There are the Stars, Behind the Clouds

This week’s set of readings spanned chapters that addressed everything from educational culture in 19th century America, to the interaction of the human and naturals worlds, to the human interaction (and lack-thereof) that Thoreau experienced in his time at Walden. These themes are from the chapters “Reading”, “Sounds”, and “Visitors”, out of Walden. “Reading” it turns out, is really less about reading than it is about education and state of the average New Englander’s intellect. Thoreau seems deeply concerned that the knowledge of the classics and thus, the truest wisdom of the world, is being lost. “Sounds” then, takes a sharp and surprising turn; after talking about the books he brought with him, and using them to frame and begin his arguments about knowledge, Thoreau acknowledges that he himself have very little time to dedicate to reading and studying his books while at Walden. Instead, he immerses himself in the ways he passed his time, and uses a moment in which he was drifting in thought after work, to discuss—partly through extended metaphor and symbolism—the way the natural and human world were increasingly bumping up against each other. While a standalone chapter “Visitors” really strikes me as a “set” that goes with the prior chapter “Solitude”. Simply by looking at the two titles, a fairly accurate picture of these chapters is painted. Thoreau ruminates on the state of his solitude in one, and in the other, recounts the visitors—from vagabonds to runaway slaves—that he received in his time. In a way, he also presents what he gained from each other these visitors, or at the very least, what attributes about these wayfarers were particularly striking to him.

In keeping with my prior investigation of Thoreau’s treatment of complexity, I found the chapter “Reading” to be one of the most captivating of those I have read thus far. I think that one reason for this, is quite simply that it directly addresses a highly tangible subject matter. It’s easy for a college student to grasp, relate to, and form an opinion, on the matter of education. But even beyond that, there are so many moments of potential contradiction in this chapter. There are far too many to investigate all of them in any detail, so I will highlight one passage that I found particularly powerful. Relatively early in this chapter, Thoreau comments that,

“However much we may admire the orator’s occasional bursts of eloquence, the noblest written words are commonly as far behind or above the fleeting spoken language as the firmament with its stars is behind the clouds. There are the stars, and they who can may read them. The astronomers forever comment on and observe them. They are not exhalations like our daily colloquies and vaporous breath. What is called eloquence in the forum is commonly found to be rhetoric in the study. The orator yields to the inspiration of a transient occasion, and speaks to the mob before him, to those who can hear him; but the writer, whose more equable life is his occasion, and who would be distracted by the event and the crowd which inspire the orator, speaks to the intellect and heart of mankind, to all in any age who can understand him.” (Thoreau, 77)

It’s a long passage, a whole paragraph, but in it lies the crux of my fascination with this paragraph. In the last entry, I wrote about I felt that Thoreau was decrying or at the very least, warning to be cautious against over complication. He seemed to be making a case for viewing the world in simpler, plainer terms. Here, it would seem he makes the exact opposite argument. It would appear that Thoreau is attempting to say here that there is a deep necessity to listen past the noise and try and see what is “behind the clouds”. He also seems to suggest that in writing a higher level of thought and expression can be reached, and that the understanding of this expression must be strived for through close and careful examination.

Perhaps it’s just me, but it sounds as though Thoreau is pushing the idea of “complicating” a thought, and thus countering his own argument in favor of simplification. I wonder if he is trying to build to an explanation of how one can look at a complicated thought simply? Or if he truly is using this thread as a way of sounding out his own thought process?

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