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The Eternal Now
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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.

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