Wednesday, March 25, 2009
by Henry David Thoreau
In my recent discussion of American polymath, John Cage, I mentioned the remarkable simultaneity struck between a life work and a work of art – on the collapsibility of art into life as the two terms become negligible in the face of an activated experience. The ecstatic “now moment” Gertrude Stein so wonderfully clarified for us. To understand Henry David Thoreau, one must account for more than just his written work, one must encompass the totality of a life. “Walden” is his most famous work and stands as one of the touchstones of American romanticism and individualism. The book-length essay chronicles Thoreau’s experiment of two years, “…to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnamity, and trust.” To do so, Thoreau constructed and tended a small cabin on a small tract of land owned by his friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson, situated by the shores of Walden Pond. Thoreau did so not to isolate himself in the manner of the hermit, but to place himself objectively on the wayside of civilized life’s extraneous steam. It is important to contextualize these two years of Thoreau’s life as an experiment; Emerson noted “…as soon as [Thoreau] had exhausted the advantages of that solitude, he abandoned it.” Thoreau’s conception of an experiment is not one divorced from the lived life, from the moment of action. Instead, Thoreau conceives of his time at Walden Pond as an aspect of a greater experiment of his life. It is a poor experiment indeed that does not interact with the ebb and flow of daily life.
The idea of the experiment is pivotal to one’s understanding of Thoreau in part because of his insistence upon the referential correspondence of each thing to the whole. Let’s look at “Spring,” the penultimate chapter of “Walden.” Thoreau investigates outward from the humble physical reality of a leaf towards a cosmic entirety. He writes that “You find thus in the very sands an anticipation of the vegetable leaf.” I am reminded of his friend and mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s conception of circles within circles. Each thing is but one thing, repeated in a similitude of aggravated diversity. The very real difference inherent in things also reveals a brotherhood, as “…the whole tree itself is but one leaf, and rivers are still vaster leaves whose pulp is intervening earth, and towns and cities are the ova of insects in their axils.” Through his acute attention and patience, Thoreau unfolds the omnipresence of a particular point. “Olympus is but the outside of the earth everywhere.” Thoreau’s insistence on the greatness of the lived position is echoed throughout many of the great works of 20th century American letters – Walden Pond is William Carlos Williams’ Paterson, its roaring waves and spring parks, Walden Pond is also Charles Olson’s Gloucester and its roar of history and monumental space. One can almost hear Olson agree as Thoreau pleads, “Instead of noblemen, let us have noble villages of men.” True community is only attained through the pursuit of the individual. The single contains the many.
Since each singularity contains the out-reaching multiple, the extent of one’s resources should not be measured according to material means, but rather by the expanse of one’s resolve and inner depth. Thoreau privileges the contemporary instant and a person’s ability to live fully within that moment. He advises, “…if you are restricted in your range by poverty, if you cannot buy books and newspapers, for instance, you are but confined to the most significant and vital experiences; you are compelled to deal with the material which yields the most sugar and the most starch. It is life near the bone which is sweetest.” Life “near the bone” is a direct life, one availed of the superfluous. But what is the fat of life and what is its muscle and bone? Thoreau laments that “…we spend more on almost any article of bodily ailment or ailment than on our mental ailment.” That which distracts us from our natural course, from our intrinsic path, is superfluous. Fraternity is not necessarily negative in its scope, yet the bulk of what is passed off as brotherhood is to Thoreau nothing more than an invasive encirclement of one’s mysterious and deep individual liberties.
It is very important to note that Thoreau does not divest himself of convention for the sake of shock or attention-grabbing transgression. He is instead concerned with the rightness of each act for the moment in which it occurs. This reminds me, as Thoreau so often does, of John Cage. In response to a colleague of Cage’s asking why instead of giving an experimental speech, he “…didn’t one day give a conventional informative lecture, adding that that would be the most shocking thing [he] could do, [Cage] said, “I don’t give these lectures to surprise people, but out of a need for poetry.” Such a sentiment resonates for me, connecting Thoreau and Cage along a string divested of history, one constantly vibrating in the present moment. Thoreau lived as he did not from a contempt for convention, but out of the necessity for poetry. A simple reactionary stance is not commendable in and of itself; it is preferable for one “…to maintain himself in whatever attitude he finds himself through obedience to the laws of his being, which will never be of opposition to a just government, if he should chance to meet with such.” That “if” is a monumental distinction though, and such an ideal situation is not one Thoreau ever actually experienced.
His experiment was a means to live according to the direct route, by a true course. The experiment, then, is the ideal, as it plumps for a yet further and deeper truth. He writes that “we are the subjects of an experiment which is not a little interesting to me.” That is, because life is an experiment, not in spite of it, life gains its excitement. This is a praxis through which one does not learn how to live henceforth, but discovers how to live within the moment. The serendipity of fate is not therefore a thing to fear or balk before, but a matter of rightness. Cage defines an experiment as “…an action the outcome of which is not foreseen.” Thoreau’s experiment contains a similarly disarming simplicity to it. An investment within the present is paramount. The experiment of now is not important for where it will lead us, but because it reveals us in this very spot. That is to some extent the root of Thoreau’s “…conviction of the indifferency of all places, and the best for each is where he stands.” It is possible, then, to move outward from a discussion of position to one of procedure in composition.
A chance process is therefore not like throwing a dart blind, hoping to land on or near the bull’s eye. Instead, each spot where the dart falls is the ever-present bull’s eye. For Thoreau, “…one hill-side illustrated all the operations of Nature.” So a chance operation could extrapolate outward the wild possibility of a language or act. This helps us to better understand Jackson Mac Low and his own procedural writing, where “If I decide to use a certain system, I don’t change the results…” Let us return to Thoreau and his time spent at Walden Pond. He never curses his failure at growing a viable bean-field. Success and failure are negligible assignments of value for him, as his totalized view of existence also decentralizes himself. “We are wont to forget that the sun looks on our cultivated fields, and on the prairies and forests without distinction. They all reflect and absorb his rays alike, and the former make but a small part of the glorious picture which he beholds in his daily course.” Therefore, Thoreau doesn’t despair his poor harvest, because “these beans have results which are not harvested by…” him, but in their very being are remarkable as such.
Thoreau’s investment within the now moment balks at the arrogance of history. As always, he rejoinders the foolishness of nations with simplicity and down-to-earth observation, reminding us that “a living dog is better than a dead lion.” He notes that “nations are possessed with an insane ambition to perpetuate the memory of themselves by the amount of hammered stone they leave.” But as the present moment is the true palace, in the stead of any fixed location, “…most of the stone a nation hammers goes toward its tomb only. It buries itself alive.” The book is then only an artifact of an experience that once moved and breathed, but does so no longer. The movement of Thoreau courses within and then without the margins of the book, through a lived praxis. He warns that “the volatile truth of our words should continually betray the inadequacy of the residual statement.” The negative lack of words explored in the 20th century literature of loss, that of Edmond Jabes, Paul Celan and Jacques Roubaud, might be seen as a further exploration from the earlier frame of reference Thoreau explores – a contempaneity somewhat skeptical of words due to their markings outside of moment.
“Walden” closes on a transcendental collapse of time, as “only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.” Ok! So we see the moment’s ability to expand beyond its bounds, as well as the decentralization of space as each point is centralized as focal. The opposite here proves its opposite true. Thoreau writes he has “…been anxious to improve the nick of time, and notch it on my stick too; to stand on the meeting of two eternities, the past and the future, which is precisely the present moment; to toe that line.” The ecstasy of the present moment is in its insubstantiality, the wispy smallness of it all. Though our contemporary now is sandwiched between juggernauts of then and later, only the present moves, only the present is an activated position. Thoreau writes beyond the bounds of writing as such – what he does is write to aid a greater experiment of lived moments, to explore the detail and rhythm of that moment instead of idly passing it by, as one asleep on a train, never looking out their window at the landscape which could be theirs, yet is just not.