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Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Thoreau on the 1st person

“In most books, the I, or first person, is omitted; in this it will be retained; that, in respect to egotism, is the main difference. We commonly do not remember that it is, after all, always the first person that is speaking. I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well."

Wow. Just wow. What an insight. (Emphasis added.)

3 comments:

j. said...

i've taught that book, and focused a lot on its 'i', but because i was just reading elsewhere about novels, it suddenly occurs to me to test the last remark there against the novelist's typical practice.

there's a lot of material in thoreau circling around the idea of myth-making and poetizing as something that puts a person into contact with the cultural fund of classic works (thoreau's canon of which tends toward the epic and mythic, but not just fictional, e.g. indian and chinese religious/philosophical works), so maybe that has something to do with the extent to which his 'account' of himself is open to certain fictionalizing tendencies.

Vance Maverick said...

I started a response to this and abandoned it, but j. makes me reconsider. What's irritating about Thoreau's comment is that it's an evasive debating trick, designed to make the interlocutor look dumb. Yes, we all understand that every writer knows herself best of all. That doesn't get us very far in grasping why some writers use the first person and some do not.

j. said...

well, thoreau did have a weakness/proclivity for punnyness and paradox which he acknowledged to sometimes hinder understanding.

i would also connect the remark quoted to the bit (in walden?) about never knowing a worse man than himself, and to the bit about forgetting/losing himself (e.g. while 'traveling' between village and home), and to the parts about the self in 'solitude' which somehow bear (in a way that is not clear to me) on the self's relation to the divine, or to its deeper sources (a la a german-romantic 'source', 'origin', etc.), or to some impersonal aspect/part of it. so the comment about using the first person may be more of a reminder of what can be known (or go unheeded/harkened to!) by/in the first person, than a relatively empty justification for something that is not normally even thought to need one.