Saturday, September 3, 2011

Life in the Woods

"Walden" is a book so familiar to my generation that it almost comes as a shock to realize that I've never read it all the way through. I am currently about halfway through remedying that.

The passage about the "different drummer" was ubiquitous in the sixties and early seventies. The great imperative to "Simplify!" has always been present, if ever very incompletely realized. I remember, when moving from a larger city to to smaller town in the mid-eighties, my touchstone wasn't Thoreau, but Yeats' "Lake Isle of Innisfree":

I will arise and go now
And go to Innisfree
And a small cabin build there
Of clay and wattles made.
Nine bean-rows shall I have there,
A hive for the honeybee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there....

That's from memory--it may not be quite right, but it's being there, that way, in the memory confirms, I suppose, it's doggedness. And looking back, so much of Walden is there: the lake, the small cabin, even the bean-rows.

Thoreau is irritating because he asserts that it's all so easy. And it's tempting to respond that not everyone has health, has Ralph Waldo Emerson to let you build on his land and pay your taxes. Even apart from those things, though, why can't we live in nature as in Eden, being content with little, keeping that level of mindfulness high and alert? Part of the answer, I think, is that Thoreau himself couldn't keep it up. He maintained his simple life for two years, and that was that. Paradise was lost again, presumably his own choice.

And then, he did do it alone. When I was young, I was entirely baffled by that "quiet desperation" that Thoreau attributed to the mass of men; now I not only get the concept, I can say right out that I've lived it. And it comes from responsibility, from those connections and concerns that Thoreau simplified out of his life. A great advantage of reading Thoreau is seeing that things like celibacy--though not, I think, by name invoked--are in fact pretty essential for a monastic lifestyle. Something not exactly emphasized in the sixties, but bourne out in a thousand different social experiments.

There is much beauty of observation in Thoreau, much that is instructive (I'm thinking of his conflating the village with a nearby prarie dog colony), in his disdain of the inessential. I hesitiate to criticise an experiment I couldn't have undertaken myself. But my admiration of his project, and my appreciation for so much of what he has gotten right about our aspirations toward the sublimely simple, are tempered by his terrible isolation from deep human ties. Thoreau was no hermit during his two years, and observed very well how easy it is to be lonely when surrounded by others. But his solitude, which, in measure, I, and many people find occasionally necessary, was too complete to compensate for the glorious freedom he enjoyed as perhaps no other. His admirable mastery of his appetites still leaves him sometimes a monsterous egoist. But in this, perhaps, he does come very close to the Natural Man.

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