Friday, November 13, 2015

In Praise of Pond Scum, Even If It Dismays Dinner Hosts

One of my favorite science writers, Kathryn Schulz, published a take-down of Thoreau in The New Yorker. Funny title: "Pond Scum." It's smart and entertaining but also, I think, an unfortunate example of willful misreading that gets Thoreau wrong in pretty much every way. When The New Republic asked if I cared to respond, I did. An excerpt:
Perhaps the most curiously contrary charge Schulz levels against Thoreau is incuriosity. Provincial, yes—in his travels. In his reading, he was cosmopolitan. But incurious?  The man was endlessly investigating phenomena both natural and human. On his provincial travels in Concord but also to Cape Cod and Maine, he was endlessly interviewing strangers—lumberjacks, oystermen, farmers. He romanticized Native Americans as noble savages, and exoticized them, representing the broken English of those he met phonetically in ways that now make us cringe, but unlike most of his contemporaries, he also made a point of meeting them,  interviewing them, traveling with them, and he tried to learn of and from them on his long walks.
The data he collected at Walden pond is still used by climate scientists, and he sent some 900 different plant specimens he’d collected, as well as animals, to the Swiss-born Harvard biologist Louis Agassiz. My own favorite biographical vignette about Thoreau is this one, from an essay by Guy Davenport: The Thoreau who befriended Agassiz, Davenport writes, “was a scientist, the pioneer ecologist, one of the few men in America with whom [Agassiz] could talk, as on an occasion when the two went exhaustively into the mating of turtles, to the dismay of their host for dinner, Emerson.”
Curiosity is what drew Thoreau to the shipwreck he writes about in Cape Cod, Exhibit A in Schulz’s indictment. Death was yet another phenomenon he sought to understand by studying it up close. Quoting one passage out of the many paragraphs Thoreau devotes to the seaside carnage he witnessed, Schulz pegs him as a heartless bastard, a sort of Transcendental sociopath, indifferent to suffering. “On the whole,” that passage begins, “it was not so impressive a scene as I might have expected. If I had found one body cast upon the beach in some lonely place, it would have affected me more.” He’s describing here a paradox that we’ve all surely experienced: when the sufferings of strangers multiply, they have a way of growing abstract in our imaginations, as do the feelings they elicit, hence the numbed indifference casualty statistics can induce, whereas the suffering of a single individual can move us easily to outrage or tears. We saw this paradox illustrated last September by a photo of another drowned refugee who died seeking sanctuary, Syrian rather than Irish this time, a three-year-old, Aylan Kurdi, on the Greek island of Kos rather than on Cape Cod.
To turn her one incriminating passage into evidence of Thoreau’s misanthropy, moreover, Schulz has to ignore the rest of the chapter, originally published as an essay in Putnam’s. It is a kind of extended prose elegy, written to bear witness to and make sense of the tragedy that befell that shipload of Irish immigrants. Upon arriving at the beach, Thoreau memorializes the dead, and individualizes them, and makes us see them in prose as graphic, almost, as a photograph but more eloquent:
I saw many marble feet and matted heads as the cloths were raised, and one livid, swollen, and mangled body of a drowned girl,—who probably had intended to go out to service in some American family,—to which some rags still adhered, with a string, half concealed by the flesh, about its swollen neck; the coiled-up wreck of a human hulk, gashed by the rocks or fishes, so that the bone and muscle were exposed, but quite bloodless,—merely red and white,—with wide-open and staring eyes, yet lustreless, dead-lights; or like the cabin windows of a stranded vessel, filled with sand.
The essay is almost the inverse of what Schultz takes it for: not a symptom of cold indifference, an antidote to it. The stoicism of the passage she quotes is also explained by what follows it, a homily on the consolations of the afterlife. “All their plans and hopes burst like a bubble! Infants by the score dashed on the rocks by the enraged Atlantic Ocean!” Thoreau exclaims, and then reassures his readers—and, one senses, himself—that the souls of the drowned have reached the safe harbor of heaven.
It’s here, at such moments, that my own objections to Thoreau tend to arise. When he goes sauntering to the holy land, I have trouble following him there. For all his irreverence toward the church, for all his open-minded, influence-seeking study of eastern and western philosophy, he is a profoundly Christian writer, and one whose faith is, on the page at least, less conflicted than Dickinson’s or Melville’s.

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