Saturday, July 29, 2017

Jottings - Slice of life - 140 ( “Walden”, by Thoreau - pronounced as “thurrow” - 1817-1862 )

Jottings - Slice of life - 140 ( “Walden”, by Thoreau - pronounced as “thurrow” - 1817-1862 )
At the dawn of American history, in early 19th century, two important men chartered the course of American soul, as it were : Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. While Emerson went beyond the pulpit and raised the American mind to a new form of transcendental individualism in which the Christian god of Pilgrim fathers gave way to a subtler and more eastern spirit of universalism ; Thoreau was the ever practical and enterprise driven American soul who was quickly disillusioned at the direction his fellow citizens were embarking upon in the new found freedom of this great nation. Emerson, left his vocation as a stirring pastor, converted his lectures to full length essays in sublime prose, which reverberate even today in university halls and intellectual podiums as living testimony to courageous, free thinking and self reliant man ; Thoreau, on the other hand - a Harvard graduate, a lawyer, an agriculturist, a self proclaimed poet, tutor to Emerson’s nephews and sons; at roughly around 22 years of age chose to retire into quiet countryside alongside Walden pond in Concord, Massachusetts, building for himself a hut with minimal comforts; lived there for two and half years as an experiment to discover what it takes to live a simple life without the encumbrances and frenzy of make a living. While Emerson’s erudite essays sparkles with learning, wit, originality and purple prose, Thoreau wrote his “Walden” - again a book of essays in matter of fact style , only occasionally slipping into sublime prose , captured his singular experience living alone with nature alongside Walden pond: cooking, farming, reading and writing. He wrote this book over a period of eight years - editing, correcting, rewriting - until the book transcended his existential experiment, and assumed a life of its own. When it was first published in 1852, nobody took notice of it. But slowly, when young America began to question its conscience on whether the promise and intent of its Pilgrim fathers were achieved, and whether the direction they had taken as a country was really the right one - then Walden came to their rescue with its essential wisdom and stunning simplicity . It revealed a nuance to living which was fast being forgotten or overwhelmed by industry and commerce. Men were becoming acquisitive and desperate. Walden was written partly as a journal and partly as a slap on the face of a country which even though had found its political freedom from England, had pitifully lost its inner freedom to unbridled and relentless pursuit of commerce and industry. Its citizens created wealth aplenty, but most men were psychologically burdened, wounded and in chains of debt and slavery. Through Walden, in series of essays, Thoreau revealed this festering wound with all its overflowing pus and inflammation, hoping that some of his country men would retrace their steps to a saner and simpler way of living. It is coincidental ( but not for Thoreau) that the day he stepped into his newly built hut was July 4th of 1845. The irony it was American independence day was obviously lost on him, not because he didn't care, but because those were early days and July 4th did not have the kind of importance and fanfare it came to assume later. So, when America celebrated its outer freedom, Thoreau stepped into his humble hut to experience his inner freedom. And out of that experience “Walden”, the book was born
2017 is the bicentennial of Thoreau’s birth. Around half a dozen books on Thoreau have been published this year, about his life, his work, his philosophy, his political views and much more. “Walden” itself, has been reissued by many renowned publishing houses to commemorate his life. Some of them beautifully annotated. Among the few books I carry on my kindle “Walden” is one of them. I dip into it every now and then, like a scripture. To a Human mind, some questions are eternally fresh, no matter who asks them and when. Questions, such as : What does Man need to live a happy and contented life; what is his relationship to nature and world around; how much does a man materially need to live a healthy life - These are questions speculated upon in every conceivable metaphysical system. And there are enough answers to satisfy everyone. But all of us know that only answers which come from a man who has audaciously applied his understanding to actually living it, will ring truer than those for whom such questions were merely passings distractions. Thoreau lived his life in accordance with what he thought. It is this honesty and integrity of the man that strikes a reader of walden. The simple prose which comes directly from the heart strikes at the root of our selfish and confused living. We find ourselves unconsciously nodding with Thoreau as we read striking passages in Walden - one after the other after in swelling succession. For instance, when he talks about human needs, he writes:
“By the words, necessary of life, I mean whatever, of all that man obtains by his own exertions…. or from long use has become, so important to human life that few, if any, whether from savageness, or poverty, or philosophy, ever attempt to do without it..”
or when he writes about why he chose to live in the woods:
“I went to the wood because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived…”
or when he expands on the splendor of rural life:
“Our village life would stagnate if it were not for the unexplored forests and meadows which surround it. We need the tonic of wildness..”
or when he writes about the superfluous luxuries accumulated in our lives
“Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hinderances to the elevation of mankind…”
Like these gems, in page after page Thoreau words penetrate deep into our hearts. Walden is not a book that can read as a piece of fiction or at one go. It is a book, that needs to nibbled, chewed and digested well in small doses. It is a book to keep besides ones bed, and a page or two read first thing in the morning, or last thing before going to bed. The power of his observations, his tactile awareness, leaves a beautiful residue in our minds. which slowly percolates into daily action. Especially, in the modern era, with some many external contraptions and machines dominating and chaining human life, his words and thoughts come as a breath of fresh, balmy air. For at least an instant, through the prism of Thoreau’s thoughts, we glimpse at the madness of our own lives. It is that taste of immortality and freedom great books, music, painting or any art is known to give. They open our habit ridden minds a little, and through that minuscule opening, we instantly perceive a deeper meaning to life and living.
It is also worth pointing out for my young readers that civil disobedience , or non-violent dissent as a means of political change was voiced for the first time in Thoreau’s writings. In an essay published in 1849 titled “Civil disobedience” Thoreau eloquently argued against slavery and America’s war against Mexico. In that remarkable essay, in one of the greatest passages ever written on Polity and man’s place in it, he writes
“.. the State never intentionally confronts a man’s sense, intellectual or moral, but only his body, his senses. It is not armed with superior wit or honesty, but with superior physical strength. I was not born to be forced. I will breathe after my own fashion. Let us see who is the strongest…”
It were these very words that inspired the Gandhi’s, the Martin’s Luther Kings’s, and the Nelson Mandela’s of modern times to stand against unjust laws and institutions with courage and inner fortitude. All of them had Thoreau works in their bookshelves.
In a way, Henry David Thoreau now belongs to the world and not just America. He lived for 44 years, but he lived his life based what he thought, felt and wrote. There was an integrity to his existence which all of us consciously or unconsciously seek. It is nearly 200 years since Walden was published, and his words are more relevant today than when he wrote it. However, two centuries of industrialization has radically changed Human civilization. We are far away from Thoreau's world. One wonders, if it is at all possible to revert to our roots, as Thoreau passionately wished us to. Can we live without our extensions - the mobile phone, the computer, the jets, the innumerable contrivances we have surrounded ourselves with. Can we live alone as just one more species on this earth without complicating our lives morally, physically and economically. Can we ever be satisfied with our ever growing wants, and learn to say enough? Can we ask basic questions about our identity and purpose in this universe and arrive at original answers and follow dogmas?
All these seem remote to us. Not surprising. After all, Our measure of success is dubiously based on parameters which has nothing to do with life and nature. We run with panting breath towards a horizon, which we ironically know, to be always receding and can never be touched. Such is the madness and dilemma of modern man. Reading Thoreau in his 200th birth year may after all be a good thing, a panacea, an ambrosia for tired bodies and minds. There is an outside chance that our younger generation may get inspired and radically change directions. If that ever happens, then the experiment Thoreau began on 4th of July 1845 would not have been in vain.
God bless…
Yours in mortality,