A Prize for Happiness
Rousseau was on his way to prison when he became a writer. It was around two in the afternoon. In the late summer of 1749 Jean-Jacques Rousseau was going to pay one of his regular visits to his friend Denis Diderot, who had been locked up in the château of Vincennes for atheism and libel. He was too broke to pay the coachride, so he walked. But it was a good two leagues (nearly 6 miles) from the rue de l’Opéra in Paris to Diderot’s place of imprisonment, and on this day he was going alone (he often went in the company of Diderot’s wife), so he took along
some reading matter.
It was a hot day and one easily pictures Rousseau contemplating the rural landscape as he strides along and then pausing, from time to time, in the shade of a tree to rest and leaf through the pages of a book. But in fact the trees at the side of the road had been brutally pruned and afforded little relief from the sun. Surprisingly, Rousseau had picked up the habit of reading as he walked, to prevent himself walking too fast in the heat, he claimed (in the Confessions). This gives a completely unexpected picture of the archetypal Romantic promenade solitaire in the countryside. ‘Enough of science and of art,’ protested Wordsworth, ‘Close up those barren leaves’ and head for the woods if you want truth. But if Rousseau goes for a walk in the woods it is only with his head buried in a book. If he bumps into a tree it is because he is not looking where he is going. The odes, the sonnets, and the reveries on mountains and rivers and forests and the awe-inspiring wilderness tend to be written, this alternative image of the large-souled Romantic at large implies, in the intervals between chapters or cantos, by way of a short break from reading. Rousseau, for one, was not getting away from literature on his excursion out of Paris. On the contrary, he was taking it with him. The country was an optimal place to read.
And it was while thus proceeding along the road to Vincennes and his destiny, contemplating not nature but that month’s issue of the Mercure de France , that his life changed for ever. The Mercure was an intellectual magazine, carrying news of the court and artistic circles and matters scientific or philosophical (this issue included a short play, a love poem by Voltaire, a song, and a dissertation on alchemy). Somewhere on the road from Paris to Vincennes, while flicking through these ‘pièces fugitives en vers et en prose’, Rousseau came across an announcement that had been placed by the Académie de Dijon which read (with minor modifications) as follows:
The Académie des Sciences et des Belles-Lettres de Lyon announces to all savants that the Morality Prize for 1750, consisting of a Gold Medal, of the value of 30 pistols, will be awarded to the writer who produces the best solution to the following problem: Whether the progress in the arts and the sciences has contributed to the improvement or the corruption of manners Answers in French or Latin. Closing date 1 April 1750.
Prize to be awarded at a public meeting of the Académie, Sunday 23 August 1750. That journey to Diderot’s prison was Rousseau’s equivalent of Paul’s road to Damascus: it was here that he underwent his definitive conversion. It was on reading the Dijon essay title that, in a moment of quasi-religious revelation, epiphany, enlightenment, satori, he ‘became an author’ (as he remembers it), that he ‘saw another universe and […] became another man.’ He had already written contributions to the Encyclopedie, edited by Diderot (and d’Alembert), but it was only with the challenge to write the Dijon essay – what would become known as his First Discourse – that he was ‘suddenly dazzled by a thousand lights’.
So overwhelmed was he by the intoxicating rush of images and ideas and arguments and truths, that he went into a faint and had to collapse under an oak tree for half an hour, after which he found the front of his jacket wet through with his own tears. Then a ‘delirium’ took hold of him which continued all the way to Vincennes (decreasing only slightly to a state of sustained ‘effervescence’ which would last for the next four or five years). He waved a draft of a ‘Prosopopoeia to Fabricius’ – which he had dashed off in pencil under the tree, eulogizing martial virtues and playing down the idea of progress – in front of Diderot and Diderot duly urged him to go in for the Dijon prize and Rousseau was made – or ‘lost’ as he puts it – and the whole of the rest of his life, not just the First Discourse, followed as the inevitable consequence of this one short episode. He would later lament that he had never managed to set down more than a quarter of everything he ‘saw and felt’ underneath that fruitful tree. Napoleone Buonaparte, who would evolve into Napoleon Bonaparte, First Consul, Emperor, liberator and tyrant, saw himself as the Rousseau of his generation. He yearned as a young man for the same kind of metamorphosis that his rolemodel had undergone, the single seismic experience that would brand him forever as a writer. Rousseau was nearly 40 when he read that fateful number of the Mercure. Napoleon, in more of a hurry, was only 20 when the opportunity of a comparably life-determining moment, uncannily like Rousseau’s, presented itself. Napoleon had (he claimed) read La Nouvelle Héloïse, Rousseau’s epistolary love-story, around the age of 9 and had moved on to the discourses some time in his teenage years. Certainly Rousseau was his first and most enduring literary hero (even if it would ultimately be a question of transcending his influence). Both Rousseau and Napoleon were outsider figures: the one from Geneva, the other from Corsica, who had to work harder than the natives to impress their adopted patrie. More than Rousseau, Napoleon had a particular sensitivity to what Nietzsche – who in turn adopted Napoleon as one of his heroes – would call Eternal Recurrence. He saw history as, if not repeating itself, at least recycling itself, with small variations: the same elements would reappear time after time, in diverse permutations, like rhymes in a sonnet. So it must have been with a feeling of immense certainty, the conviction that fate was finally knocking on his door, that he opened a newspaper in 1790 and read the following:
JOURNAL DE LYON ET DES PROVINCES VOISINES
18 February (No. 7) 1790
EXTRACT FROM THE PROGRAMME
of the Académie des Sciences, Belles-Lettres et Arts de Lyon
Raynal Prize of 1791
The Académie proposes, as the subject for the prize donated by the Abbé Raynal, the following question: ‘What are the most important truths and feelings to instil into men for their happiness?’ The prize is 1200 livres and a gold medal. Essays, written in French or Latin, are to be submitted by August 25 1791. The winner to be announced at a public meeting of the Académie on November 29 1791.
The dedication to the King had gone, the typeface was plainer, and the Journal de Lyon was not so prestigious as the Mercure de France. But the essentials remained the same. There is no record that he soaked his jacket in tears, but like Rousseau, he was flung into a prolonged delirium, which perhaps never ceased until his death on St Helena.