Rousseau jumps

At about 6 p.m. on Thursday, 24 October 1776, a Great Dane was having a fantastic time on the outskirts of Paris. Its owner was in a carriage and the dog was hurtling along in front of it, up a hill towards the village of Ménilmontant. We are able to know this with such precision, because walking down the hill, in the opposite direction at the very same moment, was Jean-Jacques Rousseau – eminent philosopher, composer and writer of autobiographies (to name but a few of his distinctions). Rousseau was sixty-four years old at the time, a fact that might lead us to view his next move with some surprise. Seeing the Great Dane rushing towards him, Rousseau formed what he was later to call a ‘lightning plan of action’, namely to ‘leap into the air at precisely the right moment to allow the dog to pass under me.’ This, as perhaps anyone could have told him, was not a great plan. Rousseau was knocked to the ground, his head striking what he described as ‘extremely bumpy cobblestones’.

So why did Rousseau jump over the dog? Well, one reason might be that he wanted to be knocked down by it. He was, as it happens, often presented as seeking out trouble. After the fall, he could not remember what had happened to him, or where he was, or even his own name – and he loved it. ‘I felt throughout my whole being such a wonderful calm,’ he later wrote, ‘that whenever I recall this feeling I can find nothing to compare with it in all the pleasures that stir our lives.’ It is notable that Rousseau, the precursor of all modern autobiographers, was happiest when he had forgotten who he was. But I have another theory. In writing for so long about himself, Rousseau had to confront everything that he was not: this included the very words he used and the society in which he lived. It might just be that the dog, bounding along out of the town, took the place of this struggle. Rather than wishing to be knocked down, Rousseau instead wished to be lifted up. His crazy leapfrog over a dog frames in the air the symbol of Self suspended above Other, human suspended over animal, memory on the edge of forgetting. It only lasts a moment, and it turns out that he quite liked being brought back down to earth, but Rousseau wouldn’t have been able to show us that had he simply stepped aside.

(In case you are worried about the dog, you can find the incident narrated in the ‘Second Walk’ of Rousseau’s Reveries of a Solitary Walker (1782).)