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A Jungian Exploration of Thoreau’s Sexuality

In Gender Studies, LGBT, Literature, Queer Theory on June 13, 2012 at 11:03 am

by Chris Snellgrove

The goal of my larger research concerning Thoreau is to use Jungian psychoanalytic techniques to examine Thoreau’s Walden, which helps to explore the connection between Thoreau’s notion of transcendence and the Jungian notion of self-actualization. This subsection focuses primarily on the Jungian anima archetype (in Jungian terms, this is the feminine aspect of man, and the avenue by which he accessed his soul, or spirit), and how Thoreau, existing in relative physical and sexual isolation, encountered that archetype during his time at Walden Pond. The ultimate goal of both Jungian therapy and transcendentalism is that of actualization, in which a person has accessed their unconscious mind and found truths concerning both themselves and the larger world around them. The importance of the anima to this process cannot be overstated, as it represents man’s ability to access his own unconscious mind—essentially, to begin the entire process.

Such self-actualization can be understood in terms of removing a mask: Jung considered an individual’s persona as a representation of how they wished to be viewed by the world: individuals can only wear one mask (and, thus, embody one aspect of their personality) at a time, limiting not only their interactions with others, but their ability to access their unconscious mind. Self-actualization occurs when an individual eliminates the need for the persona at all, finding a way to dynamically embody the entirety of their self—as Thoreau emphasizes so powerfully, when an individual is able to revere both their spiritual and their savage side, they are more fully actualized than if they limit themselves to one perspective. Before they can embrace savagery, however, they must first pull back the veil of their unconscious world by accessing their inner femininity.

The Anima

The anima of Thoreau and his subsequent re-contextualization of the feminine is a central idea to this work, as an analysis of Thoreau’s “repressed” masculine side necessitates an examination of his anima. This Jungian examination offers a fresh perspective to the heterosexual/homosexual binary that splits critics, and unites several disparate elements of Walden—the carnivorous bloodthirstiness of Thoreau in “Higher Laws,” for instance, seems to have little to do with John Fields’ wife, until one considers the spirituality Thoreau sees in bodily taking what he wants from the land, as opposed to those whose adherence to capitalism keeps them poor.  Fields’ wife is portrayed as urging her husband to define success in worldly, material terms; the trappings of civilization are, to Thoreau, actually trapping civilization within a feminine framework.  The counterpoint, then, is masculine abandon, such as eating a live woodchuck; from a Jungian standpoint, Thoreau balances the best aspects of femininity and masculinity—forsaking the capitalistic repression of Fields’ wife while retaining his own sensitive appreciation of the natural world. Similarly, he does not condemn nor regret the urge to eat a woodchuck, yet implies that such beastliness is a necessary precursor to spirituality, just as hunting is ironically necessary to teach children to value the natural world (Thoreau. Walden 214). This exercise—liberating restrained femininity and restraining masculine abandon—allows Thoreau to perceive transcendental truths without being held back by his persona; in Jungian terms, he is individuating himself by overcoming his own mask.  The Persona is best understood as the aspect of Thoreau that helps him integrate into the collective consciousness—the so-called “mass of men” in Concord who Thoreau seeks to impress even as he distinguishes himself from them.  This is significant in this analysis, because the notion of such a mask extends to both the public realm of perception (how Thoreau desired others to regard him) and the archetypes of unconsciousness controlling how he views himself—one can actually view the process of Thoreau’s individuation by reading the transition between the teacher/student dichotomy of Walden’s first chapter and the open arms with which he greets a fraternity of free-thinkers by the close of the book.  By this point, the mask of superiority has genuinely dropped; a fully individuated Thoreau is presented as a changed man.

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