Approaches to Walden

This week, it came time for my students to grapple with Walden and for me to help them in their efforts — as if I had any idea how to teach the book. Thoreau veers so wildly from subject to subject and offers so little in the way of segue or causality between one chapter and the next that, at first, Walden seems to be simply a collection of essays in the manner of Emerson, linked together by the personal sentiments of Thoreau himself and by their shared site of inspiration on the banks of Walden Pond but not by logic or rhetoric or any other identifiably literary qualities. But then, as I re-read Walden in preparation for class discussions, I returned to and reconsidered Thoreau’s encounter with the loon in the chapter entitled “Brute Neighbors”:

In the fall the loon (Colymbus glacialis) came, as usual, to moult and bathe in the pond, making the woods ring with his wild laughter before I had risen. At rumor of his arrival all the Mill-dam sportsmen are on the alert, in gigs and on foot, two by two and three by three, with patent rifles and conical balls and spy-glasses. They come rustling through the woods like autumn leaves, at least ten men to one loon. Some station themselves on this side of the pond, some on that, for the poor bird cannot be omnipresent; if he dive here he must come up there. … When I went to get a pail of water early in the morning I frequently saw this stately bird sailing out of my cove within a few rods. If I endeavored to overtake him in a boat, in order to see how he would manoeuvre, he would dive and be completely lost, so that I did not discover him again, sometimes, till the latter part of the day. But I was more than a match for him on the surface. He commonly went off in a rain.

As I was paddling along the north shore one very calm October afternoon, for such days especially they settle on to the lakes, like the milkweed down, having looked in vain over the pond for a loon, suddenly one, sailing out from the shore toward the middle a few rods in front of me, set up his wild laugh and betrayed himself. I pursued with a paddle and he dived, but when he came up I was nearer than before. He dived again, but I miscalculated the direction he would take, and we were fifty rods apart when he came to the surface this time, for I had helped to widen the interval; and again he laughed long and loud, and with more reason than before. He manoeuvred so cunningly that I could not get within half a dozen rods of him. Each time, when he came to the surface, turning his head this way and that, he cooly surveyed the water and the land, and apparently chose his course so that he might come up where there was the widest expanse of water and at the greatest distance from the boat. It was surprising how quickly he made up his mind and put his resolve into execution. He led me at once to the widest part of the pond, and could not be driven from it. While he was thinking one thing in his brain, I was endeavoring to divine his thought in mine. It was a pretty game, played on the smooth surface of the pond, a man against a loon. Suddenly your adversary’s checker disappears beneath the board, and the problem is to place yours nearest to where his will appear again. Sometimes he would come up unexpectedly on the opposite side of me, having apparently passed directly under the boat. So long-winded was he and so unweariable, that when he had swum farthest he would immediately plunge again, nevertheless; and then no wit could divine where in the deep pond, beneath the smooth surface, he might be speeding his way like a fish, for he had time and ability to visit the bottom of the pond in its deepest part.

It is said that loons have been caught in the New York lakes eighty feet beneath the surface, with hooks set for trout — though Walden is deeper than that. How surprised must the fishes be to see this ungainly visitor from another sphere speeding his way amid their schools! Yet he appeared to know his course as surely under water as on the surface, and swam much faster there. Once or twice I saw a ripple where he approached the surface, just put his head out to reconnoitre, and instantly dived again. I found that it was as well for me to rest on my oars and wait his reappearing as to endeavor to calculate where he would rise; for again and again, when I was straining my eyes over the surface one way, I would suddenly be startled by his unearthly laugh behind me. But why, after displaying so much cunning, did he invariably betray himself the moment he came up by that loud laugh? Did not his white breast enough betray him? He was indeed a silly loon, I thought. I could commonly hear the splash of the water when he came up, and so also detected him. But after an hour he seemed as fresh as ever, dived as willingly, and swam yet farther than at first. It was surprising to see how serenely he sailed off with unruffled breast when he came to the surface, doing all the work with his webbed feet beneath.

His usual note was this demoniac laughter, yet somewhat like that of a water-fowl; but occasionally, when he had balked me most successfully and come up a long way off, he uttered a long-drawn unearthly howl, probably more like that of a wolf than any bird; as when a beast puts his muzzle to the ground and deliberately howls. This was his looning — perhaps the wildest sound that is ever heard here, making the woods ring far and wide. I concluded that he laughed in derision of my efforts, confident of his own resources. Though the sky was by this time overcast, the pond was so smooth that I could see where he broke the surface when I did not hear him. His white breast, the stillness of the air, and the smoothness of the water were all against him. At length having come up fifty rods off, he uttered one of those prolonged howls, as if calling on the god of loons to aid him, and immediately there came a wind from the east and rippled the surface, and filled the whole air with misty rain, and I was impressed as if it were the prayer of the loon answered, and his god was angry with me; so I left him disappearing far away on the tumultuous surface.

Aside from being one of the most famous passages in Walden, I realised upon re-reading it that it may also be the passage most representative of Thoreau’s overall aesthetic strategy. As the loon is to Thoreau, so Thoreau is to his readers. Just when we think we have begun to grasp his purpose in Walden, he dives down into himself and pops up elsewhere on an entirely different subject. Just when we think we have achieved some sort of empathy with him, he purposefully eludes us once again and breaks the bonds we felt we had perhaps established.

Through the allegory of his encounter with the loon, then, Thoreau transforms Walden from a didactic treatise into a demonstrative one. If Walden details what is essentially Thoreau’s attempt to empathise with his surrounding ecosystem, and his subsequent realisation that his own limits as a human being prohibit him from properly empathising with it, then we might understand the allegorical function of his encounter with the loon as a self-conscious acknowledgement that he is prohibiting us the same sort of empathy with himself. What begins as an explanation of his yearnings and failures thus becomes, for the reader, an experience of them — or at least as close to such an experience as the written word is able to provide.

A Lover of Storms

Curled in a low peach limb the old man watched the midmorning sun blinding on the squat metal tank that topped the mountain. He had found some peaches, although the orchard went to ruin twenty years before when the fruit had come so thick and no one to pick it that at night the overborne branches cracking sounded in the valley like distant storms raging. The old man remembered it that way, for he was a lover of storms.

Cormac McCarthy, The Orchard Keeper

The Aesthetics of a Congealing Artform

In the latest New Yorker, James Wood challenges David Shields on some of his assumptions about the tension between authorial intentions and the representation of reality in fiction:

Does literature progress, like medicine or engineering? … Perhaps it is as absurd to talk about progress in literature as it is to talk about progress in electricity — both are natural resources awaiting different forms of activation. The novel is peculiar in this respect, because while anyone painting today exactly like Courbet, or composing music exactly like Brahms, would be accounted a fraud or a forger, much contemporary fiction borrows the codes and conventions — the basic narrative grammar — of Flaubert or Balzac without essential alteration.

By grammar, I mean the rather lazy stock-in-trade of mainstream realist fiction: the cinematic sweep, followed by the selection of small, telling details (“It was a large room, filled almost entirely by rows of antique computers; there was an odd smell of aftershave and bacon”); the careful mixing of dynamic and habitual detail (“At one of the computers, a man was unhurriedly eating a spring roll; traffic noise pierced the thick, sealed windows; an ambulance yelped by”); the preference for the concrete over the abstract (“She was twenty-nine, but still went home every evening to her mom’s ground-floor apartment in Queens, which doubled by day as a yoga studio”); vivid brevity of character-sketching (“Bob wore a bright-yellow T-shirt that read ‘Got Beer?,’ and had a small mole on his upper lip”); plenty of homely “filler” (“She ordered a beer and a sandwich, sat down at the table, and opened her computer”); more or less orderly access to consciousness and memory (“He lay on the bed and thought with shame of everything that had happened that day”); lucid but allowably lyrical sentences (“From the window, he watched the streetlights flicker on, in amber hesitations”). And this does not even touch on the small change of fictional narrative: how strange it is, when you think about it, that thousands of novels are published every year, in which characters all have different names (whereas, in real life, doesn’t one always have at least three friends named John, and another three named Elizabeth?), or in which characters quizzically “raise an eyebrow,” and angrily “knit their brows,” or just express themselves in quotation marks and single adverbs (“‘You know that’s not fair,’ he said, whiningly”). At this level of convention, there is a shorter distance than one would imagine between, say, Harriet the Spy and Disgrace.

So even if it’s hard to decide whether the novel can really progress it’s easy to see that it can congeal — that certain novelistic conventions grow steadily more conventional, and lose some of their original power. The French literary theorist Roland Barthes called this “the reality effect.” He was talking specifically about fictional detail (the kind that pretends to be quietly “irrelevant,” like Bob’s mole, in one of my hypothetical examples); his larger argument, made elsewhere in his work, was that realistic fiction, like ideology, tries to palm itself off as the most natural and real of literary modes but is in fact the most artificial and unreal. Barthes is ninety-nine per cent right. His rightness is felt every day by any novelist who sits down to a blank piece of paper or a computer screen and tries, despairingly, to think beyond the familiar grammar of narrative. All this silly machinery of plotting and pacing, this corsetry of chapters and paragraphs, this doxology of dialogue and characterization! Who does not want to explode it, do something truly new, and rouse the implication slumbering in the word “novel”?

Avant-garde anti-realists probably err in assuming that realist novelists are just complacently or venally recycling convention; my experience is that many intelligent novelists are painfully aware of their bated means, their limitations and timidities and uncertainties, and look with writhing admiration at writers like Beckett or Saramago or Bernhard or David Foster Wallace, who seem to have discovered new fictional languages.

So close and yet so far away. Beckett, Saramago, Bernhard, Wallace, and others were no less “painfully aware of their bated means, their limitations and timidities and uncertainties,” than are the “many intelligent novelists,” the “conventional novelists,” with whom James Wood is acquainted. The difference between the two sets of novelists is not a difference of sentiment. The difference, rather, is one of acknowledgement and expression: Beckett, Saramago, Bernhard, and Wallace all recognised and wrestled with their misgivings about their own literary practices in the pages of the literature they produced. Conventional novelists may well feel the same uncertain self-awareness as each of these writers, but precisely what makes their work conventional — and, by comparison, underwhelming — is their reluctance to similarly face up to their uncertainties as they go about putting it together.

Against Crime Fiction

Can crime fiction be considered literature? Absolutely not, says Jon Fosse:

Death, perhaps literature’s basic concern, … is in crime fiction made into a kind of puzzle which can be solved. Death is made safe by being looked at as something which might well not exist, if it wasn’t for a murder, and then is reduced further by making this murder, death, into a puzzle to be solved. And which will be solved. … Literature is writing so strong that one sees life as something else after meeting it. It has to do with the uniqueness in every human being, and with this truth: the most unique is the most universal. Crime fiction is the opposite, to see life as the same all the time and feel safe in one’s lie. It’s pornography of death, and much less honest than the pornography which has to do with the beginning of life.

It’s a subtle, intriguing argument, but open to easy objections: Jonathan Buckley’s So He Takes the Dog, Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, and Peter Matthiessen’s Shadow Country all spring to mind as obvious exceptions to Fosse’s rule. Following his full remarks at the ReadySteadyBook blog, commenters have already listed some other exceptions.