Walden, or, Life in the Woods: A Summary, A Quotation

February 20, 2012 at 02:18 | Posted in Everything | 2 Comments

Portrait of Thoreau

“Not till we are lost, in other words not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.”

Henry David Thoreau’s experiment, his most famous American excursion, was to live in the woods of Connecticut for a year, in a self-sustaining cabin during the late 1800’s. He did this to see if it were possible to live a higher life on a lower level of means, to see whether or not he could combine the hardiness of the savage with the intellectual capacities of the civilized man. He went to the woods to find himself, to find company there that he had not found in the world of men. He left men to see whether or not one could make a poor man’s living and live like a monarch. And he certainly did.

Often heralded as a preeminent transcendentalist, Thoreau was something more than his contemporaries, like Emerson:  he was thoroughly entranced by the natural world and wanted to experience it as it was. Emerson was not as “wild” as Thoreau; Thoreau even criticizes his friend as being too stuffy at some point in his writings. Unlike the transcendentalists, he saw the spiritual in all things, including man, but not in man alone. And I assume he was more down to earth than his contemporaries, who were, in my opinion, too Eastern in thought.

The heart of Thoreau’s experiment was to escape the superfluity of civilization, which could include anything that surpassed the necessary means of life. He wished to live simply, modestly, for his own sake, really. Such a selfish mode of living, perhaps; but in the end, the experiment was supposed to wake his neighbors. He described himself as bragging “as lustily as a chanticleer in the morning,” singing to them this unsung way of life, so that they who were either poor in currency or poor in spirit could find either of those things.

In this very “boring” book, as most call it, Thoreau put forth some very dangerous ideas that could easily shake up the supposed necessity of superfluity in civilization. He put forth this idea in less than a page, whereas philosophers have had to write whole volumes on the subject:

“But men labor under a mistake. The better part of the man is soon plowed into the soil for compost. By a seeming fate, commonly called necessity, they are employed, as it says in an old book, laying up treasures which moth and rust will corrupt and thieves break through and steal. It is a fool’s life, as they will find when they get to the end of it, if not before.”

Man digs his own grave, working for the money to pay for his coffin! And who benefits? Everyone ends up getting better coffins, that’s all. Preposterous way of life! What does Thoreau tell us to do about this?

“When he has obtained those things which are necessary to life, there is another alternative than to obtain the superfluities; and that is, to adventure on life now, his vacation from humbler toil having commenced.”

When we finally acquire the means of living, which are shelter, clothing, food, and fire, we shall be ready to journey, just as our ancestors did. The fundamental problem of the modern era is the stillness of life (or the grounding of life, i.e. in permanent cities) that has been brought about by the culture of the West. Instead of remaining inert in these places, why not use them as save havens, for when we are in danger outside of them?

Thoreau wittingly states that a farmer who works his entire life to pay off the price of his house, does not own the house:  it owns him.

What does Thoreau think about the artistic movements of his time, that wished to free men from this terrible condition?

“The best works of art are the expression of man’s struggle to free himself from this condition, but the effect of our art is merely to make this low state comfortable and that higher state to be forgotten. “

The effect of an art that expresses an ideal is an unfortunate one:  it allows us to experience the ideal without changing anything about ourselves. So we remain imprisoned under the illusion that we are free through our art.

So, art doesn’t help us out of this civilized nightmare. What do we do to escape the drudgery of civilized life? Thoreau states this quite clearly in his “mission statement” found a good ways into the book:

“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. “

And so he did. The “boring” part of the book comes after his philosophical section titled “Economy.” Thoreau talks about how he discovered life, and it is one of the most beautiful texts I’ve ever laid my hands on.

I’ll end with that quotation I promised in the title:

“I had this advantage, at least, in my mode of life, over those who were obliged to look abroad for amusement, to society and theatre, that my life itself was become my amusement and never ceased to be novel. It was a drama of many scenes and without an end. If we were always, indeed, getting our living, and regulating our lives according to the last and best mode we had learned, we should never be troubled with ennui.”

 

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2 Comments »

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  1. I despise the term “savage.” being of First Nations decent. What’s so savage about a group of people who lived off the land and respected it?

    BUT, that is obviously not the point of this article. It’s showing how futile modern life is, we work ourselves to death, just so we can look good when we die. We are disillusioned that art makes us content with this way of life, mind you there’s art that goes above and beyond. But a significant number of us, even teenagers, are content with this ridiculous way of life, working our asses off for people who are better off, it’s disgusting. I’ve been on the verge of being poor these past few months, I need to get a job. (go figure) I want to do something more, I don’t know what but I’ll find a way.

    This is a lot to take in, this man had the right idea, that the “modernization” of ourselves only made us more disconnected. Shame that the First Nations people already had the right idea before some white guys came in and started repeating the same damn thing, but hey, whatever markets it better I suppose.

  2. “What’s so savage about a group of people who lived off the land and respected it?”

    Yep, exactly. I just embrace the term in a sarcastic way, I like the way it sounds (it reminds me of “raw life”).

    “It’s showing how futile modern life is, we work ourselves to death, just so we can look good when we die.”

    Yep, and then we have children so that we can be insured that we’ll look good at our funeral when we die.

    “I’ve been on the verge of being poor these past few months, I need to get a job. (go figure) I want to do something more, I don’t know what but I’ll find a way.”

    Me too. It’s hard to find a job that isn’t blatant servitude (like working at McDonalds and taking banal orders all day, or cleaning shit out of a white receptacle…and from the ground). I want to find a job that suits my interests. Probably won’t be able to until after four years of college.

    “Shame that the First Nations people already had the right idea before some white guys came in and started repeating the same damn thing, but hey, whatever markets it better I suppose.”

    My history teacher said that the discontented colonizers should have come over to America and joined up with the Native Americans and their culture. I feel very sad when I think of how great this entire continent could have been if we would have integrated ourselves into their culture, instead of doing it the other way around. Now we’re headed towards tyranny and a “world wired for death” instead of the free open plains and a living, breathing, human community. I think the N. A.’s had the right idea with their way of life, I need to study it more to say more about it though.


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