But this habit of close observation—in Humboldt, Darwin, and others. Is it to be kept up long, this science? — Henry Thoreau, Journal, July 23, 1851
I walk a lot. Since I live in Vermont, where endless woods beckon, walking comes naturally—but in the early 1980s, as a student at the Rutgers College of Engineering in ratty old Piscataway, New Jersey, I walked just as much and needed it more. I trudged along the trash-dotted Delaware & Raritan Canal, over the ecologically dead golf course, and back and forth across the traffic-girdled 370 acres of the Rutgers Ecological Preserve, unlogged since the 1840s but used partly as a munitions dump during World War II and still threaded by overgrown Army roads.
I was working hard. More than once, in my freshman year, I got so frustrated that I literally beat my head on my Calculus book. I was on hand every day at 7 AM when the dining-hall doors opened, grimly determined to squeeze every minute out of the coming day. I toiled to the raw edge of my strength to learn the hard-core, old-fashioned rationality upon which all technology depends. There was no room for intellectual tap-dancing, half-guesses, or handwaving in the engineering major. You either got enough right answers on the homework and tests—and there were definitely right answers and wrong answers—or you failed out. Analytic reasoning was pressed like a white-hot brand upon the cowering jelly in my skull. For relief, I sought out long walks and Saturday night binge drinking. I was reduced to such a weakened state that James Taylor’s “Country Road” could make me teary.
As the months ground by, the End Times zeal of my teen years slid out of focus and I rotated politically to the left. This was neither unusual for a college freshman nor a bad thing in itself, but it made an already stressy life even more uncomfortable. In a morphing, shifting world, what could I count on? Above all I held to the goodness of “Nature,” which ambushed me from fresh snow melting over buried steam pipes, rain falling on parking lots, and every neglected corner where the goldenrod grew free. In autumn, the smell of the weeds shriveling in the belt of neglected rubble between the dining hall and the engineering building triggered heart-scalding pleasure. I sought out these beleaguered bits of wildness with a hungry intensity that I don’t often feel today, I’m glad to say. The brutality of my studies amplified such experiences to near-narcotic intensity.
And so, in a sense, school’s forced march toward rationality heightened my hunger for beauty and other non-rational goods. Yet the analytic grind was also, I came to feel, wearing down my ability to receive them. I found that more and more I was analyzing the world involuntarily—perceiving it as a vast but mechanical webwork of cause and effect. I started to see everywhere what made things thus and not otherwise: why the ripples in a puddle took their specific form, refracting and reflecting and superimposing; how the wind passing over a fireplug had carved this snow-drift; color as wavelength . . . a thousand such things, everywhere. But wherever explanation entered in, it seemed, a little joy went out. Analysis brought both clarity and a creeping deadness. The more I knew the less I felt. I seemed to have two eyes, an eye of reason and an eye of love, and could not open both at once, or even keep the eye of love open as much as the other.
Years later, living in yet another ugly New Jersey town and employed briefly as an engineer, I read the following in Henry Thoreau’s journal:
I fear that the character of my knowledge is from year to year becoming more distinct and scientific; that, in exchange for views as wide as heaven’s cope, I am being narrowed down to the field of the microscope. I see details, not wholes nor the shadow of the whole. I count some parts, and say, “I know.” — Journal, August 9, 1851
So Thoreau, 140 years before me, had been fretting about the same thing—this shriveling of one’s perceptions. I already knew all the positive-thinking answers to such fears, of course: truth and beauty are one, there is no contradiction between science and beauty, science merely discloses the glory of God’s works (or, if you are a Carl-Sagan style agnostic, our wondrous “cosmic connectedness”), blah blah. The stock pieties of scientific wonderment. They are all true, in fact, at some level, but how to live them as other than facile sentiments? Was I doing something wrong?
I have the habit of attention to such excess that my senses get no rest, but suffer from a constant strain. — Journal, Sep. 13, 1852
Thoreau and others have showed me that there are for many people at least two basic forms of encounter—knowing and feeling, analysis and ecstasy, science and religion, mastery and obedience. Their names are many but their existence, and difference, can hardly be doubted. Stephen Jay Gould labeled them the Galilean and Franciscan ways of knowing—Galileo of physics fame for analysis, St. Francis of Assisi for joyful awareness. Both are good, yet they seem to be, if not in theory yet often in practice, in tension. Nor is this tension symmetric: ecstasy, whether religious or otherwise, seems actually to be eroded by exposure to analysis. Analysis tends to take over. This isn’t reasonable or nice, but it’s often true and cannot be reversed by a mere act of will.
Man cannot afford to be a naturalist, to look at Nature directly, but only with the side of his eye. He must look through and beyond her. To look at her is fatal as to look at the head of Medusa. It turns the man of science to stone. I feel that I am dissipated by so many observations. — Journal, March 23, 1853
And so I’ve lived with this tension for over 25 years, neither succumbing nor overcoming. I used to vaguely assume that I would someday resolve it, but now I think not. Which is probably a good thing: some tensions are healthy. It isn’t bad that a muscle pulls at a bone. I have more hope from any vital system of tensions, nowadays, than any smilingly serene resolution of all uncertainties.
Ah, what a poor, dry compilation is the “Annual of Scientific Discovery”! I trust that observations are made during the year which are not chronicled there,—that some mortal may have caught a glimpse of Nature in some corner of the earth during the year 1851. One sentence of perennial poetry would make me forget, would atone for, volumes of mere science. The astronomer is blind to the significant phenomena, or the significance of phenomena, as the wood-sawyer who wears glasses to defend his eyes from sawdust. The question is not what you look at, but what you see. — Journal, Aug 5 1851.
What next, though? How does one live without either abandoning reason—the solution offered by today’s burgeoning magical subculture of flower essences, Steinerism, the Secret, “energy,” and the like—or allowing the sources of joy to dry up? I know of nothing better, so far, than a sort of oscillation between the two moods or modes, giving each its head in turn while declaring unconditional loyalty to the sources and results of both. I think that Thoreau himself settled for much the same:
I must walk more with free senses. It is as bad to study stars and clouds as flowers and stones. I must let my senses wander as my thoughts, my eyes see without looking. . . . Be not preoccupied with looking. Go not to the object; let it come to you. When I have found myself ever looking down and confining my gaze to the flowers, I have thought it might be well to get into the habit of observing the clouds as a corrective; but no! that study would be just as bad. What I need is not to look at all, but a true sauntering of the eye. —Journal, Sep. 13, 1852.
Some contemporary neurological theories (see my previous post) propose that this antagonism between the two modes or styles is ultimately a matter of resource competition: one neural network does this sort of thing, and another one does that, and one’s brain cannot go left and right at the same time. Those who rub their tummies clockwise shall, according to the ineluctable laws of neurology, find it difficult to rub their heads counterclockwise at the same time. Analytic, aesthetic; rational, religious; try that trick with a beer balanced on your head.
But neurological hand-waving about left and right brain—or analytic and intuitive subsystems, in this case—always feels lazy and ultimately silly to me. It promises insight but never delivers. It never gets at what it’s like to be on the inside of a brain as opposed to waving a laser pointer at a projected image of one. The limited-neural resources theory might explain why analytic thinking dims intuitive and religious ideation in the short term, as in some laboratory studies, but not why the two things should be in that long-term tension which Thoreau describes and which I have felt, much less what we should do about it, or what it means. Thoreau at least, had a program:
You must walk sometimes perfectly free, not prying nor inquisitive, not bent upon seeing things. Throw away a whole day for a single expansion, a single inspiration of air. — Journal, Aug 21, 1851.