“This writer is writing a sacred text.”

“This writer is writing a sacred text.”

The sentence is from Stanley Cavell’s The Senses of Walden. “This writer” is Henry David Thoreau, the “sacred text,” Walden.

For Father’s Day this past June, my daughter Charlotte gave me a copy of The Senses of Walden. I’d read it rather hurriedly several years ago during graduate school and I knew I wanted to return to it someday. A couple of weeks ago I traveled to the Boston area to take Charlotte to college, and it seemed like a good time to begin re-reading it. It was.

Cavell’s book isn’t long (119 pages in my edition), but it demands deliberate and careful, and thus slow, reading; his writing is marked by an intense and intricate focus, and, just as his title incorporates the title of Thoreau’s book, his text is closely interwoven and interlaced with Thoreau’s writing. One of Cavell’s main themes is that Walden is, above all, a book about writing. But Senses of Walden is, it seems to me, mostly about reading, and it’s reading that I want to think about here.

As a book about writing, Walden also has much to say about reading. Its glorious third chapter, “Reading,” gives a sense of the kind of reading that Thoreau and Cavell (and I) have in mind. To read what he calls “the heroic books,” we must “laboriously seek the meaning of each word and line, conjecturing a larger sense than common use permits out of what wisdom and valor and generosity we have” (III,3). Reading is effortful, an active, “laborious” process:

To read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit, is a noble exercise, and one that will task the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem. […] Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written. (III,3)

But the work is not enough; we must also apply whatever “wisdom and valor and generosity” we can muster:

The works of the great poets have never yet been read by mankind, for only great poets can read them. They have only been read as the multitude read the stars, at most astrologically, not astronomically. Most men have learned to read to serve a paltry convenience, as they have learned to cipher in order to keep accounts and not be cheated in trade; but of reading as a noble intellectual exercise they know little or nothing; yet this only is reading, in a high sense, not that which lulls us as a luxury and suffers the nobler faculties to sleep the while, but what we have to stand on tip-toe to read and devote our most alert and wakeful hours to. (III,7)

As he so often does, Thoreau enjoins us to be “awake” and alive and present, to our selves and to the world. This is astronomy, not astrology; we must go beyond arithmetic into realms of mathematics. It’s the work of the “nobler faculties.”

Thoreau is unabashed in his reverence for the ancient “classics,” “the noblest recorded thoughts of man” (III,3). This sort of reverence runs counter to the prevailing sensibilities of our own time; as Cavell puts it, this may all sound like “a pious sentiment,” something that “book clubs like to cite to express their high-mindedness” (4). But Cavell’s point is that throughout Walden Thoreau is showing us how to read Walden, for, he says, Walden is possessed of an epic ambition. It aims to be among the “heroic works” that it talks about. It’s an epic and its hero is named Thoreau. He is busy in Walden with his farming and building and walking and surveying, but all these things return us to Thoreau as a writer:

It is hard to keep in mind that the hero of this book is its writer […] that the “I” of the book declares himself to be a writer. This is hard to keep in mind because we seem to be shown this hero doing everything under the sun but, except very infrequently, writing. It takes a while to recognize that each of his actions is the act of a writer, that every word in which he identifies himself or describes his work and his world is the identification and description of what he understands his literary enterprise to require. (5)

Thus, says Cavell, when Thoreau talks about hoeing his bean fields, he’s talking not just about hoeing but also about writing. This goes for reading as well: as Cavell says, reading for Thoreau is not “merely the other side of writing, its eventual fate” but rather “another metaphor of writing itself” (28). So, in Cavell’s reading of Walden, if Thoreau is ultimately a writer, and Thoreau is the hero of his epic, then the hero is its writer and it’s as a writer that he is heroic. More broadly speaking, arriving at this understanding of Walden is a demonstration of how “to read true books in a true spirit.”

 I think that Cavell’s statement of his specific aims as a reader of Walden can serve as guide to good reading generally:

My subject is nothing apart from sensing the specific weight of these words as they sink; and that means knowing the specific identities of the writer through his metamorphoses, and defining the audiences in me which those identities address, and so create; and hence understanding who I am that I should be called upon in these ways, and who this writer is that he takes his presumption of intimacy and station upon himself. (11-12)

Notice the verbs that Cavell brings to bear, the actions of cognition and perception they denote, their active and transitive forms; their objects, the things they act upon; and the logic of his long sentence: his “subject” as a reader is (1) to sense the weight of words, which requires him (2) to know the writer’s identities and to define certain audiences in himself, which in turn require that he (3) understand who he is and who the writer is.

I first read (or tried to read) Walden when I was a teenager (probably shortly after the first publication of Senses of Walden in 1972), and I’ve read it several times since. But it was only by reading The Senses of Walden for the first time, relatively recently, that I took proper notice of this remarkable sentence in Walden:

If you stand right fronting and face to face to a fact, you will see the sun glimmer on both its surfaces, as if it were a cimeter, and feel its sweet edge dividing you through the heart and marrow, and so you will happily conclude your mortal career. (II, 22)

In terms of my reading of Walden, I have come to understand the passage as a striking image of Thoreau’s ideas about seeing, wakefulness, and being present. At the same time, what Cavell says about it is enormously important in my understanding of what reading is. He reports that the passage led him to “come to trust Walden and to trust its accuracy to its intentions.” As we have seen, he regards Walden as a “sacred text.” I understand Cavell to say that, having so commanded his trust, Walden has earned a reciprocal commitment from him, namely the obligation to read “deliberately and reservedly.” Cavell acknowledges that there have been occasions in his reading of Walden that have not afforded him the feeling of the blade’s “sweet edge dividing you through the heart and marrow.” On such occasions, however, he says that, with his trust of the book and “its accuracy to its intentions,” “I am not quick to determine whether it is failing me, or I it” (11).

Thoreau declares in the “Higher Laws” chapter that “our whole life is startlingly moral” (XI, 10).)  I see Cavell’s “not quick to determine” as an ethical standard of action that guides good and purposeful reading, especially the reading of “sacred text.” If we don’t get it, let us not be “quick to determine” that the problem is with the book rather than with our selves.



Page references are to Stanley Cavell, The Senses of Walden: An Expanded Edition (University of Chicago Press, 1992). My title is quoted  from page 14 of that book.

References to Walden are to chapter and paragraph numbers. An online edition is available at The Thoreau Reader.

What I’ve written here was prompted by the “Quotes to Write By” category of try101.org, for which I’m immensely grateful.

I’m also immensely grateful to TJ Beitelman, well, just generally, but also specifically for his having gotten me thinking—and writing—about “sacred text.”

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