previous chapter
The Self-Positing I
next section


7. The Self-Positing I

If I am not I, who will be?

Thoreau,A Week, 1980a, p. 156

The fate of having a self—of being human—is one in which the self is always to be found; fated to be sought, or not; recognized, or not.

Stanley Cavell 1981, p. 53

One might stretch Thoreau between two poles—the Real and the Good. He sought “reality” in all of its diverse guises—in nature, in man, in his own psyche. At the same time, he sought the moral—in social action and politics, in local society, in his dealings with his intimate constellation of friends and family, and, most importantly, in his self-deliberations about his own personhood—to define himself in his work and behavior. These two modes—the ontologic and the moral—are intimately linked, so that knowledge is formed from each and thus inseparable. In short, to know the world is to know it morally, in the sense of assigning it value.[1] Thoreau bound his world together through an endless dialectical process. His vision of nature— what he valued and thus saw—was framed by a particular attitude. In turn, the world informed and guided his own moral development as he matured and cultivated his ethical consciousness in response to what he experienced. Seeing consequently becomes a moral act. The prize was Reality. This theme recurs again and again in Thoreau's admonishments. Consider, for example, the passage in Walden's “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For”:

Let us spend one day as deliberately as Nature, and not be thrown off the track by every nutshell and mosquito's wing that falls on the rails. Let us rise early and fast, or break fast, gently without perturbation; let company come and let company go, let the bells ring and the children cry,—determined to make a day of it. Why should we knock under and go with the stream? … If you stand right fronting and face to face to a fact, you will see the sun glimmer on both its surfaces, as if it were cimeter [scimitar], and feel its sweet edge dividing you through the heart and marrow, and so you will happily conclude your mortal career. Be it life or death, we crave only reality. (Walden, 1971, pp. 97–98)


Thoreau struggled both with processing experience, that is, making it conscious, and with transmitting that experience into words. As we saw in the preceding chapter, he was at times frustrated by the inability of words to convey experience: “When I hear a bird singing I cannot think of any words that will imitate it–What word can stand in place of a bird's note! … It has so little relation to words” (May 7, 1852,Journal 5, 1997, pp. 37–38). Thoreau regarded facts as representations of reality, a lexicon for nature. He would strive for a clear language by which to transmit his own experience, and facts had a crucial standing in that enterprise. But, as we can now appreciate, though Thoreau would invest them as agents of simplification—elements of composite wholes—facts are themselves complex. At one level they are the metier of Thoreau's life, and he would engage them “directly” (as he exclaims shortly after moving into his Walden cabin: “I wish to meet the facts of life … face to face” [July 6, 1845,Journal 2, 1984, p. 156]). He savored the morsels of truth which facts bespoke: “It is a rare qualification to be able to state a fact simply & adequately. To digest some experience cleanly. To say yes and no with authority–To make a square edge … Say it & have done with it” (November 1, 1851,Journal 4, 1992, pp. 157–58). Yet Thoreau was well aware that facts were not “simple,” that they were in themselves a means of interpretation, and he recognized that “facts” depended on context. The contextualization of knowledge supported and defined the fact. That is, facts exist within certain milieux of understanding: “Statements are made but partially–Things are said with reference to certain conventions or existing institutions–not absolutely” (ibid., p. 158).

Indeed, Thoreau understood that facts must be processed by the knower to attain their full significance and meaning:

See not with the eye of science—which is barren—nor of youthful poetry which is impotent. But taste the world. & digest it. It would seem as if things got said but rarely & by chance–As you see so at length will you say. (November 1, 1851,Journal 4, 1992, p. 158)[2]

The intimation underlying this passage, and many others, concerns the role of the self in signifying the world, a theme reiterated in different contexts throughout this study. Thoreau selfconsciously admitted that science and poesis are only vehicles of knowing or expressing, and may be regarded as products of a deeper agency. One's approach to, and vision of, nature arise from the processes of selecting, organizing, and finally signifying observations to create a picture of the world. Correspondingly, the individual's values, sensitivities, and experiences place such facts into a context that ultimately determines their meaning. Thus seeing, at least for Thoreau, was a

deliberate and oftentimes selfconscious effort, and, ultimately, an ethical imperative. For him, moral agency assumed new dimensions, expanding from the domain of ethics to include epistemology as well.


Let me forever go in search of myself.

Thoreau, July 16, 1851, Journal 3, 1990, p. 312

In the summer of 1851 Thoreau offered what can only be described as a prayer. It becomes an ode to the self and a proclamation of virtue ethics. Through it we see Thoreau's own vision of selfhood and the construction of moral agency:

What more glorious condition of being can we imagine than from impure to be becoming pure. It is almost desirable to be impure that we may be the subjects of this improvement. That I am innocent to myself. That I love & reverence my life! That I am better fitted for a lofty society today than I was yesterday to make my life a sacrament–What is nature without this lofty tumbling[.] May I treat myself with more & more respect & tenderness–May I not forget that I am impure & vicious[.] May I not cease to love purity. May I go to my slumbers as expecting to arise to a new & more perfect day.

May I so live and refine my life as fitting myself for a society even higher than I actually enjoy. May I treat myself tenderly as I would treat the most innocent child whom I love—may I treat children & my friends as my newly discovered self–Let me forever go in search of myself–Never for a moment think that I have found myself. Be as a stranger to myself never a familiar—seeking acquaintance still. May I be to myself as one is to me whom I love—a dear & cherished object–What temple what fane what sacred place can there be but the innermost part of my being? The possibility of my own improvement, that is to be cherished. As I regard myself so I am. O my dear friends I have not forgotten you[.] I will know you tomorrow. I associate you with my ideal self. I had ceased to have faith in myself. I thought I was grown up & become what I was intended to be. But it is earliest spring with me. In relation to virtue & innocence the oldest man is in the beginning earliest spring & vernal season of life. It is the love of virtue makes us young ever–That is the fountain of youth–The very aspiration after the perfect. I love & worship myself with a love which absorbs my love for the world. The lecturer suggested to me that I might become a better than I am—was it not a good lecture then? May I dream not that I shunned vice–May I dream that I loved & practiced virtue. (Thoreau, July 16, 1851,Journal 3, 1990, pp. 311–12)


This hymn sounds the classic prayer motif of purification. Life has become a process of selfimprovement.[3] In places it is almost childlike in its innocence, as if Thoreau is remembering, “every day a little bit better.” And then the voice in the middle of the passage changes to serious introspection regarding the nature of his selfhood. This ode to himself frankly proclaims that his “love and worship” of himself absorbs “my love for the world.” Clearly, Thoreau is radically egocentric, his narcissism dominating all other concerns, and it is difficult to argue with Bob Taylor's appraisal of Thoreau as “self-congratulatory” and “at his most morally perfectionist and egoistic” (1996, p. 9). In assessing the basis of Thoreau's political comment about the fugitive slave in the preceding chapter, it became evident that Thoreau's moral philosophy developed from a selfish perspective. Indeed, his communal civility emanated from a fiercely protective stand for his own autonomy. This was the price of his selfconscious preoccupation. Never complacent that he has found himself, Thoreau seems embarked on an endless search for his own identity, seemingly to the exclusion of serious attempts to integrate himself in the larger community. Rather than seek his place in the world (the thesis Garber [1991] sees as dominating Thoreau), he would search for his true person within. In this prayer, the image of spring, of renewal and growth, dominates the portrait of a dynamic self, one that aspires to attain an ideal state. He will follow the course of virtue, and indeed it is “virtue,” a “fountain of youth” that bestows eternal youth and vitality. In short, he would make his life a sacrament, and he would do so by living what he conceived as a virtuous life—to be sure, selfabsorbed and isolating. But this was the posture he assumed in constructing his personhood, and he saw that enterprise as morally worthy.

What, then, did it mean to “construct” the self?


Peculiarities of the present Age … It is said to be the age of the first person singular.

Emerson, Journal entry, January 30, 1827 (Emerson 1963, p. 70)

“In the wake of Descartes's meditations, modern philosophy becomes a philosophy of the subject” (Taylor 1989, p. xxii). For the Romantics, this became a crisis which has yet to be resolved. From the mid-seventeenth century through the Kantian project, the self, although difficult to define, still remains to offer a perspective on the world and thus order it, becoming the locus of certainty and truth (Nagel 1986; Taylor 1989). For Kant, transcendental

apperception is the structured unity—the pure ego or self—of consciousness, which precedes (transcends) the content of perception and makes possible its experienced order and meaning. Kant posited that transcendental apperception was the necessary condition for experience and for synthesizing experience into a unity. In this sense, the self is an entity. And therein lies the rub for the Romantics. An entity has boundaries, limits. It would not suffice for the expressive, Romantic elusive self.

The self, for the Romantics, was neither rigidly restricted by social convention nor confined to a particular rationality. The expressive self reveled in the world's splendor and thereby enriched its own experience. One found fulfillment not in preserving identity but in expanding it. (It is no accident that Coleridge took mindaltering opiates and, like Icarus, sought to reach the sun.) The self, no longer set, established, or structured, was imagined as an organic process of experience. In loosening the selfcontained (and selfsufficient) nature of personhood, the Romantic self became largely defined in relation to its object. That object could be the outside world or some inner self-consciousness. Relation became the key precept, for when one is in dialogue, or communion, or rapture, the experiencing self is absorbing and responding. In the process of experience, which now becomes the watchword of Romanticism, the very idea of a set identity, one fixed and unchanging (and thus incapable of evolution), becomes anathema. The cardinal rule is selfreflection, and in an endlessly recursive process, the self experiences itself, more particularly its world, the other, and its own experience.Relation replaces entity.

How did this transfiguration of the self occur? Without digressing too deeply into the history of philosophy, it is fair to say that philosophers at the dawn of Romanticism—and by extension, or perhaps in concert, the poets—were attempting to break the confining impasse in which the self had been placed by John Locke's construction of a detached, observing “eye” that would perceive the world, know it directly, and retain its objective autonomy. In many ways, “autonomy” was the key issue, serving both as the basis of an epistemological system and as the fundamental element of a moral and political philosophy. This idea of autonomy was recognized at the crest of Newton's epochal discoveries in the philosophy of Locke, who effectively translated the objectifying scientific ideal into the political and moral domains. Locke's philosophy hinged upon arguing for the ability of the individual to detach from the world, and from himself, and observe each objectively.

This view had profound ethical ramifications, for objective disengagement becomes a moral requirement in knowing not only the world but also

the self. Autonomy is thereby a value, limited only to the extent that an individual's freedom infringes upon the freedom of others. Entwined in Locke's epistemological definition we find his legal foundation, for the individual so defined becomes the unit of government, divided between its freedom and the rights of the majority. “Self” becomes a forensic term to which the law is applicable, and “possessive individualism” (MacPherson 1962) is thus celebrated and moreover assured as established by the epistemological system from which an independent ethical unity consistently arose. Liberalism was based on the self as an independent knowing entity, one that might act rationally and freely. Thoreau was a Romantic heir of this seventeenth-century liberalism and became a celebrated interpreter of that tradition. When he proclaimed the essential independence of man in Walden's opening chapter, “Economy”— “What a man thinks of himself, that it is which determines, or rather indicates, his fate” (1971, p. 7)—and proclaimed his anthem in the “Conclusion”— “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer” (ibid., p. 326)—we see the figurative bookends of his entire enterprise: the essence of man is the proprietorship of his person.

Romanticism's expanded view of nature and man's place in it resulted in a crisis for this view of the autonomous self. Nature's laws are not moral ones, and thus a distinction between natural law (the mechanical laws of cause and effect) and moral law (governing humans) became apparent. On this view, human free will, the basis of self-determination, thus functions with one form of rationality, while the natural world, governed by deterministic laws, functions with another. Rejecting the idea of the self as an isolated entity then requires a single Reason, one that might both discern the mechanical universe and at the same time operate within the human soul. Here, too, Kant set the terms of this later discussion when he distinguished between “theoretical reason” and “practical reason” as the key categories for understanding human intelligence and moral agency. Kant had attempted to establish a metaphysics of nature (consisting of the a priori principles of our knowledge of what is) and a metaphysics of morals (comprising the a priori principles of what ought to be). While he sought to ground both realms in a unified Reason, Kant recognized that reason assumes a different character in the natural and moral realms. Simply stated, the respective “objects” of thought—nature, governed by one set of natural laws, and human behavior, following a different set of laws—reflected the distinct ontologies of what is and what ought to be.[4]

In proposing this structure, Kant bequeathed to German and English idealism the problem of seeking the unity of reason, for Kant's distinctions presented

a necessary tension: Can the view of the world that follows from the principles of theoretical reason (a world of natural events occurring in accord with natural causes) be reconciled with the kind of world required by the laws of man's practical reason? Whether Kant set these forms of reason in opposition or was successful in synthesizing them is a question,[5] but indisputably, he sought their unification. As he wrote at the end of the second Critique,

Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing wonder and awe … the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me. I do not merely conjecture them and seek them as though obscured in darkness or in the transcendent region beyond my horizon: I see them before me, and I associate them directly with the consciousness of my own existence. (Kant [1788] 1993, p. 169)

Generally, three possible solutions were sought (Neuhouser 1990, pp. 12 ff.): theoretical and practical reason 1) were compatible with each other, 2) were derivative of a unitary and complete system of philosophy (and requiring some first principle), or 3) comprised a structural identity constituting in essence a single activity. Hardly restricted to the esoteric debates among philosophers, this presentation of unified knowledge had profound cultural ramifications, refracting in different ways the deeper philosophical issue raised by Kant's attempt to establish the distinctive metaphysics of nature and morality and to conceptualize the forms of rationality that operated in each.[6]

The philosophers attempted to resolve this issue in the terms of Critical Philosophy, but artists, poets, and novelists of the period also responded to a form of the same basic problem: How might a common Reason unify science, religion, and aesthetics? Admittedly, this issue was of a different order and was posed in a different context than as originally presented by Kant, but a shared motivation drives the question of how to formulate a unitary Reason to account for both theoretical and practical knowledge, since each of these human activities seemed to be governed by different faculties of understanding. The fundamental issue was the unity of knowledge.

The question whether a single rationality could bind both science and art was close to the quandary that Thoreau himself faced. In seeking to unify the world as seen spiritually, aesthetically, and scientifically, he likewise sought some basis for a common mode of knowing, what the philosophers were calling Reason. Beginning with the Transcendentalist legacy, he pondered that question in the form of deciphering the character of human reason that bridges the gulf between the autonomous self and the seemingly separate natural world (e.g., How might one place human action and understanding in concert with nature's perfect harmony?).


But Thoreau moved beyond the strictures of seeking a common Reason, to an answer so ingenious and fecund that I suspect it is still not fully appreciated: instead of seeking a unifying Reason, instead of attempting to bridge a divide between ourselves and nature, he admonished that we should recognize that we are nature, or, as he put it, that we should acknowledge our own wildness. In asserting that nature, the wild, is within us, our mission is to discover and become intimate with that primitive essence which connects us with the cosmos. The wild, because of its very character, cannot be “known,” that is, tamed or rationalized, made a species of consciousness. All those modes of knowing that we must pursue are sorry residues of a primary knowing. In the wild, Reason does not rule; it can, at best, only mediate. So in some sense, Thoreau “solved” the Kantian imbroglio by asserting that no essential divide separated man and nature, only one's self-consciousness. We are at base wild and thus integral to nature. The “problem” of human agency arises only when we become selfconscious knowers, who must contemplate and objectify our experience so that the recognition of our primary experience may be reported—to others and, more fundamentally, to ourselves. So while it is true that Thoreau's philosophical mileu was idealism, he reached beyond Reason to a realm of unprocessed experience that required translation, which in itself was only a derivative problem of self-consciousness. In that formulation, Thoreau fundamentally reframed the defining question of his age.

Thus Thoreau would not postulate unified Reason, thought, or consciousness to unite his experience, but would take a phenomenological approach in experiencing the wild. By “phenomenological” I mean that Thoreau thought that the experience of the wild was primary and unmediated, in contrast to its later translation into consciousness, which is mediated by various “reasons” in the effort to capture that primary experience. Ever mindful of his own experiencing, Thoreau processed the wild through various intellectualized formats, drawing on his intuition of the originally immediate experience. In his Journal we see him struggle with the expression of these different faculties of knowing, which were in essence his attempts to harness the wild into his selfconscious pursuit of nature. This translating process was multilayered and most conspicuously required different kinds of reporting to effect a full synthesis.[7]

But derived from the spiritual epiphany of his own sense of wildness, unknown and preconscious, Thoreau's attempts, at some level, must “fail.” He lived an intense paradox: to be was not to be. He understood that in his merger with nature (to truly “be”), his self was “dissolved” (he no longer existed as a knower, his self-consciousness suspended). This natural state

was the source of vitality, creativity—the truest self—and in this preferred condition, he was freed from the shackles of civilization and exuberant in that liberty. Yet the gulf between that original epiphany and his writing of it remained as a constant reminder that Thoreau was not (ordinarily) wild, and to the extent that he remained civilized, reasoned, literary, and selfconscious, he denied his full vibrancy. This is the conundrum of self-consciousness and those actions based on a reflective faculty. The “self” only appears in its own selfawareness, and the products—selfreflection, memory, and writing—are the voices of the knowing ego trying to recapture its primary experience. But in that capture, both the object (nature) and the knower's own subjectivity (feelings and perceptions) become something else from the original “dissolved” state experience. While the “spiritual birth” Thoreau described to Harrison Blake[8] remained his inspiration, he would not be satisfied with his mystical epiphanies. In his commitment to writing, Thoreau translated that experience by the typical Romantic modes of self-consciousness. Thus to recognize and appreciate nature and to integrate it in order to effect some kind of metaphysical unity were problems presented to Thoreau as a result of his self-consciousness, namely, in his confronting the mystery of his independent ego.


Around 1800 the self stood in unprecedentedly high esteem.

Cunningham and Jardine 1990, p. 1

Thoreau may easily be placed in the Romantic tradition of unfolding the expansive, selfdetermined self. When Goethe left Weimar to journey to Italy and Coleridge hiked with his friend Wordsworth through the hills of England, their poetic quests were more than aesthetic excursions, as were Thoreau's own sojourns. They sought to redefine themselves in the broadest context of their natural setting, driven by the conviction that their own true selves were best situated there. This projection of the individual psyche into the cosmos with a preoccupied concern for nature is a basic Romantic sentiment. It represents a dethroning of Rationality's dominance to be replaced with a more comprehensive participation in the world. To achieve such an integration of self and world, the boundaries of the self were first loosened and then set free altogether. And the entire enterprise required a selfwilled self, whose action in the world determined that world and the moral orientation to it. The Romantics' expressive psyches were expansive, even plastic to the contours of their experience of nature and the selfreflexive process of their awakening to its glory. Deliberately and selfconsciously, they sought to refashion

their identities by exploring nature, human and nonhuman, in order to establish new contours to their souls. They sought rapturous insight and aesthetic pleasure. A narrow construal of Rationality would not restrict their journeys, nor would conventional notions of socially prescribed achievement. The Romantic wanderers with whom Thoreau aligned himself reached beyond themselves as defined by an Enlightenment ideal to novel personae ruled by the primacy of subjectivity and emotional fulfillment.

Recall Thoreau's “prayer”: “Let me forever go in search of myself–Never for a moment think that I have found myself. Be as a stranger to myself never a familiar—seeking acquaintance still” (Journal 3, 1990, p. 312). The “self” is an internal other, and Thoreau in a sense is divided between one who observes this inner self—indeed, he writes an ode to it—and a core self that is somehow oblivious to this examining eye. So there is this innermost identity, the “source” of his personhood, and a conscious observing self who is taking note of this familiar, yet different, self. In the famous discourse on solitude in Walden, after rhapsodically discussing how he was never truly alone in nature, how “[e]very little pine needle expanded and swelled with sympathy and befriended me” (1971, p. 132), Thoreau entertains the themes concerning self-consciousness discussed above:

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 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. (1971, pp. 134–35)[9]

Thoreau is aware that he is splitting his consciousness, but he asserts that he is “sane.”[10] This is interesting, inasmuch as he must take cognizance that such an introspective exercise is not “normal.” We do not characteristically look at ourselves as some kind of interior object, yet he does so, and in that act he realizes that his selfhood is subject to the same kind of scrutiny as is his examination of the rest of the world, both nature and society. This selfreflection also prompts from him an important admission: “We are not wholly involved in Nature,” which, by admitting his separation from nature, in a sense undermines his mystical aspirations, restraining his rapturous

involvement with a touch of epistemological realism. It is an honest moment, not only portraying a selfaware insight about his own “doing” but also providing him with a perspective about his own place in time. Despite Thoreau's efforts to capture time, he well recognizes the ephemeral quality of his own passing.

One of Thoreau's clearest statements about the self is contained in a lengthy Journal entry of 1852, which has three parts: The first third is an evocative landscape description, poetically recording a play of fog and sunlight; the last third predominantly catalogues flora and the weather. But the middle third is a commentary on personal identity. Thoreau begins by noting the ability of thought to carry him from one era to another, and thus he feels contiguous with “Sadi” who “entertained once identically the same thought that I do—and thereafter I can find no essential difference between Sadi and myself” (August 8, 1852,Journal 5, 1997, p. 289). No longer a Persian seer, lost in time, “by the identity of his thought” with Thoreau's, Sadi

still survives. It makes no odds what atoms serve us. Sadi possessed no greater privacy or individuality than is thrown open to me. He had no more interior & essential & sacred self than can come naked into my thought this moment. Truth and a true man is something essentially public not private. If Sadi were to come back to claim a personal identity with the historical Sadi he would find that there were too many of us—he could not get a skin that would contain us all. The symbol of a personal identity preserved in this sense is a mummy from the Catacombs—a whole skin it may [be] but no life within it. (Ibid.)

At one level Thoreau is commenting on the integrated character of the life of the mind, how he might attain intimacy with the ancients through common thought. But at another level he is writing on the nature of personal identity, where the essential character of the individual holds some kind of universal confluency, open to others of like mind. He then goes on to deconstruct his own identity with a pronouncement: there is no sanctity of the self—we are in some sense composed of a “conscious” self, which is aware of a deeper self that in a fundamental sense is not ourselves as we might “know,” consciously. This schizoid splitting of personhood is destabilizing to say the least. But then there is another recasting of the identity of the individual ego and some universal Mind, where various minds, in communication through shared thought, merged, thus obliterating the integrity of individual identity. Personal identity is only some kind of a mummy, a shell of who we really are.

Thoreau thus seeks his truest self beyond his conscious self, exploring the depth of his personal identity to delve for that core, generative self.


Physical solitude is then insignificant, for in this vast mental syncytium, Thoreau was never truly alone (although in a conventional way he might admit, “I love to be alone” [Walden, 1971, p. 135]). Physical isolation was trivial, the life of the mind bringing him into intimate contact with himself, other minds, and the world. From this perspective,

no exertion of the legs can bring two minds much nearer to one another. What do we want most to dwell near to? Not to many men surely, … but to the perennial source of our life…. [which] will vary with different natures, but this is the place where a wise man will dig his cellar. (Ibid., p. 133)

The trope of loneliness simply articulates Thoreau's deep existential awareness that his moral character demands attention not to the protection of personal identity but rather to its development and expansion. He would not rest “alone” in society, distracted by the demands of those whose values were inimical to this quest. Thus he writes confidently, “I am no more lonely than the loon in the pond that laughs so loud, or than Walden Pond itself” (ibid., p. 137). The loon and the pond have no self-consciousness and thus have no consciousness of being separate, or, in this parlance, “alone.” Thoreau, by identifying with nature, achieves a communion with God, who visits him in various guises—as the old settler “who is reported to have dug Walden Pond” and an elderly dame whose “memory runs back farther than mythology” (ibid.).

Nevertheless, there is an unresolved tension. In the insistence on maintaining his personalized view of the world, Thoreau dangerously skirted the black hole of solipsism—one's consciousness (mind, self) cannot know anything other than its own content. The balance between confinement and maintaining a selfaware identity which was always tested against some version of objective reality—natural and social—represented a pervasive epistemological challenge arising from the very metaphysics of selfconscious awareness of oneself as alien in the world (Jonas 1958, 1963; Evernden 1985, 1993). And to whatever extent he might have engaged the world and written of it, the solipsism issue simply would not go away, but always hung over Thoreau and threatened to envelop him in the exclusive universe of his own making. In short, the danger of asserting the self as constitutive of its world is the peril of constructing a world known only to that self. Thoreau was no solipsist. He recognized that “it is vain to think either that the mind can be a place, or that the mind alone can find a proper place for itself or for us. It must look outside of itself into the world” (Berry 1983, p. 179; quoted by Buell 1995, p. 279). At the same time, however, he was relatively isolated as

the result of the perspectivism that arose from his radically personalized view of the world.

Thoreau became acutely aware of his selfness, and, indeed, it became a problem for him. His dilemmas were symptomatic of the age, and there are many testaments—poetic and philosophic—of others' attempts to deal with them. To better situate Thoreau's conundrum and his own achievement, we must better understand the notions of selfhood which undergirded his own formulations, which in fact “allowed” him to proceed. Thoreau employed, knowingly or not, a philosophical scaffolding that bestowed primacy on the self—in particular, on a selfconscious ego.

The theory of subjectivity proposed by Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762–1814) best articulated the Romantic understanding of the self that Thoreau himself utilized. Thoreau need not have been intimately familiar with Fichte's philosophy itself to have benefited from its formal articulation. The ethos was in the air, and others composed similar rhapsodies in different keys and with assorted harmonies. Thoreau had many sources to learn the particulars of Fichte's program, if he so desired.[11] That is not the issue. Fichte's orientation of the self in action was widely accepted in its most general outline, and, more to the point, Thoreau's response to this Romantic challenge closely followed Fichte's philosophical prescription, or other ones that approximated it. Today few know Fichte's Wissenschaftslehre, while Walden is part of the canon, but they belong on the same library shelf.

Fichte's thought is notoriously difficult to summarize, and his philosophy of the self evolved most radically after 1800 (presented in various versions of his Wissenschaftslehre). But if we focus on his formulations during the 1790s, a relatively coherent picture emerges, one very useful for posing the issues Thoreau implicitly, and at times explicitly, dealt with. Fichte was one of those post-Kantians who sought to mend the fault lines separating theoretical and practical reason. As Thoreau did later, Fichte gave primacy to the knowing self in whose unity all forms of knowing must be derived. In other words, Fichte sought to establish the nature of a self that comes prior to any faculty of knowing, and this fundamental activity of the mind Fichte called “selfpositing.” Thus the nature of consciousness, most specifically self-consciousness, is at the heart of Fichte's philosophical project, and specifically the effort to find the unity and coherence of the knowing subject. Whereas Kant posited the coherence of the ego in a transcendental quality, the unity of apperception, Fichte investigated the “unconditionedness” (Umbedingtheit) of the “I” as residing in a radically selfreferential metaphysic:


Life does not begin with disinterested contemplation of nature or of objects. Life begins with action…. External nature impinges upon us, and stops us, but it is clay for our creation; if we create we have freedom again. Then [Fichte] makes an important proposition: Things are as they are, not because they are so independent of me, but because I make them so; things depend upon the way in which I treat them, what I need them for…. “I do not accept what nature offers because I must”: that is what animals do. I do not simply register what occurs like some kind of machine—that is what Locke and Descartes said humans do, but that is false. “I do not accept what nature offers because I must, I believe it because I will” …. [E]xperience is something I determine because I act…. I make my world as I make a poem. (Berlin 1999, pp. 88–89)

Fichte's Romantic anthem attests to the yearning expression of a free self, which was commonly celebrated, one that sought its own selfperfection.[14] The implications for moral philosophy cannot be overestimated.

The other cardinal feature of Fichte's philosophy posits that the self could not exist alone and could only be constituted in tension with, or even in opposition to, an “other.” In fact, there are two levels of otherness: the self itself in its own selfpositing, and the empirical world that must be brought within the self's knowing—incorporated and integrated only as the self might comprehend it. In this process of knowing, the self would be articulated in tension with the “outside” world. Fichte's basic construction of alterity became widely utilized. For instance, otherness for Coleridge was the divine other; more radically, for Hegel the other became an ontology.[15] Hegelian dialecticism regarded all action as governed by confrontation and synthesis. Applying the ipseityalterity axis to the self, the sovereign subject would relate only to that which it constructs or confronts. In that meeting the realization of the self is determined in a complex duality, the encountered world comprising one element of the synthesis and the person's own self-consciousness the other. Their meeting—their synthesis—modulates the self, which thereby evolves. Like Fichte's construction, the self becomes a relation, fundamentally an activity which never rests. The general lesson was universally applied: the self depends intimately on its relation to the other, whether God, nature, culture, history, or other selves. Otherness becomes constitutive of the self—quite a different vision of the self from that of Kant, where the person retained individuality by some postulated transcendental quality.

Alterity revolves around whether, and how, in response to an encounter, the self articulates itself or is altered as a consequence of that engagement. How might the engaged self alter its object and their shared world? How


The I posits itself, and it exists by virtue of this mere selfpositing…. What was I before I came to self-consciousness? The natural answer to this question is:I did not exist at all, for I was not an I. The I exists only insofar as it is conscious of itself. (Fichte,Wissenschaftslehre [1794], quoted by Neuhouser 1990, pp. 45–46)

According to Fichte, this self-intuition is the grounding, indeed the selfgrounding, of the self, and from it all forms of human knowing are derived.[12] From this initial formulation, he further developed his philosophy upon the notion of the self's practical freedom, what he described as a “feeling of [one's] freedom and absolute selfsufficiency” (Fichte,Wissenschaftslehre [1797], quoted by Neuhouser 1990, p. 54). If the self existed as selfpositing, then the self's self-determination of itself and its world rested on regarding the “absolute selfactivity of the I as independent of everything outside of oneself” (ibid.). The goal was genuine autonomy. But Fichte drew a crucial distinction between the “intellectual intuition” of the self and the self as a knowing faculty, and thereby made autonomy a “problem”:

If, in intellectual intuition, the I is because it is and is what it is, then it is, to that extent,selfpositing, absolutely independent and autonomous. The I in empirical consciousness, however, the I as intellect,is only in relation to something intelligible, and is, to that extent, dependent. But the I which is thereby opposed to itself is supposed to be not two, but one—which is impossible, since “dependence” contradicts “independence.” Since, however, the I cannot relinquish its absolute independence, a striving is engendered: the I strives to make what is intelligible dependent upon itself, in order thereby to bring that I which entertains representations of what is intelligible into unity with the selfpositing I. (Fichte [1792] 1988, p. 75; emphasis in original)

Three key features highlight this passage: first, the primary selfsufficiency of the I;[13] second, the aspiration for autonomy; and third, the dialectic of the other in the self's selfconstitution. This construction of the world's dependence on the knowing I was a “solution” to Kant's challenge of defining a unifying Reason, but Fichte's radical primacy of the self also begat solipsism. Before delving into that quandary, let us consider what Fichte did offer.

In Fichte's philosophical system the self is no longer an entity but rather is regarded as an activity, one which is selfconstituting in a way that an object cannot be. The guiding characteristics of this sensibility (epistemologically) assert the self in a pragmatic mode and (metaphysically) free it with self-determination. In offering the architectonics of a free, selfwilled self, Fichte provided the Romantics with a philosophical foundation by which the Romantic quest might proceed:

might the self live in its world and in a universe of other selves? The self alone is either isolated, hence alienated, or else it actively engages the world and thereby becomes actualized. This was the basis of Marx's economic theory of selfalienating work and Kierkegaard's religious philosophy of dialogue with the divine, where the self's authenticity resided in its responsiveness to that call.Relation, whether to work (Marx) or to God (Kierkegaard), was based on taking the dialectical structure of Hegel's (and Fichte's) philosophy in new directions.[16]

The relational construct as applied to the specific issue of personhood converges on how the potential for self-aggrandizement must be realized in the world, and the self must ultimately actualize itself in the encounter with the other. The “ other”—as self-consciousness—includes the self itself, and herein lies the essential mystery of the Romantic understanding of selfhood. On the one hand, we are selfconsciously aware of our selfhood as arising from our thinking about being a self; but there is a critical caveat to that observation: the self thereby dissolves. We become locked into a relentless recursive reflection where “the self” no longer abides as a circumscribed, selfcontained entity. In The Principles of Psychology (written from a very different orientation but still indebted to this Romantic sensibility [Goodman 1990]), William James clearly articulated the elusiveness of mind, specifically the core of the self-consciousness: “[I]t [consciousness] is not one of the things experienced at the moment; this knowing is not immediately known. It is only known in subsequent reflection” (James [1890] 1983, p. 290). Accordingly, like Fichte before him, James held that consciousness can only be regarded as a process, where, in the attempt to objectify experience—that is, to share it and make it public—consciousness is transformed into something else altogether. Our reflection on our thought, perception, and feelings is irretrievably distinct from the source of that process, which we would like to refer to as our inner or core self. The act of recognition is a function of our selfawareness; and as consciousness or actions are reviewed, a continual generation of new experience must in turn be contemplated. The act of introspection is thus perpetually incomplete in the attempt to capture the primary experience. Because the review process is fundamentally oriented as a retrospective act of analysis, it can never be the act itself. The reflection itself is a thought, but then the recursive spiral begins and there is no end, as Kierkegaard so elegantly observed forty years earlier.[17]

The psychological elusiveness of “selfhood” elicits a beguiling puzzlement. The self has become immersed in its world, and when one attempts to arrest that experiencing subject by reflecting on its experience, subjectivity

is lost and an alien objectivity is substituted that is essentially and fundamentally incapable of capturing what is intuitively referred to as inner identity, the experiencing self. The self is truly unaware of itself as it acts, but as soon as the identity of personhood is sought, it slips away into its own recesses. From this point of view, there is no ready definition of the self outside of specific contexts, independent of particular languages and social or physical settings. For instance, selves as citizens have certain rights and obligations as defined by law; soldiers as selves are defined by their military roles and duties; patients are defined by their respective pathologies and reports of illness. So when we speak of the self, we are actually only referring to a commonly accepted construction, one formed out of the contingency of a particular time and place. The self has become a convenient vehicle for speaking about various social roles. When extended to our personhood, the concept becomes a conundrum.[18] This was precisely the issue Thoreau set himself to address.

From the orientation adopted here, we might say that Thoreau found the “other” in several contexts, of which nature is the most prominent. As a naturalist, he saw nature not as a reflection of himself but as radically other: “Man is but the place where I stand & the prospect (thence) hence is infinite. It is not a chamber of mirrors which reflect me—when I reflect myself—I find that there is other than me” (April 2, 1852,Journal 4, 1992, p. 420), or as he might have said, the other establishes the finitude of the self. He embraced his self-consciousness to turn his peering at the world into an aesthetic and spiritual order, and accepted his metaphysical separation from nature with a selfwilled mandate to explore that relationship. In so doing, he articulated and, in the context of this philosophical formulation, created his personhood. To know Thoreau's work is to perceive that he was in constant dialogue with nature, not only absorbing her beauty and facts of being but, more personally, ascertaining himself in relation to the natural. Various critics assess that process by different criteria and see this project in different lights. I will not attempt any further adjudication here, for my purpose is not to further show how nature as other served as constituent to Thoreau's selfdefinition of his personhood—it clearly was to a large extent the measure and counterpoise of his own identity—but rather to see this examination as a means of exploring an even deeper other, namely the otherness of himself, one he discovered as the wild.

So, as with Fichte, Thoreau would give primacy to his agency—the knowing self and the self in selfdetermined action. But unlike the idealist philosophers—from Fichte to Emerson—Thoreau would articulate himself in dialogue over his place in nature through active empiricist pursuit. In a

way heretofore unappreciated, Thoreau celebrated sensual experience and made that experience the wellspring of his own selfhood. And by exposing that source, Thoreau finally found his union with the other.


I went in search of myself.


While Thoreau deserves scrutiny in his own right, his relevance grows if we effectively place him more securely among those who gave serious responses to our own metaphysical predicament. I am not referring here to the environmental crisis, albeit that issue is certainly germane, but rather to a deeper malaise. We live with a deep uncertainty about certainty. We are insecure about criteria of objectivity, rationality, and truth. What indeed is real and how do we know it? Is there a “self,” and if so, what is it? The foundations of knowledge are weakened by the uncertain metaphysics of the knowing agent. These fundamental grounding questions are posed in many different guises under the rubric of postmodernism and seem to dominate discussions in diverse human sciences, art, literature, politics, philosophy, and religion. Thoreau, of course, was no “postmodernist.” But his way of posing the question of epistemological and moral agency resonates with many current such discussions, though his “answer” of course differs radically from postmodern ones.

In many respects, postmodernism may be regarded as a continuation of the Romantic reaction to the Enlightenment, and it is on that continuum that we might place Thoreau's own project. We have yet to complete the deconstruction of the self that began in the early nineteenth century. The Romantics had no intention of eliminating the idea of selfhood, but in their initiating its expansion, the concept of identity began to lose its boundaries. Eventually the very question of an entity that we might designate “the self” became highly problematic, so the very authenticity of such an entity was challenged. Post—World War II literary and artistic expression extended this orientation so that we now speak of the self's “indeterminacy,” the emblematic slogan for the difficulties in identifying the agency of cognition or moral action (Tauber 1994).[19] When the subject is “decentered,” no longer a stable entity—a reference, an origin, or a source—it becomes only the contingent result or product of multiple historical, social, and psychological forces. On this view, the unity of the self is at best a deceptive construction, a remnant of an older and discarded metaphysics. Instead, such an object might only be described in its “doing.”[20] And here we come to a fascinating resonance

with Thoreau, who similarly would define himself in his doing—in his work and literary product.

Thus in the assertion of agency, in the life work in which he fully engaged, Thoreau defied the forces that conspired to confuse his perspective. Outside any social role or an identification with any movement or group, Thoreau insisted on his own selfmade integrity. Presenting it as the work of a hero, he proclaimed his own personhood. By regarding Thoreau from the vantage point of the assault on personal identity, I have endeavored to show that prior to his various roles as naturalist, historian, environmentalist, or polemicist, Thoreau asserted the knowing self. He assumed this mantle of selfpositing as a task. In his rebellion against the ascendant positivism of his age, in his insistence on personalizing experience, he gave primacy to his individuality grounded in his particular abilities to see and do. Yet, ironically, in the positivist's world, the self is assumed as given. In Thoreau's universe, where the world is known only as refracted through a personal lens, the knowing self becomes a problem, for it has no universal structure, or even a basis for shared experience with other knowers. The self is fundamentally alone, and only through prodigious effort could Thoreau portray the moral universe he appreciated. He did so despite his isolation and angst.

Thoreau's is a critical counterposition to the postmodern dissolution of agency. We peer at him across our historical divide and ponder to what extent his triumph might be our own. The problematic status of the self, irrespective of the force of contemporary critiques, cannot be regarded as an issue unique to Thoreau's era, or our own. Indeed, we may discern the roots of Thoreau's conundrum in earlier thinkers—in Augustine, Descartes, Rousseau—and project the problem in its later forms in late-nineteenth-century psychology, postanalytic philosophy, and post-1945 art and literature.[21] From this perspective, postmodern critiques of the self's unity, even of its very basis, is a current expression of a deep tradition in our culture, where individualism is

energized by an inner dynamic of loss, conflict, doubt, absence and lack which feeds into our culture's obsession with control, its sense that the identity of everything, from self to nation, is under centrifugal and potentially disintegrative pressures which have to be rigorously controlled. This is a kind of control that is always exceeding and breaking down the very order it restlessly seeks and is forever reestablishing its own rationale even as it undermines it. (Dollimore 1997, p. 254)

The elusive self has had a complex history, and Thoreau comes late to the stage, as we do. In attempting to assess his venture from our own vantage

only a few generations removed from him, we see, more clearly than he could, the trajectory of the crisis he grappled with. In some sense, his innocence of our future enables us to see in him a response still fresh in its hope, sustained by the vigor of a conviction we seem to have lost.

Given his current popularity, it is apparent that Thoreau's mode of inquiry, largely discredited as science and discarded as corrupted Transcendentalism in his own time, remains a potent idealistic and aesthetic philosophy. Why? There are no short answers, and certainly no limits to our speculations, but the perspective adopted here is that Thoreau's lasting appeal resides in his articulation of his own character, what I am calling his “doing.” The selfdetermined agency of his action is guided by a powerful inner sense of himself which brought coherence to his diverse activities and offered a singular direction to his life's work, whether expressed in the acts of writing or in manual labor, political activism, or mystical intercourse. His environmentalism is only one aspect of his project. The power of Thoreau's message consists, at least in part, in the persistent attraction of the Romantic sensibility in our own postmodern era, where the questions he posed remain ours, because the construction of the Romantic self in search of itself still prevails.

Thoreau continues to ride the crest of the Romantic wave that represents the “great break in European consciousness” (Berlin 1999, p. 8), a shifting “away from the notion that there are universal truths, universal canons of art, that all human activities were meant to terminate in getting things right, and the criteria of getting things right were public, were demonstrable” (ibid., p. 14). Romantics adopted a new “universal”—one dominated by the private, by the emotional, by the independent self, bequeathing the relativism that currently dominates. In this post-Enlightenment period, the universe is plastic; there is no abiding structure of things or thought or morality; objectivity has different meanings in different domains; no abiding “method” is universally applicable. The world and the modes by which it may be understood and governed become more pliable, require more tolerance, allow for plurality, and must be understood as amenable to acts of will and free choice. The Romantic world then might well encompass divergent and even contradictory characteristics—harmony and turbulence, unity and multiplicity, integration and fragmentation, joy and melancholia, order and chaos—for these in fact cannot be integrated beyond their own individual metaphysical standing. The radical shift in consciousness is more encompassing than some simplified holistic view of nature or human consciousness, for in its own contradictory fashion, Romanticism must incorporate its own disparate characteristics, which are bound together only in the ultimate

revolt against an Enlightenment stricture of some universal, fundamental order. In such a Romantic world, how do we find our bearings?

Thoreau offered us a map of this terrain. He followed in the tradition of Rousseau's Confessions (and the Reveries) and Wordsworth's The Prelude, autobiographies that deliberately analyzed personal development and in this fashion attempted to form an understanding of personal identity.[22] Each story is unique, and there is little to gain in any attempt to further compare or contrast him with these other Romantic autobiographers. Instead, let us briefly consider how autobiography articulates themes introduced at the beginning of this study, namely, how memory reveals the character of the self. Thoreau primarily used memory in the particular context of writing history, but even the naturalist writings are recollections, reconstructions of his experience, and thus must build from memory, fashioned around the core issue of his own experience. From this perspective, the nature writing and the cultural history are all of one piece. They are public discourses as distillations of Thoreau's most intimate thoughts of himself in the domains of nature and the past. Each required exercise of creative memory—imaginative, aesthetically driven, and thus deeply personal. For Thoreau, to plumb these depths constitutes an important project in his discovering, and enunciation, of the self. Indeed, autobiography as the expression of such introspection is a critical component of the notion of a developing self, one that not only changes but remains elusive in its evolution.

Thoreau was perhaps most cognizant of this issue as he pondered the moral dimension of his poesis.A Week offers a remarkable testament to 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 Thoreau's definition of a life of virtue. His morning work and his dreams—waking or sleeping—are unified by a vision of moral action which can be achieved only in doing—in intense experience, deliberate conduct, and artistic achievement. But the completed essay was not Thoreau's final destination; rather, the experienced life, which included the writing, was the object of his efforts. He was “writing” his life, creating in word and deed, so that in the end the presented public record was configured by the imperative to portray a vision of the self—one seen in the doing but only perceived

as the tip of an iceberg of experience. Thus Thoreau's literary project, whether he presented it as cultural history, natural history, or poetry, distilled a deeper consciousness.

In the end, the search for the self is a project complete unto itself. But we may well ask, To what end? Modern critics of autobiography have explored the tension between the person who says “I” and the “I” that is not a person but a function of language. In other words, the “I” does not properly refer to an entity inasmuch as it has a split agenda as authorial voice and object of that voice (Gilmore 1994, p. 6). This is simply a reformulation of the self-consciousness problem, and there are many ways to demonstrate it: Autobiography identifies centrifugal forces, which move away from the center—the “I” in one form—and centripetal forces, which move toward the center—the “I” in the other modality (Bergland 1994, p. 160). In this sense, “to find a self in autobiography inevitably fails because of the impossibility of language to represent a whole” (ibid., p. 161). Another way of looking at this issue is the intriguing observation made by Roland Barthes of photographic images of himself:

In front of the lens, I am at the same time: the one I think I am, the one I want others to think I am, the one the photographer thinks I am, and the one he makes use of to exhibit his art. In other words, a strange action: I do not stop imitating myself, and because of this, each time I am (or let myself be) photographed, I invariably suffer from a sensation of inauthenticity, sometimes of imposture…. [T]he Photograph represents the very subtle moment when, to tell the truth, I am neither subject nor object but a subject who feels he is becoming an object. (Barthes 1981, pp. 11–14)

Barthes is describing “a dispersed self,” one that

seems never to coincide with its image. Barthes's treatment of posing is really about the impossibility of not posing. It questions the very concept of authenticity and turns it into a kind of simulacrum in which the subject cannot stop “imitating” himself…. But worse than the specter of inauthenticity is the specter of objectification, the fear that the always inauthentic image does in fact constitute the objectified self. The problem Barthes's remarks on posing [reveal] is that the socalled profound or essential self can never be represented as such. Indeed the very nature of this essential self becomes paradoxical: its subjectivity is linked to a notion of authenticity, yet any image of that self is a sign of its objectification, and hence, its inauthenticity. The authentic self, in Barthes's terms, is finally an impossibility, for it would be a self freed from the process of becoming an object. (Jay 1994, pp. 194–95)


Responses to the existential anxiety provoked by this insight have led either to defense of the essential self or to an admission of the inevitability of its inaccessibility. Thoreau, unlike most twentieth-century existentialists, chose the former option. In a sense, his autobiographical narrative, like the photograph, freezes an image of time and person, a pose, if you will, that assumes a certain identity and then to some extent becomes that identity. Thoreau would constantly expand and refashion that selfportrait and thus attempt to close the circle. The self is constantly being made and remade, so that “in the end,” written memory—the literary product—in large measure becomes the subject itself. The qualifications— “to some extent” and “in large measure”—are important, because the writing project remains incomplete and never can totally capture that “splitscreen” character of identity. But the point is not whether or to what extent Thoreau “succeeds” but rather his moral imperative of attempting to do so. In the doing, the self is asserted.

Thoreau could not abide the uncertainty of our own age, and looking forward into the western sunset, he could proclaim, “As a true patriot, I should be ashamed to think that Adam in paradise was more favorably situated on the whole than the backwoodsman in this country” (“Walking,” 1980b, p. 111). The American hero was about to add his “fables to those of the East” (ibid., p. 121), for this time, in this place, demanded a response to an epic opportunity:

If the heavens of America appear infinitely higher, and the stars brighter, I trust that these facts are symbolical of the height to which the philosophy and poetry and religion of her inhabitants may one day soar…. For I believe that climate does thus react on man,—as there is something in the mountain air that feeds the spirit and inspires. Will not man grow to greater perfection intellectually as well as physically under these influences? … I trust that we shall be more imaginative, that our thoughts will be clearer, fresher, and more ethereal as our sky,—our understanding more comprehensive and broader, like our plains,—our intellect generally on a grander scale, like our thunder and lightning, our rivers and mountains and forests,—and our hearts shall even correspond in breadth and depth and grandeur to our inland seas…. Else to what end does the world go on, and why was America discovered? (Ibid., pp. 110–11)

This spiritual hymn to patriotism invokes divine purpose, and in that tradition, man, the divine's agent, has been made in His image. To be sure, this was not jingoistic patriotism, the blind ambition of imperialism, but a sense of the land's spirit. Without “self-respect … [p]atriotism is a maggot in their heads” (Walden, 1971, p. 321; emphasis in original).


The optimism such a view celebrates belongs only to a great individualist, who can assert the primacy of his own selfhood and its accompanying mandate. There is, in fact, a mission, and he knows its character and its demands. If presented with the postmodern challenge, Thoreau would have answered that the self indeed exists as groping for selfexpression and knowledge in a world potentially alienating and distant. But rather than deconstruct the self and leave ourselves in limbo, untethered and floating in a sea of contingency, he would maintain that our deepest and most abiding core of “personhood” must be the assertion of that individuality as a moral mandate. Such is the stuff in which heroes are cast. The project he thus assigned himself, and us, is to capture our essence as character. His “solution”—to the extent that he had one—was to live in elusive nature, appreciate and internalize her, and in the process of the acute self-consciousness of his scrutiny, actualize himself.

But Thoreau's recognition that he was a separate mind—in nature, yet segregated in his own self-consciousness—created an inner tension, never fully resolved. He was stretched between the autonomy of his own person and the world in which he lived. This balancing of the “autonomousself” with the “selfintheworld” is a dialectic in continual play. One way of gauging the tilt of Thoreau's balance is simply to look directly at a text. For instance, Buell (building on Clapper's [1967] key insight) makes the interesting observation that as Walden unfolds, the speaker as the selfcreator of his environment, as evinced by the frequent appearance of “Thoreau's favorite pronoun, ‘I,’” gradually yields, as the text proceeds, to the cluster of “Walden,” “pond(s),” and the various nominal and adjectival forms of “wild” in which the self lives (Buell 1995, p. 122). This inverse relationship of the “autonomousself” and the “selfintheworld” reflects the thematic intent of the narrative and reflects, in perhaps a crude measure, the complex structure of the book. As Thoreau reaches out to nature, and to his audience, we see him pushing aside the narcissistic mirror, and the inordinate “I” becomes contextualized. This represents the to and fro of Thoreau's struggle of defining his very personhood.

To the extent that he remains stuck in his selfawareness, the separated self is always peering at nature rather than being truly connected to it. This is, then, despite his extraordinary success as a writer, ultimately the “failure” inherent in the “autonomousself,” which in its various epistemological projects can never fulfill the experience of that other “selfintheworld.” But the “problem” of self-consciousness might well be turned on its head. As Hans Jonas wrote in answer to the nihilistic challenges of our own era, it is precisely our consciousness that provides the guarantee of our

personhood. In this view, then, the very inability to merge with nature assures us of our very humanity, our transcendence as moral creatures, and the metaphysical basis of our selfhood (Jonas 1958; 1963, pp. 320 ff.). At some level, Thoreau must have appreciated that, indeed, his separateness conferred his selfhood, and perhaps in an ironic turn, we appreciate that in Thoreau's consummate immersion in nature he came to realize the irony of Emerson's credo, offered from the contemplative podium: “And, in fine, the ancient precept, ‘Know thyself,’ and the modern precept, ‘Study nature,’ become at last one maxim” (Emerson 1983b, p. 56).

This brings us to a central debate about Thoreau, namely the “egocentric” versus “ecocentric” construction of his thought. Buell correctly notes that this division hardly allows a neat separation; placing Thoreau into one camp or the other is to oversimplify a complex shifting of contexts. Nevertheless, he would read Thoreau's nature writing with far more emphasis on its ecological and environmental ethical perspectives, portraying him in close proximity to the current green ethos. Thoreau is thus postured as moving toward a biocentrist awareness (1995, p. 394) but hardly as its full author: “the environmental imagination cannot live by Thoreau alone. But with him as a point of reference, we can move in all the necessary directions” (p. 395), that is, “helping to make the space of nature ethically resonant” (p. 394). Thus Walden, from Buell's perspective, should not be read solely as an autobiographical narrative (p. 394), but for its key moral lesson: “The path to biocentrism must lead through humanitarianism” (p. 386). This is what Buell refers to as “Walden' s plot of relinquishment: the protagonist in the act of becoming weaned from the project of a solely individual fulfillment as primary subject of interest” (p. 389).

It is erroneous to read Thoreau as asserting either the disappearance or the selfassertion of the persona (Buell 1995, p. 178); as Peter Fritzell observes, there is rather a constant interplay, even a dialecticism at work:

To present an environmentalist's point of view in a personal voice. To immerse the person, the personal voice, in an environment. To deny the self and affirm the environment. To deny the environment and celebrate the self. To view the self as a product of its environment and the environment as a product of the self. To view the self as a metaphor for the environment and the environment as a metaphor of or for the self. Such is the habit of the selfconscious ecologist, the man at Walden. (Fritzell 1990, p. 189)

Thoreau shared the great Romantic quandary of finding his place—the vantage point from which the world might be known—and in so doing, he would define himself. But Buell basically sees the ethos of nature writing,

and Thoreau's own efforts, from the environmental point of view, which would efface the self:

The effect of environmental consciousness on the perceiving self, as I see it, is not primarily to fulfil it, to negate it, or even to complicate it, although all of these may seem to happen. Rather the effect is most fundamentally to raise the question of the validity of the self as the primary focalizing device for both writer and reader: to make one wonder, for instance, whether the self is as interesting an object of study as we supposed, whether the world would become more interesting if we could see it from the perspective of a wolf, a sparrow, a river, a stone. This approach to subjectivity makes apparent that the “I” has no greater claim to being the main subject than the chickens, the chopped com, the mice, the snake, and the phoebes—who are somehow also interwoven with me. (Buell 1995, p. 179)

That is certainly true at one level: each component of nature (including ourselves) is just that, an element—a part of the whole. But that is not the issue as I see it. Rather, the question underlying this debate is that a story is being told, a narrative elaborated, with all the force that narrative bestows—a human perspective, imbued with meaning and signification.

Such questioning of the status of the self reflects a postmodern ethos, the insecurity of doubt about the “I” 's very standing. Thoreau, I expect, if given only a single choice, would cast his lot with the other side. Indeed, he might well have said, How can one know the world from a river's perspective? Aside from the absurdity of assigning consciousness to chopped corn or a stone, what could such a perspective be other than our perspective of the river's or tree's respective point of view? In the end, such a sighting is simply another one of our multitudinous vantages of the world in which we seek meaning and in the process project our own intentionality or rationality onto that world (Tauber 1998a). The question then becomes, How do we fool ourselves into thinking that we might shed our “Iness”? Or more to the point, Why do we need to?[23] To seek a more intimate and caring relationship with nature need not necessitate deconstructing ourselves in the process. The very integrity of our own agency would be threatened. Why not simply promote a sympathy, recognizing that it is an “I” that must sympathize? Fritzell comes closer to the mark in claiming a play of perspectives as we build a multidimensional universe about ourselves. This Thoreau did with acute self-consciousness and consummate skill.

The controversy about Thoreau's placement as an “ecocentrist” versus an “egocentrist” is conclusively resolved in favor of the latter designation if one appreciates his diverse projects of one piece. His nature study was in

service of defining the coordinates of knowing, a project which in turn was dedicated to establishing the agency of the knower. This venture informed all of his various projects—his literary career as a nature writer and historian, his crusades for religious and economic integrity, as well as his diverse scientific, political, and aesthetic pursuits. The various challenges Thoreau posed for himself—epistemological, ontological, ethical, and, not the least, psychological—may all be subsumed in this quest for his own self.

From this reading, the critical issue is not whether Thoreau was an ecocentrist or not, but rather what are the implications of his egocentrism. On the one hand, Thoreau's celebration of autonomy countermands the seemingly inescapable anomie of our own mass culture and offers an appealing answer to the quandary of conformity; yet, on the other hand, the ethics of his isolating individualism leaves us uneasy about the moral implications of such a stance in a world ever searching for an ethics to govern an increasingly complex, interdependent society. Thoreau, in the end, offers us only an incomplete portrait of moral identity, because he was so rigidly focused on the individual. This indictment may seem ironic considering how relentlessly he pursued an integrated, holistic vision of himself in the world. However, bereft of a sustaining social ethics, Thoreau was all too often left in splendid isolation with nature, whose responses to him, he testifies, were found at Walden Pond, whose surface—sometimes glassy, sometimes ruffled—always reflected his own image.

previous chapter
The Self-Positing I
next section