Visiting Rousseau on the Île St Pierre



© Tourismus Biel Seeland

Another month, another author’s home. Those of you fond of mountains and lakes will be pleased to hear that we’re heading out of Geneva, and making our way to the Île St Pierre, for a brief six weeks of the summer of 1765 home to philosopher, novelist and essayist Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778).

By the 1760s, visitors had begun to travel to Switzerland with their volumes of Rousseau in hand, drawn first by the smash-hit success of Rousseau’s best-selling novel, Julie: ou, La Nouvelle Hélöise (1761). Boswell was one of the first of these sentimental tourists; when he visited in 1764 for instance, he self-identified as St Preux, the young lover of Julie, trying to locate and replicate his emotions upon the ‘classic ground’ of Clarens, Vevey and Meillerie. Later visitors wanted in addition to locate and replicate the emotions of ‘Rousseau’ himself, in places associated with the author through his posthumously published autobiographical writings – his Confessions (1782) and an unfinished set of late essays, the title of which translates as The Reveries of a Solitary Walker (1782).

Lying well beyond the environs of Geneva, the Île St Pierre is far more difficult to get to than the shores of Lac Leman, even today. It’s tiny, in the middle of Lac Bienne, and there’s nothing on it except an old farmhouse (now an inn) and on the little hill above it, an open pavilion like a bandstand. It is and was remote from the standard routes, and although you can now get to the island along a causeway, it is more fun to take a boat, disembarking at a little jetty where there is a monument to Rousseau. At the end of the eighteenth century, you needed to commandeer a rowing-boat and someone to row it, and it would take an hour-and-a-half, rain or shine, to get there. The draw was Rousseau’s bedroom, and the idea of retracing the walks around the island that Rousseau had made famous in the fifth essay of his Reveries.

Friedrich von Matthisson’s account of his trip to the Île St Pierre in 1794, recorded in his Letters written from various parts of the Continent, between the years 1785 and 1794, described how the philosopher’s writings had come to inform the tourist’s response to place:

How deeply were we affected with reading this most interesting writer’s description of St Peter’s Island on the very spot. What a melancholy delight did we feel in following his footsteps … from the room he inhabited, … to the very spot on the shore, where on a fine evening he would stretch himself, contented and happy, with his eyes fixed on the flood, in the sweet calm of self-forgetfulness.

Nicolai Karamzin’s description of his visit a few years before (we’ve already met him at Ferney) shows him not only following Rousseau’s walks but imitating Rousseau’s sentiments and style:

Not long ago I went to the island of St Pierre, where the greatest writer of the eighteenth century took refuge from the wickedness and intolerance of mankind. … It was a beautiful day. Within a few hours I had wandered about the entire island, seeking everywhere traces of Geneva’s citizen and philosopher, beneath the boughs of ancient beech and chestnut trees, in the beautiful walks of the dark forest, in the faded meadows and rocky prominences of the shore.

‘Here’ I thought, ‘here, forgetting cruel and ungrateful people – ungrateful and cruel! My God! How sad it is to feel and to write! – here, forgetting all worldly tumult, he enjoyed the tranquil evening of life in solitude.  Here his soul rested from its mighty labours.  Here he found peace in quiet and sweet repose!  Where is he?  Everything remains as it was, but he is gone – gone!’

Now I thought I heard the forest and meadow sigh, or were they only repeating the deep sigh of my heart?  I glanced about me.  The entire island seemed in mourning…I sat down upon the shore….My fancy imagined a boat gliding over the placid waters, moved by a gentle breeze which guided it in place of a helmsman. In the boat lay [the aged Rousseau] a venerable old man in Armenian dress; his eyes, fixed on heaven, reflected a noble soul, depth of thought, and pensiveness.

Karamzin’s experience is pleasingly conventional in its fanciful summoning of a vision of Rousseau to inhabit the emptiness of the island. Such productions of ‘Rousseau’ were a common feature of the experience of engaging with the spirit of place on the Ile St Pierre.

As the accounts by these two young men suggest, visiting Rousseau’s island meant becoming Rousseau. And this act of ‘being’ the author extended to becoming a writer yourself, through inscribing your own sentimental outpourings on the walls of Rousseau’s bedroom and on the pillars of the pavilion perched above the farmhouse. (You can still see them scratched all over the window-frame, walls and ceiling.) This practice, which had begun in the 1790s, seems quickly to have gained momentum. In his guidebook to the Île St Pierre (L’île Saint-Pierre, ou L’île de Rousseau), printed in 1817, F.S. Wagner cites the mass of multi-lingual inscription in the pavilion and in Rousseau’s bedchamber as evidence of the sheer amount of Rousseauistic experience supplied by the island to readers of many nationalities. The inscriptions he transcribes celebrate the reader’s desire to put himself in Rousseau’s place or to imagine an encounter with him. The first, translated, reads:

Happy when I can, …/In these enchanted woods wander at random/Sometimes to lie upon a grassy bank/Sometimes in this room, surrounded by greenery/Breathe alone the pure air/And give myself up to reflection/here renew my reading of Rousseau, my dear companion/Here return, in his footsteps, into the bosom of nature/And there, far from cities, far from all pretension/Be at one with her.

This act of reading Rousseau in his favourite haunts is elaborated into conversation with Rousseau’s ghost in the other inscription that Wagner transcribes:

One evening, in moonlight, wandering in this wood/I found the wild and mournful shade of Rousseau/‘What do you want?’ he said, turning his eyes on me/ ‘The same as you, master, to admire these beautiful places.’/ ‘You are right, all is beautiful,’ said he, ‘in nature/Except man, who disfigures it.’

These transcriptions, suggest that the imagined figure of Rousseau authorised autobiographical travel narrative, first person inscription, and encounters between would-be Rousseauistic wanderers, in imitation of Rousseau’s own writings.

This brief account of Rousseau tourism shows that Rousseau was consumed by tourists – in a self-consciously Romantic fashion – as what we would now understand as a Romantic figure. Because his writings described a landscape of lake, mountain, and island as the ground of Romantic subjectivity, these landscapes came to provide locations within which nineteenth-century tourists could experimentally adopt this same subjectivity.


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