In a passage that is nothing if not provocative, Stanley Cavell writes,
Human forms of feeling, objects of human attraction, our reactions constituted in art, are as universal and necessary, as revelatory of the world, as the forms of the laws of physics. This is the writer’s faith . . .
What have poets to do with philosophers? What do both have to do with the sort of personal narrative that we find in Thoreau’s Walden, or A Week on the Concord? Can Thoreau’s writing be simultaneously philosophical, poetic, and autobiographical? As they become part of deadening chatter or routine, words can begin to sound like administrative or legal or workaday protocols.
A poet loosens up the hardening of words, returning new life to them as they roll out in phrases and sentences — thus the world is reanimated. Thoreau loosens the grip of routine perceptions of Concord River – it is only a place on a map or the river over there. He amplifies its life, extending the name backward in time. “Concord River” is an extension of “Musketaquid.” This gives it lively historical depth.
He loosens the sands and the dunes of Cape Cod back toward a more poetic history. He calls it an arm of New France. Name-shifts poetically stretch our sense of time and place toward the endlessness of Creation.
These transfigurations are relayed in first-personal narration. Thoreau verges on autobiography, extending a canon that would feature Montaigne’s Essays, Rousseau’s Reveries, and Kierkegaard’s The Point of View of my Work as an Author. To acknowledge this alternative canon means setting aside a presumption that reason must quarrel with poetry, the personal, or the spiritual.
Cavell’s brilliant and difficult The Senses of Walden (from which my opening quote is extracted) counts Thoreau as a first-rate philosopher of an alternative canon where reason is not at odds with a religious and poetic sensibility.
Kant is an icon in the tradition of pursuing reason. Cavell makes Thoreau more Kantian than we would have thought, and stretches a Kantian perspective to include more than we would have thought possible – a poetic-religious sensibility.
As Cavell puts it, Kant’s “thing-in-itself” can clarify Thoreau’s wedding of objective research and his response to alluring presences. The thing in itself is that elusive presence that holds multiple perspectives in thrall.
Here’s a related surprise from Cavell:
our images . . . of dawn and day and night, of lower and higher, . . . of freezing and melting and moulting, of birds and squirrels and snakes and frogs, of houses and bodies of water and words, . . . are as a priori as our other forms of knowledge of the world.
Images of birds and moulting, of water and dawn, give us the vital presence of things in the world. And they’re a priori, available before the poet works them up in a revelation of reality.
Only because prior images gather to prepare our reception of Thoreau’s poetic witness are we convinced — if we are — of the sublimity, of the revelation, delivered in the reflection of distant hills in the surface of the pond. The reflection of hills on water tells us, as Thoreau puts it, “how intimate heaven is with earth.”
Then there’s the culminating reverie from Walden. There are multiple reflections delivered as Thoreau kneels by the edge of the pond, almost in prayer. He finds his face looking up from still waters, and finds it next to the pond’s Maker’s, also reflected in water, as if the three – Thoreau, the Pond, and its Maker — were in communion, in intimate dialogue:
Why, here is Walden, the same woodland lake that I discovered so many years ago.
Thoreau remembers a moment when he was very young – and very wise. That memory expands to become a reverie both religious and poetic:
it is the same liquid joy and happiness to itself and its Maker, ay, and it may be to me. It is the work of a brave man surely, . . . He rounded this water with his hand, deepened and clarified it in his thought, and in his will bequeathed it to Concord. I see by its face that it is visited by the same reflection; and I can almost say, Walden, is it you?
We’re given a pond that draws joy into itself, a pond that enjoys a “liquid joy” that is also her Maker’s joy. God is a joyful Maker, one who can “excite in us a pure morning joy.” We become who we are through everyday looks, through smiles of joyful affirmation – we become who we are through smiles between friends, between mother and child, between pilgrim, creator, and pond.
She rounded this water with her hand, deepened and clarified it in her thought, and in her will bequeathed it to Concord.
This moment, whether sublime or holy, is not a bare-bones observation from the canvas of experience, nor from the watery surface of the pond. It arrives from imagination’s resources and from the resources of the world, available in moments of immersive reverie. As Cavell put it,
our images of dawn and day and night, of lower and higher, of freezing and melting and moulting, are as a priori as our other forms of knowledge of the world.
The reflected allure of distant hills or of a face on the waters bursts in on us, self-evident in its glory, just awaiting its recollection, right now. It’s not a posteriori registration of data. It’s as if we were discovering something that had been sleeping deep in the soul, and is now suddenly being brought to full life. The wonderful constellation of watery reflections of my face and the face of a Maker, and perhaps fish below, seems to speak from eternity, and to carry the eternity of a just-now-perceived poetical necessity.
Thoreau discovers gods in the fields and forests; he steals from the Bhagavad-Gita, calling these gods “Intelligences” — he hears them singing, laughing, and spinning wool – a joyful family; he sees workers trudging home on the road as if gods in disguise; he hears his body as a musical instrument on which god plays melodies; he preaches what he calls a Newer Testament, the gospel of the present moment; he finds God in the moment, speaking through all things, one by one.
If Thoreau has a creed it is this: an experience of full life is a full experience of the divine, of creation.
This is not Brand Name religion. It’s not found in Cathedrals, Synagogues, Mosques, Temples or Shrines. He’s one of a kind — as it should be.