Friday, August 29, 2014

Walden by Henry David Thoreau

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.  I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear, nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary.  I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lower terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then get to the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.

 Small guy, small house.

Apparently John Updike wrote about Walden that it "risks being as revered and unread as the Bible."  That's a good line, but not as good as a lot of lines in Walden that those who revere it are missing.  On the other hand, I think the opposite has become an equally valid risk: that Walden has become a book that is unread and mocked.  It seems like there's always some jagoff wanting to point out that Thoreau's cabin was, like, a mile from town, and that he went into Concord and ate at restaurants and stuff all the time.  (Am I the only one that hears that stuff a lot?)  Both attitudes--the mockery and the reverence--are silly because they misapprehend what Walden is about, and having not read it, I think I misapprehended it a little as well.

First of all, it isn't really transcendentalist in the way that I think of Emerson as being.  Thoreau gets a lot out of Nature, but there's no Wordsworthian sense that a communion with nature lifts Thoreau to a higher plane of existence.  Rather, living the kind of simple life that Thoreau leads in his two-year experiment at Walden Pond allows him to observe his natural surroundings more closely, and to appreciate them more intensely.  Some of the most beautiful passages of Walden are Thoreau's description of animal life.  I especially like his account of a war between red and black ants:

Looking farther, I was surprised to find that the chips were covered with such combatants, that it was not a duellum, but a bellum, a war between two races of ants, the red pitted against the black, and frequently two red ones to one black.  The legions of these Myrmidons covered all the hills and vales in my wood-yard, and the ground was already strewn with the dead and dying, both red and black.  It was the only battle which I have ever witnessed, the only battle-field I ever trod while the battle was raging; internecine war; the red republicans on the one hand, and the black imperialists on the other.  On every side they were engaged in deadly combat, yet without any noise that I could hear, and human soldiers never fought so resolutely.

But again, communion with nature isn't really the point of Thoreau's experiment.  He says: "If I were confined to the corner of a garret all my days, like a spider, the world would be just as large to me while I had my thoughts about me."  Thoreau goes to the woods to rely on himself as much as possible, and to reduce his need to depend on other people as much as possible.  Walden is really an experiment in hyperindividuality, part and parcel with the irascible libertarianism of "Civil Disobedience."  As he writes, "I would have each one be very careful to find out and pursue his own way, and not his father's or his mother's or his neighbor's instead."

Thoreau's grave, Concord, Mass.

Thoreau's version of this philosophy is quite extreme.  Sometimes it leads him to (hilarious) crankism.  Among the things he hates are: farms, politics, post offices, clothes, philanthropy, and other people.  But elsewhere it leads to observations of persuasive beauty:

I have a great deal of company in my house; especially in the morning, when nobody calls.  Let me suggest a few comparisons, that some one may convey an idea of my situation.  I am no more lonely than the loon in the pond that laughs so loud, or than Walden Pond itself.  What company has that lonely lake, I pray?  And yet it has not the blue devils, but the blue angels in it, in the azure tint of its waters.  The sun is alone, except in thick weather, when there sometimes appears to be two, but one is a mock sun.  God is alone,--but the devil, he is far from being alone; he sees a great deal of company; he is legion.  I am no more lonely than a single mullein or dandelion in a pasture, or a bean leaf, or sorrel, or a horse-fly, or a bumble-bee.  I am no more lonely than the Mill Brook, or a weathercock, or the north star, or the south wind, or an April shower, or a Jaunary thaw, or the first spider in a new house.

That paragraph indicates to me a strength of mind I know I don't possess.  Thoreau only managed to live like this for a couple of years before he rejoined society--but that's more than I think I'm capable of.  Certainly others have tried, some extremely so, and failed.  But I do think Thoreau's experiment is worth admiration, and Walden worth reading.

1 comment:

Brittany said...

Question: If we are looking at Walden for some kind of guidance on how to live life deliberately and 'away from it all', doesn't it cheapen the sentiment knowing how NOT away from it all he was?

If we're looking at Walden only for its literary merits, then I don't think it matters at all, but if we're looking at it for the merits of its ideas - why do those mocking counterargument NOT matter?