Guy Davenport writes in “The Concord Sonata,” his mingling of essay and story collected in A Table of Green Fields (1993):
“We lose not our innocence or our youth or opportunity but our nature itself, atom by atom, helplessly, unless we are kept in possession of it by the spirit of a culture passed down the generations as tradition, the great hearsay of the past.”
“The Concord Sonata” is a meditation on that cryptic passage in Walden in which Thoreau recounts his loss of “a hound, a bay horse, and a turtledove,” and his long search to recover them. Davenport glosses “this beautiful parable” with the help of a passage written by the Confucian philosopher Mencius (372-289 B.C.) that Thoreau may have read.
The scholarly acuity of Davenport’s conclusion doesn’t concern me here, though I’ve spent decades pondering the teasing multiplicity of meanings Thoreau packs into so small a space. Rather, it’s the sentence quoted above, in particular “the great hearsay of the past,” that haunts me the way Thoreau haunted Davenport. In his next sentence Davenport writes: “Thoreau was most himself when he was Diogenes.” It’s this embodiment of tradition, of being most ourselves when we enter the thought of another, an act of sympathetic imaginative projection, I find most interesting and, finally, at my age, comforting and true. Davenport describes Diogenes as “an experimental moralist” – a precise characterization of Thoreau.
When young, each of us is Adam. We mistake ignorance for vision and sincerity for truth. We’re taught from every direction and remain proudly unteachable. Age, of course, confers no guarantee of remission from this state. Old fools are nearly as common as young ones. Without a living tradition, an elective affinity with the past, we vaporize, “atom by atom, helplessly.”
This meditation on “the great hearsay of the past” started not with Davenport, Thoreau or Diogenes, but James Boswell, something he reports in his Life of Johnson:
“I mentioned that I was afraid I put into my journal too many little incidents. Johnson: `There is nothing, Sir, too little for a creature as man. It is by studying little things that we attain the great art of having as little misery and as much happiness as possible.’”