Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Civilisation in a Shed

Irrational prejudice. It is often ignorant and ill informed. Nevertheless, sometimes how true! Literature is a good example. Certain writers can be disliked, even if they have never been read. You pick up a smell in the air, and your nostrils go all wobbly…. Henry David Thoreau. I just know I’m not going to like him.

I have not read Walden, and know hardly anything about its author, yet I’ve got an opinion on him? Yes, I have. I can feel it when I go into a bookshop; I can sense him in the corner: that pungent smell, and his eyes far too keen to make contact. What do I think he’s like? Quite pompous, a little precious, pious of course, and too satisfied with his own lot; a self-conscious saint. In short I think he’s a well-heeled hippy without the Marijuana. Have you read him? Am I so very wrong?

Reviewing a new edition of Thoreau’s journal[i] Thomas Meaney quotes his reaction after he burnt down half of Fair Haven’s forest:

“To be sure, I felt a little ashamed”, he wrote… but after weighing the matter carefully, he only felt bad for the fish. (TLS 05/11/2010)

And the curious thing about such characters is that the critics never seem to notice how artificial it all is. Thus Meaney quotes Thoreau attacking the sophisticated prose of Edward Gibbon, and comments on his dislike of being literary, like so many other American writers. But then how to explain this:

I was as much affected by the faint hum of a mosquito making its invisible and unimaginable tour through my apartment at earliest dawn, when I was sitting with door and windows open, as I could be by any trumpet that ever sang fame. It was Homer’s requiem; itself an Iliad and Odyssey in the air, singing its own wrath and wanderings. There was something cosmical about it; a standing advertisement, till forbidden, of the everlasting fertility and vigor of the world.

The reviewer quotes this paragraph as an example of Thoreau’s great powers: turning the everyday into epic form. To me it seems weak: the reference to the classics replacing close description and interesting metaphor. It is all very uplifting to be sure, though vapid and somewhat incongruous for a rural shack in the wilderness.

Perhaps I sensed a certain artificiality about the whole enterprise. It feels fake, although it isn’t. So what I am picking up? It is the paradox of the sophisticated primitive. Of Western man returning to nature with a library on his back. This passage gives us a clue to its in-authenticity, for experience is not described straight, but is mediated through a literary culture; in this case the Greek classics. It is thought about rather than felt, for such a performance requires the person to be self-conscious, which takes the naturalness away. The original experience has been turned into a sort of literary or artistic style, which when used too consciously distorts the creative act; for we see only the mannerisms and conventions; so that the work looses its suppleness, and becomes stale and academic. And so it is with this passage. It was already old-fashioned when it was written: the Greek revival was very much an 18th century affair; though Keats reclaimed it for the Romantics.

Meaney also mentions Thoreau’s striving after the cosmic insight; and the evasiveness of his prose as he “struggles towards expression.” Do we really want to read someone, and at monstrous length too, who writes about something he can’t describe? It promises the clarity of an acid trip for the uninitiated.


[i] At six hundred pages it is still not a tenth of the 7,000 page original.  Imagine the weeks you’d lose reading it.

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