West Is Not Enough:”
An American Yankee’s Scaling Heaven Via Persian
and Eastern Quotations in Walden (PART II)
By: Melinda Barnhardt
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:
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.
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... .”
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.”
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
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:
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?
“miracle” of artistic creation was that through a man’s growth by an
interaction with the world, he might eventually “scale heaven at last.”
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: