A Conversation with Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau“A time is coming when those who are in the mad rush today of multiplying their wants, vainly thinking that they add to the real substance, real knowledge of the world, will retrace their steps and say what have we done? Civilizations have come and gone and, in spite of all our vaunted progress, I am tempted to ask again and again: To what purpose?”  –Mahatma Gandhi

I had first read Thoreau’s “Walden” in my teens; and knew even in those formative days that he would be a major influence on my life. During three intermittent years in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I’d visit Walden Pond when the need called, and sometimes swim in its cool water. Only during a recent visit to Cambridge did I think to visit his gravesite…. At “Sleepy Hollow Cemetery” (really!), just a few paces from the impressive family plot of the Emersons (with its amorphous, mysterious monolith), there is the much humbler plot of a family of pencil-makers—the Thoreaus. And when I saw his gray tombstone slab—about the size of a large cereal box!—with nothing but the capitals “HENRY” inscribed on it, I thought at first: Surely this writer-philosopher-naturalist-activist deserved better notice than this! And then I thought: This is fitting….

It was a lazy, hazy day in June, and I had walked much around the Concord and Lexington Commons and the Concord Bridge where the “shot heard round the world”—igniting the American Revolution–had been fired. I gazed long at the humble stone-slate-slab. I sat and gazed and wandered back in reveries. A fly buzzed; I dozed….)

HDT: “A man needs only to be turned round once with his eyes shut in this world to be lost.”

GC: What?… How?… Where?… Who?….

(But I knew who he was, though the garments were the homespun style of 150 years ago. The voice was calm and reassuring—emitted from a sparsely whisker-fringed face, crowned with somewhat unruly hair. A long, thin nose, like the prow (not the rudder) of a boat parted expressive eyes—the left slightly larger, looking straight at one (or upon whatever it focused) while the right looked slightly right and downward and within. A perceptive soul might feel at once fully apprehended in the here and now by one eye, and settled into timeless, interior worlds by the other.)

GC: I’m sleeping, aren’t I?

HDT: Kind of….

GC: Will I remember?

HDT: Kind of….

GC: I felt a need to… get back in touch…. Things are spinning out of hand. You saw it happening back then…. But, it’s even worse now. We’ve got wars that never end. And the noise and the chattering—twittering, they call it…. You thought it was bad at Walden Pond when the train went by at night. You’d gotten away from so much of it—

HDT: For 2 years, 2 months, 2 days. A good walking distance from neighbors! I went to live in a little house I built myself for $28. Ten feet by 15’; with two trapdoors and a chimney; a small bed; a small closet; a table at which to write and dine; three wooden chairs: “one for solitude; two for friendship; three for society.”

GC: And now the 4th of July is coming! It’s a holiday that always gets me down! Why celebrate a war? In May we had “Memorial Day”—but it’s not about “memorializing” or commemorating. It’s about celebrating “heroes”—anyone who fights for our government and the Corporate State—with no questions asked! And in June, another celebration of war—the Allies landing on Normandy Beach on “D-Day.” But, never any talk about the causes—about our human nature, our stupid gullibility!

HDT: I went to Walden on the 4th of July, 1845. Most people forget—I went there on “Independence Day”—to find my own.

GC: I didn’t know! The date, I mean. Maybe I forgot…. Most people have forgotten you…. Or, they think you were some kind of proto-hippy—a recluse, “into” Nature; a misanthrope. They don’t even know… or have forgotten… about the years you spent after Walden. What those years meant… what they mean today….

HDT: “I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, to see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

GC: So you wrote… in “Walden”—that classic of our literature. And that’s why I guess I came today—“to see if I could not learn.”

HDT: “The greatest compliment that was ever paid me was when one asked me what I thought, and attended to my answer.”

GC: And that’s from “Life without Principle”—one of the greatest essays every penned, alongside “Civil Disobedience”—even better known. You died in your family home, at 44, little noticed in your own country—some kind of eccentric, if men thought of you at all. But “Civil Disobedience” sparked Tolstoy, Gandhi and Martin Luther King to change their lives… and change our world.

HDT: “With a little more deliberation in the choice of their pursuits, all men would perhaps become essentially students and observers. In accumulating property for ourselves or our posterity, in founding a family or a state, or acquiring fame even, we are mortal; but in dealing with truth we are immortal and need fear no change.”

GC: You read the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita—the ancient Hindu classics—

HDT: They had recently been translated….

GC: You knew the Analects of Confucius; Homer, Plato, Dante, Shakespeare–

HDT: And Emerson. Don’t forget my older friend and mentor.

GC: In some ways you surpassed him—

HDT: We weren’t shooting at clay pigeons! We weren’t in a shooting match—a contest!

GC: That’s so…. He came at Truth in his way, too. From a different angle. As you wrote: “As the time is short, I will leave out all the flattery…. Let us consider the way in which we spend our lives.”

HDT: That’s all I had to teach in a nutshell: “Consider the way in which we spend our lives.” I wrote 2 million words in my journals, did some backwoods traveling, roughed it, lectured to those who would hear me. And concluded: I must “live at home, like a traveler.”

GC: A soul-traveler. Never to forget whom we might be, to what we might aspire.

HDT: I was “fed on the pap” at Harvard, and then decided I must “finish my education at a different school.”

GC: The school of hard knocks and the school of life….

HDT: I taught a bit. But the principal wanted me to inflict corporal punishment—to beat their kind of nonsense into the boys! In my early 20s, I resigned my post. My older brother John and I founded our own little progressive school. But, John nicked himself when shaving one day, and died in my arms from tetanus.

GC: Our lives are shaped by scratches….

HDT: The Emersons took me under their great wings. I tutored their kids. Ralph Waldo advised me to keep a journal, to observe, to listen, to reflect. He traveled a lot in Europe. (Of “tourist”-travelers he wrote: “They carry ruins to ruins.”) I was sort of his grounds-keeper and caretaker and live-in handyman when he was away. He let me live on his land at Walden Pond—remote, but not inaccessible. In two years there, I wrote “Walden” and “A Week on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers.” I self-published my books—1,000 copies each. I still had most of them stored in my family home when I “shuffled off this mortal coil”!

GC: And you lectured, when you could.

HDT: “An efficient and valuable man does what he can, whether the community pay him for it or not.” I wrote, and spoke out, against slavery. I espoused John Brown’s war against it. People thought me crazy for supporting a man who wanted to start a revolution to stop that horrid practice!

GC: “He had the courage to face his country herself, when she was in the wrong.” So you wrote in your “Plea for Captain John Brown.” We have these kinds of people now: Snowden, Manning, Assange, Kathy Kelly, Greenwald, Cynthia McKinney, Cindy Sheehan, Lynn Stewart, Ellsberg, Blum, Atzmon, and many unsung heroes. A nascent movement called “Occupy”—slumbering now, but it will revive.

HDT: It never ends. Every action we take, we take for all time. That’s the weight of our actions and decisions! That’s the greatness of it all! This continuum—within us and within all Nature. That’s the responsibility we bear—to our souls, and to the Self within. So I wrote in “Walden”: “I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagvat-Geeta…. I lay down the book and go to my well for water, and lo! There I meet the servant of the Bramin, priest of Brahma and Vishnu and Indra, who still sits in his temple on the Ganges reading the Vedas, or dwells at the root of a tree with his crust and water jug… and our buckets grate together in the same well. The pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges.”

GC: That’s what you brought to American Literature: that sense of timelessness. Virginia Woolf suggested it, too, in “Orlando”…. And there was something else you gleaned. A persistence of personality; rebirth…. How did you put it?

HDT: “The oldest Egyptian or Hindoo philosopher raised a corner of the veil from the statue of divinity: and still the trembling robe remains raised, and I gaze upon as fresh a glory as he did, since it was I in him that was then so bold, and it is he in me that now reviews the vision. No dust has settled on that robe; no time has elapsed since that divinity was revealed.”

GC: And another…. I memorized this: “Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant? We should live in all the ages of the world in an hour; ay, in all the worlds of the ages.” That reminds me of Blake writing about “cleansing the doors of perception.” Our great band, “The Doors,” took their name from that. Aldous Huxley took the title of his last book from that.

HDT: Ideas don’t die. The Self is an idea. Blake also wrote: “To see a World in a Grain of Sand./ And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,/ Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand,/ And Eternity in an hour.”

(A gentle breeze blew, and I remembered where I was—remembered in a dream. I shook my head–)

GC: It’s not like that now! It can never be like that again, I think. We’re so damn “wired” now. It’s a 24-7 world. I don’t have to read the Vedas to know about India now. I pick up my “smart phone” and call my friend there—

HDT: “Men have become the tools of their tools”—


GC:–In an instant I’m told of another horror there: another girl raped and hanged! It is like the US South was not so long ago—for the Blacks! Twain called it “the United States of Lyncherdom.”

HDT: “If we have thus desecrated ourselves, the remedy will be by wariness and devotion to re-consecrate ourselves.”

GC: You wrote of that. You used words like “sacred,” and “re-consecrate” and “soul.” But, nobody thinks like that now, nobody talks like that now… except tin-star preachers, passing around collection plates. I try not to be bitter… but it’s a different world now.

HDT: “Our truest life is when we are in dreams awake.” It’s always a different world… and the same world. We struggle for enlightenment… and then we struggle to keep the light—and pass it on. “What is it to be born free and not to live free? What is the value of any political freedom, but as a means to moral freedom? Is it a freedom to be slaves or a freedom to be free, of which we boast? We are a nation of politicians, concerned about the outmost defenses of freedom only.”

GC: Yeah… that’s what I’m getting at. What the hell does freedom mean anyway? People are dying and killing for “freedom” and they’re just puppets in a bloody maze.

HDT: “If the machine of government is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law.”

GC: That’s what I’m getting at! That’s what it’s come to. The government is of that nature. My God, we went to war against Iraq! We killed a million people… because of a phony claim of “weapons of mass destruction.” It was just so much flatulence! We wrapped it up in rhetoric and sold it to our sleeping masses. We hanged their dictator after a kangaroo trial, installed another—more corrupt and more incompetent!—and 11 years later it blows up in our faces. We made ourselves the Policeman of the World. Who voted on that? Our people shout out “freedom” and they don’t know what the hell is going on!

HDT: “What you get by achieving your goals is not as important as what you become by achieving your goals.”

GC: That’s the problem! Our goals have been rotten… and we’re rotting from within! We can still fool a lot of people—cosmeticize the reality. Divert, divert, divert! Things happen fast, and faster, and there’s never any re-examination. Socrates said “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Well, there’s barely time to examine anything now, and there’s even less time to re-examine!

HDT (sighing): Look… some people think my life ended when I left Walden. Jesus H. Christ—I was 30 years old! I’d learned plenty at Walden—by going into myself, by reading the great works, by thinking, walking, by being quiet and observant. But, it can’t end with that.

GC: I get that! To be truly free is to participate in freedom. Frankly, that’s why I can’t stand spectator sports! Spectator sports is like spectator politics! Participatory sports are fine. Participatory politics is essential. I want participatory freedom! To amend Socrates a bit: A non-participatory life is not worth living!

HDT: I didn’t disappear into myself after Walden! I didn’t disappear into the Maine woods! I lectured, I wrote, argued. One great lesson from Walden was to focus. “Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify, simplify!” I tried to spread that idea—the need to wash out trivia from our minds. The world you describe… and I’ve observed this “modern” world! It’s mostly—in the so-called “advanced” countries—a world of trivia. From their waking hour to the moment they collapse into bed, “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

GC: And collapse into their graves that way!

HDT: But… they don’t have to! Yes, I learned some things at Walden—about “timelessness,” the perennial Self—many great lessons. But I did not disappear. I wrote, I spoke out—endured the scorn and ridicule and got stronger because of it!

GC: What does not kill me makes me stronger!

HDT: I know this: “We do not worship truth, but the reflection of truth… we are warped and narrowed by an exclusive devotion to trade and manufactures and the like, which are but means, and not the end.”

GC: We’re drowning in our “means”!

HDT: Not everyone!

GC: No… there are great people. Real fighters.

HDT: There always have been. John Brown was one.

GC: And you—

HDT: “Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence. A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority… but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight…. When the subject has refused allegiance, and the officer has resigned his office, then the revolution is accomplished.”

GC: “Any man more right than his neighbors, constitutes a majority of one,” you wrote. But how do we make such fine judgments about what’s right?

HDT: You polish your mirror—as the Buddhists say. You come down from the mountain, with your revelations, like a Bodhisattva, and you show others the way to the mountain. “No dust settles on the grass.” You observe closely and be sure you’re reflecting clearly. Then, “cast your whole vote.” You work for love and morality. “It is not enough to tell me that you worked hard to get your gold. So does the Devil work hard.”

GC: Instead of the California gold-diggers of your day, we have oil merchants and frackers today. We hear they work hard and deserve their fortunes, laying pipelines across productive fields of non-GMO “amber waves of grain”—or, fracking under a man’s house, turning his water into fire; or, bombing peasants in another country because they crave their resources. All in the name of “democracy.”

HDT: In my time it was Mexico. It was shaped like a cornucopia, and we wanted all of its treasures to pour into us! They had booted out the Spaniards just as we had the British, but they could not get our boots off their faces! We got golden California, Texas and the rest. We sent our Cherokees to Oklahoma. And then we went to war with ourselves over the dispensation of all that new territory—whether it be “slave or free.” In other words, whether it go to the agrarian aristocracy of the South or the business/finance/industrial aristocracy of the North!

GC: Hardly anybody knows. People don’t read history any more. They don’t talk about it. The past is legend. We say, “Move on!” We want to know what’s on TV, or what’s online. We should say, “Integrate!”—make it whole. That’s what the word means, really. One thing, an integer—past, present, future.

HDT: “Read not The Times! Read the Eternities!”

GC: And prepare ourselves for such reading! That’s a key point. Constant preparation, polishing the mirror, cutting the diamond. In “Civil Disobedience” you wrote: “Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.”

HDT: Most are “shirking the real business of life.”

GC: How to prepare? We’re drowning in “infotainment.” Inferior teachers tell us what to think, the great ones teach us how.

HDT: “We do not teach one another the lessons of honesty and sincerity… or of steadiness and solidity. The fault is commonly mutual… for we do not demand more of each other.”

GC: Nor do we demand more from ourselves.

HDT: “Not with a slight shudder at the danger, I often perceive how near I had come to admitting into my mind the details of some trivial affair… and I am astonished to observe how willing men are to lumber their minds with such rubbish—to permit idle rumors and incidents of the most insignificant kind to intrude on ground which should be sacred…. Shall the mind be a public arena… or shall it be a quarter of heaven itself? … I find it so difficult to dispose of the few facts which to me are significant that I hesitate to burden my attention with those which are insignificant…. I believe that the mind can be permanently profaned by the habit of attending to trivial things, so that all our thoughts shall be tinged with triviality.”

GC: Thank you…. It’s getting clearer now: Prepare; polish the mirror; renounce the trivial; participate in the moral arena…. What was it you wrote about participating with our whole bodies?

HDT: Mind, body, heart and soul: “Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine.!

GC: And the conclusion to “Civil Disobedience”? I would like to hear you speak those words….

Gary Corseri

Gary Corseri

HDT: “I please myself with imagining a State at last which can afford to be just to all men, and to treat the individual with respect as a neighbor; which even would not think it inconsistent with its own repose, if a few were to live aloof from it, who fulfilled all the duties of neighbors and fellow-men. A State which bore this kind of fruit and suffered it to drop off as fast as it ripened, would prepare the way for a still more perfect and glorious State, which also I have imagined, but not yet anywhere seen.”

GC: Thank you…. I shall try to remember…. And, if I forget from time to time, I’ll return here to draw clear water from this well.

HDT: “Only that day dawns to which we are awake.”

Gary Corseri

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Comments

  1. Rita Corriel says

    This piece was a wonderful gift! Thank you Gary.

    I would like to respectfully insert my own response to HDT, if that is not too presumptuous.

    HDT: “Read not The Times! Read the Eternities!

    One of the greatest directives I have ever heard. However, I would love the opportunity to tell HDT, that the ‘Eternities’ are reflected through and embedded within the ‘Times’. It can be no other way. It is true for every individual as well. As a psychologist, I can always read the deeper ‘themes’ or patterns that repeat throughout a lifetime. And these themes are universal within the ‘human condition’.

    And one more.

    HDT: “I please myself with imagining a State at last which can afford to be just to all men, and to treat the individual with respect as a neighbor; which even would not think it inconsistent with its own repose, if a few were to live aloof from it, who fulfilled all the duties of neighbors and fellow-men. A State which bore this kind of fruit and suffered it to drop off as fast as it ripened, would prepare the way for a still more perfect and glorious State, which also I have imagined, but not yet anywhere seen.”

    I would like to respond here by saying that the ‘State’ is a reflection of the consciousness of those who comprise it. And HDT’s beautiful vision can only be realized when individual awareness, based upon the assumptions/beliefs regarding the nature of what it actually means to be human, is transformed.

    The state itself cannot transcend the reference points of its own citizens. And the state that HDT was addressing was one in which a social Darwinism prevailed.

    I would love to tell him that as long as human beings believe, underneath it all, that ‘survival’ necessitates the need to be destructive – toward others as well as nature itself- then there can be no essential change in the ‘system’. And this belief is supported by another primitive assumption which says that human nature is flawed by definition (original sin), and therefore we can never really expect to take any deep responsibility for our own destructive behavior. Because human beings just can’t do any better, regardless of the ideals that we supposedly believe in.

    So, now I have added my two cents to the ‘conversation’!

    Rita

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