“The oldest Egyptian or Hindoo philosopher raised a corner of the veil from the statue of the divinity; and still the trembling robe remains raised, and I gaze upon as fresh a glory as he did, since it was I in him that was then so bold, and it is he in me that now reviews the vision.”Walden, Or, Life in the Woods (71) 1Thoreau, Henry David. “Walden”. Walden, Civil Disobedience, and Other Writing: Authoritative Texts, Journal, Reviews and Posthumous Assessment, Criticism, 3rd ed., W. W. Norton & Company, 2008, pp. 5–224.
One of the books that I never stop loving and wanting to unpack is Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. In particular, the above-quoted text taken from the chapter “Reading” poses a series of interesting questions on language and the relationship between reader and writer which I would like to briefly analyse here. In this chapter, Thoreau invites us to look, to consider the written word and its link to nature and time. I believe that the metaphor of the veil in this chapter of Walden can tell us a lot about Thoreau’s idea of language and the ability of the written word to create a bond between writer and reader which transcends time and brings humanity closer to “heaven”. In this post I am going to ponder these questions, in the hope of raising “a corner of the veil” of Thoreau’s writing to uncover, even if only partially, the close relationship he envisaged between writer, reader, Nature, and time.
Firstly, it is interesting to notice how the metaphor of the veil quoted above is brought forward implicitly in the rest of the chapter, where Thoreau repeatedly refers to the written word, and in particular to what he considers the “classics”, as printed in a “rare and curious” letter, like “stars” that are hidden “behind the clouds”. In other words, such texts seem to hide something which is only accessible to those who have learnt how to look by exerting an effort. In fact, later on in the chapter Thoreau proposes what could be perceived as practical ways to achieve this, by advocating the creation of “uncommon schools” that will train men (and interestingly he adds women too) to read “deliberately”. It is worth noting here Thoreau’s choice of the word “deliberately”, whose original meaning is “weight well” — from the Latin libra, scale, which indicates a balancing act.2“Origin and Meaning of Deliberate.” Online Etymology Dictionary www.etymonline.com/word/deliberate. Accessed 13 May 2021. As if Thoreau were suggesting that reading and understanding the classics is a balancing act, something that demands great care and proper consideration in order to enable one to penetrate their profound meaning. For Thoreau, reading the classics is a careful, conscious endeavour made by people who are willing to put the effort necessary to probe the depths of their words. In this sense, I would argue that the veil evoked by Thoreau can be read as the metaphorical relationship between reader and writer, between the “I” and “him” of the quote above. The writer of classics expresses their truth with words, while the reader is tasked to understand these words meticulously if they are to unpack the meaning carried by them.
In fact, Barbara Johnson3Johnson, Barbara. “A Hound, a Bay Horse, and a Turtle Dove: Obscurity in Walden.” Walden, Civil Disobedience, and Other Writing: Authoritative Texts, Journal, Reviews and Postumous Assessment, Criticism, 3rd ed., W. W. Norton & Company, 2008, pp. 482–89. warns us of the many puzzling metaphors and obscure prose that Walden itself presents to its readers, and asks why the same author who advocates for simplicity wrote some of the most terse, impenetrable passages of American prose (482). Is he creating a veil to be lifted? Johnson points to a very interesting passage in which Thoreau asks his reader to “pardon [him] some obscurities” (qtd. in Johnson 485), whose meaning is not withheld on purpose but whose impenetrability is “inseparable from its [the trade of being a writer] very nature” (qtd. in Johnson 485). In short, Thoreau seems to admit how by its own nature, writing must be obscure as it deals with something so difficult to discern clearly that it must mirror this unknown with a certain degree of obscurity. Therefore, the veil it creates is not a conscious effort of the writer to purposefully hide the message, but rather a necessity required by the very act of writing about something that is unknown and uncharted. It is then the task of the reader to understand what these writings point to, and perpetuate the search for meaning in order to continue the work started by previous generations. As Johnson puts it, Thoreau is “urging us passionately to follow the tracks of we know not quite what” (486), in order one day to be able to understand it fully and “scale heaven at last” (Walden 74).
Indeed, reading in its purest and noblest form, says Thoreau, is a “noble intellectual exercise”, and therefore requires a lifetime of training to be perfected. However, in his democratic view, Thoreau does not see this is as the leisurely pleasure of a selected few. Instead, he envisaged a future American society where everyone can be trained to read classics, which in his vision would be widely available to anyone who is up for the task. But what is this hidden, obscure meaning carried by writing, which could open the doors of heaven to humankind? What lies behind the veil? Thoreau, in his peculiarly cryptic style, gives us some clues that, in pure Transcendentalist fashion, this might indeed be Nature itself.
The first clue comes at the beginning of the chapter, where Thoreau points out how the place where he is living, isolated from other humans in the middle of Nature, is a place more favourable to “serious reading” than a university. He admits of having had little time to read, but also of finally finding the peace and solitude necessary for more intensive and deliberate reading at Walden. I see this as a first, subtle link between the “noblest recorded thoughts of men” and Nature itself. It seems to be Nature which helps to remove the veil of human things and which allows the engaged, deep reading that the classics deserve. In fact, as Carl J. Dull4Dull, Carl J. “Zhuangzi and Thoreau: Wandering, Nature, and Freedom.” Journal of Chinese Philosophy, vol. 39, no. 2, 2012, pp. 222–39. Wiley Online Library, doi: doi.org/10.1111/j.1540-6253.2012.01715.x. notes, “Nature, for Thoreau, continually rebukes the stagnation of thought that defines conventional wisdom, challenging us to surrender our inveterate beliefs and routine habits” (223). Once humans realise of being part of nature, and not separate from it, the untamed essence of nature informs a fresh look on things, which brings about new intuitions and new understandings (Dull 231). In other words, it is by immersing ourselves in the environment surrounding us that we can think and read more profoundly than we ever could while surrounded by the biased ideas and conventions of civilisation.
To take this a step further, we could say that in Thoreau’s views Nature itself is a book to be read as it is intrinsically linguistic in its essence. As Dieter Schultz points out (130),5Schultz, Dieter. “Nature, Knowledge, and the Method of Thoreau’s Excursions”. Thoreauvian Modernities: Transatlantic Conversations on an American Icon, by François Specq et al., University of Georgia Press, 2013, pp. 130–39. Nature is system of symbols and a symbol in itself, but a symbol that is not a metaphor and that does not require interpretation to be read, but rather — once again — careful reading. In this, nature shares some features with the classics, as they both reveal symbols which require deliberate reading to be understood (i.e. one studies nature by observing it carefully as one reads the classics by pondering every word carefully). Hence, the written word becomes an expression of Nature itself, that can be penetrated only when the burden (or veil) of civilisation is lifted through a conscious and careful effort. So can we conclude that it is Nature itself speaking through the written word of the classics?
Schultz seems to think so when he describes Thoreau’s idea of language as “an intrinsic bond between words and things” (133). Going against what will later be postulated by Saussure regarding the arbitrariness of the link between a sound and the concept it represents, Thoreau (as well as Emerson and other Transcendentalists) postulates a “natural language” (133), that is to say a language which is closely linked to nature and is somehow part of it. According to Schultz, Thoreau’s theorisations would be in line with the findings of contemporary phonosemantics (whose father is considered Charles Sanders Peirce), a blooming field in linguistics which draws connections between certain sounds, words, grammatical or syntactical structures and the concept they represent (133). In other words, language, and in particular the written language, Thoreau seems to specify, represents the truth of Nature by being Nature, hence we can infer it to express something which is timeless (like Nature) and whose validity cannot be questioned.
The link between Nature, the classics, and time becomes more explicit when Thoreau compares the great works of literature and religion to the oracles of Delphi and Dodona, i.e. to great revelations of the past that we must listen to as they have something to say to us, women and men of the future. In fact, Thoreau pushes the parallel further by adding ironically that “we might as well omit to study Nature because she is old” (72). By establishing the parallel between Nature, which is old but still deserves to be studied, and the classics, Thoreau is pointing to a clear interrelation between the two, and to the idea of time and timelessness. Having voluntarily isolated himself at Walden Pond, a place which was geographically between the town of Concord and the wilderness surrounding it, Thoreau finds stillness in Nature (symbolised by the quiet waters of the pond ) and describes in Walden a sort of constant present moment, a time caught between two eternities, past and future, which becomes itself eternal through the written word (Guthrie 131).6Guthrie, James R. “The Walking Stick, the Surveyor’s Staff, and The Corn in the Night — Thoreau’s Alternative Temporal Indices.” Above Time: Emerson’s & Thoreau’s Temporal Revolutions, University of Missouri Press, 2001, pp. 131-172. In his liminal physical position, caught between nature and civilisation, Thoreau seems to ponder whether time can also be seen as a space, a boundary between the two eternities mentioned above, hence another type of liminal space (Guthrie 132).7See Guthrie for an interesting theorisation of time in Walden and the concept of Thoreauvian interval. It is in this space between civilisation and wilderness, between past and future, that Thoreau finds a place to give free reign to his creativity, and that conscious, careful effort is met by the unconscious creative process (Guthrie 132) to compose the written text which will speak to generations to come (myself included!).
The implication here seems to be that the classics, like Nature, say something eternal by eclipsing time,8There might even be here a suggestion that the written word can transcend space as well, but that is another object of enquiry which I will not go into here or having in any case a time of their own: “the writer … speaks to the intellect and health of mankind, to all in any age who can understand him” (emphasis mine, 73). In this passage, the written word seems to be fixed in time: it speaks to anyone at any age, and allows the reader to enter in dialogue with the ideas and messages expressed by the writer through language by virtue of its nature, no matter how distant in time and space the two might be. That is to say that if today, in the 21st century, we read Homer — or Thoreau — deliberately, the time between then (when they wrote those words) and now (the time when we read them) is eclipsed, the relationship that we establish with their words become eternal and not bound to a specific place or time. In other words, the writer and the reader through the written language, which for Thoreau is part of Nature as I have shown above, create a connection which transcends time since, as Thoreau himself writes at the beginning of the chapter, “that time which we really improve, or which is improvable, is neither past, present nor future” (71).
In conclusion, Thoreau seems to imply that, in Nature and through Nature, humankind can confront and enter into a dialogue with the classics, which as I have demonstrated above, are one with Nature. Through deliberate reading, one can see and therefore attempt to lift the veil that covers the path the writers of such classics have laid down for us. The path might not be completely clear, but it is the readers’ task to try to walk this trail and see where it leads them. In doing so, the reader establishes a relationship with the writer through the written language, a relationship which eclipses time and helps pave the way to “scale heaven at last” (74). Isn’t this exactly what Thoreau is doing?
- 1Thoreau, Henry David. “Walden”. Walden, Civil Disobedience, and Other Writing: Authoritative Texts, Journal, Reviews and Posthumous Assessment, Criticism, 3rd ed., W. W. Norton & Company, 2008, pp. 5–224.
- 2“Origin and Meaning of Deliberate.” Online Etymology Dictionary www.etymonline.com/word/deliberate. Accessed 13 May 2021.
- 3Johnson, Barbara. “A Hound, a Bay Horse, and a Turtle Dove: Obscurity in Walden.” Walden, Civil Disobedience, and Other Writing: Authoritative Texts, Journal, Reviews and Postumous Assessment, Criticism, 3rd ed., W. W. Norton & Company, 2008, pp. 482–89.
- 4Dull, Carl J. “Zhuangzi and Thoreau: Wandering, Nature, and Freedom.” Journal of Chinese Philosophy, vol. 39, no. 2, 2012, pp. 222–39. Wiley Online Library, doi: doi.org/10.1111/j.1540-6253.2012.01715.x.
- 5Schultz, Dieter. “Nature, Knowledge, and the Method of Thoreau’s Excursions”. Thoreauvian Modernities: Transatlantic Conversations on an American Icon, by François Specq et al., University of Georgia Press, 2013, pp. 130–39.
- 6Guthrie, James R. “The Walking Stick, the Surveyor’s Staff, and The Corn in the Night — Thoreau’s Alternative Temporal Indices.” Above Time: Emerson’s & Thoreau’s Temporal Revolutions, University of Missouri Press, 2001, pp. 131-172.
- 7See Guthrie for an interesting theorisation of time in Walden and the concept of Thoreauvian interval.
- 8There might even be here a suggestion that the written word can transcend space as well, but that is another object of enquiry which I will not go into here