Marginalia: on a quote from Thoreau

Dave,

Let me know your thoughts on this:

“Man cannot afford to be a naturalist, to look at Nature directly, but only with the side of his eye. He must look through and beyond her. To look at her is as fatal as to look at the head of Medusa – it turns the man of science to stone.”
– H. D. Thoreau, quoted by William Hamilton Gibson

Why? Because it’s all too marvelous? Because it’s impossible to fully comprehend and partial comprehension is all we’ll ever get? The beauty will distract from/distort the science?

The Sylph

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Sylph,

I’d want to know the context of this remark before saying exactly what I thought he meant. But of course the wonderful thing about isolating a quote is that it opens up multiple possibilities for interpretation – it frees the mind to explore it in ways the author may never have consciously intended. In this way, merely by cutting it loose, a brief passage of prose may be converted into something very like a poem.

This is of course a roundabout way of saying, “I don’t know!” You could take this a number of ways. I suppose HDT was indulging in a bit of sarcasm at his more “scientific” colleagues’ expense. (Didn’t “naturalist” meant “scientist” at the time?) But perhaps he meant to include himself in the criticism – I can’t tell.

Dave

***

Dave,

Yes, you’re probably on to something there. Our [recently deceased] friend George spent many a day with his nose in his works by HDT in search of the context of this quote . . . I’ll try googling, as you probably already did.
~
I found it in Spirit in Nature, from Vol. 5 of the Journals (March, 1853 – November 1853). Not much context, just stuck in there by itself.

The Sylph

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Sylph,

I don’t think this arrangement of quotes, “Spirit in Nature,” originated with Thoreau. Thanks for the link though – a lot of good stuff! I thought the following was especially telling:

“He is the richest who has most use for nature as raw material of tropes and symbols with which to describe his life. If these gates of golden willows affect me, they correspond to the beauty and promise of some experience on which I am entering. If I am overflowing with life, am rich in experience for which I lack expression, then nature will be my language full of poetry – all nature will be fable, and every natural phenomenon be a myth. The man of science, who is not seeking for expression but for a fact to be expressed merely, studies nature as a dead language. I pray for such inward experience as will make nature significant.”

I find the egotism here a little nauseating. Nature as raw material makes me think of the ideology of resourcism – maybe an inescapable way of talking about Nature in the 19th century. Hell, I don’t think we’ve emerged from its shadow even today. Nevertheless, the bit about scientists and dead languages has the ring of truth about it.

Dave

***

Sylph,

Got it! Thanks to a full citation in an essay by Scott Slovic, I was able to locate the original entry in the journals (we have the Dover complete edition). A shame George didn’t use the Internet – though perhaps the prolonged and fruitless search carries its own rewards, e.g. in discovering nifty things along the way? The quote was indeed only a fragment; here’s the whole paragraph. (This should strike a chord with you, given your recent experience with lichens.)

“Man cannot afford to be a naturalist, to look at Nature directly, but only with the side of his eye. He must look through and beyond her. To look at her is fatal as to look at the head of Medusa. It turns the man of science to stone. I feel I am dissipated by many observations. I should be the magnet in the midst of all this dust and filings. I know the back of my hand against a rock, and as I smooth back the skin, I find myself prepared to study lichens there. I look upon man but as a fungus. I have a slight, dry headache as the result of all this observing. How to observe is how to behave. O for a little Lethe! To crown all, lichens, which are so thin, are described in the dry state, as they are most commonly, not most truly, seen. Truly, they are dryly described.”

This is very strange to me. HDT evidently believed enough in science to think that its dry methology did constitute a form of direct seeing, and he rejected that – or at least felt that it must be tempered by the imagination. This puts him very far from the via negativa.

Dave

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Dave,

Yeah – he’ll only study lichens if they’re growing on him. They could never get his interest otherwise, the dried up crispy crusts of hardly knowable matter that they are (without optical aids) . . . Yet his interest in man as fungus is via-negativistic in spirit, is it not? I suggest that the pre-‘easily-obtained-optical-aid’-age contributed to his indifference vis-a-vis the lowly lichen.

Sylph

***

Hi again,

Just out walking to the Far Field, gazing in wonder and some sadness at the profusion of Canada mayflower and Solomon’s seal inside that tiny ten year-old deer exclosure – and bare ground everywhere outside it.

Not to beat a dead naturalist, but the Thoreau quote does remind me of reactions I’ve had myself. For example, on wildflower outings I am always insisting on the common names; the Latin strikes me as it evidently struck Thoreau – too dry. Why should a dead language be the language of first resort to describe a living being? The common names are imprecise, yes – precisely because they are part of a living language that is constantly in flux.

Dave

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Living language, yes. Actual communication? Almost impossible. The species names are dry to me too, but the genus brings a mental image – a gestalt of the plant in question. So many times when I’m trying to communicate with someone about a certain plant and they know only the popular name, it’s nothing but frustration. Common names have regional patterns, duplicate applications, historical meanings – it’s just a mess. I used to feel the way you do about it but if the mission is communication, the advantage of each species having its own name can’t be beat. I too worship Linnaeus. Trying to discuss the properties of plants without getting specific IS seeing nature with only a sideways glance. It doesn’t always matter – in fact, it usually doesn’t. But remember, these little entities have evolved their separateness. Their tiny histories, which led to what they are this minute, are rich food for the imagination. If you let yourself get wrapped up in not only Linnaeus but Darwin too, natural history is far from dry. A dead language is PERFECT for use as a labeling language. Hats off to Linnea!

Must get to work here now . . .

S.

***

I’m thinking maybe we ought to give a listen to what Scott Slovic has to say about it, since he situates the quote within the much larger context of Thoreau’s entire life and work. His estimation of St. Henry is more charitable than mine, though he does acknowledge Thoreau’s “frequent haughtiness of tone.” (That’s definitely the major thing keeping me from becoming a rabid Thoreauvian!) From Marginality, Midnight Optimism, and the Natural Cipher: An Approach to Thoreau and Eiseley:

“By seeking the wholesome margins of civilization, Thoreau achieves the clarity of spirit necessary for full appreciation of his existence. From this position of voluntary exile from society, whether for a brief walk in the woods or for a two-year habitation of the shoreland near Walden Pond, he gains both emotional health and insightful perspective. In the essay ‘A Winter Walk,’ he argues that life itself is ‘more serene and worthy to contemplate’ when he is ‘standing quite alone, far in the forest’ (Natural History Essays 59). So it is not merely the observer’s perspective that improves through marginality, but his very life.

“Yet the appreciator of the natural cipher must take care, if he is to enjoy fully the mysteries and beauties of nature, to rely on an appropriately marginal way of seeing. On March 23, 1853, Thoreau notes in his journal that ‘man cannot afford to be a naturalist, to look at Nature directly, but only with the side of his eye.’ Direct scrutiny of the natural world, he writes, ‘is fatal as to look at the head of Medusa. It turns the man of science to stone’ (5:45). By learning to observe from the margins, Thoreau manages to contemplate the meaning of things without becoming distracted, even paralyzed, by their surface appearances. On November 5, 1857, he proclaims:

Sometimes I would rather get a transient glimpse or side view of a thing than stand fronting it – as those polybodies. The object I caught a glimpse of as I went by haunts my thoughts a long time, is infinitely suggestive, and I do not care to front it and scrutinize it, for I know that the thing that really concerns me is not there, but in my relation to that. That is a mere reflecting surface. (10.164)

“The subtle suggestiveness and sense of relation far outweigh the visible qualities of the object itself for the man who is poetically or divinely alive. And marginal glimpsing allows such an observer to avoid the glare of directness and savor the delicate meaningfulness of his experience. Marginality, for Thoreau, is both a kind of environment and a method of observation – and both contribute to his awakening.

“What Thoreau desires in this marginal existence is a general sense of meaning, not a tightly (if deeply) spelled out typological system like the Puritans’ or a Linnaean catalogue of facts (disparaged by Emerson in his section on language in Nature, 1836). Thoreau wants simply to experience the immediacy, the multiplicity, and the beauty of the natural world. He is a lover of details, even details without broader meanings and metaphorical equivalents. In the ‘Thursday’ chapter of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, he writes:

When compelled by a shower to take shelter under a tree, we may improve that opportunity for a more minute inspection of some of Nature’s works. I have stood under a tree in the wood half a day at a time, during a heavy rain in the summer, and yet employed myself happily and profitably there by prying with microscopic eye into the crevices of the bark or the leaves or the fungi at my feet. (A Week 300)

“The pleasure of such activity results not from the ability to identify and explain all the observable phenomena. No, Thoreau, like Mather with his strange occurrences in the heavens, realizes the necessity of looking ‘through and beyond’ nature (5:45) – he peers microscopically only to savor the magnificent minutiae, not to rationalize and categorize them. . . .

“The perspective of the traveler – marginal, estranged, freshly alert – is just what Thoreau desires, only without having to cover vast stretches of land and water. ‘To the sick,’ he notes, ‘the doctors wisely recommend a change of air and scenery. Thank Heaven, here is not all the world’ (320). Yet little of the actual world is needed if the observer manages to maintain a marginal perspective.”

(Weber Studies, Winter 1992, Volume 9.1)

AFTERTHOUGHT: Artists and thinkers aren’t the only ones who know how to exploit “the wholesome margin of civilization.” Literal and figurative margins are also a very fruitful terrain for merchants and capitalists. The seizure of marginal lands – as commons, an essential element (though not always a large one) in the subsistence economy – resulted in the marginalization of hundreds of thousands of people, who would then comprise the disposable human resources for the Industrial Revolution. One man’s margin is another man’s profit. And this process continues: for example, when a pharmaceutical giant obtains the patent rights on a people’s traditional plant medicine, what is that but the enclosure of the commons in a slightly new guise? We are not so much a nation of immigrants as we are a nation of displaced and uprooted people – people alienated from Nature in a far more violent manner than the modern would-be transcendentalist would care to imagine.

Gary Nabhan has a good essay on refugees and land-hunger (focusing on the Middle East) in the current issue of Orion, abridged for the web version.
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SEE ALSO the entry for February 11, “Some quotes on the art of seeing.”

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave's writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the "share alike" provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

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