“Everyone asks me what I ‘think’ of everything,” said Spencer Brydon; “and I make answer as I can—begging or dodging the question, putting them off with any nonsense. It wouldn’t matter to any of them really,” he went on, “for, even were it possible to meet in that stand-and-deliver way so silly a demand on so big a subject, my ‘thoughts’ would still be almost altogether about something that concerns only myself.” —Henry James, “The Jolly Corner”
“When seen correctly, however, this interpretation is only a fleeing in the face of the conscience—a way for Dasein to escape by slinking away from that thin wall by which the ‘they’ is separated, as it were, from the uncanniness of its Being.” —Martin Heidegger, Being and Time
Can we separate the man from the living picture? —Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nature”
Part One: Three Methods for Beholding in “Brute Neighbors”
At the beginning of “Brute Neighbors,” Thoreau asks, “Why do precisely these objects which we behold make a world?” In a concise but detailed manner that conceals as much as uncovers its complex philosophy, Thoreau explores three ways beholding phenomena in the world happens. Each reflection is based on a different form of interaction with the natural world around Walden Pond; each uses different narrative structures to relate claims about the act of beholding itself.
He begins with a simple claim: “You only need sit still long enough in some attractive spot in the woods that all its inhabitants may exhibit themselves to you by turns” (153). A few significant concepts are dropped into this line gleaned from cliché to make a complex claim seem more ordinary. As will be shown, the mode of beholding changes in mood and intellect with each subsequent form explored; one kind need not be considered more valuable than the other, though each does build on the other in levels of complexity through increased involvement of both the beholder and the beheld—henceforth referred to as the observer and observed, respectively.
Thoreau begins as an observer who beholds the world while tranquilly tarrying alongside what will be, is desired to be, or is already being observed. The observer accomplishes such beholding while sitting still for a long time. Through patient observation, the natural world shows itself to the observer. Hence, this method for beholding is an involved patience that allows the world to show itself for what it is at the time it is observed, each time it is observed. Thoreau implicitly characterizes this method as an active passivity. In this engaged, yet passive state of mind, Thoreau is likely to wander about aimlessly if not encouraged to sit still.
- Let me see; where was I? Methinks I was nearly in this frame of mind; the world lay about at this angle. Shall I go to heaven or a-fishing? If I should bring this meditation to an end, would another so sweet occasion be likely to offer? I was as near to being resolved into the essence of things as ever I was in my life.
Thoreau utilizes an active passivity that needs, or (important for Part Two of this essay,) calls out for, some phenomenon to show itself for him to look towards. He worries, “my thoughts have left no track, and I [will not be able to] find the path again” (150). Only after he expresses this anxiety does he query “precisely these objects” that make “a world.” The emphasis on “these” is significant. The objects beheld are exactly the phenomena that must have a prior being always already before they are beheld as if they were waiting for and expecting the presence of Thoreau at Walden if he is to behold them as phenomena. He adds precision to the beholding of “these objects” because it is important for him to note that they, in fact, could not have been any other objects at that time but those precise objects that made his world at Walden what it inevitably was.
If the first method for beholding the world through nature is an active passivity that involves sitting still long enough to allow all creatures to show themselves for the observer, the second method requires a two-fold form for the observer to begin to leave active passivity behind. The first form is a means to actively engage and involves being startled from passive engagement; the second involves active accounting of what is being observed. The first form of this two-fold method involves observation that appears suddenly in the sense that the observer becomes an eyewitness to an event already occurring. In Thoreau’s example, he also becomes a kind of reluctant over-seer to the event as it unfolds; such observation is not tranquil at all.
- I was witness to events of a less peaceful character. One day when I went out to my wood-pile, or rather my pile of stumps, I observed two large ants…fiercely contending with one another. Having once got hold they never let go, but struggled…on the chips incessantly. Looking farther, I was surprised to find that the chips were covered with such combatants, that is was…a bellum, a war between two races of ants….
The observer witnesses, in this case, above an event not able to be seen with a patient stillness. Such observation over-comes the observer as he over-takes the observed; both observer and observed are, therefore, taken by surprise. In other words, he did not plan to behold ants-at-war. Nevertheless, once coming upon the scene laid out before him, he stays to look on.
His decision to remain and observe as an over-seer or eyewitness, no matter how reluctant, is vital to distinguish this form of beholding from the first. Unlike the first kind of observing, though the ants do exhibit themselves for the observer, he is not in any manner prepared to observe the show. He must stop what he is planning on doing, his day’s work, to “look farther” in order to see better what is there to be seen. The observer might ask at this time What is there to be seen? in a much different sense than in the first kind of beholding. According to the first kind of beholding, the question asked takes the form, What is there-to-be-seen? Actually, this may be even too much for such passive looking; whatever chooses to exhibit itself may not appear long enough to be considered an “is there.” The Sasquatch, the Loch Ness Monster, or the winged-cat of “Brute Neighbors” that is “gone a-hunting in the woods, as was her wont” are examples of such mystifying creatures to behold that may not actually “be there” at all. Instead, the observer at this time asks What is there (to be seen)? Such a question engages an observer as an observer and encourages a taking account of his surroundings. Thoreau explicitly refers to himself, for the first time in “Brute Neighbors,” as an observer when he discusses the ants.
The second form of the two-fold method in beholding the world involves relating to the account taken in observation. Within the first form of beholding, Thoreau provides concise narratives of immediacy and familiarity. He holds mice in the palm of his hand because they crawl into it. For unknown reasons, a phoebe builds a nest in his shed, and a robin makes nest in the tree against his house. A partridge, the shyest of birds, leads her brood past his windowsill. Either Thoreau is the most invisibly present human in history or he is making a point about seeing. The latter makes the most sense, of course: the first form for observing events in the world is always at the level of fortunate occurrence. Always, immediate and familiar; at the comfort level we might associate with the amateur botanist or entomologist with his or her sketchbook coming upon fortunate sights.
In the second method for beholding, the first form of the two-fold structure involves immediate yet unfamiliar and not necessarily fortunate occurrences. The second form is less concerned with the “is” objectified and the “there” showing itself. Such seeing is more concerned with the “there” not known in which something is occurring now. The second form of the two-fold method involves, then, finding an explanation for any event itself and involves making up for the lack of waiting for the event to let itself be shown. Thoreau explains,
- I was myself excited somewhat even as if they had been men. The more you think of it, the less the difference. And certainly there is not the fight recorded in Concord history, at least, if in the history of America, that will bear a moment’s comparison with this….
- I took up the chip on which the three I have particularly described were struggling, carried it into my house, and placed it onto my window-sill, in order to see the issue. Holding a microscope to the first-mentioned red ant, I saw that…his own breast was all torn away; and the dark carbuncles of the sufferer’s eyes shone with ferocity such as war only could excite.
After being taken by surprise, Thoreau carries off a few ants to home “in order to see the issue.” Before his encounter with the ant war, Thoreau has seen “the issue” without such action called for. The difference in this scene, with this type of beholding, is that he is not waiting, not tarrying alongside, for the moment to be. In this case, Thoreau goes so far as to examine the ants under a microscope to estimate the physical damage done to the ants in battle.
Within the second form, the observer abandons any given setting, time and place to achieve a distance from the occurrence of the event, a distance from which specific observations can be made that are always extracted from the prior exhibition. Like the first method for beholding, the second method relies on the observed phenomena giving itself up to being observed always before showing itself to the observer. The ant war happens regardless of Thoreau’s observation or interruption, just like the mouse scurries across Thoreau’s floor whether or not he is there waiting for it to appear. In both methods, regardless of different points of view and technologies for seeing implemented, the observed as phenomena must give themselves in order to show themselves. In this manner, Jean-Luc Marion’s claim, “[a]ll phenomena appear, but only to the extent that they show themselves” (30), takes on a special significance in context with Thoreau’s project. In lieu of Marion’s claim, Thoreau’s sitting still long enough for all things to appear makes some sense. It is certainly not practical, yet it is a manner of beholding that allows events to have some originary phenomenal structure. Marion limits his claim; he argues a phenomenon must “first give itself” in order to “reach that point” to show itself.
In the first method of beholding, seeing absolutely and in every case relies on a phenomenon giving itself in order to show itself. Thoreau’s careful description of watching the young partridges wait for their mother’s distant commands, not only foreshadows the call of the loon therefore a more complex form of beholding, but shows his concern for the animals themselves as delicate creatures—how the partridge’s presence is a gift first and showing second.
- In June the partridge…which is so shy a bird, led her brood past my windows, from the woods in the rear to the front of my house, clucking and calling to them like a hen, and in all her behavior proving herself the hen of the woods. The young so suddenly disperse upon your approach, at a signal from the mother, as if a whirlwind swept them away….
Thoreau is obviously aware of what a partridge is and should look like. He knows when partridges seasonally appear. He knows their virtues—character and habits. Consequently, he can anticipate their appearance with more or less accuracy. He admires similar skill in fishermen: their ability to find worms in frozen, wintry woods. They know where to look without knowing what they will find. Like the fishermen, he can look out for the partridges. He can certainly wait for their appearance for he will know them when he sees them. But he must wait for the event to happen (to give itself.) Though anticipated, what we are looking for can only be seen properly through a showing itself that gives itself. Thoreau comments on this anamorphosis, “All intelligence seems reflected in them…Such an eye was not born when the bird was, but is coeval with the sky it reflects” (152).
By waiting patiently for the possible return of partridges, one can anticipate the resulting phenomenon of their appearance. But when actively engaged with beholding an event such as the ant war, one must come to terms with the anamorphosis itself. A comportment must be reached towards being in front of one another in order to be shown at all. For Thoreau to fully understand the ant war, he had to remove himself from the site (sight-ing) where the war took place. He had to find in himself a recollection of an idea that would help ground the present event. He was taken by surprise yet taken by some phenomenon he nonetheless anticipated. For he knew how to see it show itself. He knew how to “look farther.”
So far, Thoreau’s “Brute Neighbors” has illustrated two methods of beholding in nature. The first, not necessarily the simplest, involves the least work and the least engagement. It is an active (in that one looks) passivity (in that one sits still) that covers a substantial duration of time (in that one is still for a long time.) Such beholding will allow phenomenon to occur in front of the eyes. In this manner of beholding, we have seeing at a primary level, possibly akin to the kind of seeing described in Plato’s Republic that occurs deep within the cave. Not that such beholding is at all like the shadows on the wall but that such seeing requires restraint. The second method for beholding is a two-fold method that involves surprise and accounting for the surprise. The first aspect involves an over-sight, a method of observation that allows the observer to behold as much as possible of a phenomenon at one time. Once the observer is satisfied with having seen it all, then accounts are made of what was observed. If possible, technology is implemented in order to find a way to explain the phenomenon from a distance.
The third method for beholding is whole-heartedly engaged participation in the showing itself that phenomena give itself. The benchmark of such beholding is the use of story telling to relate what was observed. The observer is typically a major character, usually in the role of pursuer while the object of the occurrence itself is the pursued. Before explaining anything else, it should be noted that such beholding does have waiting or anticipating as its characteristics even though the observer may intend to anticipate and may desire to wait. This troubles the observer.
“Brute Neighbors” closes with a tale of such beholding told about Thoreau pursuing a loon by Thoreau himself. The begins in the “once upon a time” fashion that most authors use in order to immerse their readers into a world where patient waiting can allow observed phenomena to show themselves. The story of the loon is preceded with the concise anecdote of the winged cat that Thoreau himself never observes although he was given a pair of its “wings”—strips of matted fur. Thoreau jokes, “this would have been the right kind of cat for me to keep, if I had kept any; for why should not a poet’s cat be winged as well as his horse” (156)? Thoreau presents himself no longer as the naturalist observer in different states of quiet observation; at the beginning of the pursuit of the loon, he gives himself to the reader as poet.
Thoreau begins his tale “as I was paddling along the north shore one very calm October afternoon” in the manner of the most classic of tales. He describes how he “pursued with a paddle” and the loon “maneuvered so cunningly” diving into the water and reappearing always “where there was the widest expanse of water and at the greatest distance from the boat.” Thoreau works hard to give us the image of him in pursuit of the loon, of the intelligence of the loon itself, and a metaphor for something left unstated in the text itself.
- What appears gives itself, that is to say, it appears without restraint or remainder; it thus comes about, happens, and imposes itself as such, not as the semblance or the representative of an absent or dissimulated in-itself, but as itself, in person and in the flesh; what appears is emptied totally, so to speak, …to the point of passing from the rank of image, from simple seeming or bereft appearance, to the one unique thing at stake. And if the phenomenon did not give itself as such, it would remain simply the other of being.
Marion’s description of the phenomenology of givenness illustrates what Thoreau shows us happening between the loon and himself. In fact this kind of beholding of an appearance of a phenomenon is allowed a complexity in Walden whenever it appears.
In “Brute Neighbors” the loon first appears through its uncanny laughter; Thoreau will use the modifier “unearthly.” After the laughter is heard, and only after, do folks pursue the loon. All the emotion of pursuit is detailed in Thoreau’s telling and such telling exhausts anything that might be consider “restraint or remainder” in the loon’s appearance.
- He led me at once to the widest part of the pond, and could not be driven from it. While he was thinking one thing in his brain, I was endeavoring to divine his thought in mine. It was a pretty game, played on the smooth surface of the pond, a man against a loon.
Therefore, the loon’s appearance is indelibly tied to Thoreau’s looking for it as if the two were not only at odds with one another but expecting to find one another, too, in each moment. As Marion insists above, what does appear is “the one unique thing at stake.”
- I found that it was as well for me to rest on my oars and wait his reappearing as to endeavor to calculate where he would rise; for again and again, when I was straining my eyes over the surface one way, I would suddenly be startled by his unearthly laugh behind me.
The one unique thing at stake is beholding the loon; in other words, Thoreau and the loon together. And the marker for the phenomenon is uncanny laughter. It is worth pointing out that as the first method for beholding requires an active passivity in engaged viewing the world as it passes one by who sits still for a long period of time, the second method for beholding moved the location for viewing to a location suitable for scientific observation that has a method all of its own, one typically suited to the specific observer. The third method for beholding is giving up science for letting something be in narrative in order to allow the one thing at stake in the phenomenon to appear for others.
In a significant manner, Thoreau’s third method for beholding requires him to give up close and personal observation and to take a purposeful step back towards the quality of the first method for beholding. He must “rest on his oars” and wait patiently for the loon to give itself to a showing. However, the third method of beholding then transforms this stepping back into a moving ahead of itself in that Thoreau leaves a story for others who have yet to see the loon for themselves in the form of an unanswered question that is meant to haunt the reader much the same way a loon’s laughter haunts the lake at daybreak. He asks, “But why, after displaying so much cunning, did he invariably betray himself the moment he came up by that loud laugh?” And he leaves the loon “disappearing far away on the tumultuous surface [of the pond.]” Hence, the third aspect of the third method for beholding involves the retreat of the pursuer from the pursued.
The third method, then, involves aspects of the prior two methods such that both the observer and observed are implicated in a given phenomenon of their own appearance that an outside reader or listener beholds for himself. The image of Thoreau pursuing the loon appears for what it is worth and nothing more of the pursuit remains after he retreats from it. The story itself is given. Nevertheless, a lingering unanswered question is there. And that unanswered question marks the call for participation of an audience—a reader or readers—who will use up any significance and behold or interpret the meaning of the event itself—Thoreau and the loon together.
Part Two: A Heideggerian reading of Thoreau’s methods, A Beginning
Heidegger begins his essay “Plato’s Doctrine of Truth” with an acknowledgement of the usefulness of knowledge that comes from scientific observation. He qualifies his acknowledgement, though, by addressing what thinking leaves unstated. For Heidegger, “the ‘doctrine’ of a thinker is that which, within what is said, remains unsaid, that to which we are exposed so that we might expend ourselves on it” (Pathmarks 155). Thoreau opens and closes “Brute Neighbors” with questions. He wants us to answer both. First, why do precisely these objects which we behold make a world? Second, after displaying so much cunning, why does the loon betray himself with his laughter? These questions may not appear related, but they do provide mark the beginning and end of the explication of a doctrine that we can expend ourselves on as readers.
A. On Phenomenon and Appearance
In the Second Chapter of the Introduction for Being and Time, Heidegger goes to great lengths to show how appearance, though always dependent on phenomena, are never phenomena in and of themselves (51-4 [29-31]). Appearance is possible “by reason of a showing itself of something.” Showing itself is not appearing itself. Heidegger argues, “[a]ppearing is an announcing-itself.” Take each of Thoreau’s observations in “Brute Neighbors” for example. Each appearance of phenomena was announced whether anticipated or not. Thoreau accidentally stumbles across a litter of kittens and the mother, and the phenomenon is announced by “hissing and spitting.” In other words, we get what Heidegger means when he says that appearance doesn’t define the concept of phenomenon, it “rather presuppose[s] it.” It is important to clarify appearance a bit more. An appearance announces itself and does not show itself and also signifies the showing itself. However, Heidegger points out that this showing-itself is concerned with “the wherein” in which the appearance takes place.
For Thoreau, and each of his methods for beholding, the form appearance takes is as important as the appearance of a given phenomenon. As an observer, the scientist in Thoreau enjoys annotating the wherein events happened and each wherein is signified by an announcement like the hissing and spitting of frightened cats or the uncanny laughter of a loon. Though, the laughter that announces the loon is a call different from the announcement we hear in the hissing and spitting of the cats.
The latter is announced and then the phenomenon can give itself to show itself. Or, as Heidegger puts it the “phenomenon, the showing-itself-in-itself, signifies a distinctive way in which something can be encountered. Appearance, on the other hand, means a reference relationship…which is such that what does [the announcing] can fulfil its possible function only if it shows itself in itself and is thus a phenomenon” (). The cats were there before, must have been there before, Thoreau stumbled across their path. In this way, the announcement in their appearance is dependent upon their phenomenal existence. The event happens as it unfolds: Thoreau wanders into their litter unannounced; Kittens and Mother hiss and spit announcing themselves; the image of the phenomenal event is uniquely presupposed and experienced and, afterwards, relatable to others.
The laughter of the loon comes only after it appears unannounced. Thoreau sees this as a problem for the loon. Practically, the loon gives itself to being easily hunted. It harms it own existence, which Thoreau admires and finds beautiful. One need not reflect too hard to hear in Thoreau’s lament his own fear of death. But Thoreau wisely leaves his question about why the loon laughs after emerging from the depths of the pond unanswered. This allows readers not to fester on the fecundity of the loon or their own mortality. Rather readers are invited to experience a phenomenon that is as yet apparent though always already announced. I want to claim that Heidegger might allow such an invitation as “good.” After all, Heidegger instructs in “Plato’s Doctrine of Truth” that “‘the good’ grants the appearing of the visible form in which whatever present has its stability in that which it is. Through this granting, the being is held within being and thus is ‘saved’” (176). Thoreau allows this granting to appear, to give itself to show itself in itself. Therefore, his third method for beholding provides a way in which to bring about the good, or in this case the given.
A quick note about “Brute Neighbors” as a whole. Taken as a singular narrative rather than a series of small tales about beholding precise object that make a world, Thoreau’s short chapter can be considered a discourse in the Heideggerian sense of the concept. Heidegger defines discourse as that which “lets something be seen”, that lets “us see something from the very thing which the discourse is about” (56 ). From his patient watching of mice and partridges to his involved pursuit of a loon, Thoreau develops a discourse that ends exactly at the point where we can see the very thing his discourse is about. What his discourse is about is a matter for speculation and further debate, but the discourse is there.
B. The Fugitive Laugh: Conscience as a Call
The loon’s laughter in “Brute Neighbors” is a metaphor for being in the world and its call to itself. The particular lunacy or uncanny quality of the “demoniac laughter” of the loon, lies not only in its creepy utterance that, as I have argued above, reminds Thoreau of his own mortality, but in its backwards announcing-itself. The loon first appears, then laughs, then flees his own calling to himself, then reappears before calling out again in order to flee. Heidegger notes in Chapter 2 of Division 2, in Being and Time, that “to any discourse there belongs that which is talked about in it.”
Heidegger insists that conscience summons Dasein’s Self “from its lostness in the ‘they’” (319 ). Significantly, the call of conscience is not planned nor voluntarily performed. Conscience announces itself “from me and yet from beyond me and over me.” Thoreau’s account of the loon may at first appear to be an account of such a call, that some association exists between the laughter calling Thoreau to seek the loon, to chase it down, and Dasein calling itself from its falling into the they. But Thoreau chasing the loon is more representative of a kind of lostness in the pursuit of the uncanny. The loon repeatedly flees from itself and in this way is a fugitive from its own call. The loon is lostness-in-the-they-itself. What the phenomenal being of the loon and its fugitive laughter reflect is a call, in Thoreau, that “discourses in the uncanny mode of keeping silent” (322 ).
The question Thoreau asks in lieu of the loon’s unfortunate and disturbing laughter is not asked publicly, not involved in the everyday chatter of public existence. Its utterance, though recorded in print, is mute and its presupposed answer is never given. The unanswered question, or the answer itself, is conscience calling Dasein to itself from its falling into the they. In answering questions in quiet reflection about the care of being in the world, “we need not resort to powers with a character other than that of Dasein; indeed, recourse to these is so far from clarifying the uncanniness of the call that instead it annihilates it” (323 ). Thoreau’s developing methods for beholding being in the world allows us finally to back away from the tendency to interpret the caller, which is actually Dasein itself, as another power. What are we pursuing when going after the loon, following its call, but ourselves?