Is Thoreau saying that the wisdom of the woods and of the solitude that it provides open up a truer road to God? Or is there something else distinctly non-Christian, actually non-religious, to be sought and gained through his writing?
The rejection of convention is a fruitful but not unfamiliar trope both in literature and in philosophy. As the title and explanation of this course suggests, it is the traditional role of the “prophet” to be that “apart person”. If Socrates and Christ can do it, so can Thoreau. The more important question is, what does Thoreau chose to replace conventional temple worship with? If the predictableness of Concord’s bourgeoisie is the “it” to be avoided, then what “it” should be put in its place?
My hope was that the woods to Thoreau were not some proxy for God on Earth. If his proposition was that bourgeois society was simply another errant approach to the full quality and meaning of the divine, then to me Thoreau would be nothing other than a religious extremist of the sort for which America has been a particularly strong breeding ground since its founding, and particularly in the 19th century. There are few things more dangerous and less appealing than an angry preacher, especially one who feels that the time has finally come to correct the fallacies of his fellow towns-folk.
Thoreau is not that. Of course, his book’s place in the American canon serves as a clue to its own enduring value and non-conventionality, but there is no substitute for looking for oneself. His walk into the woods, his desire to live “deliberately”, his absolutely ethereal claim that “We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep …. It is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of the arts ….” (96) is not religiously-backed in any sense, but solely a claim about the capacity and the requirement of man to live. This is true even though the most religious of terms creep into the language here, “reawaken”, “dawn”.
“It is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look”, this is a radical claim that gives not room for divine intervention. Here is the full empowerment of the human senses, and the exhortation to fully employ their ability to shape reality through the creative act of perception. Perception is not some passive filter through which reality enters into human consciousness but rather an active exercise through which we can “carve” and “paint” our world to “affect the quality of the day”, which is itself the highest creative act available to man.
Usually, the words “quotidian” and “daily” represent drudgery. They are seen as negatives, or at best neutral. In Thoreau’s universe, quite the opposite. There is no higher human creative act than shaping the air through which we perceive and thus our perceptions themselves. We might say that the act of seeing well brings us to an awakened state. This is the Renaissance upended. No longer do we understand man through the sciences and more particularly through the arts, and specifically the visual arts. Yes, humans are in the center, Thoreau says, but Michelangelo’s sculpture the Rebellious Slave is a lesser accomplishment than my ability to hear clearly and fully this wood thrush perched on that branch. Botticelli, you take a back seat to my clear perception of that birch bark.
I can’t help but wonder if Thoreau is searching in all of this to express a peculiarly American voice. For one, he speaks in the “I”, the seminal word of America’s two most characteristic attributes: liberating individualism and blinding ego-centrism. Furthermore, he is both explicitly and implicitly non-institutional. The great works around him are not by the hands of man (granted, there are counter-examples in the text -- his uncharacteristic genuflection before the temple of classical literature is one such -- but we leave that aside here). Contained in all of this appears the ever-true American stance that our shores are new shores, and the old rules don’t apply. To that end, his whole Walden endeavor may be a very conscious effort to midwife a whole new American literature. As such, it follows a familiar formula: Rebirth through Exile. The woods are the thing by which our artifice is vanquished and that most American of commodities, the great outdoors, becomes the Edenic place where we find our truer selves. Look not to the temples of culture or the agoras of learning, he seems to be saying.
It is also quite fascinating to read in 2014 about our country, indeed this Massachusetts neighborhood, but 170 years prior. Who hears of the Fitchburg Railroad anymore in the sense that Thoreau knew it, at the very dawn of the railroad age when it was the newest of the new technologies? Who has thought about a runaway slave, never mind read an account of meeting one 15 years before the start of the American Civil War? Who can remember any stories of the first Englishmen to break bread with Massasoit, the local Indian chief, and sleep in his hut in those cold and bleak first weeks of the British on these shores? This is a layer of the American story that has receded deeper in the landscape of our memory, grown over by more recent occurrences.
This all leads me to my final point – there is one word that comes to my mind when I think about Thoreau: refreshing. It is so refreshing to read Thoreau. There must be many reasons for this. His introspection and his powerful use of metaphor account for some of it but mostly I think it is his notion of value of disconnection. It is hard to utter the word “disconnection” and not reflect on today’s world when so much of our world is governed by connection and hyper-connectedness with its premium placed on the clarity of human communication. It is radically refreshing to rethink our world by a prophet of the self, through arguments he crafted in a pre-industrial age before wide-spread literacy. His statements are more than perceptions. They are quite literally a call for revival (we approach religious language again) whose value has only increased because of the unrelenting march of technology.
Whitman is not like Thoreau in this way – Thoreau is a lonely sojourner, visible at quite a distance, walking his solitary path, framed nicely on either side by the trees that made up his self-made universe, at least for a while. Whitman is nothing so simple, so focused. He’s the essence of energy, the whirr of activity that is everywhere all the time. He’s like a swarm of flies.
In this way, he’s much more difficult than Thoreau. There’s a relentless, driving quality to Whitman as if in his feverish mind, the world really does happen through him. It is both what he wants us to believe but it is also what he really seems to believe himself. A simplistic critique would be to call it ego-mania, but not entirely without evidence: in his first 100 lines of Leaves of Grass, he uses the pronouns “I” or “Me/My/Mine” in 54 of those lines. In case we were ever to doubt what he meant when he said “I celebrate myself”, now we know.
But Whitman for all his unrelenting focus on himself is also elusive, like the flitting shadows of swifts in the rafters of a barn. In these lines, we glimpse an odd aspect of the assertive poet:
Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am,
Stands amused, complacent, compassionating, idle, unitary,
Looks down, is erect, bends an arm on an impalpable certain rest,
Looks with its curious side-curved head curious what will come next,
Both in and out of the game, and watching and wondering at it. (66-70)
At this chance to paint his intimate self portrait, where Rembrandt would have looked right back at the artist and therefore at the audience, Whitman portrays himself en scene, as he would be seen at a distance, in the third person. And unlike the painter who can only use the images to convey the feelings, the writer has a whole array of words to describe the inner essence of the being. Whitman uses almost none of these. Instead, he decides to use primarily a physical description of himself, as he would be seen: he “stands amused …; <he> looks down, is erect, bends …; <he> looks with its curious side-curved head .…”
Though he claims for himself a “unitary” being, he gives the audience no such unitary view of himself. Rather, these are a collection of partial views of the person, impressionistic. He chooses not to describe from the center out, but from the outside in.
Whitman is a watcher, and like many watchers, he is ambivalent about participating. Indeed, he says as much, “Both in and out of the game, and watching and wondering at it.” Ambivalence implies distance, and distance means that those things which he’s not willing to get close to, he must know through the eyes. Similarly, he is probably ambivalent about people getting close to him. To deal with that, he provides a description that is largely visual, not emotional, not internal: Know me through how your eyes see me. In this way, Whitman’s endless self-revealing throughout the poem might itself be a cloak of disguise, a way of hiding himself in plain sight.
Yet, concealing any truth seems to be at odds with his fundamental project, in part because his fundamental project is so bold: “I celebrate myself/And what I assume you shall assume.” How then does he reconcile the rather coy, brief self-portrait with his much larger aims for Leaves of Grass?
To be able to speak to for all people, and indicate a new way, he must first establish his authority, and he does this not by demonstrating it but simply by stating it. The mere assertion of the fact creates the fact, and he creates the fact by asserting it.
These are the thoughts of all men in all ages and lands, they are not original with me (353)
I know I am august/I do not trouble my spirit to vindicate itself or to be understood (409-10)
I exist as I am, that is enough (413)
My foothold is tenoned and mortised in granite (419)
I am the man … I suffered … I was there. (827)
He starts from such a large premise, the audience has no choice but to accept the argument in its entirety or reject the whole project altogether. And Whitman shows no mercy. Like any self-appointed national poet determined to both create and resurrect a national identity in one work, like any receiver of revelation, Whitman does not go small.
So what is Whitman’s game, and why would he want to hide, even if in plain sight? The reason is this – ultimately, Whitman is a guide, and like any guide, he is not the central storyline. Whitman is Beatrice or Vergil, but not Dante. His existence and his work is ultimately catalytic only:
No friend of mine takes his ease in my chair,
I have no chair, nor church nor philosophy;
I lead no man to a dinner-table or library or exchange,
But each man and each woman of you I lead upon a knoll,
My left hand hooks you round the waist,
My right hand points to landscapes of continents, and a plain public road.
No I, nor any one else can travel that road for you,
You must travel it for yourself. (1201-08)
It’s just that the world to be explored is all around, has always been all around, visible in every direction, experienced many times over, not so much new as yet unseen. Whitman has seen it and can see it. His self-appointed job is to reveal it:
It is not far …. It is within reach,
Perhaps you have been to it since you were born, and did not know,
Perhaps it is everywhere on water and on land. (1209-11)
His celebration of self is his opening gambit to us, a way of urging us down the journey to this new land, of buying into the project that this is a worthy journey, him by our side. It is a journey that shall reveal the full essence of the world surrounding us, that has always been available to us, but has remained largely unseen by us. Whitman bewilders us into believing his story not only needs to be told, but also needs to be heard.