Diary

Other Waldens

21 September 2006 | Diary

This week I’ve been reading Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. Predictably, it’s quite brilliant and I’m finding it welcomely fibrous after a stint of reading purely for leisure in the wake of completing my Masters dissertation.

I’m surprised that the book has survived as such an iconic American text though: while it’s filled with discourse about freedom, frontierism, individualism, autonomy and liberty, it speaks against consumerism and industry and instead promotes simplicity and the rejection of modern luxury. Does anyone know whether it’s on school reading lists in the States?

Walden keys very much into my current lines of thinking about sustainability and whether the modern world allows for alternative ways of living comparable with those sought and mastered by Thoreau in the 1850s. There have been occasional successes in Waldon-esque living in recent years including Jeremy Till’s brilliant House of Straw and the Downland Gridshell (brought to my attention by ). But there have also been many tales of bureaucratic woe. I’m beginning to think that the realistic modern equivalent to simple living is ‘Practical Idling’ (see the so-named feature in #36 of The Idler): working part-time in order to sustain a simplistic but civilised lifestyle. But this doesn’t quite cut the cheese for me in that rented accommodation in cities is seldom conductive to ‘extracurricular’ environmental efforts such as the employment of solar panels or windmills.

Anyhoo. Before we get ahead of ourselves, here are a few nice quotes I pulled out of the first half of Walden:

* “Most of the luxuries and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.”

* “The life which men praise and regard as successful is but one kind. Why should we exaggerate any one kind at the expense of others?”

* “[cottage industries are] good ventures. To oversee all the details yourself in person; to be at once pilot and captain, and owner and underwriter”.

* “There is greater anxiety commonly [in towns] to have fashionable, or at least clean and unpatched clothes, than to have a sound conscience”.

* “Our houses are such unweildly properties that we are often imprisoned rather than housed in them”.

* “Shall we always study to obtain more … things, and not sometimes be content with less?”

* “Where is this division of labour to end? and what object does it finally serve? No doubt another may think for me; but it is not therefore desirable that he should do so to the exclusion of my thinking for myself”.

And so on. There are many of these. Excellently, the copy of Waldon I have here is an old library edition and so most of the inspirational stuff had already been underlined by students of yore. If I’d have done the American thing and purchased my very own copy, I’d have had to have extracted these from scratch. How representative of Thoreau’s thinking!

Perhaps the most interesting nugget of wisdom I picked up, however, actually goes toward talking me out of wanting to live in any such fashion: “The best works of art are the expression of a man’s struggle to free himself from this [entrapped] condition”. I’m reminded of an old item by Momus in which he argues that an artist must always remain ‘foreign’ to his environment rather than travelling the world so that she might find where she most clearly fits in. Then again, I think of Lord Whimsy’s maxim voiced in his book that the artist’s canvas might be his own self and his own life and that surrounding oneself with beautiful importance is the stuff of life. How conflicting! Thoreau does however add that “the effect of our art is merely to make this low state comfortable and that the higher state [of freedom] may be forgotten. I’m sure that all this might be relevent to my magazine project in some way.

But there are “Other Waldens” in the world and as purifying as the manual labour and hard study prescribed by Thoreau may be, the Downland Gridshell or the House of Straw or the Hermit’s Corner or the lifestyle of the Practical Idler may be better answers.

At university, we learned about Walden Two: a utopian piece of speculative fiction by behaviourist shitbag, B. F. Skinner. A wikipedia search for ‘Walden’ also points me in the direction of Walden Three: an organisation promoting universal peace, love and sustainability. According to their website:

“Anything that saves labor and resources makes us richer as a whole. Our engineering model is apolitical. It is just a labor and resource saving device. It frees them for whatever the political-economic body wants. Our model allows political systems to maximize their available labor and resources. Thus the underlying basis of economics: conservation. There is no need to “take” from the rich to solve our economic problems. This is a common economic fallacy. In fact, the rich will profit and benefit greatly from what we propose here”.

By coincidence, I read in The Guardian’s ‘Good Lives’ column on Saturday about Tom Beeson’s Farm W5: a “food market [that] supplies fresh, seasonal, locally sourced food, produced properly and ethically”. I can’t help but wonder whether the ‘W’ in ‘W5’ stands for Walden.

With no Walden Four, of course, there is clearly a gap in the market.



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