It is irony rather than paradox that the French genre of rêverie should have been born of the rationalist 18th century, the siècle des lumières, which saw the emergence of scientific rationalism as the supreme authority in philosophy. Yet that was the period during which was also born what with hindsight we have decided to call “pre- Romanticism,” a movement connected with the cultivation of tenderness, the expression of feeling, and concern with the nonlogical, irrational forms of human experience, including rêves or dreams. The connection between the French Romantic movement and pre-Romanticism is actually tenuous, but a continuity is apparent in the increasing interest in mental states, of which the rêverie represents one type, existing outside the sphere of strict logic and relaxing the enforcement of strict rational control.
As a mental event, the rêverie, to which the English “daydream” is merely an approximation, represents only a moderated relaxation of rational control, such as used to be cultivated chiefly by imaginative artists and their followers in developing their sensitivity to nature and beauty, in search of aesthetic stimulus or satisfaction. Our inadequate vocabulary for dealing with such phenomena nonetheless allows us to distinguish the realm of imagination, in which the rêverie explores with some degree of realism the meaning of emotional experience, together with any possible alternative forms which it might take, from the realm of mere fantasy, in which all degree of conscious control or logical coherence can be jettisoned.
The rêverie as a genre is an extension of the rêve, which came into prominence when Diderot used Le Rêve de d’Alembert (D’Alembert’s Dream) as the title of the second and most poetic of the three dialogues he wrote in August 1769, when toward the end of his life he had time at last to return to philosophy. The dialogue is probably the most imaginatively powerful of all Diderot’s works, and also that which most successfully unites literature with philosophy. It concerns the awakening of sensibilité in hitherto inert matter when, under the impetus of an external stimulus like warmth, the “soul” becomes the organic principle unifying a living and sentient being, and the directing force of its growth. The Rêve was released in Autumn 1782. to Grimm’s private fortnightly newsletter to subscribing heads of European courts. A run of the letters was later gathered together and published as the Correspondance littéraire (16 vols., 1829).
The most famous set of rêveries in French, Rousseau’s Les Rêveries du promeneur solitaire (1782; Reveries ofthe Solitary Walker), was a very late confessional work, largely provoked by rumors of his death in 1776. It was intended to be a sequel to the Confessions (wr. 1764–70, pub. 1782–89). The choice of titles raises some complex issues. Rousseau, in spite of the apparent formality of some of his works, was not a polished writer, and the informality of tone indicated by the rêverie, and underlined by the reference to the solitude of the unsupported thinker in the title, is not an affectation.
The late confessional writings, including the Confessions themselves, are not among Rousseau’s more powerful works, and the light in which he wished to present himself distorts the truth. Nevertheless, his title denotes a touch of boastful independence. The Rêveries, even if apparently little more than an epilogue to the Confessions, are idealized visions, often of serious philosophic interest, although also frequently set off by some trivial anecdote, experience, or incident. But they are the visions of one who attempted to live his life in a mental solitude unconstrained by the intellectual pressures which society imposed on its members. They were, then, in an unusually full sense, Rousseau’s own visions.
Rousseau’s 1960 editor, Henri Roddier, claims that the Rêveries inspired the literary form of both the intimate personal essay and the ostensibly private diary written for publication. The rêverie as a genre certainly belongs to the category of selfrevelatory, often fictionalized, autobiography. The genre did move toward fiction, apparently in order to allow serious philosophical and social principles to be presented in the tentative guise of a fantasy.
The form’s next important author, Étienne Pivert de Senancour, who once applied to the government for support to lead his life as a solitary thinker, suppressed his first two books, signed “Rêveur des Alpes,” written in 1792, and 1793. Best known for his novel Oberman (1804), he nonetheless composed a Rêveries sur la nature primitive de I’homme (Reveries on the primitive nature of man) in 1799, to be reworked in 1809, and again, simply as Rêveries, in 1833. In 1834, shortly after the appearance of Rousseau’s
Rêveries, Senancour published Libres méditations d’un solitaire inconnu (Free meditations of a solitary unknown) less hostile to Christianity than his previous work had been, but still looking for guiding principles in human and physical nature. Intellectually Senancour’s life was dominated by the need to balance nature’s menace against the therapeutic effects it exercised on the sensibility and to weigh the protection afforded by civil society against the constraints it imposed.
With the full-blooded Romanticism of the 1820s the rêverie, like the meditation, went out of fashion as a genre. It was essentially a pre-Romantic form, but it contained several works which constitute literary apexes of that movement in France.
Much of the literature on the rêverie concerns specific examples and specific authors, particularly Rousseau (see the Further Reading under his entry).
Bachelard, Gaston, The Poetics of Reverie: Childbood, Language, and the Cosmos, New York: Orion, 1969 (original French edition, 1960)
Morrisey, Robert J., La Rêverie jusqu’à Rousseau: Recherches sur un topos littéraire, Lexington, Kentucky: French Forum, 1984
Tripet, Arnaud, La Rêverie littéraire: Essai sur Rousseau, Geneva: Droz, 1979
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