Jean-Jacques Rousseau was no stranger to autobiography. His third attempt at self-writing, Reveries of the Solitary Walker, though cut short by his death, presents a compelling picture of the ordinariness of life in general and Rousseau's life in particular. Such is the position Eli Friedlander defends in J.J. Rousseau: An Afterlife of Words. "Rousseau turns to the simple, and his writing remains plain," he emphasizes early on in the book, "without thereby being merely the recounting of events. But the higher significance it attains is not figured as a philosophical problem. There is no transcendence or sublime redemption of the details of Rousseau's life. They always remain what they are, utterly ordinary and particular, and it is as such that they accede to significance."
If anyone considers just a couple of the salient details of Rousseau's life (infantilizing himself while playing rock-a-bye baby with "Daddy" Hume; calling his first female lover "Mother"), the core of what Friedlander says about the ordinary and particular risks developing into a Rabelaisian refrain. To his credit, Friedlander seems to recognize this potential problem with his interpretation of Rousseau. He offers a compromise in the fitting form of a confession: "Not everything is defensible about a human life, but the sense one gets in reading Rousseau is that life itself can be redeemed rather than excused."
Each of the ten walks in Reveries is about Rousseau's complete sense of the aloneness of life, beginning in the first walk with his sense that he is the sole being on earth. This sounds not unlike tragic loneliness, at least as Luk?cs once defined it: "Loneliness is the very essence of tragedy, for the soul that has attained itself through its destiny can have brothers among the stars, but never an earthly companion." What intrigues Friedlander is the idea that Rousseau himself supplants the tragic problem, forcing us to take notice of the ways that his loneliness simply lives and longs with nowhere to belong. "Rousseau does not feel lonely, nor is he simply left alone, but rather, alone he is." Living life as solitary life does not mean living through the most imprisoning form of solitary confinement; it means undergoing life as a thoroughly affective experience. Friedlander thinks that Rousseau understood the meaning of his life through how it felt and lent itself to remembrance: "He will find existence in movement, in the reverie or in the walk, as if doubling the selfónot by separating mind and body, but by opening the space of memory in which the recognition of meaning takes place. This movement allows Rousseau to think of what is moving or affecting . . . to speak of a feeling of existence."
Through the act of self-writing, Friedlander claims, Rousseau's life was thoughtóand feltóto move. Not surprisingly, then, he finds Rousseau writing about "the writing of his reveries: not the experiences or the reveries it triggers, but rather, what it is to recollect them in writing . . . writing is the fundamental activity in the Reveries, and all else, all the other activities Rousseau engages in, are allegories of that writing, and therefore also allegories of reading that text. . . . Writing can no longer be conceived as a transition between the living self and the literary self, but becomes the ultimate activity that furthers the existence of a self, doubling the self, allowing a further self."
What is somewhat surprising, though, is that Friedlander does not countenance the limpidity of Rousseau's literary modernism. Much of what he suggests about Rousseau's self-writing could apply equally well, say, to Proust. Then again, Friedlander's main interest is not Rousseau's contribution to modern literature. It is something quite different: the way Rousseau's autobiography sustains his singular self in relation to the world, writing into every detail of his life a refraction of the very world in which he remains all alone. As Friedlander puts it, "The idea of singularity comes to express the connectivity of life to form a world, the possibility of originating the world anew in and with every life . . . Seen this way the concept of a human life is best characterized as that wherein the world as a whole can be meaningfully refracted. That is, life, that life which is mine, can be viewed as one life among many, but also as an original perspective on the world. Autobiography would, in that case, exemplify the possibility of considering life in its ordinariness as an origin."
Throughout his book, Friedlander bases his reading of Reveries of the Solitary Walker, and its still redeemable possibilities, on the idea of afterlife that Walter Benjamin develops most perspicuously in "The Task of the Translator." Writing in 1921, Benjamin explained exactly what he meant by "afterlife": "Just as the manifestations of life are intimately connected with the phenomenon of life without being of importance to it, a translation issues from the originalónot so much from its life as from its afterlife. . . . The philosopher's task consists in comprehending all of natural life through the more encompassing life of history. And indeed, isn't the afterlife of works of art far easier to recognize than that of living creatures? . . . For in its afterlifeówhich could not be called that if it were not a transformation and a renewal of something livingóthe original undergoes a change."
The fact that something can live on does not determine in advance the course of its future existence. That would transpose history into nature and exclude the possibility of unanticipated change. Benjamin's philosophic glance looks at things from precisely the other direction: The life of history encompasses both natural and aesthetic life, thereby making the historical standpoint best equipped to comprehend the whole range of life and its possibilities. The translatability of a work is its historical capacity to be altered and undergone differently. "Translatability is an essential quality of certain works," Benjamin therefore claims, "which is not to say that it is essential for the works themselves that they be translated; it means, rather, that a specific significance inherent in the original manifests itself in its translatability."
Taking his cue from this constellation of thoughts, Friedlander argues that meaning "ought not to be identified with the completion of an action toward an intended goal. The end of meaning does not lie within the scope of the aims and purposes that characterize life. Rather, the end of life is meaning, and meaning is realized after life . . . At issue is the fate of meaning and the position of a reader in relation to the afterlife of the text." Meaning arrives, to be sure, but only after the life of a text or work has passed. The inheritance or preservation of meaning, its realization in an afterlife, requires a reader to order whatever may have been unordered or incapable of order during a single aesthetic life. Rather than heed a demand of infinite responsibility, a commentator or critic acknowledges the finitude of meaning, its very limitations, by showing that apparently dead or desultory possibilities have meaning within a certain ambit of significance. That a work continues to work, in one way or another, despite whatever life it had, is the sense in which its possibilities have not died. It can still matter; it can still have significance. That is the purchase of the work on our aesthetic attention. We can take leave of it knowing that what interests us now is what will live after it.
The way Friedlander attempts to put Rousseau's Reveries to rest is by conceding not just that "the Reveries demands a response in writing" but that it amplifies the question "whether philosophy could take the guise of autobiography," which is really a question about whether it is "the ordinariness made patent in autobiography that disappoints the wonder expected in philosophical illumination." In the vintage spirit of Stanley Cavell (Friedlander is one of his most accomplished students), our usual expectations of philosophy are frustrated because Friedlander takes seriously the ordinary dimensions of life and experience. More to the point, he refuses both wondrousness and disappointment as animating features of philosophical inquiry. It is a remarkable refusal, for it gives Friedlander ample analytic space to break down the relations between autobiography and philosophy as they take shape in Rousseau's late work of meaningful refraction.
When we look up at the stars, their light rays are there for us. They seem to bend toward us forever from afar, especially when the stars lay low in the sky. Sometimes, when the stars are at their lowest, they actually appear to be at their highest. That is what refraction does to our perception. Maybe autobiography as Rousseau practiced it in his final days was too refractory, too bent on reveries, too convinced that it could defy death and recover the world through its own image. Maybe its actual life, like Rousseau's (and our own), will always seem a bit higher, a bit more elevated, than it really is. So maybe its afterlife needs to bring itself, and us, and our brothers, down from the stars.
Daniel Morris is a New Yorkñbased critic.