In the Mo(u)rning:
Questioning the Privations of the Private (Thoreau, Emerson, Cavell)
American Literature Association Annual Conference, May 31, 2002
David Justin Hodge, Ph.D.
“Why should I feel lonely? is not our planet in the Milky Way?” —Thoreau, “Solitude,” Walden
“No one will forgive us now for wasting the dawn.” —Jim Morrison
In conversation, Jennifer Gurley emphasized a line from Emerson’s Address to the Divinity School at Cambridge: “Evil is merely privative, not absolute.” With reference to Thoreau’s Walden, I wondered: Is Thoreau’s privacy at Walden Pond a form of privation, or does his solitary experience convert inherited notions of “being alone” and “doing without” into invitations for a model of consciousness that divests deprivations of their conventional weight (both morally and psychologically)? Taking a cue from Stanley Cavell’s account of Thoreau’s luminous puns on morning/mourning, the latter explanation refrains both more intelligibly, and more likely. In particular, Thoreau’s conception of morning—as a space of renewal and awakening—becomes a response to doubts about the hazards of privacy, and other forms of privation.
Thoreau uses the words “morning” and “work” eighty-seven times each in Walden. In this coincidence of equal usage, we encounter the phrase “morning work.” Thoreau describes this as the work we should be doing. But there is a complication: we are asleep (“slumbering” as Thoreau likes to put it). With Emerson and Thoreau’s responses to philosophical skepticism, with Cavell’s reading of the same, ought we to take this disorientation (fueled by self-doubt, doubts about others and the external world) as something to be mourned? This question takes the form of asking whether being lost/being at loss, or losing the world (or oneself or others) are tragedies of privation. Given this risk—say of losing oneself or one’s world—how can the privative (as some form of lack, denial, absence) bear on one’s experience of being alone (viz., private)? Thoreau’s reply to skepticism (and its privations) is found, I argue, in his notion of morning work—where such work entails waking up.
If Thoreau achieved his (morning work)—and his book appears to be just such a record (or recollection)—then what use has he (if any) of others (and they of him)? Thoreau repeatedly insists that he has found a new (nonhuman) community in nature, and it is to this world that he is beholden. Thoreau defends this conversion by saying that being without others is not a privation. It is the presence of something else. “Every little pine needle expanded and swelled with sympathy and befriended me.” Consider this related to Emerson’s notion of compensation, where nature (e.g., its order and laws) might fill spaces that would otherwise be voids. Thoreau does not feel the absence of others as a privation (and therefore as something to mourn) because he has found his morning work in the woods.
In “Shelter,” Thoreau—anticipating Heidegger—refigures the house as a space of dwelling, not a site for storing things [See “Building Dwelling Thinking”]. Indeed, such space is not drawn together for constraint (or protection), but for clearing:
At present our houses are cluttered and defiled with it, and a good housewife would sweep out the greater part into the dust hole, and not leave her morning’s work undone. Morning work! By the blushes of Aurora and the music of Memnon, what should be man’s morning work in this world? (31)
Thoreau italicizes the phrase. If being human is not first domestic, what then? —One that is unencumbered by made things, or by the concealing of the clearing. Thus, the human is first natural. To find human “morning work,” entails taking heed of the things Thoreau is adducing in his first few dozen pages: accounting for things in order to go on from them.
Soon after, Thoreau allegorizes this exchange—say, of the customary for the natural—by pitching us the idea that we aren’t yet awake (which isn’t quite to say we’re dead, but is almost an insinuation that we’re not yet born). Morning hasn’t happened for us.
Every morning was a cheerful invitation to make my life of equal simplicity, and I may say innocence, with Nature herself (72-3).
Later he will return to this:
The indescribable innocence and beneficence of Nature,—of sun and wind and rain, of summer and winter,—such health, such cheer, they afford forever! (112)
The morning purifies (“innocence”) as it enlivens (“cheers”).
Then he returns to the clearing that makes memory possible, as if remembering and waking were stimulating and sustained by the dawn:
The morning, which is the most memorable season of the day, is the awakening hour (73).
. . . All memorable events, I should say, transpire in morning time and in a morning atmosphere.
The awakening hour is the time in which we see what “we fell asleep from.” Emerson is partial to Lethe, and never speaks with confidence that we are drinkers enough to survive our imbibing [See “Experience”].
Thoreau chastises those who have not entered the time of the “auroral hour” (73). One who has not come to this consciousness, this intelligence (he later asks “Shall I not have intelligence with the earth?” (112)) “has despaired of life, and is pursuing a descending and darkening way” (73).
But through the clearing that dwelling makes possible, and the memory that is born of consciousness, the objective bears itself straight away as making the day “a perpetual morning.”
“Morning is when I am awake and there is a dawn in me” (74). To be possessed of or by dawn pledges affinity to Wittgenstein’s notion that in coming to see the world anew, we undergo the “dawn” (or dawning) of an aspect [See the Philosophical Investigations, Part II]. This is precisely what we mean by saying “it just dawned on me.” What dawned, what was awakened, what experienced a morning, was this consciousness or intelligence.
Thoreau makes this possession into a prerequisite not just for evaluation, but valuation. A necessary condition for change is being awake to see it (when it comes, happens, is made). Thus . . . “Moral reform is the effort to throw off sleep” (74). This ejection is also a deception. Waking up is a way of riddance (or forgetting), and a way of coming to a consciousness that others cannot see (or perceive, or remember). Thoreau has said that he loves to be alone (110). If he should wake up, this will not be a choice of affection, but a consequence of his rare conversion.
The millions are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, only one in a hundred millions to a poetic or divine life.
With our population of “hundred millions,” we might, therefore, be able to anoint two or so to this “poetic or divine life.” (Without being coy or desultory, Emerson and Thoreau might be sufficient inhabitants of this role). Still, what meager promise for the rest of us. When Cavell asks “Is moral perfectionism inherently elitist?” Thoreau’s passage comes to mind. If moral reform is contingent upon wakefulness, and a few of the multitude are capable of this, what says Thoreau for those—the herd—who remain asleep? That is, for those for whom dawn has not yet broke?
To be awake is to be alive. I have never yet met a man who was quite awake (74).
The conceit of the Enlightenment, one could say, was charming us to the indefinite extent to which consciousness might be enlarged. But being awake in this manner, being conscious to this degree, yields a peculiar sort of life—a life that is not so much the beneficiary of a privileged perception, but the victim of an unrelenting insomnia. In exhaustive consciousness one becomes exhausted, awake but no longer capable of being aware. Though my eyes are open, I cannot see. And if I can see, I cannot remember.
A year before Thoreau began his experiment, Emerson wrote in “Experience,” with overt Platonic imagery, that this condition is not elective, but constitutional. And not one fitted for amendment.
But the Genius which, according to the old belief, stands at the door by which we enter, and gives us the lethe to drink, that we may tell no tales, mixed the cup too strongly, and we cannot shake off the lethargy now at noonday (Essays and Lectures, 471).
Emerson keeps a genealogy of language on the surface of his prose, and so it is not difficult for us to see (in this case because of proximity) that lethe (as a clouding or blurring substance) might have something to do with lethargy. To be lethargic is to be both forgetful (lethe) and idle (argos). And so our imbibing—taken here as an existential consummation—renders us hapless, at the mercy of this tonic (our willed toxin). In his essay “The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking,” Heidegger says as much about philosophy, a practice that, in his words, “does not heed the clearing of Being” (443). But, as Heidegger contends, “in that clearing rests possible radiance, that is, the possible presencing of presence itself” (445). What cannot be “shaken off,” then, is our habit of taking aletheia as truth, instead of as the condition of truth. Heidegger writes:
Why is aletheia not translated with the usual name, with the word “truth”? The answer must be:
. . . aletheia, unconcealment in the sense of the clearing, may not be equated with truth. Rather, aletheia, unconcealment thought as clearing, first grants the possibility of truth. For truth itself, like Being and thinking, can be what it is only in the element of the clearing (446).
Noonday is certainly after morning. Indeed, for Emerson, it can also mean midlife (he was forty-one when he wrote the sentence—and died just this side of eighty). The incapacity of perception disallows memory, and so Thoreau’s insistence that “all memorable events” happen in the morning would square with the fact that by lunch, we have (already) forgotten those waking hours. If we keep to the timeline of human life, the “morning of life” is the precinct of children. And Thoreau is not a child, and has (and will have) no children, but imagines that the morning will restore to him “innocence”—as if to begin again, be born again. —For many, though, doesn’t such restoration mean an initial birth, and not a secondary one? To what extent does being alive mean being awake? It’s common enough to our ears that there is a difference between “being alive” (as a biological description) and “living” (as a critical comment on one’s style), so might there be between being born, and being awake?
But for Thoreau in his Pond, the morning is a baptismal hour: “I got up early and bathed in the pond; that was a religious exercise, and one of the best things which I did” (73). Cavell has suggested that reading Walden is a kind of baptism: “This is immersion not in the water [of Walden Pond] but in the book of Walden” (The Senses of Walden, 17). A religious baptism, held in a church, is done once. A religious baptism, held in nature, must be repeated (as we make the disinfecting of our bodies a religious obsession at dawn, in our showers). Thoreau quotes from some writing on the side of a bathtub: “Renew thyself completely each day; do it again, and again, and forever again” (73). Yet, the bath water cannot dilute the lethe, and so, as adults we are weary. One imagines here the difference between how the child plays in the bath, while the adult passes through it as a chore. Here the shower (as a burden of civility—where I clean myself so as not to offend) does not speed me to consciousness, but only to my coffee. Thoreau dwells in his bath. The problem of bathing, like the problem of sleeping, is a problem for adults. We do not figure that either is our “morning work.”
Emerson accuses cloudy vision for the crisis of placement, again, a question of finding a dwelling where clearing is possible.
Sleep lingers all our lifetime about our eyes, as night hovers all day in the boughs of the fir-tree. All things swim and glitter. Our life is not so much threatened as our perception. Ghostlike we glide through nature, and should not know our place again (Essays and Lectures, 471).
Thoreau asserts a complementary image:
After a night’s sleep, the news is as indispensable as the breakfast. “Pray tell me any thing new that has happened to a man any where on this globe,”—and he reads it over his coffee and rolls, that a man has had his eyes gouged out this morning on the Wachito River; never dreaming the while that he lives in the dark unfathomed mammoth cave of this world, and has but the rudiment of an eye himself (76-7).
The question being whether there is a difference between the two men—one a literal icon, the other symbolic of a broader dispossession. Like Emerson, Thoreau puns his way to a question of subjectivity by using ocular imagery—an eye for an I. Both being awake and seeing (and their binary pairs: sleeping and blindness), center on the eye. With this trope all of the foregoing is not reduced to some coincidence of literary fancy, but enhanced to show sophisticated and sensitive replies to the enduring problematic of philosophical skepticism. One way of describing that history is to say that it is a perennial mediation on loss—or, termed slightly more dramatically: the tragedy of privation.
Loss implies the absence of a prior presence. And so, to say that I have lost the world conjures the habit of believing that I once had it—though, we’re more accustomed to say, knew it. But this isn’t quite the scenario Thoreau and Emerson have been painting with their metaphors of drinking lethe and bathing, waking and sleeping, seeing and being blind. Indeed, Thoreau and Emerson write of our epistemic condition as being one in which knowledge of the presence has not yet come into view—hardly a novel idea for two young Harvard graduates saturated in the Platonism of their day. Thus, to endure a tragedy of privation would mean to lose something known, or possessed, or otherwise present or presented. Yet, if these sleeping eyes admit anything, it’s that the world is still in question for us. Cavell has characterized this as “the threat of skepticism,” that is, “the possibility that the world we see is not the world as it is, that the world is not humanly knowable, or shareable” (Pursuits of Happiness, 271). If I don’t know the world, or, say know you, what can be said for my aspirations to share the world with you?
The idea of sharing experience is another way of describing the so-called “problem of other minds” that has been so persistently an epistemological puzzle (from Mill to Malcolm)—one that, we should note, is grounded, at last, on certain extraordinary uses of language, and by extension certain exceptional expressions of doubt and skepticism (Descartes stands out in this regard). For Wittgenstein, the problem with the problem of other minds is grammatical. Along the same lines, Nietzsche asked a few decades earlier: “Should philosophers be permitted to rise above faith in grammar?” (Beyond Good and Evil, “The Free Spirit,” 47). This question alone reveals the stakes of Wittgenstein’s consideration of the so-called private language argument. The possibility of sharing experience doesn’t lay in the concoction of individualized brands of Esperanto, but in the admission—however critically applied—that language and thought are one, and thus that the generation of meaning is an afterimage of language games, not the outgrowth of my private playing with grammar [See Philosophical Investigations, §329].
What sort of life does Thoreau take up at Walden? His neighbors believe it is some politics of asceticism. But is his life there a privation of basic necessities or the emphasis of them? Does his condition denote lack or the (better) use of what is supplied? Consider, for example, how much time he spends accounting for his goods and materials. There is an evident obsession with economy (indeed, this is where the book begins; we might say, where it awakens or dawns), but it seems a foreign or deeply idiosyncratic way of balancing one’s books. What may seem Thoreau’s frugality is, arguably, a sign of his mindfulness, which to say, a measure of his wakefulness. Cavell says that the “task of Walden as a whole” is to “discover how to earn and spend our most wakeful hours—whatever we are doing” (The Senses of Walden, 5). He continues: “morning may not be caused by sunrise, and may not happen at all” (ibid.). Thoreau’s implication is not heavily veiled, especially given that he dedicates more time to the subject of economy than to any other (it is the lengthiest chapter in his book): most live without having life dawn; economy—as an orientation of consciousness—thereby becomes a practice of accounting for being awake in the world, being born to account for it.
The ocular metaphors, usually coupled with topographical tropes, lend another angle to this topic. Concerning the fate of the eye/I, Emerson and Thoreau speak—depending on where you look (in their texts)—with the expectation of recovery, with acquiescence to a terminal situation, and with ambivalence. Yet, an agreement stands: we have lost something, and this puts us at a loss, and by consequence of this privation, we are lost. Emerson began “Experience” asking “Where do we find ourselves?” (Essays and Lectures, 471) Thoreau, in his chapter on “The Village,” provides a brief theory of how such finding gets done.
. . . [N]ot till we are completely lost, or turned around,—for a man needs only to be turned around once with his eyes shut in this world to be lost,—do we appreciate the vastness and strangeness of Nature. Every man has to learn the points of compass again as often as he awakes, whether from sleep or any abstraction. Not till we are lost, in other words, not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations (139).
This passage does a lot of work: it signals that the kind of thing Thoreau is up to in setting out to settle at Walden is precisely to “get lost” (one hears the phrase also as if Thoreau is a pest that society wished to be rid of); it reminds us that it takes very little for us to become disoriented, and once we are that it requires much labor to recover ourselves; it admonishes us to mark our way out of skepticism by taking notes (another way of accounting), which in turn will serve as a map (Walden, all of sudden, appears topographical—not as if it were written as a guide through the woods of Walden Pond, but as a guide through the thickets that define life); and perhaps most peculiarly, it tells us that the kind of discovery that we seek (e.g., self-discovery) is first about accounting for what is lost, and how we relate to its absence. How strange then that in assessing this loss, we are apprised of our possessions—namely, “the infinite extent of our relations.” Walden, therefore, is a journal of a man who lost the world in order to find himself (an inversion of Mark 8:36?), who, in other words, transformed his privacy and privation into a society and an abundance. It is now cliché to instruct the youth to “go away to find yourself.” The results vary. But one possibility is that in living without (people, things, the familiar) stimulates a new perception—an awakening—to what is present. This heightened consciousness makes it quite difficult to see anything but richness and diversity, potency and plenitude. One does not mourn what is lost, because the morn admits no loss. We simply cannot remember what it is we were supposed to be mourning. Again, “all memorable events, I should say, transpire in morning time and in a morning atmosphere.”
Listen as Thoreau shares how his privacy is not a privation:
I have never felt lonesome, or in the least oppressed by a sense of solitude, but once, and that was a few weeks after I came to the woods, when, for an hour, I doubted if the near neighborhood of man was not essential to a serene and healthy life. To be alone was something unpleasant. But I was at the same time conscious of a slight insanity in my mood, and seemed to foresee my recovery. In the midst of a gentle rain while these thoughts prevailed, I was suddenly sensible of such sweet and beneficent society in Nature . . . as made the fancied advantages of human neighborhood insignificant, and I have never thought of them since (107).
Being without others does not mean being alone. Nor does it mean feeling lonely: “Why should I feel lonely? is not our planet in the Milky Way?” (108).
Let us say, then, that Thoreau is comfortable with his solitariness, and that he is not troubled by various losses. This seems as much a result of confidence as insight, and they might both spring from the same ecstatic relation to being awake (if also, being without others). But can Thoreau’s stoical resolve be shared with others? Walden seems the most intuitive answer that it can. Though we can say with assurance that the text Walden is shared (copies can be handed out), to what degree can we say that his experience can be shared (copied)? Isn’t the point of Walden that the public is being denied, made outcast? Thoreau was not banished to the woods: he hired himself to the task. It was the public that was put out (though, by means of his recession (or, is it secession?) from them). Thoreau’s recession was anything but a collapse; the withdrawal was confirmation of new profits. And as history has made him, a new prophet.
Thoreau inverts the conventional lamentation that accompanies loss and lostness. Both privations are grounds for habitation and habilitation. He achieves this reversal by changing the criteria for, as Cavell has said, “living our skepticism” concerning the world and other minds [See The Claim of Reason, passim]. Descartes wanted to prove that others existed, and said that he existed because he thought (and said) he did. Thoreau has, it appears, no need of making these justifications. He is neither panicked by skepticism, nor solipsism, as he says:
We are the subjects of an experiment which is not a little interesting to me. Can we not do without the society of our gossips a little while under these circumstances,—have our own thoughts to cheer us? (109)
And soon after:
So also, owning to bodily and mental health and strength, we may be continually cheered by a like but normal and natural society, and come to know that we are never alone (111).
The fate of loss and being lost is not despondency, but inspiration—cheer. The consequence of privacy and privation is not isolation, but community—communion with nature.
I would like to conclude by thinking about how Thoreau’s experiment at Walden Pond ended—after two years, two months, and two days. Would it be odd, perhaps to the point of unsettling all that I have said, to say that Thoreau is called off the land, from the water, by others?
Emerson was about to set out for England to fulfill an invitation to give a series of lectures . Thoreau was invited (by Lidian, Emerson’s wife) to move in while Emerson was away. There was precedent for Thoreau to stay at Bush, but this was for a long period of time, and in Emerson’s absence. While Emerson was abroad—about ten months—Thoreau took over the Emerson house, living with Lidian and the children.
It is thus a privation—Emerson’s absence—that draws Thoreau off the land. I take this as a lesson in what Emerson terms “compensation”—what enables us to see tragedy and loss as positive influences (both presently and subsequently). Emerson writes:
Thereby I make the discovery that my brother is my guardian, acting for me with the friendliest designs, and the estate I so admired and envied is my own (Essays and Lectures, 301).
It is just this sort of converted perception that sees the “compensations of calamity.” Again Emerson:
The death of a dear friend, wife, brother, lover, which seemed nothing but privation, somewhat later assumes the aspect of a guide or genius (Essays and Lectures, 302).
If Thoreau succeeded in keeping to his morning work—even after returning to town—we should learn, then, of someone who fulfilled Emerson’s image of “the great man:” one “who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.” In this state, Thoreau finds communion when he is solitary, and solitude when he is a community. The burden left to us, therefore, is whether we can find a way to share Thoreau’s morning work. If we cannot, we are left, it seems, only with mourning work.
In mourning we study our privations, and dwell on their denials, omissions, and dreaded deprivations. But, in the morning we find the possibilities are not lost. “Little is to be expected of that day, if it can be called a day, to which we are not awakened by our Genius . . . to a higher life than we fell asleep from” (73). For Thoreau, mourning is easily shareable; morning is not. Emerson said that “I grieve that grief can teach me nothing, nor carry me one step into real nature” (Essays and Lectures, 473). That is a deserved grief—after the loss of a wife, a son, and two brothers—but it is also Walden stated in miniature. Real nature is not accessible through mourning, but rather through the morning: the space of awakening, the domain of cheer.
David Justin Hodge, Ph.D.
Copyright 2002 D. J. Hodge. Please e-mail the author for all permissions.
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Cavell, Stanley. The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality, and Tragedy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979/1999.
___________. The Senses of Walden: An Expanded Edition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1981.
___________. Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Essays and Lectures. New York: The Library of America, 1983.
Heidegger, Martin. Basic Writings. David Farrell Krell, ed. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1993, pp. 343-363, and 427-449.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil; Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future. Walter Kaufmann, tr. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.
Thoreau, Henry David. Walden; Or, Life in the Woods. New York: The Library of America, 1991.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. G.E.M. Anscombe, tr. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1953.
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