Keep in mind that I come from that part of the world for which the question of old and new - call it the question of a human future - is, or was, logically speaking, a matter of life and death: if the new world is not new then America does not exist, it is merely one more outpost of old oppressions. Americans like Thoreau (and if Thoreau then Emerson and Walt Whitman, to say no more) seem to have lived so intensely or intently within the thought of a possible, and possibly closed, future that a passage like the following would be bound to have struck them as setting an old mood: 'Everything is worn out: revolutions, profits, miracles. The planet itself shows signs of fatigue and breakdown, from the ozone layer to the temperature of the oceans.'[*] Compare a sentence from the opening chapter of Thoreau's Walden: 'Undoubtedly the very tedium and ennui which presume to have exhausted the variety and the joys of life are [themselves] as old as Adam.' This is, I think we might say, a compounding or transcendentalising of the sense of the worn out, showing that concept of our relation to the past to be itself nearly worn out. And this recognition provides Thoreau not with compounded tedium and ennui but with an outburst of indignant energy. He continues: 'But man's capacities have never been measured; nor are we to judge of what he can do by any precedents, so little has been tried.' This is why he can say, when he appeals to sacred writings and defends them against the sense that they are passť: 'We might as well omit to study Nature because she is old.' As if to say: Beware of the idea of The Future Today - that is, of Today's Future; it may be a function of Yesterday's Today, and you will discover that Today was always already Tomorrow, that there is no time for origination. Yet Thoreau's idea is that time has not touched the thoughts and texts he deals in. What chance is there for us to share his faith today, now? When is now?
LRB 12 January 1995 | PDF Download