It is always a grand effort to speak of a historical text. especially when it comes to reviewing one. Don’t get me wrong. I do not, for instance, mean a text written in the now, basing itself in an historical moment, elaborating characters with an attempt at historical accuracy, events being traced through accounts of the time, and so on. The difficulty I face at this point comes from a slightly different circumstance.
Usually, one finds academic reviews on texts written, in say, the 18th century, in journals which may have decided to base an issue around a particular era, or theme, asking for papers from interested writers months in advance, after which the writers would send in their particualar works to the journal in order to be peer-reviewed and hopefully, eventually, published.
This is primarily due to the fact that a newspaper is expected to publish reviews on “contemporary” works, leaving the “critical” reading of said historical texts to the slightly wayward space that academia has come to occupy. But this could also be due to the way texts written long ago - a vague enough terminology of time past/passed as it is - are usually categorised and placed in the consumer market.
Whether it be Penguin, Oxford, or any of the other big names in the publishing industry these books are generally published under their “Classics” imprints.
As if somehow suggesting that these books are obviously worthwhile reading, so there is no need to further deliberate on the same. I actually remember in my brief stint in the publishing sector overhearing a senior member of the editorial team suggesting that ‘Gone With The Wind’ needs no blurb at the back of the book cover, since if people had not already heard of the book, there would be no point for that person to even pick up the book in the first place.
Strangely enough, that is not how I remember coming across said “Classics” in my youth. My school library, you see, had very little money to purchase, or replace, new books, and oftentimes, and I’m glad for the fact, used similar looking covers for said classics, with year of publication dates being smudgy blurs in the center of the print publication page towards the beginning of a book.
Inadvertently, till someone, usually my librarian, or mother, pointed out the obvious, I would read all novels, medical or legal documents, as contemporary works. Which brings one to reconsider the necessity of redefining what one means as the “contemporary”, in the first place.
Everyone who encounters Jean-Jacques Rousseau usually does so through Emile, The Social Contract, or his Confessions, but hardly anyone I’ve met has even heard of the Reveries of the Solitary Walker, essentially, his last work, written between 1776-78, at the cusp of social processes which would become the French Revolution as we now know, all too well.
This book, however, is not solely about the society that Rousseau had come to understand, which in turn had come to misunderstand him. It is the final work of a man, who, having been ostracised by his friends, learns to walk once again. In this way, for instance, this book is terribly contemporary.
“God is just; his will is that I should suffer, and he knows my innocence. That is what gives me confidence. My heart and my reason cry out that I shall not be disappointed. 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.”
Rousseau became one of the first people to mark out the difference between loneliness, and the will to be solitary. A difference, which we, citizens of the 21st Century, forget all too often. Unfortunate for Rousseau, this critical assesement was forced upon him by circumstances which he could do nothing to change any more. Rousseau, finding himself in this solitude, began to walk, and the ten walks he documents, become mediums for his reveries.
Each of his walks, take us, the readers, through his reflections on everything from his burgeoning interest in botany, to the ills that man commits in the name of development, to a self-reflection which enlists all his previous books as moments in his own development as an individual.
The anxiety he felt writing his previous books, and having them misunderstood now leads him, in his old age, to peace.
“Let men spy on my actions, let them be alarmed at these papers, seize them, suppress them, falsify them, from now on it is the same to me. I neither hide nor display them. If they are taken from during my lifetime, I shall not lose the pleasure of having written them, nor the memory of what they contain, nor the solitary meditations which inspired them and whose source will never dry up as long as I live.” We tend to feel out of place, a step out of time, often enough for us to not be surprised by Rousseau’s reveries, but it is a comfort nonetheless, when that anxiety is felt reverberated through the fabric of time and place, from 18th Century France, to present day everywhere.
These are walks we need to take with him, to learn to take walks by ourselves, and for ourselves, for it is our selves that we tend to leave out of everyone else’s stories. You don’t need to necessarily be close to the end of life to pick up these unread classics and remark at the quality of insight.
All you would need, is a glass of water, an open door, footsteps leading outwards from your offices, and the will to see while looking, and listen while hearing. Take off those covers from the books you hold in your hand, and walk, in the contemporary.