NEO-THOREAU

18 Aug

henry-david-thoreau

Discussions of economics and making a living from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854):

SELLING AND AVOIDING THE NECESSITY OF SELLING

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“Not long since, a strolling Indian went to sell baskets at the house of a well-known lawyer in my neighborhood. “Do you wish to buy any baskets?” he asked. “No, we do not want any,” was the reply. “What!” exclaimed the Indian as he went out the gate, “do you mean to starve us?” Having seen his industrious white neighbors so well off—that the lawyer had only to weave arguments, and, by some magic, wealth and standing followed—he had said to himself: I will go into business; I will weave baskets; it is a thing which I can do. Thinking that when he had made the baskets he would have done his part, and then it would be the white man’s to buy them. He had not discovered that it was necessary for him to make it worth the other’s while to buy them, or at least make him think that it was so, or to make something else which it would be worth his while to buy. I too had woven a kind of basket of a delicate texture, but I had not made it worth any one’s while to buy them. Yet not the less, in my case, did I think it worth my while to weave them, and instead of studying how to make it worth men’s while to buy my baskets, I studied rather how to avoid the necessity of selling them. The life which men praise and regard as successful is but one kind. Why should we exaggerate any one kind at the expense of the others?”

GO UP GARRET AT ONCE

“This spending of the best part of one’s life earning money in order to enjoy a questionable liberty during the least valuable part of it reminds me of the Englishman who went to India to make a fortune first, in order that he might return to England and live the life of a poet. He should have gone up garret at once.”

CONSTRUCTING A TOMB FOR SOME AMBITIOUS BOOBY

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“It should not be by their architecture, but why not even by their power of abstract thought, that nations should seek to commemorate themselves? How much more admirable the Bhagvat-Geeta than all the ruins of the East! Towers and temples are the luxury of princes. A simple and independent mind does not toil at the bidding of any prince. Genius is not a retainer to any emperor, nor is its material silver, or gold, or marble, except to a trifling extent. To what end, pray, is so much stone hammered? In Arcadia, when I was there, I did not see any hammering stone. Nations are possessed with an insane ambition to perpetuate the memory of themselves by the amount of hammered stone they leave. What if equal pains were taken to smooth and polish their manners? One piece of good sense would be more memorable than a monument as high as the moon… As for the Pyramids, there is nothing to wonder at in them so much as the fact that so many men could be found degraded enough to spend their lives constructing a tomb for some ambitious booby, whom it would have been wiser and manlier to have drowned in the Nile, and then given his body to the dogs.”

BURN THE OLD TRUMPERY

Batman89Vandalism

“As usual, a great proportion was trumpery which had begun to accumulate in his father’s day. Among the rest was a dried tapeworm. And now, after lying half a century in his garret and other dust holes, these things were not burned; instead of a bonfire, or purifying destruction of them, there was an auction, or increasing of them. The neighbors eagerly collected to view them, bought them all, and carefully transported them to their garrets and dust holes, to lie there till their estates are settled, when they will start again. When a man dies he kicks the dust. The customs of some savage nations might, perchance, be profitably imitated by us, for they at least go through the semblance of casting their slough annually; they have the idea of the thing, whether they have the reality or not. Would it not be well if we were to celebrate such a “busk,” or “feast of first fruits,” as Bartram describes to have been the custom of the Mucclasse Indians? “When a town celebrates the busk,” says he, “having previously provided themselves with new clothes, new pots, pans, and other household utensils and furniture, they collect all their worn out clothes and other despicable things, sweep and cleanse their houses, squares, and the whole town of their filth, which with all the remaining grain and other old provisions they cast together into one common heap, and consume it with fire. After having taken medicine, and fasted for three days, all the fire in the town is extinguished. During this fast they abstain from the gratification of every appetite and passion whatever. A general amnesty is proclaimed; all malefactors may return to their town.” “On the fourth morning, the high priest, by rubbing dry wood together, produces new fire in the public square, from whence every habitation in the town is supplied with the new and pure flame.” They then feast on the new corn and fruits, and dance and sing for three days, “and the four following days they receive visits and rejoice with their friends from neighboring towns who have in like manner purified and prepared themselves.”

FOR THOSE WHO THINK THEY HAVE NO CHOICE BUT TO TEACH

“I have thoroughly tried school-keeping, and found that my expenses were in proportion, or rather out of proportion, to my income, for I was obliged to dress and train, not to say think and believe, accordingly, and I lost my time into the bargain. As I did not teach for the good of my fellow-men, but simply for a livelihood, this was a failure… I was actually afraid that I might by that time be doing what is called a good business.”

THE FORSAKING OF WORKS

“I grew in those seasons like corn in the night, and they were far better than any work of the hands would have been. They were not time subtracted from my life, but so much over and above my usual allowance. I realized what the Orientals mean by contemplation and the forsaking of works. For the most part, I minded not how the hours went. The day advanced as if to light some work of mine; it was morning, and lo, now it is evening, and nothing memorable is accomplished… I had this advantage, at least, in my mode of life, over those who were obliged to look abroad for amusement, to society and the theatre, that my life itself was become my amusement and never ceased to be novel.”

DIRTY INSTITUTIONS

EvilTwins

“But, wherever a man goes, men will pursue and paw him with their dirty institutions, and, if they can, constrain him to belong to their desperate odd-fellow society. It is true, I might have resisted forcibly with more or less effect, might have run “amok” against society; but I preferred that society should run “amok” against me, it being the desperate party.”

TOLERATING DULLNESS AMID INCESSANT INFLUXES OF NOVELTY

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“There is an incessant influx of novelty into the world, and yet we tolerate incredible dullness. I need only suggest what kind of sermons are still listened to in the most enlightened countries.”

To temper some of the rampant idealism on display here and to remind you of the compromises most creative people have to make, you could also bear in mind that not only was Thoreau thoroughly pragmatic in real life but also:

His cabin, far from being out in the wilderness, was on land that belonged to the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson and (as Thoreau mentions with occasional irritation in the book) frequently received planned visits by local people, or curious investigations by passing randoms. Furthermore, the cabin was fairly close to where Thoreau’s mother lived.

Walden was mostly ignored during Thoreau’s lifetime.

To make ends meet he worked in his family’s pencil factory for a large part of his adult life.

All of these facts have been used as ad hominem attacks to dismiss the significance of what he wrote– as they were and are used against others, AKA “you don’t (can’t) completely follow your own philosophy, therefore what you say is invalid”– but the truth is that virtually anybody who manages to maintain any kind of creative practice has probably done it by making a lot of compromises and sacrifices. We should all still go up garret at once, if we can.

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One Response to “NEO-THOREAU”

  1. Alistair 26/08/2015 at 2:11 PM #

    Reblogged this on Alistair Gentry.

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