This Ever New Self
On July 4, 1845, a twenty seven year old Henry David Thoreau moved into a cabin by a medium sized lake called Walden, in north-eastern United States. His goal was “to live deliberately, to [con]front only the essential facts of life”. We learn of these and other words that speak to Thoreau’s intention from the writings that he left behind. His journals that he kept from October 1837 to November 1861, eventually filled forty-seven manuscript volumes, while his books and essays explored his travels, nature, biographies, anti-abotionlist struggles among other subjects. The most famous of his works called ‘Walden; Or, A Life in The Woods’ is an assemblage of sustained thinking, deeply felt psychological insights, trenchant criticism, and a prose that summoned the freewheeling sensuousness of reality. (“Every little pine needle expanded and swelled with sympathy”)
In the quinquennium that ‘Walden’ was published, there also burst into scene other literary supernovae — some historically interesting, some permanently magnificent, and some intimate yet infinite — into the scene. These included Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlett Letter in 1850, Hermann Melville’s Moby-Dick in 1851, and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass in 1855. Over the years, the readership and fame of these works of great intelligence and craft have waned and waxed. In an age of sexting and Tindr, few read ‘The Scarlett Letter’ now and those who do manage can’t but wonder what was the fuss all about. ‘Moby-Dick’, meanwhile, like its Leviathan protagonist, every so often surfaces and returns into the deeps of culture only to be chased by a devout few. ‘Leaves of Grass’ is widely available but Whitman’s radical humanism is now cynically mass marketed as a treacly Valentine day’s gift worthy of undergraduate infatuations. And as for ‘Walden’, it meanwhile survives on the marginalia of American literary consciousness, as a sort of luminous gargoyle sitting vigil over an American citizenry that is increasingly unfree — wracked by debt, addiction, and rising poverty.
One hundred and sixty three years after its publication, ‘Walden’ has acquired a sort of sacramental luster for its willingness to sidestep, ignore, and ultimately deny the natural logic of what Thoreau presciently diagnosed was to emerge in 19th century America: a slow moving armada of capitalist violence which arrives on the shores of civilization bearing the gifts and the promise of unending profits. But more than this effort to critique a society at the cusp of the incipient industrial capitalism, it was his willingness to declare himself independent and, more importantly, to live unburdened by convention and canon, that made his life a source of wondrous possibilities and him a sort of secular saint. His words revealed to generations to come — and not just Americans — that it is possible to be a true son, or daughter, of a nation, to be in thrall of a nation’s mud and in love with its collective mind, and yet deny the strictures of convenient patriotisms. In fact, when he began his journals, America — a country forged out of an anti-colonial fire — was only 61 years old and despite its political independence, was a startlingly unfree place, even for the whites themselves, to say nothing of the blacks and the Native Indians. Men and women labored physically, but ever more so found themselves trapped in cycles of even more unending and unthinking labor which left them psychologically dull, intellectually uninspired, and socially close-minded. With an indignation that comes easily to the young, Thoreau words to describe his fellow citizens were often sharp and cut unsparingly through the fat of hypocrisies that kept the American body politic together. The result of writing thus was that critics of his book pointed to its “crankiness and irresponsibility”. They decried his unwillingness to play the part of a happy patriot which, one suspects, Thoreau didn’t mind at all.
In 2017, when neo-nationalism is on the rise, and more strikingly, formalized by election of self-described toughmen and hyper-patriots, some quarters of America celebrate Thoreau’s bicentennial birth anniversary. For many, he has become a symbol of an idealized American spirit that was always rare, but now all the more so rarer — one that is democratic in spirit, exploratory in instinct, freewheeling in its thought, and large spirited in its compassion. Unlike his own time, today Thoreau is known far and wide across America. Schools with progressive curricula teach their students passages from and about Walden as not just as an alternative lifestyle, but as a quest for authentic living among their forefathers. But Thoreau is a prickly character who doesn't sit quietly in a corner. Predictably, not all have been welcoming of Thoreau over the past 200 years. In another era, the great jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes offered up his curmudgeonly assessment that Thoreau was “[a] nullifier of civilization, who insisted on nibbling his asparagus at the wrong end”. Senator Joseph McCarthy, meanwhile, not exactly averse to seeing windmills for demons, got a textbook of American literature removed from government funded libraries because it contained Thoreau’s essay on Civil Disobedience. Presumably, he didn't want the minds of children to be defiled with ideas such as conscientious objection. More recently, it is fashionable in some quarters to indict Thoreau as a humorless misanthrope, and maybe even a misogynist, among whose great sins was that his mother occasionally did his laundry.
For most Americans, however, by now, Thoreau is a distant, curious, and even idiosyncratic figure: a sort of a long unseen house-cat who every so often prowls back into the attic of American mind to mew and to taunt them, to shame them for having abdicated any efforts to be free. Thoreau, viewed from our times, seems almost incredible -- a pater familias of a family whose descendents range from Rachel Carson to the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski. Thoreau is seen by many as a prophet who saw more clearly than any other in early American history the emptiness at the core of promises offered up by industrial civilizations. In a more practical sense, he advocated a form of political subversiveness to resist the State that is no longer possible in the age of militarized police and surveillance without loss of life or liberty. But his was not subversiveness for its own sake, but a form of protest that was marked by a formal understanding and articulation of what constituted unjust society and the State foisted on it. For some who read him carefully, Thoreau remains preeminently a writer who evocatively sketched his interior landscape — damned be the pressures of commercial publishing industry. And for those who seek to draw within, Thoreau presents himself as an archetype of what we could all be, if only we had the strength and conviction, to leave all behind and head out to live our lives on our own terms. In each of these cases, Thoreau stands as an exemplar of freedom.
Nowadays, even if ‘Walden’ is not read in its entirety, dipping into its serene, sometimes indignant but rarely small minded, prose has become an intellectual rite of passage. The intelligence shining through it reveals an expansiveness of vision — a view that is conservative in the best sense of word -- one eager to preserve what we have while shedding all excrescences that have accreted along the way (“simplify, simplify” was Thoreau’s call) — which saw the need to de-clutter not just our material lives but also our minds. Few took to heart and practice Thoreau’s fierce commitments with an unyielding earnestness as Mahatma Gandhi. But this bond between men separated across generations and continents came via Thoreau’s early biographer Henry Salt, who met Gandhi during his early South African days. Decades later, in 1931, when Gandhi was on a train ride across France, the only book that he carried along was Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience”, which caught the eye of Roger Baldwin, who was the chairman of the ACLU (American Civl Liberties Union). Baldwin mentioned to Gandhi that he thought Thoreau was a touch too extreme, too unmoored from the pragmatics of social living. Gandhi demurred and instead doubled down on his commitments to Thoreau’s ideas. Gandhi claimed, as Baldwin later wrote, to see in Thoreau's writings not just his own political movement but the very foundation on which all political life is erected. He replied to Baldwin that the book ”contained the essence of his [Gandhi’s] political philosophy, not only as India's struggle related to the British, but as to his own views of the relation of citizens to government.” A few decades later Martin Luther King Jr., summarizedThoreau’s ideas on Civil Disobedience even more succintly: “The basic aim was to refuse to cooperate with an evil system.”
Despite such illustrious interpreters of his words who sought to change societies itself, unlike them, Thoreau’s loci of investigation, the site of transformative possibilities that he envisioned possible remained the individual. Society was not his real bailiwick, although he craved every so often its approval. Thoreau, for much of life, was dedicated towards improving his own mind and body. To him, this meant the study of Eastern theologies-philosophies, a study of Nature around Walden and Massachussetts, and active efforts at moral self-improvement which led him to view the abolitionist struggles as a self-purificatory opportunity. All three aspects, incidentally, found inspirations from an unexpected source in puritan New England: the vast religious literatures of the East. What he knew about India or Asia is relatively unclear -- for it is India of the mind that seems to have occupied him more so than any other. Perhaps this was natural, for Thoreau came of age when the translation movement -- via William Jones et al -- had flowered into the North Atlantic consciousness. Thanks to his neighbor and friend, the great writer Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau discovered the Bhagavad Gita and Samkhya Karika in or around 1841. These texts prodded an already sensitive young man towards a more contemplative and observation filled way of being. His friend Moniker Williams later wrote, with some affectionate exaggeration, that Thoreau, echoing some sage from the Puranas, sought to sit "like the pious Yogi, so long motionless whilst gazing on the sun that knotty plants encircled his neck and the cast snake-skin his loins, and the birds built their nests on his shoulders, this poet and naturalist [Thoreau], by equal consecration, became a part of field and forest”.
This willingness to sublimate himself in Nature, to regard it as first among all causes of being, led him to an opposition with two key forces of his times. One, the expansionist temperaments of America’s nascent industrial powers of 1840s, and two, the stifling omnipresence of the Christian church. The former led him to lay the ground works for the anti-capitalist, deep ecology movements, more than a century before 'Silent Spring' was born; while the latter led him away to the intellectual shores of Indian, Iranian, and Chinese religious traditions. Later when he discovered Kabir, Thoreau wrote that the ”verses of Kabir have four different senses; illusion, spirit, intellect, and the exoteric doctrine of the Vedas”, which spoke to his understanding of Nature as containing multiplicities of meanings, and life’s true quest being the uncovering of these interpretations.
On his death bed, Thoreau’s religious minded aunt asked if he had sought to make peace with God. Thoreau replied that he had no need for it, since he never quarreled with God. His Nature and his books were the true Gods he worshipped, and his own life was the sacramental offerings. Like all great explorers of the mind, Thoreau’s life was dedicated to learning to see the world, shorn of ornament or history, for what it is, all the while living on a small patch of land by a lake.
At the age of forty four, Henry David Thoreau died of tuberculosis.
An version of this piece was published in The Hindu.