Earth Book I:
Walden-Thoreau's Emergent Deep Ecology Intratext
By Chuck Richardson
October 10, 2005
There are many valid
readings of Henry David Thoreau, most centering on Walden. But the two
most common these days seem typified by Leo Marx, an MIT professor and
book editor, and Lawrence Buell, an ecocentric Harvard
English professor. (1)
the established view of Walden being a work of American pastoral, contrasting
community and individual life. Buell, however, believes Walden records
a "transformative journey" from an anthropocentric vision
reality to an ecocentric one; or, if you prefer, from a human-centered
dream to a systemic Earth-focused world encapsulating our observations
as observed beings stewing away in the generalized will of things (otherwise
as cosmic soup).
Buell sees human
prejudice in Marx's reading, which excludes the validities of other
forms of being for being insignificant-a very narrow view of the immensity
indeed. Marx disparages Buell's construal for its exclusion of Thoreau's
assumed dislike of humankind, authenticated by his interpretation of
"the farmer Flint" in "The Ponds" essay.
I suggest a reading
that integrates these, bonding their strengths while harmonizing their
prejudices, which might provide deeper advances in our private considerations
of our self and selves as Earth and Earthling within our
Walden is an Earth
book; Thoreau the Earthling from which it emerged.
Reading Walden as
American pastoral, I discover Thoreau emphasizing individualism from
the start-"In most books, the I, or first person, is omitted; in
this it will be retained; that, [with] respect to egotism, is the main
(2) He's voicing a very Emersonian (i.e.: anthropocentric) view because
he locates meaning within one's self, since Nature is "a remoter
and inferior incarnation of God," but nonetheless the "present
expositor of the divine mind."(3) Plato would accept this as fact.
Marx feels that (and I agree with him, somewhat): "For one breathless
moment Thoreau managed in Walden to hold the linked opposites `in solution
fused' and yet still kept separate, he and
nature publishing each other's truth."
Walden also conveys
two incompatible realities: one of ecstasy in Nature, the other of rage
at social conventions, which are, of course, part of Nature. Marx finds
Walden "difficult" due to the "ambiguous" way it
"initially invites then
resists being read as a book about nature" [emphasis mine].(4)
Ambivalence within the self breeds ambiguity in the writing. Refining
this duality breeds precise, cutting, weaving and sewing metaphors.
In this mode, Thoreau is in the platonic tradition of intuitive rationalism,
in which perfect, unchanging ideal forms lend order and understanding
to physical reality, which seems to oppose them.
A Buell-ish naturist
reading, however, points to Thoreau's insatiable religious appetite
for a concordance with the whole. In fact, we find multiple examples
of this throughout his work. Take for example, "Why has man rooted
thus firmly in the earth, but that he may rise in the same proportion
into the heavens above?"(5); or "What do we want most to dwell
the perennial source of our life
this is the place
where a wise man will dig his cellar."(6) Thoreau perceives the
essentially spiritual character of what many deep ecologists call "first
nature," that part of Nature which is not human. A good example
of this is Walden's ending. I quote en toto because I want to give you,
dear friend, a solid dose of what we're really dealing with here, just
in case you haven't discovered it for yourself yet:
Every one has heard
the story which has gone the rounds of New England, of a strong and
beautiful bug which came out of the dry leaf of an old table of apple-tree
wood, which had stood in a farmer's kitchen for sixty years, first in
Connecticut, and afterward in Massachusetts,--from an egg deposited
in the living tree many years earlier still, as appeared by counting
the annual layers beyond it; which was heard gnawing out for several
weeks, hatched by chance by the heat of an urn. Who does not feel his
faith in a resurrection and immortality strengthened by hearing of this?
Who knows what beautiful and winged life, whose egg has been buried
for ages under many concentric layers of woodenness in the dead dry
life of society, deposited at the first in
the alburnum of the green and living tree, which has been gradually
converted into the semblance of its well-seasoned tomb, --heard perchance
gnawing out now for weeks by the astonished family of a man, as they
sat round the festive board, --may unexpectedly come forth from amidst
society's most trivial and handselled furniture, to enjoy its perfect
summer life at last!(7)
with this bug, wants society with God and perceives Nature as Its flesh,
the wood Its social creation he must gnaw through-each ring of existence
warmed by the absolute invisible-to reach the light
animating him. As Nature laid Its egg within the tree, the bug's energy
derives from the sun that makes Earth possible, and though It is outside
It comes from within Itself. The way to Its soul-Its circuitry's energy
awakened will digging Its way through reality, picking through and selecting
Its artful wiring, within which It was deposited many years hence precisely
for this purpose. Thoreau puts faith in the fact that a man can abstract
a more honest, less adulterated truth from the meat of the whole Earthling
rather than from humankind alone. If he can live within his own portion
of Nature and be pure enough in his motives to perceive the unnamable
for Itself, using his genius to do so, It and he will be observant of
we are confined to books [our own codexes] and read only particular
written languages [the symbols of our culture]
we are in danger
of forgetting the language which all things and events speak without
[being, existence], which alone is copious and standard [alive and well],"(8)
expresses Thoreau's concern to emulate this pure, primal communication
of a shared existence and convey the truest truth while avoiding mere
book smarts. Each identifiable thing has an essence that supplies it
with a purpose culminating in the prime mover, which implores it to
live Its own life well.
Language is the
perceived grammar abstracted from life's current in an effort to sensify
It, and thus commune and relate to It, which is essential to Thoreau's
innate sense of goodness, or diction, and is essentially Aristotelian.
Simply put, we must live within our bodies and minds, but constantly
try to expand our significance through an active relationship with Nature.
To receive and truly touch Nature, one must reach for It, both inwardly
and outwardly. For an external vision, one must look inward. For an
inner vision, one must look out. This is the human way of forming a
complex system in the abstract, commonly referred to as reality: the
willful cultivation of an existable ambivalence re: the polarities of
living. We all do this. When mystified by life, we produce logical frameworks
for success by creating a complex system out of our rationalizations.
Combining this with the absurdity of feeling responsible for our actions
is what we humans do. What separates Thoreau from the common mass of
humanity is his ability to express his singular humanness, or individuality,
using a method of writing that crystallizes into an ever-increasing
organic whole as it is read and re-read, written and re-written. He
is, indeed, a strong and beautiful bug.
So it seems Thoreau
is a third kind of writer, one who somehow merges Plato and Aristotle
in Walden, which is something of a literary convergence (consider the
aims of Jackson Pollock's actions).(9) But we also know he dug
Confucius, Hindu philosophy, Amerindian culture and championed civil
rights. Neither Plato nor Aristotle were democrats, and it is safe to
assume that both Marx and Buell are republicans, in that they prefer
democratic representation over letting everyone have their say equally.
I, on the other hand, as Thoreau, am a true democrat despite-or perhaps
because of-my misanthropy, wanting everything to have Its say and equal
consideration.We'll achieve anarchy once we're ready for it.
Neither a leader
nor a follower be! Pastoralize your homogenizations!
Coloring the Invisibly
Blank-Slated Hand: Method, Form and Style
In 1851, disappointed
by the public reception of his only published book, A Week on the Concord
and Merrimack Rivers, along with his growing estrangement from his mentor,
Emerson, Thoreau began reconsidering his aims as a writer. It was now
his journal grew more ambitious and he began re-writing his rough draft
It was also during
this period that he became more eccentric and less liberal, at least
in the capitalist sensibilities of John Locke and Adam Smith.(10) He
was doing much surveying, divvying up the Commons for farmers and
businesses. He was also a some-time real estate agent. His growing distaste
for commercial enterprise pushed him away from humankind to Nature.
What Thoreau scholars often see as a change in mid-life brought on by
failure was actually brought on by the success of his family's pencil
factory, in large part due to Thoreau's innovations, and the fact he
was Concord's surveyor of choice. Here emerges the next logical stage
in his development as an Earthling writer. Thoreau was constantly expanding
his horizons, humanity alone would not and could not satisfy him-humankind
was not enough to fill his soul. For Thoreau, second nature was second
rate-if not in his mind, then heart.
and spiritual change from anthropocentrism to ecocentrism dramatized
in Walden is by the end of the book complete. Thoreau's no longer a
poet-naturalist, or angry shepherd, but an imaginative writer of philosophy
whose desire for a communion with God through Nature is insatiable.
By now he believes his writing project-a process involving transcription
of field notes then revising them into highly polished vignettes for
his Journal-elicits a higher truth from Nature, finding harmony among
object and reflection, fact and truth, close observation and generalized
concept, while conceding the presence of "I" will affect It.
Walden is the imaginative philosophical exercise crystallizing Nature
as Thoreau perceives It, and the Journal is Its imagined, scientific
I am interested
in how this shift in perception reveals itself in Walden, and how it
manages to work itself into a strong enough resolution for the writer
to drop his pen.
Consider his method:
setting from three angles: environmental apocalypticism, anthropomorphism,
and the frontier dream of an Anglo settling culture with its obligation
to civilize and Anglicize wilderness-institutionalizing all that is
sacred in the process.
Perhaps the most
heart-rending example of such nihilism is in "The Ponds."
Again, I quote entirely to offer you, dear friend, its full affect:
When I first paddled
a boat on Walden, it was completely surrounded by thick and lofty pine
and oak woods, and in some of its coves grape vines had run over the
trees next to the water and formed bowers under which a boat could pass.
The hills which form its shores are so steep, and the woods on them
were then so high, that, as you looked down from the west end, it had
appearance of an amphitheatre for some kind of sylvan spectacle. I have
spent many an hour, when I was younger, floating over its surface as
the zephyr willed, having paddled my boat to the middle, and lying on
my back across the seats, in a summer forenoon, dreaming awake, until
I was aroused by the boat touching sand, and I arose to see what shore
my fates had impelled
me to; days when idleness was the most attractive and productive industry.
Many a forenoon have I stolen away, preferring to spend the most valued
part of the day; for I was rich, if not in money, in sunny hours and
summer days, and spent them lavishly; nor do I regret that I did not
waste more of them in the workshop or the teacher's desk. But since
I left those shores the wood-choppers have still further laid them waste,
and now for many a year there will be no more rambling through the aisles
of the wood, with occasional vistas through which you see the water.
My Muse may be excused if she is silent henceforth. How can you expect
the birds to sing when their groves are cut down?(11)
Here, Thoreau deftly
manipulates the elements of setting-time, image, location, rhythm, tone
and character-to evoke common emotions that awaken the reader's empathy
with Nature, albeit vicariously through the very human
perspective of the narrator. He takes us back in time to his childhood,
using the simplest language to convey the simplest time, striking a
universal chord. What reader, with a youth asrelatively happy as Thoreau's,
reading "I was
rich, if not in money, in sunny hours and sunny days" is not aroused,
having had similar periods in one's earlier times?
Location is a special
place of youth, a secret cove that serves as "amphitheatre,"
or stage, for the childlike, "sylvan imagination." Rhythm
is conveyed by the consistency of its iambic meter, along which variations
in sentence structure express the nuance of emotion that occurs between
remembering what was and observing what is. The sentences at the end
describe the affect of the chopping apocalypse-being shorter and more
rhythmically quartered-as if trying to cut off the emotion. The earlier
sentences, conveying memory, are freer as the narrator's emotion is
gamer to express itself, setting the tone by fusing the present to the
past and implying that humanity, on its current, industrious course,
is not progressing, but deviating its path down an evil tangent. He
lets us know this by suggesting a present that doesn't live up to natural
history by using its tense alone, thus increasing the poignancy of what's
happening. Thoreau then allows a flood of good feeling to rush into
the present (it would be sentimental if its value were misplaced), only
to damn it and drain it at the end with a "But" that puts
on the brakes for the following sentence, which, though long, seems
screeching in affect, the words like water splashing back on the reader
as if from a wall, industriously wetting the rings of time around the
pond, falling silent only when their human purpose is spent. Only two
more diced sentences, short and final, will do. The absence of words
and their free flowing rhythm echoes the silence of the pine and oak
woods, whetting our palettes for better vistas, allowing us to share
their author's hunger for more. The voice, in effect, is real and characterized,
allowing the reader to commune with it in a sense familiar with the
way it communes with its private, or individual memory of a secret place
of its own, long lost to the desires of other people. The paragraph
is Milton's "L'Allegro" and "Il Penseroso" more
subtly conveyed. It is silent spring a century before Rachel Carson
named the nightmare.
Thoreau also forges
a bond between the reader and natural world by exploring and making
sense of his internal intra-relatedness with the materially inter-related
external world he's perceiving(the intra-relatedness of conscious
and subconscious), Nature (the intra-relatedness of first and second),
the reader (an intra-related complex combination of the first two),
and the commonality of languages among them (the multiplicity of wills
themselves as the synchronistic end results of complex systemic processes
seeking to organize themselves into a singular sense of meaning, or
wholeness-at-one-ment). The darker side of this, of course, equates
language with the powers of entropy, as atonement also occurs once things
are settled, or dead; thus we have two countervailing forces which intra-relate
within language as well: rhythm and death.
Again, and forgive
me, dear friend, I will illustrate this with some lengthy quotes, one
from the beginning of the book, and the others from the second to last
chapter, "Spring." I do this searching for signs of Thoreau's
from an anthropocentric worldview to an ecocentric one, as intra-relationships
are defined by one's perception of the big picture within one's self.
Now, I would be
remiss if I did not stop for a moment to consider what Robert D. Richardson
Jr., in his insightful intellectual biography of the philosopher, calls
Thoreau's "four worlds:" "One of the many paradoxes in
life, perhaps the most revealing, is that this best known of American
stay-at-homes thought of himself as a traveler" in four different
worlds, related to the concentric rings of a tree that mark its growth
and the story of its seasons (it is indeed fitting that he may have
contracted his final bout with poor health while counting the rings
of an ancient tree in harsh, winter weather, being out and about, or
traveling, when others were snug at home). These worlds, working their
way from the innermost ring to the outermost, are:
1. The world of
Concord-Walden, which was coursed by walking and understood through
direct observation.2. The world of North America, where he excursioned
by various means, including literature, which he understood through
a combination of direct and indirect observations, as well as inductive
3. Earth, over which he ventured by means of non-fiction books (Emerson,
Virgil, Linnaeus, Gilpin, Olmstead and Darwin) and flights of imagination,
which he understood by experience and/or reason, as well as deductive
4. The ideal world, which he explored as the "objective extension
and subjective analogue" to the first three, as a leaf is to a
tree, providing a metaphor and structural principle or purpose for life.
He knew life to be an odyssey of interior enlightenment, seeing the
Self as the shores of a New Frontier, or wilderness. His wisdom was
both inductive and deductive, purely logical in the most rational, intuitive
sense. Walden is the leaf of this tree.(12)
the Ideal World in Walden, and its subjective parts each fall like noumenal
seeds dispersing into one of three material, or phenomenal, realms.(13)
As Thoreau attempts to bond his readers to Nature through his
individual search for a concordance with the whole, employing a method
of examining the intra-relatedness of things, it is important to intra-link
these worlds to the elements Thoreau is striving to intra-relate.
I see the first
world of Concord-Walden being akin to that of the reader, in that Thoreau,
like the reader, understands the world confronting him through direct
observation. The words that the reader faces on the page are a nude
or naked wilderness-depending on the awareness of the reader's eye (I)
and the narrator's mood (voice)-which Thoreau has artfully projected
there. He reads the wild, or first nature, we read the text, or second
nature, which Thoreau strives to make as transparent as possible for
The second world,
or North America, equates to the commonality of languages, in which
meaning is conveyed using a wide variety of media, which is known through
a mixture of direct and indirect observation. One would feel strange
if the sun were in the wrong position. Think about it. Awareness is
deeper than the moment's perception.
The third world
is virtual Nature, in which he (the wild) and the reader (the civilized,
literate person) travel together by means of factual books and flights
of imagination (Walden). Here, no matter how hard we try, flesh (i.e.:
language) will always come between us (and thus the desire for purity
as prescribed in "Higher Laws" makes sense when dealing with
the reflective surfaces of things).
Walden is an Earth
book because the last world, the ideal, is its author's portion of Nature
Itself, his soul or genius that informs his being with Its integrity,
identity and desire. Thoreau's primary Nature is the hair rising from
the organic co-mingling of the first three, growing beyond their reach.
His secondary or social nature exists beneath and within these phenomena,
and is therefore always within easy reach. One need not strive to grow
one's hair, but to be one's follicle is another matter indeed.
This four worlds
paradigm reflects unraveling ambiguities that expose new ones which
have always existed.(14) It is the purified crystallization of volcanic
psychological forces-the avuncular surfacing of molten, planetary blood-and
Thoreau is a Columbus to it, wise like Solomon but sweet as David, tasting
its intra-textuality while weaving it with words freshly spawned from
intra-related codices onto a common pageness of grammarity.
Look at Walden's
first chapter, "Economy:"
We might try our
lives by a thousand simple tests: as, for instance, that the same sun
which ripens my beans illumines at once a system of earths like ours.
If I had remembered this, it would have prevented some mistakes. This
was not the light in which I hoed them. The stars are the apexes of
what wonderful triangles! What distant and different beings in the various
mansions of the universe are contemplating the same one at the same
moment! Nature and human life are as various as our several constitutions.
Who shall say what prospect life offers to another? Could a greater
miracle take place than for us to look through each other's eyes for
an instant? We should live in all the ages of the world in an hour;
ay, in all the worlds of the ages. History,
Poetry, Mythology!-I know of no reading of another's experience so startling
and informing as this would be.(15)
Here Thoreau has
included the reader as a co-adventurer on his odyssey, using "we"
and "ours" to show a commonality among not only himself and
the reader, but also beings on other planets pondering the same Milky
Way at the same moment, and by so doing he's connecting first to second
nature using a cosmic twist. This ideal of everything living everywhere
and when at once, experiencing the whole of life for one's self, seems
ecocentric, if not a bit gnostic, in that the self is not seeking dominion
over Nature, but harmony and communion within It. This is Thoreau's
ideal-the triangular intra-relatedness of Being.
But whom, or what,
is Thoreau really including in his "we?" Is he including the
whole of Nature, or is he addressing the reader in particular? If he
is addressing the reader in particular, and we suggest that he is, like
eminently logical and pragmatic, then he is not even addressing humanbeings
in general, but a select few who would find themselves opening this
particular book. Thoreau, an optimist, assumes a natural kinship with
who will be reading his words (as he may have hoped that Nature's assumed
his affinity), and the use of "we" and "our" makes
the attraction contagious and further ambiguates the limits segregating
our seemingly delineated, individuated forms. That he talks of other
beings on other planets contemplating the same stars that we're pondering,
specifically the geometry of their triangular interrelationships, as
well as the speed of light through space suggesting the passage of time,
not to mention with beans to husband that are dependent upon the angle-ation
and rhythms of that light, suggesting a commonality of languages, a
cosmic language, like mathematics, organic
grammar and rhythm-a music of the spheres formed by and for a triangulating
humane intelligence, whether here on Earth or elsewhere, that can be
intra-related. Though this quote comes from a fundamentally human perspective,
it is aiming at those few of us who long for its universal vision. Thoreau
is specifically including the reader in his search for the complete
generalization, or Truth.
We shall now look
at what Thoreau is doing in "Spring," at the end of Walden,
with regards to linking the reader to the natural world by exploring
the intra-relatedness, or intra-textuality, of his self, Nature, the
primary reader of his
text, and the universal language intra-relating them within the four
realms of his exploration and wisdom.For this, we examine the passage
from pages 402 to 408 regarding the forms of thawing sand and clay on
the railroad tracks that run by the pond, taking Thoreau at his word
when he claims, in August 1851, that he "omit[s] the unusual
describe[s] the common," for it "has the greatest charm and
is the true theme of poetry."(16) At the beginning of the chapter,
Thoreau makes Walden Pond a metaphor for himself (albeit his female
side, or what Jung would call his anima) in the way he anticipates and
awakens to the Spring, making the pond a woman with a "new garment
to take the place of the old"; (17) but also, more like himself,
individual and sexually isolated with no streams feeding or draining
it, existing harmoniously with the changing seasons as a material consistency,
a solid rhythm section beneath all the riffs, a certain purity that
freezes then thaws again and again, opening and closing the world soul
orifice, the rising and lowering of spiritual proximity resembling an
alternating current, each reflecting the other and seeming to perceive
the same. The greatest miracle of all is spread over the whole of space-time.
It does not move and it does not change, but is movement and change
itself. It is common in the strictest sense of the
word. The second greatest miracle is that anything exists to perceive
and conceive of It-and argue about It. All other miracles are derivative,
minor rip-offs and poorly plagiarized paragraphs and emotions.
Always one for self-parody,
Thoreau dates the time of that year's thaw-1854, the day the ice cracks
and opens and invites her young lover in to play-as April Fool's Day.
Ay, may a man be foolish and wise! The passage of time
and ever-changing environment must be simplified, or purified or made
transparent to be perceivable. The more light that can pass through
a material object, such as ice when transformed by the light into water,
or writing when
transformed by revision and reading into authorship, or the husbanding
of one's wife in the name of the blessed friction we call light, the
more it will mean to us now. For Thoreau, the water of Walden Pond "indicates
better than any water here-abouts the absolute progress of the season,
being least affected by transient changes of temperature. A severe cold
of a few days' duration in March may very much retard the opening of
the former ponds,
while the temperature of Walden increases almost uninterruptedly."(18)
Thoreau, like his pond, is marching to the beat of his own drummer.
That the image of
the pond is a symbol for Thoreau's sexuality, his ideal woman, per se,
creates a moment of sexual comedy, as Thoreau in springing ecstasy goes
about writing of "thrusting the thermometer in the middle of Walden,"
and then commenting on its temperature, as compared to the other ponds
he'd thrusted his thermometer into on the same day over a number of
years, suggesting a certain promiscuity idealized in his essay on friendship
in A Week on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers.(19)
If the pond were
indeed a woman, and the other ponds women, his behavior would be that
of a savage since a gentleman does not kiss and tell. Thoreau is hyper-aware
of the profound separation between the thing itself and its
sign. The way that both Thoreau and Walden Pond remain pure and decent
symbols of each other's sexuality is in the way that they are chaste
among their own kind. Thoreau's ideal promiscuity, being human, is with
first nature, as the pond's ideal promiscuity, being non-human, is with
second nature. The one may dip its thermometer, and the other may receive
it, while still remaining chaste among its own kind. If the one with
the thermometer is tied up with another one of its own kind, not much
thermometer dipping will be taking place elsewhere. And if the pond
were fed by a myriad of streams, the thermometer would register an agitated
tepidity, and the eye would be denied its bottom due to a lack of clarity.
One pond is no worse than the other is, but each has a distinct natural
character, its own integrity and role to play in the system. Thoreau
and Walden Pond are pure souls, having specific roles to play in Nature;
and, having individual integrity, they play their roles well. Like them,
but less specifically, we readers have a common function with these
generator/conduits of intra-textualized systems because to go all the
way we must intra-relate our own allegorical (i.e.: psychic) compositions
to those being laid bare before us. We are to Thoreau's text what Thoreau's
text is to the perceivable Walden. As Thoreau imagines Walden, we imagine
Thoreau. Therefore, we are imagining Walden through Thoreau's imagination,
which included you and me: his ideal reader; which is himself reading
Walden, Walden reading the stars, stars thawing Walden, Walden thawing
Thoreau, thawed Thoreau-Walden's text-thawing us, us thawed thawing
ourselves, our self thawed thawing that which is frozen around us. Each
of these phenomena intra-relate within our private metapshycicalities-those
that bring our loins together, desiring the dipping of thermometers
into deep, clear waters.
The benefits of
having deeper, purer waters is evidenced by Thoreau's intra-textual
intra-mingling with his four worlds and their four elements via the
written word. His down-to-earth genius is stunning: "So, also,
every one who
has waded about the shores of a pond in summer must have perceived how
much warmer the water is close to the shore, where only three or four
inches deep than a little distance out, and on the surface where it
is deep, than near
the bottom."(20) This consistency, or ideal, among ponds is most
dramatic when the particular pond is clear and deep. In that the pond
is already symbolically human, Thoreau here bonds a factual truth in
first nature to an ideal truth in second nature, and his role as writer
is reflected in the surface of the pond and perceived by a reader of
it; the pond, the water itself, being the medium, or language, conveys
its meaning by reflection. That the laws he's
writing about here apply to all four worlds in his domain-in that it
applies to the ponds we've actually experienced, and that ideal image
of a pond we have in our minds and conjure up instantly when a wise
guy asks us to define the
difference between a pond and small lake. This simple statement crystallizes
the deeply complex processes informing it. It is a compression, or firing,
of profound insight conveying Its universal, or cosmic essence.
The water of the
pond is a metaphor for the strived after transparency of his own writing.
Thoreau wants us to see through the pond to the soul at its bottom.
The ice on the surface, which is undergoing constant revision in first
nature, is the text, which is undergoing constant revision in second
nature. The ice-text is that which exists between God-Sun-Thoreau and
Soul-Self-Reader. But the ice-text is transparent, allowing heat and
light from the sun to
shine through it, warming the soul to such a point of agitation it will
melt the ice mediating their communion, and, becoming thawed, ever more
clear and liquid. God and Soul work from both sides of the ice-text
to achieve this
transparency. The author seeks accurate conveyance of its revealed meaning
and the reader seeks a true reading of it. Again, the water, text and
bug's wood are here intra-mingled.
The essence of this
reading-writing is grinding and granular-"In the right stage of
the weather a [melting] pond fires its evening gun with great regularity"-but
the sexual friction heard as pond thunder does not occur "every
and I cannot tell surely when to expect its thundering; but though I
may perceive no difference in the weather, it does. Who would have suspected
so large and cold and thick-skinned a thing to be so sensitive?"(21)
men have said the same of their wife?
This, to me, suggests
Thoreau's sense of radical democracy. In a world where everything is
essentially spiritual (i.e.: intra-related, -mingled), everything has
certain ideal, or natural rights as expressions of universal soul. To
Walden Pond has as much right to its dignity as any woman, nay more
so, as its integrity remains intact despite the changing seasons, the
passage of time, and the ravages of man. She is his wife in a romantic
cosmic opera, and he husbands her.
In the next section,
covering pages 399 to 402, Thoreau sketches a first world setting (Walden
Pond) in the aspect of how it relates to himself, moving from lists
of empirical facts of natural history (when the ice thawed) to ideas
how they relate to him: "Every incident connected with the breaking
up of the rivers and ponds and the settling of the weather is particularly
interesting to us who live in a climate of so great extremes,"
citing as reasons for choosing
to be in such a mortal climate nature's undying ability to amaze us
with its grinding granularity transforming consciousness into enlightenment,
suggesting evolution is an alchemical process of first nature.(22) Indeed,
Thoreau is a married man.
Now we reach the
transitional paragraph on page 402. Thoreau, who has been writing in
the past tense, but with an active voice, switches to present tense
with a passive voice, referring directly to the traveler as one who
way from islet to islet, cheered by the music of a thousand tingling
rills and rivulets whose veins are filled with the blood of winter which
they are bearing off."
His bachelor's seduction
begins. The scene is set for the phenomenon of the sand and clay foliage,
the manifestation of Earth's fecundity and original symbol for what
precedes climax, the foreplay and titillation of "the green and
flowing spring" where "nothing is inorganic" and Nature
is God's flesh. To perceive Earth's sexuality, one must be passive regarding
one's organic aim. To consummate marriage a man must learn how to make
love to his
wife, and keep her faithful. It is very different from dominion, rape
Thoreau begins his
description of the sand foliage as:
not very common on so large a scale
As it flows it takes the forms
of sappy leaves or vines, making heaps of pulpy sprays a foot or more
in depth, and resembling, as you look down on them, the lacinated, lobed,
and imbricated thalluses of some lichens; or you are reminded of coral,
of leopards' paws or birds' feet, of brains or lungs or bowels, and
excrements of all kinds. It is a truly grotesque vegetation.
This is the typical
distaste of the Puritan husband seeking his wife's clitoris and g-spot.
Here, as Thoreau
is narrowing his use of language to the point of purity and transparency,
the reader literally sees the patterns in the sand, having surely remembered
seeing them or something like them in the past, but not having
given them particular notice, unless one was a child at the time, and
had an experience like Thoreau's but lacked the language to articulate
it, to attach general ideas to its specific images, to see the world
as the text of a
conceived symbolic language, to touch nature as the skin of God, to
recognize that symbolic language is a perceivable grammar abstracted
from life in an effort to sensify it, creating a certain harmony among
reflection, fact and truth, close observation and generalized concept
in which the writing process elicits a truer truth
in which you
can trace the original forms of vegetation; till at length, in the water
itself [the text], they are converted into banks [evolution, alchemy
of nature], like those formed off the mouths of rivers, and the forms
of vegetation are lost in the ripple marks on the bottom [like rings
of a tree that record the passage of time].(24)
The grooms first
glimmer of understanding as his bride squirms-a willing subject.
Thoreau sees one
law ruling nature, as suggested by Goethe's leaf in An Italian Journey,(25)
which symbolizes the fundamental unit of botany providing for the insight
that certain laws (i.e.: grammar) underlie and guide all natural
processes. For Thoreau, this grammar, or body of laws, is the root of
all knowledge and instinct, and it produces language as a byproduct
of the organic perception of Earthlings and their need to sensify themselves.
Allow me another lengthy quote, dear friend, to illustrate this point:
What makes this
sand foliage remarkable is its springing into existence thus suddenly
am affected as if in a peculiar sense I stood in the laboratory of the
Artist who made the world and me-had come to where he was still at work,
sporting on this bank, and with excess of energy strewing his fresh
designs about [consider the method of chance in Jackson Pollock's abstract
You find thus in the very sand an anticipation of
the vegetal leaf. No wonder that the earth expresses itself outwardly
in leaves, it so labors with the idea internally. The atoms have already
learned this law, and are pregnant by it. The
overhanging leaf sees here its prototype. Internally, whether in the
globe or animal body, it is a moist thick lobe, a word especially applicable
to the liver and lungs and the leaves of fat
, externally a dry
The feathers and wings of birds are still drier and thinner
leaves. Thus, also, you pass from the lumpish grub in the earth to the
airy and fluttering butterfly. The very globe continually transcends
itself, and becomes winged in its orbit
The whole tree itself is
but one leaf, and rivers are still vaster leaves whose pulp is intervening
earth, and towns and cities are the ova of insects in their axils.(26)
All four worlds
and each of their four elements are thus neatly intra-related, and ideal
law resonates throughout Nature creating multiple forms of beings striving
to sensify it: "
who shall distinguish between the law by
brook finds its river, the instinct [by which] a bird performs its migrations,
and the knowledge by which a man steers his ship around the globe?"(27)
Thoreau is choosing Nature over history, or civilization, as a means
or education. He rejects the burden of history in light of Nature's
continually sudden and remarkable springing into existence. The will
to breed trumps propriety when life pursues life. Being is deeper and
more intra-mingled than
thought. Facticity is more meaningful than any commentary about it (which
is why I'm imploring you, friend, to read everything you can by or about
Thoreau; please, don't take my word for his or those of others). But
how can I see it
and stay mum, unless I'm struck dumb by it? So, the dumbstruck read
searching for their remarks (I, like Thoreau, know this to be empirically
"When the sun
[God, the pen-i.e.: penis] withdraws the sand [reading, text, sexuality,
life, cervix] ceases to flow
You here see perchance how blood vessels
are formed," reveals Thoreau's search for the resolution of human
problems in Nature-each being a miraculous extension of the other-in
an "effort to obey the law to which the most inert also yields."(28)
What is a man but
a mass of thawing clay? The ball of the human finger is but a drop congealed.
The fingers and toes flow to their extent from the thawing mass of the
Thus it seemed that this one hillside illustrated the principle
of all the operations of Nature. The maker of this earth but patented
living poetry like the leaves of a tree, which
precede flowers and
fruit,--not a fossil earth, but a living earth; compared with whose
great central life all animal and vegetable life is merely parasitic.(29)
Nature is not marriage,
but a wedding and a consummation of will. Thoreau is an ecocentrist,
and the reader, inspired, becomes one also, as the universal soul passes
over us like pond waves passing over the sand, imaging ripples upon
our surface, making us reflect in its own image. Inside we areleaves,
but we are being made in our intercourse with Nature. Worries about
being fruitful and multiplying and having dominion over the Earth come
later, and are, though somewhat artful and pleasing, unnecessary digressions
with nihilistic effects. We are unique in detail, but uniformly respond
to cosmic law in peculiar ways. Each of us is our own hair in Nature.
This is why we get
haircuts and not hairs cut.
the section by stating: "Thaw with his gentle persuasion is more
powerful than Thor with his hammer. The one melts, the other but breaks
in pieces."(30) Thaw is the springtime sun on Earth-the damsel's
romantic hero; Thor, the vernal star on ice, the villain.
It is one thing
for ice to be transparent, but another for the Earth itself to be so.
As a result, the intra-relatedness of Thoreau, Nature, the reader and
the commonality of language is an entity formed by its unique portion
grammar, and signifies a regulatory diction among the media connecting
each element of Its private psyche to its externalized distant cousin
in society so it can be internalized. Thus, Thoreau realizes the potential
of art to image
and remythify the natural environment by trusting a factual idiom to
reveal the meaning behind natural facts. An object's meaning is latent
and internal. Facts and words, by definition, have a common origin.
A word is a breath.
For a breath to exist one must breathe. To breathe, one must first be
born, then one must eat and drink. These are obvious things, but they
are all too often lost in the scramble for social status in the human
world, or second nature.It all comes down to what being means. This
is the essence of Thoreau's method and it expresses the evolution of
his worldview, as the cradle of importance is no longer in the lap of
the self. The first person, his "conceit to egotism," is now
and the pure reader finds herself intra-related, with
an intra-related ego more complex than what she had held for herself
Holism; or, Observational Limits & Organic Form
movement from rational-intuitive holism (anthropocentrism) to empirical
holism (ecocentrism) is the organic code, or grammar, underlying Walden,
and ultimately brings the author of the text and
its readers to the issue of limits, both logical and actual-"I
perceive that we inhabitants of New England live this mean life that
we do because our vision does not penetrate the surface of things."(31)
Each of us is confronted by
the fundamental question of where nature-or the actual-leaves off, and
culture-the imagined self-begins: "We are conscious of an animal
in us, which awakens in proportion as our higher nature slumbers;"(32)
or, better still,
where individual mind ends and universal mind begins: "But are
they not indeed distinguished who are conscious that they are regarded
at all?"(33) It is in this zone of transformation from a humanist
world view to a naturist one in which the text, or reality, occurs (as
Thoreau is obsessed with the never-ending metamorphoses of nature in
rhythm with its transition through the seasons and their cycles), and
the various media of individual expressions within nature create the
friction we perceive as a shared, or common, experience, raising the
question of what is shared and what is individual with regards to vision:
"The greatest part of what my neighbors call good I believe in
my soul to be bad, and if I repent of anything, it is very likely to
be my good behavior."(34)
If one is something
of a formalist one attempts to arrange or style, through artistic means,
the generally perceived friction or rubbing together that we call life
into something unique in its expression but universal in its meaning,
is to be considered apart from its content or composition. If one is
a linguist, or a philolologist, one considers the origins of words,
being more concerned with the interplay of symbols and referents than
things in and of themselves,
or their actual contents. If one is a musicologist, one is concerned
with the sound of a note (symbol) or composition, as opposed to its
meaning (in other words, feeling over thought). If one entertains a
combination of the above
morphologies-language and music-seeking a formula or grammar that allows
existence to occur, or brings it into being, one is seeking the ideal
method, which translates phenomenally into a process that is pregnant
with desire. In
such a case, in which the passionate intellect is so acute, the ideal
method is made transparent by the form of the whole work of art. Form
becomes an extension of content, which is the particular work's process
or method, and the byproduct of the artist's struggle to crystallize
an abstraction into existence or development, or at least the beginning
of life and growth as a part of his innate processes, which seek to
discover the material limits of his particular medium of art and what
he can do within its assigned limits to convey his unique vision of
The result of these
efforts is a work of art that achieves organic form. Walden, again,
is an Earth book. Thoreau is examining the limits of his ability to
know God through Nature by using every valid method of which he can
Walden is a highly polished journal of these attempts divided into eighteen
chapters covering two cycles of seasons intra-mingled into one. Eighteen
does not divide by four fully, nor does it divide by eight, suggesting
an ambiguity of transition through the seasonal cycles over the course
of the chapters, as well as their granular shifting of focus from the
human being and society in "Economy" to the ambiguity between
humans and nature in "Higher Laws" to the final preference
in favor of nature, in the next chapter, ironically titled, "Brute
Neighbors," in which he does not discuss farmers or town folk but
his cabin's critters. The grinding effect of the changing seasons and
philosophy creates a natural thawing, or giving way, as in erosion,
of the common world view held by his fellows at that time. He takes
us through an odyssey of methods that the sensitive reader will feel
deep within her gut. Walden and Thoreau are texts that viscerally affect
my digestive organs, which is where life takes shape and conveys its
meaning. Organic form is always sexual because it celebrates a titillation
that more often than not results in orgasm and the expansion of emotionally
charged ideas. Organicism is the functioning star chamber of our dreams
Walden is not only a clitical, but critical text, plumbing also the
logic juicing Thoreau's diverse perceptions of reality.
Evolves Literature Evolving
It now behooves
us, dear friend, to briefly visit an old essay by M.H. Abrams called
"Orientation of Critical Theories."(35) According to Abrams,
there are four elements that comprise literary form: the universe, or
nature; the text; the
artist; and the audience.
These are the four worlds Thoreau considers himself a traveler in, as
well as their four elements. As a reminder, his worlds were Concord/Walden,
in which he traveled by foot and directly observed reality, in which
he was a reader, or observer (i.e.: audience); North America, which
he traveled by various means, including literature, which he observed
directly and indirectly, which equates to the text as it is being observed
by a variety of means; Earth, or Nature, which obviously relates to
Abrams' universe; and the Ideal World, in which forms exist that can
be revealed to the artist by using the purest artistic methods. Abrams
points out that most literary theories and
criticisms include each of the four formal elements within their framework,
but exhibit a discernable orientation toward one only. Thus Abrams implies
that few critical theories of reality seek the harmony or interrelatedness
the world, its language, its receptors and transmitters together, or
how the existence of a common spirituality informing them can congeal
the elements of chaos into a perceivable and sensible whole-a singular,
entity. So one might also say that the organic form of Walden is striving
for spiritual sensibility using all the means at hand to unknot Its
Abrams also points
out how objective critical theories "regard the work of art in
isolation from all these external points of reference, analyzes it as
a self-sufficient entity constituted by its parts in their internal
relations, and sets
out to judge it solely by criteria intrinsic to its own mode of being."(36)
Obviously, this pertains to Walden and Thoreau being an intra-related
unit perceiving the interrelatedness of everything else enmeshed in
his inner wiring.
If Thoreau were really seeking a pure work of art, he would have written
a different book and used a different method. He knew by definition
there was only a single purity, and that an indefinite article would
its being. His aim seems to have been to write the pure art. He fully
understood that purity only existed from the transcendent perch of the
Ideal World, where the eye turns inward finding Its true selfhood-the
elements screwing together the One Being. Walden the Earth book is anything
but critically objective. There's dirt all over it.
Abrams also maintains
that, if the artist's theory is not objective, that "It may be
maintained that the artist's world is that of imaginative intuition,
or of common sense, or of natural science; and this world may be held
to include, or not to include, gods, witches, chimeras, and Platonic
This is even closer
to Thoreau's critical approach to Walden. However, as Abrams' tone seems
to favor the objective approach over the subjective one, and I believe
Thoreau esteemed both about equally, believing that we cannot
help but be subjective, being human, and that though true objectivity
doesn't exist within our human framework, it does exist in the ideal
and should be emulated in an individual's ethics, or actions, as he
intuits them. I suggest,
then, that Thoreau is seeking objectivity through subjective means.
Objectivity being a true communion with God through the meeting of objectives
subjectively wrought, in which one may see the whole of creation as
the joyous turmoil and fornication that it really is-subjectivity being
the method of existence leading to the gnostic communion of holy intra-relatingness,
individuals are the subjects of all kinds of phenomena. Once they achieve
sentience they become objects (i.e.: objectives) to themselves. The
main differences among them are the conscious levels of their activities.
Who is awake, and who is sleeping-and to what degree? Thoreau lives
and writes subjectively, but by the end of Walden the sheer weight of
his subjectivity congeals into an objective whole, or a completed form
capable of being perceived and existing by the integrity of its own,
individually conceived grammar, and the ensuing dictions deduced therefrom.
But how did Thoreau
achieve this? Oscar Wilde once stated that criticism is the best form
of autobiography.(38) We have mentioned this before, but mention it
again, as Walden is not only a critical text, but also something of
memoir, or autobiography, and therefore, by Wilde's aesthetic, the highest
form of criticism: earth analyzing Earth-and vice versa
in "Literature and Biography," considers the "literary
functions of biography as the traditional concomitant of the artistic
work" because "
during the individualism of creativity
[period of the eighteenth century]
the name and personality of
the author came to the forefront."(39) Thoreau, with his epochal
conceit to the first person, falls squarely into this realm, seeming
to live Lord Byron's definitive life of the lyric poet by making himself
the hero of his own text, transforming his life into a poem and his
work into poetry. Tomashevski writes: "
the result of an orientation toward autobiography
the author had
to make literary use of his
[and thus] the interrelationships of life and literature
became confused during the Romantic era."(40) Not "confused"
you ethnocentric dork, but clarified in ways that subvert or transcend
I believe it is
precisely this confusing clarity that Thoreau, writing in the immediate
historical wake of the Romantic movement, was striving to further elucidate
via his eccentric experiments and his peculiar observance and recording
methodologies. Using his life to realize his own literary purpose, Thoreau
To be a philosopher
is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but
so to love wisdom as to live, according to its dictates, a life of simplicity,
independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems
of life, not only theoretically, but practically.(41)
Thoreau needed to transcend mere Romanticism, the glorification of "I,"
and enter into a world that beatified Nature, of which the heroic Self,
The heroic books
always be in a language [or expression] dead to degenerate times.(42)
Thoreau was a romantic
in that he made himself the hero of his text and times:
a true spirit, is a noble exercise, and one that will task the reader
more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem
is a memorable interval between the spoken and the written language,
the language heard and the language read
one is commonly transitory
other is the maturity and experience of that;
a reserved and select
expression, too significant to be heard by the ear, which we must be
born again in order to speak;(43)
but also transcendental
in that he repeatedly parodies his romantic self-image to glorify his
perceived image of the ideal, as-in at the end of "Brute Neighbors"-he
is consistently outwitted in a fall game of trigonometric tag with a
common loon about the pre-dawn surface of Walden Pond, and writes, mock-confused
and flabbergasted, but reigned in, as to fool the imperceptive reader
with the inner calm of a loon playing its game:
But why, after displaying
so much cunning, did he invariably betray himself the moment he came
up by that loud laugh? Did not his white breast enough betray him? He
was indeed a silly loon, I thought.(44)
So how, finally,
did Thoreau achieve in Walden a completed form capable of being perceived
and existing by the integrity of its own, individually conceived grammar?
By coming to see himself as one with the whole of Nature, rather than
in a particular harmony with his fellow men:
I do not say that
John or Jonathan will realize all this; but such is the character of
that morrow which mere lapse of time can never make to dawn. The light
which puts out our eyes is darkness to us. Only that day dawns to which
we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.(45)
Thoreau simply likens
the transformation he's undergone to a mere waking up, a falling away
of the delusions that envelop human society, a removal of the scales
from one's eyes, and to partake in the vision of a world that's awaking
with its rising star.
that by the "middle of the nineteenth century, the poet-hero was
replaced by the professional poet, the businessman-journalist [e.g.:
Emerson]."(46) Thoreau, though way ahead of his time-and ours-with
regards to his vision of man's place in Nature, was in 1854 considered,
ironically, as something of a throw-back, a literary Luddite and savage,
who's estrangement from Emerson haunted his mentor as something of an
ideal form of
himself that he'd forgotten, or was unwilling to face for civil, or
Whatever Truth Emerson
shied away from, too many of us are still denying today. As a rural
high school English teacher is so fond of summarizing: "Thoreau,
I think, was more right about things; but Emerson was more
achievable, or realistic, about them. One can believe Thoreau, but do
Emerson." How sad for the seventh generation that we are so miseducated.
I've digressed a
bit, but what I'm trying to say is that Walden takes on the organic
form of an autobiographical metamorphosis of worldviews-it is the transcendence
of the Earthling from the human being. Earth is our all-
encompassing life as The Living Planet. We are, beyond all phenomena,
Earthlings first and last, human only in the middle. Just as a cell
in one's heart tissue is you in the alpha-omega, its form is an extension
of content, its soul being its youness. Thoreau's content was his method
of searching for harmony. The search itself became manifest in its emergent
form, sense locating its selfhood within the odyssey, and "the
sun is but a morning star."
So what about style?
As Thoreau was considered
by the literati of his day to be something of a throwback, when we discuss
his style we shall do so in Aristotelian terms, those from The Poetics
in particular, as Plato had little time for the poets (or others of
their ilk) in his republic.(47)
When I speak of
style I mean, specifically, the distinct manner of description the artist
uses to express his or her perceiving selfhood. It is important to remember
that at the moment of creation, the thing is not itself yet. The artist
has an ideal image in his or her head, and the work is to describe that
imageto the best of one's ability, using what one has to express it.
Style is the manner in which one performs that action, and is thus the
most vibrant aspect of an artist's work.
style falls into what Aristotle calls "the mark of an educated
man" in that he "look[s] for precision in each class of things
just so far as the nature of the subject admits."(48) Thoreau seeks
transparency in language through the precise description of objects.
When you no longer notices that words are conjuring up the images of
things themselves in your head, the language has achieved transparency.
Then Thoreau goes one step further by taking you to the very limit of
what can possibly be known about the phenomena in your mind without
dissolving them, but clarifying them even more by investing them with
your metaphysical significance, your own transparency. By achieving
the transparency of language by way of style, Thoreau achieves transparency
of the object, or text, by investing it with symbolism:
my house was
not finished for winter, but was merely a defence against the rain,
without plastering or chimney, the walls being of rough weather-stained
boards, with wide chinks, which made it cool at night. The upright white
hewn studs and freshly planed door and window casings gave it a clean
and airy look, especially in the morning, when its timbers were saturated
dew, so that I fancied that by noon some sweet gum would exude from
them. To my imagination it retained throughout the day more or less
this auroral character, reminding me of a certain house on a mountain
which I had visited the year before. This was an airy and unplastered
cabin, fit to entertain a traveling god, and where a goddess might trail
her garments. The winds which
passed over my dwelling were such as sweep over the ridges of mountains,
bearing the broken strains, or celestial parts only, of terrestrial
music. The morning wind forever blows, the poem of creation is uninterrupted;
but few are the ears that hear it. Olympus is but the outside of the
transparency at the very start with "
without plastering or chimney
weather-stained boards, with wide chinks
outdoor images strung
smoothly together upon a chord of iambic rhythms, lulling the reader's
critical attention enough to stir the imagination into envisioning "The
freshly planed door and window casings," and then seeing what's
not there, but what might be there, through the door and window, by
journeying via language to noon when "some sweet gum [will] exude
from them." Now we are on the imaginative journey, but the image
of the door and the window, the incomplete
shack, remain firmly in our minds as we move from the particular shack
to one visited in the past, our past, expanding the category of shacks
from individual to plural, into an ever wider arena of imagination that
covers all space and time, if not in reality then firmly by implication
or suggestion, as a finger pointing to some far off place. The door
and window of the unfinished shack-the text itself in the process of
being written and read-become ideal
via their replication, their expansion from the particular to the universal
while retaining their "auroral" character, their essence,
resonating their forms throughout all the dimensions of the whole. Now,
suddenly, you see the door and window as intra-relatable objects of
your shack, portals to another place and time and other dimensions of
reality-the collective hut
place of the cosmic human. Our walls
and limits exist in time, discovered and/or constructed for transcendence-our
passing through to the Olympus of our other side.
also involves an enthusiastic and humorous, never-ending search for
unique ways to link his direct observations of the political and biological
intra-relatedness of first and second Nature. Since humans instinctively
divide Nature into first and second parts-one human, the other not-Thoreau
strives to re-join them. Any such linkage, if it is to occur, must be
of their likenesses and a metaphor.(50) Thoreau's description of his
shack, quoted above, is a metaphor of this metaphor.
Yet, Aristotle writes:
the poetic expression should have some mixture of
ensure that it is not commonplace, or low, and the common element [to]
ensure clarity."(51) It was within Thoreau's stylistic range to
the pastoral mode to anti-capitalist satire and self-parody. Thoreau
cheerfully intra-mingles metaphors-conjugating noumenal ideals with
phenomenal realities-to transcend perceived shortcomings by absorbing
the best humors
contained in each situation:
I had this advantage, at least, in my mode of life, over those who were
obliged to look abroad for amusement, to society and the theatre, that
my life itself was become my amusement and never ceased to be novel.
It was a drama of many scenes and without end. If we were always indeed
getting our living, and regulating our lives according to the last and
best mode we had learned, we
should never be troubled with ennui. Follow your genius closely enough,
and it will not fail to show you a fresh prospect every hour. Housework
was a pleasant pastime. When my floor was dirty, I rose early, and,
setting all my furniture out of doors on the grass, bed and bedstead
making but one budget, dashed water on the floor, and sprinkled white
sand from the pond on it,
and then with a broom scrubbed it clean and white; and by the time the
villagers had broken their fast the morning sun had dried my house sufficiently
to allow me to move in again, and my meditations were almost uninterrupted.
It was pleasant to see my whole household effects out on the grass,
making a little pile like a gypsy's pack, and my three-legged table
from which I did not
remove the books and pen and ink, standing amid the pines and hickories.
They seemed glad to get out themselves, and as if unwilling to be brought
in. I was sometimes tempted to stretch an awning over them and take
my seat there. It was worth the while to see the sun shine on these
things, and hear the free wind blow on them; so much more interesting
most familiar objects
look out doors than in the house. A bird sits on the next bough, life
ever-lasting grows under the table, and blackberry vines run round its
legs; pine cones, chestnut burs, and strawberry leaves are strewn about.
It looked as if this was the way these forms came to be transformed
to our furniture, to tables, chairs, and bedstead,--because they once
stood in their midst.(52)
No one can ever
accuse me of quoting out of context to illustrate some point I am trying
to make. My flights of fancy derive from the text itself. Thoreau suggests
here, by shear force of enthusiasm, the mixing of phenomenal forms,
the second nature of the furniture with the first nature of the outdoor
setting, their figures suggesting their underlying commonality, or relatedness-the
shared dimension of their reality. He transcends their individual
shortcomings by fusing their intentional or willed peculiarities.(53)
This is simply a part of Thoreau's style, which, by now, friend, you've
had a good helping.
But I have one more
thing to say, at least about Thoreau's style, concerning Aristotle's
ideals. The ancient one dictated that "The specific excellence
of verbal expression in poetry is to be clear without being low"
moderation is a common principle applying to all the modes
of poetic diction."(54) Thoreau, by being sensitive to the interplay
of phenomena-the sensations composing commonplace natural events-moderated
or filtered their
effects and expressed their "specific excellence" by coming
up with singular images that conveyed the response of his whole being
to their interplay. Consider:
The night-hawk circled overhead in the sunny afternoons-for I sometimes
made a day of it-like a mote in the eye, or in heaven's eye, falling
from time to time with a swoop and a sound as if the heavens were rent,
torn at last to very rags and tatters, and yet a seamless cope remained;
small imps that fill the air and lay their eggs on the ground on bare
sand or rocks on the tops of hills, where few have found them; graceful
and slender, like ripples caught up from the pond as leaves are raised
by the wind to float in the heavens; such kindredship is in Nature.
The hawk is aerial brother of the wave which he sails over and surveys,
those his perfect air-inflated wings and surveys, those his perfect
air-inflated wings answering to the elemental unfledged pinions of the
sea. Or sometimes I watched a pair of pen-hawks circling high in the
sky, alternately soaring and descending, approaching and leaving one
another, as if they were the embodiment of my own thoughts. Or I was
the passage of wild pigeons from this wood to that, with a slight quivering
winnowing sound and carrier haste; or from under a rotten stump my hoe
turned up a sluggish, portentous, and outlandish spotted salamander,
a trace of Egypt and the Nile, yet our contemporary. When I paused to
lean on my hoe, these sounds and sights I hear and saw anywhere in the
row, a part of the inexhaustible entertainment which the country offers.(55)
sensitivity to the interplay of phenomena that enable the hoeing of
a row of beans, which provides him the calories to do with his text
what the farmer will do with his acre, and thus, vicariously, what we're
doing with our readings of these fields-intra-mingling elemental ubiquities
into compounds that re-shape and re-compose ourselves into constituative,
functionary perceivers who allow for moderations of the naturally occurring
dictions of everywhere so that common abstractions can and will crystallize
into words deriving power and being from their specificity.
Simply put, Thoreau
esteems the common without a trace of sentimentality, achieving Aristotle's
ideal of the golden mean through his distinctive, moderating style of
Odyssey of Sensations
& Transparent Distinctions
analytical methodology emerges Walden's organic, evolutionary form,
and its simple-complex style provides it with its distinctly friction-packed
flavor. Its sensibility is so passionate and acute that its
odyssey of sensation erodes any certainty of distinctions to a point
of utter transparency. Pure expression conveys the essential spirituality
of all things using factual idioms. The more individual, the more universal,
eternal-the greater the integrity and validity. Individualistic Nature-writing
is a gnostic means to communion with God, and the closest natural object
Thoreau has for study is himself. Purity is a means of keeping his interior
life, his pond's depth, clear enough for his soul to engage other natural
objects. His soul, like the Earth, is an Indian thing.(56) One can't
see the fineness beyond the glass if the window isn't clean. To see
things almost as they are, or at least to the best of one's human ability,
one's internal life must be purely intra-related or transparent.
Purity and simplicity
are means to transparency where original language is used. Transparency
is a physical attribute of special value, for it allows human penetration,
both visual and intellectual. Thoreau's writing process, despite itself,
seems to suggest the ultimate inseparability of each domain and invests
his evocation of natural beauty with its environmental point of apocalypse
necessitated by human desire.
As an alternative
way of reading Walden from the naturist or pastoral viewpoints, I recommend
a somewhat existential, or phenomenological reading, in that being,
for Thoreau, seems to inform both knowledge and action. Therefore, it
is up to each individual to imagine a meaning for reality, and to recognize
the importance of one's attitude, or motivation (the purity thereof)
in imagining it. Walden is not a book about nature and society; it is
nature and society. The pastoral mode is a manifestation of Thoreau's
ontology, which informs his naturism, which is both a will to know and
the need to act upon it. Thus, American pastoral and naturism are symbiotic.
Walden's existential principles lie in its problematic characterization
of concreteness or materiality, in which limits, or the zone of separation
between the individual and nature, are made one by a religious adherence
to method, or action (i.e.: ethics). The individual is not a detached
observer of Nature, but an ethical participator within it as a natural
mode observing Itself.
or attitude, always goes along with consciousness. We find what we're
looking for most of the time.(57) This reading resolves the pastoral
difficulty with Walden (re: its ambiguous way of inviting us to read
it as a book
about nature then resisting that and its anthropocentric limitations)
by placing first and second nature in a symbiotic relationship. Nor
does it diminish the role of human beings in the universal play as naturism
does, as its values are nothing if not humane-a means by which Nature
can think of Itself.
What the pastoral,
naturist, existential and phenomenological readings of Walden have in
common is their having sprung from Thoreau's sense of the metapsychicality
of will;(58) his longing for at-one-ment, or being there;(59) and his
willingness to transform himself through revelatory nuggets of self-expression,
placing complete faith in the alchemical intra-relatedness of streams
of awakened language and the grammar-ridden dictions pursuing them into
1. Marx, Leo. "The
Struggle Over Thoreau." A review of The Writings of Henry David
Thoreau: Journal, Volumes 1 to 5, Elizabeth
Hall Witherell, editor, Princeton University Press; Faith is a Seed:
The Dispersion of Seeds and Other Late Natural History Writings, by
Henry David Thoreau, Bradley P. Dean, editor, Island Press; A Year In
Thoreau's Journal: 1851, with an Introduction by H. Daniel Peck,
Penguin; Consciousness and Concord: The Text of Thoreau's Hitherto "Lost
Journal," (1840-1841) Together with Notes and a
Commentary, Perry Miller, editor, AMS Press; Deep Ecology for the 21st
Century: Readings on the Philosophy and Practice of the
Environmentalism, George Sessions, Shambala; Writing Nature: Henry Thoreau's
Journal, by Sharon Cameron, University of Chicago
Press. Published in New York Review of Books, Volume XLVL, Number 11,
June 24, 1999. "The Full Thoreau." A review of The
Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation
of American Culture, by Lawrence Buell, Belknap
Press/Harvard University Press; Seeing New Worlds: Henry David Thoreau
and Nineteenth-Century Natural Science, by Laura Dassow
Walls, University of Wisconsin Press. Published in New York Review of
Books, Volume XLVI, Number 12, July 15, 1999.
2. Thoreau, Henry David. Walden, Quality Paperback Book Club, New York,
1997. First published 1854. See Chapter 1, "Economy,"
3. Emerson, Ralph Waldo. "Nature." Published anonymously,
1836. For an online text, see http://www.rwe.org/pages/Nature_html.
4. Meaning the scope of William Empson's typology, as when details multiply
simultaneously, when two or more alternative
meanings are fully resolved into one composing three in search of another,
when alternative meanings combine to make clear the
narrator's complex evolving mind, in which contradictory or irrelevant
messages must be interpreted and the total friction stitching
together while separating the narrator's mind is made apparent so that
its details can be effective in various ways at once creating a
spectrolitic form of synchronistic multiplicity? You bet. For more on
this, see Empson's Seven Types of Ambiguity, 1930; and Milton's
5. Walden, "Economy," p. 18.
6. Walden, "Solitude," pp. 175-176.
7. Walden, "Conclusion," pp. 439-440.
8. Walden, first sentence, "Sounds," p. 146.
9. Pollock, Jackson. Chance methodology
Pollock's spontaneity derived
from a precise yet random inertia-a subversive,
vertigionous dance toward self-creation; an infinitely self-edited monologue
pigmentizing a gut felt nihilism, idiosyncratic in its
intrinsically rebellious anarchy. Nature is the physicality of materializing
internal arenas that give scope to our life and death
digressions. The Psycho-physicality of organisms stamps them as documents
of Nature's existential struggle, of which our visions
are merely the residua of various colliding forces making friction in
the world. Reality is action, not some form of materialistic
objectivity, the production itself vice the product we consume. An aesthetic
effect is derived from the act of abandoment and the
simultaneous striving for accuracy, the bipolar axes torquing everyone's
internal life into distinctly human sensibilities. And thus an
ambivalent collective unconscious emerges into the prevailing ambiguities
of individual human awarenesses and all the ensuant
10. Locke, John, and Smith, Adam, re: the marriage of liberalism and
capitalism. Locke's notions that good government rules with
"the consent of the governed" and that people possess inalienable
rights like life, liberty and the pursuit of personal wealth is part
the one-two punch of America's alleged political philosophy, which justifies
continual revolution. His public views, however, conflict with
his private activities as an investor in the English slave-trade. Smith's
The Wealth of Nations-an anti-mercantile diatribe published in
1776-is the seminal work of capatilist economics, developing it into
an autonomous, systematic discipline whose tenets were free
trade, material wealth liberated from the land creating increased production
derived from the hierarchical division of labor, the
abandonment of earlier ideologies in the belief that overpopulation
will prevent wages from exceeding subsistence. Smith postulated
that increasing wages will increase production and that God's "invisible
hand," which is beyond our philosophy, constantly guides the
apparently chaotic, unrestrained free market. If shortages occur, prices
go up creating a desire for more effort to go into production to
lower those prices and cure the shortage. Smith calculated that even
though most humans are primarily motivated by greed and
selfishness, the competitiveness of the free market and the meritocracy
it produces will hold these immoralities in check and balance
in something akin to a natural moral order. Smith attacked most forms
of gummint meddling in business because it would breed
inefficiencies that would lower production, increase wages and other
business expenses that foster inflation. In other words, these
guys were dickheads and didn't really get out in the woods very much.
11. Walden. "Ponds," pp. 254-255.
12. Richardson, Robert D. Jr. Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind. University
of California Press, 1986. From Part VII: "New Books,
New Worlds," Chapter 64, "The Four Worlds of Henry Thoreau,"
13. Kant, Immanuel (1724-1804, German idealist). Noumenon/phenomenon:
That which humans cannot observe through the
senses or imagine with their mind/and those things that can. These intertwining
realities or forces weave Kant's critical philosophy-a
rationality that debunks reason, a criticality that subverts objectivism-describing
how we know what we know about the unkowable to
ascertain an ethical means to a moral existence. What a single individual
can and cannot know says more about the individual's
intellectual state of affairs than it does so for the entire species,
or the universe at large, as the human being is restricted by its own
of categorical imperatives. The idiosyncratic experience-activities
of a particular individual is our only hope as a species of discovering
ourself within a meaningful context. No one can do it for us, there's
no easy button [sic]. Science emerges from a synthesis of
accumulated sense perceptions categorized by our means of making sense
of them within the constraints of space-time-a
metapsychic-metaphysic field in which consciousness roams perceiving
an objective harmony amidst nature as a mind-being in Itself
exchanging abstractions with entities existing outside yet within Its
mind-the marriage of a singular private awareness to a universal
abstraction mushrooming into a collective spark of subconsciousness.
What we are not aware yet potentially aware of can be deduced
by whatever rigors the individual mind is prone to exercise. Goodness
seeks harmony within the universal flow of things, evil contests
them and rejects Nature, falsely believing that by doing so it can advance
its own well-being at the expense of another. Each growing
hair is the means to its own ending at the trimmer's blade. Good knowledge
emerges from objective scientific processes, not
ideologies that claim proof of things that can't be tested while ignoring
the validity of each observer's observations. In many ways, Kant
is the original deconstructionist and progenitor of Heisenberg's Uncertainty
Principle. Part of being enlightened is the ability to discern
between provable and unprovable knowledge, and that which can be reasonably
built upon from that which will prove a dead end.
Enlightened people are the ideal citizens of modern, utopian societies.
A good online read analyzing Kant can be had at http://www.
14. Quantum theory: Learning how to predict the actual locations and
movements of bodies and waves, their interrelatedness via
shared energies and momenta, with ever-increasing accuracy. QT's deeper
than Newton or your basic electromagnetism as it
applies to more precise things about a much wider variety of stuff.
QT accounts for three types of thingness that old physics cannot: (i)
the quantization (discretization) of certain physical quantities, (ii)
wave-particle duality, and (iii) quantum entanglement. However, in
some cases the old rules of physics work acceptibly well, but only when
they correspond to QT. Most physicists believe that QT
correctly describes the physical world almost all the time nearly everywhere.
The question of compatibility between QT and Einstein's
general relativity is a very hot topic, perhaps the hottest, in this
field of inquiry. QT is a science that takes the fact of one's self,
objective existence, into consideration as one of the variables at work
in creating the phenomena comprising each situation. It is,
indeed, an objectivist conceit to "I."
15. Walden. "Economy," p. 11.
16. Richardson, p. 248.
17. Walden, "Spring," p. 395.
18. Ibid 17, pp. 395-396.
19. Thoreau, Henry David. A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers,
Quality Paperback Book Club, 1997. Originally published
1849. Thoreau considers these various aspects of friendship, pp. 327-356:
the fiction of, 331; true, 336; between the sexes, 337;
warrior qualities of, 342; promiscuity of, 345; in relation to family,
346; Confucius and, 351; death of friends, 356.
20. Walden, "Spring," p. 396.
21. Ibid 20, p. 398.
22. Ibid 20, p. 400.
23. Ibid 20, p. 403.
24. Ibid 20, p. 404.
25. Goethe, Johanne Wolfgang von (1749-1832). Italian Journey (1816-1817).
Also see Theory of Colours (1810), The
Metamorphosis of Plants (1790).
26. Ibid 20, pp. 404-405.
27. Thoreau, Journal, 1854.
28. Ibid 20, pp. 405-406.
29. Ibid 20, pp. 406-408.
30. Ibid 20, pp. 408-409.
31. Walden. "Where I Lived," p. 126.
32. Walden. "Higher Laws," p. 290.
33. Walden. "Baker Farm," p. 269.
34. Walden. "Economy," p. 11.
35. Lambropoulos, Vassilis; Miller, David Neal-editors. Twentieth Century
Literary Theory: An Introductory Anthology, SUNY Press,
Albany, 1987: "Orientation of Critical Theories," pp. 3-31,
by M.H. Abrams.
36. Ibid 35, Abrams, p. 6, 25.
37. Ibid 35, Abrams, p. 7.
38. Ellmann, Richard. Oscar Wilde, Vintage Books, 1987. On page 51,
Ellmann writes: "If [Wilde] needed evidence for what he
would say later, that `Criticism is the highest form of autobiography,'
he could find it in [John Ruskin, Walter Pater's] unconscious self-
revelation." Unfortunately, Ellmann does not cite the source for
this Wilde quote.
39. Ibid 35, "Literature and Biography," by Boris Tomashevski,
40. Ibid 39, p. 119.
41. Walden, "Economy," p. 17.
42. Walden, "Reading," p. 131.
43. Walden, "Brute Neighbors," 313.
44. Ibid 43.
45. Walden, Final paragraph, "Conclusion," p. 440. Also see:
Stein, Gertrude. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, and Writing.
She writes that sentences are thoughts, paragraphs emotions.
46. Ibid 39, p. 120.
47. Aristotle. Poetics, translated by Gerald F. Else, Ann Arbor Paperbacks,
The University of Michigan Press, 1967; Plato, The
Republic: And Other Writings, B. Jowett, translator, Doubleday, 1989.
48. Poetics, "The basic principle of poetic style," pp. 58-61.
49. Walden. "Where I Lived," p. 110.
50. Poetics, pp. 60-61.
51. Ibid 49, pp. 58-59.
52. Walden. "Sounds," pp. 148-149.
53. Aristotle's teleology; Schopenhauer, Arthur (1788-1860), concept
of will. Teleology supposes intelligent design, reality being
dreamed up by a purposeful singular entity informing life, or what we
call Nature. Teleology probes what it believes is the single
principle organizing natural laws and phenonema. Humankind sees because
it has eyes, but it also has eyes to see. This resonates
through the five senses and intuition/imagination/poetry/poem/leaf.
Aristotle writes: "Nature adapts the organ to the function, and
the function to the organ" (De partib., animal., IV, xii, 694b;
13). He posits that one errs in attempting to reduce everything to necessity,
because such thinking neglects the purpose, order, and final cause from
which perceived situational necessity emerges.
Schopenhauer's idea re: will: that the world is will and representation.
views life as being futile, evil, and filled with inevitable suffering,
but also a brief chance for a perceived, personal autonomy within all
the suffering via beautiful meditations, universal empathy, and a
moral need to tread lightly in the world. Schopenhauer begins at Kant's
severing the universe into objects and non-objects, which were
really subjects and non-subjects, claiming that the noumenon and Will
are the same thing. It is the inner content and the driving force
of the world, the black hole into which our private universes implode-the
primal force of our deepest attractions. Human will is more
relevant in world affairs than human intellect. Desire forms thought
as fire casts iron. Will is the leaping flame, the spark of perceiving
light that makes the visible world possible. Art is more valid to being
than reason, as are "loving kindness" and some types of spiritual
practice. Schopenhauer believed that reason and logic fail to deduce
Nature's noumenous quality (or will) because each dwells in the
realm of objects, a field of common desire. We are enablers of unachieved
worlds existing beyond our minds through a particular
universal expression we cannot touch or conceive of...The rational mind
is an electron traveling upon an invisible sub-current called
Will. And only by recognizing what lies beneath our thoughts, words
and actions, and living accordingly, can a "human" reality
shape, emerging from its deep roots.
54. Poetics, pp. 58-59.
55. Walden. "The Beanfield," pp. 209-10.
56. Kerouac, Jack. On The Road, 1954. "The Earth is an Indian thing"
is Sal Paradise's slogan, from Part IV, 5: "I took the wheel
and drove among reveries of my own, through Linares, through hot, flat
swamp country, across the steaming Rio Soto la Marina near
Hidalgo, and on. A great verdant jungle valley with long fields of green
crops opened before me. Groups of men watched us pass from
a narrow old-fashioned bridge. The hot river flowed. Then we rose in
altitude till a kind of desert country began reappearing. The city of
Gregoria was ahead. The boys were sleeping, and I was alone in my eternity
at the wheel, and the road ran straight as an arrow. Not
like driving across Carolina, or Texas, or Arizona, or Illinois; but
like driving across the world and into the places where we would finally
learn ourselves among the Fellahin Indians of the world, the essential
strain of the basic primitive, wailing humanity that stretches in a
belt around the equatorial belly of the world from Malaya (the long
fingernail of China) to India the great subcontinent to Arabia to
Morocco to the selfsame deserts and jungles of Mexico and over the waves
to Polynesia to mystic Siam of the Yellow Robe and on
around, on around, so that you hear the same mournful wail by the rotted
walls of Cadiz, Spain, that you hear 12,000 miles around in
the depths of Benares the Capital of the World. These people were unmistakably
Indians and were not at all like the Pedros and
Panchos of silly civilized American lore-they had high cheekbones, and
slanted f eyes, and soft ways; they were not fools, they were not
clowns; they were great, grave Indians and they were the source of mankind
and the fathers of it. The waves are Chinese, but the earth
is an Indian thing. As essential as rocks in the desert are they in
the desert of "history." And they knew this when we passed,
self-important moneybag Americans on a lark in their land; they knew
who was the father and who was the son of antique life on earth,
and made no comment. For when destruction comes to the world of "history"
and the Apocalypse of the Fellahin returns once more as
so many times before, people will still stare with the same eyes from
the caves of Mexico as well as from the caves of Bali, where it all
began and where Adam was suckled and taught to know. These were my growing
thoughts as I drove the car into the hot, sunbaked
town of Gregoria."
57. Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle postulates that the measurement
of position disturbs the observed particle's momentum
because the universe is an organic collection of statistical possibilities.
For example, a snowflake's pattern or the beating of a butterfly'
s wings, which are made possible and actualized by millions of variables
passing through stable mechanisms into a virtual
calculability. No method can produce actual calculability.
58. Schopenhauer and metaphysicality. See 52.
59. Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time (1927). A seminal work of twentieth-century
thought, this book questions the meaning of
being: what does is mean? This is the fundamental ontological study
of being as being. All activity is the activity of something. Caring
is the root-or will-of intentional being. Theoretical knowledge is founded
on deeply rooted forms of behavior that engage each
situation rather than causing them. All behavioral studies should start
with the fact that the subject and object, as well the verb
connecting them and the variables modifying them, are in the world,
and our fundamental truth is that we are beings in the world. Earth
is a style of being in the universe that is radically contingent and
manifest in the Angst derived from Its essential meaninglessness.
Existence is always potentially absurd. We sentient-sapient beings are
the ones for whom being is an issue, in that it shows up and is
recognized by any of us.
COPYRIGHT 2005 CHUCK