Walden and other writings

Walden and Other WritingsI finally read (most of) Walden this winter… part of my “adult continuing education” program. πŸ˜‰ I both liked and hated him. On the one hand, yes, it’s extremely fascinating and in a way, honorable, that he was so committed to the aesthetic experience and so eloquently able to communicate his introspective idealistic philosophies. On the other hand, he kinda seems like the sort of 22 year old pompous idiot that I’d never want to have a conversation with. πŸ™‚ And yet I do agree with many of his statements and conclusions.

Do you know who is a better Thoreau? Levin from Anna Karenina. I know he’s fictional. I know. I know. But of two different men who left their luxurious conditions for a more primitive existence- I felt that while Thoreau came away philosophically more “down to earth,” he never seemed to gain any love for humankind. Maybe I’m wrong. Am I wrong? I’m probably wrong.

I left my suburban/”normal” American life to live in the country- (taking my anthem, quite ironically for me from musical theater- Far from the Home I love) and I’ve learned not only a greater appreciation for living a life more aligned with the natural created world- less plastic, more mud- but I’ve through that learning become more aware of the beauty of mankind- the beauty in the non-Barbies, the un-photographed, the beauty in the ugly masses. That, to me, is solving the true problem of life practically and not theoretically. That I would learn to love the hard to love- the ones I live with, the ones that hurt me, the ones that annoy me, the ones I’ve hurt and the ones I annoy!

But Thoreau lives at a retreat. He lives out his life in solitude and ease of thought- he can be true to his ideals because he doesn’t have to live in deep community.

I’m glad for the influence that Walden and Civil Disobedience have given to our country in terms of the “Yankee” work-love and land-pride. I’m glad for the liberty-loving, ideal-holding values it sets up. But I want a deeper philosophy- not one that is me, standing alone in my bean field- but one that lets me bend my ugly back and cut grain with my fellow ugly men.

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3 comments

  1. Brianna, hello! I think we’ve e-mailed before about how much we both love Tolstoy’s Levin πŸ™‚

    These are some good thought-provoking thoughts! I want to reply back, but w/o doing a whole new blog post myself…though this is shaping up to be quite a lengthy reply, anyway πŸ™‚ (Also if I do, or seem to, disagree w/ you on some points, please take it as a representation of my own evolving – not permanently set – thought, and as me engaging you in conversation – alas, so much harder to do this way instead of face to face! – rather than telling you how “you’re wrong and I’m right”…if you’re puzzled by this perhaps-w/-you unnecessary caveat, just know I’ve lately had cause to be a bit irritated/frustrated by how easily meaning can be misconstrued or antagonism assumed that wasn’t actually intended to be there w/ online comments like these – devoid of body language and posture and facial expression and tone of voice, etc. Not to mention the more natural back and forth, query and respond, form of spoken conversation vs. this “I type a lengthy response, and then you type a lengthy response” type format. And while I’m on the topic, my thoughts may seem somewhat scattered/repetitive, too – apologies for that. But there are several things I want to say, as well as several “rabbit trails” that crop up along the way of me saying it that I like to follow a little ways but then still get back to the things I was originally saying and what I meant to say next and…on and on. I think you are well familiar w/ what I’m trying to say, from conversations – typed or otherwise – we’ve had in the past.)

    SO! Moving onto the actual reply to this post. (Whew!)

    Some interesting thoughts on Thoreau, for sure – I appreciate you posting them! I’ve def. gotten a bit annoyed w/ him myself at times (incidentally, I’ve also found myself getting a LOT annoyed w/ Paul the Apostle in some of his N.T. epistles at times, too). Haha on the pompous 22-year-old bit…funny AND it hits kinda close to home, b/c sometimes I get annoyed w/ some of my OWN thoughts, which can feel like a huge, pointless internal conversation w/ an annoying 23-year-old pompous know-it-all (but more often I get annoyed at recollections of what seems to be an even more pompous younger version of my self). I think Thoreau was something like a slightly older 28 when he first moved to Walden.

    ANYHOO! I was gonna say how…

    Reading Michael Meyer’s introduction to Walden, though, has helped me gain a more well-rounded perspective of the book, of Thoreau’s intent behind writing it/his approach/attitude toward his readers, of his philosophy/thinking, and of Thoreau himself, biographically/personally – in the flesh and in his own actually lived life, apart from his own written words about himself. That helped me, personally, to be less inclined to think of Thoreau as some pompous self-righteous preacher trying to tell everyone else how they should be living their lives (I now think he’s doing quite the opposite, actually!), especially – as you pointed out – when he’s more removed from living in human community. (But his distancing of himself is an intentional move – and isn’t that part of the whole point of Walden? That emphasis on intentional living…) I think one of the other major take-away’s from Walden for me is the message that quality solitude is truly a necessity for being able to live well with our fellow creatures, human and otherwise – perhaps different amounts, levels, and kinds of solitude for different people, or even for the same person in different seasons of their life, but the need is there all the same.

    It’s also helpful for me to remember that Thoreau didn’t spend all of his life at Walden Pond – that part constituted only 2 years or so of the whole.

    If Thoreau does indeed live on a retreat (and he IS retreating to a large extent from mainstream society – again, intentionally so – as, incidentally, John the Baptist, many other prophets, desert fathers, monks and nuns and other committed contemplatives/people of prayer did or do – which could get us into a WHOLE other discussion on how some people – even many Christians, esp. Protestants – question the validity/”usefulness” [since WHEN was our main object in being human to be USEFUL?!!] to human society of a contemplative call/lifestyle), I would also suggest that perhaps Thoreau was, nevertheless, still deeply involved in human community, even during his stay at Walden – though in different ways from how most people normally conceptualize community. (One thing about living/participating in an intentional community myself this year is that I’ve learned that community – like church and how we worship/live out our Christian faith – can take many different forms; also, I don’t think “intense” community is for everybody, especially some introverts. Different people are, obviously, different, and their individual needs vary accordingly – just as their are individual and varying gifts and callings.) For Thoreau’s involvement w/ community, as I see it, there were those deep, profound conversations he cites with visitors, for one. And his friendship with the French Canadian woodsman. Not to mention all the reading, writing, and sheer thinking he’s doing about humanity and human culture and practices, and so interacting in this way, and (I would think) laying foundations for himself for his own future interactions w/ other people for years to come. I’m pretty sure this was also the time of his writing of Civil Disobedience (which, as you’ve noted above, was profoundly influential) – hardly “easy” thoughts, or ones devoid of regard for fellow human beings (and if he didn’t write it at this time, he was certainly still thinking about those sort of things); it was also the time when he decided not to pay his poll tax so as to not be complicit in the government’s unjust use of it against his fellow human creatures. Also, I don’t know about you (I have my guesses :)), but I certainly find it’s not always easy to even live with “just” myself! Even when I’m not obviously or directly interacting w/ a lot of other people on a daily basis, it’s still difficult (if not impossible) for me to be fully true to my own ideals. I think the same is probably true of Thoreau. He wasn’t perfect, but an erring and limited human being, too, after all. (As you can see, it’s mostly your second-to-last paragraph that I’m taking issue with.)

    Another note on the relationship btwn solitude and community: this guy named Thomas Merton (perhaps you’ve heard of him – really famous Trappist monk and author in the last century – I recently read his “Contemplation in a World of Action” – his stuff is worth checking out), Henri Nouwen (another great spiritual writer), Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and others all write about how crucial individual solitude is to the individual’s capacity for engagement w/ their communities, and for the health of the community as a whole.

    Back to my earlier allusion of sometimes mentally picturing Thoreau as a pompous preacher setting a ridiculously high standard – I now think (thanks once again to Meyer’s intro.) that Thoreau was more concerned w/ “waking people up” than he was with trying to dictate firm and set principles to them for how they should live their lives. He wants people to boldly, thoughtfully, and intentionally live their own lives as they believe best – NOT for us all to go moving into our own cabins in the woods far away from everyone! In view of this, incidentally, and as Thoreau was such an individual and advocate of the individual lifestyle, I think he would consider your reactions to his book proof of its success, and satisfactory ones, as they are evidence of it prompting you to further think and reflect and draw conclusions for yourself, and not just blindly following along with another’s thoughts – be they Thoreau’s or mass society’s. πŸ™‚

    Thoreau is Thoreau, but Levin is also Levin, and you are Brianna, and I’m Bekah, and there’s LOTs of others of us all, eh? And I’m glad we have both Thoreau AND Levin, fictional or otherwise (and, to a certain extent, I think every author’s presentation of themselves, not to mention their readers’ constructed perception(s) of them, is always at least partly fictional, as Meyer also helped to remind me/helped me see more clearly),and not just “one or the other,” and glad that we have all of us, with lots of different ways and callings in which to live out our individual lives.

    Nice closing sentence to your post, by the way – subtly connecting back to Levin and tying it all together well. Nice imagery too. Yeah, just – Nice. (And I LOVE that scene where Levin helps out the peasants w/ the harvest – it’s my favorite in the whole book.)

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  2. Oh! Yeah – that was the other thing: What else are you reading these days? Slash, What else is part of your “continuing adult education” curriculum, and/or coming up next on the syllabus…? πŸ™‚ Love it. I’m aiming to be a life-long learner/always continuing education person myself, too…which we’ve also already talked about, haha. I miss our long e-mails!

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