The deep seas of consciousness (Walden 183)

In the last few posts I’ve been talking about Thoreau’s scientific approach to the depth of Walden Pond. Today he’s still talking about deep water, but the discussion takes a psychological turn. Suddenly he is no longer talking about a pond. I don’t know about you, but I can’t think about deep water without also thinking about mystery and the things that are hidden from us, what we don’t know about ourselves. I think Henry felt the same way; maybe this is a common thing. At any rate, suddenly his prose becomes more difficult, but tantalizing:

“Also there is a bar across the entrance of our every cove, or particular inclination; each is our harbor for a season, in which we are detained and partially land-locked. These inclinations are not whimsical usually, but their form, size, and direction are determined by the promontories of the shore, the ancient axes of elevation. When this bar is gradually increased by storms, tides, or currents, or there is a subsidence of the waters, so that it reaches to the surface, that which was at first but an inclination in the shore in which a thought was harbored becomes an individual lake, cut off from the ocean, wherein the thought secures its own conditions — changes, perhaps, from salt to fresh, becomes a sweet sea, dead sea, or a marsh. At the advent of each individual into this life, may we not suppose that such a bar has risen to the surface somewhere? It is true, we are such poor navigators that our thoughts, for the most part, stand off and on upon a harborless coast, are conversant only with the bights of the bays of poesy, or steer for the public ports of entry, and go into the dry docks of science, where they merely refit for this world, and no natural currents concur to individualize them.”

I think he’s getting at what Carl Jung would later describe as the “collective unconscious.” Robert Milder explains: “As for Emerson and Whitman, the ocean for Thoreau is the transpersonal consciousness from which we are separated at birth. Replicated in the soul, it continues to flow over or around the dividing sandbar in Emersonian ‘surges of sea life’ until such time as the waters retreat… and we are left in a provincial backwater of being….” (Reimagining Thoreau, p. 148.)

Is there such a thing as a transpersonal consciousness or collective unconscious? Jung described it as a “system of a collective, universal, and impersonal nature which is identical in all individuals. This collective unconscious does not develop individually but is inherited. It consists of pre-existent forms, the archetypes, which can only become conscious secondarily and which give definite form to certain psychic contents.”

The Wikipedia entry linked above has a good description of the “minimalist” and “maximalist” interpretations of the collective unconscious. Is it a biological inheritance (minimalist), or some sort of ‘world soul’ (maximalist)? Or, to put it more skeptically, to what degree is it a real thing? Might it be simply a way of describing the common features of the human cultural inheritance?

I’m not going to resolve that here, though my inclination is toward cultural inheritance shaped by biology. I have a higher degree of confidence in cognitive science than in the speculations of transcendentalists or Jungians. But what I share with them, and with Thoreau, is an appreciation for the depth of that metaphorical sea, while we — poor navigators that we are — are “conversant only with the bights of the bays of poesy.” (About  “A Year in Walden”)


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