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The Book of Nature: Rousseau’s Floral Collections and the Text Lisa Gasbarrone The appeal, in the study of riature, is constantly to observation and experim ent; not only is it said that the thing is so, but one can be m ade to see that it is so. . . . This reality of natural knowledge it is which m akes the friends o f physical science con­ trast it, as a knowledge of things, with the hum anist’s knowledge, which is, say they, a knowledge o f words. M atthew A rnold, in “ Literature and Science” 1 Je hais les livres; ils n ’apprennent qu’à parler de ce qu’on ne sait pas. Rousseau, in Em ile I . T OWARD THE END OF HIS LIFE, in the final version of the autobiography he had been writing in stages, Rousseau describes two contradictory and simultaneous gestures. Recalling the idyllic moments spent on the Isle de Saint-Pierre, he writes in the Rêveries of a time when he was eager to abandon all books, all writing, all literary activity: “ Un de mes plus grands délices étoit surtout de laisser toujours mes livres bien encaissés et de n’avoir point d’écritoire. Quand de mal­ heureuses lettres me forçoient de prendre la plume pour y répondre, j ’empruntois en murmurant l’écritoire du Receveur, et je me hatois de la rendre dans la vaine espérance de n’avoir plus besoin de la remprunter” (I, 1042).2Alongside this timely and, given the recent reception of Emile and the Contrat social, quite understandable distaste for books and papers, Rousseau declares his penchant for the quiet and restful activities of the amateur botanist: ,!Au lieu de ces tristes paperasses et de toute cette bouquinerie, j ’emplissois ma chambre de fleurs et de foins; car j’étois alors dans ma première ferveur de Botanique...” (I, 1042). The lines of opposition in this well-known passage are very clearly drawn: botanizing in favor of bookishness, wildflowers and grasses as opposed to the inkstand or the writing desk. Rousseau sounds a register that is certainly familiar as he contrasts nature with artifice, and the great Book of Nature with other, less worthy Vo l . XXVIII, N o. 1 27 L ’E spr it C r éa teu r productions. But this rather orthodox eighteenth-century opposition is called into question a little further on.3The ban pronounced on books in the Rêveries is selective. Certain authors escape the general censure, and one in particular stands out among the rest: “j ’allois,” Rousseau writes of his daily botanical walks, “ une loupe à la main et mon Systema naturae sous le bras” (I, 1043). This famous, and at the time still contro­ versial work, by the Swedish botanist Linnaeus, was Rousseau’s constant companion. One can imagine the scene in the field—an odd sort of infinite regression—as the naturalist, book or notebook in hand, moves from plant to text and back again, checking and rechecking the object against the book, in the continual work of verification that natural his­ tory demands and that appealed greatly to Rousseau. Indeed Rousseau was so drawn to this activity that he began to write a book about it, a flora petrinsularis that he describes in the Rêveries: “ J ’entrepris [...] de décrire toutes les plantes de 1’Isle sans en omettre une seule avec un détail suffisant pour m’occuper le reste de mes jours” (I, 1043). With this gesture, of course, the contradiction comes full circle. Armed with his edition of Linnaeus, Rousseau quits his writing desk for the field, only to return to (someone’s) écritoire to write a book about flowers. Rousseau’s projected flora of the island has been lost to us, but many of his floral specimens remain.4 The herbiers are curious and extremely resonant items. They have elicited all too few, but often very suggestive, remarks from readers and critics. At midpoint, in some sense, between nature and text, the collections would seem the ideal response to the recurrent question of authenticity in Rousseau’s works.5 As I hope to demonstrate, however, Rousseau’s botanizing is...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1931-0234
Print ISSN
0014-0767
Pages
pp. 27-41
Launched on MUSE
2017-07-05
Open Access
No
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