Thursday, June 16, 2011

Manifestation of Manic Depressive Tendencies in Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and Jacob’s Room

The correlation between manic-depressive illness and creative thinking is one that has received much attention in the worlds of literature, art, and music.  Masters of the creative realm, such as Vincent van Gogh, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Ernest Hemingway, and, of course, Virginia Woolf are all believed to have suffered and prospered from manic depression.  With this impressive list of patients, it is understandable why manic depression began to gather support as a potential contributing factor of creative genius.  Manic depression is, in itself, intriguing due to its inherent transience and inability to rest within fixed borders.  In his book, The Flight of the Mind: Virginia Woolf’s Art and Manic-Depressive Illness, Thomas Caramango begins by defining the two primary states that constitute the illness.  The phase called “mania” is characterized by “an elevated and expansive mood” which “may range from dreamy or infectious cheerfulness to ecstasy and exaltation” (Caramango 39).  The manic state also causes the ascension “to visionary heights by distancing ordinary things” and “absolute certainty that one has seen the ‘truth’” (Caramango 50-51).  In stark contrast to mania, the depressive state brings on feelings of despair, hopelessness, anger, and irritation.  Caramango also notes that sensory perceptions are exaggerated to the point of hallucinations during the manic phase, while “depression dulls, leaving physical and mental worlds monochromatic” (Caramango 53).  This description sheds light on the complex ways in which manic depression can both intensify and plague the creative process.  Perhaps the most well-known case of manic depressive illness in association with creativity is that of Virginia Woolf.  Through diary entries, letters, and secondhand accounts of Woolf’s emotional highs and lows, her struggle with the illness has been thoroughly examined and analyzed from many combinations of medical and literary standpoints.  Although these analyses were most likely exacted with scholastic intentions, one Woolf scholar asserts that “by thinking of Virginia Woolf and her fiction as manic-depressive…many biographers and critics this deny her the element of control over her life that we find so evident in her diaries, letters, memoirs, and manuscripts” (Kenney and Kenney 163).  To attribute Woolf’s literary genius solely to a mental illness is to deny her the dynamic individuality that she strived to preserve in her fiction.  Furthermore, studies have indicated that a scientific correlation between “madness” and creative genius is not a particularly strong one.  In a study performed by Robert W. Weisberg on the creative output of the manic-depressive composer Schumann, the quality of creative output was in no way increased during the manic phase.  However, Weisberg noted in his preliminary findings that both manic-depressive patients and relatives of manic-depressives have displayed higher levels of creativity than “normal” patients.  Thus, we are left with the intricate problem of how to approach Virginia Woolf’s fiction through the lens of a fascinating mental illness, while preserving the individuality of her writing style and the vibrancy of her fiction.  Like the characters in her novels, Woolf and the thematic elements in her works cannot be regarded in an objective manner; rather, her fiction is testimony to the fact that humans and our existence are entirely subjective, possessing layers upon layers of dimensions.  In a somewhat paradoxical attempt to unravel these layers, this paper seeks to understand the unique way in which Virginia Woolf’s mental illness contributed to the development of her highly aware and psychologically-driven writing style, making sure to preserve her individual elements which never ceased to play an equally important role.  The traits of both mania and depression, combined with traumatic and unique life experiences, come together to form her fictional prose that displays recurring themes.  Through her novels Jacob’s Room and To the Lighthouse, Woolf’s sensory awareness, her use of fiction as elegy, and her quest to understand identity will all be examined.
Virginia Woolf’s search for a way to represent identity is pertinent to the themes of both Jacob’s Room and To the LighthouseJacob’s Room can be characterized in many ways.  Most importantly to this paper, and coincidentally the most striking of the novel’s features is the fact that the book seeks to understand identity as it pertains to Jacob and the plethora of other characters.  From the very start of the novel, the reader understand Jacob to be an elusive character, one whose intriguing nature is readily attested to by the other characters but is never fully understood.  From an outsider’s perspective, it is seen that Jacob is driven by curiosity, searching for meaning in life outside the realms of society and class.  This character trait of Jacob’s manifests itself in various actions, such as wandering the shore alone as a child, studying intently the speciation of moths, and his voracious search for new intellect in books.  While we are told these things about Jacob and his personality, we are given all information either from an omniscient narrator, or from the perspectives of those around Jacob.  Full access to Jacob’s consciousness is denied the reader, and we are ultimately left to piece together a person through outside observations and occasional bits of dialogue.  The problem of comprehending the complete identity of others is addressed directly in the novel by a woman who encounters Jacob on the train.  After trying to characterize Jacob based on visual clues, such as his manner of dress and his attitude towards her, she comes to the conclusion that “it is no use trying to sum people up” because “one must follow hints, not exactly what is said, not yet entirely what is done” (Woolf 29).  The complex and often overwhelming idea that we can never fully know others is also addressed at the end of the novel, after Jacob’s death in the war.  Woolf paints of picture of the effects that the elusive question of identity has on our personal relationships when she describes the scene in Jacob’s room after his passing.  Family and acquaintances have gathered in the room, and Mr. Bonamy remarks that Jacob “left everything just as it was” (Woolf 186).  The possessions in Jacob’s room are concrete representations of his self, but these objects allow little understanding of the intricacy of Jacob’s identity.  The forever elusive identities of others is an important theme in this novel and other works by Woolf because it indicates the way in which she attempted to give her own personal quest for identity an element of coherence through her fiction.  Caramango notes in Flight of the Mind that Jacob’s Room is indicative of “a self-conscious expression, in both content and form, of the bipolar subject-object relations of reading fiction, transactions which go awry in manic-depressive episodes” (Caramango 186).  Thus, Woolf’s struggle with her own sense of self was intensified greatly by her illness.  Her personal reflections on individual consciousness in comparison with the perceptions of others appear in fictional form, an indication that Woolf was in control of her writing.  Through this manifestation of Woolf’s personal struggles in her fiction, we see that, although a lack of identity is common in manic depressives, Woolf evolved this trait of her illness into a unique and personal version by incorporating it into her writing.  Jacob’s Room and the question of identity raised in the novel are testimony to the fact that Woolf did not rest helpless to her manic depression, but sought to establish her own individuality through the lens of an illness.
The question of identity in To the Lighthouse is examined in a much different manner than in Jacob’s RoomTo the Lighthouse is written using the detailed inner thoughts of the characters who have gathered at a house on the Isle of Skye for the summer holiday.  The access to the consciousnesses of the characters provides the reader with both firsthand information about the individual personalities and various perceptions of others.  Mrs. Ramsay is the matriarch of the party, and the reasons for her intriguing presence are constantly pondered over by other guests in the house.  Mr. Bankes observes Mrs. Ramsay in the house, in the seemingly insignificant act of having her son James try on a stocking, yet we see that his thoughts wander to the question of what goes on in her mind.  He asks himself, “What was there behind it—her beauty and splendour?” and goes on to hypothesize that she is silent on account “of love foiled, of ambition thwarted” or that there may actually be nothing significant behind her beautiful appearance (Woolf 32).  Lily Briscoe, too, is intent on understanding the mystery of Mrs. Ramsay’s identity “for it was not knowledge but unity that she desired” (Woolf 54).  The interesting feature of this novel is that, while all of the other characters are attempting to unlock the identity of Mrs. Ramsay, we have full access to her consciousness and the thoughts that flow through her mind.  The workings of her mind are far removed from her beauty, as Mr. Bankes conjectured.  She thinks elaborately about her husband and her son James, the practicalities of running the household, and her mind often digresses to the ability of life to cause sadness and disappointment.  She revels in the moments of privacy during which she “carries her privacy with her in the hubbub of family life” (Caramango 245).  This glaring separation in the consciousnesses of the characters “invites readers to relinquish the wish for an objective narrative truth—by giving us not simply two irreconcilable views but seventeen subjective points of view, each provisional” (Caramango 244).  Lily’s desire for the “unity” that she believes can be achieved by understanding the mind of Mrs. Ramsay is, from Woolf’s perspective, impossible.  In order to preserve the idea of individuality, unity by means of understanding the identity of others must be sacrificed.  In the article “The Window: Knowledge of Other Minds in Virginia Woolf’s ‘To the Lighthouse’,” Martha Nussbaum explores the reasons that full knowledge of other minds is impossible.  In addition to the fact that the pace in which we think is too rapid to hope to express every thought, Nussbaum remarks that language is “too crude to express what is most personal, what is deepest in the individual consciousness” (Nussbaum 734).  Furthermore, there is the possibility that an individual, such as Mrs. Ramsay, possesses the “desire for liberty and privacy” that comes along with the subjectivity of identity (Nussbaum 739).  Lily’s wish for unity in contrast with Mrs. Ramsay’s desire to preserve her most inner self private is indicative of the ambivalence which Woolf towards her constant assertion that subjectivity exists in all experience.  Unity between people at the most personal level cannot exist with the subjective nature of consciousness, and these competing ideas are in line with the manic-depressive’s constant fluctuation between feeling a sense of love and community for all of humanity and feeling completely disconnected from humanity due to the unusual intensity with which they experience emotions.  
Woolf experienced many deaths in her lifetime, losing her mother, father, half-sister, and brother Thoby all before the age of thirty-five.  These losses, combined with the intensity of emotions that mania and depression provoke, allowed for the elegiac theme seen in Woolf’s fiction, specifically in Jacob’s Room and To the Lighthouse.  An elegy is defined as “a song or poem expressing sorrow or lamentation especially for one who is dead.”  Jacob’s Room is presumed to be an elegy for Woolf’s brother, Thobey Stephens, who died in World War I.  In creating Jacob’s character, she was able to “create something that no one could take away from her,” a capability which is important for someone whose mental illness and experiences of death left her in a constant state of instability (Kenney and Kenney 172).  Jacob’s elusiveness and air of prominence are traits that had been attributed to Thobey during his lifetime, and by developing a character so similar to her brother, we see that Woolf sought to apply the same element of control over her experience of death as she applied to the concept of identity.  The paradox involved in using fiction as elegy is that attempting to describe a person on paper, using limited language and with limited understanding of that person’s consciousness, is contradictory to Woolf’s deeply ingrained idea that every individual is singular and unique in the composition of the self.  Death can only seal the truth of the impossibility of truly knowing others, yet Jacob’s Room at times seems like a novel written with the hope that some understanding of the identity of Jacob can be attained.  We see this through the numerous characters who attempt to describe Jacob.  Mrs. Durrant has an immediate curiosity about Jacob when Timmy brings her to their home, scrutinizing him and noting that “he is extraordinarily awkward…yet so distinguished-looking” (Woolf 61).  The ever-present narrator notes more psychological traits of Jacob, asserting that “he had a violent reversion towards male society, cloistered rooms, and the works of the classics” (Woolf 83).  However, although we are given tidbits of information about Jacob’s character throughout the entire novel, we ultimately see that his death only magnifies the futility of trying to understand the elusive consciousness of Jacob.  This fluctuation between feeling as if some universal truth has been found, followed by the subsequent realizations that no truth can ever be known due to the subjectivity of every aspect of life is indicative of the manic-depressive’s “moments of being” followed by the disparaging feeling of hopelessness in the search for truth.  Woolf’s attempt to give an elegy for her brother Thobey is coupled with the constant undertone of never being able to truly know his complete identity.  Although she created a piece of fiction as part of the mourning process, even Woolf’s prose cannot pierce the intricacies of consciousness.  Thobey’s elegy in the form of Jacob’s Room, then, is “an attempt to name and invoke the dead as well as a demonstration of the impossibility of its success” (Smythe 70).  Jacob’s death and the simple image of his possessions filling his room prove to us that, in both life and in death, we can only know others through an objective eye, constantly maintaining an awareness that individual identity is subjective to its core.
Virginia Woolf herself attested to the fact that To the Lighthouse was written in an effort to lay the memory of her parents to rest.  Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay possess some characteristics of Leslie and Julia Stephen, yet the Ramsays must still be viewed as creative constructs who do not necessarily represent Woolf’s parents as much as Woolf’s individual emotions about her parents.  Woolf admitted that with the completion of the novel, she was no longer obsessed with the memory of her mother.  The novel often shows the ambivalence of Woolf towards both of her parents through the thoughts of Lily Briscoe.  Lily fluctuates between an overwhelming need to understand the mind behind Mrs. Ramsay’s beauty, and a sense of irritation with Mrs. Ramsay’s “highhandedness.”  Lily’s inability to complete the portrait of Mrs. Ramsay is due to the fact that she can only paint the figure of Mrs. Ramsay through the use of her creative memory.  Mrs. Ramsay’s death allows for the “drop of silver in which one dipped and illumined the darkness of the past” that Lily needs to finish the painting (Woolf 173).  To the Lighthouse as an elegy for Julia Stephen in particular shows the complexity of consciousness in the endeavor to memorialize a person who has passed.  Lily Briscoe, as a representation of Virginia Woolf, comes to terms with the idea that the preservation of Mrs. Ramsay’s elusive identity is important to Lily’s own personal sense of self; Lily’s portrait of Mrs. Ramsay can be completed through artistic memory, which is entirely subjective of Lily’s individual consciousness.  The “quest for “some real thing,”” that “functions thematically and structurally in Woolf’s fiction-elegies” ultimately returns to the bittersweet concept that in life and in death, individuality of experience and consciousness is crucial to the understanding of oneself and of others (Smythe 67).

A simpler aspect of Woolf’s writing style which has strong ties to the manic phase of her illness is the intensity of sensory awareness, particularly when it comes to the visual.  Whereas the very nature of consciousness does not allow the written or spoken word to describe its complexities, visual awareness can be thoroughly and artfully described through prose.  Both Jacob’s Room and To the Lighthouse possess numerous passages in which the natural surroundings are painted, through words, to give us striking, and often haunting, pictures.  In a tangential passage, the narrator of Jacob’s Room is describing the campus of Cambridge when, out of nowhere, the buildings of the campus fall away and “before one’s eyes would come the bare hills of Turkey—sharp lines, dry earth, coloured flowers, and colour on the shoulders of the women” (Woolf 44).  This beautiful description of a foreign world indicates an author whose capability to capture and describe her surroundings is highly developed.  The imagery of Turkey in the middle of a passage that intends to describe the campus of Cambridge is beyond tangential, however, and is a potential example of the fact that mania can cause people to “experience extremely vivid hallucinations…accelerated psychomotor activity and intensified sensory perceptions” (Caramango 42).  Aside from numerous other picturesque descriptions, Woolf speaks through the narrator on the subject of this elevated visual awareness, stating that “the observer is choked with observations” and that “to prevent us from being submerged by chaos, nature and society between them have arranged a system of classification which is simplicity itself; stalls, boxes, amphitheatre, gallery” (Woolf 69).  However, Woolf and her fiction cannot be defined by a system of classification.  The awareness that is so apparent in her prose is not bound by the conventional understanding of awareness.  The manic phase allows for an incredibly high level of perceptiveness, and rather than letting herself feel “choked by observations,” Woolf transfers her sensory perceptions to the creative process of writing fiction.
The sensory awareness that we see in To the Lighthouse also differs from that of Jacob’s Room in the sense that it is described to us through the thoughts of the characters as opposed to omniscient narration.  The perceptions of the various characters, therefore, include the natural surroundings and also the actions, speech, and habits of the other guests in the house.  Lily Briscoe is the character who is most acutely aware of visual stimulation as she is a painter; awareness and the ability to discern the smallest details in her surroundings is pertinent to the art which allows her to feel a silent pride.  Therefore, it is through Lily’s stream of consciousness that we see words put together in a way that is most similar to the narrator in Jacob’s Room.  Contemplating the way that she should finish her picture of Mrs. Ramsay, Lily thinks to herself that “the whole mass of the picture was poised upon that weight…Beautiful and bright it should be on the surface, feathery and evanescent, one colour melting into another like the colours on a butterfly’s wing” (Woolf 174).  The mass that Lily speaks of is the unfinished figure of Mrs. Ramsay, whose identity, in Lily’s mind, is so important to the completion and truth of the painting.  Lily’s intense awareness of the visual, seen by her attention to colour and reference to the elusive butterfly, is unique to her consciousness throughout the novel.  Due to the fact that Lily’s thoughts seem to be the most in line with Woolf’s artistic vision, some critics have conjectured that “the novel, To the Lighthouse, constitute Virginia Woolf’s attempts to elucidate her being” (Albright 2).  Lily’s constant attention to both her physical surroundings and the identity of Mrs. Ramsay mirror Woolf’s heightened sense of awareness and her need to understand her deceased mother.  The biological symptoms of mania are largely responsible for the ability to paint a vibrant picture, yet it is Woolf’s personal experience of the loss of her parents combined with the nature of her illness that contribute to the intensive search for her mother’s identity.  Lily’s trait of sensory awareness in comparison with Woolf’s own had led to the belief that “it is in the world of imagination that [Woolf] finds the relationship that defines her identity” (McCracken).  Thus, even a literary detail as straightforward as Woolf’s visually and psychologically aware prose becomes an extension of the consciousness of Woolf.  Although Nussbaum asserted in her article “The Window: Knowledge of Other Mind’s in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse” that language is not an effective medium to describe the richness of the consciousness, Woolf’s prose in the form of the consciousness of Lily Briscoe is proof that she is incredibly capable of using words in a way that mimics one’s own thoughts.  
While certain literary critics attempt to understand Woolf’s fiction solely through the characteristics of manic-depressive illness, it is clear that a mental illness cannot be the only contributing factor to creative genius.  Not only does Robert Weisberg’s study prove that manic depression does not necessarily increase creativity, but Caramango also asserts in The Flight of the Mind that “the symptomatic form manic-depressive illness takes…usually reflects the individual experience” (Caramango 54).  The nature of the illness is subject to the infinite variety of life experiences that a person can have, and Virginia Woolf’s fiction, therefore, is comprised of themes which had origins in both her illness and her unique consciousness.  Thus, the themes that we see in Jacob’s Room and To the Lighthouse closely resemble Woolf’s unique symptoms that emerged as a result of the combination of an illness with individual experience.  Truthfully, the themes of the search for identity, the use of fiction as elegy, and an elevated sensory awareness all tend to return to a main focal point of Woolf’s: the subjectivity of all life experience.  When we seek to define the identity of Jacob Flanders and Mrs. Ramsay through the perceptions of others, the result is having to give into the fact that we cannot know the identity of others due to the subjectivity of individual consciousness.  Furthermore, if we look at Jacob’s Room and To the Lighthouse as elegies for Thobey Stephens and Woolf’s parents, respectively, we once again arrive at the conclusion that attempting to remember and record the traits of an individual after his/her death brings us no closer to understanding the mind of that person.  Finally, the incredibly descriptive passages of prose indicative of extreme sensory awareness were perhaps influenced by Woolf’s mania, but her perceptions and their subsequent usage in her fiction belonged solely to Woolf; she observed the beauty in everyday life through a completely unique set of eyes and a singular mindset.  What then, is the concept of subjectivity of individual consciousness is so pervasive in life, did Woolf hope to accomplish by writing about a topic which, in itself, emphasizes the complete inability to know others?  Why did Woolf perform the contradictory act of trying to pin down the characters of Jacob Flanders and Mrs. Ramsay on paper, only to arrive at the conclusion that we cannot truly know the identities of these characters?  Just as Woolf was ambivalent towards the symptoms of her illness, she was also ambivalent towards the overwhelming concept of the subjectivity of consciousness.  We see the paradoxical endeavor to understand Jacob and Mrs. Ramsay because Woolf felt the need to exercise control over the concept of identity due to the fact that she was in a constant state of a fluctuating sense of self, and also because she felt powerless in the ability to understand the identities of the loved ones she had lost.  Yet, both the manic-depressive and Woolf’s fiction continue to return to the realization that no universal, unchanging truth can ever be admitted in the face of individuality.  Woolf’s lifelong struggle with identity manifests itself in her novels so frequently because “Virginia’s existence depended in some way upon her creativity” (Kenney and Kenney 165).  The mistake that many make in the analysis of Woolf’s fiction is in assuming that her “existence” can be fully explained by her illness.  On the contrary, the intricacy of the consciousness must apply to Woolf herself, and the manifestation of her struggle with identity in her fiction should be recognized as a delicate and complex combination of her manic depressive illness and the individuality of her life experience.
Works Cited
Albright, Daniel.  “Virginia Woolf as Autobiographer.”  The Kenyon Review.  6: 4, 1984.  1-17.  
JSTOR.  Kenyon College.  5 December 2009.
Caramagno, Thomas.  The Flight of the Mind: Virginia Woolf’s Art and Manic-Depressive                                      
Illness.  Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1992.
Kenney, Susan, and Edwin J. Kenney, Jr.  “Virginia Woolf and the Art of Madness.”  The
Massachusetts Review.  23: 1, 1982.  161-185.  JSTOR.  The Massachusetts Review, Inc.
Boston.  1 December 2009.
Nussbaum, Martha.  “The Window: Knowledge of Other Minds in Virginia Woolf's To the 
Lighthouse.”  New Literary History.  26: 4, 1995.  731-753.  JSTOR.  The John Hopkins University Press.  John Hopkins University, Baltimore.  16 November 2009.
Smythe, Karen.  “Virginia Woolf’s Elegiac Enterprise.”  NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction.
26:1, 1992.  69-74.  JSTOR.  Duke University Press.  4 December 2009.
Weisberg, Robert.  “Genius and Madness? A Quasi-Experimental Test of the Hypothesis That 
Manic-Depression Increases Creativity.”  Psychological Science.  5: 6, 1994.  361-367.  JSTOR.  Blackwell Publishing.  Temple University, Philadelphia.  18 November 2009.
Woolf, Virginia.  Jacob’s Room.  Orlando: Harcourt, Inc., 2005.
Woolf, Virginia.  To the Lighthouse.  Orlando: Harcourt, Inc., 2008.

Transcendentalism: Walden and Into the Wild Comparison

Kate Sullenberger
English 389: Transcendentalism

American culture and society seem to have a natural affinity for progressive thought, ideals, and systems, an affinity whose roots can be seen in our cultural attitudes of industry, expansion, and success.  Perhaps it is due to this glorification of originality that the journeys of self-discovery seen in Thoreau’s Walden and Krakauer’s Into the Wild are so wildly popular (for the most part) with the American population.  Walden is Thoreau’s account of the two years during which he retreated to nature to “live deliberately,” and the book acts as both a how-to guide and a carefully constructed detailing of Thoreau’s philosophical system (Thoreau 1854, 74).  Into the Wild depicts Chris McCandless’s modern-day journey across America and into the Alaskan wilderness, following in the footsteps of Thoreau in an effort to live by pure ideals.  On the surface, these stories appear to be highly similar, with their respective heroes maintaining the ideas of personal virtue and liberal individualism.  And while it is true that Thoreau and McCandless exhibit a few coinciding ideals, this paper will seek to unveil the finer points of their individual philosophies through a more thorough analysis of Walden, Into the Wild, and literary critiques of these works; a more in-depth understanding of Thoreau and McCandless will illuminate the various points at which their philosophies both resemble and depart from one another.  Finally, in light of potential differences, I would like to hypothesize upon whether McCandless’s journey, and his motives for it, would be supported or critiqued by Thoreau, who clearly paved the path for self-discovery in nature.

First, it is important to a comparison of Thoreau and McCandless to discuss the idea of liberalism, which has both a political connotation and a Romance-era inspired identity.  In his critique of Into the Wild, an article entitled “Opting Out: The Fantasy of Liberal Independence in Into the Wild,” Robert Watkins presents these two variants of liberalism.  Watkin’s describes a political liberalism as one “that requires a willingness to cast off the old in search of the new… [It] is deeply individualistic, informed by individual rights and freedoms” (Watkins 2009, 8).  Thus, this first type of liberalism manifests itself in the basic framework of the American government, allowing for a (theoretical) loyalty to individual rights above all else.  The second concept of liberalism that Watkins introduces does not have its basis in politics, but draws inspiration from “Romantic thinkers such as Wilhelm von Humboldt and Romantic poets such as Lord Byron” (Watkins 2009, 8).  Watkins groups the ideals depicted in Walden and Into the Wild within this Romantic liberalism “that pairs a deep suspicion of contaminated society with a solitary embrace of pure nature…[and] is more intuitive, Romantic, and impulsive, and more interested in the freedom of self-making apart from society and away from power” (Watkins 2009, 8-9).  Thus, this type of liberalism invokes the idea of the mystical free spirit who revels in the boundless charms of nature, wishing to escape the rational and politically-based liberalism.  Watkins’s differentiation between the two types of liberalism proves incredibly useful to a comparison of Walden and Into the Wild, yet he makes a hasty and uninformed judgment when he classifies Thoreau’s retreat to nature as more Romantic liberalism than a political one.

Thoreau’s decision to move to the isolation of the woods surrounding Walden pond was as much an attempt to live practically as it was to “live deliberately.”  On one hand, Thoreau confronted this experiment of isolation with the utmost attention to logic and detail, so that when “the essential facts of life” revealed themselves to him, he could be certain that he had controlled every possible variable within his power (Thoreau 1854, 74).  Thoreau’s assertion that that “No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof” indicates his intention of tediously controlling every aspect of his life in the woods and proactively searching for an unshakable foundation for his philosophy of life (Thoreau 1854, 11).  Walden details Thoreau’s economical construction of his cottage, his simple and modest furniture, and his bland yet frugal diet (for which, he “regularly and faithfully procured” essential ingredients from the nearby village) (Thoreau 1854, 52).  Through this practicality and faithful adherence to a simple, methodical way of life, it is clear that Thoreau retreats to the woods in a self-conscious effort to discover his own truths, the truths that will provide spiritual and intellectual coherence within his being.  He does not retire to isolation with a pretentious assumption that he has discovered the only way to live purely, and that this way is necessarily removed from society within the wild realm of nature.  Rather he goes to Walden pond in order to more clearly understand what life means to him on a very personal level.  In his extensive study of Thoreau’s Walden, Thoreau’s Living Ethics: Walden and the Pursuit of Virtue, Philip Cafaro identifies this difference between passively removing oneself from society and deliberately seeking the key to life.  In reference to Thoreau’s claim that he “wished to live deliberately,” Cafaro asserts that “Deliberation is an act of optimism, signaling the belief that we have choices; that we can distinguish better from worse choices; that we can act on that knowledge and improve our lives” (Cafaro 2004).

As it turns out, Thoreau benefited greatly from his optimistic deliberation; he achieved both self-knowledge and a more general knowledge of “virtue ethics,” upon which he expounds in Walden.  On a personal level, Thoreau’s experiment with living simply and sustaining himself with just the bare minimum goes according to plan.  He resides in his self-constructed house, fishes regularly, and occupies his time with reading and taking in his surroundings.  Thoreau, having asserted that he “love[s] society as much as most… [and is] naturally no hermit,” receives and entertains guests regularly at his modest house (Thoreau 1854, 112).  Apart from these practical details of his daily life, Thoreau’s simple lifestyle affords him the opportunity to develop his personal thoughts concerning nature, solitude, and spirituality.  The role that nature plays in Thoreau’s life in twofold.  First, he enjoys the simplicity found in nature—the natural growth, the animal life, and the purity of the pond.  More importantly, however, Nature offers Thoreau the rapturous feeling of being spiritually whole that he traveled to the woods to experience.  After some time at Walden pond, Thoreau confidently writes that “The true harvest of my daily life is somewhat as intangible and indescribable as the tints of morning or evening.  It is a little star-dust caught, a segment of the rainbow which I have clutched” (Thoreau 1854, 171).  Although he cannot fully explain the “intangible” beauty of nature, Thoreau does know that it is Nature’s spirit that makes his own spirit fulfilled.

If the analysis of Walden were to end here, then Thoreau would certainly classify as Watkins’s Romantic liberal.  However, both Cafaro and Paul Lauter, author of the article “Thoreau’s Prophetic Testimony,” would argue that Walden is not only Thoreau’s personal memoir of self-discovery, but also a general invitation to readers to achieve their highest potential.  Lauter disregards Thoreau’s critics who dismiss him as a Romantic idealist, believing that Walden serves as a “prophetic testimony,” which he defines as “an embodiment of man’s search to incarnate his ultimate values in his actions and the final means by which that man would attempt to move others toward their own testimonies to such values” (Lauter 1962, 113).  In this sense, Thoreau begins to depart from the idea of Romantic liberalism, for he clearly has more than his own self-interest as his goal.  Cafaro, too, believes that Thoreau writes Walden as a call to action for its readers, citing “Flourishing, self-culture, enriching our experience, developing our faculties” as Thoreau’s general desire for his audience (Cafaro 2004).  In spite of the fact that Thoreau frequently insists upon an individual paving his own path, such as when he defends the “man [who] does not keep pace with his companions…because he hears a different drummer,” he has a surprising amount of advice as to how one should go about this self-culture (Thoreau 1854, 255).  For instance, he “places a very high value on the pursuit of knowledge and thinking well,” advises the reader to “not trouble yourself much to get new things, whether clothes or friends,” and “asks for a “noble” culture that educates into an appreciation of beauty and learning” (Cafaro 2004; Thoreau 1854, 257).  While it is true that Thoreau displays a tendency in Walden to assume that his readers value the same principles and resulting actions, the underlying “chief end” for readers remains “the romantic concept of Bildung…[which] involves fully cultivating all our human capabilities, particularly our intellectual, aesthetic, and spiritual capabilities” (Cafaro 2004).

If we accept Walden as Thoreau’s testimony, calling others to a path of intellectual and spiritual excellence, and simultaneously accept that Thoreau calls readers to a Romantic Bildung, then we arrive at an understanding of Thoreau’s philosophy that qualifies as both types of liberalism that Watkins defines: the more society-conscious political liberalism, and the more self-conscious Romantic liberalism.
There is most certainly one reader of Walden who defends the notion that the book acts as testimony—Chris McCandless, the subject of Krakauer’s Into the Wild and Sean Penn’s subsequent film adaptation.  Through interviews with McCandless’ family members and friends, Krakauer paints a vivid picture of the boy who trekked across America and eventually into Alaska in order to pursue his personal ideals of freedom and virtue.  The descriptions given to Krakauer by those who knew McCandless often bear an incredible resemblance to our perception of Thoreau.  Most importantly to the comparison of Thoreau and McCandless, Krakauer describes McCandless as someone who “took life’s inequities to heart,” “believed that wealth was shameful, corrupting, inherently evil,” and “measured himself and those around him by an impossibly rigorous moral code” (Krakauer 1996, 113, 115, 122).  Given this depiction of McCandless, one that reveals his personality as highly individualistic and passionate, some light is shed upon why he would give the contents of his savings account to charity, burn his remaining cash, and head for the Alaskan wilderness without warning to family or friends.  Not surprisingly, among McCandless’ possessions found with his body in Alaska were books with highlighted excerpts from Walden.  We are fortunate to have a firsthand account of Thoreau’s time in nature, but are not afforded the same luxury in McCandless’s case.  Therefore, certain assumptions must be made as to McCandless’ personal motives for retreating to Alaska in a comparison of Thoreau and McCandless’ respective beliefs; luckily, these assumptions are based upon Krakauer’s presumably advanced investigative skills.

Certain similarities between Thoreauvian ideals and those of McCandless are apparent in Walden and Into the Wild, allowing for Cafaro’s description of McCandless’s journey as “Walden-esque.”  For one, McCandless’s intended goal for his cross-country trek was “to invent an utterly new life for himself, one in which he would be free to wallow in unfiltered experience;” the latter half of this goal closely mimics Thoreau’s more spiritually-driven experiences in nature, the ones that he presents in Walden in rapturous prose (Krakauer 1996, 22-23).  Both men not only exhibited intellectual curiosity concerning the meaningful components of life, but they acted upon the principle of discovering, if possible, their individual notions of the spirit of life.  For this reason, Thoreau and McCandless represent “the best of liberal individualism, encompassing risk and refusal, optimism and utter confidence” (Watkins 2009, 11).
Next, there is Thoreau’s declaration in Walden to his “fellows,” “As long as possible live free and uncommitted” (Thoreau 1854, 69).  McCandless absolutely took note of this advice, almost to a fault, ridding himself of all burdensome possessions and actively avoiding emotional attachment with people that he met during his cross-country trek.  Material possessions and any excess beyond the bare necessities seem to represent barriers to Thoreau and McCandless’ higher goals of freedom, and intellectual and spiritual excellence.

As for solitude, Thoreau recalls from his retreat to nature that he “experienced sometimes that the most sweet and tender, the most innocent and encouraging society may be found in any natural object,” inferring that isolation in nature provides simple and beautiful comforts to those who are receptive (Thoreau 1854, 105).  McCandless clearly had no qualms with isolation, for in choosing the Alaskan wilderness as his destination, he was well aware that he would be completely cut off from human society.  McCandless’ parents describe him as having “a darker side…characterized by monomania, impatience, and unwavering self-absorption,” so perhaps McCandless wished to experience the “sweet and tender” society in nature as a potential means of maintaining this self-absorption through romanticized revelry in nature, while calming the intensity of other emotions (Krakauer 1996, 120).
In light of these similarities, along with McCandless’s attention to Thoreau’s more prophetic statements and Romantic poet Lord Byron’s poetry, McCandless definitely fits the bill as an adherent to Watkins’s Romantic liberalism.  Where Thoreau and McCandless’ paths begin to diverge is in the extent to which they recognize “the reality of subjection to social relations and conventions, and even nature itself” (Watkins 2009, 14).  Firstly, Thoreau clearly recognizes the inevitability of societal conventions; he simply wishes to encourage his fellow human beings to a higher standard of living, one which would value a cultured mind and spirit over possessions, wealth, and blind acceptance of conventional thought.  McCandless, on the other hand, became so dismayed by society that, rather than cultivating his ability to think and feel liberally within society, he chose to “fetishize refusal in his search for purity” (Watkins 2009, 18).  Indeed, it does appear as if McCandless takes his idealism one step further than Thoreau, simply “opting out” of society rather than actively attempting to transform it.  

Watkins identifies a key dichotomy between liberal “refusal” and “resistance” in his discussion of Into the Wild.  Absolute refusal of all subjectifications to society, government, and customs “urges escape over negotiation, indulging the fantasy of independence rather than cultivating a recognition of interdependence” (Watkins 2009, 1).  This is the attitude that McCandless adopted, seen in his complete avoidance of personal relationships and his abandonment of all aspects of his former life.  A “resistance” to necessary subjectifications, the mindset that Thoreau maintains, “recognizes the need for complex social negotiations of inherited customs, cultures, and circumstances as part of liberalism’s desire for freedom” (Watkins 2009, 4).  Thoreau exemplifies this attitude by writing to the American people, the members of society, in an attempt to inspire them to better themselves.  Thoreau overtly asserts that he “love[s] society as much as most,” while McCandless allowed his disapproval of society to drive him to an absolute refusal of it.

In addition to the stark difference between their views of society, Thoreau and McCandless also part ways in their opinions and usages of nature.  Thoreau, as we have discussed, ventured to Walden pond with a purpose for himself; he believed that the simplicity of nature would better allow him to discern the true nature of life.  Thoreau went to nature with a plan, which he thoroughly and methodically carried out, hoping that it would lead him to results.  In this way, nature was almost secondary to Thoreau’s intentions at the start, although it did prove to play a large role in his spiritual awakening.  Contrastingly, nature, or the wilderness, acted as McCandless’s end goal.  He set off on his journey with no real plan, other than to arrive at complete freedom in the Alaskan wilderness.  Whereas Thoreau exhibited the highest attention to detail and strategy while at Walden pond, for McCandless, “nuance, strategy, and anything beyond the rudimentaries of technique were wasted on [him].  The only way he cared to tackle a challenge was head-on, right now, applying the full brunt of his extraordinary energy” (Krakauer 1996, 111).  McCandless “configure[d] the wild as free, free from power and the subjections of others as well as time and space themselves,” and he intended to obtain this freedom, plan or no plan (Watkins 2009, 14-15).  From the start of Walden, the reader can sense that Thoreau retreats to nature with a purpose, not as a means of creating his personal paradise in the woods where he will forever remain in a heightened mystical state.  Into the Wild, however, does often leave readers (and viewers) wondering if McCandless planned on remaining in the wilderness for a prolonged period of time in an effort to create a sustainable Romanticist’s safe haven.

The question remains, then, in spite of these differences, Would Thoreau appreciate Chris McCandless’s attempt at living purely?  Absolutely.  McCandless achieved more than most by acting completely independently, in a journey that Thoreau would deem as “advance[ing] confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavor[ing] to live the life which he has imagined” (Thoreau 1854, 253).  Despite certain ideological differences, seen in McCandless’s pure adherence to a Romance-era based liberalism as opposed to Thoreau’s combination of the two types of liberalism, Thoreau would not seek to critique McCandless’s individual path to spiritual wholeness, however flighty it may have been.  Furthermore, McCandless’s journey to Alaska fully demonstrates “the Romantic concept of Bildung” that Cafaro argues is central to Thoreau’s ethics, for McCandless actively sought a heightening of his “intellectual, aesthetic, and spiritual capabilities” (Cafaro 2004).  Finally, in light of the fact that McCandless fulfilled Thoreau’s general desire for individual awakening and improvement, Thoreau would not attempt to critique the ways in which McCandless failed or deviated from the Walden guidebook for living in the wild because “in the end, Thoreau insists that your particular path is up to you” (Cafaro 2004).

Works Cited

Watkins, Robert. "Opting Out: The Fantasy of Liberal Independence in Into the Wild"  AllAcademicInc.  19 March, 2009.  1-28.  Web.  17 April, 2010.

Krakauer, Jon.  Into the Wild.  New York: Random House, 1996.  Print.

Thoreau, Henry David.  Walden.  New York: Barnes and Noble Classics, 2005.  Print.

Lauter, Paul.  “Thoreau’s Prophetic Testimony.”  JSTOR.  4:1, 1962.  111-123.

Cafaro, Phillip.  Thoreau’s Living Ethics: Walden and the Pursuit of Virtue.  Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2004.  Kindle book.