The problems of pollution, resource shortages and nuclear energy have given birth to the dangerous idea that our technological problems demand non-technological solutions. That advocates of a return to wind, water and alcohol are treated seriously is bad enough; but the headlong return to wood fuel demonstrates the awful appeal of this Romantic flight into the wilderness. The flight from the technological imperative has its roots in the Romantic philosophy, and is deeply rooted in the nineteenth century. Perhaps its greatest spokesman was Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau gave us Walden, and in so doing gave birth to the ‘alternative life style’. Let us explore the experiment that Thoreau conducted at Walden, as well as its implications for our time.
Walden, as you know, is in Massachusetts. Massachusetts, with its scenic landscape and its ivory towers, is an idyllic land with a novel combination of platitudes and work ethic, ideology and idiocy, which in the mid nineteenth century proved capable of producing in its literary gentry a philosophical equivalent of Disneyland. It is the mother of abolition and the midwife of progressivism, prone on occasion to the colossal misunderstandings of a world reduced to mere syllogisms; believing that all must kneel and tremble before the mighty major premise. It is not at all surprising that it should produce a Henry David Thoreau who with singular audacity would seize upon an equally singular idea and pursue to make an indentation into the skull of America. That idea was a call for a retreat from civilization into the wilderness. We have still to recover from his all-but-mortal blow.
Recoiling in horror from Hobbes’ club-wielding gangs of roughs who, through rapine and plunder, were to bring about the undoing of their blessed “state of nature”, Thoreau, as Rousseau and Emerson, postulated the replacement of canine and bludgeon with the Noble Savage. Declaring the ‘Old Adam’—that is natural man-- a lunatic and returning him to the asylum the Romantics, in the name of humanity, confiscated brickbat and bludgeon, extricated the fighting canines and, in concert with 19th century biology and theology, drew a new picture of man as the descendent of the fabled “Leaf-Eater”. In league with Owen, Bentham and others, Thoreau stands as one of the first ‘social engineers’. And true enough, as with any social engineer worth the weight of that title, Thoreau promptly set himself about conducting the Grand Experiment. This, of course, leads us to Walden Pond. The conclusions drawn from the experiment at Walden is that the individual can live in harmony with the environment; that the environment is nurturing and benign; that here man can ‘free’ himself from the corrupting bonds of society; and that man can be self-sufficient.
That the Boomers would become hopelessly infatuated with these dictums is not surprising. Not only did Henry become a favorite of the schoolmarms who had our undivided attention, but his was a philosophy straight out of the pre-industrial nineteenth century, the so-called ‘golden age’ of individualism. What Thoreau tried to do at Walden was transplant Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, if not the western cowboy, on the banks of Walden Pond. Recoiling from the growing dependence and interdependence of modern life, Thoreau, longed to flee such complexities and rush into the open arms of a nurturing and morally purifying nature. And so he bundled up his few possessions, said goodbye to hearth and kin, and set out on his long journey into the wilderness.
He didn’t get far. Let us examine the record a bit more closely: Many years ago I was thumbing through an old edition of “American Scholar” when I discovered a great discrepancy between Mr. Thoreau’s account of the reasons for his going to Walden and the real story. It seems that Mr. Thoreau left town not because he was in search of deep philosophical answers to questions concerning the relationship of man to man or man to nature. No, there was quite a different set of reasons. It transpires that Mr. Thoreau was out fishing with a friend and the two of them caught a mess of fish. They stopped, on the way back to town, and started a fire upon which to cook their catch. Somehow the fire got out of control and before it was over many acres were destroyed. Now in those days men were unaided by modern fire-fighting equipment and techniques and fires were, for the most part, left to burn themselves out. The community of Concord, imperiled as it was by the conflagration, was in an uproar.
Now having earned the consternation and outrage of the good people of Concord, Thoreau’s reputation both as forester and responsible member of his community suffered serious reverses. He suffered what in modern parlance would be termed ‘peer-group rejection’. Now any experiment conducted by an individual who has been rejected by his peers must be viewed with utmost suspicion. But Thoreau, possessing the resources of a New England merchant proved adept at transforming fiasco into triumph. He accomplished this feat by falsifying the record.
Walden Pond is a scenic place, rather heavily wooded and accessible today by a nearby road. Massachusetts has successfully exploited the location as a tourist attraction. The result is that on any given weekend suburbanites converge on this quiet, peaceful locale to vicariously participate in the pious fraud. One must, however, be cautious. One must not let the scenic beauty blind oneself to the obvious. One must approach Walden with gloves on, for the filth is far more than the paper cups and beer cans that litter the wooded banks in the wake of the weekly invasion. If one approaches Walden with open eyes one immediately sees that it is located very near suburbia. As a matter of fact a railroad, there during Thoreau’s time, runs only yards behind his hut the foundations of which have been reverentially unearthed. Walden was then and is now only a short distance from Concord.
Now even in the text Thoreau admits that he bought ready-made materials for his hut. That others brought him foodstuffs is not admitted but is a documented fact. So too is documented his short sprint home as he would come crashing through the thicket so answer his mother’s frequent dinner bell. That others, Emerson among them, visited him often is likewise overlooked. In short, Thoreau was anything but self-sufficient and was depended on his fellow man for the necessities of life; dependent upon Emerson himself for the payment of property taxes for the very land upon which Thoreau took residence. In sum, Thoreau lied about the nature of his experiment; lied about the reasons for his retreat to Walden; lied about the conditions under which the experiment was undertaken; and then ridiculed the rest of us for not following his noble lie.
Let us probe the depths of Walden Pond in light of what we have learned from Robert Ardrey and the “new biology”. In many species, and I am not willing to omit man, there exists a phenomenon known as psychological castration. Lesser males are driven to the periphery of the community because they lack the necessary dominance to secure property, status and women. Thoreau, of course, would have us believe he was in a self-imposed exile, purging himself of the corruption of civilization. He would have us believe that he rejected the community. In truth the community rejected him; the community purged itself of Thoreau. He could not show his face in Concord, and if the truth were known the visits of Emerson and others were directed at getting him to reappear on the village green. That we should find him sulking on the edge of the community, renouncing war, violence, and everything else the community holds sacred is predictable in light of his social standing. In short, Thoreau was socially castrated—driven by that invisible psychological force into exile—that is to the periphery of the community.
That such penetrating questions as to how the species is to regenerate itself under conditions of splendid isolation, and such obvious points that man—each individual man—is himself a product of social intercourse do not concern us here; for Walden is a fraud from beginning to end.
That Thoreau found Walden unoccupied was a godsend. One must be moved to consider what his reaction would have been if he found Walden inhabited; or if he was himself subjected to the plunder of juvenile gangs. A Concord rife with that kind of juvenile delinquency is a bit hard to fathom, but we must assume that he would have moved on for psychological castration does not leave one with the will to fight or the strength of character to persevere.
That Thoreau did not take a woman with him to his ‘Eden’ is likewise significant. Psychological castration does not lend itself to conjuring up a paradise of conjugal bliss.
Thoreau, representing himself as the vanguard of the ‘alternative life style’ was in truth the refuse of the community. That such a philosophy, born of anxiety, guilt, and shame has become a topical favorite with our schoolmarms is bad enough; but that it should re-emerge in our time as a social ideal giving moral force to our current flight from the technological imperative is the only effect that one can attribute to this detestable piece of trash.
Today the voice of Thoreau echoes in our ears, calling us back to a simpler time, a siren song beckoning us back to that place where the ‘Boomers’ now continually find themselves; that place where one can disengage oneself from social connections and responsibility, where one can rid oneself of onerous governance, where one can pay no taxes. Today that voice manifests itself in a continual tax revolt, in the privatization of the public domain, and in the evisceration of governance. Its legacy is huge public debt, deteriorating infrastructure, and Katrina. This is the ‘New Frontier’ to which the Boomers have retreated. This is the wilderness into which we are now hopelessly lost.
More simply put there is now no wilderness to which to retreat. That such a pathological philosophy is not applicable to the individual is clear enough—as Thoreau, despite himself, quite clearly demonstrated. That the frightful prospect of 200 million Homelite chain saws loosed upon our dwindling wilderness clearly demonstrates that it cannot stand as a realistic alternative. As devoted to the environment as the ‘New Romantics’ profess to be, Walden is simply not an ecologically sound, nor a socially rewarding, alternative. For Thoreau Walden was a flight from Concord. To us Walden is a flight from technological complexities. Walden stands as a testament to the politics of impotence.
Walden is not only a sublime example of bad literature; it also represents a dangerous philosophy revealing as it does yet another example of the power of the pious fraud to influence the actions of our time. It is time to put this piece of natural fantasy back on the shelf and for the ‘Boomers’ to get their collective heads out of the nineteenth century and, albeit belatedly, return to hard reality.