June 14, 2004

There’s a new page on my website, a feedback page, which collects the feedback that I’ve received over the years. You may be surprised to find that a message you sent me five years ago is there. I used only your first name; if you want to add your last name, or delete your first name, or remove the entry entirely, just let me know.

1. Walden

Our book group recently discussed Thoreau’s Walden. I chose Walden because I wanted to do some reading on my own, and I thought I could discuss Walden without reading it, I thought I knew it well. Just before our meeting, I read the last chapter, and I quickly found that I didn’t know Walden. It had been so long since I read it, and I myself had changed so much in the meanwhile, that it felt like a book I had never read before. There’s a great deal of Zen in it — more than I expected — and I couldn’t appreciate that Zen element when I read it previously. There’s also a great deal of wit and charm in it, so I found it hard to put down.

When Thoreau describes how he cleaned his little cabin, he gives us charming details that most writers would pass over:

Housework was a pleasant pastime. When my floor was dirty, I rose early, and, setting all my furniture out of doors on the grass... dashed water on the floor, and sprinkled white sand from the pond on it, and then with a broom scrubbed it clean and white; and by the time the villagers had broken their fast the morning sun had dried my house sufficiently to allow me to move in again, and my meditations were almost uninterrupted. It was pleasant to see my whole household effects out on the grass, making a little pile like a gypsy’s pack, and my three-legged table, from which I did not remove the books and pen and ink, standing amid the pines and hickories. They seemed glad to get out themselves, and as if unwilling to be brought in.

Notice that phrase “broken their fast”; Thoreau uses it several times in Walden. Of course, it’s a pun on “breakfast.” No writer is more fond of puns than Thoreau, and Walden abounds in them. His passion for word-roots is due in part to his thorough knowledge of Greek and Latin. Perhaps his passion for word-roots is part of something larger, part of his tendency to dig into the roots of things in general.

Thoreau’s wit is sometimes acerbic, as when he says that among his visitors at the pond were “men who did not know when their visit had terminated, though I went about my business again, answering them from greater and greater remoteness.”10

Few writers are as sincere, as honest, as Thoreau. He admits that, soon after moving to the pond, he once felt lonely and dejected:

I have never felt lonesome, or in the least oppressed by a sense of solitude, but once, and that was a few weeks after I came to the woods, when, for an hour, I doubted if the near neighborhood of man was not essential to a serene and healthy life. To be alone was something unpleasant. But I was at the same time conscious of a slight insanity in my mood, and seemed to foresee my recovery. In the midst of a gentle rain while these thoughts prevailed, I was suddenly sensible of such sweet and beneficent society in Nature, in the very pattering of the drops, and in every sound and sight around my house, an infinite and unaccountable friendliness all at once like an atmosphere sustaining me, as made the fancied advantages of human neighborhood insignificant, and I have never thought of them since.

Perhaps on some level, however, Thoreau wasn’t entirely happy in his little cabin. After all, he moved out, and didn’t come back.

Here’s another passage that is striking for its sincerity. Thoreau describes how he stands apart from himself, and observes himself; he admits that an observer is unsociable:

By a conscious effort of the mind we can stand aloof from actions and their consequences; and all things, good and bad, go by us like a torrent. We are not wholly involved in Nature. [I] am sensible of a certain doubleness by which I can stand as remote from myself as from another. However intense my experience, I am conscious of the presence and criticism of a part of me, which, as it were, is not a part of me, but spectator, sharing no experience, but taking note of it.... This doubleness may easily make us poor neighbors and friends sometimes.11

Thoreau’s “doubleness” reminds one of Dostoyevsky’s “duality”: “One of Dostoyevsky’s acquaintances found in Dostoyevsky ‘a peculiar duality’; he had a ‘habit of watching his own reactions: as though in a single body there were an actor and an audience of one.’”12 What should we make of Thoreau’s “doubleness”? Is it a characteristic of genius? Of intellectuals? Is it part of Thoreau’s Zen mindset? (After all, meditation means standing apart from one’s thoughts, and observing what’s going through your mind.) Or does it run counter to Zen? (After all, Zen means being in the present moment, focusing on what you’re doing now.)

One of Thoreau’s visitors at the pond was a French-Canadian woodchopper, Alek Therien. The name “Therien” sounds like the Greek word “therios”, meaning animal. Thoreau, always alert to word-roots, says that the woodchopper “had so suitable and poetic a name that I am sorry I cannot print it here.... In him the animal man chiefly was developed. In physical endurance and contentment he was cousin to the pine and the rock.... But the intellectual and what is called spiritual man in him were slumbering as in an infant.... A more simple and natural man it would be hard to find.”13 While “doubleness” was characteristic of Thoreau, the woodchopper’s personality may be described as “singleness.”

The woodchopper fascinated Thoreau, perhaps because his Catholic background, his “Catholic personality”, contrasted sharply with the ascetic-Protestant personality of most of Thoreau’s acquaintances. “He came along early,” writes Thoreau, “crossing my bean-field, though without anxiety or haste to get to his work, such as Yankees exhibit. He wasn’t a-going to hurt himself. He didn’t care if he only earned his board.” While the ascetic-Protestant personality is characterized by gloom, the Catholic personality is characterized by joy:

He interested me [writes Thoreau] because he was so quiet and solitary and so happy withal; a well of good humor and contentment which overflowed at his eyes. His mirth was without alloy. Sometimes I saw him at his work in the woods, felling trees, and he would greet me with a laugh of inexpressible satisfaction, and a salutation in Canadian French, though he spoke English as well. When I approached him he would suspend his work, and with half-suppressed mirth lie along the trunk of a pine which he had felled, and, peeling off the inner bark, roll it up into a ball and chew it while he laughed and talked. Such an exuberance of animal spirits had he that he sometimes tumbled down and rolled on the ground with laughter at anything which made him think and tickled him.... He would sometimes exclaim, “How I love to talk! By George, I could talk all day!”

Thoreau was a voracious reader, and Walden is filled with quotations. Thoreau’s favorite books were

  1. travel narratives;
  2. the literature of India and China;
  3. old English poetry;
  4. Greek and Roman literature (especially poetry, rarely philosophy); and
  5. New England history (especially if it dealt with Indians).

But while Thoreau enjoyed books, he realized that books can draw you away from Nature, and away from Now:

While we are confined to books, though the most select and classic, and read only particular written languages, which are themselves but dialects and provincial, we are in danger of forgetting the language which all things and events speak without metaphor, which alone is copious and standard. Much is published, but little printed.... No method nor discipline can supersede the necessity of being forever on the alert. What is a course of history or philosophy, or poetry, no matter how well selected, or the best society, or the most admirable routine of life, compared with the discipline of looking always at what is to be seen? Will you be a reader, a student merely, or a seer?

Thoreau’s prose is sometimes obscure, and this obscurity is a blemish in an otherwise excellent book. Thoreau doesn’t try to write lucid prose, he thinks obscurity is a virtue; “the words which express our faith and piety,” he writes, “are not definite; yet they are significant and fragrant like frankincense to superior natures.”14 But Thoreau’s obscurity isn’t always an attempt to express “faith and piety.” Often his obscurity is due to the fact that he sprinkles his writing with obscure references. Woe to the reader whose copy of Walden has no footnotes! I recommend the Norton Critical Edition, or some other annotated edition; there’s also an annotated online edition. Does Thoreau’s obscurity have a psychological cause? Is it one aspect of his solitary, isolated, uncommunicative personality? Don’t let this obscurity stop you from reading Walden; on the whole, Thoreau’s style is top-notch, and far more lucid than that of most philosophers.

While we’re on the subject of blemishes, perhaps we should say that Thoreau has a narrow range; he addresses a limited number of subjects. He doesn’t have that lust for knowledge of all kinds that one finds in many philosophers. One suspects, however, that without this narrow range, Thoreau would not have been Thoreau; one suspects that this narrow range is the price that Thoreau had to pay to achieve what he achieved — namely, a deeply Zennish mindset, and a deep feeling for nature.

Zen sank such deep roots in Thoreau that even when he indulged in wild fantasy, the result was Zennish. Consider, for example, the fantasy about “an artist in the city of Kouroo,” which is found in the last chapter of Walden. Thoreau describes a wood-carver who sets out to make a perfect staff, without any regard to how long it takes to complete the project. “He grew not older by a moment. His singleness of purpose and resolution, and his elevated piety, endowed him, without his knowledge, with perennial youth. As he made no compromise with Time, Time kept out of his way, and only sighed at a distance because he could not overcome him.” Thoreau’s carver is certainly not in a hurry. “By the time he had smoothed and polished the staff Kalpa was no longer the pole-star; and ere he had put on the ferule and the head adorned with precious stones, Brahma had awoke and slumbered many times.” Notice how Thoreau is fascinated by Asian culture.

One wonders, however, if this fantasy makes good use of Eastern wisdom. Is it healthy to strive after perfection? Perfection is purchased at the price of completeness; Thoreau’s carver isn’t a complete person, a well-rounded person. Is it healthy to strive after perennial youth? Isn’t it wiser to accept the aging process, and accept death? Does this fantasy represent an unhealthy form of Zen?

At any rate, many passages in Walden breath the purest spirit of Zen:

I did not read books the first summer; I hoed beans. Nay, I often did better than this. There were times when I could not afford to sacrifice the bloom of the present moment to any work, whether of the head or hands. I love a broad margin to my life. Sometimes, in a summer morning, having taken my accustomed bath, I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a reverie, amidst the pines and hickories and sumachs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sang around or flitted noiseless through the house, until by the sun falling in at my west window, or the noise of some traveler’s wagon on the distant highway, I was reminded of the lapse of time. I grew in those seasons like corn in the night, and they were far better than any work of the hands would have been. They were not time subtracted from my life, but so much over and above my usual allowance. I realized what the Orientals mean by contemplation and the forsaking of works.15

“The bloom of the present moment” is a wonderful bit of Zen, as is “a broad margin to my life.” A margin is, after all, an empty part of your paper, and Zen loves emptiness. Thoreau understood that his empty mornings, his mornings of non-doing, were in the spirit of the East, hence he refers to the “Orientals” in the last sentence. Thoreau understood the mindset of meditation, of non-doing, of walking meditation, of listening meditation — he understands everything except the central fact of Zen, breathing meditation. Apparently he never encountered breathing meditation in his study of Chinese and Indian classics. Breathing meditation seems to have been unknown (or very little known) in the West until the West became familiar with Japan, in the late 1800s.

It should be noted that Thoreau’s politics were Zennish. His concept of civil disobedience is a kind of non-doing — in his case, not paying taxes.

One of Thoreau’s purposes in Walden is to defend himself against the accusation that he wasn’t helping his fellow man. In the second paragraph of Walden, he says that people in Concord “have been curious to learn what portion of my income I devoted to charitable purposes; and some, who have large families, how many poor children I maintained.” Thoreau launches a vigorous defense of his lifestyle, and a vigorous attack on philanthropists and do-gooders. “Philanthropy is almost the only virtue,” Thoreau writes, “which is sufficiently appreciated by mankind. Nay, it is greatly overrated; and it is our selfishness which overrates it. A robust poor man, one sunny day here in Concord, praised a fellow-townsman to me, because, as he said, he was kind to the poor; meaning himself.... I never heard of a philanthropic meeting in which it was sincerely proposed to do any good to me, or the like of me.... Do not stay to be an overseer of the poor, but endeavor to become one of the worthies of the world.” When our book group discussed Walden, I mentioned Thoreau’s attack on philanthropy, and the chorus of protest that arose showed how attached people are to philanthropy, to charitable activity.

Thoreau reveled in the role of outsider, eccentric, iconoclast:

Often, in the repose of my mid-day, there reaches my ears a confused tintinnabulum from without. It is the noise of my contemporaries. My neighbors tell me of their adventures with famous gentlemen and ladies, what notabilities they met at the dinner-table; but I am no more interested in such things than in the contents of the Daily Times. The interest and the conversation are about costume and manners chiefly; but a goose is a goose still, dress it as you will. They tell me of California and Texas, of England and the Indies, of the Hon. Mr. --- of Georgia or of Massachusetts, all transient and fleeting phenomena, till I am ready to leap from their court-yard... I delight to come to my bearings — not walk in procession with pomp and parade, in a conspicuous place, but to walk even with the Builder of the universe, if I may — not to live in this restless, nervous, bustling, trivial Nineteenth Century, but stand or sit thoughtfully while it goes by.

It is fitting that Walden ends with a Zennish thought: “Only that day dawns to which we are awake.”16

© L. James Hammond 2004
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10. “Visitors” back
11. “Solitude” back
12. biography by Yarmolinsky, ch. 12 back
13. “Visitors” back
14. “Conclusion” back
15. “Sounds” back
16. “Conclusion” back