On Reverie: After Rousseau
As it trended towards the apex of its cultural relevance in the late nineteenth century, the meaning of reverie began to expand and mutate. Derived from the French verb rêver (to dream), reverie propagated countless iterations of an idea about undirected, trance-like cognitive states. Yet unlike passing daydreams, reverie depicted an intentional deep dive into the subconscious, freeing the mind from the temporal world even as it reflected upon it—a hovering state of partial awareness akin to free association.
Creative writers and artists presented reverie as a generative experience of ontological pleasure and visionary inspiration, while the majority of Victorian psychology treated any unstructured mental state with persistent suspicion. Between 1830 and 1870, a number of medical and philosophical treatises classified reverie as a disorder or disease, following Erasmus Darwin’s work, Zoonomia, in which the renowned physician aligned reverie with sleep, vertigo, and drunkenness as imperfect sensorial forms of suspended volition. In an era consumed with a sense of progress and self-control, indulgence in altered states of consciousness was deemed dangerous, risking slippage into solipsism and immorality. Perhaps unsurprisingly, reverie’s relatives included Stendhal syndrome, a condition of ecstasy triggered when confronted with objects of great beauty; and Lisztomania, the outbreak of hysteria associated with Franz Liszt’s fans during his performances.
Among those who cultivated reverie as a stimulus for artistic creation was the philosopher and writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Most evident in his Reveries of a Solitary Walker, Rousseau regarded composition as a direct expression of reverie, demonstrating a continuous process in which imagination and sensibility are constantly responsive to the work they themselves engender. Rousseau’s book and its success helped shape subsequent ideas about the nature and efficacy of reverie in exploring the subconscious mind. The book became a poetic exhibit of the benefits to reveling in experiences that circumvent conscious, rational thought. Constructing this mental space, however, ironically required a specific set of environmental conditions for Rousseau: high altitudes, vast panoramas, vegetation, water, certain sounds (birds and leaves) and smells (flowers, especially orange blossoms), and even particular seasons (summer or autumn) defined a catalog of interchangeable elements that were most conducive to the onset of reverie. If the process of inciting modes of altered consciousness seems familiar it is because reverie’s progeny includes various forms of psychotherapy and elements of Surrealist painting.
Considering reverie within a contemporary context can seem both absurd and fitting. While our era is far removed from Victorian ideals, notions of social and cognitive pathologies resonate in a culture of rampant technology, social media anxiety, and attention deficit disorder. Yet despite the expanding list of maladies, technology—or rather, our use of it continues to produce inspiring possibilities for shaping and inhabiting our environments, both on-screen and IRL. Our state of distraction becomes normal, welcome, even ideal. How much of creative production is synthesizing the Other/Etc. of our psyche, and how has the amalgamation of our natural and digital worlds become a part of it?
More than ever, we have the capacity to design processes and mediums; the sensorial experience of Rousseau’s oneiric domain fits in our pockets and is accessible from anywhere. How might the intersection of Rousseaunian reverie and contemporary culture inform new modes of artistic consciousness? As we drift towards our inevitable, digitized future, we can contemplate methods that make our culture not one of disorders, but of exquisite creation.
1. Natalie Mera Ford, “The Interpretation of Daydreams:
Reverie as Site of Conflict in Early Victorian Psychology,”
in Conflict and Difference in Nineteenth-Century Literature, eds. Dinah Birch and Mark Llewellyn, (London Palgrave
2. Jean-Jacques Rousseau and J.M.Cohen, The Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, (London Penguin Books, 1953)