Henry David Thoreau
Critical Essays on the Ktaadn passage from The Maine Woods
Selected passages from"From Concord Out: Henry Thoreau and the Nature Sublime." Ralph W. Black. ISLE (Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment), 2.1 (Spring 1994), 65-75.
In his 1844 essay "The Poet," Emerson writes: "Yet America is a poem in our eyes. Its ample geography dazzles the imagination." The lines are epigraphic for much of Thoreau's work, for the dialectic they suggest between the physicality of the earth and the imaginative transposition of that earth as language. An 1851 Journal entry goes to the heart of Thoreau's work not just with American geography, but as an American geographer -- the literal meaning of which, "earth-writer," he would be the first to recognize and embrace: "A writer, a man writing, is a scribe of all nature -- he is the corn & the grass & the atmosphere writing" [2:441].
There is of course a marked difference between being a scribe of the earth and being that earth's actual script, the first constructing a geography that dazzles, the second the dazzlement itself. Sharon Cameron reads this Journal passage as Thoreau's attempt to "make himself into the alienness he was forced to confront . . .," and to thus give voice to that alienness (48). Such a conflation, the vanishing or erasure of the self, in the face of, or by a larger, more essential (natural) Other, and the concomitant voicing of that conflation (of that erasure), is the province, if not the crux of the sublime.
This moment of substitution alluded to by Cameron -- the object taking the place of the lapsed, or silenced, representation -- is at the core of Kant's "mathematical sublime." Kant's version of the sublime moment is particularly concerned with the representation of the natural object, or the imagination's inability to represent that object. Kant uses the elusive term "subreption" to get at what I will argue is key to Thoreau's experience of the sublime (114). It is a term which Thomas Weiskel, among recent theorists of the sublime, has come closest to corralling: "The sublime dramatized the rhythm of transcendence in its extreme and purest form, for the sublime began where the conventional systems, readings of landscape and text, broke down, and found in that very collapse the foundation of another order of meaning" (22).
As a writer of nature, Thoreau's fascination with the sublime stems directly from, and is a natural extension of, his on-going practice of the correspondential link between landscape and identity. An early Journal entry shows his interest in testing the limits of such a paradigm: "I should like to meet the great and serene sentence [of nature] which does not reveal itself, . . . which I may never with my utmost intelligence pierce through and beyond . . . , which no intelligence can understand" [I:330]. It is the wildness he is always imagining "out there," an idealized Other he can only intellectualize about (write, not meet) among the fields, woodlots, and stream banks of Concord -- a terrain almost always construed by tropes of familiarity and correspondence . . . .
Thoreau's correspondential eye in such a locale is predicated on the proximity of locus and logos. It is this familiarity, as both Eric Sundquist and Stanley Cavell have argued, that undercuts Thoreau's real experience of the wild. Logos rewrites locus: for though tropes of wildness might be coaxed or imagined out of the flux of pond ice, or out of seasonal change, the land itself is thoroughly imbued with such familiarity that both landscape and language are invariably "revealed." Nature's great and serene (and thus indecipherable) sentence is nowhere to be found.
Toward the end of Walden (1854), Thoreau is explicit about his hunger for a more authentic experience of American wilderness and primitivism than the well-plumbed depths of the pond can offer:
[W]e require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable....We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and Titanic features, the seacoast with its wrecks, the wilderness with its living and decaying trees . . . We need to witness our own limits transgressed. (575)
The irony of course lies in the fact that Thoreau makes his way to these unexplorable and unfathomable regions, bent on exploration and on fathoming as many geographical and cultural truths as he can. The "unsurveyed" quality of this hoped-for land raises other questions for this author whose writing surveyed interior and exterior landscapes alike, and for this surveyor, whose transit-conscious eye mapped and essentially "wrote out" the delineament of numerous landscapes. The difficulties arise, and the cruxes of these excursions exist, in those passages where the tropes and figures he has utilized to such promising effect in Concord fall short, where the alienness of the land seems to inhibit or obscure his ability to represent it clearly.
The trip to "Ktaadn" in 1846 takes him into the heart of a "bran-new country," a "wholly uninhabited wilderness," where human limits (of psychology, or language) might be transgressed. The sublime otherness of the mountain is initially detectable in its distance from the party and the animation Thoreau sees in it: "At length we reached an elevation sufficiently bare to afford a view of the summit, still distant and blue, almost as if retreating from us" (636). As place, it is both physical and metaphysical.
While the Concord party is within imaginative reach of human settlement, Thoreau levels his attention (often critically), at the ecologically destructive confluence of nature and culture. The Indians of Oldtown fall far short of his portrayal at the end of "Ktaadn" of the noble savage living in "the primitive age of the world," and of the loggers who strike him as hell-bent on "[driving] the forest all out of the country, from every solitary beaver swamp, and mountain side, as soon as possible" (595). As they move further into the woods, Thoreau attempts to familiarize the strangeness of the land by importing into it a Concordian rhetoric--a moose is measured by its similarity to a horse and a cow (636). Species of trees and plants are similarly connected, by memory, to their Concord cousins. His reliance on metaphor gives way to a more genre-specific representation as the rocks on a hillside are depicted as "flocks and herds that pastured, chewing a rocky cud at sunset...without a bleat or a low" (638). He arrives in the wild and relies, at least partially, on a pastoral imagery to make his way through it. This anthropomorphic construction, of a comfortably New England stripe, allows him to superimpose the known on the unknown.
But there is a point during the journey at which the physicality of the terrain asserts itself, essentially rendering Thoreau's Concord-constructing tongue useless. Human figurations are left behind as the party is twice "buried" in the woods, crossing "the most treacherous and porous country I have ever travelled"--treacherous because porous: a land which engulfs even before the mountain is ascended (367-68). But this notion of burial is temporal as well as spatial (that is, geographical), as well as rhetorical. Katahdin is frontier for Thoreau, "the unhandselled globe," and frontier, that ideal of nationhood, is the future. That Thoreau imposes a rhetorical Concord (and Cambridge) on this frontier reflects his inability to relinquish the past--that set of known and familiar artifacts that allow him (as Wendell Berry would have it) to know where he is on the globe because who knows who he is--or at least what books he's read. But the perspective shifts when he is "buried," the landscape now more transformative than it is transformed. As presence, Katahdin demands an exclusive present attention, negating the usefulness of the interpretive "texts" Thoreau has carried with him.
As Ronald Hoag has argued, Thoreau's representation of his time on Katahdin has far more to do with an exuberant experience of the sublime than it does with a moment of transcendental angst or disillusionment, or with an undermining presence of divinity--as other critics of the passage have suggested (Hoag 33). Clearly, Thoreau has a strong sense of his own trespass on the mountain and the transformative power of such an elemental world, a world almost identical to the one he imagines towards the end of Walden:
Katahdin is mythologized not only by the pantheon Thoreau imposes on it in his efforts to "understand" the place, but by the physical presence, or lack of presence, he experiences there--The "cloud-factory" that obscures all but fleeting glimpses of the mountain's materiality. The above passage suggests how the human presence mimics the material, the loose grating of the ribs echoing the porous quality of the ground mentioned earlier. Thought, reason, and understanding vanish because they are overwhelmed by the physical: locus rewrites, and ultimately silences, logos. The tension of the experience is enacted by the pairing, and repetition, of opposing images: the vastnesss of the land, and the solitary beholder's notion of the uninhabitableness of that land. The divine faculty that is "pilfered" from the poet (this is no grand larceny), is his ability to stake an actual, as well as a rhetorical, claim there--an essential faculty for a writer who concerned himself so much with tropes of settlement and dwelling. His inability to construct a correspondential footing on the side of the mountain is not about a loss of faith or self; it is the poet running out of language. The culmination of this passage raises further questions about Thoreau's relation to (and his ability to construct a relation to) this landscape:
The "Contact! Contact!" which culminates the epiphany challenges a crucial question in the Journal:"Is it not as language that all natural objects affect the poet?" What kind of contact can Thoreau make without language-as-mediator: Many critics have suggested that his cry of "Contact!" is about frustration or inability, a failure of his transcendental faith. My own sense is that Thoreau's rhetorical silence here, his inability to author contact, becomes ironically the very authentication of an experience of the wild he has been after all along. What he recognizes and finally connects with is the validity of his silence in a topography that subsumes utterance. Katahdin is no tabula rasa onto which he can readily inscribe the pose of his humanity; it is in fact Presence (a presentness), which stands firmly against such an act of inscription. The mountain is its own telling. . . .