“All European culture – intellectual not less than material – came out of the woods.” Werner Sombart, Moderne Kapitalismus, Vol. 2
The symbolic key to Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin of inequality is found in the circumstances of its writing, as Rousseau described them in the Confessions:
In order to meditate at my ease on this great subject, I made a trip of seven or eight days to Saint-Germain with Therese, and our hostess, who was a good woman, and one of her friends. I count this excursion among the most agreeable ones of my life. The weather was beautiful. The good women took upon themselves the trip’s expenses and organization. Thérèse enjoyed herself with them, and I, without a care, I spent happy hours at mealtime, and for the rest of the day, plunged into the Forest, I searched, I discovered there images of the first time, of which I proudly traced the history. I put my hands on the little lies of men, I dared to strip their nature naked, follow the progress of time and things which defigured them, and comparing man with natural man, show them, the true source of their miseries in their so called perfections. My soul, exalted by these sublime contemplations, was elevated to the side of the Divinity; and seeing from there my likenesses, followed, in the blind route of their prejudices, that of their errors, of their sorrows, of their crimes, I cried aloud to them in a feeble voice that they could not hear. Foolish men, who ceaselessly complain about nature, learn that all your woes come from you yourselves!”
The return to the forest makes the Discourse one of the great European forest books. In the vastness of its scale – that of universal history - Rousseau’s book resembles another book that also begins in a forest:
“Midway through the journey of life/I found myself in a dark wood/for the straight way had been lost”.
Dante’s story encompasses universal history as well, but it is not seen as such – rather, it is seen as a cosmological story, unfolding the great Biblical, classical and Christian events in the afterlife. In Dante’s beginning, the sign that the straight way had been lost is the dark wood; in Rousseau’s, of course, the sign that the straight way had been lost is outside of the forest of Saint German.
In Charles Olson’s reckoning with Moby Dick, he begins by highlighting the material importance of whale hunting to the economy of the United States in Melville’s time. An exhaustively materialist reading of Rousseau’s Discourse could, perhaps, due with an introductory treatise on the importance of forests to the economies of France and other countries in Europe in the 18th century. As Jean Nicolas’ sweeping history of peasant rebellions in that century makes clear, forest rights were no longer the central issue in village jacqueries – but in the 17th century, they clearly had been. Even so, wood, along with clothing and food, stood at the center of European life in Rousseau’s time.
Nor was Rousseau the last of the writer’s of forest books. We think of certain classic American writers as creatures of the wood – Cooper, for instance, and, supremely, Thoreau. This makes sense: one of the driving commercial forces in the European expansion into North America wa all that forest, yearning to be chopped down, burned, made into ships, houses, pulped up as paper, etc. But back in Europe Marx, too, begins his real career by entering a forest – or at least entering into the issues that swirled around forest property rights, as he saw them being reshaped in Köln. Wood theft, according to the two scholars who have studied it in the German context (Blasius and Mooser) was one of the central crimes against property in the 19th century, from the 1830s to the 1860s – over about a generation. Marx’s five articles about the laws concerning wood theft are not, then, about an eccentric issue. And, as much as wood “theft” is an issue in the history of crime, it is also an issue in the creation of property –which is how it opened Marx’s eyes, as much as they were opened in his classes in property law at the University of Berlin.
It is here that we find Marx dealing with the kind of enclosures that were central to Polanyi theory of the Great Transformation. Private property was not, on this account, merely guarded by the state – the still reigning liberal myth. Rather, it was through the state that private property was defined. To separate the state from the private sphere is to move from historic fact to ideological myth, since they overlap, they are imbricated together, and it is impossible for one to exist without the other. Why that myth is important is another matter. What Marx saw happening was important in the way he came to see understand class, rather than remaining with Stand – a word that is hard to translate. Status, station, estate – those are the English equivalents. In 1858, in the preface to the Contribution to a Critique of Political Economics, Marx wrote:
My major was jurisprudence, that I nonetheless only took up as a subordinate discipline near philosophy and history. In 1842-1843, as the editor of the "Rheinischen Zeitung", I was embarrassed for the first time to have to discuss so called material interests. The Rheinische Landtag’s treatment of Wood theft and the parceling out of land properties, which opened up an official polemic between Herr von Schaper, at that time the president of Rhein province, and the Rheinischen Zeitung over the situation of the grapegrowers, debates finally about free trade and tarrifs, gave me a first occasion to deal with economic questions. On the other hand the good will to go further into this further made up for a lot of special expertise, and a weak philosophically colored echo of French socialism and communism could be heard in the Rheinischen Zeitung.
I find it significant that Dante, Rousseau and Marx, setting out to write, on the broadest of scales, the history of human civilization, begin in the forest. Surely this must be an intersigne, an exchange happening in the basement below universal history, where all the dealers in codexes are busy cutting them up and mashing them back together. One way to look at Capital – a bleak way, granted – is that it is the first European book to envision a world completely out of the woods, a human world which has put the woods behind it.