Like other places of personal importance for him, W.G. Sebald first saw the Île Saint-Pierre from above, during a hike in 1965. But it wasn’t until 1996 that he finally visited the small island in the middle of Lac de Bienne, where Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) found refuge for several weeks in 1765. Later, Rousseau would claim that the weeks he lived in two simple rooms on a sparsely inhabited island were the happiest days of his life. “J’aurois voulu que ce lac eût été l’Océan…”, the second chapter in A Place in the Country, newly translated by Jo Catling, is Sebald’s homage to Rousseau.
Why, it seems fair to ask at the outset, is the Swiss, French-speaking Rousseau included in a collection of essays otherwise devoted to German-speaking Swiss and Germans? I think there are at least three ways in which Sebald connected with Rousseau, and the first is place. “J’aurois voulu” is just as much about “Rousseau’s island” as it is about Rousseau. This is the only essay in A Place in the Country in which Sebald makes a pilgrimage to a site associated with the subject of the essay.
Sebald, like Rousseau,found Île Saint-Pierre an idyllic, restorative place. Living in the shadow of Rousseau, Sebald shared many of his subject’s reactions to the isolation and the closeness of nature. There, he found “a stillness such as is scarcely now to be found anywhere in the orbit of our civilized world.” (One senses a distinct irony in the word “civilized.”) In fact,the Île becomes a kind of Eden, “a paradise in miniature” and while he is there Sebald finds himself “transported back to an earlier age.” Just as, in the previous chapter, where Sebald found “a world in perfect equilibrium” in Hebel’s writing on the cultivation of fruit trees, so Sebald revels in Rousseau’s obsessive and patently impossible attempt to “botanize” and catalog every plant on Île Saint-Pierre during his brief stay.
Sebald also seems to empathize with some of Rousseau’s troubles as a writer. He suggests that it was Rousseau the writer who perhaps needed the respite even more than the Rousseau who was fleeing political persecution. Sebald notes that Rousseau would reach a “state of nervous exhaustion resulting from this manic activity” of extended writing. And what Sebald so ardently admires about Rousseau’s attempt to “botanize” the island was not so much the science or the learning involved, but the way in which this “demanding rationalistic project involving the compilation of lists, indices and catalogues” became a safety valve for a writer “plagued by the chronic need to think and work.” Just as Sebald had once “set off the walk the county of Suffolk” at the start of The Rings of Saturn to dispel the emptiness after “a long stint of work,”so Rousseau comes to the Île Saint-Pierre in “utter physical and mental exhaustion.”
Nevertheless, Sebald seems to have some reservations about Rousseau, whom he describes as “philosopher, novelist, autobiographer and inventor of the bourgeois cult of romantic sensibility.” It is this last role that speaks to Rousseau’s impractical side, which made him unable “to resolve the inherent contradiction between this nostalgic utopia and the inexorable march of progress towards the brink of the abyss.” The book by Rousseau on which Sebald spends the most space (four pages) is a political tract from 1765, the Projet de Constitution pour la Corse, in which Rousseau outlined how Corsica could become the place where the “evils of society” might be avoided if it would only keep to its agrarian ways and curtail urban development. Here, Sebald makes a very subtle connection with a theory of European history that he mentions in the first essay in A Place in the Country, devoted to Hebel, where he referred to a “deliberately politically incorrect essai” of 1996, in which Jean Dutourd suggested that it was, in fact, the French Revolution and the Pan-European destruction of the traditional ruling houses that opened the door to “an ever-accelerating maelstrom of destruction.” In “J’aurois voulu”, Sebald returns to this theme obliquely by reminding us that Rousseau lived in pre-Revolution, pre-Napoleonic days and by seeing, in Rousseau’s work on Corsica (Napoleon’s birthplace) a “terrifying,” if unconscious, prophecy of the events that will befall Europe. Finally, at the end of the essay, Sebald also reminds us that Rousseau’s philosophy helped drive the French Revolution and, as his casket was being transported from its former burial site to the Pantheon it “was covered by a wooden framework painted with the symbols of the Revolution,” a parade that was led (perhaps auspiciously) by a captain of the United States Navy. Thus, it is possible to see Sebald making some kind of connection – almost of cause and effect – between Rousseau’s Utopian vision and the tragic events that unfolded in the twentieth century.
Is it any surprise that Sebald should find a kindred spirit with someone who wrote Meditations of a Solitary Walker and who began the final volume of his Confessions with the the words “Here commences the work of darkness…”?
To see all of my posts on A Place in the Country and it’s German original Logis in einem Landhaus, just click here. Plus, head on over to Towards Utopia where Steve Benson is also writing about A Place in the Country across several posts.
W.G. Sebald. A Place in the Country. London: Hamish Hamilton, 2013. Originally published in 1998 as Logis in einemn Landhaus and translated into English by Jo Catling.