So this week was all about Walden, and its author, Henry David Thoreau.
Last time I read Walden was when I was a senior in high school. It wasn’t for a class–I picked it up on my own after getting interested in the play, “The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail,” a copy of which some college kid left at our house. But I didn’t read all of Walden. In fact, I only got through about the first 15 pages (pretty much what we read on Monday and Tuesday of this week) and immediately decided to take Thoreau’s advice: I stopped reading.
Walden is a very strange book for any kid to read, especially as an assigned reading in high school. The passage that stopped the young me in Thoreau’s tracks (so to speak) was this:
“I have lived some thirty years on this planet, and I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors.”
Yeah. Not “valuable,” and not even “earnest.” Not only are all the Oldie Olsen’s out there not only wrong, they don’t even have good intentions! But that’s exactly what makes this book strange–and never more so than when a teacher assigns students to read it. Thoreau is one of our seniors. If anything, Walden is a book of advice (or anti-advice, I suppose) handed down through the generations of “seniors” that the book itself warns us against.
Am I the only one that feels this is weird?
Maybe so, but it would make sense. See, I’m the teacher, which makes me the “seniorest” person in the classroom. Despite the fact that I put this book down when I first read it, now I’m forcing people to pick it up each day. It is frankly in my best interest as a teacher of a large class that students ignore this part (and many other parts) of the book, which just happens to include some of the most clear, direct, and forceful language Thoreau ever produced. It doesn’t leave much room for doubt.
Frankly, if class members really want to take Thoreau’s advice, they should probably leave school and go out into the wide world to have some genuine experiences by which they might learn and develop their own philosophy of life. But I don’t want anyone in the class to do that. I want them to stay sitting in our little, beige, windowless box of a room while we talk about living. I really must want that, because I’m the teacher, and that’s what teachers, and politicians, and celebrities, and even Mr. T, and a bunch of other “senior” people want kids to do, stay in school and all that…
Clearly, I’m conflicted. Re-reading Walden, this time more completely, I feel more completely conflicted then I ever have about our lifestyle and system of education in this country. There’s one thing for sure: It involves a lot of talking, most of which, even in the best of schools, is rather more “earnest” than “valuable.” I mean well when I go on talking to the class for hour after endless hour each week (and some students and parents have led me to believe this week, that I do indeed have the “gift of gab” even more this year than last), but Thoreau didn’t care too much for good intentions, and, I guess when it comes down to it, neither do I.
But I digress. Or rather, I get directly to the point–to a point which is not the one this blog post should focus on. I’m just going to take a deep breath (an objective observer might call it a “sigh”) and get to business describing a few details about Henry David Thoreau and our first investigations into the philosophical/religious/political/social set of ideas known as Transcendentalism.
My guess is that Henry David Thoreau was weirder than we think he was. It’s easy to look at his picture and with our modern eyes see him as kind of creepy looking. I mean, the under-chin beard…was that ever in? But that’s beside the point. His buddy Emerson, the suave, sophisticated schoolmaster of Transcendentalism, also thought that Thoreau was ugly, but that he had a kind of plainness that so fit his personality that it became a kind of beauty unto itself.
Anyway, Thoreau did some stuff. Check out the slides at the bottom of the post for a few notes about his life. The most important thing to know is that he was a contrarian and and individualist. His primary method of discovering what was good and bad in life was to try it all, and he considered social norms and the advice of his peers a distraction and a bother.
All of this explains why he decided in 1844 to move into the woods. Think about how weird this is, for just a second: If Thoreau had really wanted to go off on his own to re-invent life, the world, and everything, there was plenty of space in America to wander around and get lost. Instead of taking off for the West, though, he decides to squat on a neighbor’s land a mile from the town and people he had spent his whole life with.
I have a theory about this: Isn’t it , in fact, weirder and more isolating to separate yourself from everyone and everything you know while still living among them? In his way, Thoreau was a greater explorer of even stranger regions than the wiliest of trappers, Mountain Men, and Native American nomads. Thoreau was an explorer of the inside of things: At Walden, he went deep into his own brain–his assumptions, his culture, his morals, and his idea of society. While many other people were great explorers of the surface of the earth, Thoreau was a great explorer of that which lies under the surface of the mind.
And this explains a lot about Transcendentalism. In essence, nobody really knows what Transcendentalism is. In class, we figured out that the word literally means to “move up and out” of one state of being to another, “higher” state, whatever that might mean in the real world…. We know Thoreau focuses on certain topics. In fact, in class we made a list of the various aspects of life Thoreau talks about “transcending”: culture, self, civilization, conformity, etc. But the core ideas of Transcendentalism are still a mystery.
Actually, there’s a better way to put that: Mystery itself is the core idea of Transcendentalism. I have a saying of a Zen monk, Nansen, hanging on my wall that helps me understand this. It says:
The way does not belong to things seen nor to things unseen. It does not belong to things known nor to things unknown. Do not seek it, study it, or name it. To find yourself on it, open yourself as wide as the sky.
I don’t know if that’s New Age babble or whatever, but I think it sums up pretty nicely what Thoreau was up to out there at Walden. We’re going to spend some time over the next few days not seeking to “name” a lot about Transcendentalism, but rather to “open” ourselves and see if we find our selves on that path.
Download: Some insignificant details about Thoreau