More on Thoreau


Further to Clayton’s and my own last post, there is another great passage from Thoreau, another powerful attack on moral and political compromise, from “Slavery in Massachusetts.”

This one, with its turning to the beauty of Nature in contrast with the ugliness of human-all-too-human-compromise, brings to mind one of the paragraphs Bob quoted in his post on Frye and The Funny: “A sense of humor, like a sense of beauty, is a part of reality, and belongs to the cosmetic cosmos: its context is neither subjective nor objective, because it’s communicable” (Late Notebooks, 1:227).

At the end of the Garden chapter in Words with Power, Frye writes: “The progress of criticism has a good deal to do with recognizing beauty in a greater and greater variety of phenomena and situations and works of art. The ugly, in proportion, tends to become whatever violates primary concern” (226-27).

Hence Thoreau’s recourse in the passage below to the aesthetics and beauty of nature, in contrast with which the violation of primary concern that is the morally disgusting reality of slavery appears all the more ugly and loathsome. Thoreau is always polarizing and separating. His images and rhetoric, to use Clayton’s words, ” cut through all the cowardly, sissified, hand-wringing bullshit” and drive home what Frye calls the “black-and-white situation.”

Thoreau, being a true prophet, wasn’t in the habit of mincing his words, and he was seriously pissed when he wrote these ones, in response to the controversial arrest and “rendition” by the state of Massachusetts of a fugitive, Anthony Burns, to his oppressor in the South, which brought the army to Boston to shut down the abolitionists who had stormed the federal courthouse to free him.

His moral disgust in this case is primarily expressed through the nose: the odor of one’s actions, not the profession of belief, are what matters. It is the odor of one’s deeds that advertises one’s moral quality, and so let your deeds smell consistently sweet so as not to clash with the fragrance of the water-lily, which, like Nature, has made no compromise, Missouri or any other kind.

The reference to a “Nymphoea Douglasii” is an allusion to Stephen Douglas, the architect of the Fugitive Slave Act, who was later defeated by Lincoln in the presidential election. (If there is an analogy here to the Anglican Church’s attitude to homosexuality, Rowan Williams is perhaps more of a Lincoln than a Douglas, in his temporizing strategy, if that is what his strategy is.)

Here is the passage from Thoreau, the closing passage of the speech:

I walk toward one of our ponds; but what signifies the beauty of nature when men are base? We walk to lakes to see our serenity reflected in them; when we are not serene, we go not to them. Who can be serene in a country where both the rulers and the ruled are without principle? The remembrance of my country spoils my walk. My thoughts are murder to the State, and involuntarily go plotting against her.

But it chanced the other day that I scented a white water-lily, and a season I had waited for had arrived. It is the emblem of purity. It bursts up so pure and fair to the eye, and so sweet to the scent, as if to show us what purity and sweetness reside in, and can be extracted from, the slime and muck of earth. I think I have plucked the first one that has opened for a mile. What confirmation of our hopes is in the fragrance of this flower! I shall not so soon despair of the world for it, notwithstanding slavery, and the cowardice and want of principle of Northern men. It suggests what kind of laws have prevailed longest and widest, and still prevail, and that the time may come when man’s deeds will smell as sweet. Such is the odor which the plant emits. If Nature can compound this fragrance still annually, I shall believe her still young and full of vigor, her integrity and genius unimpaired, and that there is virtue even in man, too, who is fitted to perceive and love it. It reminds me that Nature has been partner to no Missouri Compromise. I scent no compromise in the fragrance of the water-lily. It is not a Nymphoea Douglasii. In it, the sweet, and pure, and innocent are wholly sundered from the obscene and baleful. I do not scent in this the time-serving irresolution of a Massachusetts Governor, nor of a Boston Mayor. So behave that the odor of your actions may enhance the general sweetness of the atmosphere, that when we behold or scent a flower, we may not be reminded how inconsistent your deeds are with it; for all odor is but one form of advertisement of a moral quality, and if fair actions had not been performed, the lily would not smell sweet. The foul slime stands for the sloth and vice of man, the decay of humanity; the fragrant flower that springs from it, for the purity and courage which are immortal.

And here are the great closing words, where what is finally polarized and separated are life and death, the sweet scent of life and the rot of decay and death:

Slavery and servility have produced no sweet-scented flower annually, to charm the senses of men, for they have no real life: they are merely a decaying and a death, offensive to all healthy nostrils. We do not complain that they live, but that they do not get buried. Let the living bury them: even they are good for manure.

Thoreau is an excellent example of a writer whose writings go well beyond literature and the purely imaginative and are very much in the meta-literary dimension of the kerygrmatic, of spiritual proclamation.

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4 thoughts on “More on Thoreau

  1. Clayton Chrusch

    Thank you so much Joe for your engagement on this issue, and the really important parallels to slavery in the U.S. that I didn’t know about. I should read more history, and I should certainly read Thoreau whom I’ve been meaning to read for a long time. I don’t know of any other place on the web where my views (polarized, pro-gay, pro-Christian, pro-action, pro-charity, anti-bullshit, anti-homophobia) would get any kind of hearing, much less the sympathetic one I’ve received here.

    Some people have a principled view that any kind of polarization (at least on this issue) is a temptation that they must resist. I wish I did not have polarized views about homophobia. I wish I could ignore homophobia, as do the vast majority of people, but it is the shape of my life. It is the one thing I know about this world. I can have a polarized attitude towards it or I can give up and say with all the other psychotic liars that black is white.

  2. Joseph Adamson Post author

    It might interest you to know, Clayton, that Thoreau’s sexual desires, from all evidence, appear to have been same-sex, though, sadly, perhaps for various reasons, they may have never been or only rarely requited.

    t occurs to me that he is perhaps yet another indication of the prevalence of same-sex desire among writers and literary critics and scholars (this is certainly true in American literature): such a fundamental and immediate sense of one’s difference from one of the most often protected and most anxiety-driven norms of one’s society may encourage the more general development of a counter-cultural vision that challenges the gross inadequacies, oppressiveness, and lies of that society.

    I am thankful for that one passage, at least, in Frye’s discussion of sexual love in chapter 6 of Words with Power, where he closes the first section with the following paragraph:

    “I have been dealing with the common tradition in which the poet is a male who begins with the expression of his love for a female, and expands from there into a vision of a symbolically female nature. The sexual bias, however frequent, is certainly reversible, even if the history of literary imagery is not. I have said that there is no ladder of love in the Bible, but there is one inf Plato’s Symposium, and there the object of love, on the primary level, is not female. A crucial, though not surprisingly often neglected phase of the argument is the question about how far Socrates will go in bed with Alcibiades. The sublimating process starts from the beginning, but it goes in the same general direction, up to a vision of and ultimate union with the form of beauty.” (201-02)

  3. Ed Lemond

    Doris Kearns Goodwin’s ‘Team of Rivals’ gives a good accounting of Lincoln’s temporizing strategy. Here’s one example of many. When John Brown was executed on Dec. 2, 1959, Lincoln (in Goodwin’s words) “wisely sought the middle ground between the statements of radical Republicans, like Emerson, who believed that Brown’s execution would ‘make the gallows as glorious as the cross,’ and conservative Republicans, who denounced Brown for his demented, traitorous scheme. He acknowledged that Brown had displayed ‘great courage’ and ‘rare unselfishness.’ Nonetheless, he concluded, ‘that cannot excuse violence, bloodshed, and treason. It could avail him nothing that he might think himself right.'” Lincoln, ironically, himself walked down the road of violence and bloodshed, thinking himself in the right – as we too think of him. (Adam Gopnik’s discussion of ‘the problem of liberal violence’ in his book ‘Angels and Ages’ is very interesting in this regard.) Lincoln said or wrote, I believe, something to the effect that if he could end the war and save the union with slavery still in place, he’d take the deal. The difference between Lincoln and Rowan Williams is that Lincoln knew, even while temporizing and compromising, that slavery was an evil doomed to extinction. And, even with all his temporizing, he had moments, we know, when his words attained the level of kerygmatic intensity, spiritual proclamation. And he had his great moment, when he stopped temporizing and issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Now we have a new, young President in Obama, with the same sort of instinct to look for the middle ground. Is it too much to hope that he will follow a similar path, when it comes to action to ensure full equality for gays and lesbians? Or is he in danger, as it sometimes looks, of being all talk and no (or little) action? Depending on what happens with health care, we might know part of the answer.

    1. Joseph Adamson Post author

      Characteristically, Thoreau had as little time for Lincoln as he had for anyone who compromised on the issue of slavery: on the day of Lincoln’s inauguration, in the company of his old friend Bronson Alcott, according to Walter Harding’s great biography, he “announced himself as ‘impatient with politicians, the state of the country, the State itself, and with statesmen generally.’ He roundly accused the Republican Party of duplicity and called Alcott to account for his favorable opinion of the new administration” (Harding 444).

      Thoreau, from all accounts, was a difficult friend, highly demanding in intellectual, moral, and spiritual terms, though he won from many, like Alcott, an intense loyalty.

      Some of Lincoln’s writings, like the Gettysburg address, do indeed, as you put it so well, Ed, “attain the level of kerygmatic inensity, spiritual proclamation.” I always try to include some of Lincoln’s writings in my American literature course as a great example of the kerygmatic power reached by great leaders, like Churchill, at particular historical moments.

      I found this brief passage by Frye in The Critical Path, which seems relevant to your comments:

      “Certainly there is a tremendous radical force in American culture, in Whitman’s Democratic Vistas, in Thoreau’s Walden and Civil Disobedience, in Jefferson’s view of local self-determination, in Lincoln’s conception of the Civil War as a revolution against the inner spirit of slavery, which could give a very different social slant to the American myth of concern [as opposed, Frye seems to mean, to other myths of concern]. Ezra Pound, for all his crankiness, was trying to portray something of this innate radicalism in his John Adams Cantos. There is also of course a right wing that would like to make the American way of life a closed myth, but its prospects at the moment do not seem bright.” (95)

      God knows that Frye had no illusions about what he called the whirligig of history, but this last sentence has a sad and ironic ring to it today, at a time when even someone like Obama and the best initiatives of American democrats are so thoroughly hedged in by an ignorant and destructive populism, phony Boston tea parties, and the unthinking majority belief in a neo-conservative ideology that identifies freedom with the license to exploit and oppress, and to enrich oneself at the expense of everyone else, most particularly the poor and most vulnerable.

      I hope for better, but it is hard not to despair. And my greatest concern is that there are signs of the strengthening grip of the same ideology taking hold in this country.


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