Walking with Rousseau

In Rousseau’s autobiographical ‘Confessions’ (1782), perhaps the earliest example of a true autobiographical text, walking plays a key part. As he retraces pathways between his life in France, Switzerland, Italy, and England, the convergence of emotion and perception whilst walking manifest in what Rousseau refers to as his heated imagination, most abundant and magnificent when travelling on foot: 

“I was young, and in good health. I had sufficient money and abundant hopes; I traveled on foot and I traveled alone. That I should consider this an advantage would appear surprising, if the reader were not by this time familiar with my disposition. My pleasing chimeras kept me company, and never did my heated imagination give birth to any that were more magnificent.”
— Rousseau, 1782

Thinking and mobility are simultaneous processes for Rousseau, who, in retelling stories of walks he had taken, recounts the direct influence that his ambulations had on his thinking. A life not without its turmoil, suffering paternal abandonment, deep religious quandary, chronic hypochondria, repeated efforts to run away, and ultimately total psychological withdrawal, Rousseau proclaims that he was at his happiest when walking:

“It was only in my happiest days that I traveled on foot, and ever with the most unbounded satisfaction; afterwards, occupied with business and encumbered with baggage, I was forced to act the gentleman and employ a carriage, where care, embarrassment, and restraint, were sure to be my companions, and instead of being delighted with the journey, I only wished to arrive at the place of destination”
— Rousseau, 1782