Friday, January 23, 2009

American Lit Notebook: Thoreau

Every class we had for American Lit, we were required to write a single page about our reading. I've pulled them together, unedited. So they will read a little odd, as my audience was my professor, and occasionally they refer to lectures (though that is rare).

References are to the Portable Thoreau, edited by Carl Bode.


Thoreau: “Civil Disobedience,” Walden

Not to unduly continue my ritualistic invocation of Bloom, but writing in 2003 (in Where Shall Wisdom Be Found?), he said that Americans are haunted by “the paradox of Emerson’s influence: Peace Marchers and Bushians alike are Emerson’s heirs in his dialectics of power.” (198) This epileptic seizure of a rhetorical riverbed bears strong witness in Thoreau, overinfluenced as he was. “Civil Disobedience” is a cavalcade of conflicting contemporary resonances: the Iraqi Wars, as many have pointed out, are their Mexican War, but the neoconservative takes great respite in his “the government never of itself furthered any enterprise, but by the alacrity with which it got out of its way.” (110)

What I think we can see clearly in the essay are the political ramifications of Emerson’s call for a return to “moral intuition,” for people to listen to their inner, true, authentic selves, rather than others. This informs Thoreau's use of “conscience” (111) and becomes all the stronger, speaking of the Abolitionists, in “it is enough if they have God on their side, without waiting for that other one [in a first-past-the-post election’s 50% plus one].” (120) The key modifier for Thoreau, in his model of life with governments, remains in the beginning: “‘That government is best which governs not at all’; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have.” (109, italics mine) Everything hinges on “when men are prepared for it,” for without it we are stuck with needing a neutral arbiter between fractured views of right and wrong—a government. I’m not sure Thoreau is entirely cognizant of the problems attendant the Emersonian conception of “inner guidance” for, quoting the famous line from Jesus on “rendering unto Caesar,” he says, “leaving them no wiser than before as to which was which; for they did not wish to know.” (124) I think the trouble is exactly not that we do not wish to know, but that the struggle of life is not being entirely sure which is which, but still having to act. The political life was created because we are not perfectly wise, like Plato’s philosopher-kings, but instead need to expediently balance the exigencies of life (let alone the proclamations of those who think themselves wise).

Walden takes an oblique route through politics, and its first long chapter would more properly be called “Economy of the Soul.” Thoreau meditates long and hard on the notion of work in our lives and the give and take, the sacrifice we make (or rather, think we have to make) to survive in life. Thoreau echoes a long, hallowed tradition of social discontent that A. O. Lovejoy called “primitivism,” stretching from the Stoics to its modern font, Rousseau. Recalling the First Discourse, Thoreau says, “Most of the luxuries … are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.” (269) “Elevation” is Thoreau’s chief concern, and, like in Emerson, it is a solitary, writerly concern. Emerson was after “tropes,” and for Thoreau the thinker, the play of life is “a kind of fiction.” (386) Thoreau, as he said in opening, lives “by the labor of my hands.” (258)

No comments:

Post a Comment

Want to get in touch with me but are too scared to universalize and eternalize your comments for all everywhere and always to see? Just e-mail me: