Saturday, April 25, 2009

How deep the ruts of tradition and conformity!

Two quotations from Walden, to begin:
The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of men; and so with the paths which the mind travels. How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity!

There is an incessant influx of novelty into the world, and yet we tolerate incredible dulness.
And one from "Civil Disobedience":
[T]hey who assert the purest right, and consequently are most dangerous to a corrupt State, commonly have not spent much time in accumulating property.
As I know was true of most Americans, and possibly still is, when I was in high school we were forced to read excerpts from Walden. I couldn't have been more bored. Is there any writer more out of step with high school students than Thoreau? A writer less likely to appeal to such readers? (Perhaps Hawthorne, whose The Scarlet Letter we were also forced to read, over the course of one interminable month. A month! The novel's not 300 pages long!) I used to make fun of Thoreau--not only was he boring, but he wasn't even what he claimed, was he? He wasn't authentic! He wasn't really out in the wilderness, right? Not that I knew what I was talking about, but I'd heard in passing something to the effect of this or that and certainly I was eager to find some reason to dismiss a writer, to feel as if I needn't bother. But, in any event, of course these concerns were not really the point. (And they were not helped by the fact that all we ever read were short excerpts, pretty much of anything, excerpts or short stories. The only full works of literature of any length I remember us reading were the aforementioned Hawthorne and the ubiquitous The Great Gatsby. Worse, these excerpts were packaged in such a way to almost invite dismissal--Thoreau of course would have been carefully placed in the section helpfully designated "The Transcendentalists"--particularly given how we were expected to relate to these writings, as works with Themes and Meanings and whatnot. I always struggled mightily with this: how was I to know what the right answer was?)

Why is Thoreau out of step, Walden in particular? Here is a guy who writes about nature, about divorcing himself for a period of time from the regular flow of society, about simplicity, about working with nature, not against it, about the flow of the seasons, the battles of ants and songs of birds and and rise and fall and freezing of ponds. Everything else we learn in school is geared towards speed, efficiency, in one way or another, and here is a guy from the ancient past--before the Civil War!--asking not only us but his already impossibly slow contemporaries (from our perspective) to slow down. More precisely, school is designed so that we learn how to fit in, how to be good cogs in the liberal capitalist world, how not to think for ourselves, or really when not to, how to shape ourselves for maximum value in the "real world".

Thoreau, in Walden as much as in "Civil Disobedience" (which if we read it at all in high school would have been framed in such a way so that its true import was necessarily muted), is pitched against all of this. What he offers, frankly, is a necessary rebuke. There are times, to be sure, when he sounds preachy, like a scold, but this is not what I mean. The book is a rebuke in its very essence. And reading Walden I had a feeling I've had often in recent years, the feeling that I am not free.


Rev Blackdog said...

Hey Richard,
Interesting that you were forced to read him at school over there! I'd never heard of him till I started hanging out with hippy types at university.

I too love Walden. I've never managed to finish the book, however, because the feeling that it gives you – of not being free – it gave me too. And the feeling becomes increasingly intense and frustrating as you read. I hope one day to be free enough to read the book to the end.

Anonymous said...

Richard, sorry, that last comment about Walden was by me, Stuart. This computer was logged into someone else's account. Cheers