“The West Is Not Enough:” An American Yankee’s Scaling Heaven Via Persian

and Eastern Quotations in Walden (PART II)

By: Melinda Barnhardt


The Hindu quotations and the Bhagvat-Geeta provide a basis for examining the concept of reality in Walden.  The disagreement Thoreau found with much of Hindu philosophy was its tendency to fall back upon the secure assumption of an inner identification with the eternal coherence and wholeness of Brahme.  Despite the awareness of the positive stimulus of the external world, for the Hindu it always remained ultimately less real.  And while divinity might be perceived by the senses, the inner, contemplative approach was far more direct.  The Hindu viewpoint is probably represented most fairly for comparison with Thoreau here by his own favorite of the works, the Bhagvat-Geeta.  The Geeta was perhaps most successful in harmonizing its vision of inner coherence with concessions to the world.  Despite its humanism, however, the distinct contrast between the Geeta and Walden is evident in the discussions of the individual soul in the opening chapters of each.  Both establish the fundamental integrity of the inner being.  External surroundings of the self that might infringe upon that integrity are dismissed in terms of just so many garments that the soul can wear, and yet remain distinct.  A fundamental difference in the use of the clothes imagery, however, is that in Walden the external forms of a man’s existence are considered necessary to provide him meaning, to retain his “vital heat” and cover his nakedness.  For the soul the Geeta describes, that always remains somehow aloof from its experience, strangely unresponsive and almost non-vital, they are not:

As a man throweth away old garments, and putteth on new, even so the soul, having quitted its old mortal frame, entereth into others which are new.  The weapon divideth it not, the fire burneth it not, the water corrupteth it not, the wind drieth it not away: it is eternal, universal, permanent, immoveable; it is invisible, inconceivable, and unalterable; therefore, believing it to be thus, thou shouldst not grieve.  

From the opening “Economy” chapter of Walden there had rung out an almost identical proclamation of the necessity of distinguishing outer materialism and socially-prescribed forms from the integrity of inner being.  “Everyday our garments become more assimilated to ourselves,” Thoreau critically warned his Yankee neighbors. Yet in his polar view of experience, the admonition for an “economy” of focus would never have required that the external form be shut out.  On the contrary, Thoreau asserted that meaning never came to those who remained locked in themselves, but necessarily resulted from an interaction of the inner being and the external form.  All races, he felt, would find it necessary to wear “something equivalent to the shirt.”  His emphasis upon inner integrity never encouraged aloofness from experience, as the Hindus’ did, but only stipulated that “a man be clad so simply that he can lay his hands upon himself in the dark... .”


Thoreau had found that neither Being or Doing, represented symbolically by the poles of East and West, could serve alone as an adequate approach to reality, or to resolve the tension of his own predicament.  The comforting philosophy of inner coherence of the Geeta had freed the warrior Arjoon from anxiety, as he confronted a divided world of brothers and cousins armed to fight against one another.  To act within the struggle only appeared to be taking a limited and finite position, the god Krishna counseled Arjoon, for his soul was immortal, and the truest meaning of its existence was not to be found in the world at all.  The Geeta’s inward consolation provided penetrating insight into a dimension that Western Christianity lacked.  Yet the fundamental predicament of the Yankee who wanted to communicate with the gods, but was forced to make pencils for a living, continued to remain unsolved.  The security of an inward identification with ultimate reality supposedly removed Arjoon’s anxiety.  Yet Thoreau objected that the denial of the significance of activity in the world removed all convincing motivation to act, as well.

Thoreau was able to resolve the conflict artistically in Walden because of a harmonious resolution of Being and Doing that he achieved in his own life.  He applied an inner focus derived from Sa’di and the Eastern writers, but no doubt equally from his experience, to the Western anxiety that arose from constant seeking of an external end.  He began to see reality neither as something existing in the inner being, or in the outer world, but in the occasion of a vital interaction that occurred between them.  The “contemplative chapters” in Walden, previously accepted as evidence of Thoreau’s “Eastern mysticism” (despite the burlesque of the ascetic hermit, in Chapter XII) are not purely contemplative at all, but meditational in an intermittent way, with the fruits of the meditation constantly being applied to the next active step Thoreau takes in the world.  In “The Ponds,” for instance, the thoughts about “vast and cosmogonal themes in other spheres” are interrupted periodically by faint jerks of the fishing hook.  It is the intermittancy of the meditation that caused the mixing of the thoughts with Thoreau’s active life about Walden Pond.  And it is precisely this blending of Being and Doing that causes the meaning of the Pond to grow.  Reality thus becomes a matter of perception, a continuous development of meaning in process, resulting from the interaction between the mind and the stimulus of its outer world.  It is because meaningful reality no longer depends upon the fruits of one’s own efforts, but rather upon a never-ceasing process, in which one’s own mind and being are stimulated and sustained by the natural world, that the previous frustration of constant seeking for an external end is overcome:

How then, can our harvest fail?  The true husbandman will cease from anxiety, as the squirrels manifest no concern whether the woods will bear chestnuts this year or not, and finish his labor with every day, relinquishing all claims to the produce of his fields, and sacrificing in his mind not only his first but his last fruits also.  

The true harvest of Walden Pond is the steady accumulation of meanings that result from Thoreau’s thoughts about it.  The men who come seeking to possess the pond, to carry blocks of its ice away, to cool their summer drinks, find they have nothing left when summer comes, and the fruits of their efforts melt away.  By his serene dependence upon the pond itself, as stimulus for the powers of his own contemplative mind, Thoreau is able to possess the pond in the truest sense.  The constantly expanding meaning of the pond, as he watches it throughout the entire cycle of seasonal change, becomes, in fact, a symbol of his own growth.  Seeking not an end, but rather depending upon an interaction, Thoreau achieves a more lasting reward, of an enlargement of himself -- a “treasure” that will refresh his spirit and that of his reader, season after season.

Thoreau’s personal resolution was vitally relevant to the life of Nineteenth century America.  Its rapid material and technical growth represented the possibilities of exactly the interactive kind of occasion that opened human minds even further, in the ever-continuing process of learning about the whole.  Yet Thoreau warned that the railroad and commerce could prove opportunity for the unleashing of huge human potential only if they were regarded as “occasions” within the progress toward an even greater meaning, never if they were regarded as absolute ends, themselves.  For Thoreau, the railroad provoked overwhelming excitement; yet he realized that the “Iron-horse” was but the winged Pegasus of the “New Mythology,” that would be superseded by another, larger myth.  Instead of ever regarding it as an end, he treated it in an interactive way, crossing it “like a cart-path in the woods.”  He would take from it all of the widening and expanding thoughts that its gigantic stimulus could provoke.  But he would never allow its utterly determining those thoughts, which would mean having “my eyes put out and my ears spoiled by its smoke and steam and hissing.”  Nature had to assume a far greater role than particular contemporary advances in Thoreau’s book.  He continually called the attention of Americans to it, not as the escape represented by Sa’di’s Rose Garden, in The Gulistan, but in the larger sense of Nature as the entire outer world with which man interacted to enlarge his own meanings.  The natural world would remain long after the railroad was gone, continuing as the source of wider and wider visions.  Yet it could do so only if men remained receptive to it, considering it, rather than the symbolic confines of the Nineteenth century village, “our common dwelling.”

The ultimate problem presented by a concept of a reality that was constantly being created was the acceptance of the rule of time and continual change.  The paradox of Thoreau’s vision was that, in order to ensure the perpetual widening of human horizons, it had to consider the life of an individual man as but a link within the larger and continuing process of the whole.  He might well be considered as a controlling center of awareness, whose interaction gave the external details of the world a significant and ever-increasing meaning.  Yet a dangerous implication was that beyond performing the function of a catalyst in the process, he might possess little independent significance or identity of his own.  Thoreau managed to achieve a kind of solution to the problem, however, through the insight gained from his own life, that the meaningful interaction with Nature at a single, particular point was the beginning of a transcendence of the bounds of self that could lead one to a regard for the mystery and variety of the whole.  And man’s growing awe, as he interacted with this mystery and variety, could lead to the sense of a devotional relation toward its Maker.  Thus, he could live in the midst of process with a sense of identification with an ultimate whole

This sense of identification with the ultimate whole, however, was vague and transitory.  While Thoreau could allow room for the possibility of a Divinity, he never granted it a dominant emphasis.  The lasting identification that man could achieve between his own experience and the whole was in the humanistic realm of art.  Since reality for Thoreau was located in the interaction that occurred between the inner being and its external world, the only true “capturing” of reality was the recording of this interaction in a creative experience.  As an alert man worked upon the pure materials of nature he imposed upon them a representation of his growth.  The record of his expansion that occurred during the act of creation could constitute an enlargement of reality.  Only at the completion of the interaction of man with his material did the creation begin to seem divine.  Thoreau relates the legend of the artist from the city of Kouroo, who devoted his life to the making of a perfect staff:

When the finishing stroke was put to his work, it suddenly expanded before the eyes of the astonished artist into the fairest of all the creations of Brahma.  He had made a new system in making a staff, a world with full and fair proportion; in which, though the old cities and dynasties had passed away, fairer and more glorious ones had taken their places.  And now he saw by the heap of shavings still fresh at his feet, that, for him and his work, the former lapse of time had been an illusion, and that no more time had elapsed than is required for a single scintillation from the brain of Brahma to fall on and inflame the tinder of a mortal brain.  The material was pure, and his art was pure; how could the result be other than wonderful?

The “miracle” of artistic creation was that through a man’s growth by an interaction with the world, he might eventually “scale heaven at last.”

The works of Confucius, Sai’di, and the Hindu writers, with Thoreau’s other reading and the nature at Walden Pond, are the materials which represent the record of his own growth.  He regarded these writers’ true recordings of experience as tools (perhaps staffs) which aided in creating a valid and meaningful experience of his own.  His sense of kinship with them as others who sought the meaning of the world, and his concept of his own role within the process are suggested in his statement about borrowing:

“It is difficult to begin without borrowing, but perhaps it is the most generous course to permit your fellow-men to have an interest in your enterprise.  The owner of the axe, as he released his hold on it, said that it was the apple of his eye; but I returned it sharper than I received it.”