20 March 2011

Of all I survey

 In the Conclusion to Walden, Thoreau implores his reader: “Nay, be a Columbus to whole new continents and worlds within you, opening new channels, not of trade, but of thought. Every man is the lord of a realm beside which the earthly empire of the Czar is but a petty state, a hummock left by the ice.” I have aspired to this ideal for my entire life, and have been content to move forward in the realization though never to fully achieve it. I rule a kingdom of thought, and lord over dozens of books still to read and unfinished papers awaiting attention; I maintain fields of thought demanding cultivation and harvest. I possess vistas out of my windows that cannot be possessed in language.  
 But Thoreau continues: “Yet some can be patriotic who have no self- respect, and sacrifice the greater to the less. They love the soil which makes their graves, but have no sympathy with the spirit which may still animate their clay. Patriotism is a maggot in their heads.” I think Thoreau has been reading the newspapers. 
Thoreau argues with intense feeling that the great work of the individual in this world should be self-study—to journey inward to discover, if not the source of our being, then at least to learn that being’s use, and for this voyage to load our cargo holds with tins of preserved meats, if necessary, for what else, he demands, are meats preserved!! Thoreau means for us to live not on the surface of life, but to sound the depths of our bottomless Waldens to know our life purposes.  But he cautions that to concern our selves with the petty details of the world to the exclusion of study leading to self-awareness is to forfeit the greater exploration to the lesser one. Such a choice would keep us always on the very lowest road. Certainly the crude politics and power mongering of the contemporary United States are exemplars of this greatest lesser. 
For Thoreau, our responsibility in this life is to know our selves, and I believe that that knowledge includes a keen and critical awareness of our place in the world. As did Marx from the other side of the world, Thoreau argued that most importantly we must own ourselves, and that this accomplishment derives from a self-knowledge that might prevent a life of servitude and quiet desperation. Men may make their own history, but not in the circumstances of their choosing: we must learn our circumstances to understand our freedom. Even if our lives be mean, knowledge of that meanness might provide us with some enlightenment and element of control. When Thoreau brings his torn clothes to the tailor for repair, the workman tells him, “Oh, they do not wear that style anymore,” Thoreau responds, “’They might not wear such clothes, but I certainly do.” Beware, Thoreau cautions, the enterprise that demands new clothes and not a new man to wear those clothes.” I think Thoreau would be appalled to walk down Columbus Avenue in New York City and pass all of the shoe shops and boutiques and nail salons demanding we be just like them. Thoreau’s demand is I think an early transcendental example of what will later come to mean for me “Historicize, historicize, historicize.” Everything else seems to me dew on the meadow’s grass—burned off in the early heat of the sun. 
And before fascism, Thoreau may have defined fascism.  Those patriots from Tripoli to Madison to Columbus whose bleatings speak to their concern for some public weal, sacrifice their own self-respect and worship only the soils that will be their graves. They know nothing but of what is dead. Their patriotism eats away at their conscience and renders it decayed.  And these are amazingly who we refer to as our leaders, but I think that they represent the true no-nothing party.
I must learn to keep my distance to avoid contagion.


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