Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Thoreau and Idealism: "Face to Face to a Fact"

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Thoreau and Idealism: "Face to Face to a Fact"

Article excerpt

In light of the recent critical emphasis on Thoreau's engagement with empirical studies of plant and animal life, it is crucial to see his increasing attention to the detail of the material world as one part of a larger project of categorization and explanatory theorizing about the unifying laws and structures of the universe. The intellectual ferment of Walden, the element that communicates so vividly a sense of philosophical breakthrough, is Thoreau's growing recognition that "fact" and "theory" are inextricably fused. A "fact" is always a bundle of relations, the product of a convergence of many entities and events. Thoreau found in Emerson's Nature less a denial of the reality and specificity of the material world than a theory that gave facts significance because of their interrelations. The recognition of nature as a changing, multifarious "phenomenon" of manifold relations takes us more deeply and securely into the world of facts rather than divorcing us from that world. The most crucial lessons of Walden are Thoreau's repeated enactments of the intimate connection between observation and synthesis.

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In light of the recent critical emphasis on Thoreau's engagement with empirical studies of plant and animal life, it is crucial to see his increasing attention to the detail of the material world as one part of a larger project of categorization and explanatory theorizing about the unifying laws and structures of the universe. Walden and the Journal are permeated with moments of observational intensity, moments that are not "mystical" or "transcendent" in any ordinary sense, but which certainly do not strike us as ordinary moments of perception, even in the context of close scientific observation. These interpretive encounters are legion, and include some of the most memorable moments of Walden, such as the description and symbolic personification of Walden in "The Ponds" and its measurement in "The Pond in Winter," the account of animal life in "Brute Neighbors," and the sand foliage passage in "Spring." These moments are marked by Thoreau's keen observational eye and his usually vivid account of the process by which he comes into fuller recognition of the world around him, a world to which, he implies, we should all be more attentive. But they display not only by an arresting sense of detail, but a concomitant desire to reach for a more comprehensive category of explanation for the particular phenomenon. Thoreau consistently tries to see a particular fact or event not as a random or unique occurrence but as indicative of a more comprehensive idea or law. "Men esteem truth remote," he writes, "in the outskirts of the system, behind the farthest star, before Adam and after the last man. In eternity there is indeed something true and sublime. But all these times and places and occasions are now and here. God himself culminates in the present moment, and will never be more divine in the lapse of all the ages" (Wa 96-97). (1)

Such a conception neither denigrates nor subordinates "facts" and their study, nor does it refuse the intellectual task of categorization, generalization, and system-building. The intellectual ferment of Walden, the element that communicates so vividly a sense of philosophical breakthrough, is Thoreau's growing recognition that "fact" and "theory" are inextricably fused, that the observation or close reading of detail is the entry point of comprehensive and ordered knowledge. A "fact" is always a bundle of relations, the product of a convergence of many entities and events. To "know" a particular fact, he saw with increasing clarity and excitement, is to be given a glimpse into a much wider array of processes and circumstances, an event that is revelatory in every sense.

"If you stand right fronting and face to face to a fact, you will see the sun glimmer on both of its surfaces, as if it were a cimeter, and feel its sweet edge dividing you through the heart and marrow, so you will happily conclude your mortal career" (Wa 98). …

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