Excursions with Thoreau: A Review

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In a highly referential, wandering, yet lucid style, Edward F. Mooney puts Thoreau’s writing in conversation with both ancient and modern thought, from scriptural and philosophical sources alike, in an attempt to reconcile  Thoreau  with  the  discipline of philosophy. The perceived need for reconciliation follows from the author’s contention that disciplinary philosophy, as institutionalized and canonized, has overemphasized systematic, disciplined argumentation to such a degree that other equally effective yet less systematic modes of thought have been unduly disregarded and even dismissed entirely.

The questions that most concern Mooney are, what is Henry David Thoreau to philosophy-and what is philosophy to Henry David Thoreau? Comparisons of Thoreau to other dominant thinkers in the Western canon-Kant and Nietzsche, most consistently show this Concord  sage to  be in their ranks, but  in a slightly different vein, namely that of the “literary philosophers” such as Montaigne, Marcus Aurelius, Kierkegaard, and Rousseau. There is occasional reference to Eastern thought, such as the Vedas and yogic practices, but the Western tradition serves as the primary point of comparison. By interlacing Thoreau’s work with the works of philosophy’s figureheads, Mooney contends that there is “a place in philosophy for wonder and shadows” (157). Thoreau’s writings demonstrate the power’ of “the  unargued  and  perhaps the unarguable” and, therefore, “the capacity of philosophy, well beyond argument alone, to reorient our perspectives and so let us see” (157), revealing the wonder and shadows of nature.

With his focus on the reader’s perspective, Mooney points to the affective power of Thoreau’s writing: “Thoreau spins words­ phrases-sentences that nudge us from one reality to the next. His sentences do not depict change but create it. Sentences or phrases are actions aimed at our receptivities. Responsive to them as they arrive, pebble by pebble, sound by sound, image by image, we get an intimate grasp, by monitoring our changes, of how and why Thoreau becomes among the greatest of American writers-and· among the world’s great religious adepts, political polemicists and subtle philosophers” (82). Thoreau’s thought, subtle as it may be, is most effective for being most affective. The key witness to the efficacy of Thoreau’s work is Mooney himself, who describes the affective heart of his critical practice: “My job in writing about writing is to let membranes be aroused in startle or allure as the address of the place and its things emerge-as their startle or allure arise from the words Thoreau provides” (13). As a result, Mooney is a curator of both Thoreau and the philosophical tradition, following a mandate to instigate, rather than instill, his reader’s understanding.

In each of the book’s fifteen “excursions,” the point of entry into Thoreau’s thought is his struggle to reconcile the wondrousness of nature with its unavoidable wildness and cruelty. Not surprisingly, the subjects most frequently examined are those of tragedy and death. Mooney returns again and again to three major losses that Thoreau faced in his life: the untimely deaths of his brother John, of Emerson’s young son Waldo, and of his acquaintance and literary contemporary Margaret Fuller. At issue in particular are Thoreau’s often cold, unfeeling, and even seemingly inhuman responses to such untimely loss. See, for example, a letter to Lucy Brown in the spring of 1842 in which Thoreau makes the surprising statement that his brother’s death was “less sad than strange”: “It’s a strange marvel that life yields to death, that music returns a world for a moment lost, and that the world, yes, is a wonder” (quoted on 120). Mooney draws on Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, in this case, to help explain Thoreau’s ability to parlay sadness into wonder as part of a broader program of understanding nature and conceiving art as a means of fostering endurance.

Mooney sees Nietzsche’s Dionysian/Apollonian dichotomy at the heart of Thoreau’s ability to both marvel and mourn: “Wildness [the Dionysian] is a vital counterforce to orderly Apollonian impulses. Thoreau and Nietzsche disavow detached theoretical on-looking, a stance that sunders persons from immersion in the lively disorders of the senses and of mobile embodied life” (137-8). The work and product of writing, then, facilitates an “immersion in the lively disorders of the senses,” a practice consistent with Kierkegaard’s contention that “All poetry is life’s glorification (i.e. transfiguration) through its clarification” (141). With the help of these two voices, Mooney concludes that ”Thoreau’s  art deflects or sublimates, not as a denial of trouble or affliction, but  as activity that transfigures  it in the service of life” (141).

In a similar manner, this book works through Thoreau’s responses to tragedy at a variety of scales, both personal and national, from the deaths mentioned above  to  the  martyrdom of John Brown and the looming fracture of the United States. From this reckoning emerges a picture of Thoreau as naturalist: a sensitive, observant, careful  documentarian  who  writes  what he finds, whatever and however cruel that may be. “As I  hear him, Thoreau thinks that Nature-the Universe as a whole-is oblivious to matters of justice. […] Nature innocently–that is, non-maliciously–dispenses death, devouring her young and old with the erratic abandon of innocent children swatting at flies. This is not an occasion for melancholy, or outrage, but a scene Thoreau would have us take in-no doubt with some  hyperbole-with good cheer.” Mooney’s Thoreau “will not deliver those ‘obvious’ conclusions that simplify and falsify experience. He prefers to leave us with a Nature that is anomalous, wild, and wondrous” (86).

By its own account, Excursions with Thoreau is improvisatory, meditative, exploratory, and somewhat unsystematic, echoing Thoreau’s style and, therefore, trying to draw on its version of power. The effort of reading such a work can be as trying as. it is revealing. These excursions take patience and care, tantamount to that their author has taken in drawing them together. The reader can expect to wander and wonder alongside this book’s author, reaping all the known, and some of the unknown, rewards of Henry Thoreau, philosopher.

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The author, Grant Rosson, is a Ph.D. candidate in English at UCLA. His dissertation tracks literary and geographic discourses in nineteenth- century America. This review appeared in The Thoreau Bulletin, Spring 2017
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