Rousseau’s Mind

I’m not sure if “mind” is exactly the word I’m looking for–is there a word that combines the sense of “mind” & “personality? Style, maybe. In the Confessions, Rousseau writes, “I have a passionate temperament, and lively and headstrong emotions. Yet my thoughts arise slowly and confusedly, and are never ready till too late” (113). I’ve certainly felt this way all my life and one of the things that draws me to the Confessions is the sense that I am reading about myself. Rousseau, looking back on his life, discerns traits I recognize looking back on my own life. He tells us that he can only speak fluently to a sympathetic auditor: “My heart loved to expand, provided there was another heart to listen. But dry and cold questionings, without any sign of approval or blame, gave me no confidence” (84).  Ah, so this is not my failing alone! He goes on:

But I do not suffer from this combination of quick emotion and slow thoughts only in company. I know it too when I am alone and when I am working. Ideas take shape in my head with the most incredible difficulty. They go round in slow circles and ferment, agitating me and overheating me till my heart palpitates. During this stir of emotion I can see nothing clearly, and cannot write a word; I have to wait. Insensibly all this tumult grows quiet, the chaos subsides, and everything falls into place, but slowly, and after long and confused perturbations (113).

For a long time I thought this described the mental processes of all writers, but then I met writers who said they merely transcribed what they already knew rather than having to figure things out during the actual process of writing. I suspect most poets are like me (and Rousseau), but I won’t presume to speak for fiction writers. Often, I have the sense that it is the language itself thinking through me. The main consequence of this is that it take me forever to write anything. I’m among the least prolific poets I know even though I am writing pretty much all the time. Lately, I have been able to write some extended prose–a whole conference paper!–but proset is always a grind, exactly as Rousseau describes.


Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau

How can I have made it to age sixty-one without having read Rousseau’s Confessions? Before coming to Vietnam, never knowing what I’ll want to read while traveling, I downloaded several free e-books of “classic” (in the advertising sense of the term) texts, The Complete Works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau among them.

I also filled the Kindle with more than a shelf-full of serious fiction and even some poetry (which seems wrong, somehow, as e-text), but during the long flight between Frankfurt & Singapore, the Rousseau somehow bobbed to the surface of the electronic sea. I think I may have begun reading the Confessions sometime earlier, perhaps as an assigned text in college, but I’d never got a sense of the man’s voice until I was forty thousand feet above Central Europe. The text I have is that of the Penguin edition, translated by J.M. Cohen. The English sentences are graceful and wonderfully fluent, catching what must be something of the conversational  style of the original. The author of the Confessions is a sort of Prince Mishkin without the Russian angst. Dostoevsky must certainly have read this book, what with his interest in Christ-like innocence.  I’ve been dipping into the text a bit each day, following the young Rousseau for a few of his adventures, and then putting him aside to return refreshed to other work.

What strike me most strongly about the Confessions is that every word & sentence is saturated with a kind of longing for the lost world of childhood. Even when Rousseau is presenting his own childhood, there is a strong elegiac feel to the descriptions, a kind of pre-nostalgia. The adult Rousseau looking back on his life, I think, is writing himself back to that state of innocence. It’s a funny sort of innocence, too–that has a knowing quality about it. Mostly, though, we the innocence is perceptual and social. The boy Rousseau sees everything–including pretty young women–with an absolutely fresh eye; and this innocence of his observations of social relations is devastating, laying bare hypocrisy without the least sense of the judgmental. What a remarkable intelligence.


The Sentence as a Miniature Narrative –

The Sentence as a Miniature Narrative – Sentences are hot right now. The writer’s Chronicle had a terrible essay, Stanley Fish wrote an okay book, but this series of articles looks promising. I’m always trying to get my students to pay attention to sentences, but they mostly take them for granted, just the plastic cup that holds the beer.

Nine-Headed Dragon River by Peter Matthiessen

I’ve been a fan of Peter Mathiessen’s since I discovered At Play in the Fields of the Lord in the 1970s. Unlike many of his admirers, though, I think I have liked his fiction better than his non-fiction. Maybe I just have a problem with “environmental writing” that spends most of its energy in describing the environment. I already know that the Himalayan wilderness is beautiful — I’m not sure what pasting words over it really accomplishes, except inviting a kind of smug moral complicity on the part of the reader. Well, that’s hyperbole, but I nevertheless prefer a writer like John McPhee, who tends to focus more on the human presence within the environment. Perhaps I am too on guard against sentimentality to appreciate real sentiment sufficiently.

In any event, Mathiessen’s book of Zen journals has several passages of very clear exposition of Zen principles, but much of this — as one would expect from a journal — emerges from very fine-grained and small scale descriptions of the writer’s interactions with his teachers and — especially in the third section of the book — his travels around Japan visiting various Soto temples. This final part contains some of the best “Zen writing” but also tends to get lost in paragraphs of landscape painting and descriptions of peripheral Soto places & personalities. My own preference is for Mathiessen’s historical anecdotes, as opposed to his contemporary accounts. For instance, in Chapter 11, visiting the Engaku-ji Temple in Kamakura, he relates the story of the 13th century nun Chiyono, who attained enlightenment while hauling water. Apparently, she had been studying a long time without experiencing kensho, but one evening her wooden bucket gave way & she “understood the great matter,” to paraphrase Master Dogen. To commemorate the event, she wrote a poem:

In this way and that I tried to save the old pail
Since the bamboo strip was weakening and about to break
Until at last the bottom fell out.
No more water in the pail!
No more moon in the water!

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