Why is Thoreau so illusive, elusive, (and not)?

If Thoreau is lost in the maze of the University, it’s a good and bad thing, and the two are inextricably mixed.  Like the Bay Horse, it’s because he’s lost that we love him. We love him because he beckons us to some unknown, perhaps irreal, place just out of sight, and we know we should go there, but can’t.

And it’s OK, too, if Thoreau is lost in the shuffle because he never wanted to be in it anyway, and frankly, he can’t really live there as a permanent village resident. 

We’re looking in the wrong place if we expect to find him fully alive among the shuffle of disciplines and departments. It’s well and good if he half-shows up in a seminar here or there, or in a conversation like this, or in a conference.  I embrace his appearance, or half-life, and line up for more. 

But in the long run, he’s like a gnarled and enduring Bristlecone Pine, ancient and indestructible, rooted higher than anything should be, surviving and surveying gloriously, always just out of sight, nearly forgotten, illusive and elusive, not quite within touch, with no bitterness at all at not being transplanted by truck to the well-watered lawns of the quad.

5 comments on “Why is Thoreau so illusive, elusive, (and not)?

  1. dmf says:

    In a dark time, the eye begins to see,
    I meet my shadow in the deepening shade;
    I hear my echo in the echoing wood—
    A lord of nature weeping to a tree.
    I live between the heron and the wren,
    Beasts of the hill and serpents of the den.
    What’s madness but nobility of soul
    At odds with circumstance? The day’s on fire!
    I know the purity of pure despair,
    My shadow pinned against a sweating wall.
    That place among the rocks—is it a cave,
    Or a winding path? The edge is what I have.

    A steady storm of correspondences!
    A night flowing with birds, a ragged moon,
    And in broad day the midnight come again!
    A man goes far to find out what he is—
    Death of the self in a long, tearless night,
    All natural shapes blazing unnatural light.

    Dark, dark my light, and darker my desire.
    My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly,
    Keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I?
    A fallen man, I climb out of my fear.
    The mind enters itself, and God the mind,
    And one is One, free in the tearing wind.

    “In A Dark Time” by Theodore Roethke

  2. […] Papers devoted to Thoreau that I edited back in the early 90′s.  Ed Mooney’s recent blog entries on Thoreau have me thinking about Thoreau […]

  3. dmf says:

    not sure if this lecture is an accurate reflection of the upcoming book but it was disappointingly abstract, especially after her exquisitely illustrative Emerson book:


  4. David O'Hara says:

    Ed, yes. I keep urging Thoreau into my various courses, and he doesn’t really fit anywhere perfectly, but I couldn’t possibly get rid of him, either. It’s not like he’s the guy we *have* to read after we read Descartes and Kant; it’s more like after reading Kant you want to be reminded why you’re thinking about metaphysics and epistemology anyway. And then Thoreau comes along and points to the river and the apples, gesturing at them in a way that makes you glance, then turn and look again a bit harder than you did the first time.

    • efmooney says:

      Yes, David, if the gesture works, we escape the paralysis of doubting endlessly, and also the bewilderment of wondering how we got into the contortions Kant (or Descartes) can leave us tied up in. I wonder if you’re thinking of something like this: after reading Kant we can have far too many intelectual-and-detached responses all of which may carry the rider, “And why am I doing this?” [not that we can’t answer, one way or another]. Yet Thoreau, in making us glance, as you say, gets us thinking of somewhat parallel questions but in entirely different key. Perhaps Kant tickles our hard-working brain, while Thoreau perks up our soaring wondering soul. Something like that?

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