Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Walden (1854)

It is believed, in at least one tastefully-furnished corner of the world that shall remain unnamed, that this is one of my favorite books of all time. This conclusion was reached based upon a feeble attempt I once made to put in a good word for it at a meal where its naivete, inconsistencies and general infantilism were being heartily trashed by the host and another guest. My 'argument', as it was, was not that the book contained the wisdom of the world--least of all in any kind of practical sense--but that it was the work of a highly interesting and surprisingly refined mind, not to mention an American and a New Englander, one of ourselves, practically, among whom the particular type is rare. For example, I have never been much of an admirer of Thoreau's great friend Emerson, who is usually depicted as the adult in the relationship--his writings have always struck me as easily picked apart, second rate forays into philosophy, as if he were forever trying to think very hard, and never succeeding in doing so in a satisfactory manner. What he writes does not give one much that he did not have before, or can not find better somewhere else. Thoreau is much more singular, and even if many of his ideas are foolish, which I am not convinced that they are, he gives you a thought process and world view that I haven't quite found in any other author. The effect that computers are having on our ability to read real books is a popular topic not just with me but with many people who perceive that the intellectual cosmos in which they grew up, which seemed to be constituted of fairly solid stuff even if most people failed to appreciate it properly--that which consisted of books, libraries, universities and journals written for small but select audiences, all strictly vetted and overseen by legitimate authorities--is rapidly disintegrating. While I do still read books, it is true I don't read them in the same way as I did before computers. Most of this I still believe is due to time constraints, but that has traditionally been one of the penalties of choosing, or being condemned to lead, a bourgeois life, and have to consume (or in the case of blogging, "produce") snippets of knowledge or cultivation in 20 minute, 7-10 page (reading), 1-2 paragraphs (writing) blocks once or twice a day. If you want to be a real intellectual you have to organize your life so that tedious tasks and other various appointments and necessities do not distract you from serious pursuits more than 30% of the day or so, and I have totally failed in achieving this. When my children are older, will I be able to go back to the calmer, more attentive style of reading, where one becomes immersed in the sensibility and rigor of a serious book for several hours at a stretch such that it serves as a real fortification of the nourishment of the brain as against the steady rush of sugar and other empty calories that is mental life online? I think possibly so; for one thing I will be practically an old man myself by then, and will likely have totally abandoned all hope of figuring out and playing some kind of active role in contemporary life; for another I have done it in the past, it still feels more natural to me than reading in short snippets, and I will probably be even more nostalgic for those former times, of youth and possibility and all that, than I am now. While I still do go on the internet a lot in my day to day life, I don't have any of those portable devices for accessing it which allow you to check all your accounts, favorite pages, etc, obsessively when I am not sitting at a desk, and if I go away for the weekend or even a 10 day vacation I manage easily enough without. In short I am not quite as far gone as other people seem to be. On the other hand the temptation that the blog offers of instant publication and feedback, though I almost never receive any of the latter, have definitely impaired my ability to focus on more literary projects that simply require more time and concentration than I ever feel I have, and that is something that especially as I get older I will have to come to terms with if I ever want to accomplish anything remotely literary ever again.

The point I mean to introduce by all this is that when I first read Walden, which I believe was around 1995, I read it in this old-style and properly superior manner. I was sort of living the dream of the 90s, though I did still work. However I kept odd hours, never had to be anywhere, had lots of time to kill, knew few people with whom I could socialize, and the internet and its various temptations were still unknown to me, so I could read books largely undisturbed for sizable stretches of time. Certainly the books that I read at that time I recall the general outlines and textures of much better than those I have read in 15 minute snatches before nodding off in recent years, but much of that is the effect of youth, the comparative freshness of every significant experience and encounter, and such. Yes, I have learned a great many things since turning 30, but they are of a different nature from the things I learned prior to that age. The holes one fills in may not be substantially any smaller than those filled in previously, but as age increases the annoyance at continually finding more and more begins to outweigh the pleasures one felt in youth of furnishing and plenishing one's relatively unadorned mind. In later years the sensation is more like having to repair structural damage one had been ignorant of up to that point; it is costly, and invariably promises further unpleasant revelations of the same kind.

What of the book itself? As stated earlier, I once at least had some affection for it, and while the impression on my second, more recent and more harried reading was not as deeply felt as on the earlier occasion, I did not feel that any kind of blinders had been taken off due to greater maturity or knowledge of the world either. Thoreau still struck me as a good writer and an interesting thinker--more so certainly than the majority of the people denouncing him at dinner parties and on the internet. He has the gift of the genuinely unique and distinctive point of view, and the ability to express it coherently. Whether or not he is 'right' or 'accurate' in his depictions and diagnoses of the world--and I obviously do not myself adhere to hardly any of the tenets he puts forth in more than a haphazard and passively considered manner, as if wondering whether such things as he says are true and hoping they are not (nor, in a certain sense, does he himself)--I doubt the book could hold the interest it does if he were absolutely wrong. No, we cannot literally all go and live in the woods and contemplate our existences and give over all thoughts of money, not all at the same time at any rate--but this is not really the source of the book's interest either. It is in the way he sees aspects of nature, relates to and thinks about people and institutions and technology, which thoughts and visions are richer and more imaginative than what we usually find and thus seem to contain aspects of truth.

So much time has lapsed that I am just going to put down some of my notes on the book in pensee form, with additional commentary if anything suggests itself.

...the undesirability of company, or at least the preference of solitude.

Large crowds and fancy dinners distract a man from his proper business.

One ought to remember that eating is a bad excuse for a visit and not treat it as (a legitimate one).

Most of Thoreau's metaphors have a seasonal, ecological, biological nature about them.

Passage from Homer to emphasize concerns of a true man, and what esteem is to such a man (The passage reads "Why are you in tears, Patroclus, like a young girl?/Or have you alone heard some news from Phthia?/They say that Monoetius lives yet, son of Actor/And Peleus lives, son of Aecus, among the Myrmidons/Either of whom having died, we should greatly grieve.") I am no longer sure what I meant by this interpretion (In the book, Thoreau was reading the passage to a natural, unsophisticated woodchopper, who replied "That's good").

Begs the question (sorry) 'What is a man?' and also "How is one fully natural but spiritually dead?' This is further on in Thoreau's analysis of the mental life of the woodchopper.

The mental activities of advanced man are so foreign and perhaps unnecessary for the workman, which hints at the meanings of brute life.

No spiritual or intellectual development needed to be a math genius?

The second time the woodchopper says "it is good" like God in Genesis.

A man's work necessarily takes him away from other things.

The moral of the Plato story (in Thoreau's view) is that it has taken a lot to reduce man, who is by nature a noble creature, to a plucked chicken. (Plato's definition of a man--a biped without feathers).

Can one be tricked into taking the spiritual view?

He (the woodchopper) was only original and only possessed genius because he was so uncommonly uncorrupted.

Note closeness in spelling and meaning of "founded" and "funded".

To the sentence "there were some curious specimens among my visitors" I remarked 'as opposed to himself?'

Regarding another simple-minded man he encountered, who admitted himself deficient in intellect. "The Lord had made him so, yet he supposed the Lord cared as much for him as for another." Ought he not have?

Simplicity connected with truth here, with naturalness earlier.

Though talking to an honest idiot may be better in some circumstances, it is not by any means the most desirable way. (?)

The townspeople fear death, evidently, in proportion to the totality of their estrangement from life. The people are ashamed of their suspected emptiness, but such sacrifices are necessary to sustain society. Is society necessary? Does it have a noble purpose at all or has that purpose merely been subverted? Do men so desire society that they prefer to conform to a bad one rather than seeking a solitary existence?

His well-known account of the battle of the ants had some funny, though not exactly pertinent, lines. "It was evident their battle-cry was 'Conquer or die." "I have no doubt that it was a principle they fought for, as much as our ancestors, and not to avoid a three-penny tax on their tea; and the results of this battle will be as important and memorable to those whom it concerns as those of the battle of Bunker Hill, at least."

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