To bring the machinery of thought to a standstill (W.G. Sebald)

How difficult it is in general to bring the machinery of thought to a standstill is shown by Rousseau’s description of his apparently so happy days on the island in the Lac de Bienne. He has, as he writes in the fifth Promenade, deliberately forsworn the burden of work, and his greatest joy has been to leave his books safely shut away and to have neither ink nor paper to hand. However, since the leisure time thus freed up must be put to some use, Rousseau devotes himself to the study of botany, whose basic principles he had acquired in Môtiers on excursions with Jean Antoine d’Ivernois. “I set out to compose,” writes Rousseau in the fifth Promenade, “a Flora Petrinsularis and to describe every single plant on the island in enough detail to keep me busy for the rest of my days. They say a German once wrote a book about a lemon peel; I could have written one about every grass in the meadows, every moss in the woods, every lichen covering the rocks—and I did not want to leave even one blade of grass or atom of vegetation without a full and detailed description. In accordance with this noble plan, every morning after breakfast I would set out with a magnifying glass in my hand and my Systemae Naturae under my arm to study one particular section of the island, which I had divided for this purpose into small squares, intending to visit them all one after another in every season.” The central motif of this passage is not so much the impartial insight into the indigenous plants of the island as that of ordering, classification, and the creation of a perfect system. Thus this apparently innocent occupation—the deliberate resolve no longer to think and merely to look at nature—becomes, for the writer plagued by the chronic need to think and work, a demanding rationalistic project involving the compiling of lists, indices, and catalogs, along with the precise description of, for example, the long stamens of self-heal, the springiness of those of nettle and of wall-pellitory, and the sudden bursting of the seed capsules of balsam and of beech. Nonetheless, the leaves of the small herbaria which Rousseau later compiled for Madelon and Julie de la Tour and other young ladies take on the aspect of an innocent bricolage in comparison with the self-destructive business of writing to which he usually submitted himself. A faint aura of unconscious beauty still hovers over these flower collections, in which lichens, sprigs of veronica, lilies of the valley, and autumn crocuses have survived, pressed and a little faded, from the eighteenth century. They can still be admired today in the Musée Carnavalet and the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. The herbarium Rousseau compiled for himself, meanwhile—eleven quarto volumes—was, up to the Second World War, preserved in the Botanical Museum in Berlin, until, like so much and so many in that city, it went up in flames one night during one of the nocturnal bombing raids.

From W. G. Sebald’s essay “J’aurais voulu que ce lac eût été l’Océan.” Translated by Jo Catling and collected in A Place in the Country.

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