Friday, October 04, 2013

`We Begin to Know'

“It is only when we forget all our learning that we begin to know. I do not get nearer by a hair’s breadth to any natural object so long as I presume that I have an introduction to it from some learned man. To conceive of it with a total apprehension I must for the thousandth time approach it as something totally strange.” 

Because it is strange, as is everything in creation, unprecedented and one-of-a-kind, though indistinguishable from a million others just like it. My truest teacher, whom I met in person only once, insisted that we look at things attentively, putting assumptions and pre-judgment (prejudice) aside for the moment, and genuinely see, perhaps for the first time. It’s not easy. Then we draw upon what we know, our learning, formal and otherwise. In the passage above, Thoreau almost has it right. 

“If you would make acquaintance with the ferns you must forget your botany. You must get rid of what is commonly called knowledge of them. Not a single scientific term or distinction is the least to the purpose, for you would fain perceive something, and you must approach the object totally unprejudiced. You must be aware that no thing is what you have taken it to be. In what book is this world and its beauty described? Who has plotted the steps toward the discovery of beauty?” 

After his initial show of Yankee common sense, Thoreau goes off the deep end of self-reliance and segues seamlessly into Transcendentalist mumbo-jumbo: 

“You have got to be in a different state from common. Your greatest success will be simply to perceive that such things are, and you will have no communication to make to the Royal Society. If it were required to know the position of the fruit-dots or the character of the indusium, nothing could be easier than to ascertain it; but if it is required that you be affected by ferns, that they amount to anything, signify anything, to you, that they be another sacred scripture and revelation to you, helping to redeem your life, this end is not so surely accomplished.” 

Thoreau has a horror of the “common.” Like our day's progressives, reformers and scolds, he’s a closet aristocrat.  His is a religion of the self, the least reliable of deities. We don’t learn the anatomy and physiology of the fern in order to save our souls. 

“In the one case, you take a sentence and analyze it, you decide if it is printed in large primer or small pica; if it is long or short, simple or compound, and how many clauses it is composed of; if the i’s are all dotted, or some for variety without dots; what color and composition of the ink and the paper; and it is considered a fair or mediocre sentence accordingly, and you assign its place among the sentences you have seen and kept specimens of. But as for the meaning of the sentence, that is as completely overlooked as if it had none. This is the Chinese, the Aristotelian, method. But if you should ever perceive the meaning you would disregard all the rest.” 

We hear the familiar self-righteous posturing of the crank. The quoted passages are from Thoreau’s journal entry for this date, Oct. 4, in 1859. Twelve days later, John Brown and his followers raided the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry. On Oct. 30, Thoreau delivered a speech in Concord in defense of Brown, later revising it into the essay “A Plea for Captain John Brown.” Thoreau compares Brown, who was responsible for the deaths of at least twenty-three people, to Christ, and the federal government to Pontius Pilate. It may be the most morally stupid thing Thoreau, a very bright man, ever wrote.


George said...

A very little time before Brown's raid, Thoreau devoted a couple of pages to making fun of the Massachusetts militia muster. When the Civil War began, it was worth a great deal to Lincoln to have drilled and equipped regiments from Massachusetts on the way.

Vincent said...

I think I like this post best out of yours that I have read. I like the Thoreau quotes that you like, for the same reasons.

But being an Englishman, I know little of John Brown except that his body lies a-mould'ring in the grave. I could imagine that his detractors would be strongest in the South; and that the fierce battle-lines of the Civil War created a similar divide about his memory or his legacy. So I wonder if there's a partisan bias to be acknowledged alongside your verdict.

And when you speak of "Transcendentalist mumbo-jumbo" I'm not clear whether you mean that transcendentalism is ipso facto mumbo-jumbo, or perhaps that transcendentalism, though much to be admired in other ways, has the occasional unfortunate tendency to descend into mumbo-jumbo.

I write not to dispute with you but in hopes of better understanding the viewpoint which underlies your judgment.