Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Walden

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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[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

Written by nevalalee

March 30, 2017 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

On Walden Pond

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Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau is a public menace, and he needs to be stopped. That’s the impression, at least, that we get from the critic Kathryn Schulz’s puzzling essay in a recent issue of The New Yorker, a savage takedown with no apparent news angle aside from the author’s determination to bury, not praise, Thoreau. Schulz tackles the task with relish, pointing out that “the real Thoreau was, in the fullest sense of the word, self-obsessed: narcissistic, fanatical about self-control, adamant that he required nothing beyond himself to understand and thrive in the world.” Let’s set aside the point, for now, that literary masterpieces in any genre aren’t likely to emerge from any other kind of personality: Walden, Schulz writes, is the work of a misanthrope “whose deepest desire and signature act was to turn his back on the rest of us.” The article’s attitude toward Thoreau’s antisocial tendencies is indignant, even strident, and it’s even stranger when we realize that it occupies the same prominent position in the same magazine—and was presumably the product of the same editorial process—as Jonathan Franzen’s equally baffling essay on climate change, in which he more or less advised the rest of us to resign ourselves to a “human catastrophe” to make room for more deserving species. And I can’t help but feel that Schulz has chosen a peculiar target for her rage, at a time when Thoreau, for all his flaws, stands as a necessary counterexample to the unsustainable impulses that surround us on every side.

I could tell that I was going to be out of phase with Schulz almost from the beginning, when she refers to the opening chapter of Walden, “Economy,” as “one of the highest barriers to entry in the Western canon: dry, sententious, condescending, more than eighty pages long.” I’ve always found it riveting—it’s possibly the most heavily underlined section in any book I own—and I revisit it on a regular basis, while I rarely feel the need to reread Thoreau’s nature writing, which Schulz likes. But there are other early warning signs that we shouldn’t expect a fair hearing. Schulz dismisses Thoreau’s commitment to the abolitionist movement, including his work as a conductor on the underground railroad, in a single paragraph, and she concludes: “But one may reach good ends by bad means.” (If history has taught us anything, isn’t it that we need to be more concerned about the opposite?) “His moral clarity about abolition,” Schulz writes, “stemmed less from compassion or a commitment to equality than from the fact that slavery so blatantly violated his belief in self-governance.” Yet that abstract conviction led him to take positions and actions at considerable risk to his own safety, while the “compassion” of so many others, then as now, resulted in nothing more than moral self-congratulation at a comfortable remove. Walden, Schulz says, is “a fantasy about escaping the entanglements and responsibilities of living among other people,” but in practice, it resulted in a greater sense of obligation and responsibility than many of the social and economic platitudes with which we surround ourselves today.

Marker for Thoreau's cabin

Which isn’t to say that Thoreau isn’t a deeply problematic figure. The core of Schulz’s position is familiar, and basically correct: Walden is a work of imaginative literature, not reportage, since Thoreau wasn’t nearly as removed from civilization as he claimed to be, and he wasn’t able to stick for long to the mode of living that he pressed on his readers. Schulz concludes: “So perhaps a sufficient argument against Thoreau is that, although he never admitted it, the life he prescribed was not an option even for him.” (There’s also the fact that even contemplating such a retreat is a luxury afforded to very few. E.B. White’s famous quip that Thoreau wrote as if “all his readers were male, unmarried, and well-connected” carries more weight than Schulz’s essay does in its entirety.) But this also misses the point. “His behavioral prescriptions are so foolishly inconsistent as to defy all attempts at reconciliation, while his moral sensibility is so foolishly consistent as to be naive and cruel,” Schulz writes, but this is a charge that can be leveled, with just as much reason, at other moral exemplars who have manifestly asked for the impossible. Walden is less like a practical handbook than what the Jesus Seminar calls a case parody, an admonition so exaggerated—like “Turn the other cheek”—that it exists only to shock us out of our old assumptions. A more reasoned approach, of the kind that Schulz would evidently prefer, would have had about as much impact as such arguments usually do, which is to say none. Thoreau overcorrects toward an extreme vision of simplicity because so much of America, both in his time and in ours, skews just as strongly in the other direction.

And it’s only through a conversation between extremes that we get at the kind of reasonable middle ground that Schulz finds acceptable. Thoreau wrote that even owning a doormat might mean succumbing to a kind of materialist temptation, of which Schulz says: “Only those with no sense of balance must live in so much fear of the slippery slope.” But this misunderstands how balance arises in the first place. The kind of moderation that Schulz—and I—see as the best way of living doesn’t emerge from aiming constantly at the midpoint: it’s an averaging out of extremes, a pragmatic slalom that allows for a play of competing forces that otherwise would shake themselves apart. (In fact, the best defense of Schulz’s essay is that its shrill attack on Thoreau might be the corrective we need to get at a more realistic portrait, which doesn’t make it any more convincing on its own.) “Restrictions and repudiations can just as easily complicate one’s life,” Schulz writes, as if this were a flaw in Thoreau’s argument, when in fact he belongs to a long tradition of ascetics who recognize that strict rules of simplicity, requiring constant vigilance, are the only way to generate the right kind of complexity. “The hypocrisy,” Schulz says, “is that Thoreau lived a complicated life but pretended to live a simple one.” Yet I don’t think the reader comes away from Walden with any impression other than that of a man of enormous inward complexity enabled by the outward constraints on which he maddeningly insisted. Thoreau’s example, even if it was inherently unattainable, points the way forward. In the words of the man who owned the land on which that cabin was built: “We aim above the mark to hit the mark.”

Written by nevalalee

October 21, 2015 at 9:41 am

The Ian Malcolm rule

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Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park

A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to leave alone.

—Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Last week, at the inaugural town hall meeting at Facebook headquarters, one brave questioner managed to cut through the noise and press Mark Zuckerberg on the one issue that really matters: what’s the deal with that gray shirt he always wears? Zuckerberg replied:

I really want to clear my life to make it so I have to make as few decisions as possible about anything except best how to serve this community…I’m in this really lucky position where I get to wake up every day and help serve more than a billion people. And I feel like I’m not doing my job if I spend any of my energy on things that are silly or frivolous about my life…So even though it kind of sounds silly—that that’s my reason for wearing a gray t-shirt every day—it also is true.

There’s a surprising amount to unpack here, starting with the fact, as Allison P. Davis of New York Magazine points out, that it’s considerably easier for a young white male to always wear the same clothes than a woman in the same situation. It’s also worth noting that wearing the exact same shirt each day turns simplicity into a kind of ostentation: there are ways of minimizing the amount of time you spend thinking about your wardrobe without calling attention to it so insistently.

Of course, Zuckerberg is only the latest in a long line of high-achieving nerds who insist, rightly or wrongly, that they have more important things to think about than what they’re going to wear. There’s more than an echo here of the dozens of black Issey Miyake turtlenecks that were stacked in Steve Jobs’s closet, and in the article linked above, Vanessa Friedman of The New York Times also notes that Zuckerberg sounds a little like Obama, who told Michael Lewis in Vanity Fair: “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits. I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.” Even Christopher Nolan gets into the act, as we learn in the recent New York Times Magazine profile by Gideon Lewis-Kraus:

Nolan’s own look accords with his strict regimen of optimal resource allocation and flexibility: He long ago decided it was a waste of energy to choose anew what to wear each day, and the clubbable but muted uniform on which he settled splits the difference between the demands of an executive suite and a tundra. The ensemble is smart with a hint of frowzy, a dark, narrow-lapeled jacket over a blue dress shirt with a lightly fraying collar, plus durable black trousers over scuffed, sensible shoes.

Mark Zuckerberg

If you were to draw a family tree between all these monochromatic Vulcans, you’d find that, consciously or not, they’re all echoing their common patron saint, Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park, who says:

In any case, I wear only two colors, black and gray…These colors are appropriate for any occasion…and they go well together, should I mistakenly put on a pair of gray socks with my black trousers…I find it liberating. I believe my life has value, and I don’t want to waste it thinking about clothing.

As Malcolm speaks, Crichton writes, “Ellie was staring at him, her mouth open”—apparently stunned into silence, as all women would be, at this display of superhuman rationality. And while it’s easy to make fun of it, I’m basically one of those guys. I eat the same breakfast and lunch every day; my daily uniform of polo shirt, jeans, and New Balance sneakers rarely, if ever, changes; and I’ve had the same haircut for the last eighteen years. If pressed, I’d probably offer a rationale more or less identical to the ones given above. As a writer, I’m called upon to solve a series of agonizingly specific problems each time I sit down at my desk, so the less headspace I devote to everything else, the better.

Which is all well and good. But it’s also easy to confuse the externals with their underlying intention. The world, or at least the Bay Area, is full of young guys with the Zuckerberg look, but it doesn’t matter how little time you spend getting dressed if you aren’t mindfully reallocating the time you save, or extending the principle beyond the closet. The most eloquent defense of minimizing extraneous thinking was mounted by the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, who writes:

It is a profoundly erroneous truism, repeated by all copy-books and by eminent people when they are making speeches, that we should cultivate the habit of thinking of what we are doing. The precise opposite is the case. Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them. Operations of thought are like cavalry charges in a battle—they are strictly limited in number, they require fresh horses, and must only be made at decisive moments.

Whitehead isn’t talking about his shirts here; he’s talking about the Arabic number system, a form of “good notation” that frees the mind to think about more complicated problems. Which only reminds us that the shirts you wear won’t make you more effective if you aren’t being equally thoughtful about the decisions that really count. Otherwise, they’re only an excuse for laziness or indifference, which is just as contagious as efficiency. And it often comes to us as a wolf in nerd’s clothing.

Four ways of looking at simplicity

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Carlos Castaneda

A man of knowledge needed frugality because the majority of the obligatory acts [for acquiring knowledge] dealt with instances or with elements that were either outside the boundaries of ordinary everyday life, or were not customary in ordinary activity, and the man who had to act in accordance with them needed an extraordinary effort every time he took action. It was implicit that one could have been capable of such an extraordinary effort only by being frugal with every other activity that did not deal directly with such predetermined actions.

Carlos Castaneda, The Teachings of Don Juan

Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind. With respect to luxuries and comforts, the wisest have ever lived a more simple and meagre life than the poor. The ancient philosophers, Chinese, Hindoo, Persian, and Greek, were a class than which none has been poorer in outward riches, none so rich in inward. We know not much about them. It is remarkable that we know so much of them as we do. The same is true of the more modern reformers and benefactors of their race. None can be an impartial or wise observer of human life but from the vantage ground of what we should call voluntary poverty.

Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Stewart Brand

Personally I don’t like the term [voluntary simplicity]…I’m more comfortable with the idea of “right livelihood,” which is one of the folds of the Buddhist Eightfold Path to enlightenment. It’s less of an exhortation than an observation—greedy behavior makes a sour life. The idealism of “Voluntary Simplicity” is okay I suppose, but it obscures what I find far more interesting—the sheer practicality of the exercise.

Stewart Brand, The Next Whole Earth Catalog

Sometimes the inculcation of poverty may be a concession to human weakness, which finds the golden mean so difficult. Poverty then appears as a kind of universal Prohibition. Confucius says rightly,

I know why men do not walk in the Way: the clever go beyond it, the stupid do not reach to it. I know why men do not understand the Way: the virtuous exceed it, the vicious fall below it.

But actually the sweetness and light of the Way of the Mean comes from complete, absolute poverty, for as Milton says in Samson Agonistes,

What boots it at one gate to make defense,
And at another let in the foe?

Poverty appears again as a form of safety first, a kind of fire insurance by burning down the house.

R.H. Blyth, Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics

The starving author’s guide to money

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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

“Money,” as Malcolm Cowley said, “is the central problem of a young writer’s life, or of his staying alive.” In particular, the lack of money is generally the central problem of most writers’ lives, at least in the years it takes to establish anything resembling a career. Even more frustrating is the fact, confirmed by my own experience, that it’s incredibly hard to produce a publishable novel if you aren’t writing full-time. This contradiction, between the reality of present financial constraints and the dream of being able to write six or more hours a day, is one that nearly every writer has faced. And it’s no exaggeration to say that every financial decision you make, from the moment you first decide to write for a living, needs to be directed toward establishing a life where that kind of freedom is possible. Because money is really just a proxy for more important things, like freedom, flexibility, and time.

The first, essential step, then, is to scale one’s life to the appropriate level, which is easier for some than for others. E.B. White pointed out that Thoreau’s great experiment was only possible for someone who was “male, unmarried, and well-connected,” and this remains true today: if you’re single and in your early twenties, it’s going to be easier for you to simplify your life than if you’re married with a couple of kids. But any life can benefit from some degree of simplification, and voluntary simplicity—or even what used to be called, less fashionably, voluntary poverty—remains the best position from which to embark upon a writing career. These days, simplicity has been variously defined, sometimes in incongruously complicated ways, but for an artist, it merely involves giving up some comfort in exchange for freedom and time. And time, more than anything else, is what a writer needs.

Of course, the specifics of simplifying one’s life will vary radically from person to person. For me, in the years leading up to my decision to quit my job, it meant relocating from Manhattan to Brooklyn, scaling back on luxuries like new books, and, above all, in saving. This isn’t the place for a detailed lecture on frugality or investing—for that, I’d recommend Ernest Callenbach’s Living Cheaply With Style and the sage advice on Bogleheads.org—but it’s worth noting that budgets generally don’t work as well as an automatic savings plan: you increase the percentage that you put into savings, even if it’s a small amount at first, and learn to live with a reduced income each month. Make it unconscious, with a portion of each month’s paycheck deposited directly into a savings account before you can touch it, and structure your life around the remainder. Andrew Tobias put it best, in The Only Investment Guide You’ll Ever Need:

There is someone in the world making 10% less than you who is not ragged and homeless. Live like him.

The immediate objective, then, while working toward the larger goal of writing for a living, is to pay down debt and create a cushion of savings to weather the inherent uncertainty of a writer’s life. Dean Koontz has advised writers to have a cushion of at least six to nine months’ personal expenses before attempting to write full-time, but I personally think that the number is much higher—at least a year, maybe more. That may seem like an insurmountable amount at a time when the average savings rate in the United States is 4.5%, but it’s much easier when you’ve scaled back your expenses beforehand. Spiritual considerations aside, on a purely practical level, a simple external life is more likely to grant you the kind of internal life that you need. And it doesn’t happen overnight. Small moves over a period of years are more effective than a sudden plunge into the unknown. And when the time comes to take that final step, you’ll be ready.

Disclaimer: I’m not a financial professional. This advice is for informational purposes only, and should not be construed as advice specific to your situation. (If Thoreau were alive today, his publisher would make him say the same thing.)

Written by nevalalee

October 18, 2011 at 10:17 am

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