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The Senses of Walden

The Senses of Walden

by Stanley Cavell

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Stanley Cavell, one of America's most distinguished philosophers, has written an invaluable companion volume to Walden, a seminal book in our cultural heritage. This expanded edition includes two essays on Emerson.


Stanley Cavell, one of America's most distinguished philosophers, has written an invaluable companion volume to Walden, a seminal book in our cultural heritage. This expanded edition includes two essays on Emerson.

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University of Chicago Press
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The Senses of Walden

By Stanley Cavell

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1981 Stanley Cavell
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-09813-5


The Senses of Walden

On the first perusal plain common sense should appear —on the second severe truth —and on a third severe beauty.


The very greatest masterpieces, when one is fresh from them, are apt to seem neglected. At such a time one knows, without stint, how unspeakably better they are than anything that can be said about them. An essential portion of the teaching of Walden is a full account of its all but inevitable neglect.

I assume that however else one understands Thoreau's topics and projects it is as a writer that he is finally to be known. But the easier that has become to accept, the more difficult it becomes to understand why his words about writing in Walden are not (so far as I know) systematically used in making out what kind of book he had undertaken to write, and achieved. It may be that the presence of his mysterious journals has too often attracted his serious critics to canvass there for the interpretation of Walden's mysteries. My opening hypothesis is that this book is perfectly complete, that it means in every word it says, and that it is fully sensible of its mysteries and fully open about them.

Let us begin to read in an obvious place, taking our first bearings, and setting some standards, by looking at his explicit directions in the early chapter entitled "Reading." "The heroic books, even if printed in the character of our mother tongue, will always be in a language dead to degenerate times; and we must laboriously seek the meaning of each word and line, conjecturing a larger sense than common use permits out of what wisdom and valor and generosity we have" (III, 3). This may sound like a pious sentiment, one of those sentences that old-fashioned critics or book clubs like to cite to express their high-mindedness. But it is the first step in entertaining Thoreau's intentions and ambitions to understand that he is there describing the pages he has himself readied for our hands. This may not be obvious at first, because the very extremity of his praise for what he calls "classics" and for "reading, in a high sense," together with his devotion to the "ancients," seems to imply that the making of such a book, a heroic book, in the America he depicts and in "this restless, nervous, bustling, trivial nineteenth century" (XVIII, 14), is not a feasible enterprise. But it is axiomatic in Walden that its author praises nothing that he has not experienced and calls nothing impossible that he has not tried. More specifically, what is read in a high sense is "what we have to stand on tiptoe to read and devote our most alert and wakeful hours to" (III, 7); and again, "There are probably words addressed to our condition exactly, which, if we could really hear and understand, would be more salutary than the morning or the spring to our lives" (III, 11). Given the appearance of morning and spring in this book, what words could be more salutary than these? But then, given such words in the book as, "Morning is when I am awake and there is dawn in me" (II, 14), we recognize that morning may not be caused by sunrise, and may not happen at all. To discover how to earn and spend our most wakeful hours—whatever we are doing—is the task of Walden as a whole; it follows that its task, for us who are reading, is epitomized in discovering what reading in a high sense is and, in particular, if Walden is a heroic book, what reading Walden is. For the writer of Walden, its task is epitomized in discovering what writing is and, in particular, what writing Walden is.

It is hard to keep in mind that the hero of this book is its writer. I do not mean that it is about Henry David Thoreau, a writer, who lies buried in Concord, Massachusetts—though that is true enough. I mean that the "I" of the book declares himself to be a writer. This is hard to keep in mind because we seem to be shown this hero doing everything under the sun but, except very infrequently, writing. It takes a while to recognize that each of his actions is the act of a writer, that every word in which he identifies himself or describes his work and his world is the identification and description of what he understands his literary enterprise to require. If this seems to reduce the stature of what he calls his experiment, that is perhaps because we have a reduced view of what such an enterprise may be.

The obvious meaning of the phrase "heroic book," supported by the mention of Homer and Virgil (III, 6), is "a book about a hero," an epic. The writer is aligning himself with the major tradition of English poetry, whose most ambitious progeny, at least since Milton, had been haunted by the call for a modern epic, for a heroic book which was at once a renewed instruction of the nation in its ideals, and a standing proof of its resources of poetry. For the first generation of Romantics, the parent generation to Thoreau's, the immediate epic event whose power their literary epic would have to absorb, was the French Revolution—the whole hope of it in their adolescence, and the scattered hopes in their maturity. The writer of Walden alludes to the three revolutions most resonant for his time. Of the Puritan revolution he says that it was "almost the last significant scrap of news" from England (II, 19). Why almost? We don't really need a key for this, but Thoreau provides one in an essay on Carlyle which he wrote while living at Walden: "What ... has been English news for so long a season? What ... of late years, has been England to us—to us who read books, we mean? Unless we remembered it as the scene where the age of Wordsworth was spending itself, and a few younger muses were trying their wings.... Carlyle alone, since the death of Coleridge, has kept the promise of England." As against the usual views about Thoreau's hatred of society and his fancied private declaration of independence from it, it is worth hearing him from the outset publicly accept a nation's promise, identify the significant news of a nation with the state of its promise, and place the keeping of that promise in the hands of a few writers.

Of the events which keep burning on the Continent, the writer of Walden is apparently dismissive: "If one may judge who rarely looks into the newspapers, nothing new does ever happen in foreign parts, a French revolution not excepted" (II, 19). Marx, at about the same time, puts the point a little differently in his Eighteenth Brumaire, suggesting that it is only if you think like a newspaper that you will take the events of 1848 (or 1830) as front-page history; they belong on the theater page, or in the obituaries. But in Walden's way of speaking, its remark also means that the French Revolution was not new. For example, the revolution we had here at home happened first, the one that began "two miles south" of where the writer is now sitting, on "our only field known to fame, Concord Battle Ground" (II, 10). For an American poet, placed in that historical locale, the American Revolution is more apt to constitute the absorbing epic event. Only it has two drawbacks: first, it is overshadowed by the epic event of America itself; second, America's revolution never happened. The colonists fought a war against England all right, and they won it. But it was not a war of independence that was won, because we are not free; nor was even secession the outcome, because we have not departed from the conditions England lives under, either in our literature or in our political and economic lives.

I understand the writer of Walden to be saying at least these things, in his way, when he announces for the second time the beginning of his "experiment": "When first I took up my abode in the woods, that is, began to spend my nights as well as days there, which, by accident, was on Independence Day, or the Fourth of July, 1845, my house was not finished for winter" (II, 8). Good and learned readers, since at least Parrington, will have such a passage behind them when they describe Thoreau as having written a "transcendental declaration of independence." But why does the writer say "by accident"? Merely to mock America's idea of what independence comes to, and at the same time ruefully admit that he is, after all, one of us? But he has been insisting on these things from the beginning. From what is he supposed to have declared his independence? Clearly not from society as such; the book is riddled with the doings of society. From society's beliefs and values, then? In a sense—at least independence from the way society practices those beliefs and values. But that was what America was for; it is what the original colonists had in mind.

Earlier, as an introduction to the first time we see the hero at his experiment, about to describe the building of his house, he quotes at some length from two accounts, one contemporary and one nearly contemporary, of the first shelters the colonists made for themselves to get them through the first winter in the world which for them was new (I, 57). We know the specific day in the specific year on which all the ancestors of New England took up their abode in the woods. That moment of origin is the national event reenacted in the events of Walden, in order this time to do it right, or to prove that it is impossible; to discover and settle this land, or the question of this land, once for all. This is one reason that taking up the abode on the Fourth of July is an accident.

Any American writer, any American, is apt to respond to that event in one way or another; to the knowledge that America exists only in its discovery and its discovery was always an accident; and to the obsession with freedom, and with building new structures and forming new human beings with new minds to inhabit them; and to the presentiment that this unparalleled opportunity has been lost forever. The distinction of Walden's writer on this point (shared, I suppose, by the singer of Leaves of Grass and by the survivor in Moby Dick) lies in the constancy of this mood upon him, his incarnation, one may call it, of this mood at once of absolute hope and yet of absolute defeat, his own and his nation's. His prose must admit this pressure and at every moment resolutely withstand it. It must live, if it can, pressed between history and heaven:

In any weather, at any hour of the day or night, I have 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. (I, 23)

This open acknowledgment of his mysticism, or rather of the path to it, is also a dedication of his prose to that path. This is what "and notch it on my stick too" means—that he is writing it down, that his writing and his living manifest each other. The editor of The Variorum Walden, Walter Harding, is surely right to refer here to Robinson Crusoe's method of telling time; but that reference alone does not account for the methods of Walden's writer, for what he would mean by telling time, in particular for what he means in claiming to notch not merely the passing of time but his improvement of it. It is when the writer has just gone over the succession of farms he had bought in imagination, and comes to his abode in the woods, that he says, "The present was my next experiment of this kind, which I purpose to describe more at length" (II, 7). Of course he means that the building of his habitation (which is to say, the writing of his book) is his present experiment. He also means what his words say: that the present is his experiment, the discovery of the present, the meeting of two eternities. ("God himself culminates in the present moment" [II, 21].) The most extended moment of the book which puts together the ideas of art and of the presentness which admits eternity, is the closing parable about the artist from Kouroo, the surface of which relates those ideas to the notching of a stick.

To say that the writer reenacts the Great Migration and the inhabitation of this continent by its first settlers is not to suggest that we are to read him for literal alignments between the history of the events in his woods and in theirs. That would miss the significance of both, because the literal events of the Puritan colonization were from the beginning overshadowed by their meaning: it was itself a transcendental act, an attempt to live the idea; you could call it a transcendental declaration of freedom. (In his "Plea for Captain John Brown," Thoreau praised this man once as a Puritan and once as a Transcendentalist.) This means that the writer's claims to privacy, secrecy, and isolation are as problematic, in the achievement and in the depiction of them, as any other of his claims. The more deeply he searches for independence from the Puritans, the more deeply, in every step and every word, he identifies with them—not only in their wild hopes, but in their wild denunciations of their betrayals of those hopes, in what has come to be called their jeremiads. (This is a standing difficulty for America's critics, as for Christianity's; Americans and Christians are prepared to say worse things about their own behavior than an outsider can readily imagine.) His identification extends even to the further meaning of the migration: to perform an experiment, a public demonstration of a truth; to become an example to those from whom they departed; to build, as they said to themselves, "a city on a hill."

This is one way I understand the writer's placing himself "one mile from any neighbor." It was just far enough to be seen clearly. However closely Thoreau's own "literary withdrawal" resembles those of the Romantics, in its need for solitude and for nature, the withdrawal he depicts in Walden creates a version of what the Puritan Congregationalists called a member of the church's congregation: a visible saint. On this ground, the audience for the writer's words and acts is the community at large, congregated. His problem, initially and finally, is not to learn what to say to them; that could not be clearer. The problem is to establish his right to declare it.

I have come to trust Walden and to trust its accuracy to its intentions when it says: "If you stand right fronting and face to face to a fact, you will see the sun glimmer on both its surfaces, as if it were a cimeter, and feel its sweet edge dividing you through the heart and marrow, and so you will happily conclude your mortal career" (II, 22). I cannot say that this writing always and everywhere brings me to this conclusion. But it often does, often enough so that when it does not I am not quick to determine whether it is failing me, or I it. My subject is nothing apart from sensing the specific weight of these words as they sink; and that means knowing the specific identities of the writer through his metamorphoses, and defining the audiences in me which those identities address, and so create; and hence understanding who I am that I should be called upon in these ways, and who this writer is that he takes his presumption of intimacy and station upon himself. For someone who cannot yield to Thoreau's words, or does not find them to warrant this power to divide him through, my subject will seem empty, even grotesque. Emerson did not quite share this enthusiasm, and yet he knew as well as anyone has known how good a writer Thoreau was, as he proved in his speech at Thoreau's funeral by the sentences he chose to read from the unpublished manuscripts. But in the large of it, the writing made him, as he said to his journal, "nervous and wretched" to read. I find this response also to be accurate and essential to the reading of Walden—just not final. (The writer of Walden knows how trying his trials can be: "I sometimes try my acquaintances by such tests" [I, 35].)

How far off a final reading is, is something I hope I have already suggested. Every major term I have used or will use in describing Walden is a term that is itself in play within the book, part of its subject—e.g., migration, settling, distance, neighborhood, improvement, departure, news, obscurity, clearing, writing, reading, etc. And the next terms we will need in order to explain the first ones will in turn be found subjected to examination in Thoreau's experiment. The book's power of dialectic, of self-comment and self-placement, in the portion and in the whole of it, is as instilled as in Marx or Kierkegaard or Nietzsche, with an equally vertiginous spiraling of idea, irony, wrath, and revulsion. Once in it, there seems no end; as soon as you have one word to cling to, it fractions or expands into others. This is one reason that he says, "There are more secrets in my trade than in most men's ... inseparable from its very nature" (I, 23). But we do not yet know much else about that trade.


Excerpted from The Senses of Walden by Stanley Cavell. Copyright © 1981 Stanley Cavell. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Meet the Author

Stanley Cavell is the Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and General Theory of Value at Harvard University and the author of many books. These include Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome, In Quest of the Ordinary, Themes out of School, and This New Yet Unapproachable America, all published by the University of Chicago Press.

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