Thursday, January 14, 2010

Reading the Classics with Paul- Walden part 3

I want to start this week by talking about a concept behind a phrase which is thrown around in theological circles. The phrase is "destroying your witness." Simply put, it is when you're known for your bad behavior so much that no one can take your positive message seriously. For example, after Pat Robertson says something evil, wicked and hateful toward a group of people, why would anyone then listen to him if he starts preaching the gospel (although I'm hard pressed to think of a time when he was ever in danger of doing that); no one is going to listen to him. He's proved himself a hate-filled man and now he's going to talk about a God of love and grace? This can be applied to so many situations. It also works for hypocritical behavior. I remember a pastor telling me once, with much humility and repentance, about driving to work on a weekday morning and getting stuck behind a slow driver whom he then tail gated and glared at with daggers shooting out of his eyes. Finally he sped around them, cut them off, and eventually arrived at the church to find the slow moving car pulling into the parking lot behind him. It was an older lady and she had been distressed by the sudden death of her child and on her way to seek comfort and counsel at the church.

I tell you these things because my struggle with Thoreau has reached a kind of fever pitch. I think that this book could probably be condensed into a 30 page pamphlet of nature writing and it would be a much better book. Last week, I could see past his cranky, mean-spirited passages because of his good nature writing. This week it flipped on me. I can't enjoy the good nature writing because Thoreau is otherwise so cranky and mean-spirited. To indulge myself in a bit of hyperbole, I can't applaud Mussolini for making the trains run on time.

There's only one week left and then we get to move on to Kafka, which will be way more pleasant.

Thoreau's nature writing is very well done. He communicates his awe, his love and reverence for nature. It's not exactly armrest-gripping reading, but it's pastoral and nice. Some of it is stunning and unexpectedly beautiful like the axe when it falls through the ice. Brilliant!
Unfortunately, he's destroyed his witness for me with his sections about the world and his interactions with other people, most of which has to do with why one group is better than another group, specifically how he is better than other people. For those of you not reading the book in this book group, I assure you, most of the book is about why Thoreau thinks he is better than other people. What's more, those sections seem so labored, contrived and superfluous. He would do so much better to show and not tell.

He starts our reading for this week with a section about his bean field. I find I highlighted a section and wrote that it was the nicest part of the book yet but for the life of me I can't remember why I thought that at the time. If anything, it's a completely benign section.

I especially liked his comment in the Village section when he promotes living simply by saying that if all people lived and desired to live simply, there would be no theft. Theft takes place in places where some have more than is sufficient while others needs are not met. A rare instance of me appreciating his social commentary.

He talks about how the villagers are a bunch of gossips and men with idle tongues, but also that he goes into town to hear them! Also to buy things! I don't know about you, but this really blew the whole "solitary monastic simple living" fantasy. The book is touted as a "back to nature" treatise and here he's got a train going by his cabin all of the time and he walks into town every day to hear the gossip.

He talks about how Flint's Pond is a bad name and speculates over the person who may have named it that. Although, the bit about the folk history of the Native Americans and how Walden Pond may have been named was an interesting bit of information and one that probably wouldn't have been remembered today if he had not recorded it.

He even has a section about how some people get halos in a certain light and others don't.
The Baker Farm part was the worst for me. He finds shelter from the rain in the home of a poor Irish family. Thoreau seems entirely incapable of charity or compassion of any kind. He criticizes how the Irish family live, in poverty, and tells them that they ought to live like him and go a-huckleberrying for amusement and sustenance. The couple share a glance which Thoreau reads as desire for the things he's describing, but I found myself wondering if the glance wasn't "This guy is a nutball! We have a baby. If we don't work for proper food and shelter the baby could die. A baby can't live off of a-huckleberrying!"

Thoreau is an educated man who turned his back on a potentially productive life, a bit like Schweitzer minus all compassion and charity. Thoreau is a single man. He doesn't give a rip about the problems of a struggling family, a man seeking to provide for his family. I kept remembering that song by Pulp (as loath as I am to regurgitate pop culture references, it really did keep running through my head) Common People, about the rich art school girl who wants to live like common people but, as the narrator says, she never will because if she lived in poverty she would always have the option of calling home and being saved from it immediately at any time, a luxury which actual common people will never have. I don't know about Thoreau's family or financial situation, but he is not responsible for anyone else or anything really. It's unfair for him to look down his nose at people who are responsible. Sort of an ugly example of Nietzsche's master/slave morality. Thoreau describes the man as a hard worker, but shiftless and I failed to see the distinction Thoreau made between that description of that man and himself. How is Thoreau not shiftless? And how is a poor man who is "bogging" to feed and shelter his family "shiftless?"

In all honesty, part of the reason this section stung me so much is that I am a man who has been earnestly searching for work for a while now and there are simply no jobs out there or, at least, I have not found one yet. I continue to look. I find it difficult to sympathize with Thoreau who willfully shunned a life of work and responsibility to go do whatever he feels like whenever he feels like and to criticize everyone else.

Then he goes on to say why American children are better than British children. Then how he's better than fishermen. Oh, and surprise! He's better than omnivores too. Also he's better than drinkers of alcohol and caffeinated drinks.

Then we get into Thoreau's theology (which, surprise again, is very muddled) and I began to see why I am struggling so much with Thoreau. He says that there is an animal within us all which awakens in proportion to how much our "higher nature" slumbers, which is asceticism defined. He continues into a section which may be the very core of why Thoreau and I do not get along. His theology is so dark and works-based, so unsustainable to anyone being honest with themselves, so very very man-centered. He writes "Man flows at once to God when the channel of purity is open." In other words, make yourself pure and you can flow toward the divine. My whole belief system revolves around faith in God, in God's ability and willingness to uphold me and save me by no work of my own. Because if I am to be counted upon for any part of my salvation, I am doomed. It is only by the grace of God that I can have anything to do with Him, not by any ability of my own to "make myself pure." If I must depend upon my own ability to keep myself saved, I will fail. I thank God that the Universe is not as Thoreau describes it.

On the next page, Thoreau asks, in essence (and paraphrase) "what use is it to be a Christian if it doesn't make you better than other people?" Again, I refer to Emerson's statement that "no truer American existed than Thoreau." What an ugly way to look at religion!
I don't know about you, but for me this book is WAY darker than our last book, Of Mice and Men and way more than our next one, The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. Those authors both have obvious compassion for humans and their struggles. Thoreau is the pinnacle of self-importance and self-absorption. Thank God the Existentialists came along about 70-some years later!

And then we hit a fine example of the problem. Thoreau spends a lengthy section describing a battle between red and black ants. He anthropomorphizes them in order to prevent us from having any valid scientific interest in the events he's describing. And, you know, maybe this harsh world has beat some of my sense of magic and whimsy out of me, but after about three sentences I found myself wondering why on Earth is it a good thing for a grown man to go into the woods alone to watch ant fights?!!? There was a "painting miniature pewter orc" moment for me in this section where I saw Thoreau there on his haunches looking at the dirt and calling out the fight like a sportscaster and I thought, "This book has gone from frustrating me to making me very sad for a very lonely man."

No, I do not like Thoreau and I do not like Walden. I think he was a horrible man and I have no idea why this book is considered a classic. I really have to assume most people haven't read it and, instead, like what they think the book is about. Oh well. One more week of this, people, assuming there's anyone left in the reading group. Finish the book this coming week and we'll meet back next weekend. After this, Franz Kafka should be like a breath of fresh air.


  1. Paul, I've really enjoyed following your progress through this book and the previous. Thanks for the insightful and explanatory posts. Even though this is a coming-down-on-walden post - yet I enjoyed it, I think for the contrasts against Walden that you make in describing as noble the efforts to provide for a family, and faith and grace vs works.

    In your previous post you mentioned something Walden wrote about the rarity of the man that to know what he knows, "Only one in a hundred million [men is awake enough] to a poetic or divine life." I thought perhaps that is a part of the attraction to Walden, the hope to be one in a hundred million, to have an inside knowledge, to be part of a select few. Does that sound probable? It's been high school since I read any of "Walden" so I'm only putting the idea out there based on a sense I'm getting from your descriptions.

  2. Thank you.
    Yes, I think that's probably a fair representation of the appeal that he is aiming for. Unfortunately, I find it misguided (putting one's faith in one's self, gaining the divine through sort of a Tower of Babel determinism.) Also he spends so much of the book (most of it in fact) talking about why his way is better without, so far, really showing us any evidence.
    Which is part of what makes the "ant fight" section so creepy to me. He goes on and on about how much better he is than everyone and then, there he is sitting in the dirt watching ants fight. I want to say to him, "Really? This is better than glorifying God with all of your heart, soul and mind? This is better than falling in love, maintaining a relationship, having a family? This is better than an honest day's labor? Or fellowship with others?"
    If his way is the path to being one of the one in a hundred million, I sure don't see it. I see a lonely man qualifying his choices until he doth protest WAY too much. In short, I see a man leading a desperate life, just like he accuses of others. Which is a fine example of why one cannot put one's trust in man, even if that man is one's self.

  3. I can't agree with you more about Thoreau and am surprised that this book was suppose to have been read by so many people, with wonderful comments following. I did find that the statement, "What use is it to be a Christian if it doesn't make you better than other people?", would make a great title for a book (of course the contents would have to inform them of just the opposite!)

  4. Paul, as I read your comment and further explanation just above, I was reminded of a comment my Dad made to me when I was in high school sitting in his pickup in our drive, about to depart somewhere. My Dad said with some disgust, "Scott you are a nonconformist." I think he meant it to humble and shame me a little. But I was PROUD of the fact. I think our little high school reading of Walden helped to fuel that nonconformist bent. I probably wanted to think of myself as one in a hundred million. Thanks for the memory. On the one hand I think that nonconformist attitude was a protection for me from falling into much worse troubles by going along with the peer pressure of my classmates. But I praise God today that I've found something much better and truly glorious in Jesus Christ. Conforming and being conformed to his image by grace and His Spirit. Not conformed to this world but transformed by His Spirit. Wow, reading your thoughts on Walden has turned into an occasion for wonderful worship of our Great God who has delivered us from this world.