In my maiden post, Concordian Thoughts, I pulled a rich passage from Thoreau’s Journals. I took the liberty of presenting it not in its published prose but in its poetic lyricism. It begins with a simple plea, “Shall we not have sympathy . . .“ A bit further down in what he calls a “prayer and praise,” Thoreau invites us to “look round” and not fail to see, amidst the apparently trivial and banal, what he calls “majestic pains and pleasures.” Once recognized, “They have our sympathy, both in their joys and their pains.”
This plea reminds me of his remark in “Walking” that in place of an obsession with useful knowledge, we who saunter with him in the holy land should seek “Sympathy with Intelligence.” When we confront pains and pleasures what is asked of us is sympathy, acknowledgment, an affective recognition — whether those pleasures and pains be majestic or something less. And this plea for sympathy rather than ever-more knowledge reminds me also of Cavell, who presses for acknowledgement where we so typically default toward seeking deeper knowledge, deeper grounds, thus abandoning the pain and pleasure before us.
In bringing Sympathy with Intelligence center-stage, Thoreau is not down-staging his great love of observation, of rummaging through woods and swamps and meadows, recording useful information. Intelligence accompanies our sympathies, infuses them, and guides our observations — just as sympathy guides our curiosity and intelligence. Sympathy brings what’s there into salience. Not a warehouse of knowledge but mindful sympathy is the rationale for our time on the river or in the Maine woods. The affective and cognitive work hand in glove.
Without sympathy we would pass by “the tragedies which are constantly permitted in the course of all animal life.” And imagination links arms with sympathy, intelligence, and perception — or is a modulation of these. In any case, it tunes us to hear in such sadness, in tragedy coursing through all animal life, “the plaintive strain of the universal harp which elevates us above the trivial.” Can this foretell Nietzsche’s marriage of tragedy and music?
In the desolation of tragedy, who could berate gnashing of teeth, howls of despair, or numb silence? Tragedy can crumble. Thoreau shocks us with a cruelly diminished muskrat. Who can face its bloody self-amputations? Yet he transfigures our horror, gives us the muskrat’s valor, its affirmation, against all odds, of living on, unbroken.
Thoreau leads us to heavenly mourning where songs of lamentation confide subtle dawns. There must be life where there is song. There is tender communion in acknowledgment of shared mortality. Mourners embrace in remembrance of the dead that is simultaneously an embrace of their own assured death. But to embrace is to live and against all odds, affirm living. Sympathy, wonder, and mourning meet that magnificent, undiminished animal in a mood beyond rancor or self-pity.