Thursday, January 7, 2010

Reading the Classics with Paul- Walden part 2

Okay, look. Nobody said the Reading The Classics series was going to be easy. I had a very difficult time with the first part of this week's reading and strongly anticipate that some of you did as well. I stand by my statements that this will be worthwhile.

I came to a few conclusions with this week's reading. The first was that I decidedly do not like Thoreau as a person. Although I maintain that it is a very well written book and profitable to read, as I'll defend in a moment. Just because I don't like or disagree with someone doesn't mean that I won't like the work they produce or that I won't profit from looking at the world through their point of view for a time. I probably wouldn't like to spend a week with Picasso, Wagner and Baudelaire, but I certainly enjoy all of their work immensely. Likewise, sometimes someone I like quite a bit can produce work that is sub-par or poorly thought out. Basic decency forbids me to make a list of them here. And then there are those who I hate personally and also wrote books of very poor quality. Hitler and Norman Mailer come to mind.

Thoreau is a fine writer. It's his attitude and world-view I dislike. Although, as a side note, this week's reading seems to have finally broken down my wall against writing in the margins and underlining. I've found it very profitable to interact with this text, even if so much of my marginalia is snarky in this case.

We start this week's reading with Thoreau coveting farms with great relish (he relishes the coveting, that is. They are not pickle farms as far as I can tell.) One of the frustrating aspects I've noticed so far is Thoreau's tendency to hint at spirituality without going at all into details. Maybe he will later, but I was hoping for a treatise on Transcendentalism, a philosophy which, on paper, appeals to me quite a bit. So far he gives no such explanation. To wit "We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep." Amen. More of that, please, and less of the arrogant "Only one in a hundred million [men is awake enough] to a poetic or divine life." Also, I strongly disagree with Thoreau that men who believe that the chief end of mankind is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever is a hasty or misguided conclusion. Unfortunately, Thoreau saw no need to explain or back up that claim so, for me, it's yet another instance of a cranky guy shooting off his mouth.

I don't agree with him that one should "keep one's accounts on one's thumbnail." This is a rare instance where I agree with and invoke a quote from Robert Heinlein, "A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects."

Thoreau's finger wagging at people who follow the news struck me as both hard-hearted (specifically there was the metaphor of the "gouged out eyes" which would be fine except that Thoreau is speaking in metaphor from the comfort of his own life while an actual human went through the real pain of having their eyes gouged out) and calling for the thing in this world I may be most dead-set against: willful ignorance.

All of Thoreau's talk against working makes me nauseous. I hate not working. He loves being idle, I hate it. The worst times, in my experience, is when I am not working. And he talks about it in his presumptuous way of absolutes that he has as though there is no doubt in his mind that we will all be on board with him on that point.

The "Reading" section was a little easier on my relationship with Thoreau although he still very often indulges in being sanctimonious and self-righteous. So I write "Amen" next to passages like "For what are the classics but the noblest recorded thoughts of man?" While I find myself writing "Pooh! Nonsense" next to passages like "for later writers, say what we will of their genius, have rarely, if ever, equalled the elaborate beauty and finish... of the ancients."
I recently read a column on how there are Red State and Blue State mentalities in the classical music community. The Red Staters are inclined to want to preserve the classics and bathe in them as much as possible as they are. The Blue Staters fear an increasingly irrelevant form and seek to champion new, experimental works. The writer of that column (and I for that matter) have what I think is a balanced view of being a little of both. We can love the old and the new. We can also identify that neither are virtuous in and of themselves and that there are great (and awful) works in both the classical and contemporary.
Thoreau seems to be a Von Karajan-level Red Stater. On one hand, I can respect this and largely agree with it. On the other, when he starts his "new is bad, old is good" rants, I have to part ways. His precious treatment of the classics remind me of conspiracy theorists who love that they have some imagined special knowledge that makes them better than everyone else. I sort of get the impression that if everyone had shared his love of the classics, he would hate it because it would mean that he didn't get to be all special and, in his mind, justifiably misanthropic anymore.

I don't have a lot to say about the "Sounds" or "Solitude" section except that his descriptions are very well done in my opinion. I underlined a lot but had little to remark upon. Also, I don't usually think about freight trains when I think of Walden, but there you go.

He begins the "Visitors" with "I love society as much as most, and am ready enough to fasten myself like a bloodsucker for the time to any full-blooded man who comes my way." So, wait, is this whole book satire and I just didn't get it until now?
The section on the Canadian was very well done. It brought to mind, for me, some of the better work of Kerouac or even Whitman. A bit romantic, but done well in that way that swept me right into the romanticism. It was also a breath of fresh air to see Thoreau talking about another living human being that he actually liked. He was good at it. I wish he'd done more of it.
I also liked his statement "if a man is alive, there is always a danger that he may die, though the danger must be allowed to be less in proportion as he is dead-and-alive to begin with." We are all Schrodinger's Cat.
I really loved this section. I would remove this section from the rest of the text and be happy. Or, in other words, the "Visitors" section was the sort of thing I had in mind when I said that Thoreau had some worthwhile things to say if you slog through it. And there is more to come.

Some of you may groan at this (including, probably, myself about a week from now when I'm just barely finishing what I've assigned for myself), but I really would like to finish this book in two more sections (and be done with it.) So, this next time will be reading through page 160 in my copy, through the section titled "Brute Neighbors."


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  2. Try again! I haven't caught up yet but so far I do not like Thoreau for many reasons. I do think he liked nature, for he spoke nicely about the different animals around the pond and how he seemed to enjoy them. It made me want to sit and watch the hummingbirds instead of continuing on reading his dribble.