Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Retreat - No Pen Required


Gestures of retreat: ... acts of separation, of secession ... : whether the gesture obviously fulfils, comforts the subject, or whether the gesture of retreat performed by another makes us feel envious... by projecting us into its scenario.
R. Barthes, The Neutral

There is a profusion of writing these days: analyses, admonitions and calls to arms, peppered with statistics and satire, and written by the wise, the ignoramuses, the desperate and the desperados. Conditions are ripe for the awakening of one’s misanthropic streak – retreat is on the cards. If retreat cannot be performed then projection of oneself into a retreat scenario would have to suffice. I was made envious of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s gesture of retreat and I have got Roland Barthes to blame (or thank) for it.

I would ask nothing better, says Rousseau in his Reveries of the Solitary Walker, than to be let to stay in the isolated place where I could have no communication or correspondence with the outside world. Rousseau arrives in a little island in the Lake of Bienne, he sends for his books and his few belongings and does not unpack a single box or trunk. He lives in the house as if it had been an inn – a guest likely to depart at will – his books safely packed, no pen, no writing desk.

“One of my greatest joys was above all to leave my books safely shut up and to have no escritoire”. To suspend writing – to do nothing – is to cleanse the mind from the clutter of daily words, is to resist or shun the past and sculpt the future from materials unknown.  

“Everything is in constant flux on this earth. Nothing keeps the same unchanging shape, and our affections, being attached to things outside us, necessarily change and pass away as they do. Always out ahead of us or lagging behind, they recall a past which is gone or anticipate a future which many never come into being: there is nothing solid there for the heart to attach itself to. [...] What is the source of happiness in such a state? Nothing external to us, nothing apart from ourselves and our own existence; as long as this state lasts we are self-sufficient like God.”

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Reveries of the Solitary Walker, trans. Peter France, Penguin Classics 1979 (first published 1782); Roland Barthes, The Neutral, trans. R. Krauss & D. Hollier, Columbia U. Press 2005.

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