Purposeful solitude: reading Thoreau in a lockdown
The connection between public engagement and private retreat is deeper than we think.
There has been plenty of advice on what to turn to during the C-19 pandemic. Next to the usual reminders - stay fit, eat healthily and drink less alcohol - almost every major newspaper also carried at least one feature article on what to read during the current lockdown. Recommendations ranged from the classics of imaginary travel - Swift’s Gulliver and Defoe's Robinson Crusoe figured prominently - to modern novels and authors such as Camus’s The Plague and the latest attempt to capture the historical dimensions of doom and gloom such as in Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light.
Henry David Thoreau’s Walden and his Journals are among the few non-fiction titles on these ‘must read’ lists. However, being non-fiction texts, Thoreau’s reflections have been regarded mainly as contributions to a largely de-politicised ‘mindfulness’: enough for triggering perhaps a few weeks of personal meditation during the lockdown but hardly containing a radical political message that goes beyond individualised ponderings. In short, Walden and the Journals had been turned into neutral texts that are of no political or social consequence whatsoever.
The critical and provocative sting has been taken out. What we read instead from one renowned American paper is a Thoreau who has gone into the woods mainly to meditate on the meanings of life after having experienced the sudden loss of his beloved brother from sepsis a few months earlier (this is how the Washington Post’s correspondent sees Walden). Obviously this is supposed to appeal to those whose relatives and friends had died in the pandemic.
Alternatively, and if we follow the most recent Thoreau feature in another American paper, the New York Times, readers have been presented with a misanthrope who isolated himself at Walden Pond mainly to experience nature more directly, and to gain distance from the contaminations of human civilisation. This was seemingly written to appeal to all nature lovers who had locked themselves at home.
To be fair, the Times has at least not forgotten about Thoreau’s political activities (albeit it seems more like an afterthought than an apt description of the context or of Thoreau’s firmly held principles). The newspaper covered the writer’s and his network’s engagement for the underground railroad, which helped to smuggle escaped slaves from the American South to Canada; Thoreau’s radical public appeal in service of the abolitionist cause; and his resistance to the American Mexican War ‒ all issues which led him to question illegitimate political authority. Yet, how exactly these activities are to be reconciled with his time in the woods remains a mystery for the paper – they seem to have developed almost magically from the writer’s ‘constructive solitude’.
True, there is no denial that Thoreau had a misanthropic streak. Yes, he sought solitude, usually by sauntering in the woods around Concord or what was left of them (readers are strongly encouraged to check the etymology of the term in the OED; just for now: it’s walking accompanied by reflection; mind-sauntering would be another ‘translation’). On his expeditions into the wilderness Thoreau obviously preferred the singing of the birds to human company; similarly when watching game, or observing house mice on return to his hut. Apparently he disliked wood worm because their combined efforts might lead to the collapse of his wooden refuge, so there were obvious limits as to having nature as company.
Yet while these accounts describe some of Thoreau’s activities in his self-sought exile they remain superficial if and when seen in isolation from Thoreau’s political agenda. Ecological escapism, remembrance or mourning for friends and relatives, and meditation exercises were necessary but they were never the writer’s prime objectives, at least not in Walden and in the Journals. Identifying them as ‘pure Thoreau’ and associating them with sage-like behaviour avoids addressing the deeper political and social motifs that drove the man. In contrast, what Thoreau tried to figure out and then prove by example, was what constituted self-formation and self-control in an emerging yet deeply imperfect republic.
To explain briefly, in his internal exile Thoreau was reflecting critically on the problematic relationship between individual and society in a flawed republic (at least in the U.S. the term democracy became popular only much later, hence Thoreau’s use of the terms ‘republic’ and ‘republican’). For him, society’s purpose was to exist for the benefit of all citizens – not the other way around. In other words, the individual’s purpose was not to serve society as if the latter were something that hovered somehow above its constituent members or formed a completely separate entity.
The defect of the American republic was that some of its members were not citizens at all but legal slaves and/or denizens (Thoreau wrote before the American Civil War and the 13th and 14th amendment, which marked the official end of slavery) and as such were excluded from participating fully in the reproduction of its political form by the usual means of voting and earning. This went against Thoreau’s convictions. To him it meant that he could not be free as long as there was another person who was enslaved and was prevented from being free.
To demand liberty and promote non-domination for all was one thing; to form a republican citizenry by way of self-guidance and self-constraint was another. Thoreau didn’t expect this change to come from big government. He was too much of a republican thinker to expect such a move from any administration. Thus, in republican thinking the formation of the self (or selves) and cultivating control of oneself is a task of each citizen (and of those who aspire to become citizens). Such a notion stands in contrast to much of what sociology has to say these days and what many people seem to have come to share: we are not just victims of society.
Thoreau reminds us that we all too often tend to happily forget that we, each and every one of us, act, however limited our means are and however constrained our powers appear to be. We are all society’s executers. If this is true our agenda must be to identify injustices wherever they occur and to act upon them, not to become merely passive recipients being hummed into a political coma by charitable provision from either the state or other agents, or following calls to serve ‘our nation’ by withdrawing from our obligations in workplaces in other political constituencies.
Last but not least, for Thoreau the experience of time-limited internal exile served as a kind of repository for political engagement. More than 120 years after Thoreau the social science wizard Albert O. Hirschman noted something similar in his study Shifting Involvements: there exists a deeper connection between public engagement and private retreat. The two realms of public and private must not be seen as alternatives but as being co-existential. We cannot be engaged 24/7; we need to draw breath and recharge our batteries for the next struggle and the next public engagement. Critical reflection rarely happens when one is in the middle of a fight but only with a distance both in terms of time and space. What Thoreau did was exactly that ‒ a successful and thus recommendable experiment in shifting involvements.
Pascal may have been right in pointing out that all problems of civilisation stem from the fact that one person is unable to be alone in a room for a sustained period of time. Or take Sartre’s observation that hell is other people. Sure, Thoreau was something of an American Jeremiad. He was different from the two exemplary European thinkers just mentioned; and yet he was also a republican in the New World who was enough schooled in the European classic tradition to uphold the principles of civic humanism and to make further suggestions as to how it could be brought about or improved. In doing so he argued for something that went beyond Pascal or Sartre, namely that the formation of self and sympathy for others were not in contradiction. Go figure what that could mean in the time of C-19.
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