Thoreau: “What is it to be admitted to a museum, to see a myriad of particular things [like mineral samples on display], compared with being shown some star’s surface, some hard matter in its home!”
Steve helpfully asks, “Are we intended to notice here Thoreau’s shift from the active “to see” to the passive “being shown”? And comments, “One goes to a museum intentionally, to see one thing or another, to satisfy an interest or curiosity.”
It strikes me [em] that the pieces of matter in museums – paintings, small sculptures, cases of handicraft — are discrete items presented for attention. Thoreau contrasts this with the view of a star’s surface – two occcasions for ‘viewing matter.’ Think of the contrast. Unlike objects in a museum, a star’s surface gives no single place for the eye to rest or focus. It is an appearance of sheer un-handseled matter. This is as close as we can get to a perception of pure unadulterated matter of the sort the Titans atop Ktaadn work up into the portions and objects of a material world. We can take that perception as an instance of Thomas Nagel’s ‘view from nowhere’ — a prospect metaphysicians and philosopher’s quixotically strive to attain when they want purity of vision.
When Thoreau wants a prospect on ‘pure matter’ he asks us to imagine the undifferentiated surface of a star. His request comes as he occupies a non-place, a nowhere. And the stance — Steve is sharp to notice this — is openness , reception. This is not perception as construction, as in Kant, and not a perception of the constructions a museum holds. (Are perceptions of museum artifacts always, as interpretations, constructive?) For Thoreau, this perception of a star’s surface or of the chaos atop Ktaadn is ‘pure reception’ of something (a bare surface) or things (boulders thrown this way and that) necessarily undomesticated, disorderly, and unkindly.
The view from nowhere is not the only site for viewing. It is one end of a spectrum, to be contrasted with the ‘view from here and now.’ And there are places to stall in between. From ‘nowhere,’ Thoreau’s body is strange, as strange as the surface of a star. Climbing down, he can find himself grounded and ‘kind’ and is no longer captive in a smoky chimney. To slide down from the ‘view from nowhere’ is a return to the comparatively domesticated land found down from the Barren Peak and down through the Burnt Land coming at last to the familiar bateau and pond and rivers. Burk’s sublime is replaced by the aesthetics of the ordinary.
Does this descent accomplish a corresponding metaphysical translation? Does it make his body less strange? Or is the privileged, ‘ultimate’ perspective always and forever the ‘view from nowhere’ — not the view from the daily, the local? Is the privileged view the unsettling and unwelcome revelation that we are definitively, inescapably to be estranged from our particular flesh and bone?
In contrast to the view of a star’s surface, Thoreau gives us another place and perspective, what he calls “our life in nature.” And our life in nature is glossed as” daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it, — rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks!”
It now seems that the metaphysical prospect is not as compelling as the prospect from within life in nature. If so, the prospect from Ktaadn is not privileged. It affords an escapable, passing glimpse, not a final prospect. Thank God, Thoreau doesn’t leave us up there! I think an aspect of his ‘walking philosophy’ is that prospects come and go. We never get stuck with a single stable picture of ‘the way things are. Climbing Ktaadn is — well — an experiment. A crucial one, but not the place of true revelation against which all other prospects or revelations must be judged.