In his book The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America, the critic Leo Marx writes that in Walden Thoreau “is clear . . . about the location of meaning and value”: “He is saying that it does not reside in the natural facts or in social institutions or in anything ‘out there,’ but in consciousness. It is the product of imaginative perception, of the analogy-perceiving, metaphor-making, mythopoeic power of the human mind.” Do you agree with Marx’s conclusions about Walden? Where does Thoreau seem to find “meaning and value” in the chapters you’ve read from the book, and in particular in the chapter “Spring”?
I cannot possibly agree with Marx’s conclusion on Walden and Thoreau. While it is true Thoreau speaks about the human consciousness and the power of the human consciousness, Thoreau spends more time simply describing nature, at his own leisure to promote tender thoughts towards Nature, than to question the value of the human consciousness.
“Beside this I got a rare mess of golden and silver and bright cupreous fishes, which looked like a string of jewels. Ah! I have penetrated to those meadows on the morning of many a first spring day, jumping from hummock to hummock, from willow root to willow root, when the wild river valley and the woods were bathed in so pure and bright a light as would have waked the dead, if they had been slumbering in their graves, as some suppose. There needs no stronger proof of immortality. All things must live in such a light. O Death, where was thy sting? O Grave, where was thy victory, then?”
In this quote Thoreau speaks of immortality as a connection to every other living thing; thus we all live forever together. And if we all live together forever then how can Death be our end and how can a grave claim victory over the deceased. The idea of immortality would have been expressed differently if Nature were only a backdrop to our thoughts and if our individual consciousness were the thing that lived forever. I think for Thoreau Nature is where meaning and value is stored and Nature is the only thing ‘out-there.’ Which is the reason for Thoreau being so adamant that we cherish the Earth and nurture Nature. Thoreau is afraid what will become of Humanity when there is no Nature left.
“A single gentle rain makes the grass many shades greener. So our prospects brighten on the influx of better thoughts. We should be blessed if we lived in the present always, and took advantage of every accident that befell us, like the grass which confesses the influence of the slightest dew that falls on it; and did not spend our time in atoning for the neglect of past opportunities, which we call doing our duty. We loiter in winter while it is already spring. In a pleasant spring morning all men’s sins are forgiven. Such a day is a truce to vice. While such a sun holds out to burn, the vilest sinner may return. Through our own recovered innocence we discern the innocence of our neighbors.”
In this quote from Spring by Thoreau I can begin to understand what Marx meant, but the thought remains incomplete and I am unsure where he made his final leap. Thoreau speaks of how the rain depresses the grass but then the grass grows greener than ever before. Thoreau goes on to explain that if Humans’ were like the grass we would be better off for it. If Humans, simply let the rain cleanse them and leave their sins in the rain, then they would not be so burdened. Then they would also be able to enjoy the sun and light all the more because they would no longer be sinners, but innocent and reborn in the world to become happier.
I can understand where Marx begins to see Thoreau talking about the Human consciousness. Thoreau says that our minds are what hold our value on guilt and consternation. That is the first piece to believing that the Human Consciousness holds the meaning and value of life, however Thoreau rarely if ever brings in the rest of the pieces. For example, Thoreau would have to believe humans own all that they see, and many times in Walden Thoreau speaks against such a trait. Thoreau believes in the equality between living things whether those beings are sentient or not. Also Thoreau would have to advocate for a separation between the mind and the body, and yet again Thoreau encourages us to use what our sense tell us to lead us in our thoughts. And the last piece would have to be Thoreau believing that nothing had value unless thought of by the Human Consciousness. And while Thoreau gives value to many things throughout Walden I do not believe he would think those things of less or no value if he had not thought of them.
In conclusion while I think Walden encourages us to be introspective, I do not believe that was Thoreau’s main purpose. I think his purpose was to encourage people to find a balance between introspection and observance of the living world. I think Thoreau would balk at the idea of Human Consciousness being the sole provider of meaning to the world. I also think that Thoreau believes that all lives are connected and that is what gives life meaning is our relations to one another not how we view one another.