Monday, April 16, 2012

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.

“WALDEN” by Henry David Thoreau (first published 1854)

The uncolonised, scientifically-explored wilderness of Antarctica is one of the icons of the international Green movement. Reading a book about it reminds me, among other things, of all the ways Green habits of thought now influence us. That in turn sets me thinking about a book that is revered by a certain class of American reader and is, in effect, the Bible of much of the Green movement.
It’s very presumptuous of me to find myself in disagreement with a work some people regard as a classic, but that is the position I find myself in with respect to  Henry David Thoreau’s Walden or Life in the Woods.

According to many who haven’t actually read it, Walden is the book that shows people how to live simply and serenely, relying on nature and one’s own effort. Add to this the fact that its author was not only a pacifist, but was also an abolitionist at a time when half of the United States still practised slavery, and you have the makings of an unassailable classic. Surely Thoreau’s book must be beyond criticism?

So how bumptious of me to find fault with so much that Thoreau argues.

To clear the ground first, Thoreau (1817-62) was one of those New England intellectuals who found developing industrial society altogether too messy and noisy and vulgar. Being intellectuals, they wanted something that separated them from the crowd and established their credentials as an elite. Something, in other words, that would re-establish the aristocratic ideal, though this time based on intellect rather than inherited property. They found it under the vague name of “Transcendentalism”, which meant developing one’s higher faculties and separating oneself from the vulgar herd. “Transcendentalism” was very cloudy as both a theology and a philosophy, but to some extent it was the logical development of Puritanism. Only the self – the salvation of the individual soul – matters. The community should have minimal control over the individual. This can lead to an admirable concern for individual rights (as in Thoreau’s opposition to slavery) but, I would argue, it also leads to the type of individualism that is unconcerned with others and fails to realize how societies are bound together. It lets individuals ignore how much their individual freedoms and comforts rely on the efforts of others - in other words, on the society at large from which they imagine themselves to have separated.  “No man is an island” etc.

Purely as an “experiment” (he never meant to make it permanent), Thoreau spent two years, 1845-47,  living on his own in the hut on the edge of Walden Pond. He then spent seven or eight years working up his notes and journals of the experience into the book that was published in 1854. Before I read Walden, I had already come across various “exposes” which explained that Thoreau was no real son of the wilderness. Where he lived for two years was within easy walking distance of Concord, Massachusetts, whither he would repair weekly for civilised talk with fellow intellectuals. In his two years, he was in regular contact with Ralph Waldo Emerson, who had lent him the land. He was no horny-handed survivalist. He was just a guy finding a quiet spot in which to read, write and reflect. Almost the guy living in the shed at the back of a big garden.

But in fact none of this is grounds for criticism of Walden, as in the book Thoreau openly acknowledges his situation. The text itself records his frequent walks to town. He describes the railway embankment that ran down the other side of the pond, and the fact that nearly every day he waved to the passing engineer (much as he resented the sound of the train whistle for disturbing his solitude). There are in the book many accounts of encounters with hunters and fishers and ice-breakers. This is no man alone.

There is, however, a level of evasion in the book about the reason for Thoreau’s withdrawal into semi-solitude. Recent research [you can easily find it on-line if you type in the words “Thoreau” and “fire”] suggests that, far from spontaneously deciding on his withdrawal, Thoreau was virtually run out of town for his part in (accidentally) setting fire to some woodland and destroying many acres of forest. There is also evasion about some of the necessities of life. Walden contains many passages on planting and getting food, but very little about how he, in solitude, disposed of his human waste. There is also no mention of his regularly taking his clothes to town to be washed at a laundry, another detail of his life in the woods that has recently been confirmed.

But none of the above is the reason why I take so negatively to much of Walden. My real reason is that I find Thoreau guilty of a feeble and inadequate outlook on life. Repeatedly as I read, I found ideas and phrases worthy of his spiritual descendants, the hippies. Ostentatiously claiming to draw his inspiration from Indian philosophy (he often refers to the Bhagavad Gita), with its ideas of unity and oneness, he in fact produces a repugnant variety of individualism. Sitting (semi-)isolated from humanity, he casts judgement on humanity without ever testing his theories in the rub and jostle of social intercourse.

This is most clearly the case in the long opening chapter called “Economy”. With ingenious and enticing arguments, Thoreau introduces the anarchist thesis that most toil is wasted labour to earn luxuries that we do not really need; that we need no more housing than a box to shelter us from the rain; that we can get by with the simplest food, clothes etc. – and that if we could only bring about this spiritual revolution we would be able to do away with the oppressive power of the state.

Some of his methods of arguing are attractively witty. I enjoyed his paradox that it is always faster to travel on foot than in a vehicle, because if one travels in a vehicle, one has to add to the journey the time it took to earn the fare for the ride or the price of the vehicle.

Yet hiding behind all this declared “simplicity” there is an undeclared Puritanism. Thoreau never acknowledges that it is part of being human to desire more than the essentials; to derive joy from an elaborately-constructed house and an elaborately-prepared meal. Nobody desires mere subsistence – not even people with simple and unpretentious tastes – and if subsistence was enough then societies, technology, culture, art and the literature that Thoreau enjoys reading in his hut would never have developed. Repeatedly, reading these sections of Walden, I found myself remembering the lines from King LearAllow not nature more than nature needs/ Man’s life is cheap as beast’s.

More tellingly, Thoreau (like hippies!) does not make the connection between himself and society. His simple life is possible only because there is a complex society supporting him. The cabin he builds is made of the prepared timbers he bought from somebody else’s shanty. He eventually (for reasons he never explains in the book) finds it preferable to return to society. Haughtily – and in a scene I find particularly repugnant – he presumes to tell the unlettered Irish labourer John Field how to farm and how to raise a family, and claims to derive humour from the Irishman’s obtuseness in not accepting his advice. But this only shows how few responsibilities Thoreau, as a single man, really has. Having himself no family to support, having no beloved others in his life, he can condescend to those who make an effort for the sake of people to whom they have made a commitment. Like libertarians of later date, Thoreau also rejects the Christian concept of Charity. He argues that it only makes people dependent on other people, and nothing should stand in the way of rugged individualism. Roll on Ayn Rand.

Having said these negative things, though, I am left explaining paradoxically why I find Walden as a whole an attractive book. It is because (apart from its revival in the “Conclusion”) the limp and untenable philosophising gradually fades out of it. Despite Thoreau’s implicit assumption of his superiority to other people, Walden largely becomes what it is best at being – a book of nature descriptions. Its best philosophy is a vaguely Wordsworthian sense of serenity in the simple scenes described – not in the pages which Thoreau thinks are philosophy.

Hence, this book is best enjoyed for such individual and disconnected moments as  

  • the description of the train’s smoke, vivid above the disappearing train
  • the terrific account of the ferocious battle between red ants and white ants which Thoreau includes in the section called “Brute Neighbours”
  • the description of ice-cutters at work on the frozen winter surface of Walden Pond, taking away huge slabs to be stored under hotels in those pre-refrigeration days.

My pen was kept busy noting down choice examples of Thoreau’s descriptions and saws, and in some cases choice examples of his stupidity.

Of course there is the famous “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.” There is the aphoristic “But lo! Men have become the tools of their tools” compounded by the anarchistic “I am wont to think that men are not so much the keepers of herds as herds are the keepers of men, the former are so much the freerer.”

In the section on “Readings” he declares truly enough that “To read well – that is, to read true books in a true spirit – is a noble exercise, and one that will task the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem. It requires a training such as the athletes underwent, the steady intention almost of the whole life to this object. Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written.” He also truly notes that “What is called eloquence in the forum is commonly found to be rhetoric in the study.

I revelled in his account of sitting alone at night watching the firelight making shifting shadows on the ceiling of his cabin. He comments “Should not every apartment in which man dwells be lofty enough to create some obscurity overhead, where flickering shadows may play at evening about the rafters?

And then, regrettably, we are back to the sententious stupidities such as “Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only. Money is not required to buy one necessary for the soul.

Which I translate as “Somebody else is paying for me, and my mind is free on the back of somebody else’s toil.


  1. You note a similarity to Ayn Rand at one point. In fact Ayn Rand commended Thoreau as "the first real American individualist".

    1. Doesn't at all surprise me, and indeed this was my point. Thoreau's thinking, with an over-concern for individual rights and a lack of concern for the general social good, leads directly to the fantasy world of "Atlas Shrugged"and supermen.

    2. Doesn't at all surprise me, and indeed this was my point. Thoreau's thinking, with an over-concern for individual rights and a lack of concern for the general social good, leads directly to the fantasy world of "Atlas Shrugged"and supermen.

    3. Doesn't at all surprise me, and indeed this was my point. Thoreau's thinking, with an over-concern for individual rights and a lack of concern for the general social good, leads directly to the fantasy world of "Atlas Shrugged"and supermen.