Thursday 10 August 2017

Where Romanticism went wrong: the example of Thoreau, Walden and his journals

Thoreau was probably the first writer of the Romantic movement (called Transcendentalism in New England) that I deeply engaged-with, some four decades ago; and he has continued to be a favourite - I have read several scores of books by and about him. I regard Thoreau as one of the greatest prose writers ever, a genius of high rank, and one with whom I feel a special affinity.


But if considered in terms of the evolutionary development of human consciousness, Thoreau was a dead-end; and indeed a clear exemplar of where Romanticism went wrong and failed to fulfil its destiny as intended the future of Man.

In the first place, Thoreau abandoned Christianity - replacing it with a very relativistic, fluid, not really serious, imprecise kind of deism and interest in Hinduism. This was a disaster, intellectually speaking; because it is never clear in Thoreau whether he regards nature as truly meaningful, or merely a 'projection' of his own psychological wishes. Indeed, there are passages of Thoreau in which he seems to regard the world almost solipsistically - as if the essence of his relationship with the world was only the maximisation of his own psychological gratifications. In the Economy chapter of Walden he explicitly depicts Life as a zero-sum transaction between his own selfishness and the world's demands on him; and expresses a determination that he will get the best of this bargain.

By abandoning any serious theism; Thoreau rendered his entire thought arbitrary - and opening his interpretations to the gravitational pull of the modern hedonic bottom-line of Life-as-therapy. It is in this sense that Thoreau can justly be called escapist; in that he advocates (and to some extent practised - although not consistently) the idea of avoiding responsibility, living for the moment (ie short-term gratification), living for oneself (pleasing oneself, self-training an indifference to the evaluations of anybody else).

But, putting that aside - let us concentrate on Thoreau's consciousness. In the autobiographical Walden, Thoreau's own consciousness is depicted in a very appealing fashion. The Thoreau character in the book lives in nature in a fashion and with a thoroughness that is most appealing to alienated modern Man: he notices everything in nature and is sensitive to the slightest changes, he responds powerfully, and is deeply-satisfied by his responses... His whole life is depicted as simply moving from one intense, epiphanic experience to another - all the while in an elevated, ecstatic stream of consciousness...

Of course this is writing. And Walden was written and re-written many times over many years - it is a carefully, brilliantly, crafted artifact - it is not an account of Thoreau's actual life or his mind. If we compare the book Walden with Thoreau's journals, we can see that his working life at about this time consisted of walking and writing; he would take walks, during walks he would make notes, and then he would write-up these walks for his journal; the journals were then the source of his books (some of them only published posthumously). The walks, the life, the experiences were (in a sense) fuel for the writing.

However, the point is that Thoreau's consciousness was a modern self-consciousness; he was not immersed-in nature in the way that American Indians were (or seemed to be). Thoreau had a great love for, and knowledge of, the American Indians - but the consciousness he saw in them was not his own consciousness. They were in nature in a largely unselfconscious and passively-accepting way that was utterly alien to Thoreau. By contrast, when Thoreau experienced nature it was purposively, to be remembered, reflected-on and written-about.

My point here is that this actuality is concealed in Walden and the other books. The Thoreau character is depicted rather as if he were himself an Indian.

In essence, Thoreau's consciousness - his experience of Life, including Nature - took place with full self-consciousness and in thinking. (And of course writing - but primarily in thinking.) Yet he did not depict himself as a man who experienced Life in the way he actually did; and furthermore, he seemed to regard the actuality as an intrinsically second-rate and still-alienated way of being.

My contention is that for Thoreau to have taken to completion the impulse of Romanticism, he would have needed to depict himself as he was: that is, a man who lived primarily in thinking. It was in thinking, self-consciously, in full alertness, that Thoreau was aware of Nature and of himself in nature - and the two were brought together deliberately, purposively, in the process of actual thinking.

Yet the yearning, the aspiration, the hope of Thoreau is seemingly for a life immersed and unselfconscious; a life like an idealised Indian who simply is, within nature, a part of nature.

What would have been needed for Thoreau to fulfil the destiny of Romanticism, would have been for him to develop a Christian understanding of the world as creation, as having meaning and purpose and himself as a part of this - but with his own unique role; an agent and an active co-creator, not merely a passive component.

And Thoreau would need to have recognised that his own self-conscious thinking was not only the place and activity within which he actually lived; but that this was a good thing, indeed the best thing! Instead of implicitly denying (by leaving-out) the aware observer, his world view should have recognised that this was exactly his destiny.

It would have been a matter of validating in theory what he actually did in practice.

And instead of trying to lose-himself in the epiphanic moment, and claiming that the moment included all; Thoreau should have aimed at strengthening his active, aware thinking so that it could match and surpass the power of the unselfconscious, passive, immersed experience.

This would, of course, have entailed a recognition that thinking is not merely a second-rate version of experience; not merely a pale reflection of the engaged life; but that thinking is Real Life; that thinking is real, really-real - that, in thinking, Man is potentially tasting the divine life and and becoming an actual co-creator. 

In saying that about what Thoreau should have done, I am asserting also that Thoreau really could have done this. Had he made different choices, he really could have taken this other path I outline above.

Why did he not? Well, in a nutshell, because he made bad decisions, wrong decisions - he equated Christianity (and theism) with Calvinism and churches and rejected both; he accepted that thinking was merely theory and experience was superior; he focused more upon crafting a work of genius (Walden) and seeking recognition for this, than on living life as a genius; he came to regard politics, and telling other people what was right and what to do, as being more urgently important than Man living a truly spiritual life - or, at least, he dishonestly tried to conflate the two.

The work that Thoreau chose not to do has still not been done; although we who live now have the good fortune that Owen Barfield has been able to explain all this; building on the insights of the early Rudolf Steiner.

But the primary task remains; and the solution has been indicated in theory and our task is to realise it in practice; in our own lives. The task is to live spiritually, as the Thoreau character mostly does as depicted in Walden. But to realise that to attain this entails a new and better kind of thinking, which is more like that practiced by Thoreau in the process of writing Walden.

This entails achieving a metaphysical understanding of thinking which recognises its validity and potential; and then practising this in our own living, as best we can - and (while patiently) this as our first, most urgent and significant priority.

1 comment:

Jonathan C said...

You wrote one particularly excellent clause buried in the middle of a paragraph, so let me bring it out for you:

"[Thoreau] focused more upon crafting a work of genius (Walden) and seeking recognition for this, than on living life as a genius"
- Bruce Charlton

Charltonism (in negation) in a pithy phrase.