A single sentence from the Conclusion to Walden gives us what seems like simple avuncular advice–at least as the line starts off: “In view of the future or possible, we should live quite laxly and undefined in front, our outlines dim and misty on that side; as our shadows reveal an insensible perspiration toward the sun.”
Let’s say the idea of hanging loose toward the future is clear enough, and that the idea of a shadow behind is commonplace. But then the going gets murky. The idea of a ‘dim and misty’ shadow-like figure of our future, cast forward by the body here and now, is not at all common. But talk of the uncommon! When did a backward slanting — or frontward slanting — shadow begin to perspire? And not only that, when did shadows begin to perspire toward the sun?
Well, perspiration is “heat breathing out through the skin” into the great outdoors. And all living things had best orient themselves, when possible, toward the sun. It’s the donor of light and heat and dawning bliss, eliciting rooster-crows of exhilaration. The clayey sandbank by Thoreau’s cabin sweats its joy toward the sun. Our vital heat casts a fore-shadow as well as a back-shadow and both shadows know how to bask, as the body does, in the here and now, letting the body as well as its shadows fore and aft perspire. And look what’s happened! Shadows are alive and breathing!
Now let me change gears. Let’s say Thoreau is a Socrates who wants to spread ignorance. He wants, like Socrates (or Kierkegaard, for that matter), to take away the sleepy, contented sense that we’re know-it-alls — been there, done that. Socrates, flirting with Phaedrus, is exhilarated by the country sunlight and meadows as speeches on Love’s mad beauty descend. Thoreau is exhilarated by country walks, and by the sense of ignorance (or wonder) they express. How does he instill and maintain both exhilaration and ignorance? Socrates gets into a dialogue. Thoreau lets his words, unrolling one by one, engage us in dialogue.
Here’s how. We think we’re on common ground with him, thinking of shadows. Starting with the banal is thoreauvian bait, but also the place we all start — a place of easy truths of the commonplace, before transport to new dawns begins. But hardly has Thoreau drawn us in, self-assured in the banal, than he unsettles us, throws us into ignorance, wave after wave. We’re ignorant of forward-tilting shadows that he suddenly springs on us. Well, we catch up with that. Catch up just in time to be tripped by another splash of ignorance — the idea that shadows are alive and perspire. And if we manage to survive that, we’re unseated by another shaft of light from the unknown: perspiration can tilt toward the sun! So the sentence itself is Socratic, over and over.
A single sentence carries us the length of three or four dialectical exchanges in a Socratic dialogue. Yet it’s so artless, childlike, guileless, we can almost miss the whole thing. Thoreau can lull us as well as wake us. He picks us up in our sleep, comforts us a bit, all the while thinking ahead to the time when he’ll introduce the discomfort of ignorance — he has to! We must be weaned! But he makes that transition (or translation) in the most lovely way possible.
He draws us into dialogue that continually exposes our ignorance about the most simple of things: sweat, heat, the past, breathing, shadows, the future. And it’s wonder-infused, exhilarating ignorance — inordinate knowledge — to boot !