History, Time, and Utopia: Some Reflections Henry David Thoreau

That man who does not believe that each day contains an earlier, more sacred, and auroral hour than he has yet profaned, has despaired of life, and is pursuing a descending and darkening way.” (Henry David Thoreau)

he above is a passage from Thoreau’s Walden. What is Thoreau calling into question in this passage? Nothing short of the sense of irreversibility that governs our ordinary understanding of time and historicity.

Indeed if time moves irreversibly ahead, then we may well be on a “descending and darkening way.” Our being in time is redeemable only if we can escape this inexorable movement. Does that mean that, as Plato seems to advocate in the Phaedo, that we have to liberate ourselves from temporality? On the other hand, Thoreau seems to be saying that a person who is out to redeem time by escaping it has already “despaired of life.”

Time itself, Thoreau implies, opens up another possibility. If we have not despaired already, we may realize that in fact time does not move irreversibly forward because each day is “earlier” than the one that went before. How early? The “auroral hour,” while not outside time, does not refer to any prior historical moment since any such moment is located on the “descending and darkening” path that has to be escaped. The “auroral hour” of which Thoreau speaks is time before history. This kind of time is not irreversible; rather it recurs each immemorial morning.

The beginning returns eternally even if caught within historicity. But we fail to be present to this temporality of nature, perhaps because nature itself has been historicized by our appropriation of it. For this is the nature that emerges fresh from the hands of the gods. Thoreau speaks of the morning as “the most memorable season of the day.” Having returned to the origin, one no longer needs to hark back to it. Only when it has been lost, in the middle of the day, one needs to remember it. In the auroral hour one neither harkens back to a previous time, nor does one orient oneself in terms of a future that has not yet arrived: one is present in the present and present to all that is present in it.

The above begs the question: why is this presence located in the past? Why, in order to locate it are we required to leave the present with which we are familiar? For the simple reason that historicity has so displaced “natural time” that it has become almost inaccessible. Why is then historicity a “descending and darkening way”? Because it signifies the deconstruction of presence by the future. We do not live in the present at all but subordinate it into a means of “getting ahead.” Within historical time, work views the present from the point of view of a goal to be reached, it displaces leisure which alone allows the presence of what is present to manifest itself without reference to any “in order to.”

In other words, appropriation of what is present takes precedence of contemplation of it, the use of things over appreciation of them. Historicity can be equated with profanation, rationalized as practical necessity. But it is a history which does not harken to beginnings (as Vico’s historicity certainly does) but is searches anxiously into petrified documents with a particular goal in mind.

Underlying that kind of rationalization is the drive to get ahead. What are we trying to get ahead of and what are we trying to get behind us? What prompts us to look past presence and privilege the future? This desire to get ahead, an integral part of any ideology of progress, seemed to Thoreau a kind of demonic appetite which enslaves the human heart. The image of historicity as a dark descent would suggest that Thoreau conceives of our being as caught in a tragic fall. Back to the garden of Eden.

For Thoreau, it is difficult but not impossible to awaken from the nightmare of history by retrieving the original experience which it has ruptured. Walden appears as sacred scripture, because it details the practice of this retrieval and does so via a poetic naturalistic language.

However, this account seems to have fallen prey to the metaphysics of presence which a modern philosopher such as Derrida has deconstructed in such a devastating way. For in fact, Thoreau’s project of escaping historicity and retrieving natural time seems to require our believing not only that our origin exists but that it is separable from all that derives from it; i.e., the privileging of being over historicity, the natural over the cultural, the signified over signifiers; it promises us to avoid deconstruction. But this promise can be fulfilled only if the dichotomy between “natural time” and historicity is tenable; only if time is not a “descending and darkening way,’ only if deconstruction is not immanent within time itself. This is precisely what Derrida (as well as Heidegger) call into question.

Let us therefore test Thoreau’s experience of the “auroral hour” with the Derridarian critique. This is not easy because Thoreau does not describe it literally but simply evokes it through hints and intimations, for he believes that it cannot be rendered any other way. It is not a matter of the intellect, but of the heart. We do not awaken to it by opening our eyes, but by becoming wonderers. Amazement attends to what is right here in front of us. This is in contrast to the attitude of practicality which notices nothing of the present except to achieve future goals.

When wonder arrives however, it interrupts everything else. This is the experience we lived once as children, but eventually lost when we fell prey to the restlessness of practicality. Wonder is wholly absorbed in and by the presence of that is present before it, and appreciates it for its own sake, instead of profaning it as a mere means.

All genuine philosophy begins in wonder, for immanent within it is an awareness of the world as sacred; implicit in that sacred character is the imperative that it be reverenced. This is the ab-original religious experience and without it no civilization is possible. The child in us is aware that there is more than what is right in front of us; there are intimations that move us and transport us out of ourselves.

It is like falling in love with the world the way a St. Francis of Assisi fell in love with it in total self-abandonment. What did Francis abandon himself to? To the “more” that is both immanent within the present and other than it, the not yet, a wholly unknown and unforeseeable future. Far from fixating us in the present, original amazement transports us beyond itself. As Thoreau renders it: “when we are really walking, we go forth…in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return…” (From Walking). So the deconstruction of the present is the very condition for the possibility of ex-static wonder. The metaphysics of presence causes us to misconstrue this experience.

Thoreau helps us to deconstruct it by evoking the experience in such a way that the deconstruction immanent within it is allowed to emerge. For humans, there is no original presence, no being antecedent to temporality, no time except from historicity. The breakthrough into the unpresenceable future is what is ab-original for us in as much as the very nature of our being is to be wonderers.

What becomes then of the dichotomy between “natural time” and historicity on which Thoreau’s spirituality depends? To answer the question we need to look a bit more closely at what Thoreau sees as the characteristic of our historicity: goal seeking. When we are working toward a goal we subordinate the present to the future. When goal achievement becomes a way of life the danger is that each goal becomes a means to another goal and no arrival is ever final. Goal seeking approaches the future with a destination in view and a plan for reaching it.

This meticulous measuring and planning is the pride and joy of all rationalists. The planning prescribes the shape of our historicity. It aims at controlling the future. Paradoxically, the achievement of any particular goal becomes less important than the overriding project of control itself within the assumed framework of “inevitable progress” and its corollary belief that what is newest is always the best. What will matter the most is not so much getting to the goal but making progress and “getting ahead.”

However, the unforeseeable future usually intrudes. It is radically heterogeneous from the present. We approach the future with a master plan in the hope of repressing this heterogeneity and obtaining a future that will not be destructive or deconstructive; that is to say, one that we can control. In other words, goal-seeking wishes to prevent the future from breaking upon the present in a way that would deconstruct it. Implicit in this desire to prevent this deconstruction is a nostalgia for a present insulated from the future. Working hard to get ahead is a way of trying to bet back to a present that the future has not yet deconstructed.

Thoreau would have us withdraw from historicity in order to immerse ourselves in an undefiled present. But that risks confusing the attempt to control the future with living in relationship to it. For to live wholly in the present means exactly to be caught in the unforeseeable which is immanent within the present as a disruption, i.e., being present to the future. A present insulated from the possibility of this fracture would not be a temporal present; it would be outside or before time. This longing to immerse ourselves in such a present is the equivalent of a desire to control the future. In both case we seek to escape temporality.

We may ask: why does our historicity take the form of trying to repress the future by controlling it? Because to wholeheartedly embrace what is right-here-and now-in front of us as an unknown that transcends us and beckons us to a response requires letting go of that which is right-here-and now-in front of us, thus relinquishing our toehold on the present and abandoning ourselves to the unforeseeable without efforts to control it. Indeed, irrespective of what the future holds in store for us, opening ourselves to it in its radical heterogeneity is a radical disruption, a sort of death.

Thoreau puts it thus: “We should go forth…in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return, prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only as relics to our desolate kingdom. If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again, if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled your affairs, and are a free man, then you are ready to walk” (Walking). This kind of walking does not bring one back to an original natural time. It leads straight into a historicity that requires leaving home, and abandoning all hope of ever returning.

The home we do not wish to leave is presence undefiled by the future. We have never been there, and yet we dread departing from it even though this departure is what we are. We desperately try to make historicity conform to our plan for it so as to relieve the dread. A goal-oriented life is not open to the future; it attempts to get ahead of time itself, so as to prevent it from devastating us. The alternative to historicity as we ordinarily live it is not to returning to natural time but abandoning ourselves to historicity rather than trying to control it. Surely it requires the ascesis of dispossession which Thoreau prescribes and St. Francis well knew, but this ascesis leads into history, not away from it.

The ecstasy of being transported out of ourselves is inseparable from the anguish of departure. Think of the myth of Europa and the scene of goddess Europa departing for good on top of a black bull (Zeus in disguise). We may ask: is she being transported out of herself in ecstasy? On the way we answer that question hangs the whole issue of the cultural identity of Europe. For the fullness of the present can be experienced only in so far as we abandon ourselves to the future what is immanent within it.

It can easily be argued that no time has been obsessed with controlling historicity as our own. What we ended up getting was Machiavellian real-politik where the end justifies any means. This drive at control is intensified by the painful realization that we do not control time and that there is no higher providence that will do it for us as the founding fathers of the United States surely believed. So we feel abandoned in history and abandoned to it. The intensity of this abandonment drives us to control the dreaded heterogeneity of the future; but the more control is achieved, the less history becomes possible.

Enter Francis Fukuyama who postulates an end of history when historicity is an anachronism and everything will be under control; that is to say, a future time in which the future will have been abolished. Enter George Orwell with his 1984. Enter Henry Ford with his “history is bunk.” Thoreau for one would strongly argue that we must try to escape such madness and go back to a time when the present was not held hostage to the inevitable progress as conceived by our present day rationalists dubbed by Vico “barbarians of the intellect.” It is therein that lies the prostitution of our very humanity.

One parting thought: there is an alternative to both the myth of the undefiled presence and the utopia (or dystopia) of a wholly controlled future, which is to say, the alternative to getting behind time and getting ahead of it. The alternative is to live within historicity itself as Vico has well taught us. To live in the present as it is broken open to and by the future.

The difficulty, in my opinion, is that the obsession with measurement and control has become so pervasive within positivist modernity that the very existence of the future in its heterogeneity seems to be in jeopardy. Within the problematic times we live in, nothing is held out to us, except the utterly unforeseeable wonder, the possibility of something impossible to anticipate. Both Thoreau and Vico teach us that to live fully in the present is to abandon ourselves to this possibility of something impossible to anticipate.

Indeed, to live fully in the present is to abandon ourselves to this possibility instead of wishing to avoid it or control it. We desperately need to learn what Thoreau calls “the art of walking,” but even here he would claim hat our power to do so depends on what used to be called grace, over which we also have no control.

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Emanuel L. Paparella, Ph.D.

Professor Paparella has earned a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism, with a dissertation on the philosopher of history Giambattista Vico, from Yale University. He is a scholar interested in current relevant philosophical, political and cultural issues; the author of numerous essays and books on the EU cultural identity among which A New Europe in search of its Soul, and Europa: An Idea and a Journey. Presently he teaches philosophy and humanities at Barry University, Miami, Florida. He is a prolific writer and has written hundreds of essays for both traditional academic and on-line magazines among which Metanexus and Ovi. One of his current works in progress is a book dealing with the issue of cultural identity within the phenomenon of “the neo-immigrant” exhibited by an international global economy strong on positivism and utilitarianism and weak on humanism and ideals.


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