Reading Walden

I started reading Walden a couple of days ago. Period.

I’ve just been reading a little at a time. It’s crazy how many books I’ve read but if you ask me about some of them I sort of remember what they said and try to use that to show that I know about them or have read them, but you can see I don’t really know about them, like in the Socratic way someone would know something.

Socrates, I read in Proust and the Squid, was not in favor of writing because among other things he said reading things would give people the illusion of knowledge. Now we have it to the extreme, with iPhones we are all cyborgs. I don’t have one yet, but I wouldn’t turn down a free one. But with an iPhone, or a smartphone actually, any smartphone, is what I mean, with one of those things you have the knowledge of humanity in easy reach, almost as easy and in some cases easier than retrieving knowledge from your own brain. But we don’t really know a whole lot. Or at least I don’t. And I don’t even have a smartphone so I’m really fucked.

Anyway, I think I have mentioned that part of Proust and the Squid before, because that’s pretty much the only thing I remember from reading that whole book. It’s amazing the amount of things I have learned from books and then quickly forgot, or maybe not even quickly, even slowly forgot, until I pick that book up again and read the whole thing and remember and think damn if I had only remembered that instead of forgetting it.

So I’m trying to read slowly and really internalize what I’m reading.

I was thinking for this post I should look up the context that this journal was written in and really have an understanding about this shit, but then I said fuck it. There does happen to be some interesting context written on the jacket. It seems that Thoreau died in obscurity and his journals were discovered later as works of importance. That’s what the cover seems to imply.

It says to wit that he was born in 1817 in Concord, Massachusetts, the son of a pencil manufacturer. He graduated from Harvard and started teaching, but then gave it up because “of the stern methods he was expected to undertake.” I don’t really understand what that means but I guess he just thought the shit was too rigid or something. Apparently he tried his hand at various jobs, started writing journals, and was close friends or at least in “a close relationship” with Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was older than him and had property at Walden Pond. When Thoreau was 28 he built a cabin on that property and published Walden nine years later, and it was “received poorly.” Then he died at forty-five years old in “relative obscurity.”

In the front description of the book it says Thoreau rejected the tenants of the industrial revolution and he searched for something more meaningful than materialism. This of course is very interesting for us today who are so affected by the industrial revolution that we do not even know in what ways we are or are not or how we would be different if it had never happened, and so on until there was no internet.

What did I know about this book before I read it? Well, a lot more than I do about most books I guess, which is nothing. I knew that it said somewhere that he went into the woods in order to live life deliberately, and by that I guess he meant he went in there to do everything the way he wanted to do it, to have a reason for doing everything instead of waking up and shaving because that’s what your dad did.

What else? I think he says “An early morning walk is a blessing for the whole day,” but that might be Emerson. Anyway I see it on the side of a bank sometimes. Also I know that people who are libertarians like the book, and park rangers and people who like to do things themselves and independent people and a lot of patriotic people sometimes say something about it, and I know that Thoreau is considered somewhat of a philosopher, at least enough that my parents would mistrust anything he had to say since it would obviously be outside of God’s divine plan.

I know Walden was a pond, or didn’t I know that before I read the jacket? I don’t know. I know something about, well I heard this thing at one point in my life I don’t know when but I’ve always thought about it and never done it, something about he avoided making a path to his door either purposefully or with his feet over time, because he thought that one should always be trying new roads and paths in order to experience life more broadly. That’s the general memory I have of someone saying something like that to me once that, if I don’t examine it, becomes sort of like a belief that I have about the book and about life in general, some background thought that affects my life in some unconscious, subtle way once in a while.

Well, I think that’s all I thought I knew about the book before I started reading. My general list of assumptions about the book.

I’m up to page thirty or something like that, where he’s talking about how cheaply he built his house in the woods and how expensive it is for the students of Cambridge College to be housed in less luxurious rooms and how they don’t even have the advantage of having built the place they are living in, and so cannot fully appreciate it. He’s talking about how people don’t learn anything. He says instead of a student taking a bunch of metalurgy classes, he should just go make his own knife by digging ore out of the ground and smelting it and so on. But instead his father buys him a knife and sends him to school and pays dearly for both with money and therefore with time spent earning the money and therefore with pieces of his life, all of which the student has no connection with and therefore benefits little.

Thoreau’s writing in this book is highly quotable, and it’s hard to feel like you’re getting everything he says because almost every sentence is memorable.

I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well.

I mean that right there is a great line. But the problem with that line is that it starts a thought that continues for four more lines, which are all bad ass, so it’s hard to remember how effective it is as a punchy one liner. Observe:

I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well. Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience. Moreover, I, on my side, require of every writer, first or last, a simple and sincere account of his own life, and not merely what he has heard of other men’s lives; some such account as he would sent to his kindred from a distant land; for if he has lived sincerely, it must have been in a distant land to me.

Alright and that’s on page one so…shit. At this point I’m thinking, this mother fucker is like thirty years old right now, writing like that. Talking about what he, on his side, requires of every writer. He thinks enough of himself to require some shit from another writer. I don’t know that shit is blowing my mind right now. It’s like I was thinking about Don Draper on Mad Men the other day, because I was catching up on the episodes, and I was thinking, that dude commands respect, he just is…well he’s just old. Like he’s not growing up. The thing too with that character is that he’s not grown up, he hasn’t figured life out at all, but then I guess you never do, but he just somehow acts like he has and why the fuck haven’t you? Stay out of my office with your childish crap. Hm but that’s just probably some weird connection that makes no sense, I’ll work on it.

Anyway he’s already talking about living sincerely, so that makes me think of Linus in the pumpkin patch, waiting for the great pumpkin, talking about how sincere is the pumpkin patch. And mother fuckers just aren’t sincere any more. Everyone is ironic and sarcastic and evasive. I sure as hell am. But anyway, I’ll continue.

The twelve labors of Hercules were trifling in comparison with those which my neighbors have undertaken; for they were only twelve, and had an end; but I could never see that these men slew or captured any monster or finished any labor. They have no friend Iolaus to burn with a hot iron the root of the hydra’s head, but as soon as one head is crushed, two spring up.

Alright now we’re only page two and this mother fucker is dropping it like it’s hot. He’s talking about the normal existence of old time industrial revolution slaves going to work every day and hating themselves, not accomplishing shit. And how well he writes, and for no one but himself, really. This is some journal type shit. I guess he was writing for the townspeople of New England. I don’t know. But I didn’t even know Iolaus had a name. See so we’re already learning some Greek shit up in here. I mean I guess most people know about the hydra, or learned about it sometime. The hydra had a million heads or something and Hercules was hacking away at them…shit you know what I just realized I only really know this story because I saw the cartoon movie Hercules. Ha! Shit. Fuck I should have paid attention in high school. Anyway, the more he chops this son of a bitch up the more heads come up and you’re like damn Herk that shit obviously ain’t going to work! So apparently this Iolaus mother fucker rolls up with a blow torch or a hot iron as it were and seals the heads as Hercules chopped them. But these poor townspeople got to go to work every day and move in the same way and all that like in a Charlie Chaplin movie.

Alright fuck, every line is gold so I’ll just randomly skip some of them.

How can he [humans] remember well his ignorance—which his growth requires—who has so often to use his knowledge?

So basically if you don’t have time for leisure because you’re always working on something then you’ll never realize that there are a lot of things which you have never thought of and only by thinking of those things can you grow…or at least you have to realize that you don’t know a lot before you know what you know…or something like that. Ah fuck it why am I trying to explain it, just read it again.

I definitely feel this next line. I used to tell my brothers about debt and how they should avoid it. I was like, well every time I spend a dollar on a coffee or something stupid, I’m stealing that dollar from my creditors, because I owe them more every month than I make. Thoreau says:

Some of you…are poor…I have no doubt that some of you who read this book are unable to pay for all the dinners which you have actually eaten, or for the coats and shoes which are fast wearing or are already worn out, and have come to this page to spend borrowed or stolen time, robbing your creditors of an hour. It is very evident what mean and sneaking lives many of you live…

Ha, and to continue with his description of the state of the world as he sees it in the common New Englander:

Talk of a divinity in man! Look at the teamster on the highway, wending to market by day or night; does any divinity stir within him? His highest duty to fodder and water his horses! What is his destiny to him compared with the shipping interests?

And then it gets really interesting as he starts to talk about people’s opinions of themselves. And here’s where I really relate to the text.

See how he cowers and sneaks, how vaguely all the day he fears, not being immortal nor divine, but the slave and prisoner of his own opinion of himself, a fame won by his own deeds. Public opinion is a weak tyrant compared with our own private opinion. What a man thinks of himself, that it is which determines, or rather indicates, his fate.

That’s a great one-liner in there, too, covered up by the genius of the whole description: Public opinion is a weak tyrant compared with our own private opinion. If I could just think of myself as being a good person, a nice person, a worthwhile person, which is how I act like I think of myself, well then life would just be better. Somehow I always thought you could just fake it till you make it. I’ve been told that a million times. Not happy? Smile, if you act happy, you’ll become happy.

Here there is also another connection to Don Draper (sorry, I’m obsessed with him. There was some article or TV clip my friend was telling me about last year that said, “I wish everyone would stop talking about their imaginary friend Don Draper.”). Draper is a big shot and no one would argue with that, but on the inside he’s still Dick Whitman and he hates himself for it. So in public he’s got it all, but he’s very unhappy because of his own private opinion of himself.

Then there’s another incredible line, which I can’t even comprehend at all but I know means something awesome:

As if you could kill time without injuring eternity.

As what’s her name would say in that one movie, “As if!” Well shit I just talked about that the other day, how if you had eternity you could kill a trillion years and still have the same amount of time left, which is just the opposite of this seriously legit one liner. Like I said, don’t really understand why not, I’ll keep thinking about it.

This is obviously too long now so I’ll leave it at that. And I’m up to page five. I’ll leave you with this:

It is never too late to give up our prejudices.

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