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'So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information.' ― George Orwell

Category: Philosophy

Henry David Thoreau – a consideration

Walden Pond

My article in The Irish Times.

For someone who worshipped trees, the writer Henry David Thoreau certainly made good use of them: his journal, increasingly thought to be his most important work, ran to two million words, collated across 24 years in 14 volumes. There’s also a sweet irony in that Thoreau came from a family that accrued its wealth through pencil manufacturing, for Henry was often accused of “swinging the lead” in the worst possible sense when it came to his own life.

Last year was the bicentennial of Thoreau’s birth, resulting in a number of new titles on one of the giants of the American literary canon. There is a new biography Henry David Thoreau – A Life by Laura Dassow Walls (University of Chicago Press), while more targeted takes on the author of Walden come in the forms of The Boatman – Henry David Thoreau’s River Years by Robert M Thorson (Harvard University Press) and Thoreau and the Language of Trees by Richard Higgins (University of California Press).

Up to now, any consideration of Thoreau’s life has usually been poured through a mystical sieve. Anyone with a passing familiarity of Thoreau will think of a hermetic, ascetic environmental philosopher who penned Walden, that great work on nature and the self and its related ideas of regrounding, renewal and rebirth. This is a decent transcription of the most important loop of the writer’s life. But there’s much more to Thoreau, and what we already know is not always read in the proper light either – something that Dassow Walls strives to put right in her excellent biography.

Living at Walden Pond gave rise to the notion of Thoreau leading a hermetic life. But this supposition can be debunked by the fact that the only time he lived alone was the two years he spent at this now world-famous landmark (Thoreau’s was a short life, dying aged 44 of TB). The charge of seclusion from society can be thrown out, too, as Dassow Walls describes Thoreau’s large social circle of fellow pioneers, some closer to him than others: (erstwhile mentor) Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Frederick Douglass, Walt Whitman, Margaret Fuller and John Brown, the sheep herder-surveyor who tried to form an army to counter pro-slavery insurgents who were forcibly taking control of the government of Kansas. The book also outlines Thoreau’s many trips to Boston, New York City, Canada and other places; how he would give regular lectures; speak publicly against slavery; spend time with Native American families; protest against unjust taxes (Thoreau thought a man’s duty is to break any law that’s immoral). He also, earlier in life, set up a school with his brother John based on progressive ideals, while being a skilled handyman meant Thoreau was constantly helping friends and family around his hometown of Concord. If “reclusiveness” shares such richness to society, then perhaps we should all utilise our great genius for staying at home.

 

Thoreau encountered plenty of Irish people during his lifetime. There were the famous encounters in Walden (which we shall not spoil for new readers by mentioning here) and due to the railroad expansion through Concord he met many families who arrived in town seeking work. His friends and family fretted over the Irish invasion of workers, but Thoreau soon rebuked them, saying: “The sturdy Irish arms that do the work are of more worth than oak or maple. Methinks I could look with equanimity upon a long street of Irish cabins and pigs and children revelling in the genial Concord dirt, and I should find my Walden wood and Fair Haven in their tanned and happy faces.”

Thoreau also happened to be at Cape Cod when, in nearby Cohasset, the famine ship St John, sailing from Galway, had foundered in heavy seas and high winds, breaking on the rocks just south of Boston in 1849. Only 23 of the 120 onboard were rescued and later Thoreau would use these unforgettable scenes to open his book Cape Cod after his visit to the disaster site. As he came to know the three generations of the Riordan family who settled in his home town, Thoreau wondered if they were living his ideals better than he was – dirt poor, yes, but living independent lives on the land, with little regard for “Yankee markers of success”.

Ever railing against injustice, Henry also intervened after hearing that Kerryman Mick Flannery won a spading contest at a county fair, only to see his boss claim the prize money. Thoreau drafted a petition collecting money to make up for the theft, while he also went door-to-door to raise the 50 dollars needed to bring Flannery’s family from Ireland, lending much of the money himself.

Thoreau – A Life is a brilliant, big-hearted, definitive and sympathetic biography that carries the original nature boy through a time of considerable flux in American life. It helpfully carries the reader to a different shore, too, for a refreshed view of this otherworldly, and yet truly American, writer and visionary. The writing always keeps a lightness of touch, yet is constantly weighted with scholarly research. Mirroring Thoreau’s eternal symbol of Walden Pond, Dassow Walls presents the reader with the strange, beautiful ripples of Thoreau’s personality that makes his life so fascinating, while at the same time she plumbs the documents of his journals, books, and letters to dredge up new ideas on his thinking and motivations. She is a confessed Thoreauvian, and this rewarding book is a testament to her, and its sometimes-maligned subject.

An idea Richard Higgins is keen to emphasise in his book is Thoreau’s – and our – relationship with trees. Readers of Walden are already aware that Thoreau held an unwavering faith in nature, and found solace in trying to comprehend his place within it. Thoreau realised that we sit within nature’s embrace, not the other way around; as though nature were mere window dressing to our everyday lives. He studied the fragility of nature, but was also aware of its force, and how it could consign humanity to the dustbin of extinction if need be. Thoreau watched the natural world as a realm of time, and as Higgins points out in this engaging book, he trusted his instincts: “we will sooner overtake the dawn by remaining here, where we are, than by chasing the sun across the western hills,” Thoreau observed.

 

From reading this book it is easy to imagine that Thoreau loved trees more than humans – to begin with, he believed trees did their duty more than his fellow citizens. “Thank God they (humans) cannot cut down the clouds,” he once wrote despairingly. This symbiotic love of his sylvan surroundings goes some way in explaining why some commentators now write him off as a crank; they view his abiding affection for nature as unhealthy, misanthropic. But his love of trees allows us to see his environmental prescience: he was writing of trees as purifiers of air and fountains of water long before terms like carbon sinks, or the word ecology even, were understood or defined. (Incidentally, Thoreau used the term “nature’s economy” in his writing.)

Writing on trees requires a special talent to make the subject come alive: Thoreau achieved this with aplomb, but Higgins’ prose sometimes fails to deliver. In compensation the book contains a number of impressive photographs of Henry’s “local world”, taken either by Higgins or from the historic plates of Herbert Wendell Gleason. It is a book to savour lightly and slowly, just as the subject himself might have prescribed.

Thoreau’s river years are covered in The Boatman, which is an admirable book, if less enjoyable compared with the others due to the narrowness of the subject and its academic anchor of style. Nevertheless, Robert M Thorson keeps his approach breezy enough to carry the reader downstream, and if the central current is a thin one, the author still manages to give a clear direction of Thoreau’s life and his links to the local waterways of Concord River Valley.

Inspiration for the title came from Thoreau’s file map of the Concord River – it runs seven feet in length – which he drafted a few years before his death in 1862. Emerson described Thoreau’s passion for the waterways in a letter: “Henry T Occupies himself with the history of the river, measures it, weighs it, and strains it through a colander of all eternity.” The Boatman leaves Thoreau’s woody persona on the shore without regret, and instead gets the reader’s feet wet with forensically detailed adventures in “Henry T” country.

Thoreau went to Walden Pond to live life on his own terms, and he wrote Walden in order to show the rest of us that it could be done. These books add worthy voices to the intention. Finding the opportunity to read the many titles on Thoreau is something to ponder all the same. In Dassow Walls’ selected bibliography there are 16 pages of writing linked to the writer-philosopher. How to find the time? We may need our own Walden after all.

 

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Made for a sunny summer Sunday 


The Russian Soul: Selections from a Writer’s Diary by Fyodor Dostoevsky/Rosamund Bartlett

(Notting Hill Editions)

Henry David Thoreau – A Life by Laura Dassow Walls 

(University of Chicago Press)

The Boatman – Henry David Thoreau’s River Years by Robert M. Thorson 

(Harvard University Press)

Thoreau and the Language of Trees by Richard Higgins 

(University of California Press)

Two hundred years since the birth of Henry David Thoreau. Fyodor Dostoevsky isn’t far behind him; the bicentennial of his birth is in 2021. I’m looking forward to starting these, and hope to review them soon enough. Chapeau to the publishers!

Czesław Miłosz

 

‘Death is endowed with the supreme authority of Law and universal necessity, while man is reduced to nothing, to a bundle of perceptions or even less, to an interchangeable statistical unit. But poetry by its very essence has always been on the side of LIFE.’

Babe Ruth

‘I hit big or I miss big. I like to live life as best as I can.’

 ‘Putting a factory on stage will tell you nothing about capitalism.’

Return ticket

Warrior Universe by John Hoyland

You could say that god got his own back on me somewhat. The other day I had been travelling on a plane, train and auto-mobile journey, so for reading material I had finally gotten started on ‘The God Delusion’ by Richard Dawkins.  The book is well written and vividly engaging: it’s accessible and well-informed and it is also surprisingly funny for such an abstract subject.

The last laugh was not mine however.

On the last leg of the epic trip, the bus broke down due to an over-heating engine. We were in the middle of nowhere. It was wintry, desolate and pitch black outside. Inside the bus, there was no power and consequently no reading light. So I had to close my book and look at the stars.

And darkness was upon the face of the deep.

The moment made me think of Dostoyevsky’s line in ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ too:

It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return Him the ticket.

Albert Camus centenary [1913-1960]

Albert Camus and and his twin children, Catherine and Jean [1946]

‘I speak for no one: I have enough difficulty speaking for myself. I am no one’s guide. I don’t know, or I only know dimly, where I am headed.’

Always worth re-reading: Bertrand Russell on Civil Disobedience

Bertrand Russell addresses a rally to support nuclear disarmament in Trafalgar Square, London [February 1961]. Photograph by Cleland Rimmer/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

There are two different kinds of conscientious civil disobedience. There is disobedience to a law specifically commanding an action which some people profoundly believe to be wicked. The most important example of this case in our time is conscientious objection. This, however, is not the kind of civil disobedience which is now in question.

The second kind of civil disobedience, which is the one that I wish to consider, is its employment with a view to causing a change in the law or in public policy. In this aspect, it is a means of propaganda, and there are those who consider that it is an undesirable kind. Many, however, of whom I am one, think it to be now necessary.

Many people hold that law-breaking can never be justified in a democracy, though they concede that under any other form of government it may be a duty. The victorious governments, after the Second World War, reprobated, and even punished, Germans for not breaking the law when the law commanded atrocious actions. I do not see any logic which will prove either that a democratic government cannot command atrocious actions or that, if it does, it is wrong to disobey its commands.

Democratic citizens are for the most part busy with their own affairs and cannot study difficult questions with any thoroughness. Their opinions are formed upon such information as is easily accessible, and the Authorities can, and too often do, see to it that such information is misleading. When I speak of the Authorities, I do not think only of the politicians, whether in office or in opposition, but equally their technical advisers, the popular press, broadcasting and television and, in the last resort, the police. These forces are, at present, being used to prevent the democracies of Western countries from knowing the truth about nuclear weapons. The examples are so numerous that a small selection must suffice.

I should advise optimists to study the report of the committee of experts appointed by the Ohio State University to consider the likelihood of accidental war, and also the papers by distinguished scientists in the proceedings of the Pugwash Conferences. Mr Oskar Morgenstern, a politically orthodox American defence expert, in an article reprinted inSurvival, says: “The probability of thermonuclear war’s occurring appears to be significantly larger than the probability of its not occurring.” Sir Charles Snow says: “Speaking as responsibly as I can, within, at the most, ten years from now, some of those bombs are going off. That is the certainty.” (TheTimes, 28 December 1960.) The last two include intended as well as accidental wars.

The causes of unintended war are numerous and have already on several occasions very nearly resulted in disaster. The moon and flights of geese have been mistaken for Russian missiles. Nevertheless, not long ago, the Prime Minister, with pontifical dogmatism, announced that there will be no war by accident. Whether he believed what he said, I do not know. If he did, he is ignorant of things which it is his duty to know. If he did not believe what he said, he was guilty of the abominable crime of luring mankind to its extinction by promoting groundless hopes.

Take, again, the question of British unilateralism. There is an entirely sober case to be made for this policy, but the misrepresentations of opponents, who command the main organs of publicity, have made it very difficult to cause this case to be known. For example, the labour correspondent of one of the supposedly most liberal of the daily papers wrote an article speaking of opposition to unilateralism as “the voice of sanity”. I wrote a letter in reply, arguing that, on the contrary, sanity was on the side of the unilateralists and hysteria on the side of their opponents. This the newspaper refused to print. Other unilateralists have had similar experiences.

Or consider the question of American bases in Britain. Who knows that within each of them there is a hard kernel consisting of the airmen who can respond to an alert and are so highly trained that they can be in the air within a minute or two? This kernel is kept entirely isolated from the rest of the camp, which is not admitted to it. It has its own mess, dormitories, libraries, cinemas, etc, and there are armed guards to prevent other Americans in the base camp from having access to it. Every month or two, everybody in it, including the Commander, is flown back to America and replaced by a new group. The men in this inner kernel are allowed almost no contact with the other Americans in the base camp and no contact whatever with any of the inhabitants of the neighbourhood.

It seems clear that the whole purpose is to keep the British ignorant and to preserve, among the personnel of the kernel, that purely mechanical response to orders and propaganda for which the whole of their training is designed. Moreover, orders to this group do not come from the Commandant, but direct from Washington. To suppose that at a crisis the British government can have any control over the orders sent from Washington is pure fantasy. It is obvious that at any moment orders might be sent from Washington which would lead to reprisals by the Soviet forces and to the extermination of the population of Britain within an hour.

The situation of these kernel camps seems analogous to that of the Polaris submarines. It will be remembered that the Prime Minister said that there would be consultation between the US and the UK governments before a Polaris missile is fired, and that the truth of his statement was denied by the US government. All this, however, is unknown to the non-political public.

To make known the facts which show that the life of every inhabitant of Britain, old and young, man, woman and child, is at every moment in imminent danger and that this danger is caused by what is mis-named defence and immensely aggravated by every measure which governments pretend will diminish it – to make this known has seemed to some of us an imperative duty which we must pursue with whatever means are at our command. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament has done and is doing valuable and very successful work in this direction, but the press is becoming used to its doings and beginning to doubt their news value. It has therefore seemed to some of us necessary to supplement its campaign by such actions as the press is sure to report.

There is another, and perhaps even more important reason, for the practice of civil disobedience in this time of utmost peril. There is a very widespread feeling that the individual is impotent against governments, and that, however bad their policies may be, there is nothing effective that private people can do about it. This is a complete mistake. If all those who disapprove of government policy were to join in massive demonstrations of civil disobedience, they could render governmental folly impossible and compel the so-called statesmen to acquiesce in measures that would make human survival possible. Such a vast movement, inspired by outraged public opinion, is possible; perhaps it is imminent. If you join it, you will be doing something important to preserve your family, friends, compatriots, and the world.

An extraordinarily interesting case which illustrates the power of the Establishment, at any rate in America, is that of Claude Eatherly, who dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. His case also illustrates that in the modern world it often happens that only by breaking the law can a man escape from committing atrocious crimes. He was not told what the bomb would do and was utterly horrified when he discovered the consequences of his act. He has devoted himself throughout many years to various kinds of civil disobedience with a view to calling attention to the atrocity of nuclear weapons and to expiating the sense of guilt which, if he did not act, would weigh him down. The Authorities have decided that he is to be considered mad, and a board of remarkably conformist psychiatrists has endorsed that official view.

Eatherly is repentant and certified: Truman is unrepentant and uncertified. I have seen a number of Eatherly’s statements explaining his motives. These statements are entirely sane. But such is the power of mendacious publicity that almost everyone, including myself, believed that he had become a lunatic. In our topsy-turvy world those who have power of life and death over the whole human species are able to persuade almost the whole population of the countries which nominally enjoy freedom of the press that any man who considers the preservation of human life a thing of value must be mad. I shall not be surprised if my last years are spent in a lunatic asylum – where I shall enjoy the company of all who are capable of feelings of humanity.

It Is Always Now – Sam Harris

Pause

Charles Darwin’s Study

 

“For after all, the best thing one can do when it is raining is let it rain” – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow 

Consider a cup of coffee. How happy does it make you, the first cup of the day especially? It is a simple combination of beans and hot water, yet its simplicity gives us infinite pleasure. Our first cup in the morning after getting out of bed is akin to the midwife’s slap of the newborn baby entering this big, bold world from the snug sanctuary of the mother’s womb; we need it.

Yes, I know the groan-inducing argument about caffeine being a drug – perhaps we drinkers do so in order to stifle our yawns – however it is unlikely that a coffee lover will overdose on fresh ground (its sheer richness will have you a bit punchy after your fourth cup) or start ransacking granny flats to fund their next double espresso.

A mere cup of coffee is one of life’s simple pleasures.

Of course, the simple pleasures in life is a well-worn cliché by now, however it does embody a fundamental truth about our happiness – if I asked you to make a list of the things, within everyday parameters naturally, that give you contentment, what would they be?

I have thought about this and it does not take much for a man or woman to live contentedly, even when we consider the obvious and insurmountable burden that is money; in many cases, one has more than enough, depending on what one desires, of course. But leaving our relationship with money to one side for the moment, I’ve listed some of the things that allow me to potter on happily from the moment I rise in the morning – and they all have one thing in common: simplicity.

Firstly, a somewhat ascetic breakfast: porridge with banana and honey. This is usually accompanied with a pot of tea or coffee, although the price variation between the two drinks is absurd when one thinks about it; a bag of coffee is the same price as a box of tea, the bean lasting little more than a week, while the leaf can last a steady tea slurper several weeks. Coffee in the Croke Patrick fashion: nothing fancy added, while always milk with tea, no sugar.

Next on the list is the radio: such a little box of joyous pleasure and discovery. For something so inanimate, it brings so much into our lives, be it news, classical music, sport, BBC World Service etc. At times the radio can feel like the company of a warm, wonderful and wise human being. Usually I flick for the various headlines in the morning, then dip into a news programme if it is worth listening to, otherwise the sounds of RTE’s Lyric FM or Classic FM are called upon to ease one into the day. After you have washed and dressed, listening to classical music in the morning can rebuild you piece by piece, little by little. It is strange, but as one gets older, appreciation of classical music bursts open like a newfound, fresh-water well.

Perhaps there is a symbiotic relationship between our mortality and classical music’s immortality. For example, I have had to stop typing this to listen to Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G, which was playing in the background. It is sublime and a sweet moment snatched from the day already.

Other things on the list – newspapers, magazines, and journals to leaf through while drinking my first cup of coffee of the day: New York Review of Books, New Statesman, The Economist, The Atlantic, The Dublin Review, Literary Review, The New Yorker, The Paris Review.

Tea’s up

Newspapers tend to be bought in bulk at the weekend, unless I’m out and about first thing in the morning. I find papers bought during the week keep me from reading books and as the cheeky saying goes, if you want to know little about a lot, read newspapers, but if you want to know a lot about something, read books.

On my second cup of coffee, I enjoy standing at the back door for a while, looking at the newly scrubbed scene and listening to the sounds of the day, as the natural world’s dial is gradually turned up: birds chirping, someone brushing a yard, children playing, even the rushed sound of the city can be enjoyed from one’s back door – movement and stillness in co-existence is a state of consciousness to enjoy, if you are in the latter category.

At these times, I am somewhat envious of the regular smoker, for they have the liberty of the pause. The non-smoker does not have that tiny opening to stop and listen, unless they force themselves to do so. It is, I think, why smokers have such fraternal instincts towards one another; it is not just the smoke, it is the ritual, the pause. The smoke is a simple thing but walls of separation crumble easily between strangers who smoke; they suck in a hit of humanity and exhale a breath of brotherhood. One sees this in the smoking areas of pubs, but we can also look at how down the ages smoking offered a modicum of amity for soldiers in battle.

Smoking remains a communion for the secular age.

But I digress. Getting back to my list, another requirement is good quality notebooks and a batch of sturdy pencils to scribble ideas, good, bad and indifferent. I always found keeping a diary too much of a chore, with feelings of guilt for leaving it empty; foresaid pages would then inevitably be filled with humdrum detail that should never have been written, never mind the idea of them being read. But notebooks at hand can be used to thrown down the odd kernel of thought and see if something larger grows from it.

To be truly content, one ideally should have an open fire and be surrounded by lots of books: scores of them, with four or five on the go at the one time, strewn across the floor usually. The strange thing about this style of reading is that at times it leaves me feeling I haven’t read a book in a long time – but of course the water is being pumped, even if the line does not appear to be moving to the eye. Poetry books lying around to be picked up at any time, collections of essays where one can paddle for ten minutes or two hours and coffee table collections on Cézanne and Miró, which can add light to the greyest winter day.

Finally, all that needs to be said about the requirement of my music collection is that it has the same purpose as the air I breathe, whereas a mini-list of wine, cheeses, whiskey, cigars and smoked salmon sit a little to one side of the necessities column: they are not essential to live, but for a man to truly live, they are essential.

* I realise I am writing this on my blog, so that poses the question about the Internet being added to the list. The answers are probably a take it, or leave it. I can say that I enjoy using the web, but if I had to live without it tomorrow, as I have done before for long periods, then I would not be terribly upset. For one thing, I would get a lot more reading and writing done and that is not a bad pay-off.

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