Saturday, January 11, 2014

The actual world -- a Saturday reprise


Books about Thoreau have become something of a cottage industry in recent years. Now comes David Robinson's Natural Life: Thoreau's Worldly Transcendentalism. Robinson, a Professor of English at Oregon State University, does not add a lot that we didn't already know about the so-called hermit of Walden, but he puts a twist on the story that reminds us just why this guy with the Abe Lincoln beard and melancholy gaze continues to intrigue us these many years on.

Well, I can't speak for others, but I keep returning to Thoreau because he was the first to teach me that one can have religion without the supernatural and science without scientism. And this is exactly what Robinson's title is all about.

Upon his return from his week-long boating trip on the Concord River with brother John, Thoreau resolved to change the way he lived. He wrote: "Men nowhere, east or west, live yet a natural life, round which the vine clings, and which the elm willingly shadows. Man would desecrate it by his touch, and so the beauty of the world remains veiled to him. He needs not only to be spiritualized but naturalized, on the soil of the earth."

In seeking a "natural life," Thoreau meant to live as part of an organic whole, not separate from nature, not clinging to the divine like a helpless child, but as the sturdy elm about which the vine clings. He shunned talk of immaterial souls, and, like Whitman, stood in awe of the body. "Talk of mysteries! -- Think of our life in nature, -- daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it, -- rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! the solid earth! the actual world! the common sense! Contact! Contact!"

The actual world! The world of common sense and the common senses. The world he could touch, and taste, and see, and hear, and smell. This is where he would encounter the divine -- in the wind on his cheek.

He took scientists to task too. He did not reject science; he read and approved of Darwin's great book, for example. But he feared that in their experimental rigor scientists would lose sight of the organicity of nature. He was not a romantic in the mold of Wordsworth or Goethe; he relished knowing the secret inner workings of nature that science reveals. But the natural life he sought would not be found on the lab bench, or under the dissector's knife, but in silence, solitude, and reverie.

Thoreau was smart enough to know that science cannot be done while sauntering in moonlight, his own favorite activity. By definition, science is a matter of reduction and dissection. A scientist cannot lead a "natural life" as a scientist. But a scientist can live a natural life as a woman or a man.

(This post originally appeared in May 2007.)