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The complete works of W. N. P. Barbellion (1889-1919)


Rousseau as Botanist

In his early days, Jean Jacques Rousseau sampled most of the good things in the intellectual larder, and more than once — like a mischievous boy — brought the jam-pot down on his head. lie read anatomy until he fancied he had “a polypus at the heart.” A mixture of “quicklime, orpiment, and water” exploded in his face, and so put a short term to his researches in experimental physics. In astronomy and geology his studies were equally short, and we may be sure that he was the least likely person to resume his struggles with the science of numbers at the bidding of that facetious lady of Venice, who, it will be remembered, made him a present of this sound advice: “Lascia le donne e studia le matematiche.”

At the time when Rousseau was one of the remarkable ménage at Les Charmettes, the study of botany, one day to become his master passion, made no appeal to him. Nay, he despised it, considering botany as a subject fit merely for an apothecary, and Rousseau’s opinion of apothecaries and physicians was at no time very high. Madam de Warens herself was a herbalist rather than a botanist, and that silent devotee, Claude Anet, was originally taken into her service because he was a herbalist and because Madam thought it convenient to have among her domestics someone with a knowledge of drugs.

Botany therefore became confounded in Rousseau’s mind with anatomy and medicine, and served only to afford him frequent opportunities for pleasantries at Madam de Warens’ expense, in this way earning for himself a friendly box on the ears.

But even in those days of high contemptuous youth, Rousseau was sometimes persuaded, at the beck of Madam de Warens, to bend his head over a plant, while “Mama” pointed out to him a thousand natural beauties which greatly amused him and should have made him a botanist.1 “But the time was not yet, and my attention was arrested by too many other studies” — by music in particular.

It was more than twenty years later that Rousseau’s slumbering interest in botany burst into the flame of real passion. By this time he was a refugee from France and from Geneva, and had settled down at length in Motiers, one of the villages standing in the Val de Travers, a valley between the gorges of the Jura and the Lake of Neuchâtel. Here, big with desire for “a knowledge of every known plant on the globe,” he began with an attempt to commit to memory the whole of the “Regnum Vegetable” of Murray! Little wonder that, clad in his Armenian costume and breathing from mouth and nostrils (one almost believes) the fires of his fanatical zeal for plants, this remarkable botanist — surely the most remarkable in the history of the science! — was generally held by the villagers to be some evilly disposed medicine man, who sought for noxious herbs and who was confidently believed to have poisoned a man in Motiers who died in the agonies of nephritic colic.

On several other counts also, the inhabitants did not take kindly to the strange philosopher, and their dislike at length culminated in the arrival of a large stone, flung by a vigorous arm through the door into his room, where, fortunately, it fell dead at the philosopher’s feet. A little later, J. J., “as timid and shy as a virgin,” as he himself assures us, quitted inhospitable Motiers for the Island of St. Pierre in the Lake of Bienne, where his life for several months was an idyll, well suited to his virginal character. Most readers of Rousseau will remember his delightful description of this brief sojourn in “Les Réveries d’un Promeneur Solitaire.”

Having sent for his Theresa, who arrived at his summons with all his books and effects, the botanist recommenced his scientific labours. There was ample opportunity. With the customary hyperbolical turn of phrase that makes us love him, Rousseau relates how, armed with the “Systema Naturæ “of Linnaeus and a magnifying glass, he wandered over the island determined to leave not a blade of grass unanalyzed, and murmuring to himself, in ecstatic repetition, the only prayer of an inarticulate old lady — “Oh” — which drew from the Bishop the enconium: “Good mother, continue thus to pray: your prayer is better than ours.”

Rousseau’s idea was to write a monograph of all the plants on the island, a purpose quickly overthrown by the receipt, presently, from the Government of Berne of a peremptory notice to quit. And so the Flora Petrinsularis was never written.2

Accepting David Hume’s invitation to visit England, J. J. is soon settled among the Derbyshire hills, and, at Wootton, took immense delight in climbing the surrounding heights in search of curious mosses, convinced at last that the discovery of a single new plant was a hundred times more delightful than to have the whole human race listening to his sermons for half an hour. What more can science require of a man?

After the break with Hume, Rousseau, by this time certainly a victim of persecution mania, fled back to France, and lived for some time under the tutelage of the Prince de Conti at Trye, near Gisors. Here he continued his botanical studies and the writing of the “Confessions,” in a state of seraphic happiness so long as he was able unmolested to make long collecting excursions, to classify and arrange his herbarium or to watch the growth of some specimen from the seed. “Parvenu dans les lieux,” he wrote, “où je ne vois nulles traces d’hommes je respire plus à mon aise comme dans un asyle où leur haine ne me poursuit plus.”

Later on, he was accompanied by Bernardin de St. Pierre in these country rambles. “We had gone through part of a wood,” writes Bernardin in an account of one of their joint excursions, “when in the midst of the solitude, we perceived two young girls, one of whom was arranging the other’s hair.” It is not unfair to inquire if the amorous J. J., before a scene like this, felt no temporary vacillation in his allegiance to the science of botany.

While staying at Grenoble, during the course of a botanical excursion with one Sieur Bovier, an advocate of that place, whom our solitary walker, as a mark of especial confidence, had invited to accompany him, Rousseau presently began to refresh himself by eating the fruit of a plant, the Sieur meanwhile remaining at his side, without imitating him and without saying anything. Suddenly a stranger, newly arrived, exclaimed: “Ah, Monsieur, what are you doing? Don’t you know that fruit is poisonous?”

“Why did you not warn me?” Rousseau inquired of the Sieur.

“Oh, Monsieur,” said he, “I dared not take that liberty.”

Rousseau smiled at the fellow’s “Dauphinoise humilité,” and suffered no ill effects from his little collation.

At first one is inclined to think that J. J.’s interest in botany was only another of his many “affaires du cœur.” Closer examination soon shows that it was something more. His book on the elements of botany, consisting of a series of letters addressed to the Duchess of Portland and to other ladies, and his unfinished dictionary of botanical terms, reveal the author as a serious student of the science. Terms like “gymnosperm” and “petiole” came as easily to Rousseau’s pen as to the pen of a Malesherbe or Jussieu. He practised the art of dissection — an example which many botanists of to-day, who are probably ready to sniff at Rousseau’s scientific attainments, would do well to follow — and he owns to a “passionate attachment to the ‘Systema Nature’ of Linnaeus,” which fact alone makes it impossible surely to account him anyone less than a botanist!

But this is not to say that Rousseau was a dry-as-dust. “Nothing is more singular,” he wrote,” than the rapture, the ecstacy I felt at every observation I made on vegetable structure, and on the play of the sexual parts in fructification. The forks of the long stamina of the Self-heal . . . the explosion of the fruit of Balsam . . . and a hundred little acts of fructification filled me with delight, and I ran about asking people if they had ever seen the horns on the Self-heal, just as La Fontaine asked if Habbakuk had ever been read.”

This could not have been written by Mr. Punch’s stereotyped fossil with spectacles, straw hat, baggy trousers, vasculum, and butterfly net — he is a joyless soul, mainly concerned with “a preoccupied name” or a nomen nudum. I doubt, in fact, if it could have been written by anyone except J. J. Rousseau — the sentimental botanist.

Of a surety, J. J. could boast of no academic distinctions; he carried on no original research; he was a poor observer. He confesses that in botany he did not seek to instruct himself — it was too late for that. His idea was to pursue “a sweet and simple amusement” without any prodigious effort. All that he required was “une pointe et un loup.” To him botany was “an idle study,” a retreat from the delirium of imagination and the persecution of mankind. If botany, he declared, be studied from motives of ambition and vanity, only to become an author or professor, all the charm of it vanishes, and plants become the instruments of our passion.

In an amusing passage in the “Reveries,” he carefully weighs in the balance the respective attractions of the other sciences. The study of minerals, delightful as it is, meant costly experiments, furnaces, stifling vapours. Zoology also was a science full of difficulties and embarrassments to the virginal soul. How on earth was J. J. to observe, study, and dissect, to know the birds of the air, the fishes of the sea, and quadrupeds swifter than the wind — creatures “not more disposed to come and offer themselves for my research than I am to run after them and submit them to force.” As he rightly observes, the study of animal life is nothing without dissection, and it would, therefore, be necessary for him — J. J. to wit! — to cut up animals and extract their entrails, “amid all the frightful apparatus, the corpses, livid flesh, skeletons, disgusting intestines, and pestilential vapours” of an anatomical theatre: “ce n’est pas là sur ma parole que J. J. ira chercher ses amusements.”

A confessed dillettante then if you like, yet it is difficult to believe that Rousseau’s influence, as that of many another amateur without hood or diploma, was not salutary and felt. He taught men to regard Nature and botanists to regard plants. Botany was not merely a question of dates and names and disquisitions sought after in the dusty parchments of Galen and Dioscorides. Rousseau cared for none of these things. Botanists must search, observe, and conjecture for themselves with the plant before them and the book on the shelf. He insisted on the divorce of botany from medicine, an alliance which hampered research in the pure science and reduced the study of vegetable life to the rank of handmaiden to the pharmacopoeia. J. J. shared Montaigne’s antipathy to physic and physicians, and the idea of his beloved plants being brayed in a mortar with a pestle and transformed into pills, plasters, and ointment revolted his romantic soul. Botany — that last stronghold of his imagination — must be jealously guarded against the calamity of defilement by association with such things as fever, stone, gout, epilepsy, and other ills of hateful, unhappy man.

Consider the picture of those two bizarre misanthropes — Jean Jacques Rousseau and Bernardin de St. Pierre — walking together into rural solitude and seeking there among the wild flowers what they could not find among their fellow-men!

1916. Reprinted from The Journal of Botany.

1 During a walk at Cressier in 1764 Rousseau noticed a Periwinkle growing among some undergrowth and was immediately transported in memory back to his old friend Madam de Warens, and to the incident when she drew his attention to a specimen of the plant some thirty years before From this circumstance the Periwinkle, in France, came to be the emblem of the pleasures of memory and sincere friendship.

2 I believe Rousseau’s herbarium is now in the Berlin Museum.