Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The Strangeness of Thoreau

I don't know if 'strange' is the best way to describe that 'manifesto' of Thoreau's, which I quoted in my last posting, but it will have to do.

Thoreau says he went to live in the woods at Walden Pond because he wanted to find out what life is all about: "to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, to discover that I had not lived." To which he adds, in curiously combative and even defiant language, that he intends to "to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world...." For most of the people who have ever lived on this planet, sex is one of the essential facts of life (like it or not) and marriage (of some sort)--or not--and children. So it is at least a little strange that such matters do not rate even casual recognition; they are not, for him, essential. Yet his prose is so rich, so full of life, that many readers--myself included--may not notice at first that Thoreau has averted his gaze from so large a part of human experience.

Similarly, the vitality and metaphorical density of Thoreau's prose may obscure the philosophical point he is making a little later, in his great call for critical intelligence: "Let us settle ourselves, and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance, that alluvion which covers the globe... till we come to hard bottom and rocks in place, which we can call reality, and say, This is, and no mistake..." This distinction between knowledge and opinion, or knowledge and delusion, is sophisticated and civilized; you don't learn it by living alone in the woods. Is that what Thoreau is implying? Well, it is hard to be sure but there were plenty of romantically disposed intellectuals who would have been willing to say so. Still are, I guess.


  1. Are there people with no sexual desires? I don't know. One does know, however, that there are people who suppress their desires. Could Thoreau have been trying to fight homosexual urges? If he was, he probably succeeded.

    Instead of saying "The Strangeness of Thoreau," perhaps one should say "The Queerness of Thoreau."

  2. Except for the fact that he had been in love with a woman in Concord. It was unrequited, as far as I know. He writes about the animal and spiritual in man, "Rise up, Arjuna! Be the powerful enemy of desire..." and warrior for the soul, or something close. I would guess he had plenty of sexual desires, and he repressed them. He did not write or live in a time when people would express sexual inclinations as we are wont to today. Where does the "homosexual urges" thought come from? Not that it matters; he wasn't like Walt Whitman, who was promiscuously homo. HDT was a strange man. He affected my life, and that of so many others. To know what we know and read what we read about him since the 1850's, a century and a half later is by definition "strange," certainly. Few will ever receive such attention.