Thoreau objects to a “ridiculous demand”: speaking so they understand you (Walden 202)

“It is a ridiculous demand which England and America make, that you shall speak so that they can understand you. Neither men nor toadstools grow so. As if that were important, and there were not enough to understand you without them. As if Nature could support but one order of understandings…”

I think this is one of the funnier passages in Walden. Is Thoreau aware that he is sometimes ambiguous or difficult to understand? Yes he is. Does he see this as a problem? Not at all! Over the years many readers have read Thoreau in a lot of different ways, and have drawn different lessons from him. Not that all readings are equally well-supported by context, but there’s no denying that Henry seems uninterested in communicating a narrow and precise meaning. In these posts I’ve made much of his growing scientific awareness, but Walden is not a scientific treatise. You won’t find this in a scientific paper:

“I fear chiefly lest my expression may not be extravagant enough, may not wander far enough beyond the narrow limits of my daily experience, so as to be adequate to the truth of which I have been convinced.”

For all his growing passion for data-gathering (which led to the seed-dispersal study he was working on at the time of his final illness), here is Henry is openly trying to write big and bold ideas that he hopes will withstand the scrutiny of time. And in supporting more than “one order of understandings” I think he’d be supportive of a project like this one (without endorsing all the contents), in which one reader offers thoughts and interpretation, which includes, but goes beyond, the question “What precisely did Thoreau mean?” This blog is in no way a textbook of Walden. It’s simply a reaction based on a slow reading. My main point, aside from an excuse to organize my own thoughts, is to prompt other readers to actively engage this book.

He goes on to play with the word “extravagance,” using the etymology (”extra” – outside of; “vagance” – from a word meaning to wander or roam). He wants his words to wander like the buffalo.

“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.”

The truth, Henry was convinced, was so big and extravagant that he could approach it only intuitively (which is classic Transcendentalism). He wrote in bold epigrams and made sweeping analogies and, frequently, ambiguously provocative statements. He complains, “In this part of the world it is considered a ground for complaint if a man’s writings admit of more than one interpretation.” I think he hoped that people would read his work and respond to it in ways that he himself had not expected, even if he disagreed. It would lead us closer to the truth.

He was, as I’ve said, increasingly enthralled with another way of getting at truth — the slow, painstaking methods of science. And he seems to have understood that however beautiful or extravagant our notions, sooner or later we have to put them to the test and try to measure them against reality.

(About  “A Year in Walden”)


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