- Affect and Cruelty in the Atlantic System:The Hauntological Argument of Henry David Thoreau’s Cape Cod
Most readers of Thoreau’s Cape Cod (1865) have noted the narrator’s peculiar affect as he describes the sea’s violence and the mangled humans it spits out so dispassionately. While some have read this text divergently as a happy, sunny book or as a macabre prose poem bordering on the surreal, most readers can’t help but notice the narrator’s own pronounced lack of affect.1 Speaking in more environmental terms, one early reviewer mentions the severe “bareness” of Thoreau’s prose, seeing this bareness as astoundingly desiccating—“like the air of California, where things the most loathsome may lie around us without making the air impure.”2 Perhaps this striking atmospheric dryness and tonal neutrality, even about “loathsome” topics, provides the reason why early commenters also predicted the importance this “peculiar” text would have for a newly forming American literature.3 Perhaps this detached text about emotionally charged, disgusting topics is a bit too peculiar for most critics; indeed, it remains among Thoreau’s most neglected texts.4
To understand this dearth of critical attention, one might consider, as Lawrence Buell does, the obvious challenge Cape Cod poses to readers who perceive Thoreau as a heroic environmentalist. A narrative portraying nature [End Page 245] as constantly wielding death and boasting an extremely stoic narrator who describes this violent scene necessarily tests a redemptive view of nature.5 If the posthumously published, loosely organized Cape Cod fails to deliver, or perhaps even thwarts, a more traditional environmental preservationist message, this failure may also enable a different message now, during a moment of global economic and environmental crisis. My essay identifies in Cape Cod a radical critique of broader economic systems underlying relations between nature and the human, an analysis more far-reaching than Walden offers. Far from proffering the human as a nature preserver, this text reveals a dark vision of how modernity remakes the human. Its ethical commitment depends on understanding the human, like the Cape the narrator witnesses, as a site of making and unmaking. Through his own mimetic performance of detachment, the narrator models the detachment of capitalist systems, thus disturbing our notion of a heroic pastoral retreat. Thoreau produces a text with an undertow, a haunting, doubled text that aims to disturb readers by eliciting in them the emotions his narrator seems to eschew. I call this assemblage of affect and aesthetic, ethics and politics, the hauntological sublime.
Several strains of Thoreau scholarship help inform my account of the ethical intervention this text makes. One critical view sees Thoreau’s detachment as a choice grounded in aesthetics, as a mode of protorealism that promotes divestment in order to appreciate the more stringent demands that “the murderous sublime” occasions.6 In this vein others have connected Thoreau’s work in Cape Cod with nineteenth-century painters such as the Luminists and the Hudson River School artists.7 These views, however, frequently offer a depoliticized Thoreau who not only seems uninterested in contemporaneous core issues, but who in some readings appears extremely misanthropic.8 More recently, critics have viewed the author as deeply engaged with historical, ethical, and political issues, with [End Page 246] James Patrick Brown arguing most convincingly about how Cape Cod connects aesthetics, ethics, and social justice. Brown’s formulation of “the ethical sublime,” however, pits affect against realism, valorizing the detached observer position as better equipped for social justice because better able to eschew sentiment.9 Combining and modifying these various critical positions enables us to consider not only the book’s constitutive exclusion of affect, but the crucial role that affect must play in the critical project of reassessing Thoreau’s politics. This essay will thus elucidate the way that performance, persona, and affective encounters between narrator and reader structure the text’s ethico-political critique.
Framing this critical discussion within wider interdisciplinary theoretical currents is crucial for illuminating the affective, aesthetic, ethical, and political assemblage I am terming the hauntological sublime. Theorists of the black Atlantic have shown how sublime aesthetics are deeply implicated with racial terror, and how...