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"Thoreauvian Modernities":
French Conference Proposes Green Heuristics


Summary by Randall Conrad

"Mobile, planetary, vascular, and transjective" – these and other coinages, proposed by leading Thoreauvians at a three-day international symposium in Lyon (France) this year, signaled new pathways for thinking about Thoreau. "Thoreauvian Modernities" convened over 20 scholars from France, Germany, Spain, Sweden, and the US on May 14-16, 2009.

"Is Thoreau a literary modernist but an antimodern social thinker?" asked the two organizers, François Specq (professor of American literature and culture at the Ecole Normale Supérieure Lettres et Sciences Humaines, Lyon) and Michel Granger (professor of American literature and culture at the University of Lyon 2). "We'd like to invite critical thinking about the way Thoreau suggests, anticipates or differs from central postmodernist tenets, such as openness, uncertainty, decentering and antiauthoritarianism."NOTE 1


Participants rose to the challenge, moving beyond traditional humanist dualisms and polarities to gain a holistic view of Thoreau's relationship to nature and culture, using an assortment of new heuristics and diagnostic tools.

Laura Dassow Walls (U. South Carolina), giving the plenary address, suggested that we will escape the confines of traditional genre criticism if we employ new concepts for exploring Thoreauvian texts. She proposed a few: Thoreau's "mobile" vision means that narrator, author, and landscape are not classically fixed but rather "all in movement." Knowledge emanates from a place, yet remains mobile. In "planetary" Thoreau, "the global is always local at a particular point."

The "vascular" nature of the Thoreauvian universe (Walden Pond itself is the hub of a vascular system, for instance) requires tools that will let us connect text across time, regenerating the living network in which Thoreau participates.

Last, "transjectivity" is Walls's concept enabling us to describe the space occupied, in narrative, between the collapsing poles of the "objective" and "subjective." For example, Walls stated, both "Walking" and Cape Cod generate vascular networks, but only Cape Cod, with its multiple perspectives and moods, can be called transjective.


In a similar vein, poet and scholar Kristen Case (CUNY) saw in Thoreau's grand "Kalendar" project – his tabulation of seasonal environmental phenomena – progress toward a modern epistemology in which "self and world, the 'human' and the 'natural,' are ultimately inseparable." Joseph Urbas (U. Bordeaux) sought a "double" or integrated philosophical perspective with which to situate the quest for what Thoreau in Walden called a "solid bottom" – for the "grounds of being."

Amidst all the modern, antimodern, and postmodern perspectives on Thoreau, the post-1851 Journal was a special object of attention, both for its non-hierarchical form and for the mobile spirit in which Thoreau develops deep ecology.

François Specq suggested that Thoreauvian nature writing conveys by its form "the infinite opening and re-opening of the visible through experience." Specq argued that although the Journal does display some features of postmodernism (it is non-hierarchical and non-teleological, and it constantly destabilizes perception and representation), it nevertheless conveys "the absoluteness of a world whose presence emerges at the exact meeting point between its existence out there and human consciousness."

The Journal also attracted William Rossi (U. Oregon), who considered the mediating role of Thoreau's journal-writing (and journaling method) in "shaping the representation of his environmental experience and knowledge" in Walden and the late natural history essays, enabling us to focus on "a distinctly nonmodern dimension of Thoreau's project." 

Dieter Schulz (U. Heidelberg) drew upon modern disciplines (biosemiotics, iconicity-oriented linguistics, phonosemantics) to establish how the Thoreauvian walk or excursion illustrates a methodNOTE 2 of overcoming science's dichotomies, allowing us to decipher the "book of nature" with "openness and humility."

For Henrik Otterberg (U. Göteborg), Thoreau's environmental imagination bears upon his poetics, as evidenced by his adherence to archetypal patterns of character and nature, "from the circular-typical year to the rounded, yet distilled, personality" in both his published literary essays and his nature writing throughout the Journal. As diagnostic tools, Otterberg proposed those of Aristotelian aesthetics.NOTE 3

Moving from archetype to myth, Bruno Montfort (U. Lille) examined Thoreau's complex use of primarily classic Greco-Roman mythology when writing about nature in Walden and other texts. Thoreau worked Deucalion and Pyrrha, or the Myrmidons, into his accounts of his observations of "nature as an object," Montfort observed, precisely insofar as "in Thoreau's view the natural world is meaningful because it cannot be fully objectified."

Antimodern Thoreau was presented by conference co-organizer Michel Granger (U. Lyon), who specified that "anti" in this instance "suggests an open-eyed awareness" and that "antimodern" writers are not unilaterally oppositional, but entertain a "close yet ambivalent" relation with modernity. A well-known example in Walden is Thoreau's ambivalence toward the commercial railway that sliced through Walden Woods in 1845. Thoreau's distance from, and denunciations of, materialism and technical progress is expressed in the "more creative, polysemic language" he created in opposition to conformist society's plain English. "Inspired by the classics," Granger concluded, "Thoreau tried to define his notion of true progress and to work out his ambivalence towards modernity."

Certainly that is what Thoreau did in an eight-page Journal entry for 24 September 1859 that included a peculiarly "polysemic" paragraph praising the old Carlisle road, a favorite Concord haunt of his. In a close reading of this paragraph, Randall Conrad (Thoreau Project) offered a line-by-line textual explication of Thoreau's dense cascade of metaphorconcluding that Thoreau is a literary modernist and at the same time an antimodern social thinker.

"Modern was the last thing Thoreau wanted to be," stated David Robinson (Oregon State U.) in considering the two Thoreaus generated by the antimodern thesis and the modern thesis. Always "fascinated by the old, the unfashionable, the throwbacks," Thoreau saw in the past a model of "heroic discipline," Robinson asserted: "Walden is an attempt to return to the past as well as to nature."

Robinson went on to connect Thoreau's nature writing to aspects of his modernity. "While he does not speak the emerging language of natural selection, or the modern language of biocentrism, he is clearly beginning to conceptualize both these perspectives and consider their implications," Robinson argued. "Approaching evolutionary thinking by his own path, and attempting to link his field studies to larger philosophical questions about natural laws and cycles, Thoreau sought to forge a new practice of natural history – a significant and still neglected aspect of his intellectual legacy," he concluded.

Thoreau's legacy for writers, readers and activists of later generations (whether by kinship of spirit, rediscovery, or cultural appropriation) was variously the subject of presentations by Steven Hartman (U. Uppsala), David Dowling (U. Iowa), Yves Carlet (U. Montpellier), Ronald Bosco (SUNY Albany) and Joel Myerson (U. South Carolina). The latter pair, in a joint presentation, concluded that Thoreau's admonitions about the value of books and reading have special resonance today, particularly in reference to new media and the Internet.


Jessie Bray (U. South Carolina) found a radical perspective and a deep sense of social justice informing Thoreau's unpublished Indian Notebooks, which she characterized as an "ethnological 'survey' calibrated to reflect the real landscape." Thoreau, she said, rejected Western science's claim to objectivity, which "problematizes sustained empathy for the subject" and "projects imperialist cultural values onto the landscape," marginalizing and orientalizing Native American communities and cultures.

In reaction, Bray affirmed, Thoreau constructed a new "'science' of surveying" that accounts for the material, spiritual, and personal dimensions of the ecosystem. Reformed science, she concluded, is the foundation for Thoreau's universal democratic reform, exemplified in the Indian Notebooks' "accurate and non-imperial perspective on North America's original human inhabitants."NOTE 4


At least since the publication of Mary Elkins Moller's pathbreaking Thoreau in the Human Community (1980), Thoreauvians have insisted that, contrary to stereotype, the "hermit of Concord" actually practiced an individual autonomy that was not reclusive and solitary, but was intended to counteract the modern loss of social values by rehabilitating intersubjective ties. In this vein, Christian Maul (U. Heidelberg) declared, "Thoreauvian individuality is a democratic (synergetic) individuality. It redefines the bonds between individuals."

Thoreau's awareness of the self's indebtedness to community, Maul argued, shows that liberalism and communitarianism are not exclusive polarities but instead enrich one another. "The energies the Thoreauvian self sets free in his moments of transcendence can be invested in democratic (synergetic and coincidental) involvement," Maul concluded. "Respect for the rights and aspirations of the self is the most effective way of securing the stability of democracy."


Beyond the human sphere, Thoreau's deep-ecological involvement in nature's entire web of animal communities, urging us to more clearly define the mutual dependency of human and all other animal life in nature, attracted the attention of scholars including Tom Pughe (U. Orléans), Michel Imbert (U. Paris/Diderot), and Michael Jonik (SUNY Albany).

In an elegant presentation on animality in Thoreau, Pughe remarked that the expression "brute neighbors" may be seen as an anthropomorphic trope – these animals are our neighbors, and we are theirs, and is the descriptor "brute" finally exclusive or inclusive of humans? Referencing orphism in Walden, Pughe noted that anthropomorphism in literature – long a shibboleth of environmentalist criticism – is a subversive technique actually serving to represent human/animal relations beyond conventional expression.

Invoking concepts favored in contemporary animal studies, Pughe pointed to Thoreau's empathy with the loon in Walden and the shad in A Week as the best-known instances of a "critical anthropomorphism" expressing the author's wish to transcend the "hard" scientific disciplines of botany and zoology by "personalizing or naturalizing the human-animal encounter," acknowledging the mutual dependency therein.


"How can wildness be advocated without being adulterated through the medium of words?" Imbert asked, and in reply pondered Thoreau's invocation of an "eerie" Spanish expression in "Walking" ("Grammatica parda, tawny grammar") as a hint of "Thoreau's interest in alternative nonverbal languages such as that of animals." For his part, Jonik characterized Thoreau's epistemology as modern, offering a vision of Thoreauvian perception as "an ongoing negotiation of a living, diverse world, an experiential, active process of orienting and disorienting knowledge and position." "As knowledge is distanced and drawn near," Jonik concluded, "and as we come to orient ourselves through perpetually disorienting ourselves, we can begin to gain clear sight of 'the maze of phenomena' in which we are implicated."


Environmental consciousness in Thoreau's thoughts on health and disease have a bearing upon contemporary debates in the philosophy of medicine, according to Antonio Casado da Rocha (U. Basque Country), who has published largely in the fields of bioethics as well as political philosophy.NOTE 5 "The meaning of health for Thoreau is often contradictory and hard to disambiguate, and his context was different in many respects to ours," he concluded, "but his ideas on this topic still serve to criticize some views present in modern medicine, and to steer it towards a more environmentally-informed approach."


The symposium drew a varied audience that ranged from emerging Americanists, on their home turf at the Université Lumière Lyon 2, to outlanders who followed converging Thoreauvian wavelengths. Jutta Pfeiffer, a homeopathist and Ayurvedic healer as well as an M.D., said she had traveled from the Netherlands because she sensed "a certain alchemy" in the program. "Thoreau belongs among the seekers of truth of all nations," she said.


For Professor Schulz of Heidelberg, Thoreau's "combination of faith and aesthetics" in the late natural history essays "anticipates some of the most exciting and promising thinking of our time." So do the novel ideas generated in the three days of "Thoreauvian Modernities." The conference proceedings, which took place in English, are to be published in book form.


[1] Recommended for background: Christopher Butler, Postmodernism: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford U. Press, 2002. For further exploration and examples of new approaches: François Specq, Transcendence, Higganum Hill, 2007 (reviewed in Thoreau Society Bulletin  no. 261 (winter 2007-08); Michel Granger, Henry D. Thoreau: Narcisse à Walden, Presses Universitaires de Lyon, 1991; Antonio Casado da Rocha, "...Thoreau's 'Hybrid' Politics" (2009, online).   [BACK TO TEXT]

[2] Derived from Greek methodos, "following something on its way," Schulz noted. [BACK TO TEXT]

[3] Many readers will remember Otterberg's intriguing study of those famous archetypes in Walden, "Hound, Bay Horse, and Turtle-Dove," Concord Saunterer 12-13, 2004-05. [BACK TO TEXT]

[4] Currently, debate about Thoreau’s view of Native Americans is swirling. Along one thread, writers including Bray and Brianne Keith (and earlier, Philip Gura and Robert Sayre) tend to champion Thoreau's Indian Books  as a prescient, relatively modern exploration that approaches Indian advocacy. The opposite position – viewing Thoreau as limited by antebellum ethnologic discourse – has been brilliantly articulated by Joshua David Bellin (“In the Company of Savagists,” Concord Saunterer vol. 16, 2008, 1-32). [BACK TO TEXT]

 [5] Concord audiences have heard him speak at Thoreau gatherings on Thoreau's "politically divided" soul and on legal/philosophical aspects of Thoreauvian civil disobedience.  [BACK TO TEXT]

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Updated Feb. 20, 2011