Thoreau: Child of the Mist
I am perched in Israel in a strange yet marvelous world, full of life, full of the real – yet I can wonder how it is that I can still long for the real. But how could it be otherwise? Reality does not hold still like a model at a photo shoot. It’s ever changing, carrying past into present, and present foretelling futures. Of course this can happen at a dizzying pace, making us quite sure we’ve lost contact with the real. But if the real, even at a slow living pace, is fated to pass, we are fated to be abandoned by it, or by essential parts of it, come what may.
I find it helps when I wonder about loss of the real, or what happened to the joy in existence, to turn to those writers who have been through it and know how to give me handles. Here is my take on Thoreau dealing with the loss of the real, wondering what it is to be alive, as he recoils from the loss first of his brother, who dies in his arms writhing in spasms from lockjaw, when Henry is in his early 20s; and just a few days later learns that Emerson’s son Waldo, whom he fathered while the elder Waldo was away on tours, has died of scarlatina at age five.
Folks think about Thoreau because he longed for the real, had inklings of how to respond to that longing, and was not unacquainted with the traumas of loss.
But as I invite you to whatever guidance he can offer about loss and recovery of the real, who was this Thoreau? It doesn’t help that Thoreau may have called himself a mystic, a transcendentalist, and a natural philosopher. That doesn’t tell us what those labels meant to him – or what they can, or do, mean to us. Those labels are classic examples of linguistic instability: slippery titles, without effable centers.
I might agree with you, after discussion, that Thoreau was a mystic or otherwise, but everything depends on how I get there and on our mutual understanding of the paths there – paths to the real. Rather than start with these abstract banners – transcendentalist, natural philosopher – I want to start with a singular image: his invocation of ‘a child of the mist.’ He speaks of “a child of the mist” in a letter to Lucy Brown weeks after the catastrophe of John Thoreau’s death, and the death of the young child he cared for, Waldo, in the spring of 1842. After convalescence from an attack of John’s lockjaw symptoms, and having climbed out of the worst of his shock, he writes “As for Waldo, he died as the mist rises from the brook, which the sun will soon dart his rays through.” The suggestion is that the sun naturally burns off the allure of the mist, and just as its rays dissolve the mist, so nature dissolves the alluring presence of Waldo. The mist escapes back into nature’s dynamic invisibility, and so has Waldo.
Some two decades later, in his essay “Walking” he invokes the figure of “a child of the mist” as an exhortation to all of us. We are to be and to pass through the world and leave it as Waldo did: “Live free, child of the mist — and with respect to knowledge we are all children of the mist.” This suggests a way of being in the world that is beyond knowledge, a way of being like a child, unknowing and full of innocent wonder in the midst of the mist that veils our world. We’ll see whether that way of being in the world – being ‘a child of the mist’ – is also a way of being a mystic, transcendentalist, and natural philosopher. And these are in any case ways – good ways – of longing for the real.
Thoreau’s response to Lucy Brown’s sympathetic inquiry can seem austere and remote, distant from the personal grief we’d expect. But his distance from lamentation does not show, in my view, a lack of feeling – as if he were coldly indifferent to his loss. After all, he was in complete spiritual collapse for two weeks, and he must have suffered even longer. His seeming remoteness reflects the outcome of a struggle for composure, for a balanced and not unhappy repose. Well before these deaths struck, he admired a kind of stoic serenity. Putting that serenity in play, however, can’t have been easy. His Journal goes mute. He succumbs to John’s symptoms, terrifying his family. In climbing out of the abyss he harnesses himself to an imperative that will bring joyful repose: “fall in love with nature and the world and all they contain.” He casts off devastation to track glimmers of light. He tends joyful signs ‘til they shine as spring buds and birdsong. Lucy Brown is the first to know.
He writes, almost ecstatically – uncannily, poignantly – that “nature [does not] manifest any sorrow at [Waldo’s] death, but soon the note of the lark will be heard down in the meadow, and fresh dandelions will spring from the old stocks where he plucked them last summer.” Thoreau finds a love of the lark, and of fresh dandelions. Such tender attachment marks therapeutic renewal.
Falling in love means coming to see someone, or something, under a special light of wonder and plenitude. Everything has an extra quota of meaning – though others will be blind to it. We all see a grassy meadow. Only you and I, as lovers, know it as pool of waving grass that caressed our bare feet. For us, it tells a story of love. I get a rush just thinking of it. Thoreau is not remote from Waldo as the child disperses in the mist. He memorializes his love of Waldo in a reverie of the world both loved. Without disavowing death – even embracing it – Thoreau stages it as part of a larger love story. This staunches the wound. The memory of deaths evoked in reverie returns him to life.
Here is more of that reverie:
“As for Waldo, he died as the mist rises from the brook, which the sun will soon dart his rays through. Do not the flowers die every autumn? He had not even taken root here. I was not startled to hear that he was dead; it seemed the most natural event that could happen. His fine organization demanded it, and nature gently yielded its request. It would have been strange if he had lived. Neither will nature manifest any sorrow at his death, but soon the note of the lark will be heard down in the meadow, and fresh dandelions will spring from the old stocks where he plucked them last summer.”
Transcendental imagination drives reverie. Flying under the Kantian banner of ‘productive imagination,’ it is the key to German and English romanticism. In Thoreau’s hands, imaginative reverie opens a place beyond grief, a place of impersonal mourning. / Such mourning is impersonal because it avoids personal self-pity or selfish complaint – one’s person is not especially singled out for pain. Waldo’s loss is of a piece with larger cycles of loss. It does not single out Thoreau. Ice departs in spring thaw, mists die with sunrise, leaves expire as Winter paints them brown. These moments are mourned impersonally. Waldo’s loss is “the most natural event that could happen.”
Reverie casts every natural event as perfect — it is as it must be and will not be wished otherwise. “I was not startled to hear that he was dead; it seemed the most natural event that could happen. His fine organization demanded it, and nature gently yielded its request.” As in great art or romantic love, each detail is as it must be, and is totally affirmed. The organization is fine. Each detail demands its place in the wondrous whole. And if the focus of our attraction must fall out of view, that’s OK too. Waldo disperses in slanting light.
Reverie displaces devastation. It realigns perception, in this case, around the figure of a child. This is Thoreau abandoning despair, resentment, rage, or numbing indifference. This is heroic the way great poetry is heroic, showing courage, imagination, and skill in precarious circumstance. A heroic blindness takes hold (like a hero’s refusal to feel pain). In the face of nihilism, love’s blindness makes the world go round.
In writing or living for love of the world we deflate customary self-importance. We fail to see the world as our personal adversary or personal opportunity. In seeing our smallness in the scheme of things, as under the shock of death we are dropped down a peg. We ‘get out of the way,’ and grant to things their inestimable worth. Things now can take on new color, new garments. In reverie, sparkling details of the world arrive unbidden, not as deserved or earned. The presumption that freedom from suffering or happiness is our special right validates self-pity and resentment when these vanish. But without a right to happiness (and its presumption of self-importance), loss takes on new meaning. Letting the world’s shining particulars enter and leave our purview as they must, dissolves all inclination to claim rights to happiness.
Thoreau’s wanderings are again open to things worthy of praise and affirmation. Reverie is rebirth from catastrophe’s rubble. If it’s elegiac, it’s uplifting — only slightly tinged with melancholy. And if it’s lament, then it’s muted. An embraceable world is the place of his being.
Roughly a decade after his letter to Lucy Brown, Thoreau finds himself a child in a marvelous, misted world. In Walden, he speaks of the “fabulous landscape of my infant dreams.” Fabulous landscape is a fabled land – not exactly a kind of storied land, but a mode of being. He shares this mode in reverie: “. . . a new growth is rising all around, preparing another aspect for new infant eyes. Almost the same johnswort springs from the same perennial root in this pasture, and even I have at length helped to clothe that fabulous landscape of my infant dreams.”
Reverie brings us to co-constructed space: the spring shoots of johnswort invite a reverie and the infant in reverie clothes them as marvelous. Each hand touches the other. The world is not just there as a lump, targeted by a hyperactive imagination. In the flow of our being in the world, a companionable partnership reigns. I am not primary, or in the world solo. And the world is not solo impinging on me. Reverie affords couples dances or duets. The child’s smile dances with ours, and we dance with it. Direction of fit is double (or irrelevant).
Two decades after writing Lucy Brown the motif of a child of the mist returns, now a sustaining talisman over the years. In “Walking,” we hear that when it comes to knowledge, “we are all children of the mist.” “Live free, child of the mist — and with respect to knowledge we are all children of the mist.” We see matters of life-and-death, joy-and-affliction, heaven-and-earth, only through mist. We are none of us better placed than Waldo. We come and go quite beyond knowledge, a child of the mist, like the ephemeral song of a lark.
Nietzsche’s child laughs by the sea when it comes of age. Nietzsche has us become a child – after being a camel first, and then a lion. We are born as apprentices, carrying heavy burdens, dull as a camel. Then, ideally, we break away roaringly from those burdens with the brio of a lion. Then we might become a child, all innocence, creativity, and play in the advance and retreat of breakers by the sea. Things come and go in the advance and retreat of the tide. Jesus has us become innocent as little children. Thoreau sees a child as an occasion for innocence and creative perception – reverie. He becomes a child, in the reverie of Spaulding’s Farm. Nietzsche, Jesus, and Thoreau beckon us back to childhood – or is it forward? They speak not of biological age, but a way of being opened by reverie, a timeless travel, back and ahead, like the tides.
I retrieve dreams and they grow into a new instant of experience. Retrieving dreams through reverie opens vaulting prospects of life-and-death. Reverie lets us pass through the gateway Thoreau calls “Sympathy with Intelligence.” Even as he died he sparkled with a child’s humor and wonder. He could see more than one thing at once — he had no need of a world to come.
Thoreau would gaze with John at the edge of the Merrimack and see sky on the river’s surface or see sky on the quiet muddy bottom. The gossamer surface held cloud and tree while transparent to bottom. As he put it, the eye had more than one intention, seeing heavens and muddy bottoms at once, just as I might be adult and child at once. I’m younger than I was at 30 or 40 wrestling career and family. Now, I can gather myself again by sleek rivers. Age is anomalous. When are we young? Or old? Why privilege public records? When Henry and John kneel by the waters, they see bottom and sky.
I can fall into reverie remembering the fall of a riverbank pine shattering the banks of the Charles on a windless afternoon, or innocently play by reservoirs of learning filling catch-buckets beside me, and offer generous portions, as I wish. “When I was young and easy under the apple boughs, time held me green, undying . . . and I sang through the mist like the sea . . .”
I wonder how to be with this figure of reverie, a child of the mist. I don’t want to do anything to it — pigeonhole it, or take it apart. I want to tarry with it, let its unassertive presence shadow me; or perhaps I will let myself shadow it. Is that how an image, a picture, a reverie teaches? If we’re captive, that’s good. What is it to be captive in a way that releases rather than binds us?
Letting myself be shadowed by misty imponderables, and sharing the experience of being shadowed, is an essential part of my learning in philosophy, literature, or song. To be shadowed by imponderables is not sensing a limit, a stop sign, “Clarity ends here, no admittance, stay out!” Nor is it the dismal imperative, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent!” To abide with a reverie of “a child of the mist” is not to shun clarity but to let a door open, to let eyes gaze through mist, through a darkling glass. Gazing as children we see more than before.
Should a professor, mother, friend, or pastor become as a child, dwell in mist, and invite others to share its dappled light? What of the inevitable burn off? In the mundane course of things, mist will burn off. But that needn’t poison our tarrying with imponderables. To tarry is to be with – undistracted by worries of darkness down the road. A mist’s dispersal may show us not the extraordinary but the banal – who knows? To tarry is to shadow the imponderables, not to master or disperse them.
At this present joined by two eternities, we are “children of the mist,” happy with wonder, with imponderables. Too bright a light will wash out the mystery of your face. You might think that in reverie we become shades who shadow the country, or descend to an underworld – insubstantial as mist. But Thoreau has us full-bodied children of mist.
Thoreau’s walk by Spaulding’s Farm, related in the last pages of “Walking,” brings him to see the house “appear dimly still as through a mist.” Seeing through the mist reveals something through soft focus that would be lost using a harsh, sharp focus. What he finds looking up through the meadows comes out in reverie. He espies a “Great Hall” hovering among the pines on the ridge. It seems to overlay Spaulding’s simple barn. He hears laughter and song from within. This is a place of playful gods.
We see this wonder with him, provided only that we’re friendly with his child-like reverie, with his readiness for the fabulous. Then we are privy to the wonders of the Farm, its Hall and divinities within. We needn’t deny others who don’t see this, nor have we made up something artificial to paint over the Farm. I see what others see, and my eye has a ‘second intention’ that you lack. I see the river bottom and also the sky laid over that bottom; or see the barn, and also the Great Hall – as if superimposed on it. Neither intention of the eye – Great Hall or simple barn – refutes the other.
Looking at the bottom in doubled concentration we see the sky there. Less wondrously, we see the sky at the expense of the bottom. Heads raised, eyes drift to the top of the pines, and the river is lost. Seeing one is not to see the other. But if our eye has a second intention, we have doubled vision, sky and river-bottom, simultaneously, one overlaying the other. Thoreau wants sky and muddy bottom united in the medium of the river that affords double vision. He wants life overlaid on death, and death overlaid on life, age overlaid on childhood, and innocent wonder overlaid on age. Looking at the Spaulding’s Farm with blinkered vision is easy enough. Seeing it through an eye’s double intention is more difficult. Through reverie we have the Great Hall and the gods – and Spaulding’s Farm, each overlaid on the other. Only reverie lets this happen.
As he kneels by the river with John there is indeed separate access to unmuddied sky – access less wondrous because less encompassing and less eternal in passing – time stops though it moves. But if the access is holy – if the scene is holy – there is no separate access to the gods or their singing or laughter. They are here-and-now – or nowhere. For Thoreau, paradise is here and now. We attain the land of our reverie not by stripping down to disembodied spirit, or by rising like angels to heaven. We kneel by the waters as a child – see through its mist. Neither ghosts, angels, nor toilers, we lilt vulnerable and full-bodied, tarrying, wondering, through dappled majesty.
In submission to reverie we are three faces at once. Being a ‘child of the mist’ is being a mystic, transcendentalist, and natural philosopher at once.
We are natural philosophers, in so far as we philosophize closely attentive to river and sky and early birdsong.
We are transcendentalists insofar as we let poetic imagination clothe the meadows of our youth.
And we are mystics insofar as we live beyond knowledge, meld in a happy union of earth-and-heaven, death-and-life, self-and-nature, all in passing cycles of eternity, all in a timeless flux.
-Edward F. Mooney, guest contributor
1. This self-characterization is found in his Journal, March 5, 1853.
2. Letter to Lucy Brown dated March 2, 1842; see The Correspondence of Henry David Thoreau, ed. Walter Harding and Carl Bode, New York University Press,1958, p. 62. John dies on Jan 11, 1842; Waldo dies, Jan 27. Remarkably, within a month of his brother’s death, he could write that he was simultaneously old (in fact, buried with his brother) — and young (ready to start life anew, as if a youth): “ I am as old as old as the Alleghanies — but [age] excites a youthful feeling – as I were but too happy to be so young.” Journal, 9 Feb 1851 or Feb 27 (– I’ve seen both dates cited.) Thoreau links sanity and freedom with youth. Thoreau’s late essay “Walking” ends with the youthful affirmation of “the newer testament of the present moment.” See The Portable Thoreau, ed Jeffry Cramer, Penguin 2012 p. 587 .
3. “Walking,” p. 583
4. Branka Arsic reports discovery of incoherent notes, so far unpublished, from this period of nearly insane disorientation.
5. In his Critique of Pure Reason, Kant’s productive imaginative mediates between understanding and sensibility to create (roughly speaking) a world.
6. Hear Branka Arsic unraveling the ontology of impersonal mourning: http://backdoorbroadcasting.net/2012/05/branka-arsic-memorial-life-thoreau-and-benjamin-on-nature-in-mourning/
7. The most important lesson that transcendentalists, and romantic poets, take from Kant’s transcendental philosophy Kant’s highlighting the role of productive imagination as a force above and beyond reception of mere sensory impressions or the application of hard categories (like causality).
8. See Lucy Brown, op cit
9. “Falling in love with the world,” a phrase I borrow from Cavell, is to cherish the things in a mood of pure attention that sets questions of self-importance and justice aside. The haunting story from Eli Wiesel, has a cluster of rabbis debate from the midst of their concentration camp God’s permission of evil. They put God on trail and find Him unforgivably guilty — and then pray: pray, because prayer sets one’s affliction aside, lets it drain, and gives affirmation a toehold. In The Book of Job, Job averts his eyes from his suffering as he finally affirms the world. To bury a too-piercing sight allows us “to fall in love with the world.” See Stanley Cavell, The Claim of Reason, Oxford, 1979, p. 431. And see my “Acknowledgement, Suffering and Praise: Stanley Cavell as Religious Continental Thinker,” Soundings, an Interdisciplinary Journal, Summer, 2005, pp. 393-411, reprinted in Lost Intimacy in American Thought, Personal Philosophy from Thoreau to Cavell, Continuum, 2007.
10. Walden (Princeton UP, 2004), 155-56.
11. “Walking”, 583-4.
12. Zarathustra, “Zarathustra’s Speeches,” ‘On the Three Metamorphoses,” many editions.
13. For “Sympathy with Intelligence,” see “Walking,” 583
14. Apologies to Dylan Thomas’ Fern Hill.
15. Final sentence in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus.
16. See ‘Walking’: “I do not know that Knowledge amounts to anything more definite than a novel & grand surprise on a sudden revelation of the insufficiency of all that we had called knowledge before — a discovery that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in our philosophy. It is the lighting up of the mist by the sun.” 583 .