Shards, Sweepings, Stealings, Sayings, Secrets

Month: January, 2011

The Frivolousness Of Society

Sadly I’ve now reached the end of my series on Thoreau. I’ve really enjoyed browsing through Thoreau‘s revealing Journals and dipping into collections of Thoreau quotations. Thoreau and Emerson – what extraordinary, inspiring figures in the history of American literature and philosophy! The first time I read Thoreau‘s Walden  I remember so well. It was such an important book for me at a certain, disillusioned stage of my life. I’ll let this final extract from the Journals speak for itself; and, rest assured, this won’t be the last of Thoreau you’ll find in these pages…    

“I know two species of men.  The vast majority are men of society. They live on the surface; they are interested in the transient and fleeting; they are like driftwood on the flood. They ask forever and only the news, the froth and scum of the eternal sea. They use policy; they make up for want of matter with manner. They have many letters to write. Wealth and the approbation of men is to them success. The enterprises of society are something final and sufficing for them. The world advises them, and they listen to its advice. They live wholly an evanescent life, creatures of circumstance. It is of prime importance to them who is the president of the day. They have no knowledge of truth, but by an exceedingly dim and transient instinct, which stereotypes the church and some other institutions… If they write, the best of them deal in ‘elegant literature’. Society, man, has no prize to offer me that can tempt me; not one. That which interests a town or city or any large number of men is always something trivial, as politics. It is impossible for me to be interested in what interests men generally. Their pursuits and interests seem to me frivolous.” Thoreau Journal 

Thought, Feeling And Imagination

“He is the rich man, and enjoys the fruits of riches, who summer and winter forever can find delight in his own thoughts.” Thoreau A Week On The Concord And Merrimack Rivers

“The landscape lies far and fair within, and the deepest thinker is the farthest traveled.” Thoreau A Walk To Wachusett

“The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of men; and so with the paths which the mind travels. Thoreau Walden

“A man has not seen a thing who has not felt it.” Thoreau Journal

” The world is but canvass to our imaginations.” Thoreau A Week On The Concord And Merrimack Rivers

Loving Your Crust Of Earth

“You must love the crust of the earth on which you dwell more than the sweet crust of any bread or cake. You must be able to extract nutriment out of a sandheap. You must have so good an appetite as this, else you will live in vain.” Thoreau Journal

Sandheaps may not seem particularly nutritious at first – though at second glance all sorts of living creatures may be discovered in the dunes: snakes, lizards, wasps, algae, grasses.

Loving the earth doesn’t mean loving just the pretty and picturesque bits, the obviously lovable bits, the awe-inspiring mountainscapes and the green river valleys. It means loving it all: the featureless flatlands, the sandheaps, the dust in our own backyard.

Thoreau thinks it’s imperative to love the earth, every part of it, with fervour and desire – as the very meaning of our lives depends upon it.

Love Is This

“Love is the wind, the tide, the waves, the sunshine. Its power is incalculable; it is many horse-power. It never ceases, it never slacks; it can move the globe without a resting-place; it can warm without fire; it can feed without meat; it can clothe without garments; it can shelter without roof; it can make a paradise within which will dispense with a paradise without.” Thoreau Paradise (To Be) Regained

The Bible and Shakespeare aside, has a more perfect description of love ever been written?


“I love my friends very much, but I find that it is of no use to go to see them. I hate them commonly when I am near them. They belie themselves and deny me continually.” Thoreau Journal

“I find that I postpone all actual intercourse with my friends to a certain real intercourse which takes place commonly when we are actually at a distance from one other.” Thoreau Journal

“To say that a man is your Friend, means commonly no more than this, that he is not your enemy.” Thoreau A Week On The Concord And Merrimack Rivers

“Nothing makes me so dejected as to have met my friends, for they make me doubt if it is possible to have any friends.” Thoreau Journal

“If I have not succeeded in my friendships, it was because I demanded more of them and did not put up with what I could get; and I got no more partly because I gave so little.” Thoreau Journal

What are we to make of all this? Thoreau seems very cynical about friendship. But perhaps he’s simply being idealistic and realistic at the same time – and self-protective? Sometimes I find that friendship can be even more difficult than love. True friendship, like love (and of course the two are not mutually exclusive), should be as giving, forgiving and uncritical as possible. I’m afraid I’ve felt so heavily let down by some important friendships I’ve had in the past that I tend increasingly towards Thoreau‘s views expressed here. (Whether we should take them with a pinch of salt or not, I don’t know.) I love people, I love communicating, I love the idea of friendship. But my idea of friendship involves a depth of rapport and a soul-bonding that many so-called friends seem wary of. Am I wrong to want this?

Acquaintance With The Ferns

“It is only when we forget all our learning that we begin to know. I do not get nearer by a hair’s breadth to any natural object so long as I presume that I have an introduction to it from some learned man. To conceive of it with a total apprehension I must for the thousandth time approach it as something totally strange. If you would make acquaintance with the ferns you must forget your botany. You must get rid of what is commonly called knowledge of them. Not a single scientific term or distinction is the least to the purpose, for you would fain perceive something, and you must approach the object totally unprejudiced. You must be aware that no thing is what you have taken it to be. In what book is this world and its beauty described? Who has plotted the steps toward the discovery of beauty? You have got to be in a different state from common. Your greatest success will be simply to perceive that such things are, and you will have no communication to make to the Royal Society.” Thoreau Journal

This is a very exciting extract from Thoreau‘s Journals, I think. Thoreau is saying that real knowledge does not come from academic study, from scholarly erudition, from scientific information. The knowledge he’s describing is akin to the knowledge of the artist, the mystic, the Zen Buddhist – or the young child still uncluttered by education. This knowledge involves fresh, direct, intense perception of an object without any prior prejudices, judgements and preconceived ideas. It’s the kind of knowledge gained by walking through Aldous Huxley‘s ‘Doors of Perception’. It’s a kind of knowledge which comes without the baggage of nomenclature and without the assignment of derivation, usefulness and function. It’s the kind of knowledge which hits us like a thunderbolt, as if a veil has been suddenly lifted, and we are shocked into beauty before our minds have a chance to begin their usual habit of classification. In short, one could say it’s a single, individual bluebird, rather than a dry list of flora and fauna (see my last post).

The Individual And The Particular

Particular reality itself is always of more interest and value than an exhaustive list of particulars…

“A man’s interest in a single bluebird is worth more than a complete but dry list of the flora and fauna of a town.” Thoreau Familiar Letters

… and the observation of all events, experiences and particulars is always more meaningful and interesting if it is individual and subjective…

” There is no such thing as pure objective observation. Your observations, to be interesting, i.e. to be significant, must be subjective. The sum of what the writer of whatever class has to report is simply some human experience, whether he be poet or philosopher or man of science.” Thoreau Journal

A Silent But Sympathizing Companion

I understand completely what Thoreau means when he writes in his Journal about the quiet, unassuming companionability of nature, and how we may feel unpressurised and at home within it, and be ‘natural’ ourselves.

“Each phase of nature, while not invisible, is yet not too distinct and obtrusive. It is there to be found when we look for it, but not demanding our attention. It is like a silent but sympathizing companion in whose company we retain most of the advantages of solitude, with whom we can walk and talk, or be silent, naturally, without the necessity of talking in a strain foreign to the place.” Thoreau Journal

Three Or Four Books And Some Poems

Thoreau is writing about the superior value of quality over quantity here, and I must say I agree with him – whether we’re talking of books, food, clothes, friends, experiences or life-years.

“Read the best books first, or you may not have a chance to read them at all.” Thoreau A Week On The Concord And Merrimack Rivers

“It is necessary to find out exactly what books to read on a given subject. Though there may be a thousand books written upon it, it is only important to read three or four; they will contain all that is essential, and a few pages will show which they are.” Thoreau Journal

” … if men read aright, methinks they would never read anything but poems. Thoreau A Week On The Concord And Merrimack Rivers

“Whatever book or sentence will bear to be read twice, we may be sure was thought twice.” Thoreau Journal

Two Lives

It is easy to become so immersed in the world of work, in the life of the indoors, that we fail to notice real life, the life of nature, going on beyond the desk and outside the window. Suddenly one season has changed into the next, and we have scarcely realised it.

” Winter has come unnoticed by me, I have been so busy writing. This is the life most lead in respect to Nature. How different from my habitual one! It is hasty, coarse, and trivial, as if you were a spindle in a factory. The other is leisurely, fine, and glorious, like a flower. In the first case you are merely getting your living; in the second you live as you go along. You travel only on roads of the proper grade without jar or running off the track, and sweep round the hills by beautiful curves.” Thoreau Journal