“The West Is Not Enough:” An American Yankee’s Scaling Heaven Via Persian and Eastern Quotations in Walden

BY: Melinda Barnhardt

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Determining the extent to which Thoreau’s reading in Persian and Eastern philosophy and literature became an “influence” upon his writing of the American classic Walden is not an easy matter.  While the quotations drawn from Confucius, the Persian poet Sa’di, and the Hindu writers can be clearly located in Thoreau’s own text, J. Lyndon Shanley’s study of the compositional stages in The Making of Walden shows fairly conclusively that they were inserted as late as 1850-51 (Shanley’s “second stage”), long after the integral “body” of Walden was first conceived. And Lyman Cady demonstrates in a specialized study of the Confucius quotations Thoreau’s repeatedly personal and artistic use of the materials he incorporated, in contexts often completely different from the originals.   There is in Walden, nevertheless, a clearly-discernible Eastern atmosphere pervading beyond the quotations that has stimulated numerous attempts to understand the book from this point of view.  Such an approach can prove to be an infinitely valuable one.  However, there is an implicit danger of defining the influence too strictly, and thereby missing a growth and development of the writer’s own that represents the real creation of his work.  The demonstration of Sa’di and the Eastern writers’ influence in Walden is meaningful, therefore, only when it becomes a way of opening and exploring a creative process in which Thoreau expanded certain of their insights into the nature of experience, as well as those of the Western tradition, into his own larger vision of reality, presented through the form of a unified work of art.


Historically, the investigation of “Oriental” aspects of Walden developed into the mere pettiness of an “either-or” debate over Thoreau as a contemplative Eastern mystic or an active Yankee pragmatist.  A survey of existing criticism shows that to reduce him to either one is to ignore the far-reaching and amalgamating powers of his genius.  To consider him as one who always remained within the Western tradition, never really understanding what was termed “Oriental” -- as Mark Van Doren did, in 1916 -- is to consider the inner, contemplative characteristics of his individualism merely as the negative manifestations of a self-absorbed personality.  Yet to place his “inwardness” completely within the framework of an “Oriental” asceticism is to limit its “success” to the most strictly-defined Eastern terms alone.  Strangely enough, Arthur Christy was supporting the earlier, negative assessment, when he granted Thoreau precisely such an ascetic “success,” based upon the discovery of his thorough-going acquaintance with the Persian and Eastern materials, in 1932.  From a Western, particularly an American point of view, the 1916 interpretation continued to hold true:  “Professor Van Doren has reached the heart of Thoreau’s problem.  Looking at him through Occidental eyes, weighing his success in Occidental scales, he is right in considering him a failure, for what a Yogi achieves will never be stated in terms of phenomenal experience.”


The clearest demonstration of the inadequacy of either an “Oriental” or a Yankee-pragmatic interpretation of Walden is Thoreau’s own explicit opposition of Being and Doing as conflicting and limited approaches to reality, in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, published prior to Walden, in 1849.  The great polar dialectic between Eastern contemplation and Western activity produced a static and divided man, who was either lost in the darkness of his own self, or divided from that self, and driven by the external organization of the world:  “Behold the difference between the Oriental and the Occidental.  The former has nothing to do in this world; the latter is full of activity.  The one looks at the sun till his eyes are put out; the other follows him prone in his westward course.”  In either of the mutually-exclusive approaches, Thoreau considered man to be cut off from any possibility of expansion of his horizons, or of enlargement of his concept of reality.


It was Thoreau’s ability to achieve such an articulation of his own individual problem in the more universal terms of harmonizing inner Being with external Doing that enabled him to investigate the most pressing problems of contemporary American society, as well as the great dichotomy of East and West.  In the earlier and less mature work of A Week, the statement of the conflict is again made directly:

What, after all, does the practicalness of life amount to?  The things immediate to be done are very trivial.  I could postpone them all to hear this locust sing.  The most glorious fact in my experience is not anything that I have done or may hope to do, but a transient thought, or vision, or dream, which I have had.  I would give all the wealth of the world, and all of the deeds of all the heroes for one true vision.  But how can I communicate with the gods, who am a pencil-maker on earth, and not be insane?

In the intellectual maturity and artistic unity of Walden, the conflict was no longer openly discussed.  Instead, Thoreau managed to achieve an amalgamation of the two poles of inner and outer approaches to reality into a single approach that was unlimited and ever-expanding.

The key to understanding Thoreau’s “amalgamation” of the poles of Being and Doing is provided by an examination of his poetic use of the Persian and Eastern quotations in Walden.  Each of the systems of thought from which the quotations are drawn represents a different, somehow limited representation of reality.  (The very diversity of the “Oriental” materials in Walden would seem to defeat automatically any attempt to apply an overly narrow “Eastern” interpretation.)  Yet the incorporation of each as an integral part of Thoreau’s work is a definite reflection of his intellectual growth.  Lyman Cady’s study of the Confucius quotations concludes that there was an ultimate absence of affinity in thought between Thoreau and the Chinese thinker and attributed the insertion of the quotations to Thoreau’s “artistic purposes,” rather than any directly discernible philosophical “influence.”  Confucianism began with an emphasis upon an inner moral alertness achieved through contemplation, as did Thoreau.  Cady was quick to point out, however, that Confucius’ ultimate concern was a social one, and that he limited the expansion of inner alertness to the bounds of a final social structure, in a way that Thoreau never would accept.   Yet, the definite sign of Thoreau’s intellectual growth and his use of the quotations as more than artistic embellishments is his consistent retention of the Confucian inner focus upon external reality.  The social and political implications of the Confucian admonition for daily inner renewal were no longer kept.  Confucius would make an enjoinder for self-regeneration like the one engraved upon King Thang’s bathtub for the political purpose of stimulating the King’s watchfulness over his personal moral behavior, to ensure his right to the throne.  Thoreau used the same admonition, freed from political implications, to dramatize the need for an awakening of the inner being to the whole experience of the external world, that far exceeded either political or social systems.

Presenting sharp contrast with the Confucian activist social concern, the works of the Persian Sufi writer Sa’di idealized a passive non-involvement in the face of external tyranny and the multiplicity of the world. Man was not to become involved in the network of outer problems, Sa’di warned, “for the Dijlah, or Tigris would continue to flow through Baghdad after the race of caliphs was extinct... .”  Yet the retreat that represented the approach of the Persian poet was incorporated within a partially changed context in Walden.  Thoreau used the quotation from Sa’di to demonstrate that the vitality of the inner being was necessary not only as a focus for opening and awakening to the outer world, but also as a control that prevented one’s being overwhelmed by it.  The appearance of the quotation at the close of the first chapter of Walden was not meant to imply isolation, but rather intended to support the concept of an “economy” of relation between the inner being and the external world.  Thoreau was asserting an integrity of the self that somehow allowed it to take an active part in determining the occasions of its own “awakenings.”  What he had gained from both Confucius and Sa’di was a freshness in the recording of experience that had little to do with the more systematized aspects of their thought.  He had gained a sense of the self as a poetic center of receptivity for the even larger reality of its world.  When considered to possess a polar relation with its experience, the self could no longer be lost in the stagnancy of its own limited views.  Instead, it provided a focus for responding to new meanings, and a control against external determinism as well.

The large concept of reality contained in Hindu literature is most like the polar amalgamation of Being and Doing Thoreau achieved in Walden, and accounts for the predominance of quotations from Hindu writers, and a pervasive influence of the Hindu Bhagvat-Geeta  throughout the book.  Hindu literature emphasized the necessary inner control or focus provided by assuredness of identity in order to overcome the enslavement of the self to the world.  (Thoreau relates the Hindu anecdote of the king’s son brought up in barbarous circumstances who became immune to his surroundings as soon as the misconception of his character was removed, and he knew himself to be a prince.)  Yet, for the Hindus, meaningful reality was not limited to the maintenance of an inviolable inner integrity alone.  The same external nature that became deterministic without an inner control could also provide the positive stimulus that freed the imagination from its own inward confinement, and allowed man’s spirit to roam throughout the largeness of the world.  Thoreau found an apt statement of the happy relationship between the inner and outer poles of experience that provided for the greatest unleashing of human potential, and the most positive use of external “determinism” in the Hindu Harivansa:  “‘There are none so happy in the world but beings who enjoy freely a vast horizon,’ -- said Damodara, when his herds required new and larger pastures.” And even surpassing its contribution of a delighted awareness of human potential being unleashed, Hindu literature could conceive of the awakening of inwardness to polar relationship in still larger terms, envisioning it as an opportunity granted the self to respond to a Divinity knowable through the sensuous world.  It was precisely such a vital awareness of the relation of the inner being to Divinity, Henry Canby has noted, that Thoreau considered the Doing religion of contemporary Christianity to lack.

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