For one who has long very much enjoyed living according to the Wilde philosophy – i.e. ‘anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination’ – Henry David Thoreau’s Walden presents rather a problem. For those unfamiliar with the book, it is more or less a collection of thoughts and observations from the two years in which Thoreau built himself a house and lived in the woods beside Walden Pond. The spirit of the book is a call toward a simpler life, and a eulogy to nature that evokes its subject with dazzling and earnest description. And between these two, a challenge to the notion that modernity, all our material advance, has advanced the heart of man:
‘While civilisation has been improving our houses, it has not equally improved the men who are to inhabit them. It has created palaces, but it was not so easy to create noblemen and kings.’
Though first published in 1854, Walden is an important book for the time we’re living in. We’ve lived an age of excess, an age of plenty like humanity has never known before, but just as Thoreau suggests it doesn’t seem to have made most of us happy, or made mankind any better. The life of simplicity that Thoreau in Walden calls us to is based on the idea that accumulation of wealth and property only restricts us: owning a house is something that in England most people as far as I know aspire to. Owning a house, however, entails a mortgage which commits us to a life of work, and ties us to a particular place and way of life – restricting in us the possibility of change and growth; restricting us also from contemplating and participating in the things that really matter to us. This sentiment reminds me of the thought of Albert Camus in A Happy Death that’s stuck fast with me – that freedom in our age really means freedom from money. In A Happy Death this meant having money: ‘having money is a way of being free of money’; in Walden it is the renunciation of wealth that makes one free.
If you read or have read Walden you may find yourself thinking as I did that it’s all very well for Thoreau, but most of us will find it impossible to live in a shack in the woods sustaining ourselves by the land. Well I think that it’s one of those things that needn’t be taken literally. In Thoreau as in Camus it is freedom that is striven for, and money only the obstacle; that thing which comes between man and happiness, freedom or betterment (pick your own philosophical goal) whether by lack of it, or excess and overvaluation. If this is the case, it appears a distortion and a sad thing that material wealth has gained a (completely self-referring) value all of its own and really come to override those other three. So I think that at the heart of Walden is an important reminder that dependence on money is a piece of savage trickery; the more we accumulate the tighter we are bound. After all, we seem to have forgotten that the luxuries available to us these days which we really think we need – they’re luxuries; we’ve forgotten how much we can do without. Living in post-student poverty allows me to speak personally on this. It’s depressing having no money, I can tell you, but it reminds you how much you can do without.
I’m not an economist, nor particularly political. However, with constant news of recession on one hand, and the growing dissatisfaction with the status quo that can be seen in the Occupy protests – I think or at least hope that books like Walden will resurface in popular culture and inspire their readers to the kind of philosophical reflection that will allow mankind to look forwards to an age of wisdom, not excess. I also don’t think this will be at odds with Oscar Wilde’s thought. I’m pretty sure Wilde would have found the excess and worship of money inherent in the way in which we today ‘live beyond our means’ to be ‘vulgar’ and every bit as dull as an over-serious abstinent and ascetic life.
Finally, because this is intended to be a comment on a book, and not a political commentary or polemic, I’d like to leave some passages that I loved, which I hope will persuade you that this is a beautiful book, as well as challenging.
‘Man was not made so large-limbed and robust but that he must seek to narrow his world’
‘All poets and heroes, like Memnon, are the children of Aurora, and emit their music at sunrise. To him whose elastic and vigorous thought keeps pace with the sun, the day is a perpetual morning. It matters not what the clocks say or the attitudes or labours of men. Morning is when I am awake and when there is a dawn in me … To be awake is to be alive.’
‘I rejoice that there are owls. Let them do the idiotic and maniacal hooting for men. It is a sound admirably suited to swamps and twilight woods which no day illustrates, suggesting a vast and undeveloped nature which men have not recognised. They represent the stark twilight and unsatisfied thoughts which all have.
‘However mean your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names. It is not so bad as you are. It looks poorest when you are richest. The fault-finder will find faults even in paradise. Love your life, poor as it is. You may perhaps have some pleasant, thrilling, glorious hours, even in a poor-house. The setting sun is reflected from the windows of the alms house as brightly as from the rich man’s abode; the snow melts before its door as early in the spring.’
* All quotes from Walden are from the Dover Thrift Edn.
Please excuse lack of reference for Camus and Wilde – I don’t have the texts at hand so I got ’em off the web.