John Pistelli


“Wash Your Windows”: A Note on Thoreau and the Prejudices of the Present Day

Virginia Woolf, celebrating Henry David Thoreau’s centenary in 1917:

Few people, it is safe to say, take such an interest in themselves as Thoreau took in himself; for if we are gifted with an intense egoism we do our best to suffocate it in order to live on decent terms with our neighbours. We are not sufficiently sure of ourselves to break completely with the established order. This was Thoreau’s adventure; his books are the record of that experiment and its results. He did everything he could to intensify his own understanding of himself, to foster whatever was peculiar, to isolate himself from contact with any force that might interfere with his immensely valuable gift of personality. It was his sacred duty, not to himself alone but to the world; and a man is scarcely an egoist who is an egoist on so grand a scale, a sense of beholding life through a very powerful magnifying glass. To walk, to eat, to cut up logs, to read a little, to watch the bird on the bough, to cook one’s dinner – all these occupations when scraped clean and felt afresh prove wonderfully large and bright. The common things are so strange, the usual sensations so astonishing that to confuse or waste them by living with the herd and adopting habits that suit the greater number is a sin – an act of sacrilege. What has civilisation to give, how can luxury improve upon these simple facts? ‘Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!’ is his cry. ‘Instead of three meals a day, if it be necessary eat but one; instead of a hundred dishes, five; and reduce other things in proportion.’

But the reader may ask, what is the value of simplicity? Is Thoreau’s simplicity simplicity for its own sake, and not rather a method of intensification, a way of setting free the delicate and complicated machinery of the soul, so that its results are the revere of simple? The most remarkable men tend to discard luxury because they find that it hampers the play of what is much more valuable to them. Thoreau himself was an extremely complex human being, and he certainly did not achieve simplicity by living for two years in a hut and cooking his own dinner. His achievement was rather to lay bare what was within him – to let life take its own way unfettered by artificial constraints. ‘I do not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise recognition, unless it was quite necessary, I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life…’ Walden – all his books, indeed – are packed with subtle, conflicting, and very fruitful discoveries. They are not written to prove something in the end. They are written as the Indians turn down twigs to mark their path through the forest. He cuts his way through life as if no one had ever taken that road before, leaving these signs for those who come after, should they care to see which way he went. But he did not wish to leave ruts behind him, and to follow is not an easy process. We can never lull our attention asleep in reading Thoreau by the certainty that we have now grasped his theme and can trust our guide to be consistent. We must always be ready to try something fresh…

My emphasis. Offered as a counter to this moralized and politicized anti-Thoreau essay by Kathryn Schulz. (I’ll praise whoever came up with the amusingly insulting title for the piece, though.) Schulz’s thesis may be uncharitably but not too imprecisely reduced to “Thoreau seems admirable, but, really, he’s more like a Republican than a Democrat.” She claims that Thoreau was insufficiently sympathetic to other people (true enough) and that he was dishonest in not revealing the extent of his dependency on others (this has a grain of truth, but here matters are more complex: he was not denying the existence of society, but constructing a literary artifice to demonstrate the texture of its absence). Schulz also has a point-scoring and point-missing insistence on observing “contradictions” in a writer whose playful style, whose whole cast of mind, aims at evading the impasses of binary logic and seeking higher syntheses, the union of opposites, an endeavor in which he found support in Chinese and Indian thought. Schulz does not mention Thoreau’s multiculturalism, because it would support a more “liberal” reading of the author than she cares to promote, and because it would imply some of the problems posed for liberalism by multiculturalism itself, which, if pursued honestly, may reveal that most human cultures have not been terribly sympathetic to the ideologies of democratic statism and technocracy.

Thoreau is not “one of us,” but that may be more, rather than less, reason to value him. Michael West, the professor who guided my own undergraduate American literature course through the riddling labyrinth of Walden, wrote the following about Thoreau in his magisterial Transcendental Wordplay:

Despite Thoreau’s reputation as the patron saint of civil disobedience, Walden‘s skeptical view of social reform is rather less congenial to his modern disciples than many would like to imagine. Of course, it is natural enough that an author whose “pages are . . . particularly addressed to poor students” (p. 4) should be somewhat ineptly interpreted, especially on campus barricades. Nonetheless, this is a pity, for his main objection to charity—that “we should impart our courage, and not our despair, our health and ease, and not our disease”—is founded upon values of more persistent relevance than might at first appear to the orthodox liberal imagination. Believing that “this sickly preaching of love, and . . . sympathy . . . is the dyspepsia of the soul” (31 Dec. 1840), Thoreau attacks all forms of softness as part of his larger effort to reanimate the heroic ethos of classical antiquity. No English writer since Milton and Pope has more assiduously sought to adapt the Greco-Roman ideal of nobility to modern culture.

The Greco-Roman ideal, if we can speak in such generalities, tended to see the human world as enfolded wholly within natural rhythms and bounded by natural constraints. (This is as opposed to the Judeo-Christian view, which originates a “progressive” way of thinking, imagining the human world made for humans in something like human terms.) Woolf, in her eulogy, goes on to note that Thoreau was a man of a certain type, an essential lover of nature:

He was made differently from other people. […] He was a wild man, and he would never submit to be a tame one. And for us here lies his peculiar charm. He hears a different drummer. He is a man into whom nature has breathed other instincts than ours, to whom she has whispered, one may guess, some of her secrets.

I am not even a great admirer of Thoreau’s, to be honest. I am a city person. I mostly hate and fear nature, unless it is suitably domesticated and aestheticized such that it may produce the city as pastoral (in this, I think, I am akin to Woolf, whose most famous heroine exuberantly traipses the sidewalks through the crowds on her way to buy flowers). But I am glad there is the extraordinary literary testimony of a very different kind of sensibility from my own. Even if that sensibility is ideologically repellent to me—though there is more to be said for Thoreau’s anti-statism than Schulz acknowledges—I am happy to have the opportunity to experience it and thereby to understand it through the multiple conveyances, sensual and intellectual, of superb writing.

To go beyond Schulz’s piece, I am struck by a quality of quasi-eliminationalism in the moralized and politicized critiques of today. Cloaked in a rhetoric of sympathy and even diversity, a coercive sociality, centered on the ideology of the liberal state, countenances the co-existence of no alternatives. But it does not allow people and their works enough autonomy to justify its claim to sympathy (which requires genuine otherness—a word it is foolish to define exhaustively in terms of gender and race—with which to sympathize), and, under the cover of diversity, it seems to promote a commercial monoculture against any and all traditions resistant to universal and constant market participation. In this view, not coming to the marketplace, or even trying to ameliorate its cultural effects from within (by selling an anti-commercial book, for example), is characterized as a kind of oppressive unkindness at worst or stupid hypocrisy at best. Thoreau understood that this totalizing social potential is deep in the American character, which is at once liberal, capitalist, and Puritan, an unholy God-Mammon alliance. Therefore, I find his protests not outdated but prophetic and relevant. Even if I didn’t, though, I would still think it useful to have some beautifully expressed books in my library to show my mind something other than its own reflection. From “Life Without Principle”:

I hardly know an intellectual man, even, who is so broad and truly liberal that you can think aloud in his society. Most with whom you endeavor to talk soon come to a stand against some institution in which they appear to hold stock—that is, some particular, not universal, way of viewing things. They will continually thrust their own low roof, with its narrow skylight, between you and the sky, when it is the unobstructed heavens you would view. Get out of the way with your cobwebs; wash your windows, I say!


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