restricted access Chapter 11: Thoreau’s Techniques of Self
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Thoreau’s Techniques of Self 294 Every man is the builder of a temple . . . to the god he worships. . . . We are all sculptors and painters, and our material is our own flesh and blood and bones. —Thoreau, Walden When I ask for a garment of a particular form, my tailoress tells me gravely, “They do not make them so now.” . . . When I hear this oracular sentence, I am for a moment absorbed in thought, emphasizing to myself each word separately that I may come at the meaning of it, that I may find out by what degree of consanguity They are related to me, and what authority they may have in an affair which affects me so nearly. —Thoreau, Walden The They In this chapter I examine Thoreau’s project of self-fashioning, a project designed to weaken the voice of the They within him. Thoreau admits to an initial attraction to this voice, which announces what is normal, though he considers this an ignoble attraction and works hard to overcome it. The first step in this process is to become alienated from this internalized voice and to make it an object of suspicion; the second step is to mark the specific occasions during which one’s susceptibility to it is greatest. For Thoreau, these occasions are political ones, times when he is called on to be a good citizen. In “Resistance to Civil Government,” he notes this special vulnerability to the They when it speaks on behalf of the respectable, taxpaying public: Chapter 11 Jane Bennett Thoreau’s Techniques of Self 295 I do not wish to . . . set myself up as better than my neighbors. I seek rather, I may say, even an excuse for conforming to the laws of the land. I am but too ready to conform to them. Indeed I have reason to suspect myself on this head; and each year, as the tax-gatherer comes round, I find myself disposed to review the acts and position of the general and state governments, and the spirit of the people, to discover a pretext for conformity.1 There are many reasons why the They is so seductive. Human action must proceed without the benefit of foresight: to obey the They is to diffuse some of the anxiety generated by this fact. Fears about the wisdom or efficacy of one’s action are soothed by the great body of convention: They do it this way, and so shall I. Social and intellectual conformity, that vertiginous fall into the norm, also provides a sense of closure: it answers the question What ought I to do? quickly and definitively. But it is only under conditions of uncertainty, Thoreau believes, that individuality forms. Only in a setting that surprises and is in some significant way unfamiliar can Thoreau live deliberately, with full consciousness of “Where I Lived and What I Lived For.” Describing his experience on the lecture circuit, Thoreau notes that “ordinarily, the inquiry is, Where did you come from? or, Where are you going?” But there “was a more pertinent question which I overheard one of my auditors put to another once—‘What does he lecture for?’ It made me quake in my shoes” (Reform Papers, 168). Only an examined life is worth living; only a periodically shaken self is worth being. If a deliberate life is the richest and most noble,2 and if conformity is both attractive to mortal Americans and fatal to an intensely experienced life that is one’s own and none other, then the most pressing project becomes finding ways to be caught off guard, to be quaked, surprised, and estranged from one’s usual psychological, intellectual, and social landscapes. Extraordinary measures must be taken to disrupt the state of dependence on others , to jar oneself away from the They. “We need to be provoked,—goaded, like oxen, as we are, into a trot.” The task is to locate and then regularly expose oneself to wild sites and sights, to maximize opportunities for shock and disorientation, for “not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves.”3 As a substitute for the dulling comfort provided by a conventional identity, Thoreau seeks the sublime experience of a “universe,” of a self capable of fleeting moments of unity with Nature: “Would it not be worthwhile,” wonders Thoreau, “[to] be native to the universe?”4 296 Jane Bennett I describe Thoreau’s quest as a series of eight techniques: moving inward, idealizing a...