Thursday, 14 March 2013

On Reading Thoreau

Those who know me may wonder why I would be reading Thoreau.  I am the furthest thing from a Nature-lover.   Better a good book indoors than a trek through the forest; that’s been my motto.

But Thoreau I think of as part of literary history, as much as natural history, so when a course was offered on him, and after getting totally frustrated with my course on Genji, I signed up.  I also signed up for a course on ancient Egypt, the pyramids, etc., which turned out to be serendipitously ironic, since Thoreau didn’t think much of the pyramids or any building of monuments.

Better to build yourself, your character, your spiritual side than build a big monument, he says in Walden.  And I found myself agreeing with him on this, if not on everything.  Or more than agreeing; it was like finding a little bit of validation.

Don’t own things, he says; possessions end up possessing you.  And I have  made a life out of not owning anything beyond books and some bare necessities, and of course a computer.  Oh, and a television.  But no house, no car, no boat.

Actually, Thoreau had a boat, or at least the use of one.  And for that matter he had a house, a little cabin in the woods.  This has no attraction for me, except perhaps as a holiday getaway, and I can remember visiting some cousins on their farm and thinking, This is nice, breathing in the fresh air on their back deck.

But roughing it like Thoreau, no.  Still, I like his approach of the simple life, not knocking yourself out to buy the latest consumer goods, not working long hours at a job you despise for the money it will bring you so you can travel or buy a fancy house or keep up with the fashions.  I was once offered money for a downpayment: Go buy yourself a house, I was told.  No, no, I said; that’s not for me.

And now I feel less a failure over that.  I’m a Thoreauvian.  At least in part.

I don’t share his notions on solitude.  He found being with people, even the best people, wearisome: a true introvert, clearly.  I’m a bit of an introvert myself; you won’t catch me at a big party, or at least you won’t catch me enjoying myself, but I do like company, interaction, conversation.  Thoreau seemed content with the sun, the lake, the fish, and the birds – though he did sometimes wander into town to hear the gossip and one time he seemed almost to be complaining, saying he would meet more men if they weren’t so busy hoeing their beans.  People should take a break from their hoeing and do some socializing, that’s what I think.

And I don’t share Thoreau’s Old Testament prophet approach: he hectors his readers, a bit in the manner of Thomas Carlyle (about whom he wrote an article).  It’s not just that he chose to live a simple life in the woods; he seems to think everyone else should do the same.  But I have no objection to other people leading different sorts of lives.  If other people want to own houses and cars, that’s fine with me.  But it’s still nice to know that there’s a respectable philosophical tradition to which I can attach my life choices.  I feel reassured somehow, though also still a bit lonely.

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