Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Pond Scum

Kathryn Schulz has a terrific essay in the New Yorker about what a misanthropic jerk Henry David Thoreau was, with the amazing title “Pond Scum.”
The real Thoreau was, in the fullest sense of the word, self-obsessed: narcissistic, fanatical about self-control, adamant that he required nothing beyond himself to understand and thrive in the world. From that inward fixation flowed a social and political vision that is deeply unsettling. It is true that Thoreau was an excellent naturalist and an eloquent and prescient voice for the preservation of wild places. But Walden is less a cornerstone work of environmental literature than the original cabin porn: a fantasy about rustic life divorced from the reality of living in the woods, and, especially, a fantasy about escaping the entanglements and responsibilities of living among other people.
I agree completely. If Thoreau managed on occasion to be right about things like slavery and the wilderness, this was mainly because of his indifference to his fellow humans and contempt for their pretensions.

As Schulz explains, when Thoreau settled in the cabin at Walden Pond he wanted to find out what was essential in life and what extraneous:
As it turns out, very little counted as life for Thoreau. Food, drink, friends, family, community, tradition, most work, most education, most conversation: all this he dismissed as outside the real business of living. Although Thoreau also found no place in life for organized religion, the criteria by which he drew such distinctions were, at base, religious. A dualist all the way down, he divided himself into soul and body, and never could accept the latter. “I love any other piece of nature, almost, better,” he confided to his journal. The physical realities of being human appalled him. “The wonder is how they, how you and I, can live this slimy, beastly life, eating and drinking,” he wrote in Walden. Only by denying such appetites could he feel that he was tending adequately to his soul.

Walden, in consequence, is not a paean to living simply; it is a paean to living purely, with all the moral judgment that the word implies. In its first chapter, “Economy,” Thoreau lays out a program of abstinence so thoroughgoing as to make the Dalai Lama look like a Kardashian. (That chapter must be one of the highest barriers to entry in the Western canon: dry, sententious, condescending, more than eighty pages long.) Thoreau, who never wed, regarded “sensuality” as a dangerous contaminant, by which we “stain and pollute one another.” He did not smoke and avoided eating meat. He shunned alcohol, although with scarcely more horror than he shunned every beverage except water: “Think of dashing the hopes of a morning with a cup of warm coffee, or of an evening with a dish of tea! Ah, how low I fall when I am tempted by them!” Such temptations, along with the dangerous intoxicant that is music, had, he felt, caused the fall of Greece and Rome.
I have always despised Thoreau and his book; in fact I think the only work in the American canon as overrated as Walden Pond is that of Thoreau's friend Emerson, which never made the slightest bit of sense to me. I have no interest in the pursuit of purity, of life as a process of paring down; I want to live a life of richness and connection. Thoreau's most famous line is “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” But this is wrong, and how would Thoreau have known anyway, since he refused to have anything to do with the mass of men?

Anyway, I loved Schulz's article, and it absolutely deserves the Sidney Award that David Brooks just bestowed on it.

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