on June 5, 2004
Many people often assume that they are the final authority on what goes on in their heads--after all, who is anyone else to tell me what's going on inside *my* head? However, the continued dissolution of depth psychology (esp. Freud) into popular culture, as well as a growing body of research by cognitive psychologists, is starting to make this assurrance suspect. I mention this because *Reveries of the Solitary Walker* is an excellent example of a literary version of this; here it is the readers more so than the author that can see what's going on in these "meditations".
Aristotle once thought that one's best tinking was done while walking, a sentiment later echoed by Nietzsche. In that same spirit, Rousseau offers this small book as recording of his "meditations" performed during his solitary walks. Instead of giving us some profound wisdom that comes from solitude and philosophy, this book instead serves as an amazing first-person look at paranoid schizophrenia. Rather than wise musings, we get instead Rousseau's ruminations about the extensive plot to (1) isolate him from others and politically marginalize him, (2) have him killed--witness his attribution of a near-fatal carriage accident to a deliberate attempt to run him down, and (3) systematically alter his writings and misrepresent him after his death.
As a book of reflective wisdom, this small treatise of Rousseau's is an utter failure. (One reviewer claims that this book changed his life, but how it could do so I have no idea.) However, this book succeeds in doing two things Rousseau did not mean it to do. First, it gives us incredible insight into Rousseau the man--more so even than his vaunted *Confessions*. Second, Rousseau's literary style and incredible gift for expression help to make concrete how the world looks to one suffering from paranoid delusions. (Sure, even paranoids have enemies; but this is probably because persecution complexes are likely to become self-fulfilling.)
This is not a book that is of much use to those looking for spiritual or philosophical wisdom, but in other ways it is indispensible. For understanding Rousseau the man, there is nothing better in his own words. Psychologists and psychology students (esp. those involved in clinical psychology) have much to gain from studying this small book. Rarely, if ever, will one find a victim of mental illness so eloquently able to bring you to an unerstanding of his world.