THE GREAT EUROPEAN FOOD ADVENTURE | Vincennes | Rendezvous with Rousseau-1 — Food and Philosophy

Jean-Jacques Rousseau – immortalised in stone in his home city of Geneva

We are in the park of Vincennes searching for an oak tree we know we won’t find, wondering about clues that might provide answers to questions about a sensibility now engrained in society. Whether it is the wonderful words and iconic recipes of someone like master chef Stanislaw Czerniecki or the wise words and erudite philosophies of a man like the master encyclopedist Denis Diderot we wonder whether we should pay more attention to this phenomena or whether we should look closer at the consequences of five events – in Florence in 1512, in Vincennes in 1749, in Ballykilcline in 1846, in Crete in 1953 and in Frammi við Gjónna in 2011 – and conclude that food and philosophy are incompatible companions.

Now we should try to find the location of that tree, the apparent scene of a eureka moment that changed the life of the young Jean-Jacques Rousseau. We have walked from a parking area at the eastern edge of the park onto a path frequented by amblers, runners, strollers and walkers into the heart of the park where the former ‘royal avenue’ has been parched into a delightful sandy sheen by the forgetful Parisian sun. Dappled light penetrates the canopy alongside the paths on both sides of the avenue. All the trees are young creatures with few memories to share.

We back-track to the heartland of the park where seven paths meet. The path we want is number seven clockwise from the northern side of the avenue. We count the paths and turn onto what we hope is the right path. A short walk further along we encounter a ring of seasoned trunks, each about six metres long, one has been sculpted into a design that is probably ironic or has a message that is lost on us. No ancient oak to be seen. If it was here it is gone, removed from sight after the devastation of 1999 when Vincennes felt the force of Storm Lothar.

To be honest this is what we expected, yet there is mystery.

Vincennes has been wooded since the forest of Vilcena became the property of the crown in the 1100s. Louis VII developed the architecture, Philip Auguste developed the woodland and built a manor on the site of the present château. By the 1300s Charles V developed the dungeon, high towers and a new chapel. In the late 1400s Louis XI ordered the planting of 3000 oak trees to replace woodland cut earlier in the century. By the late 1700s, following oak plantation programmes by successive kings, Vincennes had become a designed woodland with avenues, paths and roads, open to the public – the monarchy and its entourage gone to Versailles.

Denis Diderot had the misfortune to find himself in the dungeons of the castle on July 24, 1749 at the age of 35 despite a growing reputation as an enlightened man of letters that apparently meant nothing to the authorities and the monarchy. He would remain at Vincennes until November 3. A slight man with a narrow face, a warm smile and knowledgeable eyes, Diderot became a clever novelist, an astute philosopher, a brave art critic and a remarkable scholar. By the time he had finished the encyclopedia, he had produced 35 volumes. Now known as a major protagonist of the ‘romantic’ era, in his lifetime he was not given the recognition he believed he deserved. During his imprisonment he was visited by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a fellow man of letters from Geneva. In his Confessions, Rousseau described the day of this visit.

‘On my return to Paris, I received the agreeable news that Diderot had been released from the dungeon, and confined to the château and park of Vincennes on parole, with permission to see his friends. How painful it was to me not to be able to run to him on the spot because Vincennes is one hour distant from Paris. Although the summer was excessively hot and, being unable to afford a conveyance, I set out at two o’clock in the afternoon on foot. I walked fast to get there sooner. The trees on the road, always lopped after the fashion of the country, hardly afforded any shade and often, exhausted by heat and fatigue, I threw myself on the ground, being unable to walk any further. I rested a while until my strength came back. I moderated my pace by reading the Mercure de France. While I walked I came upon the subject proposed by the Academy of Dijon as a prize essay: has the progress of the arts and sciences contributed more to the corruption or purification of morals? From the moment I read these words, I beheld another universe and became another man. If ever anything resembled a sudden inspiration, it is what that advertisement stimulated in me. All at once I felt my mind dazzled by a thousand lights, a crowd of splendid ideas presented them to me with such force and in such confusion that I was thrown into a state of indescribable bewilderment. I felt my head seized by a dizziness that resembled intoxication. A violent palpitation constricted me and made my chest heave. Unable to breathe and walk at the same time, I sank down under one of the oak trees in the avenue, passed the next half hour in such a state of agitation that when I got up I found that the front of my jacket was wet with tears, although I had no memory of shedding any. If ever I had been able to write down what I saw and felt as I sat under that tree, with what clarity would I have exposed the contradictions of our social system, with what force would I have demonstrated all the abuses of our institutions, with what simplicity would I have demonstrated that man is naturally good, and has only become bad because of those institutions.’

When Rousseau explained his eureka episode to Diderot, his friend encouraged him to write the essay. Rousseau took the prize. Six years later he would write his ‘Origin and Foundation of the Inequality of Mankind’ and made what was seen then and since as a remarkable statement.

‘From the moment one man needed the help of another, as soon as they observed that it was useful for a single person to have provisions for two, equality disappeared, property was introduced, labour became necessary; and vast forests were changed into smiling fields which had to be watered with the sweat of men, and in which slavery and misery were soon seen to germinate and grow with the crops.’

Contemporary food archaeologists would probably agree, now that they know a little more about the decision to leave behind the hunting and gathering tradition that had apparently defined humanity up to that point. Sedantism was gradual after the last ice-age, a trickle of rain-water along a natural furrow in rutted ground. Eventually it became a torrent after 8000 years of foraging, herding, hunting and planting when the pressure to settle became inevitable – apparently!

The rest is a history that is changing with every precise movement of a tool that unearths more of the secrets of the past. Over 5000 years of unimaginable misery followed for those who had the misfortune to be born in the fertile crescent and later in the surrounding steppes and valleys.

Rousseau did not have the knowledge we have today, but he was closer to the truth than many imagine. However it was his friend Diderot who hit the nail on the head when he addressed his sharp mind to the irony behind the collective consequence of giving up hunter-gathering for a settled lifestyle.

Humans had learned how to bake and cook!

… continued in part 2.