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Book Review: Thoreau's Religion...


Alan D. Hodder, Thoreau's Ecstatic Witness. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.
355 pp. $35.00 hardcover.

Reviewed by Randall Conrad. Thoreau Society Bulletin, fall 2002.

Throughout his life, especially as a young man, Henry Thoreau experienced intense moments when he felt a transcendent oneness – the unity of the universe revealed. Unutterable by their very nature, these mystical episodes found more or less mediated expression throughout Thoreau’s writings. For the most part, commentators have gingerly isolated Thoreau’s mystical “moments” and set them to one side, so as not to disturb their analytic framework. (Thus Alfred Tauber: “his mystical moments notwithstanding, Thoreau is caught in the web of his own self-consciousness.”)

But what if this transcendent vision were so vital and pervasive that it could be detected nearly everywhere – in virtually any of Thoreau’s works, informing both content and style?

That is the premise of this lucid study, which Alan Hodder grounds in the “curiously bifurcated vision or double consciousness” that he says characterizes Thoreau’s life and art. Sifting passages from all periods, Hodding traces the many appearances and aspects of a lifelong spiritual state which, following Thoreau, he calls ecstasy (literally, standing beside oneself).

Nowadays, we Thoreauvians are comfortable with the loose-fitting term “spirituality” in talking about Thoreau’s transcendentalist-influenced values, but it isn’t enough; Hodding insists on the word “religion.” True, the seer of Walden was notoriously averse to doctrines, creeds and institutions, and his belief system was a subjective one, but it was a religion all the same because it was grounded in the idea of a deity.

Thoreau’s God is not personalized like the scriptural Jehovah, but is instead “an immanent and divine ‘IT,’” as Hodder writes. “This divine reality is neither he nor she, above nor beyond, past nor future, but is now timelessly here. Even more unusual is the mediating role performed by the senses. Not only is sensory experience affirmed, here the senses serve as the veritable channels of divine inspiration.” Thus, Hodder concludes, Thoreau originated “an ecstatic religion of nature for which there had been no precedent till that time in American religious history.”

Thoreau’s Ecstatic Witness traces the evolution of this unique individual religion from a youthful transcendental idealism (“a soul mysticism of pure consciousness, more reminiscent of the Upanishads than theistic Christian mysticism”) to the “more characteristic transcendental naturalism” of his maturity.

In the latter mode, according to Hodder, Thoreau constantly sought “to represent ecstasy as a progressive identification of consciousness with natural forms.” Accordingly, Hodder takes pains to explore the symbolism of those natural forms, such as Walden Pond’s reflective surface, that Thoreau associates with doubleness. He explicates the multiple implications of Thoreau’s “ecstatic puns” on words such as intervals in “Walking” and extravagant in Walden. Hodding characterizes four types of rhetorical device by which Thoreau, particularly in Walden, manifests his disjunctive vision: enigma, confrontation, deliberation, and paradox.

Hodder devotes considerable space to a thoughtful examination of the influence of Asian belief systems. Although the Concord philosophers necessarily had access only to the limited range of Hindu scriptures then available in translation, they thoroughly absorbed these new religious insights. Notably, Hodder argues, Hindu literature helped Thoreau rise above the seeming contradiction between the two polarities of his own being: “Asceticism and sensuality were not so much opposing impulses as different expressions of the same generative energy. The ascetic life was attended by its own set of pleasures.”

From 1850 till his death in 1862, Thoreau dedicated his journal-keeping primarily to natural-history observation, employing increasingly impersonal writing styles. To early commentators, this was evidence of a decline in Thoreau’s creative inspiration – a biographical stereotype today discarded. From an epistemological standpoint, some contemporary philosophers have debated whether Thoreau’s late journal-keeping represents a direct effort at “writing nature” – and if so, whether he achieved this goal (as Sharon Cameron contends) or whether it is inherently unattainable (as Tauber declares).

Like these, Hodder examines Thoreau’s intent “to write himself, in effect, deliberately out of the picture” in the nature-journalizing of the late period, but he has found a more rewarding mode of inquiry. By viewing Thoreau’s journal overall as “the principal medium of his spiritual life,” Hodder is able to conceive the twenty-year diary as a religious activity at bottom, and to present Thoreau’s composition of even the seemingly dry or unfocused late-period entries as a “meditative practice” in its own right. The ingenious, absorbing interpretation of Thoreau’s late journal that concludes Hodder’s study is a rich and powerful contribution to lines of insightful modern scholarship pioneered by Daniel Peck, Laura Walls and Michael Benjamin, among others. No wonder the Thoreau Society selected this outstanding thinker (he teaches religion and literature at Hampshire College and is the author of the earlier Emerson’s Rhetoric of Revelation) as keynote speaker for its 2002 Gathering.

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Updated July 15 2011