Winter 1992, Volume 9.1
Marginality, Midnight Optimism, and the Natural Cipher: An Approach to Thoreau and Eiseley
I. Nature Writing: Wisdom Speaker versus Sage.
A few years ago, a reviewer of Gary Snyder's The Practice of the Wild and Wendell Berry's What Are People For? emphasized the importance of these writers as leaders of our society's effort to develop an "environmental ethic":
The poets and shamans are the members of the tribe that keep knowledge of the wild alive. Hence the world-wide environmental movement has been inspired by the work of poets. Gary Snyder and Wendell Berry are arguably our most important poets today because they have spent the last 30 years or so articulating the environmental ethic that, we pray, is taking hold today. (Herndon E8)
Both as poets and as essayists, then, these two writers seem to represent what George P. Landow would call "wisdom speakers," for they strive to position themselves "at a societal and cultural center" (Landow 23), to write, in a sense, as spokesmen for their readers. Herndon notes that although Snyder and Berry have vastly different writing- and lifestyles ("Snyder is Buddhist, Californian, an old hippie. Berry is Christian, Midwestern, grandfatherly"), they "start from similar premises and arrive at many of the same conclusions." For the most part, their premises and conclusions resemble those of their avid readers, too—hence one wonders whether this new environmental ethic is actually reaching an unconverted audience or merely confirming the beliefs of readers who are already in the fold.
Of these two writers it is particularly Berry who practices what Thomas J. Lyon has called the "farm essay," observing that this genre displays a "rooted and consistent emphasis upon stewardship and work (rather than study, or solitude, or discovery)" (Lyon 6). By contrast, there is another tradition in American nature writing (called "rambles" or "travel and adventure" narratives by Lyon, but also akin to what Landow might refer to as the sage's eccentric, marginal pronouncements) which emphasizes "movement, solitude, and wildness," according to Lyon. "Often the account is framed on the great mythic pattern of departure, initiation, and return," he continues, "and always the account gains meaning from the basic American circumstance that wilderness, where the traveler and adventurer usually go, has always in our history been considered a realm apart" (6). John C. Elder has argued that John Muir "is the individual to whom we can turn for clarification of the assumptions and directions" of such recent naturalist autobiographers as Aldo Leopold, Loren Eiseley, Edward Abbey, and Annie Dillard (Elder 375-76). And yet Muir, for all of his sage-like characteristics (including his reliance on the authority of personal experience and his alternating messages of exhortation and reproof), was far too "at home" even in the then-remote Yosemite Valley to represent, in truth, the special combination of bewilderment and insight which Eiseley, Abbey, and Dillard, in particular, have demonstrated in their writings of the past half-century. In this essay I will attempt to show how Henry David Thoreau, in his appreciation of solitude and perspicacious indirection, is an especially direct antecedent of the contemporary nature writers (chiefly Eiseley) who respect the marginal realm of inhuman nature as a locus of spiritual and scientific insight—or, at least, of psychological stimulation.
A decade ago Robert Finch explained that the attraction of a crowd of gawking humans to a beached whale was an indication that "we crave to look out and behold something other than our own human faces staring back at us . . . . This sense of otherness is," he argued, "as necessary a requirement to our personalities as food and warmth are to our bodies" (Finch 103). Tracing this devotion to nature's otherness back to the mid-nineteenth century, we find that Thoreau intentionally sought to enter a meaningful realm where nature is a set of ciphers, a realm not necessarily decipherable but still resonant with inchoate meaning—and this realm existed for him in the margin between civilization and the wilderness. Thoreau hoped that communion with nature would rectify the cheapening and dissipation, the meanness, of his life in society. Marginality was his way of achieving sensitivity to the natural cipher, and his hope of arriving at this enlightened condition is what endows his sometimes cynical works with such innocent optimism. Loren Eiseley, among recent nature writers, is perhaps the most similar to Thoreau in his fascination with marginality, but he is beyond having to seek it out. He demonstrates a sensibility so attuned to both the fundamental desolation of human existence and the deep meaning (or rather the general meaningfulness) of nature that he manages to maintain an attitude of midnight optimism. Marginality, for Eiseley, is an inescapable, often beautiful, fact; his persistent, intense examination of man's desolate fragility results in an understanding peace, a calm acceptance of loneliness, which lasts momentarily before questioning and restlessness resume. Both Thoreau and Eiseley viewed themselves as sages, as outsiders, as prodding voices from the margins of society; but society has embraced them in retrospect, acknowledging their eccentricities as wisdom.
II. Thoreau: Observations from the Border.
For Cotton Mather, writing almost exactly a century before the birth of Thoreau, perceptive interpretation of natural ciphers was a way of escaping the terrors of a marginal existence. Thoreau, however, actually relished his own "border life," his existence on the fringe of both the physical and intellectual community of Concord. Whereas Mather and his contemporaries missed the civilization of Europe, Thoreau openly disdained it, opting instead for the West, for the remaining American frontier. Furthermore, although they were an entire community of dissenters, the Puritans showed very little tolerance for eccentricity, for individuality; Thoreau, on the other hand, idealized solitude and strove to find it. Marginality had become for Thoreau a desirable condition.
In "A Voice from Heaven," Mather looks to a natural cipher, specifically the Aurora Borealis, to "awaken" in his community "the Right Thoughts of the Righteous" (Mather 253) and thus alleviate the pangs of marginality. Thoreau, too, seeks a kind of awakening, but for him life on the border of both civilization and the wilderness is a constructive means of achieving this heightened state of being, which is an end in itself. In the second chapter of Walden, entitled "Where I Lived, and What I Lived For," he describes his purpose in moving to Walden Pond as follows:
We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavour. It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts. Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour. (Walden 90)
This utter alertness to even the details of daily existence is precisely the state of mind Thoreau attempts to depict, perhaps even to enact, in the remaining chapters of Walden. The final lines of the book refer to this condition, this complete sensitivity to the meaningfulness, the holiness even, of existence: "The light which puts out our eyes is darkness to us. Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star" (333). Even on the verge of his persona's departure from the idyllic life in the woods near Walden, Thoreau offers an optimistic suggestion, a hint that people can always enjoy the freshness of the dawn if they manage to achieve this properly awakened condition.
There are numerous passages depicting this ideal state of mind in the pages of Walden. It should suffice to give one particularly explicit example before moving on to discuss Thoreau's use of deliberate marginality to attain this enlightenment. In the chapter "Baker Farm," he writes:
Sometimes I rambled to pine groves, standing like temples, or like fleets at sea, full-rigged, with wavy boughs, and rippling with light, so soft and green and shady that the Druids would have forsaken their oaks to worship in them; or to the cedar wood beyond Flint's Pond, where the trees covered with hoary blue berries, spiring higher and higher, are fit to stand before Valhalla, and the creeping juniper covers the ground with wreaths full of fruit; or to swamps where the usnea lichen hangs in festoons from the white spruce trees, and toadstools, round tables of the swamp gods, cover the ground, and more beautiful fungi adorn the stumps, like butterflies or shells, vegetable winkles; where the swamp-pink and dogwood grow, the red alder berry glows like eyes of imps, the waxwork grooves and crushes the hardest woods in its folds, and the wild holly berries make the beholder forget his home with their beauty, and he is dazzled and tempted by nameless other wild forbidden fruits, too fair for mortal taste. (201)
On and on Thoreau rhapsodizes (adding a second intricate, unifying sentence to the one which I have quoted here), ultimately comparing an especially perfect and distinct tree to "a pagoda in the midst of the woods" and asserting with regard to all of the things described in the long paragraph: "These were the shrines I visited both in summer and winter" (202). Noteworthy in this passage are the extreme attention to physical detail (mostly shapes and colors), the extensiveness of the catalogue of plantlife in the woods near Concord, and the use of figurative language only to express the suggestiveness and even sanctity of the actual objects, not to distract the reader from the concrete reality of the originals. It is in this condition of moral and aesthetic alertness that Thoreau feels most completely alive—and in order to achieve this condition he actively seeks out marginality.
For Thoreau, there were two kinds of marginality: 1) the living of a "border life," a solitary life on the outskirts of town but not in the inhuman depths of the wilderness; and 2) the notion that the best way to observe things is from the side, from the margin. In the essay "Walking" Thoreau admits, after lauding at length the virtues of the wild ("Life consists with wildness. The most alive is the wildest," 114), "For my part, I feel that with regard to Nature I live a sort of border life, on the confines of a world into which I make occasional and transient forays only" (Natural History Essays 130). From this stance of borderness he is able to achieve a perspicaciously indirect perspective on both wilderness and civilization. Recall what happens when Thoreau confronts the absolute wilderness directly in the "Ktaadn" section of The Maine Woods; the blinding glare of direct examination utterly terrifies and paralyzes the observer, preventing true insight, true appreciation. After initially proposing that "we have not seen pure Nature, unless we have seen her thus vast, and drear, and inhuman," Thoreau proceeds to lose his nerve, even contact with his own identity and with his environment (The Maine Woods 70). His reflections on "primeval, untamed, and forever untameable Nature" (69) come to the following breathless conclusion:
What is this Titan that has possession of me? Talk of mysteries!—Think of our life in nature,—daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it,—rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! the solid earth! the actual world! the common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? Where are we? (71)
These lines reveal the effect of the extreme wilderness upon the human spirit; there is a marked absence of the awakened appreciation so evident in the passage quoted earlier about the vegetation in the border realm near Baker Farm. The unnerved mountain-climber is, it seems, no more awake than the city-dweller. This is to say that the terrified novice mountaineer finds himself merely baffled and appalled, unable either to see the place itself (the absence of detailed description in this passage of The Maine Woods is noteworthy) or to make metaphorical connections (for writers as diverse as Cotton Mather, Loren Eiseley, and Leslie Marmon Silko in her 1977 novel Ceremony, it is the capacity to associate inhuman nature with its human implications which indicates ideal awareness).
Thoreau describes the impoverished condition of urban man in his journal entry from January 7, 1857. Here he makes it clear that the spiritual regeneration he calls for in Walden is what occurs when he abandons city streets for the surrounding solitary margins:
In the street and in society I am almost invariably cheap and dissipated, my life is unspeakably mean. No amount of gold or respectability would in the least redeem it,—dining with the Governor or a member of Congress!! But alone in distant woods or fields, in unpretending sprout-lands or pastures tracked by rabbits, even in a bleak and, to most, cheerless day, like this, when a villager would be thinking of his inn, I come to myself, I once more feel myself grandly related, and that cold and solitude are friends of mine. I suppose that this value, in my case, is equivalent to what others get by churchgoing and prayer. I come to my solitary woodland walk as the homesick go home. I thus dispose of the superfluous and see things as they are grand and beautiful . . . . This stillness, solitude, wildness of nature is kind of thoroughwort, or boneset, to my intellect. This is what I go out to seek. It is as if I always met in those places some grand, serene, immortal, infinitely encouraging, though invisible, companion, and walked with him. There at last my nerves are steadied, my senses and my mind do their office. (Journal 9:208-209)
By seeking the wholesome margins of civilization, Thoreau achieves the clarity of spirit necessary for full appreciation of his existence. From this position of voluntary exile from society, whether for a brief walk in the woods or for a two-year habitation of the shoreland near Walden Pond, he gains both emotional health and insightful perspective. In the essay "A Winter Walk," he argues that life itself is "more serene and worthy to contemplate" when he is "standing quite alone, far in the forest" (Natural History Essays 59). So it is not merely the observer's perspective that improves through marginality, but his very life.
Yet the appreciator of the natural cipher must take care, if he is to enjoy fully the mysteries and beauties of nature, to rely on an appropriately marginal way of seeing. On March 23, 1853, Thoreau notes in his journal that "man cannot afford to be a naturalist, to look at Nature directly, but only with the side of his eye." Direct scrutiny of the natural world, he writes, "is fatal as to look at the head of Medusa. It turns the man of science to stone" (5:45). By learning to observe from the margins, Thoreau manages to contemplate the meaning of things without becoming distracted, even paralyzed, by their surface appearances. On November 5, 1857, he proclaims:
Sometimes I would rather get a transient glimpse or side view of a thing than stand fronting it,—as those polybodies. The object I caught a glimpse of as I went by haunts my thoughts a long time, is infinitely suggestive, and I do not care to front it and scrutinize it, for I know that the thing that really concerns me is not there, but in my relation to that. That is a mere reflecting surface. (10.164)
The subtle suggestiveness and sense of relation far outweigh the visible qualities of the object itself for the man who is poetically or divinely alive. And marginal glimpsing allows such an observer to avoid the glare of directness and savor the delicate meaningfulness of his experience. Marginality, for Thoreau, is both a kind of environment and a method of observation—and both contribute to his awakening.
What Thoreau desires in this marginal existence is a general sense of meaning, not a tightly (if deeply) spelled out typological system like the Puritans' or a Linnaean catalogue of facts (disparaged by Emerson in his section on language in Nature, 1836). Thoreau wants simply to experience the immediacy, the multiplicity, and the beauty of the natural world. He is a lover of details, even details without broader meanings and metaphorical equivalents. In the "Thursday" chapter of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, he writes:
When compelled by a shower to take shelter under a tree, we may improve that opportunity for a more minute inspection of some of Nature's works. I have stood under a tree in the wood half a day at a time, during a heavy rain in the summer, and yet employed myself happily and profitably there by prying with microscopic eye into the crevices of the bark or the leaves or the fungi at my feet. (A Week 300)
The pleasure of such activity results not from the ability to identify and explain all the observable phenomena. No, Thoreau, like Mather with his strange occurrences in the heavens, realizes the necessity of looking "through and beyond" nature (5:45)—he peers microscopically only to savor the magnificent minutiae, not to rationalize and categorize them. Loren Eiseley once wrote:
[I]f it be true that Thoreau . . . was on occasion, weak in the identification of birds, he is cherished for quite other reasons, and these reasons, though now forced back into obscure corners of the modern mind, are still not without a certain power. They are the ineradicable shadows in the murky glass which can never be totally cleansed by Bacon's followers. For when the human mind exists in the light of reason, and no more than reason, we may say with absolute certainty that man and all that made him will be in that instant gone. (Immense Journey 482)
For all his love of detail and careful observation, Thoreau ultimately apprehends nature in a mystical way, an approach reminiscent of Eiseley's own manner of investigation. Perry Miller concluded that "Thoreau was both a Transcendentalist and a Natural Historian" (Miller 159). Thoreau achieves this dual perspective through his indirect, mystical habit of mind, his tendency to glimpse things from the side rather than fully exhausting his empirical knowledge of them and then leaping, as Mather does, into a predetermined religious interpretation.
Ultimately, it seems to readers of Walden as if the exact type and location of external natural phenomena are less crucial to Thoreau's process of awakening than the attitude with which he approaches them. The perspective of the traveler—marginal, estranged, freshly alert—is just what Thoreau desires, only without having to cover vast stretches of land and water. "To the sick," he notes, "the doctors wisely recommend a change of air and scenery. Thank Heaven, here is not all the world" (320). Yet little of the actual world is needed if the observer manages to maintain a marginal perspective. Thus Thoreau tells us with satisfaction in the opening pages of the book (not with irony): "I have travelled a good deal in Concord" (4). In the concluding chapter of the book, he advocates an even loftier form of awareness:
Direct your eye sight inward, and you'll find
A thousand regions in your mind
Yet undiscovered. Travel them, and be
Expert in home-cosmography. (320)
By imagining this estrangement from his own mind, Thoreau looks ahead to Eiseley's strained sense of human identity, for Eiseley will be writing in the era of Heisenbergian uncertainty, in an age when even inanimate objects seem in flux, elusive; "this object," as Wallace Stevens put it in describing a glass of water, "is merely a state,/One of many, between two poles" (Stevens 197).
Despite the frequent haughtiness of tone in his essays and lectures, Thoreau criticizes his audience out of genuine concern for their well-being, at least for the well-being of the sympathetic person who might take the author as a role model and emulate his quest for enlightenment. This mixed reader/writer relationship, wherein the writer both sagaciously exhorts his reader and solicits identification with his own awakened or awakening persona, is typical of the "prophetic autobiography," the genre into which many of Thoreau's writings fall (see G. Thomas Couser 62-79). Because he so persistently hopes to enter (and sometimes even inhabit) the realm where nature is alive with meaning, it is appropriate to call him a "midnight optimist," a term Eiseley used to describe himself. Cranky and cynical as Thoreau's harsh rantings on the condition of humanity often are, the words are nevertheless always composed in the spirit of hopefulness, desirous of change, of improvement. The naturalist clearly believes that nature is imbued with beauty and significance, and his goal is to regenerate his overcivilized mind in order to become sensitive to the meaningfulness of the natural world.
III. Eiseley: Meditations from Desolation.
Many forms of marginality are facts of life for Loren Eiseley. When he begins writing personal essays, a century to the year after Thoreau vacated his abode at Walden Pond, Eiseley takes isolation and alienation for granted. He no longer worries about preventing (or correcting) the marginality of his existence, or his society's, nor does he have to struggle to achieve such a condition—it is the normal condition of twentieth-century America, the civilization into which he was born. One could turn to almost any of Eiseley's essays for illustration of his concept of marginality, for the idea, the sensibility, pervades nearly everything he ever wrote. The frequent somberness of his themes might at first seem to result from the author's dissatisfaction with the human condition; however, most of his essays are not complaints, or even prophetic warnings of the kind he sometimes offers (for instance in The Invisible Pyramid), but rather sober apprehensions of the way things are for humanity in the modern world, and perhaps have been since the beginning of time. It would be paradoxical for Eiseley, so deeply aware of the indeterminacy of existence, to compose a static, final statement of insight—and he doesn't. Instead he meditates repeatedly on the same general issues; it is tempting to label his works "broodings" rather than "meditations," and yet they maintain an air of scientific objectivity, punctuated with glimmers of distinct optimism.
Whereas Thoreau actively pursued wholesome exile from civilization (a solitude easily found in the woodlands of mid-nineteenth-century New England), Eiseley understands exile to be a universal human truth, a condition neither correctable nor pursue-able. Even in Odysseus' ancient homeward voyage, Eiseley finds a symbol of "man's homelessness" (Unexpected Universe 24). "Like Odysseus," he writes, "man seeks spiritual home and is denied it" (4). A seemingly hopeless notion of eternal wandering. The names and the places change, Eiseley suggests, but the basic fact of exile remains the same. The lonely wanderer is a common Eiseleyan image of marginality, one which is reminiscent of Thoreau's observant traveler. And frequently this wanderer, the first-person narrator, finds himself in a desolate, marginal location, such as the fictional beaches of Costabel in "The Star Thrower." The lonely stretches of sand here are, Eiseley writes,
littered with the debris of life. Shells are cast up in windrows; a hermit crab, fumbling for a new home in the depths, is tossed naked ashore, where the waiting gulls cut him to pieces. Along the strip of wet sand that marks the ebbing and flowing of the tide death walks hugely and in many forms. Even the torn fragments of green sponge yield bits of scrambling life striving to return to the great mother that has nourished and protected them.
In the end the sea rejects its offspring. They cannot fight their way home through the surf which casts them repeatedly back upon the shore. The tiny breathing pores of starfish are stuffed with sand. The rising sun shrivels the mucilaginous bodies of the unprotected. The seabeach and its endless war are soundless. Nothing screams but the gulls. (Unexpected Universe 69)
And it is in this setting that Eiseley's persona realizes "Man is himself, like the universe he inhabits, like the demoniacal stirrings of the ooze from which he sprang, a tale of desolations" (88). A desolate creature who passes through desolate places—this is perhaps the first kind of marginality the reader of Eiseley's essays is likely to encounter. Another potentially bleak Eiseleyan notion proposes that man can never truly understand the natural world or himself, for things are constantly in flux, always in the margins of existence, either becoming or decaying. As he puts it, "the dance of contingency, of the indeterminable, outwits us all" (77)—readers of Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek will recall her similar fascination with the idea of nature as something uncertain, ungraspable, ever-in-motion. However, it soon becomes apparent as one reads Eiseley's many essays and his autobiography, that he develops his very identity out of these forms of marginality—he is a loner, a frequenter of out-of-the-way places, an insomniac who sits awake thinking, worrying, and writing while all else (except other insomniacs) sleeps, and even a literary scientist who exists in the margins of both the literary and scientific worlds because he does not belong fully to either one. Even his primary literary genre, the personal (or concealed) essay, is a marginal one, a form which he took up only when he realized his expected "market [for a scientific article] was gone" (Strange Hours 177).
And yet Eiseley's writings are fundamentally hopeful, expressive of his belief in the abiding meaning of existence, and of his own inclination to display (or at least feel) love, tenderness, and ingenuous curiosity. In "The Star Thrower," for instance, he eventually recognizes the harshness and coldness of modern science, of which he is a representative. Lying alone in his room in Costable, Eiseley's persona recalls an old picture of his mother:
I recognized at once the two sisters at the edge of the photograph, the younger clinging reluctantly to the older. Six years old, I thought, turning momentarily away from the younger child's face. Here it began, her pain and mine. The eyes in the photograph were already remote and shadowed by some inner turmoil. The poise of the body was already that of one miserably departing the peripheries of the human estate. The gaze was mutely clairvoyant and lonely. It was the gaze of a child who knew unbearable difference and impending isolation. (Strange Hours 85-86)
The evolutionist here comes to terms with his inheritance of marginality, of his mother's "long crucifixion of life" (86). He has indeed come to live with similar alienation—even his scientific profession requires a detached, judgmental stance. But in an epiphanous moment he renounces his scientific heritage. He writes:
"But I do love the world," I whispered to a waiting presence in the empty room. "I love its small ones, the things beaten in the strangling surf, the bird, singing, which flies and falls and is not seen again." I choked and said, with the torn eye [from the old photograph] still upon me, "I love the lost ones, the failures of the world." (Strange Hours 86)
It is love for marginal creatures, for the "lost ones," including his mother and perhaps himself in a certain sense, that redeems his vision from despair. Realistic as he is about the marginality of life, the desolation of all living creatures and the brutality of their envi- ronment, he finds himself compelled out of love for life to combat death. And thus, as the narrative goes, he joins ranks with the mysterious star thrower, a lone man (or perhaps something more than a man) on the beach at Costable, flinging beached starfish back into the sea. The act feels to him like the "sowing of life on an infinitely gigantic scale" (90).
Yet the writer's way of supporting the forces of life is not always so direct, so immediate. Often he savors marginality simply by performing an act of identification with other marginal creatures, such as the fox pup in "The Innocent Fox" or the pigeons in "The Judgment of the Birds." In the first essay, he recounts a time, on an "unengaging and unfrequented shore" (Unexpected Universe 204), predictably enough, when he suddenly found himself face to face with a "wide-eyed, innocent fox, inviting [him] to play." The two creatures tumble in the sand, bones in mouths, "for one ecstatic moment" before the man awakens with a start and hurries off to contemplate his "miracle": "I had seen the universe as it begins for all things. It was, in reality, a child's universe, a tiny and laughing universe" (210). There is an explicit echo of Thoreau in the final sentence of the story when Eiseley writes of his vision of innocence, "It is the gravest, most meaningful act I shall ever accomplish, but, as Thoreau once remarked of some peculiar errand of his own, there is no use reporting it to the Royal Society" (212). Even the experience itself, not just the two creatures involved, is thus designated as marginal, as a "peculiar errand" of the Thoreauvian, perhaps even Puritan, sort. And yet the mystical modern naturalist, so obviously in the tradition of Thoreau despite his denial of Thoreau's direct influence in All the Strange Hours (166), find the momentary experience to be of deep importance in his own existence; so a seemingly marginal event in the life of a solitary, marginal man assumes a kind of centrality, becoming thoroughly meaningful.
Another such moment of vision occurs in "The Judgment of the Birds" when Eiseley relates his experience of watching pigeons leaving their "high, eerie" perches to descend on a sleeping city before dawn (Immense Journey 166). Both the hour and the place (the window of a hotel room looking onto a dingy alley) are marginal, proving, as Eiseley writes, that "in any city there are true wildernesses where a man can be alone" (165). And it is in such wildernesses that visions, marvels, great events, and miracles occur. After waking up in the middle of the night, the writer goes to the window and observes the restless birds:
I leaned farther out. To and fro went the white wings, to and fro. There were no sounds from any of them. They knew man was asleep and this light for a little while was theirs. Or perhaps I had only dreamed about man in this city of wings—which he could never surely have built. Perhaps I, myself, was one of these birds dreaming unpleasantly a moment of old dangers far below as I teetered on a window ledge.
Around and around went the wings. It needed only a little courage, only a little shove from the window ledge to enter that city of light. The muscles of my hands were already making little premonitory lunges. I wanted to enter that city and go away over the roofs in the first dawn. (166)
But the man pulls back as his daylight consciousness asserts itself, reminding him that he is, "after all, only a man" (167). The vision, however, has already occurred, and it cannot be forgotten. The sensitive observer has experienced a moment of deep insight into the shadowy unity of all creatures, feeling in his own muscles the instincts of an apparently distant species. Such occasional moments of communion redeem Eiseley's sense of marginality from utter bleakness. True, man, whether he realizes it or not, is a "tale of desolations"; and yet there is a beautiful commonality among all the earth's transient, solitary creatures.
There is something distinctly Thoreauvian about Eiseley's notion that the truest insights occur from the perspective of marginality. He begins "The Judgment of the Birds" by writing, "It is a commonplace of all religious thought, even the most primitive, that the man seeking visions and insight must go apart from his fellows and live for a time in the wilderness" (163). The difference between Eiseley and Thoreau is that the modern writer does not have to go out of his way to discover the wholesome margin. Eiseley realizes that all of existence is, in some way or another, both marginal and meaningful. He also realizes that this condition is not only wonderful but very sad, unlike Thoreau who finds insight of any kind a sheer delight, as long as it occurs in a border realm, the product of perspicaciously indirect observation. For Eiseley, the woeful facts of life are precisely what make life so beautiful, so meaningful. If the marginality of existence were less extreme, the meaning would be shallower—and this meaning, he suggests, is what all people live for. His notion of beautiful marginality resembles the Japanese concept of mono no aware (roughly translated: "the sweet sadness of fleetingness"), which underlies the art of haiku. Also, even more directly, it echoes the closing lines of Steven's "Sunday Morning": "And, in the isolation of the sky,/At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make/Ambiguous undulations as they sink,/Downward to darkness, on extended wings" (Stevens 70).
For Thoreau, it is the poet/naturalist alone who awakens to the meaningfulness of nature. But Eiseley, on the other hand, tends to speak generically about the human need for meaning. If anything, he underplays his own uniqueness as a meaning-seeker: "Let it be understood that I am not the sort of man to whom is entrusted direct knowledge of great events or prophecies" (Immense Journey 164); nevertheless, the epiphanies happen. And if even Eiseley can have such experiences, then who can fail to? He never comes up with lasting discoveries or resolutions of tension (to do so would violate his sense of the universe's flux, its indeterminacy), but he always engages in the optimistic quest for miracles. And he frequently suggests that the search for redemptive, revelatory meaning is a universal human process. In the essay "The Golden Alphabet," he asserts that "man, since the beginning of his symbol-making mind, has sought to read the map of [the] universe" (Unexpected Universe 144). Not only modern men are hungry for meaning—this has been the desire of the human species since its origin, since Thoreau, since Mather, since the emergence of the "Boskopoids" who survived briefly near the South African coast long before the Ice Age ("Long-Ago Man" 95). At times Eiseley's characterization of this universal yearning for meaning takes on a dire cast, as in the opening paragraphs of "The Innocent Fox":
Since man first saw an impossible visage staring upward from a still pool, he has been haunted by meanings—meanings felt even in the wood, where the trees leaned over him, manifesting a vast and living presence . . . .
Some men are daylight readers, who peruse the ambiguous wording of clouds or the individual letter shapes of wandering birds. Some, like myself, are librarians of the night, whose ephemeral documents consist of root-inscribed bones or whatever rustles in thickets upon solitary walks. Man, for all his daylight activities, is, at best, an evening creature. Our very addiction to the day and our compulsion, manifest through the ages, to invent and use illuminating devices, to contest with midnight, to cast off sleep as we would death, suggest that we know more of the shadows than we are willing to recognize. ("Long Ago Man" 94-95)
The idea of haunting meanings sounds much like Thoreau's notion of the subtle persistence of a casually glimpsed object in the mind of a viewer. But Eiseley's characterization quickly assumes a Gothic flavor when he begins to contemplate man's ambivalence towards the shadows of night. It might seem at first that this obsession with midnight is but a morose extension of Eiseley's interest in marginality. Yet he continues in "The Innocent Fox" to say that midnight is simply the time of day when his "thoughts [are] in a receptive mood" and "miracles" are likely to occur (200). Far from being gloomy, the process of discovering the "human significance" of the natural world, no matter what time of day or how remote the location, is "truly a magical experience" (Invisible Pyramid 141).
It is the enduring joy in the process of exploration that saves Eiseley, and all humanity, he implies, from despair. Human existence is desolate, yes, but not hopeless. Fascination with the natural cipher, with the meaningful mystery of natural phenomena, is at the root of this redemption; and man's marginality is both the cause of his need for meaning and his best tool for discovery. Eiseley himself was born into a desolate, marginal existence (the child of a deaf, neurotic prairie artist and an impoverished itinerant actor, he spent his lonesome "boyhood among the salt flats and sunflower forest of eastern Nebraska and the High Plains beyond the 99th meridian" (Invisible Pyramid 175), but he learned to love such conditions, to find them meaningful. He grew fascinated with remote, barren places and with disenfranchised creatures, people at the fringe of society (bums, hermits, and scientific loners), even at the fringe of the species (such as Tim Riley, the tiger-clawed man he introduces in All the Strange Hours, and the primitive-featured woman in the 1969 essay "The Last Neanderthal"); these places and creatures teach him things about existence. He also learns to peer at things from the margin; to avoid, like Thoreau, the Medusa's stare.
Thus it makes sense that Eiseley should have coined the phrase "midnight optimist" in the Preface to his collection of poems called The Innocent Assassins. Regarding his indefinable, marginal identity, he writes:
Some have called me Gothic in my tastes. Others have chosen to regard me as a Platonist, a mystic, a concealed Christian, a midnight optimist. Like most poets I am probably all these things by turns, or such speculations are read into me by those who are pursuing some night path of their own. (Innocent Assassins 11)
The words "midnight optimist" describe splendidly the oxymoronic combination of hope and desolation which appears so often in Eiseley's work. It is a suitably mystical label for a man, perhaps an entire species, born into marginality but lifted from despondency by the understanding that marginality is itself a condition, a place, a creature, and a self endowed with significance, not bereft of it.
Couser, G. Thomas. "Henry David Thoreau: Retreat and Pilgrimage." American Autobiography; The Prophetic Mode. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1979.
Dillard, Annie. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. 1974. New York: Harper & Row, 1988.
Eiseley, Loren. All the Strange Hours: The Excavation of a Life. New York: Scribner's, 1975.
-----. "The Enchanted Glass." The American Scholar (Autumn 1957): 478-92.
-----.The Immense Journey. New York: Random House, 1957.
-----.The Innocent Assassins. New York: Scribner's, 1973.
-----.The Invisible Pyramid. New York: Scribner's, 1970.
-----. "The Long-Ago Man of The Future." Harper's Magazine 194 (January/June 1947): 93-96.
-----. The Mind as Nature. New York: Harper, 1962.
-----.The Unexpected Universe. New York: HBJ, 1969.
Elder, John C. "John Muir and the Literature of Wilderness." The Massachusetts Review 22.2 (Summer 1981): 375-386.
Finch, Robert. "Very Like a Whale." Common Ground: A Naturalist's Cape Cod. Boston: Godine, 1981.
Herndon, John. "Writers praise wildness: Poets' vivid essays articulate environmental ethic." Austin American-Statesman 14 October 1990: E8.
Landow, George P. Elegant Jeremiahs: The Sage from Carlyle to Mailer. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1986.
Lyon, Thomas J., ed. This Incomperable Lande: A Book of American Nature Writing. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989.
Mather, Cotton. "A Voice from Heaven" (1719). Days of Humilation: Times of Affliction and Disaster (Nine Sermons for Restoring Favor with an Angry God). Ed. George Harrison Orians. Gainesville, FL: Scholars' Facsimiles, 1970.
Miller, Perry. "Thoreau in the Context of International Romanticism." The New England Quarterly 34.2 (June 1961): 147-59.
Silko, Leslie Marmon. Ceremony. New York: Penguin, 1977.
Stevens, Wallace. "Sunday Morning" (1923) and "The Glass of Water" (1942). The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. New York: Knopf, 1975.
Thoreau, Henry David. A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. Ed. Carl Hovde. 1849. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1980.
-----. The Journal of Henry D. Thoreau. Eds. Bradford Torrey and Francis H. Allen. Vols. 1-14. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1906.
-----. The Maine Woods. 1864. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1972.
-----. "A Winter Walk" (1843) and "Walking" (1862). The Natural History Essays. Ed. Robert Sattelmeyer. Salt Lake City: Peregrine Smith, 1980.
-----. Walden. Ed. J. Lyndon Shanley. 1854. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1971.