Since the beginning of recorded history philosophers have postulated our origins and reasons for our existence. More recently, they have highlighted concerns for the survival of our species as well. Their inquiries can be distilled down to three fundamental questions: Where have we come from, what is the nature of our essence, and what is our destiny?
Modern scientists have attempted to answer these questions through empirical research. Although the Darwinian theory of natural selection is now universally accepted within the scientific community, in itself it can not address the ultimate origin of our species any more than it is capable of predicting our future evolution. As to the nature of our essence — what it means to be human — the most Darwinian theory can offer is that we exist in order to reproduce, thereby insuring the survival of our genes.
As Darwinian thought was being formulated in the 19th century, two philosophers — one a transcendental naturalist, the other an avant-garde artist — continued to explore these same questions. Curiously, though their lives overlapped by a span of some fourteen years, and chances are that neither knew of the other’s work; both formulated similar, if not identical, fundamental queries.
In 1846 Henry David Thoreau encountered what he would allude to as the wildness of nature on his first excursion to Maine’s Mount Katahdin. In what scholars refer to as the “Contact!” passage in his essay Ktaadn, Thoreau attempts to elucidate the mystical experience he had while standing “deep within the hostile ranks of clouds” on the summit:
I stand in awe of my body, this matter to which I am bound has become so strange to me. I fear not spirits, ghosts, of which I am one,—that my body might,—but I fear bodies, I tremble to meet them. 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?
Who are we? Where are we? Thoreau ponders, echoing the cry of the natural philosopher. What are our origins, our nature, our destiny?
Unable to articulate a precise response, Thoreau resorts to poetic prose in an attempt to explain his experience. Astute readers recognize that Thoreau has passed through some sort of transcendental boundary, although it remains mostly undefined. As Thoreau scholar Bradley Dean has written:
“The carefully crafted prose of the ‘Contact!’ passage reflects not emotional turmoil but the finer frenzy of Thoreau the transcendentalist prophet straining the capabilities of language to describe the ‘original relation to the universe’ he experienced atop the mountain.”
Dean continues: “A seemingly paradoxical sentence in Walden precisely explains his experience on the mountain: ‘Not till we are lost, in other words, not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations’ (my emphases). The mountain taught him what he clearly believed all of nature teaches if properly perceived: that each of us is a spirit in a world of matter that we have contact with through the agency of a body. This trinity of spirit, matter, and body — and ‘the infinite extent’ of the relations between them — comprises for Thoreau the Great Mystery.”
In contrast to Thoreau’s excursions from Massachusetts to Maine, the French artist Paul Gauguin traveled half way round the world to paint the colors of Tahiti. In what is perhaps his most celebrated work — certainly the one he regarded as his best — Gauguin inscribed these words in the upper left-hand corner of the canvas: “D’où venons-nous? Que sommes-nous? Où allons-nous?” (Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?) — questions similar to those posed by Thoreau on his Katahdin ascent.
Gauguin was introduced to a variation of these queries during the his formative years at the Petit Séminaire de La Chapelle-Saint-Mesmin by his teacher, Bishop of Orléans, Félix-Antoine-Philibert Dupanloup. Dupanloup’s three fundamental questions were: “Where does humanity come from?” “Where is it going to?” “How does humanity proceed?” Evidently, Gauguin revisited these queries throughout his life, electing to record them at last in his masterpiece D’où Venons Nous / Que Sommes Nous / Où Allons Nous.
In his description of the painting, Gauguin indicated that he intended it to be viewed from right to left. The three major figure groups illustrate the questions posed in the title. According Gauguin, the white bird at the feet of the old woman at the left of the canvas “represents the futility of words,” inferring that written or spoken language is apt to fail us when we attempt to explain those mystical moments we encounter in our lives.
After his experience on Mt.Katahdin, Thoreau determined to dedicate his life to “detect some trace of the Ineffable” in his daily saunterings; Gauguin elected to capture such “traces” in color on canvas. Both attempted to realize the same end through the use of different media.
What is required to achieve these ends, of course, is attentiveness to the moment in the natural world. Gauguin found the wild in Tahiti; Thoreau encountered it atop Mt.Katahdin.