Henry David Thoreau: “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers”: Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday

Friendship is, at any rate, a relation of perfect equality. It cannot well spare any outward sign of equal obligation and advantage. The nobleman can never have a Friend among his retainers, nor the king among his subjects. Not that the parties to it are in all respects equal, but they are equal in all that respects or affects their Friendship. The one’s love is exactly balanced and represented by the other’s. (220–221)

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This lovely passage comes from the “Wednesday” chapter of Henry David Thoreau’s book A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. The chapter, which is devoted to the question of this fundamental social relationship is one of the most memorable for me because it is looking at what an egalitarian relationship can look like, while acknowledging that most relationships between people fall far short of the friendship ideal. He perhaps takes too seriously the Confucian ideal of friendship (but if we ignore the rest of that system we can see that one part as redeeming). He goes beyond a strict definition of friendship and see friendship and love as a place of creative experimentation in social relationships. “Ignorance and bungling with love are better than wisdom and skill without.” (231) Only at that point does the usefulness of friendship come into play. It is almost presented as an afterthought in the chapter. What does come across strongly he is belief that the foundation of friendship is a more rational and just organization of society than in hierarchical or strictly pecuniary relationships. As a cooperative relationship it is better foundation for people to engage in individual re-creation and experimentation. Forgive a rather lengthy quotation:

I am never rich in money, and I am never meanly poor. If debts are incurred, why, debts are in the course of events cancelled, as it were by the same law by which they were incurred. I heard that an engagement was entered into between a certain youth and a maiden, and then I heard that it was broken off, but I did not know the reason in either case. We are hedged about, we think, by accident and circumstance, now we creep as in a dream, and now again we run, as if there were a fate in it, and all things thwarted or assisted. . . . When every other path would fail, with singular and unerring confidence we advance on our particular course. What risks we run! Famine and fire and pestilence, and the thousand forms of a cruel fate,—and yet every man lives till he—dies. How did he manage that? Is there no immediate danger? . . . No matter what imprudent haste in my career; I am permitted to be rash. (239–240)

It is compelling enough out of context, but in the context we realize that this freedom to explore and dare is the wages of friendship. Notice with me that Thoreau’s primary concern throughout A Week is a type of freedom that has a strong social foundation.

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“Thursday” and “Friday” are thematically united around creativity, first artistic and then scientific. As might be expected, Thoreau believed that nature was often a source of inspiration for creativity, but it is more than that. Art and nature are thematically united. “Art is no tame, and Nature is now wild, in the ordinary sense. A perfect work of man’s art would also be wild or natural in a good sense. Man tames Nature only that he may at last make her more free even than he found her, though he may never yet have succeeded.” (258) That last big seems a backhanded strike at industrialization, which tames Nature by making it a devastated servant of humanity’s more crass needs.

In these chapters, Thoreau may be foreshadowing Nietzsche in his definition of “the Man of Genius,” which includes artists. The Man of Genius is “an originator, an inspired or demonic man, who produces a perfect work in obedience to laws yet unexplored.” (267) In contrast to the Man of Genius (the Artist) is the Artisan, who applies such rules. The poet is a special case of the Man of Genius because his laws cannot be easily applied or decoded. It seems to me Thoreau may define the Man of Genius a bit too narrowly, in part to justify his own life and accomplishments, but there is still something to be said for the creative and promethean urge.

A Week ends with Thoreau’s summation of the role of Nature in human life. Rather than something to overcome, Thoreau sees nature as something that must be achieved. “Men nowhere, east or west, live yet a natural life, round which the vine clings, and which the elm willingly shadows. Man would desecrate it by his touch, and so the beauty of the world remained veiled to his touch, and so the beauty of the world remains veiled to him. He needs not only to be spiritualized, but naturalized, on the soil of the earth.” (307) In this end we find a tension in Thoreau’s vision articulated most clearly. He appreciates the creative urge and the risk-taking spirit in other parts of his work, but remains dissatisfied with what humanity has accomplished. This is less of a dilemma than you would think, because it is the very creative and promethean urge that is the essence of nature. Civilization is what limits our creativity. Perhaps for some this will be a call for primitivism, but there is no looking back in Thoreau’s writings, except for the brief lesson. His is a projectural philosophy.

A Week is a challenging book to read and certainly not one that can be dissected quickly in two short blog posts. Walden, when I first read it years ago, struck me as fairly straightforward compare to this. Perhaps we see two sides. A Week is Thoreau as a poet, Walden is Thoreau as an artisan. I suspect many people will find the mystical speculations of A Week appealing, but both works are actually interested in our social lives and our ways of being together, even when we seek out periods of isolation and solitude. This is one of those works I may come back to sooner, in hopes of digging deeper into Thoreau’s mind. But for now, I am not flustered. Yes, A Week was opaque to me from time to time but that is part of what keep it so fascinating.

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