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1. The Eternal Now

A wise man will know what game to play today, and play it. We must not be governed by rigid rules, as by an almanac, but let the season rule us. The moods and thoughts of man are revolving just as steadily and incessantly as nature's. Nothing must be postponed. Take time by the forelock. Now or never! You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment.

Thoreau, April 23, 1859, Journal, [1906] 1962, 12:159

1848 was a pivotal year. In Europe, conservative forces quashed democratic revolts in Paris, Vienna, Berlin, Rome, and Warsaw. Marx and Engels published the Communist Manifesto. American “manifest destiny” became ever more manifest as Mexico ceded its claims to Texas and California. Boston was inundated with hungry Irish—over thirtyfive thousand new arrivals as compared to roughly five thousand per year a decade earlier. Harriet Tubman escaped from slavery, joining the Underground Railroad. And Henry David Thoreau, aged thirty, was again living with the Emersons, housesitting, while his erstwhile mentor lectured in Europe.

Having come out of the woods in September of the preceding fall, Thoreau, in retrospect, said that he had left Walden Pond simply because he had “other lives to live.” We gain a glimpse into what those other lives might have entailed through his remarkable correspondence with Harrison Gray Otis Blake, begun six months later, in mid-March. Blake, a minister, teacher, and liberal intellectual living in Worcester, Massachusetts, had written him in response to the powerful impression ignited by Thoreau's essay on Perseus (published eight years earlier):

If I understand rightly the significance of your life, this is it: You would sunder yourself from society, from the spell of institutions, customs, conventionalities, that you may lead a fresh, simple life with God. Instead of breathing a new life into the old forms, you would have a new life without and within…. Speak to me in this hour as you are prompted…. I honor you because you abstain from action, and open your soul that you may be somewhat. Amid a world of noisy, shallow actors it is noble to stand aside and say, “I will simply be.” (Thoreau, Correspondence, 1958, p. 213)


Thoreau was obviously moved to respond with extraordinary openness. Rambling over various themes which preoccupied him, Thoreau's initial letter—the first of thirty written over a period extending up to the year before Thoreau's death—contains many of his credos: the correspondence of the outward and inward life; the importance of simplicity; the challenge to see; the crucial connection between literature and life; the summons to break complacency; and the need to “journey to a distant country.” Any one of these themes is fecund, but let us focus on another matter: Thoreau declares here, as he does throughout Walden and the Journal, that the ethical life necessitates living life to the fullest in the present. Any postponement resulted in lost authenticity. I will maintain that it is Thoreau's conception of time's flow, the metaphysical character of the present, that informs and guides his ethics. Even from this short letter we may glean this. Thoreau first observes about our finitude and the centrality of living in the present:

Change is change. No new life occupies old bodies; —they decay.It is born, and grows, and flourishes. Men very pathetically inform the old, accept and wear it. Why put up with the almshouse when you may go to heaven? It is embalming, —no more. (Letter to Blake, March 27, 1848,Correspondence, 1958, p. 215)

Then he makes a cogent statement:

My actual life is a fact in view of which I have no occasion to congratulate myself, but for my faith and aspiration I have respect. It is from these that I speak. Every man's position is in fact too simple to be described. I have sworn no oath. I have no designs on society—or Nature—or God. I am simply what I am, or I begin to be that. I live in the present. I only remember the past—and anticipate the future. (Ibid., p. 216)

Thoreau's existential stance closely follows from this position:

I love to live…. I believe something, and there is nothing else but that. I know that I am—I know that another is who knows more than I who takes interest in me, whose creature and yet whose kindred, in one sense, am I. I know that the enterprise is worthy—I know that things work well. I have heard no bad news.

As for positions—as for combinations and details—what are they? In clear weather when we look into the heavens, what do we see, but the sky and the sun?

… When you travel to the celestial city, carry no letter of introduction. When you knock ask to see God—none of the servants. In what concerns you much do not think that you have companions—know that you are alone in the world. (Ibid., pp. 216–17)


And from this steadfast embrace of his independence, Thoreau calls upon the ancient Delphic oracle, “Know thyself,” from which his ethic must emanate:

Pursue, keep up with, circle round and round your life as a dog does his master's chaise. Do what you love. Know your own bone; gnaw at it, bury it, unearth it, and gnaw it still. Do not be too moral. You may cheat yourself out of much of life so. Aim above morality. Be not simply good—be good for something.—All fables indeed have their morals, but the innocent enjoy the story.

Let nothing come between you and the light. (Ibid., p. 216)[1]

These various elements—the elusiveness of time that can only be captured in the present; the existential crux of living, alone, to the fullest in that present; the demand to live according to “what you love,” namely by individual dictates and not socially sanctioned morality—served as Thoreau's guiding philosophy, informing his life's work. Overarching each component is the construction of his moral domain, which I perceive as flowing directly from his conception of time. His consciousness, the deliberate consideration of nature, economy, the world, oneself, stems from his appreciation of the present. For him, in a sense, there is no past and no future. Divine time is eternal, knowing no divisions. There is only the present moment as he wrote in Walden:

Men esteem truth remote, in the outskirts of the system, behind the farthest star, before Adam and after the last man. In eternity there is indeed something true and sublime. But all these times and places and occasions are now and here. God himself culminates in the present moment, and never will be more divine in the lapse of all the ages. (1971, p. 98)

Let us unpack Thoreau's vision of the present, the only time he knew.


Neither future nor past exists.

Augustine, Confessions 11.20.26

Two different senses of time preoccupied Thoreau. The first was past time, history. Seeking ancient origins, chronicling young America's past, both native and colonial, keenly aware of recent local events and inhabitants, Thoreau wrestled with the eclipse of time, the passing of civilizations, countries, and people. History, in a conventional sense, he appreciated as the substratum

of his own life, and Thoreau went to considerable effort both in his formal education and in his later reading as well as in his literary efforts to deal with this aspect of time. These themes dominate A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1980a). There we witness the conventional progress of time. Proceeding through the days of the week, he presents linearized time in an orthodox fashion. Thoreau goes downriver in time and then paddles back to the present. The future is similarly constructed; that is, there is a future, and it will be ours. Furthermore, as we read his book some time in the future, we might reflect with Thoreau on the river of time, the river of history, and situate ourselves in present memory, a redemptive task: “There is something even in the lapse of time by which time recovers itself” (A Week, 1980a, p. 351).

The second aspect of time is more abstract and elusive. This is the notion of time alluded to in Thoreau's letter to Blake, quoted above. Specifically, Thoreau recognizes, as Augustine fourteen centuries before him, that there is indeed no such division of time as the past, present, and future. In a phenomenological sense, indeed existentially, we are only in the present, because, strictly speaking, only the present exists. We live in the present moment, and while the past is recalled or witnessed as artifact, that witness is experienced only in the present. The future, like the past, exists only as a mental construct only in the present moment. And then the imbroglio: the present is never held on to; it is always slipping by into the past, flowing from a future never quite here.

This vision of time is hardly unique to Thoreau, and indeed has a celebrated history, perhaps most famously in book 11 of Augustine's Confessions. There we find an apt description of time's passing, the nature of the past, present, and future, the illusion of temporality, and the essential character of time, unfathomable and fundamentally elusive.[2] For our purposes, it is the character of Augustine's deft development of the idea of the present that is so pertinent to Thoreau's own project—and sheds light upon it. Augustine observes that the present cannot be assigned any duration; it is so fleeting that he calls it a series of “fugitive moments. Whatever part of it has flown away is past. What remains to it is future” (11.15.20). But, though the present has no duration, we nonetheless perceive time only in the present, in our awareness. Augustine comes to the critical point: the character of time—past, present, and future—remains confined only to the present, as elusive as that might be. The past and the future only exist in our cognition of the present, and more to the point, the past and the future only exist as the present, in the soul:


In the soul there are three aspects of time, and I do not see them anywhere else. The present considering the past is the memory, the present considering the present is immediate awareness, the present considering the future is expectation…. This customary way of speaking is incorrect, but it is common usage. Let us accept the usage. I do not object … as long as what is said is being understood, namely that neither the future nor the past is now present. There are few usages of everyday speech which are exact, and most of our language is inexact. Yet what we mean is communicated. (11.20.26)

Augustine confesses that he still does not know “what time is,” although he admits to being “conditioned by time” (11.25.32), and he goes on to discuss how time is a function of mind. “Present consciousness is what I am measuring, not the streams of past events which have caused it” (11.27.36). There are two cardinal points to be emphasized: First, “time” is a human perception, a faculty of thought or cognition found in the “soul,” which in modern parlance will be translated as mind, and sometimes as self-consciousness; and second, neither past, present, nor future can be “captured.” To our contemporary ears, Augustine is an astute philosopher of language, a critical epistemologist, and a profound metaphysician. Thoreau, although not documented as having read Augustine (Sattelmeyer 1988), on this issue stands upon his shoulders—as did William James fifty years later.

James, in The Principles of Psychology ([1890] 1983), clearly saw the elusiveness of the present as the key perplexity in understanding consciousness and the very notion of the self. What we see in Thoreau's musings, albeit in rough outline, are the key insights of this later philosophy, one that attempted to understand consciousness pro-tophenomenologically. Disallowing some kind of “transcendent non-phenomenological sort of Arch-Ego,” or some “representative” feature or fixture to identify the “self,” James observed that “a thing cannot appropriate itself; it is itself; and still less can it disown itself” (p. 323). Thus

the Thought never is an object in its own hands, it never appropriates or disowns itself. It appropriates to itself, it is the actual focus of accretion, the hook from which the chain of past selves dangles, planted firmly in the Present, which alone passes for real, and thus keeping the chain from being a purely ideal thing. Anon the hook itself will drop into the past with all it carries, and then be treated as an object and appropriated by a new Thought in the new present which will serve as a hook in turn. The present moment of consciousness is thus … the darkest in the whole series. It may feel its own immediate existence … but nothing can be known about it till it be dead and gone. (Ibid.)


James sought a middle ground between the Kantian idealist notion of a unifying transcendental self and the empiricist's raw succession of perceptions with no unifying construct by positing that unity is directly experienced— the direct and intimate linkage with successive past moments. The “present” then becomes the “hook” by which the past is held in relation to the immediate experience, and the entire construct—past and present—becomes what we understand as the unity of personal identity, or the self.[3]

Russell Goodman astutely observed that “James's almost constant preoccupation in the Principles is to place within experience what other writers see as outside it” (1990, p. 61). James was to develop this Romantic theme in new ways, and I cite him now only to display the deep resonance of Thoreau's own endeavors with what became a central theme in later American philosophy. By these lights, Thoreau offers a treasure trove of “data,” an extensive report of experience, which might be employed to support James's subsequent claims. Indeed, Thoreau's project is recast by James into a more formalistic account of perception and consciousness, and from this perspective Goodman correctly identifies James as an articulate heir of American Romanticism, particularly the strain that seeks to portray an “intimacy” with the world. Thus James builds a nondualistic account, where the self and the world coalesce, the same theme that has served as the nexus of much of Thoreauvian scholarship—ranging from his epistemology (Cameron 1985; Peck 1990) to the import of his mystical yearnings (e.g., Kopp 1963; Baym 1966; Lyons 1967; Tuerk 1975, pp. 63 ff.). Accordingly, James's investigations of ordinary experience revealed that they are already joined (ibid., p. 84), and in his late Essays in Radical Empiricism, James coined the term “pure experience” to capture the place where experience occurs.

In this construction, James, like Thoreau before him, focused upon the present not only as the nexus for consciousness and our understanding of the self but as the epistemological hinge of knowledge itself. In the present, the distinction of self and other, of subjective and objective, is yet to be made:

As “subjective” we say that the experience represents; as “objective” it is represented. What represents and what is represented is here numerically the same; but we must remember that no dualism of being represented and representing resides in the experience per se. In its pure state, or when isolated, there is no selfsplitting of it into consciousness and what the consciousness is “of.” Its subjectivity and objectivity are functional attributes solely, realized only when the experience is “taken,”i.e., talkedof, twice, considered along with its two differing contexts respectively, by a new retrospective experience, of which that

whole past complication now forms the fresh content. (James [1904] 1987, p. 1151)

According to this formulation, experience in its primary state admits no reflection, and only by “processing” that experience retrospectively can it become known. Perhaps paradoxically, the present only “exists” as a construction drawn from our reflection on time; and, as such, the apprehension of the present, its experience qua present, is the product of our deliberations which divide and distill experience (see James [1890] 1983, pp. 574–75). In a sense, the present is “experienced” only in memory. So in short, self-consciousness organizes experience after the fact, an epistemological precept from which we may confidently regard Thoreau's various projects, ranging from his mystical reveries to the deliberate business of “writing nature.”


Nature never lost a day—nor a moment–As the planet in its orbit & around its axis—so do the seasons– –so does time revolve with a rapidity inconceivable.

Thoreau, September 13, 1852,Journal 5, p. 343

Daniel Peck's Thoreau's Morning Work (1990) is the most extended and careful reading of the place of time, history, and memory in Thoreau's oeuvre.[4] One of the key distinctions Peck makes is how Thoreau relates time and history:

[H]istory obstructs an original relation to the universe by supplanting the eternal with the merely transient. At various points throughout A Week he demotes history (usually in favor of “myth”), because what he wants is not a relation to time, which is limited, but to timelessness. (Ibid., p. 17)

I agree with Peck that Thoreau subordinates history to time. In its preoccupation with history, “A Week could not open itself to the living instant of the present, the nick of time” (ibid., p. 36).Walden's power lies in part in turning time's linear progression into a cycle, where time has no beginning and no end. It has been well recognized that Walden follows a seasonal time line, and much of Thoreau's Journal reports the cycles of seasons; but Peck has suggested a more profound reordering of Thoreau's notions of time based on how one might interpret the famous Journal entry of April 18, 1852: “For the first time I perceive this spring that the year is a circle–I see distinctly the spring arc thus far. It is drawn with a firm line” (Journal 4, 1992, p. 468). One school of thought, the literalists, reads this entry as simply

an observation that spring had arrived. So Richard Lebeaux writes, “more likely, he was indicating that this was the first time this spring that he had seen the year as a circle” (1984, p. 159). Robert Sattelmeyer concurs: “For a naturalist to observe for the first time at age thirtyfive that the year is a circle is equivalent to a hydrologist's discovery that water runs downhill” (1990, p. 64). In general, these critics see nature's seasonal time as metaphors of life's changes which thus served Thoreau as an appropriate correspondence to his personal time, a relationship he energetically sought to capture. On this reading, the year's cycle is an important literary vehicle, representing a powerful transcendental correspondence, and a critical catalyst for Thoreau's completion of Walden. Peck assumes another stance altogether, one which I find compelling and more interesting as it leads to a deeper interpretation:

That he should at this late date have reacted profoundly to his perception of an ageold truth, the cyclical nature of seasonal change, may be difficult to comprehend.

Yet this, I believe, was an entirely authentic discovery for Thoreau— indeed, the most important and determinative in his imaginative life. To understand its full importance, we need to place strong emphasis on his use of the word see in the entry's second sentence: “I see distinctly the spring arc thus far.” What Thoreau announces here is that he has, for the first time, apprehended the temporal flow of nature's change in clearly spatial terms; he has set temporality on a plane, on an “arc,” along whose rim rides the flow of time. In this way, time is “contained” and given a boundary, one that coincides with consciousness itself. The “line” that describes the circle, “drawn” by the divine artist from whom all time flows, is “firm.” Unlike the porous, multiple figures of Emerson's essay “Circles” (1841), expanding ever outward “wheel without wheel” (Collected Works, 2:180 [1983d, p. 404]), Thoreau's circle is unitary. Like Walden Pond, it characteristically looks inward from its perimeter toward its own deep and complex interior….

… When time is conceptualized as a circle, memory and anticipation come together as a single timeless dimension of experience. (1990, pp. 46–47)

Peck observes that much of Thoreau's effort to define a microcosm whose unity would mirror the cosmos was stabilized by this apprehension of the circle of time.[5] To capture time, Thoreau would have to live in an everpresent present. As he moves along an arc of time, only the present exists. He, of all people, admits to being surprised by the passage of seasons, which reflects both his excitement and the novelty of experience as well as the freshness of nature's everchanging visage. So as the seasons shift, Thoreau urges us

to marvel at nature's rhythms, but at the same time he advises that the quintessential character of this flux is only experienced in the present and that accordingly the present qua presence must be savored and “held.”

This is June, the month of grass and leaves…. Already the aspens are trembling again, and a new summer is offered me. I feel a little fluttered in my thoughts, as I might be too late. Each season is but an infinitesimal point. It no sooner comes than it is gone. It has no duration. It simply gives a tone and hue to my thought…. Our thoughts and sentiments answer to revolutions of the seasons, as two cogwheels fit into each other. We are conversant with only one point of contact at a time, from which we receive a prompting and impulse and instantly pass to a new season or point of contact. (June 6, 1857,Journal, [1906] 1962, 9:406–7)

Peck calls the arc image the “spatialization of time” and pursues this matter as an epistemological problem. I would not disagree, but will beat another path. I believe time in this formulation assumes a moral character in at least two ways: The first concerns Thoreau's constant reiteration of using time wisely, of not working for false ends, whether frankly materialistic, or more subtly in answer to social pressures. But there is a deeper existential sense of morality here, and again it builds from an Augustinian construction of how we perceive time.[6] So, having introduced the notion of the everpresent present in the previous section, let us follow its metaphysical implications.

In his philosophical discussion of consciousness and self, Augustine dwells at length on that aspect of soul which serves as its keystone: memory. More than a repository of images of recollected experience, memory is the seat of self-transcendence, despite being exactly that part of the soul where the individual is most deeply his or her individual self (Augustine, Confessions 10.8.15). But with memory comes paradox: its only temporal location is the present. When we are not thinking about something, we are not remembering it: only when we think of it is it present before us. Memory then is what gives the soul some purchase on consciousness, and on reality. But by existing, by definition, only in the present, memory encounters other complications, because of the persistent elusiveness of time, which itself is properly said to exist in the present. But what does this mean?

Not even one day is ever entirely present. All the hours of the day add up to twenty-four. The first of them has others in the future, the last has them in the past…. A single hour is itself constituted of fugitive moments. If we can think of some bit of time which cannot be divided up into even the smallest instantaneous moments, that alone is what we should call “the present.” And this time flies so quickly from the

future into the past that it is an interval with no duration. Any duration is divisible into past and future. The present occupies no space. (Ibid. 11.15.23)

As discussed, Thoreau would spatialize time in a powerful metaphor, but the essential Augustinian insight was uncontested. Human consciousness and human selfhood, argues Augustine, are caught in an endless linear succession of infinitesimally small present moments: it is in this atomized dimension that consciousness exists, “distended in time.” This distention constitutes the great measure of difference and distance between human modes of consciousness and God's, for whom in eternity all time, instantaneously and without mediation, is present. Humans, mediating time through memory, live trapped in the relentless succession of present moments. The present is itself never securely present, because each moment runs immediately into the next.

How can human consciousness escape this entrapment in time? For Augustine the fourth-century Catholic bishop, the answer is eschatological, and austerely theistic: At the End, at the final redemption, God will bring his saints to rest in Him, so that they will have an unmediated apprehension of the divine: in eternity, they will have escaped the multiplicity and distention of life in time which is the consequence of Adam's fall (11.29. 39). In this life, only in mystical experience—rare, fleeting, and temporary—can the mind glimpse this future reality (9.10.24–25), which Augustine designates as redemption. After all, only God sees nature as whole, in all perspectives and in all times. Augustine recognized that time could not, in fact, be captured, for only in redemption would human time turn into salvaged eternity. Thoreau the nineteenth-century naturalist, on the other hand, does strive to achieve this transcendence, this suppression of time's successiveness, but in this life, “in the bloom of the present moment” (Walden, 1971, p. 111). Thoreau thus sought no eschatological redemption, but he too recognized that nature, from the divine vantage, experiences no change. So in his study of nature, he is thrown back on a kind of personal redemption of his own sovereign consciousness. This leads us to an important characteristic of Thoreau's metaphysics.

The critical difference with Augustine is that Thoreau attempts to capture time in the present, in this world, in nature. So while Augustine entrusts himself to God's grace, Thoreau, selfreliant, pursues time— nature—on his own. This is a useful contrast, inasmuch as we perceive Thoreau's spirituality as independent of theism and, more to the point, as radically selfreliant. In claiming that “all the change is in me” (Walden, 1971, p. 193),

Thoreau not only affirms the centrality of his own personhood but adopts a position which is reasserted in every facet of his project. In seeking to capture time by some resolution of nature's apparent change and the discovery of its permanence within himself, Thoreau must bridge a philosophical gulf separating himself from the world. The metaphysical question of reality's standing is articulated by Thoreau in a Kantian voice: “We think that that is which appears to be” (ibid., p. 96). And Thoreau, after accepting his crucial role of mediating reality, is both baffled and awed by the order of nature's presence: “Why do precisely these objects which we behold make a world?” (ibid., p. 225). A rich voice beckons, resonant with the metaphysical wonder of being. Returning to the Journal “arc” passage, we see the deep connection of Thoreau's vision of time (the arc) and his ability to see the order of nature:

It [the arc] is drawn with a firm line. Every incident is a parable of the great teacher. The cranberries washed up in the meadows & into the road on the causeways now yields a pleasant acid.

Why should just these sights & sounds accompany our life? Why should I hear the chattering of blackbirds—why smell the skunk each year? I would fain explore the mysterious relation between myself & these things. I would at least know what these things unavoidably are– –make a chart of our life—know how its shores trend—that butterflies reappear & when—know why just this circle of creatures completes the world. (April 18, 1852,Journal 4, 1992, p. 468)

Gazing at the intricate pattern of nature, Thoreau perceives and appreciates those changes and occurrences that lead him to ponder his own cognitive faculty. The world as the object of primary interest recedes, giving way to the self's own need to be scrutinized. While metaphysics frames the issue, the epistemological project becomes the means of navigating those deep waters: the inexorable flux of nature might be known, and perhaps his life could be charted on that grid of change, not only to “capture time” but to order nature.

Thoreau the naturalist, the consummate observer, becomes the reporter of his own thought as he asks: How do we perceive, and what is the perceiving faculty? But let me quickly add that Thoreau was aware, albeit in an era less psychologically selfconscious than our own, that he had access to only part of his mind and soul. Nevertheless he sought insight, and he pursued that truth within himself as best he could and to good purpose: after all, “the unconsciousness of man is the consciousness of God” (A Week, 1980a, p. 329). This construction is readily exposed in the “Thursday” chapter

of a week, where Thoreau provides us with a vivid example of his egocentrism which is extended in the later Journal entry just cited:

Let us wander where we will, the universe is built round about us, and we are central still. If we look into the heavens they are concave…. The sky is curved downward to the earth…. I draw down its skirts. The stars so low there seem loth to depart, but by a circuitous path to be remembering me, and returning on their steps. (A Week, 1980a, p. 331)

In “Friday,” Thoreau describes the shifting perspective of local scenes but asserts, “the universe is a sphere whose center is wherever there is intelligence. The sun is not so central as a man” (ibid., p. 349). And indeed Thoreau in effect creates landscapes. Unlike most travelers, who do not “make objects and events stand around them as the centre” (ibid., p. 326), “Thoreau in a very real sense makes the heavenly spheres revolve around him, he and his earth are more important” (Teurk 1975, p. 45). In the private Journal entry cited above, Thoreau went one step further.

To search for some order, rhythm, placement of the seasons and creatures, is an expected activity of a Romantic naturalist, but then Thoreau makes an extraordinary statement: “Can I not by expectation affect the revolutions of nature—make a day to bring forth something new?” (April 18, 1852,Journal 4, 1992, p. 468; emphasis added). This is remarkable metaphysics: he seems to be moving from an observer to an actor. Thoreau sees God's presence (“every incident is a parable of the great teacher”), but he further ponders not only His presence but Being itself. Asking the ancient metaphysical question, Why is there this very world—why indeed is there existence and why is that existence coupled to an individual life, namely Thoreau's? To observe that the quality of that relationship is “mysterious” is commonplace; to opine that he might “affect the revolutions of nature” is bewildering. Could Thoreau be suggesting that if he could effect a perfect union of his intelligence with nature, then his imagination might share some correspondence with divine Intelligence? Certainly, other critics have noted such aspirations for union (e.g., Kopp 1963; Baym 1966; Lyons 1967; Tuerk 1975, pp. 63 ff.), but I want to suggest an extension of that notion. If Thoreau were in such harmony with nature as to anticipate change, in such close identification as to effect union and thus affect change, has he not indeed become a Mover, or at least striven to be? A transcendental agency may be his goal. We cannot be certain from this passage, but it seems a small step to go from ordering the cosmos, constructing landscapes, measuring time, and finding union with nature to invoking transcendental agency. How far, indeed, did his radicalism take him?



There on that illustrated sandbank was revealed an antiquity beside which Ninevah is young. Such a light as sufficed for the earliest ages. From what star has it arrived on this planet?

Thoreau, July 6, 1851,Journal 3, 1990, p. 286

Thoreau dealt with his appreciation of the nature of time with three powerful insights, each developed in Walden, each of which is an important aspect of his understanding of the limits of epistemology. The first was to recognize the ultimate subjectivity of time. This appreciation is well caught in such pithy statements as, “Things do not change; we change” (Walden, 1971, p. 328) and “all the change is in me” (ibid., p. 193). But the profundity of Thoreau's insight drives to the deepest strata of his metaphysics. Nature knows no time. As we chronicle, parse, divide, assign, and categorize, time is subjected to some human translation to become a human construction. As he confided in his Journal, “Why does not God make some mistake to show to us that time is a delusion. Why did I invent Time but to destroy it” (March 26, 1842,Journal 1, 1981, p. 392). Time in a fundamental sense cannot be comprehended or grasped in human terms; when it is, temporality emerges as a profound distortion. There are critical moral reflections on such a conceptualization: Most importantly, our plasticizing time reflects the trivialization of our lives, working in time for artificial, if not selfdestructive, goals. For Walden' s artist of Kouroo, time was irrelevant as he sought perfection in making his staff: “As he made no compromise with Time, Time kept out of his way” (Walden, 1971, p. 326). Because time was so problematic, Thoreau would attempt to regard it as a function of the soul, serving both as his deepest ontology and as the source of divine truth.

The second aspect of time, related to the subjectivity of temporal experience, is Thoreau's frank wonder at change, nature's flux that must be appreciated constantly in the present. As he wrote in “Economy,” “All change is a miracle to contemplate; but it is a miracle which is taking place every instant” (Walden, 1971, p. 11). The world is forever new, a world of process, of becoming, and only by deliberate attention, expectation, and appreciation do we fully savor nature's fruits. Any other activity, even seemingly “necessary” work, must be measured against the splendor of contemplating nature in the present moment. And this leads to the third aspect of time's character, specifically our slavery to temporality.

Probably the most famous line of Walden, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” (1971, p. 8), is immediately preceded by the critical

philosophical insight: “As if you could kill time without injuring eternity” (ibid., p. 8). This is a key phrase, for eternity, the infinite, knows no time, and by trivializing time, by wasting one's time, one does “injury” to eternity, which is as close to divine as Thoreau will approach. Injury connotes hurt and injustice, so time becomes frankly moral in this calculation. So how is time tempered and “protected”?

Time for Thoreau is the present, and to live in the present—as opposed to being directed by some uncapturable past or living for some anticipated (and thus false) future—was the key deliberate act:

In any weather, at any hour of the day or night, I have been anxious to improve the nick of time, and notch it on my stick too; to stand on the meeting of two eternities, the past and the future, which is precisely the present moment; to toe that line. (Walden, 1971, p. 17)

Indeed, one might even say that Walden is dedicated to that endeavor, to alert the reader of the ethical imperative to live fully in the present. Then he embarks on his elusive query:

You will pardon some obscurities, for there are more secrets to my trade than in most men's, and yet not voluntarily kept, but inseparable from its very nature. I would gladly tell all that I know about it, and never paint “No Admittance” on my gate. (Ibid.)

But he in fact can reveal little despite his open invitation, and, playing with us, Thoreau delivers the celebrated obscure passage, “I long ago lost a hound, a bay horse, and a turtledove, and am still on their trail” (Ibid.). Considering the wealth of critical comment on this sentence, there is a certain irony to Thoreau's juxtaposing this symbolic construction immediately next to his invitation to follow him so that he might reveal his secrets. While not attempting to adjudicate Thoreau's designs in constructing his exposition in this manner, I will simply observe that the mere sense of loss is fundamentally loss in time, and it is precisely Thoreau's inability to capture those losses that reveals the basic moral nature of time. By this reading, Thoreau is emphasizing the character of the past as lost and, in contradistinction, the present as capturable. For Thoreau, to capture time in the present is to live with integrity. Indeed, it informs his entire Walden experience, which he explicitly describes as an experiment of the present (Walden, 1971, p. 84). As Stanley Cavell observes,

Of course he means that the building of his habitation (which is to say, the writing of his book) is his present experiment. He also means what the words say: that the present is his experiment, the discovery of the

present, the meeting of two eternities. (“God himself culminates in the present moment” [Walden, 1971, p. 97].) (Cavell 1981, p. 10)

Our enslavement to conventional time, whether posed philosophically (as the exclusiveness of the present) or socially (as the superfluous labor of man, the frivolous social dictates, and the like), concerns Thoreau because it obscures two cardinal human projects. The first is epistemological, to see the real. The imperative of appreciating nature requires living in the current moment, to observe and luxuriate in the bounty of the natural as immediately experienced. As he wrote in “Walking,” this is a moral mandate: “Above all, we cannot afford not to live in the present” (1980b, p. 133) as the vehicle of capturing reality. And what is that reality? Time—both in its presence and in its present. This is time as ontology.

Time is but the stream I go afishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains. I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars. I cannot count one. (Walden, 1971, p. 98)[7]

Time is elusive, but it serves as Thoreau's fundamental ontology, the stream of experience, the substrate of nature, the fabric of eternity, the fundamental woof and warp of the divine. He realizes that this is not time as conventionally understood but a metaphysical category we call “eternity”: “That time which we really improve, or which is improvable, is neither past, present, nor future” (Walden, 1971, p. 99).

Thoreau is swimming in deep metaphysical waters, and he knows that the faculty of imagination intuits this reality and guides him in his epistemological project. But his effort is doomed to failure, because the intellect will not release him from self-consciousness. Peering into the stream of time, Thoreau continues, “I know not the first letter of the alphabet. I have always been regretting that I was not as wise as the day I was born” (ibid.). He admits the limitation imposed by eclipsed infancy, the period after which immediate experience, unselfconscious life in the world, is forever lost. But Thoreau will make do as best he can by attempting to recapture this lost immediacy by using other tools. Integrated experience—unreflexively complete and thus authentic—must now be replaced with the mediating intellect, the ability to discern and contemplate. “The intellect is a cleaver; it discerns and rifts its way into the secret of things”; he will thus use it to “mine and burrow my way” for “the richest vein” (ibid.). Keen observation, patient looking, spiritual contemplation—Thoreau celebrates his ability to rationally know and meticulously record the natural, and thus he deliberately seeks to recapture the immediacy of experience which he now appreciates

as the union with nature. This insight retains a certain irony, however, because Thoreau must be selfconsciously aware of his intelligence, and it is this selfconscious awareness that apprehends time's passing, the fleeting present, the elusive basis of experience. This selfawareness is the source of Thoreau's moral understanding of time.

There were, indeed, two modes by which Thoreau grappled with time. The first, and the one for which we have the most evidence, was his selfconscious effort to live “deliberately” in the present. The second, in a sense its opposite, was to lose the self completely so that the awareness of time vanishes altogether. This is the mystical state, and Thoreau actively sought the dissolution it offered him. For instance, on a “cold and dark afternoon” in the autumn of 1851, Thoreau lamented being “yoked to Matter & to Time,” and plaintively asks, “Does not each thought become a vulture to gnaw your vitals?” (November 13, 1851,Journal 4, 1992, pp. 180–81). One stratagem is to delight in the world, in the sensuous appreciation of nature; the other is mystical union, what Joel Porte calls “the epiphanic moment” (1966, p. 157).[8] As Thoreau wrote to Harrison Blake about his selfimposed solitude,

It is not that we love to be alone, but that we love to soar, and when we do soar, the company grows thinner & thinner till there is none at all. It is either the Tribune on the plain, a sermon on the mount, or a very private extacy [sic] still higher up. We are not the less to aim at the summits, though the multitude does not ascend them. (May 21, 1856, Correspondence, 1958, p. 424)

To ascend to the peak of ecstasy was of paramount importance to Thoreau:

My desire for knowledge is intermittent but my desire to commune with the spirit of the universe—to be intoxicated with the fumes, call it, of that divine nectar—to bear my head through atmospheres and over heights unknown to my feet—is perennial and constant. (February 9, 1851,Journal 3, 1990, p. 185)

The Journal records many of Thoreau's recollection of such states. Consider the following entries, separated by almost thirteen years:

In the sunshine and the crowing of cocks I feel an illimitable holiness, which makes me bless God and myself….

… What shall I do with this hour so like time and yet so fit for eternity? … I lie out indistinct as a heath at noonday–I am evaporating airs ascending into the sun. (February 7, 1841,Journal 1, 1981, pp. 255–56)

The strains of the aeolian harp and of the wood thrush are the truest and loftiest preachers that I know now left on this earth…. They, as it

were, lift us up in spite of ourselves. They intoxicate, they charm us. Where was that strain mixed into which this world was dropped but as a lump of sugar to sweeten the draught? I would be drunk, drunk, drunk, dead drunk to this world with it forever. (December 30, 1853, Journal, [1906] 1962, 6:39)

The first passage explicitly contrasts time and eternity. Thoreau knows he is in time, but he also recognizes that the mystical moment suspends time and substitutes eternity, the feeling of limitless expansion of the self to “evaporate” in mystical union. In the second passage, Thoreau brings the sensuous experience of nature to a drunken state of ecstasy and delight. A few months earlier he had commented on the language that must capture these experiences:

transport—rapture ravishment, ecstasy—these are the words I want. This is the effect of music–I am rapt away by it—out of myself–These are truly poetical words. I am inspired—elevated—expanded–I am on the mount. (January 15, 1853,Journal 5, 1997, p. 444)

Thoreau was ever prepared to climb the mount, and it was couched in terms of time: “In all my travels I never came to the abode of the present” (October 17, 1850,Journal 3, 1990, p. 122). We witness the effort, the ecstasy of the vision when it happens to fall upon him, and the frustration of his solitude. But he would continue his endeavor.[9]

The mystical experience was couched and even defined in the question of temporality that informs and guides Thoreau's deepest psychological and philosophical efforts. The suspension of time, the glimpse of eternity, were transforming moments of aesthetic and spiritual insight, ones he sought in his youth (e.g., April 3, 1842,Journal 1, 1981, pp. 400–401) as well as in his full maturity.[10] Thoreau warranted in a letter to Blake that he only had one “spiritual birth,”[11] but it sufficed to sustain his spiritual quest and, indeed, allow him to have other analogous experiences. The question was, “[H]ow can I communicate with the gods who am a pencilmaker on the earth, and not be insane?” (A Week, 1980a, p. 140). How to walk the tightrope between acute self-consciousness and mystical ecstasy, that indeed was the question.


[M]odern man … does not yet have an experience of time adequate to his idea of history, and is therefore painfully split between his beingintime… and his beinginhistory.

Agamben 1993, p. 100


For Thoreau, nature's deepest ontology is the present, which is pulled out of time to be perceived as part of eternity. Thus the notion of time's passing has been radically altered in an irresolvable paradox: each moment— only existing as a fleeting present—is concurrently “not” in any real sense and yet ethically immutable and precious. This acute awareness of our “presentness”—and its intransigent elusiveness—is both the product and the source of an intense self-consciousness. And in that supreme selfawareness, Thoreau perceived his place in the universe, claiming for himself—to whatever limited extent—a niche in the infinite. With this act of valuation, Thoreau entered into a stream of time that knows neither beginning nor end, and yet it served to orient his multifaceted project. The famous aphorism of living in the nick of time becomes a moral activity.[12] The attempts to live deliberately revolve about a twofold project: the demand to live fully in the present, acutely aware of nature's flux, and the attempt to capture that present in acts of recollection. For Thoreau, each assumes a moral imperative. I will close with comments on each endeavor.

Thoreau's memory assumed various expressions, ranging from social history to natural history to situate the self. Collective memory and individual interpretation are evident modes of writing cultural history, but even the naturalist writings are recollections, reconstructions of his experience, and thus must build from memory and, more fundamentally, are fashioned around the core issue of his own experience. From this perspective, the nature writing and the cultural history are all of one piece, public discourses as distillations of Thoreau's most intimate thoughts of himself in the domains of nature and the past. In each case, Thoreau's vision of time and history was understood as reconstructed memory, fashioning the past into the present. Time, actually only the present, dominates Thoreau's selfconscious endeavors at worldmaking. But this “timepresent” is, of course, never fully captured or replayed, and by 1857 Thoreau was resigned to accepting the poetics of his memory—incomplete and thus, in some sense, inadequate, but at the same time the more salient and “truer” report:

I would fain make two reports in my Journal, first the incidents and observations of today; and by tomorrow I review the same and record what was omitted before, which will often be the most significant and poetic part. I do not know at first what it is that charms me. The men and things of today are wont to lie fairer and truer in tomorrow's memory. (March 27, 1857,Journal, [1906] 1962, 9:306)

The writing of natural history and cultural history each required exercise of creative memory—imaginative, aesthetically driven, and thus deeply

personal. But even more revealing are those open declarations of Thoreau's own discovery, and enunciation, of himself. Indeed, autobiography as the expression of such introspection is a critical component of the very notion of a developing self, one that not only changes but remains elusive in its evolution. Just as in his natural and cultural histories, Thoreau's view of the self emerges out of a complex understanding of the response to ceaseless change. In his view the self is ultimately posed by the problem of time in the metaphysics of change. So both in his selfappraisal and in his rendering a world which is “fixed” from that tenuous position of selfknowledge, Thoreau emerges as a selfconscious artisan, constructing a mind's “portrait” of nature ever mindful of the elusiveness of the present. Each of his reconstructions then is drawn with a wary eye on time, either as an epistemological “marker” or as an existential challenge. In either case, time must be frozen and in a sense replayed, but only as “written” under his own signature.

As we turn to the specifics of Thoreau's history writing—both cultural and natural—this precept must be borne in mind. He was perhaps most cognizant of this issue as he pondered the moral dimension of his poesis. In A Week, he makes a remarkable testament regarding his own vision of the poethistorian:

The true poem is not that which the public read. There is always a poem not printed on paper, coincident with the production of this, stereotyped in the poet's life. It is what he has become through his work. Not how is the idea expressed in stone, or on canvass or paper, is the question, but how far it has obtained form and expression in the life of the artist. His true work will not stand in any prince's gallery. (1980a, p. 343; emphasis in original)

This is the definition of a life of virtue. His morning work, his dance with mythic heroes, his dreams—awake or slumbering—are unified by a vision of moral rectitude which must be achieved in doing, in reverie, in memory. Each would serve a larger purpose, and Thoreau might integrate them because of their epistemological overlap. Dreams are recalled, brought into consciousness by memory; and memory, a faculty of knowledge—albeit highly subjective, private, and untestable without extraordinary effort— blends into history. At the end of this cascade, a public record is presented, configured by the imperative of portraying a vision of the self—one seen in the doing, but only perceived as the tip of an iceberg of experience. Thus the literary project, whether presented as cultural history, natural history, or poetry, was a distillation of a deeper consciousness, one selfconsciously and deliberately “fixing” time into a frozen portrait.


The precepts undergirding this construction are, first, that humans have choice and can determine to create their lives within a finite period, and second, directly leading from this, that humans are given the ethical insight to fulfill this opportunity. For Thoreau, this moral mandate was one of self-responsibility.

I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor. It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but 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 arts. (Walden, 1971, p. 90)

The primacy of individual agency, the character of self-determination, and the moral demand of free action are the underlying precepts of Thoreau's vision of selfhood, and in many respects we might structure his notions of time as the keystone holding together the entire edifice of moral identity.[13]

Thoreau was caught in a deep metaphysical quandary: intellectually and emotionally committed to searching for some kind of order in nature, he recognized the irretrievability of time's passing within Heraclitean change. Change is not only apparent, it is ontologically real. And in a world of change, what Archimedean point might we use to survey and know that world? Indeed, can the self assume such a stance? And if so, what are its bearings? If not known, how are they to be sought? Thoreau grasped the realm of change as an arena of opportunity, and rather than abdicate personal responsibility, he renewed the call for deliberate choice in shaping our lives towards a new ideality—selfchosen and individually pursued. Thus in asserting one's individuality and believing in one's ability to act freely— both determined with acute selfawareness—he would assert one's place in the moral universe.

Ironically the impetus for this moral avowal derives from an instability. Changes, adjustment, improvement are the responses of life to its challenges, both external and from within. The ideal, the possible, the elusive potential have replaced any sense of finitude—a world with boundaries. Awash in this uncertain cosmos is the self, whose own sense gathers tenuously within indistinct boundaries and pliable structure. In espousing freedom of choice, Thoreau wrote in the opening pages of Walden how the thoughtless inertia of our lives might be jolted into a constant critique of ourselves that directs its energies toward a selfdefining ideal. Change is of the essence, but it must be harnessed to a selfdetermined goal, following a

direction of choice, of selfdetermined value. Thus, deeply embedded in this vision of the self is the moral character of agency. The ethic is thus not only based on the underlying foundation of change recognized as an essential component of our being, but is transfigured into an ethical drive toward selfperfection. The self is active, not reactive, and in this formulation, the active, selfconscious life is fundamentally antinihilistic. Despite the contingency, multiperspectivism, elusive character, and loss of essence, the self endures.

Asserting continual and creative selfovercoming and selfperfection, challenging prevailing social mores, decrying complacency, all emanate from Thoreau's metaphysical understanding of time and eternity. That formulation would serve as the source of the ethical power of Walden; it undergirds all of Thoreau's works. An interesting contrast is offered by Nietzsche, whose own construction of the cycle of eternity (the eternal recurrence) and the philosophy of selfwilled overcoming was, like Thoreau's view, heavily indebted to Emerson (Stack 1992).[14] Each affirms an ethic of the self which authenticates itself in facing the infinite universe, forced to confront human insignificance and our essential powerlessness as we face the unbridgeable gulf between ourselves and the rest of existence. This posture inevitably leads us to existential loneliness. In contrast to the Transcendentalists, Nietzsche was uninterested in nature as a source of mending this metaphysical chasm that arises from recognizing our place in the universe: The indifference of nature means that nature has no reference to ends, and thus for Nietzsche, we reside alone. Our “present” is, indeed our present.[15] But Thoreau, the Transcendentalist, sees an immutable being which remains accessible. This is what Hans Jonas characterizes as the

everlasting present, in which contemplation [of nature] can share in the brief durations of the temporal present. Thus it is eternity, not time, that grants a present and gives it a status of its own in the flux of time; and it is the loss of eternity which accounts for the loss of a genuine present…. If values are not beheld in vision as being (like the Good and the Beautiful of Plato), but are posited by the will as projects, then indeed existence is committed to constant futurity, with death as the goal; and a merely formal resolution to be, without a nomos for that resolution, becomes a project from nothingness to nothingness. In the words of Nietzsche, “Who once has lost what thou hast lost stands nowhere still.” (1963, p. 338)

In this sense, Nietzsche's eternal recurrence is always actualized in the “futurity” of its being, and bequeaths a deep nihilism.[16] Jonas's diagnosis is that

“the disruption between man and total reality is at the bottom of nihilism” (ibid., p. 340), and it is here that we see the great divide between Thoreau and later existentialists. Heidegger's interpretation of Nietzsche, “The phrase ‘God is dead’ means that the suprasensible world is without effective force” (quoted by Jonas, ibid., p. 332), is denied by Thoreau, and indeed his entire life was devoted to examining the opposite position: in nature, in our communing with nature, we would find a suitable other that puts ourselves in true relief and thus helps us confer meaning upon our respective lives. Perhaps it is this call that beckons to us most powerfully across the great divide separating Thoreau's assertion of agency and our own postmodern confusions. How Thoreau projected his vision of selfhood and agency in writing memory and history is the subject of the next chapter.

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