“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”
Thoreau lived at Walden Pond from July 4, 1845 to September 6, 1847. Walden was published in 1854.
Pond near my house
For the last few years I’ve returned to Thoreau’s Walden many times. Sometimes I read it from beginning to end, sometimes I listen to the audiobook. Other times, I read only a chapter, or the things I’ve highlighted. Themes, excerpts, and the work as a whole especially come to mind when I visit my parents’ home and take a walk around the forest and the local pond. I am trying to figure out what is it about Walden that makes it what I call a “comfort classic”—a classic I re-read to make the world feel right again. This entry is really meant to read like a personal reading journey entry where I log notes and discuss them.
In the first section ‘economy’ Thoreau points out all that is wrong with society, which frankly has not changed, if anything it has only worsened (particularly discussing student debt from the Universities). He points out all that is wrong, and all that we should aspire to be. He writes:
“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.”
The mass is quiet, that is what makes it awful. They have the natural consequence but they do not know how to express this quiet desperation.
“What everybody echoes or in silence passes by as true to-day may turn out to be a falsehood to-morrow.”
“One may almost doubt if the wisest man has learned anything of absolute value by living.”
“Here is life, an experiment to a great extent untried by me”
“Are we compelled to live, reverencing our life, and denying the possibility of change.”
“To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.”
Thoreau also mentions how impractical the anxiety to be fashionable is (in terms of clothes, household furnishings and objects).
Earlier I mentioned that certain things have worsened since (like fees, rent, etc). I wonder how Thoreau would react or write about (in the middle class West) people spending the majority of their time on the Internet indoors.
“It would be well, perhaps, if we were to spend more of our days and nights without any obstruction between us and the celestial bodies…birds do not sing in caves, nor do doves cherish their innocence in dovecots…many a man is harassed to death to pay the rent of a larger and more luxurious box.”
There is something in Walden, particularly in the beginning that strongly reminds me of things I’ve seen or heard recently but figured Thoreau said it first. Most of the discussion of your things owning you was strongly ringing of Fight Club (not the book but the movie).
I think what I like about his writing is that he goes from contemplative and philosophical writing to the mundane and every day speech all in the same sentence. Thoreau wrestles with social constructions that have ones seemed natural and a part of our existence.
I like imagining Thoreau walking, and thinking, and just tapping into some of his thoughts on literature and what he sees, to me, is a very idealized pastoral scene so Walden has become my comfort classic.
If you were to compare what some of today’s styles and trends are: eating organic, growing your own food, travelling and reconnecting with nature, hiking, etc. This sort of ‘hippy’ or ‘bohemian’ lifestyle is often divorced from the intellectual now. I realize that Thoreau did all these things back in the 1840s and combined it with the intellect. His chapters on “reading,” and “where I lived and what I lived for” are imbued with literary references and discussions. It is akin to books like Ex Libris or the genre we all love so much recently ‘books about books.’
“A written word is the choicest of relics. It is something at once more intimate with us and more universal than any other work of art. It is the work of art nearest to life itself.”
His every thought is an allusion or a reference to a literary work from antiquity to his contemporaries. Through the voices of other literary giants and describing the sounds around the pond, Thoreau shows how you can be surrounded while completely alone in a contemplative state.
Every section of Walden has its own charm. There are so many YouTube channels for instance focusing on cooking, growing your own things, and budgeting. Thoreau writes about all those things explaining in detail how he did it. I sometimes imagine 19th century readers reading this the same way millions of us subscribe to channels online now. I enjoyed reading about his budget, savings, and spending when it came to building the house and investing in clothing, food, and farm supplies. It’s both personal and distant, it’s doable and also impossible. Most importantly it brings me to a good place mentally because I think about nature, and what the natural realm means.