Values in American Life and Contemporary Culture are cancelled this Wednesday, Nov. 12. We will resume on Friday.
There are at least 30 copies of the Norton 3rd edition of Walden sitting on the shelf downstairs in the book store.
Before you come to class on Wednesday, please read this article by Chris Hedges. It’s relevant to our conversations about Thoreau and raises the question of whether or not the culture we live in would prefer that we be shallow, unreflective, and ignorant. If, as Thoreau seems to argue, being human is something we have to work at, then Hedges’ remarks are cause for concern.
“Philosophy is really homesickness– the desire to be everywhere at home.”
– Novalis (Georg Philipp Friedrich Freiherr von Hardenberg)
“Had his genius been only contemplative, he had been fitted to his life, but with his energy and practical ability he seemed born for great enterprise and for command; and I so much regret the loss of his rare powers of action, that I cannot help counting it a fault in him that he had no ambition. Wanting this, instead of engineering for all America, he was the captain of a huckleberry-party.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson at Thoreau’s funeral
“Mr. Thoreau dined with us yesterday. He is a singular character – a young man with much of wild original nature still remaining in him; and so far as he is sophisticated, it is in a way and method of his own. He is as ugly as sin, long-nosed, queer-mouthed, and with uncouth and rustic, though courteous manners, corresponding very well with such an exterior. But his ugliness is of an honest and agreeable fashion, and becomes him much better than beauty. He was educated, I believe, at Cambridge, and foremerly kept school in this town; but for two or three years back, he has repudiated all regular modes of getting a living, and seems inclined to lead a sort of Indian life among civilized men – an Indian life, I mean, as respects the absence of any systematic effort for a livelihood. He has been for some time an inmate of Mr. Emerson’s family; and, in requital, he labors in the garden, and performs such other offices as may suit him – being entertained by Mr. Emerson for the sake of what true manhood there is in him. Mr. Thoreau is a keen and delicate observer of nature – a genuine observer – which, I suspect, is almost as rare a character as even an original poet; and Nature, in return for his love, seems to adopt him as her especial child, and shows him secrets which few others are allowed to witness. He is familiar with beast, fish, fowl, and repitle, and has strange stories to tell of adventures and friendly passages with these lower brothers of mortality. Herb and flower, likewise, wherever they grow, whether in garden or wildwood, are his familiar friends. He is also on intimate terms with the clouds, and can tell the portents of storms. It is a characteristic trait, that he has a great regard for the memory of the Indian tribes, whose wild life would have suited him so well; and, strange to say, he seldom walks over a ploughed field without picking up an arrow-point, speark-head, or other relic of the red man, as if their spirits willed him to be the inheritor of their simple wealth.”
“With respect to a true culture and manhood, we are essentially provincial still, not metropolitan,—mere Jonathans. We are provincial, because we do not find at home our standards,—because we do not worship truth, but the reflection of truth,—because we are warped and narrowed by an exclusive devotion to trade and commerce and manufactures and agriculture and the like, which are but means, and not the end.”
– HD Thoreau, “Life Without Principle”
“Most men, even in this comparatively free country, through mere ignorance and mistake, are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them. Their fingers, from excessive toil, are too clumsy and tremble too much for that. Actually, the laboring man has not leisure for a true integrity day by day; he cannot afford to sustain the manliest relations to men; his labor would be depreciated in the market. He has no time to be anything but a machine. How can he remember well his ignorance—which his growth requires—who has so often to use his knowledge? We should feed and clothe him gratuitously sometimes, and recruit him with our cordials, before we judge of him. The finest qualities of our nature, like the bloom on fruits, can be preserved only by the most delicate handling. Yet we do not treat ourselves nor one another thus tenderly.”
HD Thoreau, “Economy”
“That man who does not believe that each day contains an earlier, more sacred, and auroral hour than he has yet profaned, has despaired of life, and is pursuing a descending and darkening way.”
– HD Thoreau, Where I Lived and What I Lived For
Here’s what we need to cover for the week of Nov. 10-14:
Mon. Economy, Where I Lived and What I Lived For
Wed. Reading, Sounds, Solitude
Fri. Visitors, The Bean Field
This is interesting: some of the only remaining pre-Islamic literature found in Iran comes in the form of inscriptions found at various palaces– columns, cliff faces, gates, etc. One reason for the relative dearth of texts is the destructive and acquisitive zealousness of Alexander the Great, who is said to have burned 20,000 cowhides containing the Avesta– a collection of sacred Zoroastrian texts. Here’s an example of a surviving text, the “harem inscription”, taken from http://www.livius.org/ :
[1-8] A great god is Ahuramazda, who created this earth, who created heaven, who created man, who created happiness for man, who made Xerxes king, one king of many kings, commander of many commanders.[8-15] I am Xerxes, the great king, the king of kings, the king of all countries and many men, the king in this great earth far and wide.
[15-27] King Xerxes says: My father was Darius; Darius’ father was named Hystaspes; Hystaspes’ father was named Arsames. Both Hystaspes and Arsames were living at the time -thus was Ahuramazda’s desire- when my father Darius was made king of this earth. When Darius became king, he did much that was excellent. [King] Xerxes says …
[28-43] Darius had other sons, but -thus was Ahuramazda’s desire- my father Darius made me the greatest [mathišta] after himself. When my father Darius went away from the throne, by the grace of Ahuramazda I became king on my father’s throne. When I became king, I did much that was excellent. What had been built by my father, I protected, and other I added other buildings. What I built, and what my father built, all that by the grace of Ahuramazda we built.[44-48] King Xerxes says: May Ahuramazda protect me, my kingdom, and what was done by my father. May Ahuramazda protect this.
Here’s a trailer of a documentary about Ardeth Platte, Jackie Hudson and Carol Gilbert– three nuns who broke into a military base and symbolically “disarmed” a Minuteman III missile. These weapons of mass destruction “have three 335-kiloton nuclear warheads — carrying a total of over one million tons of TNT. Taken together, one missile has 80.4 times the power of the Hiroshima bomb. Since that bomb initially killed 140,000 people, one Minuteman III system can potentially kill 11,256,000 people. The U.S. still keeps about 500 of these Minuteman III missiles on alert in the Great Plains.” (see http://www.mindfully.org/Nucs/2002/Minuteman-Disarmament-Specialists6nov02.htm)
There is a long tradition in the US of disobedience to “man’s law” in favor of “higher law”– a position taken by people such as Anne Hutchinson and John Brown among many others. The grounding for this disorderly behavior comes out of an antinomian sensibility (in the secondary sense of that word).
Friday we’ll talk about Civil Disobedience and Economy. Likely there will be a quiz.