solitary Walker, by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, translated by Charles E. Butterworth
The only other English translation in print is the 1927 edition by John Gould Fletcher. In the introduction to his translation Fletcher expressed his opinion that Rousseau’s position “was indeed governed by error.” He went on to say that “the error Rousseau made was based on a confusion of the values of society with the values of truth-it is essentially the same mistake as that made by Plato, when he supposed that a human society based on justice and truth could exist.” Leaving aside the question of whether Fletcher’s criticism of Rousseau has any foundation or merit at all, it is doubtful that a translator who evinces such a lack of sympathy or respect for the author he is translating will devote the time and care it takes to produce an accurate and reliable rendition of his text. Fletcher’s translation of the Reveries testifies to this. Fletcher divides and joins Rousseau’s sentences at will, just as he creates new paragraphs and destroys old ones at will. Although his translation is for the most part literal, no warnings are given that certain French words carry nuances of meaning not expressed by the English words that replace them. Nor is there a consistent effort to translate key words in French with the same English words, nor even any attempt to point out these words and explain their meaning. Connections in thought between various parts of the work are thus lost in the translation, and the reader cannot be certain whether what he is reading comes from Rousseau or from Fletcher.
The Butterworth translation is animated by a different spirit. This new translation is based upon a complete review of the original manuscripts of the Reveries. Butterworth has included a discussion of these manuscripts in an appendix to the book. There is a short Preface that outlines the major events in Rousseau’s life. There is also a longer Interpretive Essay at the end which attempts to understand the teaching of the Reveries through a close scrutiny of the arguments it presents, and through a comparison of these arguments with those found in Rousseau’s other works. Butterworth also provides notes at the end of each Reverie that serve to identify people, places, or incidents mentioned in the text, or that serve to illuminate difficulties with the text or the meaning of a particular word or phrase.
The only fault I find with the Butterworth edition is in the translation itself. Butterworth’s stated goal was “to transmit the sense of Rousseau’s prose and of his exceptional style.” However both these goals could not always be achieved, and “in the inevitable conflicts between accuracy and felicity of expression, the former always prevailed.” Yet after comparing the translation with the original text, one wonders if accuracy wouldn’t have been better served by a more dogged literalness.
Rousseau’s prose is elegant and flowing, but he is nevertheless precise. Rousseau himself candidly revealed how precisely he wrote in the draft of a letter to a critic of his First Discourse. “Often I have taken considerable trouble to try to enclose in a sentence, in a line, in a word thrown out seemingly at random, the result of a long chain of reflections.” If the translator even once sacrifices the precision of literalness for gracefulness of expression, he runs the risk of doing so when Rousseau may have been purposely precise, even if not apparently so. Butterworth has laudably attempted “to translate key words in a consistent manner even when such lexical fidelity resulted in less than lyrical English.” It would have been useful to provide a list of such words, or to indicate their appearance in the text.
The Reveries was Rousseau’s last work. He was still in the process of writing it when he died in 1778. Indeed it might not be proper to consider it one of Rousseau’s “works,” not only because it remains uncompleted, but also because Rousseau claimed to have written it not for the public but solely for himself. He intended it as a kind of memoir to be read over in his old age when his powers of imagination and memory were fading. However, in a real sense it completes the Rousseauian corpus, for it offers reflections on man and nature which complement and enlarge those found in the rest of his works.
The dominant theme of the Reveries is solitude. Rousseau claims to know solitude in his later years not because he withdraws voluntarily from the madding crowd, from the perpetual turbulence and vain striving of men in society, but because the ill-conceived hatred and bitter animosity of his contemporaries has forced him to withdraw. Effectively ostracized by his fellow-men as an atheistic monster and an enemy of humanity, Rousseau turns his thoughts away from the injustices others have done him. He seeks instead to know himself, to understand what he is by himself. Through this introspection he produces in the Reveries a kind of self-portrait, as he had done in the Confessions. But the Reveries are not simply a continuation of the Confessions, for in the Reveries Rousseau is no longer interested in justifying himself to the public. The point of departure for the Reveries is Rousseau’s enforced solitude and the reflections on man and nature that occur to him on account of his new condition of isolation.
His new condition, it turns out, is not altogether as distressing as it first appears. However involuntary his solitude may have been, Rousseau discovers that he is singularly made for solitude. Unlike other men, he can leave society without his soul remaining attached to it. He can live alone without being lonely. In fact he discovers that happiness, which is the object of man’s restless activity in society, lies not in anything that can be found in society, but rather in the contemplative bliss known only to the man who has withdrawn from society. Rousseau backs up this assertion with a moving depiction of his life as a solitary on Saint Peter’s Island in Switzerland. “The charms of the solitary life, such as Rousseau presents them, constitute a praise of solitude that has no equal, before or since.” Perhaps the closest thing it could be compared to is Aristotle’s account of the “marvelously pure and lasting pleasures” of philosophic contemplation, in the tenth book of his Nicomachean Ethics. For although Aristotle’s understanding of contemplation is quite different from Rousseau’s, both men see their solitary activities as an imitation of the self-sufficiency and happiness attributed to the Divinity. One could even understand Rousseau’s work in the Reveries as an attempt to find a substitute for Aristotle’s contemplation of the unchanging natural order, of the whole which is governed by mind and hence is intelligible. Rousseau did not share Aristotle’s view of the universe; he seems instead to have accepted the modern mechanistic explanation of nature’s workings. The contemplation of this nature seems to inspire less enthusiasm. It is even depressing and repugnant, for it implies that nothing in our world is eternal, and reminds us that the death we face is a total one. The solitary reverie is in a way an escape from this hideous act. Its key ingredient is imagination, not reason. What Rousseau experiences in his exile, what constitutes the true charm and happiness of his life, is not concentrated thought which he sees as painful exertion. Rather it is sweet day-dreams which the imagination produces when, prompted by pleasant sights or gentle, rhythmic sounds, it lets itself go to wander where it will.
The Reveries is read most often by students in literature courses, as one of the classic works that inspired the Romantic Movement. They do not, for the most part, read the political works of Rousseau. Students of political science on the other hand rarely venture outside of Rousseau’s political works. This is somewhat understandable. The two Rousseaus seem to have little to do with one another. The austere republican who defends virtue and patriotism seems to have nothing in common with the idle dreamer who returns to the wholeness of the natural state all on his own. Yet the real challenge in understanding Rousseau is, if not to reconcile these two extremes, at least to find the common basis for them, to discover the underlying principle or principles that explain them both. The Reveries should thus be most stimulating to students of Rousseau’s political thought, for they raise the most perplexing questions about that thought.