Sophie Pollitt-Cohen writes:
Sunday August 9th 2009 is the 156th anniversary of Thoreau’s Walden being published. “But I read that in high school and hated it,” I hear you say. (I have very good ears.) “It’s a bitter guy talking about beans for three hundred pages. Walden is the worst.”
False. You think Walden is the worst because you were in high school, and everything is the worst when you are in high school. I would like to revisit what I consider one of the most important things to take away from Walden, besides a commemorative lamp: the importance of questioning the inherent. That means questioning all the things you dismiss as inevitable, beyond your control, natural—from who makes your clothes (and why we’re even buying new clothes in the first place) and schools to who makes your ideas.
“Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes,” he writes, “and not rather a new wearer of clothes.” Clothes are a way we can tell who is in charge and who is not. (Or, as Twain would say, “Clothes make the man.”) “It is an interesting question how far men would retain their relative rank if they were divested of their clothes.” Clothes, he points out, are often unnecessary for survival, but they are integral for separating groups of people. (Twain felt similarly. In A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, for example, Hank, the dressed down American, wins a jousting match because he is nearly naked, so he is faster than his opponents who are weighed down by heavy armor. Also, he has a gun.) What’s more, “clothes introduced sewing, a kind of work which you may call endless; a woman’s dress, at least, is never done.”
Thoreau feared the separation of head and hands—when the thinkers and buyers get too distant from the builders and products, it seems less and less relevant how goods are made and how we buy them. We indirectly support things by spending our money. In Civil Disobedience, which he wrote from prison, he says, “The soldier is applauded who refuses to serve in an unjust war by those who do not refuse to sustain the unjust government which makes the war.” I am not ready to go to jail—and I love public schools and roads and firemen—but Thoreau’s stress on knowing where your money goes still matters.
While we are following the path of our products, we must also trace the path of our ideas. Who decided that certain truths were self evident, certain ways of thinking are simply common sense, certain things reasonable? These ideas were created by people, and we must be extremely careful what we find we have resigned ourselves to. He asks, “Why level downward to our dullest perception always, and praise that as common sense? The commonest sense is the sense of men asleep, which they express by snoring.”
Edgar Allen Poe had characters that buried each other alive or walled each other up brick by brick. If you should find yourself in a Poe story, don’t trust anyone, because they might be insane. In Thoreau’s world, you can’t even trust yourself—not because we are crazy, but because we consider ourselves reasonable. We do not question what it means in our world to be reasonable. We wall ourselves up and imprison ourselves with the inherent. “Men have become the tools of their tools,” and the railroad rides on us.
Thoreau’s own advice might help you enjoy his book more—“Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written.” (That includes online essays too. I worked hard on this one.) On this August 9th, I hope you can revisit Walden—reading slowly. Let it help you revisit your common sense. The basketball coach Phil Jackson once said, “Not only is there more to life than basketball, there’s a lot more to basketball than basketball.” My professor Joel Pfister used tos say, “There’s a lot more to life than literature, but there’s also a lot more to literature than literature.” And there is a lot more to Walden than beans.