Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Henry David Thoreau

My ten creative books #2: The Importance of Living

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Note: I’m counting down ten books that have influenced the way that I think about the creative process, in order of the publication dates of their first editions. It’s a very personal list that reflects my own tastes and idiosyncrasies, and I’m always looking for new recommendations. You can find the earlier installments here.

When Lin Yutang died in 1976, his obituary in the New York Times naturally described him as “an interpreter to Western minds of the customs, aspirations, fears and thoughts of his people and their country, China, the great and tragic land.” But what strikes me the most now about his masterpiece, The Importance of Living, is how little of it seems specifically Chinese, and how quickly its vision of life came to seem like an anachronism. Here, for example, is Lin on the figure of “the scamp,” which he holds up as his ideal of human life:

My faith in human dignity consists in the belief that man is the greatest scamp on earth. Human dignity must be associated with the idea of a scamp and not with that of an obedient, disciplined, and regimented soldier. The scamp is probably the most glorious type of human being, as the soldier is the lowest type, according to this conception…In this present age of threats to democracy and individual liberty, probably only the scamp and the spirit of the scamp alone will save us from becoming lost as serially numbered units in the masses of disciplined, obedient, regimented, and uniformed coolies. The scamp will be the last and most formidable enemy of dictatorships. He will be the champion of human dignity and individual freedom, and will be the last to be conquered. All modern civilization depends entirely upon him.

These lines, which appeared in 1937, acquired a sadly ironic undertone almost from the moment of their first publication. Yet the book was always less about China than about the author himself. Like most interpreters and intermediaries between cultures, Lin was never particularly comfortable in either world, and like Thoreau and the other sages whom he cites, he was an outlier even in the society that he was supposedly introducing to the West.

And what remains is still the best handbook that I’ve ever found for living a sane, balanced life as a member of the creative class, regardless of one’s background. If you only have time to read part of it, I’d recommend the section “Who Can Best Enjoy Life?”, which I seem to revisit every year. Lin opens with a consideration of right living, and after considering the merits of the Taoist and Confucian points of view, he concludes with an unforgettable endorsement of the life embodied by Zisi, which Lin calls “the philosophy of half-and half”:

Those are the best cynics who are half-cynics…It is that spirit of sweet reasonableness, arriving at a perfect balance between action and inaction, shown in the ideal of a man living in half-fame and semi-obscurity; half-lazily active and half-actively lazy; not so poor that he cannot pay his rent, and not so rich that he doesn’t have to work a little or couldn’t wish to have slightly more to help his friends; who plays the piano, but only well enough for his most intimate friends to hear, and chiefly to please himself; who collects, but just enough to load his mantelpiece; who reads, but not too hard; learns a lot but does not become a specialist; writes, but has his correspondence to the Times half of the time rejected and half of the time published—in short, it is that ideal of middle-class life which I believe to be the sanest ideal of life ever discovered by the Chinese.

Few people of any country have ever managed to put this into practice, and Lin passes over the important point that one only arrives at it after a long struggle to achieve something more. Those who aim for it are likely to miss it entirely—but this doesn’t make it any less true. And when we think of those in power today, and of the moral compromises that they continue to make, Lin’s final admonition feels more resonant than ever: “A half Lindbergh would be better, because more happy, than a complete Lindbergh. I am quite sure Lindbergh would be much happier if he had flown only halfway across the Atlantic.”

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July 31, 2018 at 9:00 am

Quote of the Day

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It may seem to some that through the use of chance operations I run counter to the spirit of Thoreau…The fifth paragraph of Walden speaks against blind obedience to a blundering oracle. However, chance operations are not mysterious sources of “the right answers.” They are a means of locating a single one among a multiplicity of answers, and, at the same time, of freeing the ego from its taste and memory, its concerns for profit and power, of silencing the ego so that the rest of the world has a chance to enter into the ego’s own experience, whether that be outside or inside.

John Cage, “Lecture on the Weather”

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June 15, 2018 at 7:30 am

Quote of the Day

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Something about working with one’s hands conduces to aphorism: some correlation between the manipulable unit, grasped, lifted, and the mind’s intermittent concentrations…The quotabilities of a Franklin or a Thoreau are suspended amid connections they do not state, in the silent mental continuum of a man setting type, building a cabin, hoeing beans.

Hugh Kenner, Bucky: A Guided Tour of Buckminster Fuller

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June 8, 2018 at 7:30 am

Quote of the Day

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He is not a true man of science who does not bring some sympathy to his studies, and expect to learn something by behavior as well as by application. It is childish to rest in the discovery of mere coincidences, or of partial and extraneous laws…The fact which interests us most is the life of the naturalist. The purest science is still biographical. Nothing will dignify and elevate science while it is sundered so wholly from the moral life of its devotee, and he professes another religion than it teaches, and worships at a foreign shrine. Anciently the faith of a philosopher was identical with his system, or, in other words, his view of the universe.

Henry David Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers

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February 1, 2018 at 7:30 am

Quote of the Day

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[The] spending of the best part of one’s life earning money in order to enjoy a questionable liberty during the least valuable part of it reminds me of the Englishman who went to India to make a fortune first, in order that he might return to England and live the life of a poet. He should have gone up garret at once.

Henry David Thoreau, Walden

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March 30, 2017 at 7:30 am

“Let us play…”

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Will Durant

Happiness is the free play of the instincts, and so is youth. For the majority of us it is the only period of life in which we live; most men of forty are but a reminiscence, the burnt-out ashes of what was once a flame. The tragedy of life is that it gives us wisdom only when it has stolen youth. Si jeunesse savait, et vieillesse pouvait—”If youth knew how, and old age could!”

Health lies in action, and so it graces youth. To be busy is the secret of grace, and half the secret of content. Let us ask the gods not for possessions, but for things to do; happiness is in making things rather than in consuming them. In Utopia, said Thoreau, each would build his own home; and then song would come back to the heart of man, as it comes to the bird when it builds its nest. If we cannot build our homes, we can at least walk and throw and run; and we should never be so old as merely to watch games instead of playing them. Let us play is as good as Let us pray, and the results are more assured.

Will Durant, Fallen Leaves

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November 26, 2015 at 7:30 am

My great books #5: The Complete Walker

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The Complete Walker III by Colin Fletcher

Note: I’m counting down my ten favorite works of nonfiction, in order of the publication dates of their first editions, and with an emphasis on books that deserve a wider readership. You can find the earlier installments here.

The other day, I mentioned my recurrent fantasy of selling my possessions, leaving home, and traveling the world with a backpack. For all the usual boring reasons, I never came close to doing it for real, and curiously enough, aside from a few minor exceptions, I was never even inspired to do the next best thing—I’ve never been a backpacker or hiker. This is despite the fact that Colin Fletcher’s The Complete Walker is probably the nonfiction book I’ve reread more frequently than any other. (There are several editions, all of which have their charms, but the one I’d recommend that you read for your own pleasure is the third, since it’s the longest and most comprehensive version that Fletcher wrote on his own.) Unlike certain other critics, I love the “Economy” chapter of Thoreau’s Walden precisely because it’s so fussily specific: Thoreau devotes so much attention to the balance sheet and homely practicalities of his little experiment that you’re almost convinced that you could do it yourself. Fletcher’s book has much the same appeal: it’s basically an encyclopedic survey of the subject of backpacking, particularly of the equipment involved, and after you’ve read one of his exhaustive treatments of packs, flashlights, or space blankets, you may not be ready to set off on your own, but you’ve been furnished with ample material for dreams.

The more I revisit The Complete Walker—and I seem to go through the whole thing, piece by piece, every couple of years or so—the more it strikes me as a genuine but unsung literary masterpiece, a model of clarity, wit, readability, and good humor. Fletcher worries here and there that his focus on the “how-to” comes at the expense of the “feel-how,” but the pages in which he attempts to directly evoke the delights of walking itself, which is inherently impossible, are rather less poetic and interesting than his finicky weighting of the merits of various brands of camping stoves, which I could read forever. And I often think of what Fletcher says after considering the arguments of those who say that you should never go backpacking alone:

But if you judge safety to be the paramount consideration in life you should never, under any circumstances, go on long hikes alone. Don’t take short hikes alone either—or, for that matter, go anywhere alone. And avoid at all costs such foolhardy activities as driving, falling in love or inhaling air that is almost certainly riddled with deadly germs. Wear wool next to the skin. Insure every good and chattel you possess against every conceivable contingency the future might bring, even if the premiums half-cripple the present. Never cross an intersection against a red light, even when you can see that all roads are clear for miles. And never, of course, explore the guts of an idea that seems as if it might threaten one of your more cherished beliefs. In your wisdom you will probably live to a ripe old age. But you may discover, just before you die, that you have been dead for a long, long time.

Written by nevalalee

November 6, 2015 at 9:00 am

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