Henry David Thoreau and the Moral Agency of Knowing

By Alfred I. Tauber | Go to book overview
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Three Apple Trees

Though I am old enough to have discovered that the dreams of youth are not to be realized in this state of existence yet I think it would be the next greatest happiness always to be allowed to look under the eyelids of time and contemplate the perfect steadily with the clear understanding that I do not attain to it.

Thoreau, October 24, 1843,
Journal 1, 1981, p. 480

Before A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, before Walden, before the developed years of the Journal, key themes appear in Thoreau's notes that assure us that the abiding concerns articulated in these more mature works had already been framed in embryo. To be sure, Thoreau developed, modulated, and focused upon particular theses and questions as he evolved (e.g., Richardson 1986; Milder 1995), and these demonstrate both his varying psychological states and his growing intellectual maturity and insight. But beneath this movement was a foundation which grounded his thought. 1 A key support of this conceptual edifice, perhaps its very platform, was his search for an aesthetic or spiritual ideal. Whether we define him within the context of a Transcendental idealism, or a less well formulated philosophical program or poetic orientation, Thoreau was, in common parlance, a dreamer. And in dreams, time is suspended. Conversely, in consciousness, time is not only “present”; it is an obstacle to be overcome. Thoreau's reveries, his mystical excursions, his fascination with Hinduism, his experiences communing with nature were all expressions of an unencumbered temporality, where the swings of everyday life, the cycle of hours, days, and seasons—the flux of time's contingency—were suspended. In the sense of acknowledging his rootedness in time, he would seek to situate himself within time's cycle, as discussed in the preceding chapter. But there was another agenda afoot: Thoreau would pursue some perfection, a permanence, an unchanging reality “under the eyelids of time.” Time would “dream” of itself; history would be deferred; memory would be arrested in the present. In this respect, time must be tamed, for awareness of temporality and change, the marks of time, counterpoised the mystical ideal, the “perfect” that knows no change. “Indeed, a consciousness of history only strengthens Thoreau's desire to escape it” (Milder 1995, p. 32). History in


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