Against the Current

From TLS:

On July 4, 1845, a man from Concord, Massachusetts, declared his own independence and went into the woods nearby. On the shore of a pond there, Henry David Thoreau built a small wooden cabin, which he would call home for two years, two months and two days. From this base he began a philosophical project of “deliberate” living, intending to “earn [a] living by the labor of my hands only”. Though an ostensibly radical undertaking, this experiment was not a break with his past, but the logical culmination of years of searching and groping. Since graduating from Harvard in 1837 Thoreau had tried out many ways of earning his keep, and fortunately proved competent in almost everything he set his mind to. Asked once to describe his professional situation, he responded: “I don’t know whether mine is a profession, or a trade, or what not … I am a schoolmaster, a private tutor, a surveyor, a gardener, a farmer, a painter (I mean a house-painter), a carpenter, a mason, a day-laborer, a pencil-maker, a glass-paper-maker, a writer, and sometimes a poetaster”.

From this position, with any number of routes before him, yet none decided on, Thoreau was particularly well placed to consider questions about the nature, purpose and fundamental meaning of work. Yet he was also a born contrarian, a natural dissenter, with a knack for swimming against the current (his friend and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke of him as “spiced throughout with rebellion”), and when finally he emerged from the woods he was set not on a trade or career, but on life as a communal gadfly – a professional pain in the neck. “I do not propose to write an ode to dejection”, he writes in Walden (1854), “but to brag as lustily as a chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up.” His self-imposed seclusion had allowed him to see his outsiderness anew, to understand it from within, to become of a piece with it.

This was a time of unprecedented change in American history. In a generation the country had gone from a motley collection of states, lagging the European powers, to a key player on the world stage. It was a sharp and swift upheaval, resulting not only in a dramatic depredation of the natural environment, but also in a dangerous straining of the country’s social fabric and a remaking of the American collective psyche. Thoreau had already seen the effects in 1843, when he visited New York City, which was then in the vanguard of the great transformation. The rapid technological advancements, the piling up of wealth, the relentless drive to prosperity, the general acceleration of life – such markers of progress may, he worried, end up killing the humanity in us. “I walked through New York yesterday – and met no real and living person”, he wrote in his diary. The future may have seemed radiant to some, but Thoreau was not impressed: “I am ashamed of my eyes that behold it. It is a thousand times meaner than I could have imagined. It is something to hate – that’s the advantage it will be to me”. That meanness would in time follow him back to Massachusetts. In Walden he protests the arrival of the railway in Concord, a stone’s throw from his cabin: “What an infinite bustle! I am awakened almost every night by the panting of the locomotive. It interrupts my dreams. There is no sabbath”.

At a moment when everything in America seemed to be accelerating, Thoreau, always true to form, came up with a counterproposal: slow down, do as little as you need to. Nothing, ideally. “Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed, and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” Thoreau wanted not only to bring back Sabbath to a world that seemed to have lost it, but also to re-signify it. “The order of things should be somewhat reversed”, he had said a few years before, in his Harvard commencement speech. The “seventh should be man’s day of toil … and the other six his Sabbath of the affections of the soul”.

. . . .

Three recent books give us a sense of how the chanticleer of Concord keeps us awake today. In Thoreau’s Axe: Distraction and discipline in American culture, Caleb Smith uses Thoreau as the starting point for a wider discussion of attention and wakefulness in nineteenth-century America. Our concerns with distraction and dwindling mental focus, Smith argues, are nothing new. They were prefigured, centuries ago, by important public conversations – an “attention revival”, Smith calls them – sparked in America by the arrival of new economic systems and technologies, which threatened to dismantle traditional forms of life. Smith discusses twenty-eight short texts on attention by religious authors, fiction writers, social reformers and spiritual seekers. He examines Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851), for example. We see here an Ishmael who, because of his “opium-like listlessness”, proves to be the most incompetent of masthead watchmen. “Over the course of three years at sea, he fails to call out a single whale.” Ishmael suffers chronically from a form of distraction that places him among the “romantic, melancholy, and absent-minded young men, disgusted with the carking cares of earth”, a condition to which we can relate only too well. “Today, in our age of new media and chronic attention deficit”, Smith writes, such “passages from the nineteenth century have a strange resonance.” His book is “a salvage operation”. In that century’s “ways of valuing and practicing attention” he hopes to find resources for “living through the present”.

Smith’s book has the merit of showing a meaningful continuity not only between our time and Thoreau’s, but also between Thoreau and like-minded thinkers of his century. It places his work in the broader tradition of “spiritual exercises”, developed over centuries by philosophers and religious thinkers, designed to “detach people’s minds from the passions and drama of everyday social life so they can focus on higher, more enduring realities”. As Smith sees it, whether Thoreau was conscious of it or not, he was “reworking an older asceticism”. Just as Christian penitents strove to master their flesh and discipline their lives, so Thoreau acted on himself to become more wakeful – or “mindful”, as we would say today. In this reading his famous walks in the woods were no ordinary perambulations, but opportunities to practise what he called “the discipline of looking always at what is to be seen”.

Link to the rest at TLS