Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Walden by Henry David Thoreau

Last week was the 158th anniversary of the publication of Walden. I love the precision of the anniversary date and even more I love the imprecision of my responding to it a week late. I feel the former would have helped stoke Henry David Thoreau’s impressive ego, and the latter would have afforded him some offence. Although not normally a confrontational sort of person, the idea of offending the seemingly priggish and self-obsessed Henry David Thoreau is rather appealing.

Walden is one of America’s classic books. It articulates something about the nature of the country and its people. The independence of mind, the self-reliance, the abounding confidence, all are distinctive aspects of the American psyche, the positives that make American people so successful and so interesting. At its best, then, Walden attests to the greatness of America.

In it, however, too often that greatness slips into something almost solipsistic, a self-regard which is stultifyingly dense. There is a lack of empathy. Robert Burns’s rational plea for a humanistic understanding of our fellow men (“Oh wad a gift the giftie gie us, to see oursels as ithers see us”) would have no place in Thoreau’s world. The very idea would simply not occur to him. There is, rather, a lack of generosity of spirit, whereby every action, every response is parcelled out in terms of worth, or efficacy, or value. There is something soulless about an existence that can only be valued in terms of physical progress.

Thoreau insists his soujourn on Walden Pond was only an experiment. It was a study of isolation, of what it means to be entirely self-reliant, of the ways in which an individual can master his circumstances. Making the most of one’s lot is an admirable trait, but when one takes this as far as Thoreau it is a philosophy that must result in harshness. It is a negative, nugatory belief system which will end in despair. Isolation leads to resentment; self-reliance bleaches into selfishness; community gives way to seclusion; the beauty of hope withers into a stunted faith, where the individual must take precedence and where the goal of life appears to be the manly demonstration of utility. It is but a short step from here to misanthropy.

Instead of engagement, Thoreau turns to an eastern meditative approach, looking inwards, seeking enlightenment through spiritual contemplation. It is the approach of the Elder Brother in The Glass Bead Game, the need to “know thyself.” Thoreau undertook his experiment because he “wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life.” Fine, as long as the essential facts of life don’t include communion with others. And he argued that one should experience life for oneself. Again, no argument, but that doesn’t mean one may only experience life by oneself. The deliberate shunning of social structures is reductive and damaging.

In saying this, I am not hankering after some warm and cuddly world where everyone is nice and society exists only for the greater good and everything bad is banished: no-one who has read Blood Meridian as often as I have is going to believe in that. So I am not suggesting Thoreau’s isolationism is damaging because of a simple lack of consideration for others; I am suggesting it is damaging because it is destructive.

Take, as an alternative approach, another character versed in eastern thought, Lee Chong in John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. When, after he aquires the empty storage shed, he is approached by Mack and given the non-option of handing over the property to Mack and the boys, instead of refusing, which is his first inclination and which Thoreau would surely have done, he thinks things through. The consequence of refusal, he knows, will be that the property will be burned down. And so he offers a pragmatic solution, one which saves face for both parties and leaves everyone happy: he negotiates a rental for the property, over which he and Mack haggle for some time, both knowing that the rent will never, in fact, be paid. But the outcome is that Lee Chong is left with his property and the pretence of a rental income and with it the maintenance of his honour; Mack and the boys, meanwhile have somewhere to stay a place they turn into The Palace Flophouse and Grill; and, further, ever afterwards they show their gratitude Lee Chong by shopping in his store, and by not stealing from it, thereby ensuring that Lee does, in fact, gain pecuniary reward from the transaction. This is community at work. This is society functioning. Nowhere in Lee Chong’s common-sense approach is there the overweening self-regard we see in Thoreau.

None of this would matter – it is just a book written 158 years ago, after all – except that the logical consequence of Thoreau’s thought is not, as he might have surmised, some sage liberal nonconformism. Rather, it is something darker. In the casual smugness, the haughty self-regard, the conceited self-congratulation, it is easy to overlook the fact that others around you may not have the same facility, the same choices, the same fortune. Others may get lost. Others may lose the game.

Move forward 158 years. Consider Paul Ryan. How can you compare Henry David Thoreau and Paul Ryan, you may ask. But I believe you can, and I believe it’s a valid concern. The logical conclusion of civil disobedience and a refusal to observe the collective responsibilities of society (paying taxes, supporting those in need) is the wilful vapidity of the Tea Party, and the promotion to high political office of hardliners like Paul Ryan.

So I ask you, who wrote the following sentence, Henry David Thoreau or Paul Ryan?

There will never be a really free State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power.
The answer, of course, is Thoreau. While, undoubtedly, this can lead one down a path of nonviolence and honour, as espoused by Martin Luther King, for example, an alternative, and less appealing, consequence of this approach could well be Paul Ryan.

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