Tuesday, June 15, 2010


Walden by Henry David Thoreau

This work is a classic that I've been intending to read for a very long time. The main premise of detachment from civilization by a leading Ameriacan transcendentalist made it the type of book I wanted to get around to, but simultaneously was resistant to actually opening up. Having fanally made the effort, I was quite pleasantly surprised, finding the terms of writing and the content offered actually living up to the larger literary hype. Reading it wasn't a revelatory work or a transformation of insight, but it has aged quite well and is worth reading. I didn't agree with all the major points of Thoreau's philosophy, particularly the broader overgeneralizations, but he's well worth engaging with, and compared to a lot of nineteenth century thinkers works surprisingly well without needing to be significantly reconstructed.

One of the most interesting things reading through this work was how, counter to my expectations, it didn't feature Thoreau isolating himself from society. To an extent he moves in this direction, but he remains in proximity to other people, wandering in and out of contact with them. A pretty good demonstration in that of the pressures against real isolation, and the extent to which people remain bound up in the market economy. On a broader level, there's the whole question of focus on nature and simplicity, as both an ideal and a functional societal program. It's still somewhat overstated and not quite the solution Thoreau holds out, but as an element in wider platform, yes, it can be useful. Bridging in the philosophy without reaching the extent of anarcho-primitivism would be good, and there are certainly implications for integrating the kind of naturalist environmental perspective offered here with twenty first century consumer lifestyles.

Where I'd say there's more appeal but also more fundamental problems is in the focus on individualism, a measure of isolation and self-restraint that's frankly unworkable. To a large extent Thoreau seems to recognize this--in the limits of the disengagement as well as the return to civilization to the extent of involving the book itself for general distribution--but it's still part of the mystique of the work that needs to be dismantled a bit further. Where it's most engaging and, surprisingly, promising, is in the aesthetics, the form of beauty seen in relating to nature. Again it's an utopian ideal and somewhat overstated, but there are a number of passages that are themselves beautiful and they offer a perspective that's worth trying to discover.

Better than: Autobiography of Mohandas Ghandhi

Worse than: Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky

No comments:

Post a Comment