restricted access Chapter 12: Thoreau’s Solitude
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Thoreau’s Solitude 326 I have a great deal of company in my house; especially in the morning, when nobody calls. —Thoreau, “Solitude,” in Walden The distinction between loneliness and solitude, it is said, turns on the state of mind of the person who is alone. In loneliness, we feel a sense of isolation, that we are cut off from others in a way that makes us bereaved, lost, without a proper bearing in the world. Isolation leads to desolation, a sense that the world itself has been abandoned. The aloneness of loneliness is destructive to our souls. But in solitude, we are alone in a sane sense, Thoreau says, able to console and counsel ourselves. Yet the difference between these two states of existence is not as simple as it seems, for solitude’s sanity is connected to a kind of derangement, or at least a reckoning of sanity that is not our usual sense of being sane. A clue to this connection between madness and sanity lies in the relationship of desolation to isolation, in the struggle we engage in to avoid the loss of our souls to the desert of loneliness. I do not want to reach any final conclusion concerning what it means to be alone in a sane sense. Instead, I explore how we might think about this sense of madness that informs Thoreau’s sense of sanity. In parsing that relationship between madness and sanity as Thoreau understands it, we might gain a better grasp of his achievement of solitude. Moreover, we might begin to get a better sense of the enduring importance of his thought for our times. The rise of a modern psychology has limited our understanding of both madness and sanity. Thoreau, however, offers something else, something that touches on the experience of both in a way Chapter 12 Thomas L. Dumm Thoreau’s Solitude 327 that might provide us with a renewed appreciation of an ancient sense of solace that is still available to us in these times of trouble. Being Poor At the beginning of Walden Thoreau explains, “I should not obtrude my affairs so much on the notice of my readers if very particular inquiries had not been made by townsmen concerning my mode of life, which some would call impertinent, though they do not appear to me at all impertinent, but, considering the circumstances, very natural and pertinent. Some have asked what I got to eat; if I did not feel lonesome; if I was not afraid; and the like.”1 The purpose of his book is to answer pertinent questions, and these first questions are paramount. The townspeople’s questions to Thoreau concern hunger, lonesomeness, fear, and other phenomena that may be related to them in one way or another. Their questions prompt his test of experience, which is what he calls his experiment in living. The book itself forms the core of his response to the citizens of Concord, a town he considers one of the most important places in the world and, in fact, a surrogate for the world itself. If Thoreau successfully answers the questions of his townsmen, he will provide an answer for all those who wish to live. Thoreau also suggests, “Perhaps these pages are more particularly addressed to poor students” (259). Poor students may be those who are lacking in money, but they are also people who are unable to learn from others and must instead learn from themselves. Although some readers will read him only partially, “accept such portions as apply to them” (259), poor students will be able to learn from him more completely because, paradoxically , they will not be his students at all; instead, they will descend to meet him in his woods and carry with them their own experiences. Poor students form Thoreau’s community—those he will be able to teach, and those from whom he may learn. They might be considered American scholars who, despite their seeming prosperity, do not have what they need to assuage their hunger, to overcome their loneliness and fear. They are his poor, in answer to the question famously posed by Emerson in “Self-Reliance”: “Are they my poor?” Whereas Emerson claims that there is a class of people by whom he may be bought and sold, to whom he belongs, who constitute his poor, for Thoreau, poor students are those who learn to refuse both buying and selling. The poor student will remain poor so as to be...