I have been slowly reading through the Damion Searls edition of Thoreau’s journals. Mostly transcendentalism brings to mind something altogether benign for people who know a bit about it. In high school, my English class went on a big retreat to a camp in the hills near Berea, Kentucky called “Back to Walden”. I don’t think the sixteen-to-eighteen age bracket is best for observing the world; we were too busy observing ourselves all the time. And at any rate, we were only ever able to perform transcendentalism, the way that people can sometimes perform existentialism, or any number of other things that involved little more than putting on a metaphysical hat of sorts. Transcendentalists were sensitive and caring nature lovers who wouldn’t harm anything and were in every way utterly inoffensive: everything the aggressive jocks or pompous popular kids were bit. I, and a few others owned that performance. That’s what we saw on the surface. Mostly, when you dig right in, you get a very different picture of Thoreau. This is what he had to say about the reformers A.D. Foss, Loring Moody and H.C. Wright, who visited his home in June of 1853.
Though Foss was a stranger to the others, you would have thought them old and familiar cronies. (They happened here together by accident.) They addressed each other constantly by their Christian names, and rubbed you continually with the greasy cheeks of their kindness. They would not keep their distance, but cuddle up and lie spoon-fashion with you, no matter how hot the weather nor how narrow the bed, – chiefly Wright. I was awfully pestered with his benignity; feared I should get greased all over with it past restoration; tried to keep some starch in my clothes. He wrote a book called “A Kiss for a Blow,” and he behaved as if there were no alternative between these, or as if I had given him a blow. I would have preferred the blow, but he was bent on giving me the kiss, when there was neither quarrel nor agreement between us. I wanted that he should straighten his back, smooth out those ogling wrinkles of benignity about his eyes, and, with a healthy reserve, pronounce something in a downright manner. It was difficult to keep clear of his slimy benignity, with which he sought to cover you before he swallowed you and to you fairly into his bowels.
Thoreau, 17 June, 1853
I think I understand exactly what Thoreau is on about, and I love his words “greasy cheeks of their kindness”. I also worry that I’m a bit like this Wright fellow sometimes, that I go for a superficially kind and giving facade without understanding that people really have no desire for my kindness, and that it is really only gloss for me and my self-image. But I think more importantly Thoreau is really demonstrating a transcendentalist’s perspective here. He goes on to write, with obvious reference to these men, “The truly beautiful and noble puts its lover, as it were, at an infinite distance, while it attracts him more strongly than ever.” This is something that gave me pause. When I think of the things that I regard as extraordinarily beautiful, they all have the similar feature that their beauty is not for me, as it were, but for itself, containing its own inherent value. It (or he, or she) doesn’t need me to think it is beautiful. This goes for a landscape, or a thunderstorm, or an animal, or, I think, art. When a piece of art isn’t ingratiating, when it doesn’t have that sense that it is trying to deliver for me what I already knew I wanted, but instead shows me something – a touch of light, a perspective, a new sound, some kind of sensation – that is beyond me, and furthermore doesn’t seem like it really needs me to assign value to it, I become interested. So much of what is sold to us, day in, day out, ingratiates itself to us, saying “what do you want? here, I have it for you”. But that isn’t what I want. I want things to ignore me, and be, fiercely, impenetrably, themselves.