restricted access Chapter 16: Thoreau, Cavell, and the Foundations of True Political Expression
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Thoreau, Cavell, and the Foundations of True Political Expression 423 I desire to speak somewhere without bounds; like a man in a waking moment, to men in their waking moments; for I am convinced that I cannot exaggerate enough even to lay the foundation of a true expression. —Thoreau, Walden The publication of Stanley Cavell’s The Senses of Walden in 1972 was an extraordinary event in Thoreau scholarship. Thoreau’s reputation had waxed and waned, but by the early 1970s the obscurity to which he had seemed fated at his death was well past. The author and hero of “Civil Disobedience ” had achieved lasting fame and considerable status as a political thinker via his influence on Tolstoy, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Dutch anti-Nazi resistance in the Second World War, and Walden was widely acknowledged to be his masterpiece. Although this acknowledgment was reflected in significant work in fields as diverse as literary criticism, natural history, and American studies, Walden had yet to be recognized as making a significant contribution to philosophy; indeed, it is rare even today, more than thirty years later, to hear one claim any distinctively philosophical interest in this most praised of Thoreau’s books. In Cavell’s study, moreover , Thoreau’s magnum opus was taken up by a philosopher who worked outside the tradition of American pragmatism, the philosophical tradition that comes closest to grudgingly granting a place if not to Thoreau then to his mentor Emerson. Perhaps most importantly, in The Senses of Walden, Walden was read by a mind as unorthodox and fiercely independent as its Chapter 16 Andrew Norris 424 Andrew Norris author’s own. Given the kind of book Cavell set out to write, this was of necessity the case. The Senses of Walden is not simply a reading of Walden but, as its title suggests, a reading of it that takes the form of a rewriting of it, a reiteration of its senses or meanings, and hence its perceptions and senses of the world. The first line of Cavell’s preface asks, “What hope is there in a book about a book?”1 Cavell goes on to make clear that this is not meant to distinguish the plight of his book about Walden from Thoreau’s book about Walden, for in writing about Walden, Thoreau describes and plumbs not only the pond, Walden, but also his own experience of that pond, what he did at and with it. And the first thing Thoreau chooses to tell us of what he did there is to write Walden.2 As Cavell puts it, “Walden is itself about a book, about its own writing and reading.”3 Since this is exactly what Cavell’s book is about—the writing and reading of Walden—Cavell is doing Thoreau’s work over, reinscribing and repeating it, as one might repeat the words of another.4 The titles of the chapters of Cavell’s book underline the importance of this for his understanding of Thoreau’s work. Walden is divided into eighteen chapters, only the third (“Reading”) and possibly the fourth (“Sounds”) and eleventh (“Higher Laws”) of which refer even indirectly to linguistic matters; The Senses of Walden is divided into three chapters (“Words,” “Sentences,” and “Portions”) that, taken together, do just this. Whereas Thoreau’s titles, for the most part, name things in the world (“The Bean-Field,” “The Village,” “Winter Animals”) or ways of being in the world or events in the world (“Solitude,” “House-Warming”), Cavell’s titles name three forms in which our utterances might be meaningful, or make sense: as independent words, as sentences, and as paragraphs, verses, quatrains, or other portions of text.5 If these are the senses of Walden, however , this distinction must be one of approach or emphasis rather than topic. And the fact that Cavell writes of the senses rather than the meanings of Walden announces plainly enough that these are to be understood as ways of perceiving and experiencing the world, like hearing, smelling, touching, tasting, and seeing. If Thoreau knows the world so well that he can show it to us as something we have not yet seen, this is not because he experienced it more directly in his hut than did others back in Concord; rather, it is because, in writing of it, he comes closer to the language with which we give shape and heft to the real in what Cavell describes as our “wording of the world...


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