Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Sortes Thoreaianae

I cracked open I to Myself, an annotated selection from Thoreau’s journal, for a random bit of wisdom last night, little thinking it would lead to an intriguing form of divination. That’s right, fortune-telling.

I chanced on page 116, which included an entry from December 12, 1851, in which Thoreau recounts a conversation (argument?) he had with Emerson over Margaret Fuller’s “whims and superstitions,” which apparently included the belief that randomly opening a certain text and placing one’s finger on a passage could result in an oracular reading pertinent to forthcoming events. One of her favorite texts for this purpose, presumably, was Virgil’s Aeneid, thus Sortes Virgilianae. Thoreau scoffed at the notion, but Emerson held that her experience “warranted attaching importance to such things”. An annotation to the passage included the following remark about Fuller from a memoir Emerson wrote concerning her: “I think each new book which interested her, she was disposed to put to this test, and know if it had somewhat personal to say to her.”

I must confess the idea holds a certain amount of charm. Emerson didn’t argue divination of the sortes sort would be effective for all, but required a certain aptitude or orientation. I couldn’t help remarking the passage which immediately preceded this account, written by Thoreau on the same day.

I wished to ally myself to the powers that rule the universe. I wished to dive into some deep stream of thoughtful and devoted life, which meandered through retired and fertile meadows far from towns. I wished to do again, or for once, things quite congenial to my highest inmost and most sacred nature, to lurk in crystalline thought like the trout under verdurous banks, where stray mankind should only see my bubble come to the surface. I wished to live, ah! as far away as a man can think. I wished for leisure and quiet to let my life flow in its proper channels, with its proper currents; when I might not waste the days, might establish daily prayer and thanksgiving in my family; might do my own work and not the work of Concord and Carlisle, which would yield me better than money.

Could this be an oracle favoring Sortes Thoreaianae? Further investigation seems warranted...

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