The Walden Universe

ImageWhat do we live for? We construct identities, and temporary sets of plans. We each conceal a drawer full of projects and premises which comprise our sense of purpose within the world. These plans, over time, solidify and harden; our personal drawers grow steadily (and unwittingly) smaller; we more and more rarely look beyond them. To abandon these plans would be to sacrifice personal meaning. Right?

Henry David Thoreau’s Walden effortlessly shatters the “personal playbook”, revealing, beyond it, a sublime universe of twinkling stars and shallow, clear streams. Purpose, to be sure, is no longer clear. Instead, however, we recognize that the peaceful, mysterious beauty of the universe makes such a purpose – as we had once imagined it – an utterly incomprehensible aim. Walden teaches us that the vast universe, and communion therein, can form a purpose in itself.

Thoreau, in a surprisingly indirect manner (a reader might constantly ask himself: “How did he do that?”), stretches and broadens the boundaries of the reader’s mind, to encompass, before long, the universe as a whole. He loves reading: “The noblest written words are commonly as far behind or above the fleeting spoken language as the firmament with its stars is behind the clouds,” states Thoreau, and “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.” (1)

“Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in,” he continues. “I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains. I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars. I cannot count one. I know not the first letter of the alphabet. I have always been regretting that I was not as wise as the day I was born.” (1)

Thoreau impels a reevaluation of the “achievement mindset” which pushes me – and, I’m sure, many others – to work tirelessly and to fear wasted time. “My days were not days of the week, bearing the stamp of any heathen deity, nor were they minced into hours and fretted by the ticking of a clock,” Thoreau remembers. “I have spent many an hour, when I was younger, floating over [the lake’s] surface as the zephyr willed, having paddled my boat to the middle, and lying on my back across the seats, in a summer forenoon, dreaming awake… for I was rich, if not in money, in sunny hours and summer days.” (1)

And once, in the winter: “The one who came from farthest to my lodge, through deepest snows and most dismal tempests, was a poet. A farmer, a hunter, a soldier, a reporter, even a philosopher, may be daunted; but nothing can deter a poet, for he is actuated by pure love. Who can predict his comings and goings?… We made that small house ring with boisterous mirth and resound with the murmur of much sober talk, making amends then to Walden vale for the long silences… We made many a ‘bran new’ theory of life over a thin dish of gruel.”

Expanding the scope of the mind, from daily petty worries and inconveniences towards the unity and beauty of nature, is a noble exercise. Thoreau’s Walden makes the task a virtually effortless one. The reader’s mind, soon, begins to pull more and more into its domain, stretching towards the sky and universe. Before long, one enters (what I might safely call) a higher state of sober, calm, and all-encompassing awareness. But isn’t this the essence of progress of the mind?

I still want to get a Math PhD, and I still plan to work hard. This goal, however, takes on not lessened but enhanced value within the perspective offered by Walden; the goal assumes its place within a larger serene vastness. My plans are still intact, but now I value them just that much more. My life has not changed; it has only expanded.

  1. Full text of Walden

One comment on “The Walden Universe

  1. Richard says:

    A curious linguistic anomaly to begin: “Wonder” and “awe” are near synonyms in English – they basically mean the same thing. Yet when suffixed by the same adjectival morpheme ‘-ful’ they assume contrary meanings; “wonderful” and “awful” are antonyms.

    A fine exposition by Ben. I am especially happy with the quotations he chose, though I would have included one or two more, but only for their poetic beauty rather than intellectual content. Now, concerning Thoreau’s work: It need not be the case that exposure to this vast, silent and “sublime universe of twinkling stars” must be ennobling or even emotionally enriching in the conventional sense. As a counterpoint to the obvious virtues and attractions present in Walden, rather than serenity, such exposure to the universe can instill angst, nervousness or a sense of existential displacement which the philosopher Jean Paul Sartre would call La Nausée, or nausea.

    The world never feels quite so vast as when we are looking at nature as it exists independently of the works of humankind. The starry sky has often been extoled as a source of moral or religious inspiration and, true, it can produce a feeling of das mystische, as Wittgenstein said, a feeling of the mystical as we consider the world as a limited whole. But it can also force us to consider our own apparent finitude, and the sheer otherness of the universe in which we live. This feeling of angst might constitute an existential crisis, in which we are all too aware of the absurdity of our own condition, we might feel overpowered and overstimulated by this clear and stark apprehension of the world – it is a feeling of such physical discomfort that is thoroughly unpleasant, if you ever actually feel it, and will leave you a changed person.

    Furthermore, although we might feel obliged to protect ourselves from such feelings, how we do so is undetermined. Perhaps it would be best to simply go mad. What better cure for the inauthenticity which so defines the modern world than a ‘madness’ born of true exposure to (and appreciation of) the vast and unfeeling universe? (Thoreau may have already been inclined towards a certain optimism that came from his poetic and spiritual disposition: his emotional attachments may have inhibited his intellect in this regard, leading away from apprehending the absurd. Or maybe not.) Almost by necessity, such a state of mind would need to be called ‘madness’ by those still caught in the grip of inauthentic lives; they could have no other word for it, except – maybe in some cases – the word ‘evil’.

    And what of the consequences of that ‘madness’? Why, those consequences could be the very things which preserve us from the effects of existential crises – which prevent us from simply committing suicide in the face of despair. They would be amusements born from embracing the truth, rather than fleeing it. Perhaps, in order to live an ‘authentic’ life, like Thoreau wanted, one simply must live in opposition to the inauthentic world of ordinary humans. Doubtless, this is what Thoreau was seeking in all his individualism and solitude. But consider, for a moment, what Thoreau would have done if he hadn’t been able to leave normal human society. In this case, his desire for authenticity may have driven his opposition to the inauthentic world further than we would like to think. We already know – from his other writings – that he was comfortable breaking the law, and even spending time in prison he felt more free than those outside the bars. Maybe, if unable to escape from inauthentic society, the authentic, intellectually honest individual must be driven to be the enemy of that society; to work against it and even seek its destruction. Maybe destruction would be better than isolation even if the latter were attainable. Yet, I doubt any of us is honest enough to consider that a viable option for a meaningful life.

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