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We cannot see anything until we are possessed with the idea of it, and then we can hardly see anything else.

Thoreau, November 4, 1858,Journal, [1906] 1962, 11:285; published in modified form in “Autumnal Hints,” 1980d, p. 174


I wish to exhibit Thoreau's epistemology as the coexistence of several modes of knowing and an overlapping of several kinds of writing. He invoked various rationalities, and we must be sensitive to the role each played in mediating his experience. Knowledge and how we gain it occur in many ways, and only by examining several layers of inquiry and report may we begin to ascertain the accomplishments and failures of Thoreau's own epistemological ventures. Some inkling of my orientation has already been outlined, so let us begin on ground well trodden, namely Thoreau's discussion of time. As discussed in chapter 1, Thoreau would capture reality by capturing time. There are, to be sure, moments when Thoreau is fully in time, oblivious to its passing—as he reports, for instance, in the opening of Walden's chapter, “Sounds”:

Sometimes … I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise to noon, rapt in a revery, amidst the pines and hickories and sumachs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sang around or flitted noiseless through the house, until by the sun falling in at my west window, or the noise of some traveller's wagon the distant highway, I was reminded of the lapse of time. I grew in those seasons like corn in the night, and they were far better than any work of the hands would have been. They were not time subtracted from my life, but so much over and above my usual allowance. (Walden, 1971, pp. 111–12)[1]

This is a fecund passage for my theme: Thoreau reports a reverie, a mystical state where time is suspended, only to be awakened by intrusions. He thrived in these states, achieving both a peace and deep knowledge that lent renewal to his life, the “Oriental contemplation” that the Hindu mystics taught him as laudable.[2] Time's suspension is completely confluent with nature, which knows no time, for while we understand the passing of seasons and hours, marking and dividing time is cognitive, a categorization of the mind. In espousing an animal's ignorance of time or even an intermediary position as exemplified by a preliterate Brazilian Indian, Thoreau celebrated his total envelopment within nature, exemplified by man's obliviousness of the hour. And finally, this reverie is true to Thoreau's highest ethical commitment of achieving total integration with nature. Although these glimpses of merger with nature's flux are only fleeting, they are sustaining. After all, to have a vision is to possess an orientation, a guidance, and, for Thoreau, a fulfillment.

The power of this passage is undeniable. As a rhetoretician, Thoreau masterfully controls the rhythm of the prose and the imagery, but as an epistemological report it sorely lacks information. Thoreau cannot reveal his

consciousness—it has been relieved of its cognitive burdens. He only has a vague recollection of his trance, the obscure appreciation that time had passed, but beyond that awareness, there is nothing more to say.Indeed, there is nothing else to report. The reverie is unreportable, otherwise it would not have been a mystical experience! So why is the passage powerfully evocative? How does the allusion Thoreau portrays resonate with our own experience? If we too have remembrance of such reveries, even shortlived and less intense, Thoreau's description reminds us of that experience. Simply put, Thoreau's passage delivers a powerful emotional impact to the extent that it evokes recall of our own mediative life.

Thoreau also achieves the same kind of evocation with the use of fable and similar narrative devices. For instance, consider Walden's mythic artist of Kouroo (discussed below), a creative fantasy that also illustrates Thoreau's own aspiration to suspending time, or perhaps to become one with time. In this regard, myth offers one recourse and history another, but Thoreau is all too aware of time's passing as he records history or makes a record of his observations. As discussed in the preceding chapter, the poignancy of noting an iron hook remnant (“Former inhabitants; and Winter Visitors,” Walden, 1971, p. 261) as the only sign of recent neighbors emphasizes the elusive character of remembrance—and significance—of our temporal existence which rests on the partial character of memory. The passing of the seasons marks more than just nature's course, for it entails the oblivion of man's seasons on earth, the insignificance of his presence. I maintain that this is a good case of Thoreau's historical epistemology in direct service to his metaphysics of time, his abiding concern with temporality and, most saliently, its passing. We respond, as he did, emotionally, as he leads us to peer into awful eternity.

Such emotive states fall well outside any rigorous scientific epistemology, or what Thoreau calls Knowledge. Transcendental emotional experience holds paramount importance for him; indeed, we have ample evidence that he regarded such encounters with the Unknown as the highest and most refined he might have. We may be struck by his “morning work”— the multiple notebooks filled with detailed descriptions ranging from careful (if not obsessive) measurements of dispersed seeds, soundings of Walden Pond, documentation of the first appearance of plants, or the behavior of animals and birds—but these pale in comparison with his passion for contemplation, dream, memory, trance. The message Thoreau was most interested in transmitting pertained to experience outside normal discourse, indeed beyond normal cognition. As important and impressive as Thoreau's achievement might be considered to be in natural philosophy, conventional

history, or social comment, these ultimately are subordinated to his most personal spiritual quest. He struggled to reconcile these divergent aspects of his intelligence, for while steeped in a scientific ethos that rewarded objective, clear description, he knew that his deepest mystical experience could not be so reported. He might refer to eternity, the celestial spheres, the ancient truths, Higher Laws, the divine, the Brahma, but in the end he relied on another convention, the encompassing Romantic ideal for all of these allusions to the Beyond,Intelligence, which might be “known” only through sympathy.

My desire for knowledge is intermittent, but my desire to bathe my head in atmospheres unknown to my feet is perennial and constant. The highest that we can attain to is not Knowledge, but Sympathy with Intelligence. I do not know that this higher knowledge amounts to anything more definite than a novel and grand surprise on a sudden revelation of the insufficiency of all that we called Knowledge before,—a discovery that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in our philosophy. It is the lighting up of the mist by the sun. Man cannot know in any higher sense than this, any more than he can look serenely and with impunity in the face of the sun. (“Walking,” 1980b, p. 128)

This passage offers cardinal insight into Thoreau's mind. He declares forthrightly and with no hint of irony or qualification the premier position of Intelligence. All those activities that qualify in the hierarchy of the sciences and human sciences are decisively auxiliary to the ephemeral, elusive, “unknowing” Beyond.

Thoreau derives this position from a moral judgment, and in this sense we clearly witness how his metaphysics are in the employ of his ethics. Indeed, it is fair to say that his foundation is an ethical metaphysics.[3] Thoreau continues his testimony quite plainly:

There is something servile in the habit of seeking after a law which we may obey. We may study the laws of matter at and for our convenience, but a successful life knows no law. It is an unfortunate discovery certainly, that of a law which binds us where we did not know before that we were bound. Live free, child of the mist,—and with respect to knowledge we are all children of the mist. The man who takes the liberty to live is superior to all the laws, by virtue of his relation to the lawmaker. (Ibid., pp. 128–29)

In short, Thoreau would be oriented and guided by his communion with Intelligence. Conventional or public knowledge is not only intellectually limiting, it is morally confining, restricting the individual from living a full

life. Our true being is in the ephemeral mist, where only through sympathy do we perceive the cosmic Intelligence that permeates all things with its endowment. This might be known only through an emotional and spiritual apparatus.

Yet Thoreau was no zealous pilgrim, for he divided his work between his spiritual pursuits and more conventional labors, relying on different epistemological faculties for each. A cynic might easily say that Thoreau was a parttime mystic, one no doubt sensitive to the siren's song, but intermittent in his attention. After all, the bulk of his work consisted in exactly the opposite endeavor, making his consciousness explicit and shared publicly through his writing. How might we reconcile this conflict? We do not, nor did he. I will not delve into some psychological hypothesis to explain Thoreau's emotional and intellectual life, and simply accept the phenomenological evidence: he was a complex individual, whose active intelligence pulled him in several directions which were not reconciled. To accept each on its own standing is, from my perspective, the best we might do. If, however, we insist on seeing Thoreau's intellectual and spiritual life as one piece on a continuum, one might fairly say that Thoreau attempted to use his more formal “public” endeavors as pedestals for reaching higher consciousness.

I would stretch this project along a continuum between the two poles of observation determined by the relation of the knowing subject with her object of scrutiny. The first pole is what I will call “detached observation,” characterized by objective facts of measurement and date. Such knowledge is epitomized by the Kalendar project, Thoreau's formal attempt to document nature's changes and to detect some constancy and pattern. Seeking to parse time in a “natural” fashion by culling his Journal to create a series of monthly charts, he listed various natural phenomena in a lefthand column, and the years were strung along the top of the chart. The phenomena he tracked included the height of the Concord River, rain patterns, rainbow appearances, temperature, leafing of trees, and so forth. Some of such notekeeping made its way into his published writings; for instance, in Walden, Thoreau lists the dates when the pond was freed from ice for the years 1845, 1846, 1847, 1851, 1852, 1853, and 1854 (Walden, 1971, p. 303). One might regard this exercise as an attempt to “make a comprehensive picture of time” (Peck 1990, p. 47), but no matter how well motivated such recordkeeping might be, this proved to be an essentially futile endeavor, which despite Thoreau's most earnest efforts remained partial and incomplete. Indeed, as attested by his own record, the Kalendar project failed to find constancy in change. But this detailed observation had a value in and of itself to situate

Thoreau in time. I suspect that he required some anchoring as he groped in the mists.

But there is another agenda afoot in Thoreau's minute recording, namely his legitimating his interpretation of nature. One must know a subject before one might comment, and Thoreau, in a sense, was doing his homework to good purpose. Buell observes that “the potency of the environmental text consisted not just in the reader's transaction with it but also in reanimating and redirecting the reader's transactions with nature” (1995, p. 97). True, but before that reading, the writing of the text serves to focus the writer himself. To be sure, Thoreau enjoyed the naturalist work, and by his count it was “play.” But he also used his careful observations as a means to discover higher laws, to comment on the world and himself. One of the most powerful examples of this approach closely follows the listing of dates when Walden Pond thawed, namely the famous passage on the thawing sand on the railroad bank near his cabin.[4] After some descriptive detail, the passage turns to its true intent—a comment on the bank's aesthetics (“I am affected as if in a peculiar sense I stood in the laboratory of the Artist who made the world and me” [ibid., p. 306]) and its metaphysical import (“What is man but a mass of thawing clay?” [ibid., p. 307]). I will have occasion to comment on these aspects of this important text, but suffice it here to simply note that the descriptions point to a deeper message, and this is a recurrent and characteristic pattern of Thoreau's nature writing: Observation is used as a springboard for contemplation, for seeking meaning, for communing with a higher intelligence. The observation, per se, takes on its significance within those contexts, and Thoreau crafted this linkage not only in published work but also in his Journal (for this passage see Journal 2, 1984, pp. 382–84). The epistemology was in service to his metaphysics.

This second pole, what I will call “dissolved observation,” leads to an interesting tension and may refer to Thoreau's reveries (mystical states) or what Sharon Cameron has called a “writing of nature,” in which Walden, and, even more importantly, the Journal, strive to obliterate the subjectobject divide. According to Cameron, Thoreau's recording of facts effaces his own identity and consciousness, which “does not just mediate or mirror natural phenomena; … the fiction of the Journal is that consciousness is displaced by them … [so that] [t]he self is not to be empowered by nature. It is rather to be converted to nature” (ibid., pp. 88–89).[5] On this reading, Thoreau has no Archimedean point where the self might rest and maintain its perspective and integrity, and the dichotomy between his epistemology of observation and his mystical experience thus dissolves.[6] Cameron regards Thoreau's fully matured position in the final Journal volume as transfiguring the perceiver

who, seeing nature outside the self, does not objectify it, and seeing it inside the self, does not familiarize it, for “‘seeing’ is an intimate relation, not requisite for some other goal but an end in itself” (ibid., p. 153).

Whether Thoreau indeed achieved this epistemological epiphany is doubtful. Perhaps we might concede that Thoreau aspired to unselfconscious merger, and although caught in a web of self-consciousness, he indeed experienced mystical moments. But as he wrote, as he functioned as a naturalist, a natural philosopher, even as a “scientist,” he had to translate those mystical episodes into words, into a lexicon, albeit open, so that they might be captured. In the very selfreflection, thought displaces the immediacy of nature experienced. So Cameron's interpretation, as intrigued as I am by it, is a more radical reading than I, and most critics, would allow (see chapter 5 for a more complete discussion of Thoreau's writing). As an epistemologist, Thoreau achieves what Peck calls “a lovely dance between the self and nature” (1990, p. 121). And I maintain that, however one regards the selfobject dichotomy epistemologically, Thoreau is caught on his quill. Despite his stupendous effort, he “fails” on both accounts: the objectivity of “detached observation” is always personalized and thus discounted; and by the other pole of “dissolved observation,” he must translate the experience into a text. When Thoreau communicated to his readers in polished works such as Walden, and even in the Journal—anticipating the stream of consciousness writing yet to become familiar in our own century—he was aware of his distance from what Cameron calls “the second self.” After all, he is writing! Only in reverie is the self merged with nature; then of course he is not writing and, indeed, has difficulty in reporting his experience, as we have seen.

My disagreement with Cameron about the character of Thoreau's writing as an epistemological project should not obscure our deeper agreement on Thoreau's metaphysics. The force of her argument derives from the insight that Thoreau asserted a metaphysical unity between himself and the world. But was he effective in demonstrating this assertion? Did he capture his metaphysics successfully in his writing? On this we diverge—not only on whether Thoreau was successful in his literary attempts to forge such a union, but even on whether his metaphysics was a viable formulation at all. Cameron thinks that Thoreau did overcome the Cartesian divide of res cogitans and res extensa:

[O]nce Thoreau sees that correspondences between nature and the self are incomplete and incompletable, what he would like to do is to prohibit them entirely. So doing, he would preserve the idea that nature is alien. But my claim is a complex and an apparently contradictory one,

for the way Thoreau imagines that nature is alien is also by imagining he could impersonate the alienness—that he could voice nature or be nature's voice. When Thoreau insists that he wants to write sentences that “lie like boulders on the page” or to be “the corn & the grass & the atmosphere writing,” he does not mean nature can express the human or be expressed by it—either of these claims would be conventionally indebted to metaphor or analogy. Rather he says he can abandon the human, can make himself into the alienness he was forced to confront. (Cameron 1985, p. 48)

This effacement of “the human” is the fundamental issue at hand, and hinges on Thoreau's identification of “the Wild” within him. By recognizing the source of his vitality and, further, bringing it to consciousness, Thoreau sought to overcome the divide between man and nature. The dilemma, of course, is that as humans we are ever selfconscious, and this selfreflexive attitude does not tolerate obscuring our rational contemplation of the world and of ourselves contemplating that world. Thus the very wildness he hoped to integrate would by necessity be “tamed.” Thoreau's metaphysics are at odds or, at least, in tension with human faculties of knowledge, and this tension accounts for an underlying anxiety present in all of his work. Cameron identifies the problem, but where she detects a “solution,” I perceive a noble “failure.” I maintain that, his mystical moments notwithstanding, Thoreau is caught in the web of his own self-consciousness.

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