Living with Yourself (through the eyes of Thoreau)

“I had this advantage, at least, in my mode of life, over those who were obliged to look abroad for amusement, to society and the theatre, that my life itself was become my amusement and never ceased to be my novel” Walden, Henry David Thoreau

Many pieces of writing criticizing how people live may grow old and out of date as time passes, but in this peace speaks to something that has only become more true over time. We have gone from plays to movies and novels to binging episodes of our favorite shows on Hulu or Netflix or even Amazon Prime. Growing up I was never truly alone. I either had one of my siblings or a book with me. As I grew up I found enjoyment with TV shows and sports, limiting the time that I was alone with my thoughts to next to none.

The conversations I have with people show similar experiences. Where they may have been ‘left alone’, there was always the chance for outside entertainment, be that from a book, TV or tablet and smartphone as they got older. Even now, if I’m in the elevator alone I often open my phone and scroll through Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram while I wait for the doors to open and have many friends who are the same way.

This nature of always being a touch away from entertainment has a positive and negative side. The positive being a stronger sense of community that we feel. I can know who my twin sister’s friends are despite living 414 miles away and have even been able to speak to some over the phone. Even with distance we stay in each others’ lives. The negative side hits much harder. We no longer know how to be truly alone. Where some people are good story tellers, they still look for that as an escape from human life.

In order to understand Thoreau, I am going to find time to be with only myself for a set amount of time, not allowing for anything but my own mind to amuse me. Check up on Sunday night for an update!

“Society is commonly too cheap.”

Reading Walden, I think each student faces many moments where we wonder just who Thoreau is. Who in our lives could we compare him to? What archetype does he neatly fit in? At times, he seems very serene and sensible as he talks lovingly about nature. This is when I most enjoy his work. On the other end of the spectrum, though, he paints a picture of himself, almost unknowingly, as being completely beyond the pale, as in the following quote:

“We meet at very short intervals, not having had time to acquire any new value for each other. We meet at meals three times a day, and give each other a new taste of that old musty cheese that we are. We have had to agree on a certain set of rules, called etiquette and politeness, to make this frequent meeting tolerable and that we need not come to open war.”

Choosing to compare people (and himself) to “musty cheese” would be enough to paint a picture of disdain for the stale and unoriginal without suggesting that societal rules are the only thing that keeps him from “open war” with dining mates. Open war! I also wouldn’t be thrilled to eat dinner with a man of so many judgements and such an oppositional identity to the times, but this phrasing makes me wonder just how nasty a disagreement with him could get.

Politics Aside

Perhaps my favorite quote in Walden so far is found in The Village. Thoreau states “I was seized and put into jail, because, as I have elsewhere
related, I did not pay a tax to, or recognize the authority
of, the State which buys and sells men, women, and children, like cattle at the door of its senate-house.” This quote jumped out to me in particular because I have always been a proponent of criticizing the US government. However, this quote runs a bit deeper than just a man’s political stance that rests within the confines of American politics. Thoreau is someone who believes himself to be above politics. He demonstrates by stating that he does not recognize a governing body. To that end, he does not recognize any authoritative body. This is self-evident in his refusal to pay a single tax to the government. What is more interesting is that he does not care if he is jailed for this crime. I would imagine that I would feel very shaken up about being put in jail. However, Thoreau is somebody who promotes civil disobedience and does not have a need to be concerned about the consequences.

He Has No Time to Be Anything but a Machine

I have been openly critical of Henry David Thoreau in the past. I have called him self-centered, egotistical, and judgmental, and I stand by these statements. However, I will admit that there were two sentences in his essay, “Economy,” that absolutely floored me.
“The finest qualities of our nature, like the bloom on fruits, can be preserved only by the most delicate handling. Yet we do not treat ourselves nor one another this tenderly” (Thoreau 116).
This excerpt comes from a paragraph in which Thoreau discusses the tragedy of “the laboring man,” saying that “the laboring man has not leisure for a true integrity day by day; he cannot afford to sustain the manliest relations to men […] he has no time to be anything but a machine” (Thoreau 115).
In this paragraph, Thoreau concisely addresses what I consider to be the male side of the tragedy of western patriarchy. In the process of distributing power unfairly to men, the patriarchy not only forces women to become powerless, but also forces men to become their power; rather than complete human beings with sensitive, multifaceted emotional lives, men are molded into unidirectional forces, seeking power, status, and wealth above emotional fulfillment or self-realization. As Thoreau says, the patriarchal man “has no time to be anything but a machine.” In fact, while Thoreau’s statement about “the manliest relations to men” may seem patriarchal in today’s vocabulary, the relations that Thoreau is referring to are, in actuality, close, personal, emotionally fulfilling platonic relationships between men. The patriarchal man has no place in his life for such relationships; emotional closeness and openness between men risks much-feared accusations of weakness and homosexuality from their peers, often followed by rejection and ostracization.
In the last sentences of the paragraph, Thoreau delivers a crushing blow to the heartstrings. “The finest qualities of our nature, like the bloom on fruits, can be preserved only by the most delicate handling. Yet we do not treat ourselves nor one another this tenderly.” This is the true tragedy of the patriarchal man: the tenderness he deserves from others, he is refused, and his only remaining option is to deny himself tenderness as well, and to even deny that he desires tenderness in the first place.

In the Thicket of Thoreau

I am not a fan of Thoreau.  That is no secret.  Prior to this class, I had not read any of his work and had no opinion on him whatsoever.  Now that I have had the chance to read some of his work, I find his writing to be self-contradictory, his tone to be condescending, and many of his points to conflict directly with my own beliefs.  That being said, I felt a greater challenge for me would be to find a passage that does not irk me.

This selection is from the first paragraph of “The Village.”

“As I walked in the woods to see the birds and squirrels, so I walked in the village to see the men and boys; instead of the wind among the pines I heard the carts rattle.  In one direction from my house there was a colony of muskrats in the river meadows; under the grove of elms and buttonwoods in the other horizon was a village of busy men, as curious to me as if they had been prairie dogs, each sitting at the mouth of its burrow, or running over to a neighbor’s to gossip.”

I found it particularly interesting because of the comparison between what he thinks of as nature and what he thinks of as society.  When I think of nature, I also think of the aspects of nature that can be found outside of nature.  There are sounds all around us that reflect nature, whether intentional or not.  Water runs from a sink.  Birds herald the rising sun.  Wind rustles the leaves, and it also rustles the flag atop a flagpole and makes the wind chimes sing.


Thoreau-ly Fascinated By Space

One of the passages that I found fascinating in Walden is when Thoreau was discussing how he and his guests used the space around them to facilitate conversation.

In my house, we were so near that we could not begin to hear,- we could not speak low enough to be heard; as when you throw two stones into calm water so near that they break each other’s undulations. If we are merely loquacious and loud talkers, then we can afford to stand very near together, cheek by jowl, and feel each other’s breath; but if we speak reservedly and thoughtfully, we want to be further apart, that all animal heat and moisture may have a chance to evaporate.” (pg 220) 

He kind of uses the idea of space that is opposite of how people would usually use it. He says that talking in low tones requires people to be further apart in order to give space for the idea and for all of the distractions to dissipate. However, louder and more vibrant conversations need to take place in a confined space. 

However, even though it is counter-intuitive, his reasoning sort of makes sense because sometimes when people are having a serious conversation, being in close proximity to people makes them feel pressured and more confined. Also, when people are really exuberant and happy, they sometimes like to be closer to people so they have energy to feed off of.

Thoreau, using the same technique that he does throughout the book, also frequently speaks of conversation as a physical, animated object which makes its own use of space that more interesting.