Sunday, April 11, 2010

WALDEN by Henry David Thoreau

When spring comes, and a gauzy veil of green throws itself over the budding trees, I always feel compelled to read Thoreau.

"I am convinced, that if all men were to live as simply as I then did, thieving and robbery would be unknown. These take place only in communities where some have got more than is sufficient while others have not enough." -- Walden, "The Village"

We can safely assume from the above quote that Sarah Palin and her ignorant ilk would not consider Thoreau a "real American." He's obviously a socialist, communist wealth-redistributor, and he pals around with terrorists like John Brown. But seriously, while reading the long Montaignesque essay on "Economy" that uneconomically opens Walden, I reflected that it would be an interesting thought experiment to imagine the America in which Thoreauvian economics would be taught in business schools. That America would be a Jeffersonian agrarian utopia, a pastoral democracy, the kind of garden that America never really was and will never really be. Contra Joni Mitchell's "Woodstock," we'll never get back to the garden; we've built too many highways to take us away from it.

I suspect that the contemporary popular imagination sentimentally casts Thoreau as a 'naturalist' in order to avoid the disturbing implications of Thoreau's early and implacable opposition to what would become America's hegemonic ideology, corporate capitalism. Regarding the textile industry of his day, he writes: "I cannot believe that our factory system is the best mode by which men may get clothing....the principle object is, not that mankind may be well and honestly clad, but, unquestionably, that the corporations may be enriched."-- Walden, "Economy"

The last two paragraphs of section two, "Where I Lived...", exemplify Thoreau's prose at its very best, poetically beautiful and poetically intricate. It is necessary to resist the impulse to subject Thoreau's rhetoric to de Manian deconstruction, and not just because such an interpretation would be almost too easy, but also because it would be beside the point. We should instead attempt the much more difficult task of understanding Thoreau's wildest rhetorical moments, his 'fishing in the sky'--understanding them not as one understands Kant (or Derrida or Rorty), but as one understands Yeats, or tries to. Such understanding can be the work of a lifetime.

Reading Thoreau after Lawrence, I note similarities and differences. Both men are a type of cracker barrel philosopher, but H.D.'s barrel is better built than D.H.'s. Lawrence's barrel is seriously warped and has at least one hoop missing.

One aspect of Walden many readers seem to miss is Thoreau's humor, his sarcasm, irony, wit. Lawrence could've learned something from Thoreau in this area. For example, the mock-epic Homeric description of hoeing beans (a bean field Iliad) and Thoreau's bitterly sarcastic reaction to martial music coming from Concord--a bitterness that's reminiscent of late Mark Twain and also does sound a bit like DHL. (Both passages are in the chapter "The Bean-Field.") While recognizing Thoreau the naturalist and Thoreau the radical, we shouldn't discount Thoreau the humorist. There's probably much more irony in Walden than most readers have ever suspected.

The passage in "The Ponds" where Thoreau loses and rescues his ice-axe from the frozen lake is, for me, strangely beautiful, powerful, and even haunting. I think it's one of the greatest passages in the entire book. There is a hallucinatory vividness about it, and it's achieved with remarkable economy.

As for Thoreau the Romantic philosopher of Nature, in "The Ponds" he interestingly revises Emerson's "transparent eyeball" image, projecting the eyeball outside the self, into nature, and aiming it inward, toward the self. "A lake is the landscape's most beautiful and expressive feature. It is earth's eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature...." But does Thoreau really measure the depth of his own nature in Walden? It's highly arguable how well he succeeds in being the Columbus of his self (to borrow the rhetoric of Walden's "Conclusion"). He's certainly the Columbus and the Cortes and the Balboa of Walden Pond and Woods, but consider how little he tells us about his life outside the woods. By book's end, a Thoreau known only from Walden would be a rather mysterious figure.

Running through the book, and especially noticeable in "The Pond in Winter," is a tension between Thoreau's Enlightenment rationalism and his Romantic "Natural Supernaturalism." The tension is present in the "Realometer" paragraphs that end "Where I Lived..." but it comes into stark relief in "Pond in Winter" when Thoreau acts according to classic scientific method: he sounds the depth of Walden Pond, constructs a hypothesis from this data, and tests his hypothesis in a neighboring pond. This scientific Thoreau, probing and testing, sits uneasily alongside the Thoreau who insists upon the essential mystery of Nature, of that mystery as the premier site of imaginative play, a source of tropes, a motive for metaphor. Thoreau is aware of the mutually antagonistic character of these two positions, and over the course of the book he attempts a synthesis of "the bays of poesy" and "the dry docks of science." We can read Walden as that attempt and argue about its success, but I suspect that Thoreau's "dry docks" image points to a deeper and more agonistic project: throughout Walden, Thoreau is swamping the discourse of science in the language of poetry. This isn't synthesis; this is war.

"And so the seasons went rolling on into summer, as one rambles into higher and higher grass."


Alireza Taghdarreh said...

Dear Sir,
Your essay on Thoreau and Walden is very profound and beautiful. I must say that I have read it over and over again each time with more joy. My name is Alireza Taghdarreh. I am an Iranian translator who has decided to translate Walden into Persian for the first time. Thoreau looks at my culture and our poet Saadi very favoribly and I love Thoreau very much. Does your time allow you to answer the questions that I may have in Walden from time to time while I am translating it? My email address is

BRIAN OARD said...


Thank you, and good luck on the translation. I'm surprised to learn that Walden has not yet been translated into Persian. I'm not a Thoreau specialist, just a Thoreau reader, but I might be able to help with your occasional questions about the text. My email is BAOARD@AOL.COM

Joe Miller said...

Have you read Stanley Cavell on Thoreau? Wonderful stuff.