Exercises in Thinking
François Specq Higganum Hill Books, 2006, ISBN 9780974115894
WHEN I WAS seventeen I made a lucky discovery. It was the moment I first heard the name of Henry David Thoreau. He enjoyed a namecheck in a film called Dead Poets’ Society. I was hooked. Almost twenty years later I still return to the generous well of Thoreau’s work and influence.
François Specq’s new book certainly wears its academic heart on its sleeve, and in that lies the promise of density, clarity and thoughtfulness. Transcendence weaves threads of thought between Thoreau’s ethical sense and the expression of the same in the visual, painted art of his time and also in the writing of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Herman Melville, amongst others. As the title of the book indicates, though, Thoreau is the lens through which the wider range of ideas and subjects is refracted, with particular attention paid to his Journal and Maine Woods projects rather than Walden. That makes a welcome change.
Specq calls his writing “exercises in thinking” and he does not fall short of his description. This is an anthology of essays bound up in understandings of how visual and written art seeks to understand the meanings of wilderness and some very specific ways in which it has been represented. Transcendence is book-ended by responses to visual art’s representation of the wild, and between these two points Specq responds to Thoreau, Emerson and finally Melville’s philosophical qualities.
Pleasingly, for all of the close, academic attention to textual analysis, the essays successfully arc out into wider spiritual terrain that sustains the book’s vitality and immediacy. Specq enthusiastically assesses aspects of Emerson’s work and notes that “Emerson questions the value of civilisation in which conscience and moral integrity have been replaced by technological feats as the standard by which national achievement is to be assessed.”
The book is about how artists “expand our consciousness”. The book’s first focus is on the work of American painter Frederic Edwin Church, who is described as taking on “the mission of America’s prophetic seer”. Church rendered images in the mode of what we refer to as the American sublime. Specq observes that, “In an America that was heir to the Puritans, the representation of landscape was a substitute for the representation of God.” In turn, he goes on to consider the paintings of Thomas Cole and the ways in which his work chimes with some of Thoreau’s concerns, noting that “he shared a pessimistic temperament [with Cole] about the direction America was taking. Thus the whole of [Thoreau’s] Maine Woods can be read as an allegorical cycle in the manner of Cole, a sort of equivalent of Cole’s famous Course of Empire.” Transcendence is about the spiritual life to some large degree, and ways in which art in its various guises enriches, crystallises and so illuminates. The book is part history and cultural study also. Certainly for Thoreau enthusiasts the book offers a fascinating context for his work. At one point Specq comments that “Thoreau, like Cézanne painting Mont Sainte-Victoire over and over throughout his life, explores the complexity of the links and the process by which, in and through man, the visible is elaborated.”
Late in the book there is a consideration of the work of Melville and his journeying to Europe and the Levant, and finally a response to aspects of the work of painter William Bradford. As such the book comes full circle by considering the power of visual art as an expression of our understanding towards the natural.
The narrow focus of Specq’s book is its great strength. Here is a book of essays that quietly celebrates the essay form itself, reminding us of its own poetic qualities. Ultimately, Specq’s investigations remind us of the reward found in making our own lives the greatest and most ambitious creative project we can commit ourselves to.