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Unto the Wild

Rhetoric of the Ideal and Poetic Materialism in Thoreau’s ‘Walden’

François Specq

Pages 389 - 402


Far from being mere light-hearted playfulness or idiosyncratic musing over seasonal change, the latter part of Thoreau’s ‘Walden’ very clearly articulates the defining tensions within Western modernity, in which the desire for scientific knowledge, economic appropriation, and aesthetic enjoyment reached an unprecedented level of intensity. Thoreau here strives to comprehend and redefine man’s relation to the world in the context of the triumph of scientific and economic ‘modernity.’ He meant both to induce his readers to reflect on the terms that characterize our relation to the material world, and to tip the scales toward a new equilibrium, one in which the human desire for dominion is kept in check by an equivalent desire for reverence and wonder. He posed exhaustive challenges to the standard ways we relate to the world, from a perspective that drew on and supported a definition of ‘the wild’ that is not merely topographical (a separate sphere elsewhere), but also intellectual—a mental frontier, central to our very existence, relocated as the necessary, nurturing questioning of what we assume is human and defines humanity. Orchestrating his narrative so as to emphasize his distance from two common ways of ‘translating’ the real (scientific knowledge and economic exploitation), Thoreau thus makes it clear that his environmental advocacy is grounded in a more encompassing regard for the untranslatability of the real, or respect for the autonomy and mystery of a world that emphatically eludes our full grasp.


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