A professor in Massachusetts

Thoreau and WaldenI went to the woods to see the woods Thoreau went to, hoping to feel more of the why that he felt. Thoreau didn’t erect that sign, of course. Someone else did, later. Did they betray him or his work by doing so? Did Thoreau even write those words without irony? Was / is Walden a cruel hoax, an aspiration, a bit of self-indulgence, an inspiration, a record of life-long learning, a mass of undecidability (and then how would we know?).

What are the essential facts of life that Thoreau assumes can be so confidently identified and proclaimed?

What does life (if that’s the “it”) have to teach? What does it matter what life teaches if death is inevitable? Why so many negatives in that last sentence, three in total? (How would we grade such a sentence?) How can Thoreau be so sure of his motives? “I went to the woods because”: how can we accept any such direct, simple statement of motives as anything but glaring self-deception or, worse, obfuscation, sleight-of-mind? Is it a trick? (The antecedent for “it” may be unclear, I admit it.)

I remember making many kinds of meanings as I stood behind the camera and took this picture. I imagine I would like to share the “I” who was there to take the picture, but that person is not pictured.

With all the complexities and uncertainties and critical-thinking born-and-bound modes I can and do bring to bear upon the words on this sign, in this setting, in the larger context of an August afternoon near a public pond just last year, many years after I have read Walden, I do believe, anyway, that I can learn from Thoreau, and not just about Thoreau. I sense his living hand, then warm and capable, stretching toward mine. Though I cannot map or fully articulate what that meeting is or will be, I do believe he is as sincere as one can hope, and that I can trust him enough to meet him, and trust both of us to do our utmost not to betray our meetings and the hopes those meetings might yet revive.



5 thoughts on “A professor in Massachusetts

  1. Glad to see this post on the eve of my own week long journey into the woods of Massachusetts over the next week. I expect to feel Thoreau’s outstretched hand among many other spiritual mentors living and past. The pilgrimage and the isolation and the community of the men’s gathering in nature always strips away the non-essentials for me – allowing truths to emerge as well as new reflections of my self. I posted a link above and figure you’d enjoy it, Gardner.

  2. This hits hard as I wrestle with my own shortcomings and immaturity this Saturday morning. Thoreau always has a way of feeding me my own mediocrity.

    Is it possible that Thoreau wrestled with the doubts you mention here? Maybe Walden is attempt at struggling with those doubts. Perhaps Walden is his attempt to wrestle with both theoretical and spiritual angels, as Stuart Hall describes. Or maybe he tries to bottle some of that groundless courage, that ineffable confidence that any project worth doing requires? Brings to mind that Francis Ford Coppola quote- “I don’t think there’s any artist of any value who doesn’t doubt what they’re doing.”

    Hope all is well.

  3. After reading your questions and the comments, I couldn’t help but think about Paulo Freire arguing in Pedagogy of the Oppressed that it is the open-minded, sincere, and exploratory communion with others that lead us on the path to becoming “fully human.” I think Thoreau’s “Walden” is a powerful reminder that communion moves beyond people. Not an either/or, but a both/and. Powerful reflections.

  4. Dr. C,

    Great to hear from you on my “resurrected” blog. Always loved picking your brain during class and learned so much from you in such a short time. The world needs more teachers like you! Hope you are doing well.

  5. Thanks for those kind words, Erin. I’ve shared your wonderful xtranormal videos many times, and thought of your great contributions to our seminar. I’m doing well and I hope you are too. Looks like you’re poised to graduate! Best of luck on the road ahead. Keep in touch!

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