The Philosopher's Garden
10/11/04DUNCAN MACMILLAN Nov 2004
JEAN-JACQUES Rousseau is one of those writers who has passed so deeply into the fabric of our thought that we probably acknowledge him every day without realising it. He put the idea of the self at the centre of our understanding and he made the cultivation of sensibility an objective in education. He argued that if the ultimate authority is within ourselves, we can acknowledge no other master - and so produced one of the great rallying cries of the French Revolution and democracy itself: "Man is born free, but is everywhere in chains". The chains were not only the chains of archaic political authority, but also of the social conventions that inhibit the development of nature within us. Our relationship to external nature is crucial too.
Now a tribute to Rousseau has been produced in a set of photographs by Robin Gillanders, published with a text by James Lawson, under the aegis of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. The book was published in conjunction with an exhibition in Paris, also to be shown at the Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow next spring
Gillanders’s photographs are images of the landscape garden at Ermenonville, north of Paris, which was created by one of Rousseau’s aristocratic admirers as a homage and a refuge for him from his persecutors. Rousseau did indeed retreat there at the end of his life and was buried there after his death in 1778. His body was removed to the Panthéon in Paris by the revolutionaries in 1794, but the garden had already become a place of pilgrimage. In the spirit of Rousseau, its creator (the Marquis de Girardin) pioneered the idea of the public park.
The garden is close in spirit to Rousseau’s Reveries of the Solitary Walker, a set of ten texts in which, against just such a background, he reflects on the self, his own experiences, the pleasures of solitude, the nature of happiness and other fundamental themes he had explored in his wider writings. There are ten photographs and each one is matched to a quotation from one of these Reveries. The pictures are equivalents, not illustrations - these beautiful black and white photographs are reveries in themselves - but there are hints in the choice of them at the direction of Rousseau’s thought. Thus the second walk is illustrated by a misty, autumnal field and in the accompanying text Rousseau contemplates his own death: "The vital spirit is gradually dying down." The ninth walk is illustrated by a single tree trunk catching the light among others that are in shadow. Part of the accompanying quotation reads: "It is only when I am alone that I am my own master."
THE IMAGE FOR the fourth walk and its accompanying quotation, however, offer a key to understanding the whole project. This is a photograph of the Temple of Philosophy.
It is a circular temple on an island, and in the picture it is reflected, inverted, among lily pads. The quotation reads: "In all ethical questions I have always found it best to be guided by the voice of conscience rather than the light of reason. My moral instinct has never deceived me."
This is a summary of the Scottish philosophy of moral sense, the idea that morality is a product of feeling, not of reason. It was Rousseau’s starting point and its greatest exponent was David Hume.
Rousseau was Swiss and made his life in France, but was persecuted there for his radical ideas and for a while escaped to England. His host was Hume and by his invitation Hume acknowledged the affinity between them.
It was also for Hume that another Scot, Allan Ramsay, painted the great portrait of Rousseau which now hangs in the National Gallery of Scotland. Quite deliberately, Ramsay likens him to Rembrandt. At that moment Rousseau had embarked on writing his Confessions, an autobiography that, in its revealing directness, is quite unlike anything written before. Indeed its only precedent is in Rembrandt’s great self-portraits, as Ramsay implicitly observes.
This picture is reproduced in the book with its partner, Ramsay’s equally penetrating portrait of Hume himself. They hung together in Hume’s study. Today it is very sad that they are always separated, one in the National Gallery, the other in the Portrait Gallery. They will be brought together temporarily next spring, when the exhibition is shown in Glasgow, but ought to be together permanently.
But the story does not end there. Nor does the book. The second part is a collection of photographs of Ian Hamilton Finlay’s garden at Little Sparta. They show some of the many places where Finlay himself commemorates Rousseau and thus also acknowledges directly his influence on his project. Thus we see Little Sparta itself, not only as profoundly inspired by Rousseau, but also as a kind of re-creation of Ermenonville. That is a fitting continuation of the Franco-Scottish exchange between Hume and Rousseau which did so much to shape the modern world. If you put those two together with this link between the Marquis de Girardin and Hamilton Finlay’s extraordinary garden, the combined significance rather upstages anything we can associate with the Entente Cordiale. Long live the Auld Alliance!
• The Philosopher’s Garden: An Exhibition to Celebrate the Entente Cordiale 2004 is at the Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow from 2 March. The book is available from the Scottish National Portrait Gallery on 0131-624 6418.