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Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

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Tuesday, October 13, 2015

the wrong question to ask about Thoreau

Kathryn Schulz’s attack on Thoreau is not very convincing. She quotes from Robert Louis Stevenson’s essay on Thoreau, and basically she simply develops his line of attack. At the bottom, of course, Schultz’s problem is the person, Thoreau. She thinks of him as a fanatic, a narcissist, a this and a that. It is the moralizing approach. Bad Thoreau, wandering like Maldoror along the beach at Cape Cod. And – implicitly – good us, who would weep decorously over the bodies of children who are drowned. Schulz treats this passage as though Thoreau had no idea that weeping decorously over the bodies of children was to be expected – this, in the great era of sentimental literature about same.
What is lost when one gets immersed in the moralizing approach is, well, almost everything. For Schultz, for instance, Thoreau is an absolutely humorless person. Thus, she reads Walden as an absolutely humorless text. In the process, she seems to have ignored completely the long tradition of American deadpan. But to read Thoreau’s account of how a man could drill some holes in a crate by the side of a railroad and live there like a lord is not the result of narcissism or fanaticism – Schulz takes Thoreau’s phrase that he isn’t jesting as obvious, without raising the question of why he would feel he had to offer it - but of the deadpan that informs the work.

Walden has a lot of boring patches, patches in which detail or quotation simply don’t come to life. But mainly, its life comes out of the portrayal of Thoreau at odds with the maxims he throws out, as well as with the side observations he drops along the way. Walden’s nearest relatives are not the naturalist’s books that came after, like Muir, but Buster Keaton’s movies. After all, the book begins with an absurd question that is supposedly being posed by the entire community – how Thoreau lived at Walden. Which is like supposing that the entire community of Santa Monica is wondering how the clochard with the cough that I hear at night is doing camping in the local park. Thoreau well knew that his writing, into which he threw accounts of his life, was not popular. He was not a seller.

And in fact this is where the Economy section in Walden is interesting, and where the – to Schultz – inexplicable popularity of certain of its phrases, for instance, that most men lead lives of quiet desperation, comes from. Schulz doesn’t sound like she has ever had a single day in her life where she didn’t have lunch money, but such was not the case for the Irish immigrants that she begins with, or indeed, for most of the 80 percent in the US at the moment who make below 75 thou a year.
It is here that Thoreau lands a lot of great punches – in as much as a maxim is a line with a punch – related, as it is, to the punchline. When Thoreau writes that the cost of a thing “is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it”, he does a lot to explain the central fact of the economy from the point of view of how we experience it – or fail to. It is the stick man of the rational calculator who has forgotten what rationality is that makes the chapter interesting, gives it a dialectical flow.

I understand Schulz’s impulse, here, to counter the image of Saint Thoreau. But in so doing, she unconsciously concedes to the enemy the idea that the importance of Thoreau was whether he was a saint or not. And really, it isnt.

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