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[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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