Thoreau and John Cage


I’ve been reading Thoreau – Walden, and some of his journals – and I have to say that I’m not surprised that John Cage loved Thoreau, and that he spoke of reading Thoreau’s journal as “working through” them.  There is something so idiosyncratically brilliant about Thoreau, one feels in reading him that he concluded that he would take nothing on second-hand, and then didn’t.  Thoreau is also an interesting case because, in the same way in which Cage used boredom as entryway into his work, Thoreau also seems to somehow use boredom as a means to ignite his mind.  The smallest things – clumps of snow rained on, a particular color at sunset, snow falling – are so fascinating to Thoreau, so vivid and rich with detail, so voluminously vocal, so thrilling, that Thoreau seems like nothing but some kind of sensitive divining rod, someone for and on whom nothing is lost.

Yet there are other qualities of Thoreau’s writing that I find equally interesting, qualities that I think Cage clued in on when he began to sort of sniff Thoreau’s genius.  And these qualities are what I’ve always associated with John Clare’s poetry, with the aid of Angust Fletcher’s A New Theory for American Poetry: Democracy, the Environment, and the Future of Imagination.  It’s a way of seeing that is radically priority-less, that sees without hierarchically subsuming some things under other things.  It’s a mode of perception that is less interested in speaking the scene, and more interested in allowing the scene to speak for itself.  It is consequently not a science of the sublime moment so much as the science of the sublime every-moment, (although “sublime” in this context feels, as it should, too weighty and grave and portentous.)  And this is what Thoreau is constantly accomplishing – he sees the natural world around him with the clearest of eyes, and yet one senses he is not molding this natural world to his liking so much as permitting the natural world to describe itself through his eyes.  It is similarly what Cage was talking about when he spoke about his interest in noise itself, how it is constantly going on and how it takes a slight budge of attention to enter into its anarchic beautiful music.

There’s a great quote in Ashbery’s Reported Sightings: Art Chronicles 1957-1987, which I paraphrase, in which Ashbery places the painter Fairfield Porter in a tradition of “know-nothings” (Emerson, Thoreau, Stevens, Marianne Moore) who choose to be ignorant again, and see the world, as Stevens writes, with an ignorant eye again.  Thoreau is certainly one of those willful “know-nothings,” as is Ashbery, Cage, and Clare.  It would be interesting to write more on this, to describe the ways in which these poets make themselves ignorant, thereby opening themselves up to experiencing and describing the world in new ways.

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