Monday, 16 December 2013

The Existentialist Poetic of Thoreau's Journal

Henry David Thoreau conceived of his writing of nature in his Journal as an experiential form of writing. As he commented in his entry of 2 July 1852, ‘Nature is reported not by him who goes forth consciously as an observer, but in the fullness of life. To such a one she rushes to make her report.’ The grounding of nature writing within one’s own personal experience is emphasized again by Thoreau on 19 April 1854: ‘I am not interested in mere phenomena, though it were the explosion of a planet, only as it may have lain in the experience of a human being.’ Such sensual experience generates the reader’s sense of the writer’s physical presence, so that we no longer feel imprisoned in our mechanized contemporary environments but instead actively there, out there, with Thoreau. ‘The forcible writer stands bodily behind his words with his experience. He does not make books out of books, but he has been there in person.’ (3 February 1852)

Thoreau drew a direct link between the plenitude and degree of illumination of a reader’s or student’s cognition, and that student’s ability to immerse himself in studies which enable him to become charged by sensual experience.

‘It is essential that a man confine himself to pursuits – a scholar, for instance, to studies – which lie next to and conduce to his life, which do not go against the grain, either of his will or his imagination. The scholar finds in his experience some studies to be most fertile and radiant with light, others dry, barren, and dark. If he is wise, he will not persevere in the last, as a plant in a cellar will strive toward the light. He will confine the observations of his mind as closely as possible to the experience or life of his senses. His thought must live with and be inspired with the life of the body. […] Dwell as near as possible to the channel in which your life flows.’ (12 March 1853)

Here we find an affinity between the impulses underlying Thoreau’s journalizing and a central aspect of Weimar era German thought to which I have referred often on this blog. For we are reminded here of Jaspers’ early existentialism which, as Chris Thornhill writes in his study Karl Jaspers, sought to ‘deploy Kant as the basis for an existential metaphysic of possible lived unity’. Jaspers’ early existentialism, Thornhill notes elsewhere, sought precisely to overcome Kantian antinomies such as that of reason and experience, by ‘incorporating all aspects (cognitive, practical and sensory) of human life in an encompassing account of rational and experiential existence’. This existentialist project was anticipated by Thoreau’s requirement of the subjectivist researcher, ‘whether he be poet or philosopher or man of science’, that ‘His thought must live with and be inspired with the life of the body’:

‘There is no such thing as pure objective observation. Your observation, to be interesting, i.e. to be significant, must be subjective. The sum of what the writer of whatever class has to report is simply some human experience, whether he be poet or philosopher or man of science. The man of most science is the man most alive, whose life is the greatest event.’ (6 May 1854)  

In his journal entry for 14 July 1852, Thoreau had already related his concern with the ‘most alive’ to the question of a living language. Here he pointed to the emergence of the sort of artificial, manufactured-to-death language which characterizes today’s bureaucratic, public sector discourse and capitalist, private sector discourse alike. ‘A writer who does not speak out of a full experience uses torpid words, wooden or lifeless words, such words as “humanitary,” which have a paralysis in their tails.’ The deathliness of ‘humanitary’ results from its excess: from its self-aggrandizing add-on, the suffix ‘-itary’. Just as here he notes the excessive moment of particularity in ‘humanitary’, on 30 March 1853 Thoreau went on to comment on how a particularizing, analytic perspective on life diminishes our full experience, or our existential sense of ‘possible lived unity’. His references to ‘view’ and ‘the unbounded universe’ make it clear that he thinks of such full experience in terms of our visionary capacity:

‘Ah, those youthful days! are they never to return? when the walker does not too curiously observe particulars, but sees, hears, scents, tastes, and feels only himself, - the phenomena that show themselves in him, - his expanding body, his intellect and heart. No worm or insect, quadruped or bird, confined his view, but the unbounded universe was his. A bird is now become a mote in his eye.’

Crucially, for Thoreau the writing of full experience is genuine poetry, because such a writing conveys the ‘affinity’ or sympathy between the writer and whatever he has experienced – ‘the phenomena that show themselves in him’. In that way it also conveys the sympathy between the particular elements of nature which scientific observation simply separates. ‘What affinity is it brings the goldfinch to the sunflower – both yellow – to pick its seeds? Whatever things I perceive with my entire man, those let me record, and it will be poetry.’ (2 September 1851) Or again, three years later on 24 September 1854: ‘What name of a natural object is most poetic? That which he has given for convenience whose life is most nearly related to it, who has known it longest and best.’ Thoreau’s preoccupation with a unified life’s possibilities of sympathy and relationality, enabled him to describe the action of existential poetic naming which derives from imbibing a natural object’s spirito-existential ‘nutriment’: on 19 September 1854 he had written, ‘I have given myself up to nature; I have lived so many springs and summers and autumns and winters as if I had nothing else to do but live them, and imbibe whatever nutriment they had for me’.  

On 2 January 1859, Thoreau’s exposition of ‘vital and natural’ poetic language brought him to counterpose ‘artificial’, patriarchal, academic regulations of language to the free speech of mothers, brutes and animals:

‘When I hear the hypercritical quarrelling about grammar and style, the position of the particles, etc., etc., stretching or contracting every speaker to certain rules of theirs, - Mr. Webster, perhaps, not having spoken according to Mr. Kirkham’s rule, - I see that they forget that the first requisite and rule is that expression shall be vital and natural, as much as the voice of a brute or an interjection: first of all, mother tongue; and last of all, artificial or father tongue. Essentially your truest poetic sentence is as free and lawless as a lamb’s bleat.’

Thoreau’s suspicion of academic language use – of ‘literacy’ – rests on his sense that, just as natural life itself symbolizes human experience, so too, conversely, human symbolic expression is grounded in natural phenomena: ‘Talk about learning our letters and being literate! Why, the roots of letters are things. Natural objects and phenomena are the original symbols or types which express our thoughts and feelings’ (16 October 1859). It is because their language conveys the sourcing of letters in natural things that ‘We cannot spare the very lively and lifelike descriptions of some of the old naturalists’, as he writes on 17 February 1860 (for example). ‘They sympathize with the creatures which they describe.’ But for Thoreau, importantly, a vital and natural – poetic – language conveys not just nature’s facticity, but its spirit too. On the following day, his journal entry expounded his animist phenomenology and noted the inadequacy of traditional scientific description to that phenomenology:

‘Surely the most important part of an animal is its anima, its vital spirit, on which is based its character and all the peculiarities by which it most concerns us. […]
   Science in many departments of natural history does not pretend to go beyond the shell; i.e., it does not get to animated nature at all. A history of animated nature must itself be animated.’

On 15 February, Thoreau wrote of ‘the physical fact which in all language is the symbol of the spiritual’; his sense of natural phenomena as being symbols of natural anima, explains his intention – stated nine years earlier on 9 November 1851 – that lively and lifelike, poetic expression is to convey ‘animated’ phenomena on their own terms, without reducing them to mere brute facticity, as would the ‘common sense’ view of nature. For only such a form of expression can convey the sympathy between the writer’s anima and nature, or the way in which the writer has experienced and imbibed natural anima. ‘My facts shall be falsehoods to the common sense. I would so state facts that they shall be significant, shall be myths or mythologic. Facts which the mind perceived, thoughts which the body thought.’  

Thoreau opposes vital poetic language and the experience of nature which it conveys, or what he calls ‘the true growth and experience, the living speech’ (16 October 1859), to the paralyzed vitality and ‘dry technical terms’ which he associates with academic science’s specialist accounts of nature:

‘I look over the report of the doings of a scientific association and am surprised that there is so little life to be reported; I am put off with a parcel of dry technical terms. Anything living is easily and naturally expressed in popular language. I cannot help suspecting that the life of these learned professors has been almost as inhuman and wooden as a rain-gauge or self-registering magnetic machine. They communicate no fact which rises to the temperature of blood-heat. It doesn’t all amount to one rhyme.’ (6 May 1854)

On 5 September 1851 we find Thoreau praising James John Garth Wilkinson’s The Human Body and Its Connection with Man, Illustrated by the Principal Organs for its analogical method. By drawing quotidian physical analogies (such as when he describes the papillary cutis as ‘“an encampment of small conical tents coextensive with the surface of the body”’), Wilkinson, Thoreau feels, finds in popular, nonspecialist language a means of communicating unified, existential reason’s sympathetic experience of the body: this is true cognition or ‘perception of truth’.

‘The faith he puts in old and current expressions as having sprung from an instinct wiser than science, and safely to be trusted if they can be interpreted. The man of science discovers no world for the mind of man with all its faculties to inhabit. Wilkinson finds a home for the imagination, and it is no longer outcast and homeless. All perception of truth is the detection of an analogy; we reason from our hands to our head.’

Nine years later, on 13 October 1860, Thoreau’s existentialism leads him to argue that, because of their success in conveying ‘the highest quality of the plant, - its relation to man’, ‘it is commonly the old naturalists who first received American plants that describe them best’. Here Thoreau again advocates (the ‘free and lawless’ writing which can relay) singular, existential cognition over professional scientific knowledge:

‘After all, the truest description, and that by which another living man can most readily recognize a flower, is the unmeasured and eloquent one which the sight of it inspires. No scientific description will supply the want of this, though you should count and measure and analyze every atom that seems to compose it.’

Thoreau’s rejection of the language of academic science and advocacy of an existential poetic, relates to his rejection of professional, scholarly literacy in favour of popular, democratic literacy. ‘Anything living is easily and naturally expressed in popular language.’ On 6 December 1859:

‘Literary gentlemen, editors, and critics think that they know how to write because they have studied grammar and rhetoric; but the art of composition is as simple as the discharge of a bullet from a rifle, and its masterpieces imply an infinitely greater force behind it. This unlettered man’s [Irving’s] speaking and writing is standard English. Some words and phrases deemed vulgarisms and Americanisms before, he has made standard American.’

Walden Pond in 1908
We are reminded of the earlier remark that ‘the first requisite and rule is that expression shall be vital and natural, as much as the voice of a brute or an interjection’. It is as if, for Thoreau, an academic aesthetic architecture of ‘grammar and rhetoric’ is to be supplanted by a demotic aesthetic physics of verbal force and compaction. Already on 12 November 1851, he was thinking in terms of ‘interjection’ and discharge: ‘Those sentences are good and well discharged which are like so many little resiliencies from the spring floor of our life, - a distinct fruit and kernel itself, springing from terra firma.’ The ‘continent concentrated thoughts’ of which Thoreau wrote on 30 August 1856 recall these well-defined resiliencies. In order to adequately reflect the complexity of nature, Thoreau maintains on 27 October 1858, language really should be compounded – ‘ground together’ – rather like in German:

‘Who will undertake to describe in words the difference in tint between two neighbouring leaves on the same tree? or of two thousand? – for by so many the eye is addressed in a glance, In describing the richly spotted leaves, for instance, how often we find ourselves using ineffectually words which merely indicate faintly our good intentions, giving them in our despair a terminal twist toward our mark, - such as reddish, yellowish, purplish, etc. We cannot make a hue of words, for they are not to be compounded like colours, and hence we are obliged to use such ineffectual expressions as reddish brown, etc. They need to be ground together.’

A principle of compounding or compaction can also be found underlying Thoreau’s broader conception of writing as the creation of ‘a theme’, and subsequent identification of ‘one pertinent and just’ thematic ‘observation’. Thoreau’s idea of writing here would reverse today’s academic writing practice, which typically starts from a pre-set, often predatorily pre-identified theme, before exploitatively selecting the material (and only that material) which will enable one to sustain one’s forced argument. The dominative logic of subsumption, against which Theodor Adorno directed much of his thinking, continues to determine so much of what passes for intellectual life now. A commodity is to be delivered, or you will be made unemployed, your selfhood erased and then accused of mental illness, etc. On 3 February 1859 Thoreau noted:

‘The writer has much to do even to create a theme for himself. Most that is first written on any subject is a mere groping after it, mere rubble-stone and foundation. It is only when many observations of different periods have been brought together that he begins to grasp his subject and can make one pertinent and just observation.’

In his entry for 13 October 1860, Thoreau suggested that visionary affirmation of natural phenomena, by contrast with professional scientific description of nature, involves an existential, sensually delighting form of language which has its own inevitable momentum: like the interjections and discharges of which he writes elsewhere, these ‘unconsidered’ or ‘unconscious’ statements – acts of definition – are not impeded by the sort of career-sustaining guards and scruples which complicate academic language.

‘[…] unconsidered expressions of our delight which any natural object draws from us are something complete and final in themselves, since all nature is to be regarded as it concerns man; and who knows how near to absolute truth such unconscious affirmations may come? Which are the truest, the sublime conceptions of Hebrew poets and seers, or the guarded statements of modern geologists, which we must modify or unlearn so fast?’

On 1 April 1860, Thoreau’s understanding of how the action of inevitably releasing verbal statements of visionary definition accords with a principle of natural law – a ‘sympathy with the universal mind’ – is so transcendentally shocking as to negate for him the import of communication itself.

‘The fruit a thinker bears is sentences, - statements or opinions. He seeks to affirm something as true. I am surprised that my affirmations or utterances come to me ready-made, - not forethought, - so that I occasionally awake in the night simply to let fall ripe a statement which I had never consciously considered before, and as surprising and novel and agreeable to me as anything can be. As if we only thought by sympathy with the universal mind, which thought while we were asleep. There is such a necessity to make a definite statement that our minds at length do it without our consciousness, just as we carry our food to our mouths. This occurred to me last night, but I was so surprised by the fact which I have just endeavoured to report that I have entirely forgotten what the particular observation was.’

(All Thoreau quotations here are taken from: Henry David Thoreau, The Journal, 1837-1861, ed. by Damion Searls (New York: New York Review Books, 2009))          

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