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Monday, August 31, 2020

This past spring I engaged in an independent study course on Walden with our excellent undergraduate student, Laurel Mentor (since graduated, and possibly applying to graduate programs this year). This post is based on our conversation during our final meeting, about the 18th chapter (“Conclusion”). I post it here with her permission. Given my generally blabbermouthed nature, I likely contributed more of the conversation by volume, but Laurel’s part was decisive. For one thing, she brought up the problem that started everything off, about the following passage:

I fear chiefly lest my expression may not be extra- vagant enough, may not wander far enough beyond the narrow limits of my daily experience, so as to be adequate to the truth of which I have been convinced. . . .  I desire to speak somewhere without bounds; like a man in a waking moment, to men in their waking moments; for I am convinced that I cannot exaggerate enough even to lay the foundation of a true expression. (18.6)

Isn’t this an odd thing for Thoreau to say? It is indeed, though it had never occurred to me before. It is odd, as Laurel pointed out, in view of, for example, this:

In most books, the I, or first person, is omitted; in this it will be retained; that, in respect to egotism, is the main difference. We commonly do not remember that it is, after all, always the first person that is speaking. I should not talk so much about myself if there were any body else whom I knew as well. Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience. (1.2)

The narrow limits of his daily experience, in other words, are exactly what Thoreau says, to begin with, he will remain within. Moreover: “The day is an epitome of the year” (17.2). The everyday, the diurnal,[1]With this word, “diurnal,” I allude to Stanley Cavell (although the term does not occur in The Senses of Walden — which, incidentally, I have not re-read at all recently). I don’t know how, beyond that, to give him specific credit for what follows — which would amount, really, to giving myself credit, no doubt falsely, for having understood him. Many of the passages I discuss (especially those that were brought up by me, rather than by Laurel) are ones I remember him reading with special emphasis, either in person or in print. And yet I doubt he would approve of the overall drift of interpretation here. of Thoreau’s life in the woods contains the whole of his experience there. How could he desire to speak without those bounds?

Considering the above quote from ch. 1 (“Economy”), we asked ourselves: well, of which books is it true that, in most of them, the I or first person is omitted? This is actually something of a puzzle. Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” begins “I read the other day.” But, lest we think that this merely shows the similarity between Thoreau and his friends, Thomas Brown’s Lectures on the Philosophy of the Human Mind begins:


The subject on which we are about to enter, and which is to engage, I trust, a considerable portion of your attention for many months, is the Philosophy of the Human Mind. (vol. 1 [Boston, 1826], p. 2)

But maybe that is different from “most books” because it is a collection of lectures. Then how about Brown’s Inquiry into the Relation of Cause and Effect? There the I is, indeed, somewhat delayed, but, on the second page of the introduction, we find:

To remove, in some degree, this darkness, is the object of the following pages; in which I shall endeavour, in the first place, to fix, what it is which truly constitutes the relation of cause and effect; — in the second place, etc. ([Andover, 1822] p. 14)

Locke’s Essay concerning Human Understanding begins (not counting, as perhaps we really should, either the Epistle Dedicatory or the Epistle to the Reader[2]The Epistle to the Reader begins: “Reader, I Here put into thy Hands, what has been the Diversion of some of my idle and heavy Hours: If it has the good Luc[k] to prove so of any of thine, and thou hast but half so much Pleasure in reading, as I had in writing it, thou wilt as little think thy Money, as I do my Pains, ill bestowed.” Which could just as well have been written by Thoreau.):

Since it is the Understanding that sets Man above the rest of sensible Beings, and gives him all the Advantage and Dominion, which he has over them; it is certainly a Subject, even for its Nobleness, worth our Labour to enquire into. The Understanding, like the Eye, whilst it makes us see, and perceive all other Things, takes no notice of it self: And it requires Art and Pains to set it at a Distance, and make it its own Object. But whatever be the Difficulties, that lye in the way of this Enquiry; … sure I am, that all the Light we can let in upon our own Minds … will not only be very Pleasant, but bring us great Advantage. (1.1.1; the second emphasis is mine)

And we all know what line Descartes is famous for, and of what it is he claims, first of all, to be sure. So what are these books, in most of which the I is omitted? To what genre do they belong?

The answer that occurred to me is that Thoreau might be thinking of scientific literature, although I feared that might be anachronistic. And so it proves to be. Picking up, more or less at random, vol. 130 (1840) of the Transactions of the Royal Philosophical Society, I find an article by John Herschel, “On the Chemical Action of the Rays of the Solar Spectrum on Preparations of Silver and Other Substances, both Metallic and Non-metallic, and on some Photographic Processes” (pp. 1–51) in which the first paragraph ends:

The facts themselves, in the present state of our knowledge, will, I believe, be found by no means devoid of interest, and may lead, in the hands of others more favourably situated for such researches, and, I may add, in a better climate than ours [lol], to inquiries of the utmost interest. (p. 1)

After that, an article by Michael Faraday, “Experimental Researches in Electricity — Sixteenth Series” (pp. 61–91), in which the third paragraph reads (in part):

Examining this question by the results of definite electro-chemical action, I felt constrained to take part with those who believed the origin of voltaic power to consist in chemical action alone. . . .  I wished not merely to escape from error, but was anxious to convince myself of the truth of the contact theory; for it was evident that if contact electromotive force had any existence, it must be a power not merely unlike every other natural power as to the phenomena it could produce, but also in the far higher points of limitation, definite force, and finite production. (p. 62)

Looking ahead to the 1880’s, I did start to see papers that really lacked the first person, but of course Thoreau couldn’t be alluding to them. And even (or again?) today, the first person, in an admittedly very impersonal use, will turn up in papers of this kind (“we present here the results …”).

All of this I determined after the fact. At the time, once the suggestion was on the table that “most books” might refer to scientific literature, Laurel recalled her training in how to write lab reports: they were indeed told to avoid the first person and phrase things impersonally, using the passive voice. No one typically gives any reason for this rule. But we both agreed that it must be a kind of inverse of the rule by which manuals of style tell us to avoid the passive like the plague, because (as they say) the active construction is more concrete and vivid, and in that sense more interesting. A lab report, then, or more generally the report of an experiment, is not supposed to be interesting: at least, not in that sense (for there is more than one sense).[3]Some more definite explanation is due here as to the relevant sense, and as to the reasons we want to avoid it in lab reports. In correspondence, Laurel has quoted the following from Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos (Oxford 2012, ISBN 978-0199919758): “It was essential [following the scientific revolution of the 17th century] to leave out or subtract subjective appearances and the human mind — as well as human intentions and purposes — from the physical world in order to permit this powerful but austere spatiotemporal conception of objective physical reality to develop” (p. 36, if Amazon’s “Search Inside this Book” function does not deceive me). I haven’t read this book, and I am not a huge fan of Thomas Nagel in general, but no doubt something like this is correct. Only, to say it really correctly, even according to me, let alone according to Thoreau, would require some delicate work on the senses and history of almost every word in that quote (at least: conception, essential, human, intention, mind, objective, physical, purpose, reality, spatiotemporal, subjective, world; but maybe also austere, develop, leave, permit, powerful, subtract). Going back to the Faraday paper, moreover, we find, after a very long, vivid, concrete, interesting introduction, which discusses, not only the recent literature on the topic, but also, as we have seen, Faraday’s own motivations, hopes, and anxieties, he finally gets down to his experiments in a section labeled §24 i., “Exciting electrolytes, &c., being conductors of thermo and feeble currents,” which begins as follows:

Sulphuret of potassium. — This substance and its solution were prepared as follows. Equal weights of caustic potash (potassa fusa) and sulphur were mixed and heated gradually in a Florence flask, till the whole had fuzed and united, and the sulphur in excess began to sublime. It was then cooled and dissolved in water, so as to form a strong solution, which by standing became quite clear. (p. 66)

All in the passive voice, as you can see. If there were a genre of books that were just extended lab reports, containing the procedure and results of experiments, it is reasonable to suppose that, even in the 1840’s, the I or first person would be omitted in most of them.[4]This would not continue to hold up if we looked still further back in the Transactions, say to the 1660’s. I don’t know when the transition occurs.

As an answer to the question about “most books,” this is not very satisfying. For there is no such genre. I conclude that I don’t really understand what Thoreau is talking about here. Nevertheless, there is something to this answer. When our conversation took another tack, which I will come to in a moment, I ended up searching for this quote, which I found in ch. 5 (“Solitude”):

With thinking we may be beside ourselves in a sane sense. By a conscious effort of the mind we can stand aloof from actions and their consequences; and all things, good and bad, go by us like a torrent. We are not wholly involved in Nature. I may be either the driftwood in the stream, or Indra in the sky looking down on it. (5.11)

But right above that I saw a short paragraph beginning with this sentence: “We are the subjects of an experiment which is not a little interesting to me” (5.10). Thoreau has plenty of fun with the words “experiment” and “experience,” which in some sense ought to mean the same thing (and did mean the same thing at some point), so that “the subject of an experiment” is, no doubt, supposed to be readable as a piece of German idealist technicality. But this works both ways, so that “the limits of my daily experience” or “the narrowness of my experience” might equally make us think of lab reports. And there are other passages that make this clearer. There is the beginning, so to speak, of the Results section:

I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. (18.5)

and there is the end, so to speak, of the Introduction section: “But to make haste to my own experiment,” followed by the beginning of the Procedure section:

Near the end of March, 1845, I borrowed an axe and went down to the woods by Walden Pond, nearest to where I intended to build my house, and began to cut down some tall, arrowy white pines, still in their youth, for timber. (1.59–60)

In “most books,” this would read: “A house was prepared as follows. An axe was borrowed … Some tall, arrowy white pines, still in their youth, were cut down …”. Only, the “narrowness” of the experiment here carried out has made it interesting, to Thoreau, at least, in the sense in which a lab report is not supposed to be interesting. We are the subjects (and the objects) of an experiment of great interest.

Perhaps this all seems a digression from the original line of questioning. It is that, in part: any conversation I am involved with is sure to contain digressions. But there was, at least, a good reason for me to look up that passage in “Solitude.” In the continuation there, Thoreau says:

I only know myself as a human entity; the scene, so to speak, of thoughts and affections; and am sensible of a certain doubleness by which I can stand as remote from myself as from another. However intense my experience, I am conscious of the presence and criticism of a part of me, which, as it were, is not a part of me, but spectator, sharing no experience, but taking note of it; and that is no more I than it is you. When the play, it may be the tragedy, of life is over, the spectator goes his way. It was a kind of fiction, a work of the imagination only, so far as he was concerned. This doubleness may easily make us poor neighbors and friends sometimes. (5.11)

This doubling, note, is the same as the doubling or splitting of the ego that has crossed the Atlantic with Schelling and Coleridge,[5]When Thoreau says, “I had withdrawn so far within the great ocean of solitude, into which the rivers of society empty, that for the most part, so far as my needs were concerned, only the finest sediment was deposited around me. Beside, there were wafted to me evidences of unexplored and uncultivated continents on the other side” (6.7), the reference in context is to his visit from that “true Homeric or Paphlagonian man,” the Canadian woodchopper Alek Therien. But Thoreau is no doubt thinking also of the literal oceans: elsewhere, he calls this ocean of solitude “the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean of one’s being alone” (18.2). which I previously discussed here. In transcendental reflection, the I or first person, that is, the ego (das Ich), the subject of our experiment (das Subjekt der Erfahrung), splits into an infinite, subjective component — an ego that speaks somewhere without bounds — and a finite, objective one, confined to narrowness. Thus (as is signified also by Emerson’s phrase, “the other day”), the diurnal, or (via epitome) the annual, is doubled:

The present was my next experiment of this kind, which I purpose to describe more at length; for convenience, putting the experience of two years into one. As I have said, I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up. (2.7)

What this says about Coleridge (who literally did write an ode to dejection), I don’t know. I can say that to get up and crow lustily early in the morning (“earlier and earlier every successive day” [4.22]) would definitely make us poor neighbors. Or we might apply the phrase another way: think of our poor neighbors! But, whoever these neighbors are, and whether or not they appreciate the wake-up call, the method of awakening should be familiar from Schelling: the two years, or days — that is, the two egos — are put together (synthesized) “for convenience,” where I take convenientia, in this case, to translate συμβολήsumbolē. Thoreau’s “Good Genius” (10.6[6]This is a passage that Laurel and I discussed at length in a previous meeting. She brought this good genius together with the “evil genius” who, as it were, directs Thoreau’s axe (that same axe that he began by borrowing?) to a hole in the ice (9.6), which naturally led us to discuss the end of the First Meditation. But I digress — or do I? (as Cavell would add). ) has created the symbol in which his neighbors can (as Emerson put it) “read the other day”:

I do not say that John or Jonathan [i.e., the two shores of Thoreau’s Atlantic] 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. (18.19)

The light of that other day “puts our eyes out” in the way a snail, for example, puts out eyes: that is, our eyes extend from it, it sees through our eyes. “This seeing light, this enlightening eye, is Reflection” (Coleridge, Aids to Reflection [ed. Marsh, 1829], Introductory Aphorism IX, p. 3).[7]But Locke already says this: see again the quote above from the beginning of the Essay.

At this point Laurel’s original question has, from one point of view, been answered: we understand how Thoreau, putting the experiment of two years into one, can speak both with and without bounds. But the speaking, or crowing — at what poor neighbor can this all be directed? Just to remind you, we started with: “I desire to speak somewhere without bounds; like a man in a waking moment, to men in their waking moments” (18.6). So the audience — at least, the desired audience — consists of those same poor neighbors Thoreau hopes (desires) to wake up. “Desire” is so important a term to Cavell that I wish I could say more about it here. (I note only the absence of women, in their waking moments or otherwise, among the objects of Thoreau’s desire: an absence that has been noticed even before our own sensitive age.) Another path we could follow from here (also found in Cavell, if I recall correctly) is to note that, by the doubling of the experiment, Thoreau becomes his own poor neighbor (“Next to us is not the workman whom we have hired, with whom we love so well to talk, but the workman whose work we are” [5.9]; “Some show their kindness to the poor by employing them in their kitchens. Would they not be kinder if they employed themselves there?” [1.103]; “I never knew, and never shall know, a worse man than myself” [1.105]). But what Laurel and I ended up talking about was more the nature of the audience desired that the nature of that desire itself, and more the audience that includes us than the audience that consists only of Thoreau.

As it happens, both the “narrowness of my experience” passage and the “without bounds” passage are in neighborhoods where Thoreau takes up this theme of audience. Soon after the former we find this:

Perhaps these pages are more particularly addressed to poor students. As for the rest of my readers, they will accept such portions as apply to them. I trust that none will stretch the seams in putting on the coat, for it may do good service to him whom it fits. (1.2)

whereas the latter comes immediately after this:

It is a ridiculous demand which England and America make, that you shall speak so that they can understand you. Neither men nor toad-stools grow so. As if that were important, and there were not enough to understand you without them. As if Nature could support but one order of understandings, could not sustain birds as well as quadrupeds, flying as well as creeping things, and hush and who, which Bright can understand, were the best English. As if there were safety in stupidity alone. (18.6)

What he means about toadstools, I frankly have no idea. But, that aside: the passages agree, at least, that this book might be read differently by those with different “orders of understanding,” although the second one suggests that those to whom it is not “more particularly addressed,” however much they can “accept such portions as apply to them,” will not understand it at all. This impression is strengthened, but also made more complicated, by what Thoreau says in the following paragraph:

“They pretend,” as I hear, “that the verses of Kabir have four different senses; illusion, spirit, intellect, and the exoteric doctrine of the Vedas”; but in this part of the world it is considered a ground for complaint if a man’s writings admit of more than one interpretation. (18.7[8]The quote, as I learn from my Norton Critical Edition (ed. W. Rossi [2nd ed., 1992], ISBN 0-393-95905-8), is from J. Garcin de Tassy, Histoire de la littérature hindoui et hindoustani (1839), p. 279: “On prétend qué les vers de Kabîr ont quatre sens différents : l’illusion (mâyá), l’esprit (âtma), l’intellect (man), et la doctrine exotérique des Védas.” Garcin de Tassy, in turn, cites H.H. Wilson, “A Sketch of the Religious Sects of the Hindus,” Asiatic Researches 16 (1828):62: “It may be sufficient to observe, that the doctrines of Kabír, are said to be conveyed in four-fold language, or that of Máyá, Atmá, Man or intellect, and the Védas.” Wilson does not cite any source. Note, for whatever it’s worth, that the word “exoteric” is due to Garcin de Tassy.)

This complicates things, first of all, because it introduces four “orders,” rather than just two (flying and creeping). But it also raises questions about the direction of ordering. This actually is a place where I remember distinctly what Cavell says, and can even find it in writing:

This is characteristic in its orientalizing of the mundane. There is just one text in the culture for which he writes that is known to require interpretation on four distinct levels. (The Senses of Walden [University of Chicago Press, 1972, ISBN 0-226-09813-3], p. 15)

I’m not sure whether he is thinking of the Christian doctrine or the Jewish one or both, nor how he can be so sure which culture Thoreau is writing for (after all, Thoreau doesn’t take scriptures generally to be written only “for” the cultures in which they were composed — the older scriptures probably contain, according to him, “words addressed to our condition exactly” [3.11]). Be that as it may, the hierarchy of senses attributed to Kabīr, especially in Garcin de Tassy’s version, is ambiguous in a way those hierarchies of biblical exegesis are not. Apparently “illusion” (māyā) is the lowest level, which sounds like a much less stable foundation than the either the littera or the פשטpesha. But if illusion is the lowest, shouldn’t it, so to speak, be the outermost, the least hidden, most accessible? Why then is the fourth order called “exoteric”?

Laurel and I confronted here a serious problem, and one than must have been felt by anyone who studies Walden intensively, to the point where it starts to look like the most difficult work of philosophy ever written, far more difficult than, say, Schelling’s System des transzendentalen Idealismus. Thoreau has provided something for readers such as us to find. You can, admittedly, always doubt whether some particular, twisted trail we’ve followed through the words was intentionally made or not, but on the whole it’s impossible not to think that Thoreau has been there before us. “The future inhabitants of this region, wherever they may place their houses, may be sure that they have been anticipated” (2.1). And yet, wherever he may have gone, we don’t know that he especially wants to be followed. A passage Laurel pointed out, from slightly earlier in the Conclusion:

It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves. I had not lived there a week before my feet wore a path from my door to the pond-side; and though it is five or six years since I trod it, it is still quite distinct. It is true, I fear, that others may have fallen into it, and so helped to keep it open. The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of men; and so with the paths which the mind travels. How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity! (18.4)

The book is particularly addressed to poor students, and the neighbors for whose sake the experiment and the crowing of its results are of most interest are poor neighbors (“Farmers are respectable and interesting to me in proportion as they are poor — poor farmers” [17.29]). Does that mean that the outermost is the highest? Or that the lowest is innermost? They say, as I hear, that, according to Kabīr, God is Antar, the Inner, and Māyā, Illusion, is his daughter and his bride.

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