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Winter Approaches.


Many people in the Catskills dread the winter, but I do not. I get to work outdoors at the nursery from spring until the arrival of winter, and even when I am not working there I am often gardening at my cabin or hiking in the mountains. The result is eight good months of constant outdoor activity. When winter arrives, I am ready for it – ready to sit inside by the fire and read books.

The first tome I have picked up so far was one my mother brought home from the Queens Public Library, Deep South, by Paul Theroux. I’m sure I never would have read it were it not that it was on my mom’s coffee table when I visited her; but once I began the book, I wanted to finish it.

Paul Theroux’s Deep South.


I don’t know quite what to make of Paul Theroux. I think his resume is very interesting – a Peace Corps volunteer who taught in Malawi (falling afoul of the mad Classicist-Dictator Hastings Banda and getting kicked out of the country), teaching for a few more years before getting a book published and then winning himself some acclaim as a travel writer. His travel exploits are quite enviable: he rode trains from the Boston T down to Patagonia for The Old Patagonian Express; he walked nearly the whole coast of England for The Kingdom by the Sea; he explored Eurasia, and then China, by rail in The Great Railway Bazaar and Riding the Iron Rooster; he encircled much of the Mediterranean in The Pillars of Hercules – still a surprisingly dangerous task even today – and toured the Pacific islands – doing the shorter runs in a kayak – in The Happy Isles of Oceania. And this is not nearly all of his books.

I have read The Old Patagonian Express, The Pillars of Hercules, The Kingdom By the Sea, and now Deep South, and each time, I have finished his books without any particular certainty that what I had just read was real literature. The closest I have seen him come to literature is the passage in The Old Patagonian Express where he meets the blind Borges, who makes him read Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym to him. But of course one is left with the impression that it was Borges that made that encounter literature. It was Borges who wanted Theroux to read, rather than merely exchange pleasantries; it was Borges who picked such a fabulous and unusual book; it was Borges’s passion to hear Poe in an American accent, a touch which is simultaneously tender and purposeful – not at all the kind of modernist absurdity that clutters our minds today.

It may be the case that Theroux’s travel writing is done merely for fun and money, and I should look to his fiction for something deeper – after all, Mosquito Coast did make a fine and thoughtful movie. That proposition may end up being true – that his best work is his fiction – but somehow I don’t have any instinctive confidence in it.

I will return to that idea, but first let’s take a look at Deep South, Theroux’s latest book. It is a badly edited, somewhat lazy book; right at the beginning he wishes to offer by way of prologue a meditation on the difficulty of American travel writing – because there really are no difficulties, travel in America being so easy – but he just blunders about the topic, repeating himself several times, as if he just decided to throw in all his false starts – hell, I wrote ‘em, why not use ‘em. The same thing happens elsewhere, where he makes the point about the South reminded him of Africa about fifteen times, in much the same words, and where he repeats himself about Southern hospitality, Southern churches, etc. The impression you get is that Theroux launched himself into his observation about the importance of Southern churches multiple times, but no one read the book closely enough to catch it, and so it ended up in multiple places.

It has been noted before, that telling us that Southern churches are important in their communities is hardly a new or profound observation. It sounds like a trite truism even before you look at Theroux’s terrible – indeed amateurish – handling:

A church in the South is the beating heart of the community, the social center, the anchor of faith, the beacon of light, the arena of music, the gathering place, offering hope, counsel, welfare, warmth, fellowship, melody, harmony, and snacks. (3)

Indeed, there is almost nothing new or unusual in Theroux’s entire book: the South he goes out to find consists of shotgun shacks, rusted-out trailers, rotting farmhouses, Indian-run motels, baptist churches; discussions about slavery, the Civil Rights Movement, segregation, and Faulkner; gun shows, college football, soul food diners; and not much else. He confines his visits to rural poor South Carolina, rural poor Alabama, rural poor Mississippi, and rural poor Arkansas. There is not even an attempt to get to the complexity of the region now: the gay culture of Charleston, the expensive eco-alt chic of Asheville, the corporate elite of Atlanta, the exurbs of Birmingham and Charlotte, and a million other topics that could be covered.

But I don’t blame Theroux for this; he wanted small, beat-up towns – places where the church is still the only thing in town besides the post office – and he’s entitled to it. He’s definitely not making it up: the South has a lot of places like that. And since I take an interest in places like that, I enjoyed reading about them. Theroux is a good observer, and he captures some interesting dialogue, though none of it struck me as particularly amazing. His was an experience which was enjoyable enough and which anyone could have today – just hop into your car and go there. And if you can’t go there today – if you’re enjoying a spell on the couch – Theroux is a nice companion. He’s smart, usually acerbic, occasionally funny, and very well-traveled. He made me look up some words – which very few authors can do (“fossicking”?) and made me smile at his coinage of others (Bill Clinton turning the Arkansas governor’s mansion into a “fornicarium”).

But ultimately, literature is great human beings on paper, and for all the rooting Theroux does in the book for the good guys working for community development in these beaten-down towns, I never get much of a sense that Theroux is a deeply impressive human being. There is the egotism – many (maybe even most) of his analogies draw attention to his own travels rather than illuminating the thing being described; when he speaks of “the great travel writing of our day,” he has to include “nearly everything in travel that I have written.” The vague odor of pusillanimity never quite gets off his page. In his other books he always has the best of every conversation, which itself seems unlikely; but in this book it feels like the egotism has run so amok it even damages his ability to present himself well. At one point he starts speaking to a black preacher in Chaucerian English, because the preacher had the name Palmer; all very well, but he could have explained what Palmer meant in old English without reverting to Middle English. It feels like he is quoting it just to show that he knows it. Most smart people do this as adolescents; but Theroux looks a bit long in the tooth for this kind of behavior.

Then there is the negativity. It seems that all Theroux’s truly passionate energy resides in opposition. He is weakly benign towards all the good causes he comes across, and I laud him for it. But all the comparisons he makes with Africa lead him to the thing which truly galvanizes him, which is U.S. foreign aid to Africa, and how it should be spent here instead. Theroux may well be right, by the way – but at the very least, there is something to be said for the belief that more money should go to the poorest of the poor, who actually do reside in other countries. But in Theroux it appears as a constant harping: the kind of recurrent emotive obsession that powerless and misguided people have in lieu of meaningful work.

One of the themes of the harping is that it is the responsibility of the Clinton Foundation – or maybe the Gates Foundation, but no, really the Clinton Foundation – to do something about Southern poverty. He brings it up to almost every person he meets down South (if he had been clever, he would have reported that everyone else was bringing it up to him). Again, he may be right, but even if so, a single, well-argued paragraph making this case will do his cause more justice than repeated snipes. After the sniping, he visits Hot Springs, noting its seediness, and then goes into a seven-page biographical insinuation (it’s not really anything more than this) about Bill Clinton:

When Clinton was a teenager (and from his account he roamed freely in Hot Springs), gambling was rife, murders were common, gangsters were part of the scene, Maxine Jones’s brothel and many others were thriving, and the town, run by a crooked political machine, was alight with roisterers, whores, and high rollers. You’re bound to wonder what effect that ingrained culture of vice might have had on an impressionable schoolboy. (347)

It goes on for seven pages like this, but it never really amounts to anything. It’s just negativity, the kind of sniping you might find on Fox News. I’d love for Theroux to be able to paint a Tacitean portrait of Clinton through the gangster-spa of Hot Springs; such a thing could be a tour-de-force. But there is no weight behind anything Theroux says (with one exception: he claims that Clinton never mentions the black community of Hot Springs in his autobiography, which I do, in fact, find to be an interesting omission, if it’s true). It concludes by claiming, “The bird-dogger of chicks is also, inevitably, the most fervent sermonizer at the prayer breakfast.” This is the climax of seven pages of biographical tarring. Montes pariuntur, nascitur ridiculus mus.

Most of the book is not like this – mostly it is vaguely entertaining, generally benignant, and readable. But consistently, in Theroux’s books, it is the snippets of Theroux the man which peak through the narrative that seem most unappealing. There appears to be some kind of emptiness in him, which a lifetime of profitable writing has not filled. He wanders around the South, but his brain seems to be the large sort, and large brains are wounded by too much purposeless wandering. And while he has written much and sometimes written well, I cannot get past the sense that something is missing.

One Piece.


With a baby on the way in just a few weeks, I have all kinds of thoughts about parenting, but they are difficult to put in words – in part because this is one of the most deeply personal things we do, and also one of the things we have the most inflexible opinions about: in other words, it may not be a productive topic for public discussion.  What one person believes is necessary for their children, another person believes is actually immoral (for me this comes up most clearly with economic questions – many people believe that the greatest gift they can give their children is privilege.  Needless to say, I do not believe this).  And conversations of this sort very quickly and easily, with issues so deeply personal, cause offense.

But one thing I think I can say is that I believe we are in the midst of a revolution in values and mores, one which I am, myself, going to try to resist.  The revolution is this: my generation, I am certain, will spend less time involved in the raising of children than any other generation in human history.  And the time we spend doing it will probably also mean less to us than it has meant to other generations.  This latter part I fear even more than the former.  I can force myself to spend time with my kids – but I have seen many parents who are frankly bored by their children, and don’t find it as meaningful as they would have thought.  They are happy that there exists an education industry, and a daycare industry, and a vast child entertainment industry.

I hope to resist all these things, and in general I think the greatest satisfactions in life come from taking back the activities that the economic world of specialization is continually trying to take from us.  Because in this way we get in touch with archetypal energies inside ourselves, the release of which is a deep source of satisfaction.  We can be more than just Man the Worker: we can be Man the Builder, Man the Lover, Man the Priest, Man the Poet, Man the Toolmaker, Man the Finder, Man the Dreamer, Man the Animal, and so much more, if we give those portions of our lives a little sun and space and water.

And just as Man the Son is an archetype that is not just a personal relationship, but an entire stance toward the past, so Man the Father is a stance toward the future.  I remember hearing Richard Rohr asking, “What have you really fathered?” and thinking it one of the ways of measuring a life.  What life have you really created outside of yourself in the world?

As I say, I am full of these questions right now.  But one piece of this resistance to economic specialization, and an attempt to vindicate the importance of parenthood, I see in the work of my friend Amber Scorah.  This past summer her family suffered a terrible tragedy, and she has been transforming the grief from that event into an attempt to give parenthood in America at least the kind of protections it has in other wealthy countries, by seeking more robust parental-leave laws.  It will be an uphill battle in a place which considers its main business to be business, but we will see what happens.  I think the more likely option is that high-end companies will continue to improve their parental leave policies, but a single law will be difficult to enforce across the country.  For Amber’s story, see her beautiful piece in yesterday’s New York Times’ blog.

I consider legislation of this sort one small part of a broader cultural effort to reclaim the dignity of parenthood.  For people who work in the kind of companies which really can have better parental leave policies, I think this is a fight worth fighting.

Midnight In Paris.


A friend over lunch had just been enthusing to me about the Woody Allen film Midnight in Paris, and lo and behold, Catherine, unbidden, brought it home from the library the next day.  The coincidence made watching it irresistible; and anyway, I was curious about it.  Several people I know had loved it, while others found it a representative sample of the intellectual vapidization that occurs when Hollywood and Global Tourism combine forces.

It is certainly the case that the movie is not heavy-hitting intellectual brilliance.  Allen himself has said of it that he wrote the script quickly and easily, without any attempt at creating depth of character: he just wanted Hemingway to brush across the screen and say something manly, and he wanted Dali to be surreal, and that was about it.  Fitzgerald looks elegant and offers you a drink.  Some lines are lifted from A Moveable Feast and other relevant sources even though it is difficult to speak things that writers write in memoirs, and they don’t entirely come off onscreen.

But if you allow yourself to surrender to the movie, it really is quite charming.  Allen has said that he started with nothing but the title, and crafted the movie around it: and the title suggests something romantic, and full of warmth and life and a little bit of mystery and the uncertainty of what can happen in the middle of the night in a great and beautiful city.  And it works: the movie is eminently suggestive of those riches of the imagination which great and haunted cities offer, and the combination of good looks, artistic personalities, and pretty cityscapes onscreen makes for good cinema.

The basic conceit of the movie is that the lead character (a writer played by Owen Wilson) finds himself transported, by the magic of one particular corner in Paris, back to the 1920s, where he finds himself surrounded and embraced by the famous artists of that era.  He makes several trips back and forth, which makes his actual life – submerged in the conformist stupidity of American upper-class society – seem unwise and unfulfilled.  There are several little imaginative twists which show Allen’s ability to execute deft cinematic turns, and the script is generally amusing.

Catherine was a bit uncertain about the movie, finding that it was neither truly funny the way Annie Hall is, nor moving the way more serious movies can be.  In this respect it reminded me of Allen’s Manhattan Murder Mystery: a combination of murder mystery with marital-ennui flick which manages to make no particular contribution to either genre and remains charming nonetheless.  A light heart is required to enjoy these films.

As for those who found Midnight In Paris culpably vapid, I cannot much agree with them.  It never pretends to be a biopic of any of the artists depicted; and in fact its topic is more accurately intellectual nostalgia, and its engagement with this topic is in the end quite responsible.  The Owen Wilson character goes back to the 20s to find the people there similarly believing they had all been born too late to catch the world at the peak of its bloom and beauty, and he is forced to reflect on the problem and, ultimately, return back to his own time.  And the root of all escapism Allen truly identifies as avoidance of the real problems of one’s own life: Wilson has to do something about his failing, materialistic marriage (which he does).

I think there is also some sense that Owen Wilson, as an actor, lacks the intellectual weight necessary to share a café table in Paris with Hemingway and Fitzgerald.  He is never able to put much heft in the character, and for those who feel that you need credentials to sit at that table, seeing him there does seem a bit silly.  But Wilson brings an Everyman quality to the movie, and with that an innocent joy in being immersed in such famous company, which is charming and democratic.  He may be a bit like Forrest Gump dropped into the Lost Generation, but the Lost Generation probably could have used more innocence and joy anyway.  In cinematic terms Wilson manages to make his Paris feel like something he hasn’t earned – rather it is just something he is willing to try, while many others, so wrapped up in themselves, shut their eyes to it and miss it.  You can feel something similar in all these great cities, in Paris, in Rome, in Venice, in London – the sense that any given night could bring you face to face with a throng of ghosts, and that your own awareness of their presence gives them a kind of beautiful immortality: not enough to assuage our fear of death, not enough to overcome the sorrows of life, but something, and beautiful.

Tangled Up in Thucydides.


The third piece I’ve written for Eidolon, this one about Bob Dylan’s apparent discovery of a new book by Pericles (or his general confusion about the Classics).

Bob Dylan, Conscience of a Generation.


A few weeks ago I was cleaning up after a party at my house and came upon a paper bag full of books which a guest had apparently left as a gift.  They were all recent books, the kind of stuff that makes me hate being in bookstores – I always feel like I have to get out of those places – the ephemeral excreta of celebrity and success-culture.  Celebrity autobiographies, self-help books, well-reviewed novels, “unauthorized histories” of minor pop culture movements of the 60s and 70s – to me they all feel like advertising circulars from la-la land, where status has replaced significance.  It’s bad enough that it’s all hype – the fact that they try to make you pay for it too is repugnant.  But when it comes for free, and appears in my cabin mysteriously – well, why not have some fun.

So I pulled Bob Dylan’s autobiography out of the paper bag and started reading it.  Now of course when an autobiography has the same title as a book of the Bible (Chronicles) you know you’re going to get pretentiousness (and you do – “we’d meet up again in March, like something foretold in the Scriptures” says Dylan of the producer of one of his 1980s albums, Daniel Lanois).  What is less clear is whether or not you’re actually going to get an autobiography at all: I mean, really, don’t celebrities just hire ghostwriters/ad people for this kind of self-promotion?  But in Dylan’s case, I suspect he composed most of it himself – I say this largely because of the outrageous mistakes and inaccuracies the book contains.  Paid professionals have to check facts, but Bob Dylan doesn’t.  Dylan – the “prophet,” the “visionary,” the “icon,” “the conscience of his generation” – has a lot of freedom to say whatever he wants.  He’s like the Pope of Rock and Roll – who would dare correct him?  The result is actually kind of entertaining.  And ultimately I think it’s revealing too.

So let’s let him have a rip at reading von Clausewitz’s On War:

When he [Clausewitz] claims that politics has taken the place of morality and politics is brute force, he’s not playing.  You have to believe it.  You do exactly as you’re told, whoever you are.  Knuckle under or you’re dead.  Don’t give me any of that jazz about hope or nonsense about righteousness.  Don’t give me that dance that God is with us, or that God supports us.  Let’s get down to brass tacks.  There isn’t any moral order.  You can forget that.  Morality has nothing in common with politics.  It’s not there to transgress.  It’s either high ground or low ground.  This is the way the world is and nothing’s gonna change it.  It’s a crazy, mixed up world and you have to look it right in the eye.  Clausewitz in some ways is a prophet.  Without realizing it, some of the stuff in his book can shape your ideas.  If you think you’re a dreamer, you can read this stuff and realize you’re not even capable of dreaming.  Dreaming is dangerous.  Reading Clausewitz makes you take your own thoughts a little less seriously. (45)

I’m not sure I really know what to say about this paragraph (one of many such in the book).  The writing is terrible of course and the cliches really are cringeworthy.  As a commentary on Dylan’s own life and poetry it is simplistic and one-sided: yes, force and power do much in the world, but much of Dylan’s work has been interpreted as encouraging resistance to politics as “brute force,” and some of his songs seem to have much to do with “jazz about hope.”  But here that stuff vanishes, and in place of the old folksinger mode, we find dogmatism and a demanding tone – you “have to” believe this, “have to” look it “right in the eye” – which of course contradicts its general conclusion, that Clausewitz “makes you take your own thoughts a little less seriously.”  Neither here nor anywhere does Dylan show any sign of taking his own thoughts a little less seriously.  (To be clear, Dylan’s point seems to be that “your thoughts” don’t matter compared to facts: “this is the way the world is” – facts being, in Dylan’s eyes, his thoughts about the world).  The overall effect is like being at a high school party with the kind-of-thoughtful pretentious kid who read at least the first chapter of a number of very famous books – when that kid has been drinking and is a little sad.  The philosophical level is not very high, but there is some pathos and some entertainment value in the spectacle.  It’s charming until you realize that Dylan is not an adolescent anymore.  In general, the term that came to mind again and again as I read the book was “arrested development”: that it is probably a bad thing to be called a genius and profound and a prophet and “the conscience of a generation” when you’re in your early twenties.  You would be inclined to think you had already arrived and didn’t need to keep moving forward.

Dogmatic excursus about von Clausewitz is the kind of thing ghostwritten books normally lack.  But Chronicles, God bless it, has one, as well as many other oddities: a paragraph where Balzac becomes “Mr. B.” and Dylan claims “the only true knowledge for Balzac seems to be in superstition” (46), or the description of a host’s library which he says contained a copy of “Pericles’ The Ideal State of Democracy,” a book which does not exist (Pericles wrote no books).  The same library apparently also contained the “Tacitus lectures and letters to Brutus,” another non-existent one, and Thucydides’ The Athenian General, also not a book.  “Sophocles’ book on the nature and function of the gods – why there are only two sexes” also comes up (all these on pages 36-7).  One can make conjectures as to what he is talking about, but as written all of this is at the very least woefully inaccurate.  Dylan also apparently believes that the word “incredulous” is just a fancy way of saying “incredible,” which greatly strengthens the general feel you get from the book that if it was ghostwritten, it must have been ghostwritten by a high-school senior in a creative writing class:

Years later Whitlaw would be arrested for breaking and entering and stealing.  Her defense was that she was an artist and that the act was performance art and, incredulously, the charges against her were dropped. (66)

But I’m pretty sure this is Dylan’s voice.  He wanted “incredulously,” and the editors left it in, to give the narrative an air of authentic juvenility.  Juvenile is also a way to describe his sometimes pretentious, sometimes odd, but reliably lightweight characterizations: Ovid’s Metamorphoses is “the scary horror tale,” and Joseph Smith is “the authentic American prophet.”  Beethoven’s Pathetique sonata “sounded like a lot of burping and belching and other bodily functions” (94).  Bono has “the soul of an ancient poet and you have to be careful around him.  He can roar ‘til the earth shakes.  He’s also a closet philosopher.”  But then he also writes, with what seems to be insightful candor, “When Bono or me aren’t exactly sure about somebody, we just make it up” (175).

Many things Dylan says are somewhat surprising, though they do, in fact, add up to a coherent picture.  He praises East Hampton as “a refuge for artists and writers and wealthy families.  Not really a place but a ‘state of mind.’  If your balance had been severely disrupted, this was a place where you could get it back” (131).  During a bad week – he had injured his hand in a motorcycle accident and there was some question about his playing career – he said he began to recover while watching his daughter in a school play. Until, that is, he heard the bad news:

In the midst of this, another piece of sad news came in.  My sixty-three-foot sailboat had hit a reef in Panama.  During the night, the harbor lights had been misread.  The boat was put into reverse and the rudder broke off.  She couldn’t come down off the reef and the wind blew the boat up further.  She lay on her side for a week, but it was too late.  A lot of lines snapped trying to pull her off. (163)

Alas, being the conscience of a generation is hard work.  He decides to include this detail from his life, in a book that doesn’t mention the writing or recording of any of his music except the 1980s album Oh Mercy.  He seems to be trying to make a point – about who he really is.  He also claims that due to his fame, his home in Woodstock had become a beacon for “moochers” and “goons” and that he “wanted to set fire to these people.”

These gate-crashers, spooks, trespassers, demagogues were all disrupting my home life and the fact that I was not to piss them off or they could press charges [he was afraid of liability issues] really didn’t appeal to me. (117)

Again, it’s hard to know what to say about this.  It’s not like Dylan didn’t know what celebrity was like – America had seen Elvis, and movie stars had been forced to manage the problem of celebrity for decades already.  But I think Dylan was actually confused about what his own pursuit of money and fame – the book opens with him signing a contract with Columbia Records, and he puts in details like getting an agent (and thereby annoying his A&R man at Columbia) – would mean for his life.  I think Dylan may not have realized that rock stars, like movie stars and zoo animals, live behind fences.

Dylan probably did have it worse than others, because he was seen as a “protest figure,” a leftist, and hence inherently a friend of the people, in a way that, say, Marlon Brando would not have been.  The homes of the tribunes, the defenders of the people in ancient Rome, had to be open night and day to receive anyone who required their assistance.  Leftist pop stars, despite the populist rhetoric, are a bit different from tribunes though: Dylan says that he had “a couple of Colt single-shot repeater pistols” on hand, “and I also had a clip-fed Winchester blasting rifle around.”  Later he mentions that he kind of admired JFK and even might have voted for him “if I had been a voting man,” but “my favorite politician was Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater,” the libertarianish property-rights Republican.

As I said before, I think this is a coherent picture, though it takes some thought to put it all together.  The way Dylan describes himself makes perfect sense: a yacht-owning Goldwater Republican in his Hamptons mansion aghast at how the 60s had roused the American rabble – besides “goons” and “moochers,” Dylan calls them “unaccountable-looking characters, gargoyle-looking gals, scarecrows, stragglers looking to party, raid the pantry.”  If it weren’t for the liability lawyers, he’d use his second-amendment rights to solve this problem.  It all makes perfect sense – except the “Dylan as leftist protest folksinger” part (a mantle he never claims).  The obvious answer is that the leftist part, the prophet part, the moral authority part was just a role – a role which he along with the entertainment industry discovered could be turned into a profitable act.

In this way I find the term “conscience of his generation” interesting, and actually appropriate in a way.  One of the discoveries of my mid-twenties was that the people in college who belonged to leftist (even socialist) co-ops replicate the entire arc of the Baby Boomer Generation in just a few years: hemp and patchouli to law school and corporate jobs.  It’s not that they are unwilling to pay eight dollars for organic corn flakes or make sizable contributions to the Sierra Club: it’s just that they first secure a lot of money for themselves first.  The curtains are Mao, but the house is Goldwater.  They may well do a great deal of good in the world, but any talk they talk about “systemic change” is the most arrant hypocrisy.  And to confirm it, their leftist idols resemble them: they are not like Saint Francis, men who lived in terrible poverty and died young, their bodies utterly wasted by the suffering brought on by giving away everything they owned and doing manual labor for the poor and the diseased.  Lefties idolize Mao and Che and John Lennon and Bob Dylan – people who all lived very expensively.  Bono, who Dylan says has the soul of an ancient poet – I would say he has the soul of a modern rock star, much like Dylan – said it well: “I don’t believe in riches but you should see where I live.”

By Bono’s day the hypocrisy involved was already a cliché, but I will note that it really seems to me that Dylan was, and is still, confused about it, and probably a lot of the people of his generation were too.  They probably did believe that buying Columbia records, and listening to them song by song while laying on your bed in suburbia could be “blows against the empire” (as Jefferson Airplane entitled one of their albums) – they probably didn’t know that mostly what they were doing was buying Bob Dylan – and his agent, and his A&R man – a 63-foot yacht.  And for the CEO of Columbia Records much more than just a yacht.

This of course is quite a disappointment, even for Dylan himself, who must have once had a bit more idealism to write the songs which made him famous.  This is probably the reason why Dylan is so forceful – almost vitriolic – when it comes to questions of morality, adamantly insisting that there’s no such thing.  That is the voice of disillusionment, which is even more bitter when it is self-disillusionment.  Dylan goes from “how many years can some people exist before they’re allowed to be free?” – which pressupposes a kind of eternal moral order, recognition of which human beings continually postpone – to something beyond Nietzsche – claiming that there isn’t even a moral order to transgress against.  If you postpone your moral development too long, the weight of your own past makes change impossible.  The result is just embittered rants about how pre-fascistic Prussian war manuals are really prophetic and represent what the universe “really” is like.  The juvenile mind goes from contrary to contrary, from folk music to Clausewitz, without any in-between.  Unlived ideals make for an ashen old age.

One of the most telling symptoms of adolescence is the inability to really enter into the lives of others: the lives of others remain impressions, subordinated to one’s own emotional needs or desires.  Pornography can be taken as the extreme example of the phenomenon.  In Dylan’s case the descriptions of people are almost always depthless – they are cartoonlike caricatures, whose nature is always to point back to the artist, rather than delineate the object.  They are meant to be shows of force: Dylan is trying to show off his lyrical chops, rather than describe people.  No one seems like a human being; they all are legends.  Dave Van Ronk was “what the city was all about.  In Greenwich Village, Van Ronk was king of the street, he reigned supreme.”  But everyone is like that – all facades of greatness:

He [Mike Seeger] was extraordinary, gave me an eerie feeling.  Mike was unprecedented.  He was like a duke, the knight errant.  As for being a folk musician, he was the supreme archetype.  He could push a stake through Dracula’s black heart.  He was the romantic, egalitarian and revolutionary type all at once – had chivalry in his blood.  Like some figure from a restored monarchy, he had come to purify the church.  You couldn’t imagine him making a big deal out of anything. (69-70)

I’d gone back to the local movie theater, this time to see Homeboy starring Mickey Rourke, who played a shy and awkward cowboy boxer named Johnny Walker.  Christopher Walken was in it, too.  Everybody in the movie was pretty good, but Mickey’s acting was at the upper end.  He could break your heart with a look.  The movie traveled to the moon every time he came onto the screen.  Nobody could hold a candle to him.  He was just there, he didn’t have to say hello or good-bye.  (213)

He familiarized me with that stuff, Ice-T, Public Enemy, N.W.A., Run-D.M.C.  These guys definitely weren’t standing around bullshitting.  They were beating drums, tearing it up, hurling horses over cliffs.  They were all poets and knew what was going on.  (219)

And my favorite, “Buckley was the hipster bebop preacher who defied all labels” (260).  Defied all labels except “hipster,” “bebop,” and “preacher,” I suppose.  In fact, labels are so central to Dylan’s method that he turns “defies all labels” into a label.  Nothing seems to come from the inside – he seems to see everything as an attitude, as a pose – what he wants to know is whether people pull off their poses or not.  You pull off the pose if you get the job and get the girl and get the money: it is all a kind of status-based consequentialism.  What lies beneath the pose is never his concern.

Interestingly enough, he says he got this way of thinking from folk music, and in fact, it makes sense – Dylan might merit being called the person who saw the utterly cynical possibilities inherent in folk music.

I had been singing a lot of topical songs, anyway.  Songs about real events were always topical.  You could usually find some kind of point of view in it, though, and take it for what it was worth, and the writer doesn’t have to be accurate, could tell you anything and you’re going to believe it.  Billy Gashade, the man who presumably wrote the Jesse James ballad, makes you believe that Jesse robbed from the rich and gave to the poor and was shot down by a “dirty little coward.”  In the song, Jesse robs banks and gives the money to the destitute and in the end is betrayed by a friend.  By all accounts, though, James was a bloodthirsty killer who was anything but the Robin Hood sung about in the song.  But Billy Gashade has the last word and he spins it around. (82)

As he said about himself and Bono, integrity was not really integral to the process: in the end you could just make it up.  As long as it went over and was kind of cool – truth and discipline being made hostages of fashion, money, and egotism (i.e., Rock and Roll) – you succeeded.  Folk songs in particular – witness Billy Gashade – offered a kind of school of flattening out nuances and resisting real human contact.  To some extent this is true of much art – love songs don’t have to accurately portray the defects of the woman who inspires them, because they are depictions of another kind of emotive truth.  Dylan probably started there, and by degrees turned it into an excuse for slipshod workmanship and general cynicism.  He returns to this topic again and again, as if wanting to make clear that his cynicism is a more thorough thing than mere poetic license:

I didn’t know what age of history we were in nor what the truth of it was.  Nobody bothered with that.  If you told the truth, that was all well and good and if you told the un-truth, well, that’s still well and good.  Folk songs had taught me that. (35)

Sometimes you say things in songs even if there’s a small chance of them being true.  And sometimes you say things that have nothing to do with the truth of what you want to say and sometimes you say things that everyone knows to be true.  Then again, at the same time, you’re thinking that the only truth on earth is that there is no truth on it.  Whatever you’re saying, you’re saying in a ricky-tick way.  There’s never time to reflect.  You stitched and pressed and packed and drove, is what you did. (220)

Which is a lie: of course there’s time to reflect, especially on the deck of your sixty-three-foot yacht.  Whether you are willing to make that part of your life or not I suppose depends on how painful you happen to find the process of examination of conscience.

Truth was the last thing on my mind, and even if there was such a thing, I didn’t want it in my house.  Oedipus went looking for the truth, and when he found it, it ruined him.  It was a cruel horror of a joke.  So much for the truth.  I was gonna talk out of both sides of my mouth and what you heard depended on which side you were standing.  If I ever did stumble on any truth, I was gonna sit on it and keep it down. (125)

All his talk of truth is overblown, and couched in the faux-intellectual manner, but all in all even if it’s not to be taken too seriously, it’s not very inspiring for the “conscience of a generation,” though it does make some sense of how the 1960s ultimately meant little more than the expansion of commercialism so that it included even the rejection of commercialism, enfolded into the system as just a different brand.  Rock and Roll itself became a large part of that: rebellion and nonconformity as merely other types of commodities you could buy.

I have said that I don’t think the book is ghostwritten, but I will note that certain parts appear to be a transcription of something spoken.  The style is very unwriterly – not only because it is so unreflective, but also because of the way it conveys ideas by repetition.  Late in the book there is a clear indicator that the book is a transcription, where the mother of an early Dylan girlfriend disparages him by saying he had “a nameless way of life.”  This is much more likely to be “an aimless way of life,” particularly since Dylan was a singer and performer, working in bars – certainly a way of life with a name.  The transcriber made a mistake in transcription.  Other sections, which are very detailed for something written fifty years after the fact, are probably based on journal material from the time.

Inaccuracy, playing both sides of things, and the general sense that I get that he was confused about his times, does not disqualify him from being a poet and even being a good or great one.  He may be as confused about capitalism and inequality and celebrity and modernity as Vergil was about the Roman Empire.  People value the Aeneid now because its picture of Roman imperialism is so unclear: it shows an understanding of both the glories and horrors of the entire Mediterranean falling under Roman sway.  Both men can stand in symbolic relation to their social group nevertheless.  But I must confess Dylan, as a man, leaves me terribly cold.

Double-Edged Swords.


A nice piece by Michael Goyette about the weapons of Hercules, and the ancient belief that the weapons themselves were both good and evil, and not in themselves – as many modern people view technology – a good.

Kathryn Schulz’s Mythologizing.


I have found a useful shortcut for dealing with intellectual debate, and since it has saved me time, I will pass it on to you: whenever two or three people write something on the internet in praise of person x for doing such-and-such a thing, know that the person in question was doing precisely the opposite.  And so when I saw two people online saying that Kathryn Schulz’s recent piece in the New Yorker about Henry David Thoreau had “exploded the myth” about Thoreau, I knew in a moment what was really going on: Schulz was fabricating a myth.  I mean “myth” here in the secular, modern sense: a kind of false social narrative.

This is I think the best way to describe what is otherwise a rather difficult piece to respond to, because it contains a bewildering number of what I would call erroneous judgements – statements which can be shown to be unreasonable, but only when a fair amount of evidence is deployed.  This can be a laborious process: I would say that I can isolate fifty different statements by Schulz which can be shown, if you give me a few pages to introduce evidence, as false.  By that time we’ll all have long since moved on.  So I will start with the larger issues, showing hopefully in not-too-many strokes how dishonestly she deals with evidence, and let you induce from there how much faith to put in her other claims.

Let’s first have her rip on Thoreau with big myth numero uno, that Thoreau was a liar when he claimed – so she  she says – to be alone in the wilderness:

Only by elastic measures can “Walden” be regarded as nonfiction. Read charitably, it is a kind of semi-fictional extended meditation featuring a character named Henry David Thoreau. Read less charitably, it is akin to those recent best-selling memoirs whose authors turn out to have fabricated large portions of their stories. It is widely acknowledged that, to craft a tidier narrative, Thoreau condensed his twenty-six months at the cabin into a single calendar year. But that is the least of the liberties he takes with the facts, and the most forgivable of his manipulations of our experience as readers. The book is subtitled “Life in the Woods,” and, from those words onward, Thoreau insists that we read it as the story of a voluntary exile from society, an extended confrontation with wilderness and solitude.

In reality, Walden Pond in 1845 was scarcely more off the grid, relative to contemporaneous society, than Prospect Park is today. The commuter train to Boston ran along its southwest side; in summer the place swarmed with picnickers and swimmers, while in winter it was frequented by ice cutters and skaters. Thoreau could stroll from his cabin to his family home, in Concord, in twenty minutes, about as long as it takes to walk the fifteen blocks from Carnegie Hall to Grand Central Terminal. He made that walk several times a week, lured by his mother’s cookies or the chance to dine with friends. These facts he glosses over in “Walden,” despite detailing with otherwise skinflint precision his eating habits and expenditures.

First of all, I will note that he never claims to be there one year: he mentions repeatedly that he was there for two years, though he does group the essays by the seasons of the year, which is just good artistry.  But let’s get to the big myth.  Schulz never provides evidence that Thoreau “insists that we read [the book] as the story of a voluntary exile from society, an extended confrontation with wilderness and solitude” – it is left as an assertion.  So I will have to provide the evidence.  These are Thoreau’s words:

After hoeing, or perhaps reading and writing, in the forenoon, I usually bathed again in the pond, swimming across one of its coves for a stint, and washed the dust of labor from my person, or smoothed out the last wrinkle which study had made, and for the afternoon was entirely free.  Every day or two I strolled to the village to hear some of the gossip which is incessantly going on there, circulating either from mouth to mouth, or from newspaper to newspaper, and which, taken in homoeopathic doses, was really as refreshing in its way as the rustle of leaves and the peeping of frogs.  As I walked in the woods to see the birds and squirrels, so I walked in the village to see the men and boys; instead of the wind among the pines I heard the carts rattle.  In one direction from my house there was a colony of muskrats in the river meadows; under the grove of elms and buttonwoods in the other horizon was a village of busy men, as curious to me as if they had been prairie dogs, each sitting at the mouth of its burrow, or running over to a neighbor’s to gossip.  I went there frequently.” (456, Library of America edition)

He says, in the book, that he went there every day or two!  And Schulz, who claimed to be doing a “serious reading” of the book, cannot claim that she just missed this paragraph, when it begins an entire chapter called “The Village,” wholly about these visits of his!  Who precisely is “glossing over” the truth here?  Schulz adds that he “downplays the fact that he routinely hosted other guests as well—sometimes as many as thirty at a time.”  What does she mean by “downplays” – that he discusses it at length?  Well, then, yes, he does downplay it then.  He downplays it by writing another entire chapter about it, called – well, what an odd title – “Visitors.”  Here’s how it starts:

I think that I love society as much as most, and am ready enough to fasten myself like a bloodsucker for the time to any full-blooded man that comes in my way.  I am naturally no hermit, but might possibly sit out the sturdiest frequenter of the bar-room, if my business called me thither.

I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.  When visitors came in larger and unexpected numbers there was but the third chair for them all, but they generally economized the room by standing up.  It is surprising how many great men and women a small house will contain.  I have had twenty-five or thirty souls, with their bodies, at once under my roof, and yet we often parted without being aware that we had come very near to one another. (434)

How about this line, in this chapter: “I had more visitors while I lived in the woods than at any other period of my life.” (437) “Many a traveller came out of his way to see me and the inside of my house, and, as an excuse for calling, asked for a glass of water.”  (442)

Et cetera, et cetera – for why belabor this point, when I can point readers not only to the chapter entitled “Visitors,” but the other one, entitled, “Winter Visitors”?  Really, did Schulz bother to read the book?  I would not accept her essay from a high-school freshman.

But let me reiterate: what is happening here is the fabrication of a myth.  The myth is that Thoreau claimed to have moved to the Yukon, or somewhere like that, and to have wrestled for a year with utter solitude and self-sufficiency.  This is not the book he wrote at all, and he never claims to be doing anything of the sort.  This is a myth; or, coming from the New Yorker, where articles have fact-checkers and someone in the building knows when the statements are false, it is a lie.

Take a look at the way Schulz marshals her one piece of evidence on this point, a quotation from Thoreau.

This is the situation Thoreau summed up by saying, “For the most part it is as solitary where I live as on the prairies. It is as much Asia or Africa as New England. . . . At night there was never a traveller passed my house, or knocked at my door, more than if I were the first or last man.”

But this claim is part of a longer sentence, which Schulz abridges because the full sentence gives her the lie:

At night there was never a traveller passed my house, or knocked at my door, more than if I were the first or last man; unless it were in the spring, when at long intervals some came from the village to fish for pouts, – they plainly fished much more in the Walden Pond of their own natures, and baited their hooks with darkness – but they soon retreated, usually with light baskets, and left “the world to darkness and to me,” and the black kernel of the night was never profaned by any human neighborhood. (426)

Here we have Schulz cutting up sentences in order to prove to us that Thoreau is manipulating us.  But the claim that Thoreau was utterly alone is hers, and she has to do the manipulating.  I find this utterly without intellectual integrity.  But she does it boldly – her next line is “Does this disingenuousness matter?  Countless Thoreau fans have argued that it does not.”  No, we do not argue that.  We argue that Thoreau made no disingenuous claims here at all.  The facts she is reporting as revelations we know because he himself reported them.  The claim that he purported to be off in the wilderness is a lie – and the disingenuousness is all Schulz’s.  She literally has to cut Thoreau’s mention of visitors out of the one sentence she uses to defend this claim.

So what of his claim that “it is solitary where I live as on the prairies”?  Well, the same thing we can say of his other claim in the book, of his cabin during a visit from a friend, “Broadway was still and deserted in comparison.”  He makes philosophical points about actually meeting people as opposed to merely being in their presence (a phenomenon I myself grew more sensitive to after moving to the woods), and he notes that solitude can be had anywhere, even in a city.  And more than that, even fairly trivial distances can still serve as a buffer between you and other people.  Schulz compares Walden Pond with Prospect Park; Walden Pond did not then have almost three million people living on its edges, but the comparison is not entirely unwarranted.  And I’m sure that if someone built himself a little house in Prospect Park and wrote a book about it, Thoreau would be one of its first readers.  And one of the first to predict that the Parks Department would bulldoze it.

And if someone did build himself a little place in Prospect Park, I would be a curious reader too, because I’m sure, despite what naysayers like Schulz might say, that it would be a different way of living in Brooklyn.  I’m sure there would be almost no one passing by in “the black kernel of the night.”  I’m sure it would feel a little lonelier.  But I would also bet that even the nature there would provide a different and beautiful solace.  I myself wrote a book about Staten Island, and when talking about the book I have always noted that Staten Island is to New York City what Walden Pond is to Concord.  It is part of the place, but it offers something unique and different; more natural, cheaper, easier to live with.  But not all of your city friends will come visit you, if you move there.  Thoreau also writes about the people who did not visit him: for some people a mile out of town brought them utterly out of their comfort zones.  It’d be like going to Staten Island.

But back to business.  I think the excerpts I have offered already in part refute another part of her myth, that Thoreau was a “thoroughgoing misanthrope.”

But worse than Thoreau’s radical self-denial is his denial of others. The most telling thing he purports to abstain from while at Walden is companionship, which he regards as at best a time-consuming annoyance, at worst a threat to his mortal soul. For Thoreau, in other words, his fellow-humans had the same moral status as doormats.

But his correspondence shows his love toward his brother, his sister, and his mother (the latter he supported after his father’s death); his friends were loyal to him, and his journals prove his warmth toward them, though his relationship with the father-figure Emerson was occasionally clouded.  He was surely introverted and principled and contrarian, but to call him a misanthrope is to make his actual life incomprehensible.  His contrarian impulses were directed at things which were legitimately injustices.  It was of course a felony not to return slaves to their master.  Despite the danger, however, Thoreau worked to get fugitive slaves to freedom:

In the morning I found the Thoreaus agitated by the arrival of a colored fugitive from Virginia, who had come to their door at daybreak. Thoreau took me to a room where his excellent sister, Sophia, was ministering to the fugitive. . . . I observed the tender and lowly devotion of Thoreau to the African. He now and then drew near to the trembling man, and with a cheerful voice bade him feel at home, and have no fear that any power should again wrong him. The whole day he mounted guard over the fugitive, for it was a slave-hunting time. But the guard had no weapon, and probably there was no such thing in the house. The next day the fugitive was got to Canada, and I enjoyed my first walk with Thoreau.  (Abolitionist Daniel Conway writing about Thoreau; from the Donovan Hohn piece in the New Republic)

This is what counts as “misanthropy” and “moral myopia” for Schulz?  This is giving human beings “the same moral status as doormats”?  Give me more of these haters of humanity.  Thoreau thought the injustice of slavery was so palpable that it made the law itself a thing to be flouted.  And yet he takes to task the Comte de Mirabeau, the French Revolutionary leader, who in his youth made himself a bandit out of purely contrarian motives:

It is said that Mirabeau took to highway robbery “to ascertain what degree of resolution was necessary in order to place oneself in formal opposition to the most sacred laws of society.”  He declared that “a soldier who fights in the ranks does not require half so much courage as a foot-pad,” – “that honor and religion have never stood in the way of a well-considered and firm resolve.”  This was manly, as the world goes; and yet it was idle, if not desperate.  A saner man would have found himself often enough “in formal opposition” to what are deemed “the most sacred laws of society,” through obedience to yet more sacred laws, and so have tested his resolution without going out of his way.  (579)

And Thoreau lived by this, getting thrown in jail for refusing to pay taxes to support a land-grab war in Mexico, and spending his entire adult life in opposition to slavery, to the point of putting his life and liberty at risk to bring people to freedom.  I have heard, though I do not know it for certain, that the cabin at Walden Pond itself sheltered a fugitive slave as well.  How much do we wish to bet that if you or I were the ones enslaved, that we would find Thoreau’s misanthropy more amenable than many others’ comity and charm?  To miss Thoreau’s actual moral greatness – to free one slave at personal risk qualifies anyone for that title, I think – because he was not a man of social graces is smallmindedness.

Let us move on, there is still so much to do:

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. From that inward fixation flowed a social and political vision that is deeply unsettling.

The thing that most struck me about this part of Schulz’s piece is that when she talks about self-obsession and narcissism, she never actually talks about his sense of self or anything a psychiatrist could describe as self-obsession or narcissism.  Narcissism involves a distortion of perception, and nearly everyone agrees that Thoreau was a superb observer who was interested in all sorts of things (she oddly calls him “incurious,” despite the fact that he was insatiably curious, particularly about nature, but generally so; his writings testify to his great breadth as reader, thinker, and observer; he knew who Mirabeau was, and quoted the Vedas, but also astonished onlookers when he could serve as equal partner with the scientist Agassiz in discussing the mating habits of turtles.  I will note that his journals are considered so reliable as data by scientists they are being mined for information about global warming).  Nor was he “adamant that he required nothing beyond himself.”  Thoreau himself said “I require a broad margin to my life” – space, air, nature, room to think, fewer complications.  So no, she is not talking about egotism; in fact, her case is actually about his eating habits and sex life:

“Walden,” in consequence, is not a paean to living simply; it is a paean to living purely, with all the moral judgment that the word implies. In its first chapter, “Economy,” Thoreau lays out a program of abstinence so thoroughgoing as to make the Dalai Lama look like a Kardashian. (That chapter must be one of the highest barriers to entry in the Western canon: dry, sententious, condescending, more than eighty pages long.) Thoreau, who never wed, regarded “sensuality” as a dangerous contaminant, by which we “stain and pollute one another.” He did not smoke and avoided eating meat. He shunned alcohol, although with scarcely more horror than he shunned every beverage except water: “Think of dashing the hopes of a morning with a cup of warm coffee, or of an evening with a dish of tea! Ah, how low I fall when I am tempted by them!” Such temptations, along with the dangerous intoxicant that is music, had, he felt, caused the fall of Greece and Rome.

I cannot idolize anyone who opposes coffee (especially if the objection is that it erodes great civilizations; had the man not heard of the Enlightenment?), but Thoreau never met an appetite too innocuous to denounce. He condemned those who gathered cranberries for jam (“So butchers rake the tongues of bison out of the prairie grass”) and regarded salt as “that grossest of groceries”; if he did without it, he boasted, he could also drink less water. He advised his readers to eat just one meal a day, partly to avoid having to earn additional money for food but also because the act of eating bordered, for him, on an ethical transgression. “The fruits eaten temperately need not make us ashamed of our appetites,” he wrote, as if our appetites were otherwise disgraceful. No slouch at public shaming, Thoreau did his part to sustain that irrational equation, so robust in America, between eating habits and moral worth.

First of all, how odd she is to conclude a pair of paragraphs about a man’s appetites and how terrible a man they show him to be, by adverting to “that irrational equation, so robust in America, between eating habits and moral worth.”  For her, abstemious eating habits means low moral worth – that  was her whole point (she’s not just saying he was mentally ill and neurotic, she’s saying he was a bad person; the piece is, after all, entitled “Pond Scum”).  As for his moralizing to others about this, he really does not.  This, again, is a myth.  He again and again eschews rule-making, and says instead that we should make experiments.  From these experiments we can get and share information with each other, both good and bad.  “It is never too late to give up our prejudices,” he says.  “No way of thinking or doing, however ancient,” – even his own way of thinking and doing, I will note –  “can be trusted without proof” (329).

Since we cannot trust Schulz to use her sources honestly, let me provide the passage she is criticizing.  Does it jive with Schulz’s claim that “The hypocrisy is that Thoreau lived a complicated life but pretended to live a simple one”?  After musing about diet and vegetarianism he says:

Yet, for my part, I was never unusually squeamish; I could sometimes eat a fried rat with a good relish, if it were necessary.  I am glad to have drunk water so long, for the same reason that I prefer the natural sky to an opium-eater’s heaven.  I would fain keep sober always; and there are infinite degrees of drunkenness.  I believe that water is the only drink for a wise man; wine is not so noble a liquor; and think of dashing the hopes of a morning with a cup of warm coffee, or of an evening with a dish of tea!  Ah, how low I fall when I am tempted by them!  Even music may be intoxicating.  Such apparently slight causes destroyed Greece and Rome, and will destroy England and America.  Of all ebriosity, who does not prefer to be intoxicated by the air he breathes?  I have found it to be the most serious objection to coarse labors long continued, that they compelled me to eat and drink coarsely also.  But to tell the truth, I find myself at present somewhat less particular in these respects.  I carry less religion to the table, ask no blessing; not because I am wiser than I was, but, I am obliged to confess, because, however much it is to be regretted, with years I have grown more coarse and indifferent.  Perhaps these questions are entertained only in youth, as most believe of poetry.  My practice is “nowhere,” my opinion is here.  Nevertheless I am far from regarding myself as one of those privileged ones to whom the Ved refers when it says, that “he who has true faith in the Omnipresent Supreme Being may eat all that exists,” that is, is not bound to inquire what is his food, or who prepares it; and even in their case it is to be observed, as a Hindoo commentator has remarked, that the Vedant limits this privilege to “the time of distress.” (496)

He certainly is spending time musing about food, and he imagines that he might still have use for some “food rules,” which not everyone will have patience for, but this is not the picture Schulz attempts to paint, of a “dour ascetic,” a “zealot,” a “fanatic,” a “despot” (her words).  All he says is that he thinks there is a natural instinct in us toward simplicity and purity, which leads us to abstain from animal food, and in general to cultivate a simple diet; but for his own part he could eat a good fried rat from time to time.  And the rhetorical flourishes – “Ah, how low I fall when I am tempted by them!” are comical exaggerations, directly satirizing Congregationalist sermons.

And for him, this simple life actually did produce results which he liked.  I have always thought that the claim that Walden is hypocritical is one of the least appropriate charges that could be applied to it.  Thoreau is always himself; he is the least hypocritical of all authors.  When he writes that he likes water, I have no doubt that he drank more water than any other man alive.  And he kept to a simple life until the very end.  He liked the feeling of it – he enjoyed that clarity of mind that comes from a life without alcohol or caffeine or heavy foods, and much time outdoors.  He truly did experience all these things, and he writes of them to share them.  Not – as Schulz would have it – from motives that are “at base, religious.”  (A term which for Schulz seems to mean nothing but “vaguely sinister.”)  His motives are that he liked life the way he lived it, and he wanted to share it with others.  He had both good things to report – things that worked – and bad things too.  He mentions, for instance, that he has nothing to say about tobacco, and “My excuse for not lecturing against the use of tobacco is, that I never chewed it; that is a penalty which reformed tobacco-chewers have to pay; though there are things enough I have chewed, which I could lecture against.” (384)  His reports on various wild foods, and how bad some of them taste, are still hilarious today.  But even when he claims they are terrible to taste, you can tell he still enjoys them in his own way.  I find myself very similar in this regard: a wild food, no matter how odd its flavor, appeals to me more than the most elaborate, expensive meal.  He says of his intended audience:

I do not mean to prescribe rules to strong and valiant natures, who will mind their own affairs whether in heaven or hell, and perhance build more magnificently and spend more lavishly than the richest, without ever impoverishing themselves, not knowing how they live, – if indeed, there are any such, as has been dreamed; nor to those who find their encouragement and inspiration in precisely the present condition of things, and cherish it with the fondness and enthusiasm of lovers, – and, to some extent, I reckon myself in this number; I do not speak to those who are well employed, in whatever circumstances, and they know whether they are well employed or not; – but mainly to the mass of men who are discontented, and idly complaining of the hardness of their lot or of the times, when they might improve them.  There are some who complain most energetically and inconsolably of any, because they are, as they say, doing their duty.  I also have in mind that seemingly wealthy, but most terribly impoverished class of all, who have accumulated dross, but know not how to use it, or get rid of it, and thus have forged their own golden or silver fetters.  (335)

In other words, he wrote precisely because he was not a hermit or misanthrope, and he wished to show other people that there was another way open to them – one which he had taken himself, a life of greater simplicity.  He tells a story of someone who could weave baskets but was bad at selling them, for selling is an art as much as making.  “Instead of studying how to make it worth men’s while to buy my baskets, I studied rather how to avoid the necessity of selling them.  The life which men praise and regard as successful is but one kind.  Why should we exaggerate any one kind at the expense of the others?” (338)  And he lived by this – finding ways to spend less, to drive down the cost of living, and so give himself more free time to do what he wanted.  That it is, in fact, possible for many people, is proven by the fact that many people do live lives of conscious simplicity – often after being inspired by reading Walden, which Schulz again disingenuously says was not meant to be fodder for inspirational posters.  Of course it was.  That was the entire point.  “I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” (580)  And a longer passage, showing his general points:

In short, I am convinced, both by faith and experience, that to maintain one’s self on this earth is not a hardship but a pastime, if we will live simply and wisely; as the pursuits of the simpler nations are still the sports of the more artificial.  It is not necessary that a man should earn his living by the sweat of his brow, unless he sweats easier than I do.

One young man of my acquaintance, who has inherited some acres, told me that he thought he should live as I did, if he had the means.  I would not have any one adopt my mode of living on any account; for, besides that before he has fairly learned it I may have found out another for myself, I desire that there may be as many different persons in the world as possible; but I would have each one be very careful to find out and pursue his own way, and not his father’s or his mother’s or his neighbor’s instead.  The youth may build or plant or sail, only let him not be hindered from doing that which he tells me he would like to do. (378-9)

Why is Schulz so threatened by this?  Why cannot people who love wild foods have their Thoreau, and read him for information about eating shrunken rotten apples off the tree in January, and people who love expensive restaurants go there, and let everyone be happy with that?  Why cannot people who are discontented with consumerist America keep an old used copy of Thoreau in their huts, while everyone else can go kiss Donald Trump’s and Kim Kardashian’s posteriors?  Thoreau is long dead; he is hardly pressing himself on anyone’s attention.  I will return to this.

Schulz also takes him to task for his dislike of “sensuality,” “by which we stain and pollute one another.”  I don’t think that all sexuality is thus a stain and pollutant, though I think it is a very real phenomenon, that we can do this, and that it is immoral to do it to someone else, to make them rise from your bed feeling degraded and polluted.  But it seems there must be more to this issue with the lifelong bachelor Thoreau.  Even in his journals shows a high degree of chastity; and he also shows much more interest in men than women.  I think it is reasonable to presume that he was a repressed homosexual, a condition for which I, unlike Ms. Schulz, am far more likely to feel compassion than condemnation.  He was born into a society where to express himself sexually as he desired may well have made him liable to prison or worse.  I do think it is fair to say that there was some degree of internalized self-judgement for his tendencies.  This fact probably gave impetus to the tremendous energy Thoreau had against the strictures of the civil law and against conformity to majority custom.  This is the next aspect of Thoreau’s life Schulz condemns.

In the choice between “obey the laws of your somewhat-democratic society” and “oppose them and work to free slaves,” Thoreau chose the latter, and Schulz in general would have us believe that the former is the better position:

In “Resistance to Civil Government” (better known today as “Civil Disobedience”), Thoreau argued that his only political obligation was “to do at any time what I think right.” When constrained by its context, that line is compelling; it reads as a call to obey one’s conscience over and above unjust laws. But as a broader theory of governance, which it was, it is troubling. People routinely perpetrate wrongs out of obedience to their conscience, even in situations when the law mandates better behavior. (Consider the Kentucky county clerk currently refusing to issue marriage licenses to gay couples.) Like public institutions, private moral compasses can err, and different ones frequently point in different directions.

But there is another side to this question: the evil which people do out of obedience to the laws.  Schulz can have as her example Kim Davis; I will give as my example Hermann Goering.  Conscientious but immoral individuals can do almost nothing, compared to systemic evils which absolutely depend on obedience.  Hitler’s power was in the conscienceless obedience of millions.  American slavery itself depended on the benign neglect of the majority of the population.  These evils make “the immorality of Kim Davis” seem pretty tame.  Schulz continues:

Although Thoreau is often regarded as a kind of cross between Emerson, John Muir, and William Lloyd Garrison, the man who emerges in “Walden” is far closer in spirit to Ayn Rand: suspicious of government, fanatical about individualism, egotistical, élitist, convinced that other people lead pathetic lives yet categorically opposed to helping them.

I think we have already discussed his “categorically opposed to helping them” – he would even have put his life and liberty in danger to help them – but what about this Ayn Rand comment?  Thoreau has amongst his fans and followers Gandhi, Tolstoy, Martin Luther King, John Muir, and others.  His followers do not look very much like Ayn Rand’s followers.  And as he said, he really was not supporting individualism: what he believed in was obedience to even higher laws than the laws of the state.

It is clear that this makes Schulz nervous, and calls forth all kinds of name-calling: “prophet,” “seer,” and worst of all, “at base, religious.”  But she has to admit that he didn’t really belong to any religion, and he was far from ever codifying any religious practices.  What is going on here?

She puts things in terms of “the individual versus society,” which I must say I think is a high-school level of analysis.  What is more relevant is the social versus the cosmic.  And what I mean by the cosmic is our actual experience of being alive, as opposed to social convention.  I was recently reading an academic book about the Smokies which mocked the speeches seeking national park status and then later tourism campaigns which advertised the place’s unique beauty and unspoiled nature.  And then at the end the author noted that actually going there, she could kind of believe the advertising – the experience of the place almost made her think it was unique and special, despite her academic training which enabled her to put the area into a larger Appalachian context.  I think it is people who have experiences who become passionate defenders.  And I think personal experience, quite to the contrary of what Ms. Schulz thinks, is far and away the most secure guardian of our rights.  Thoreau had an experience of freedom, and being alive, in those nights by Walden pond; and that experience of freedom made him willing to help others get their own freedom.  A person who is entirely social, on the other hand, is far more likely to remain part of the crowd, and as can be shown again and again scientifically, crowds are far more dangerous, far less compassionate, and far less reasonable, than individuals are.  Schulz says that Thoreau would not admit “evidence and reason,” or “logical scrutiny.”  But it would be hard to imagine a person more amenable to such things – if you told Thoreau that it was best, on the evidence, to eat dirt directly rather than to grow crops, I am sure he would have listened to you, and if you convinced him, he would have tried it.  In his essays he reasons out his position, and it is obvious that he spent much time with his friends debating and arguing.  She claims that “It is the point of democracy to adjudicate among such conflicting claims through some means other than fiat or force, but Thoreau was not interested in that process.”  But he was: he made speeches and attempted to convince people; he wrote books and took a lively interest in what he called “reform.”  The entire point was that bad laws should be reformed; and he even invented a new means of reform, called civil disobedience, which was neither fiat or force, and he went to jail for it.  Others used it after him too.

This essay is already far too long, and I have not gotten to even a portion of Schulz’s errors.  But I want to close, and close by returning to an earlier point, on the issue of consumption.  Schulz makes it clear that to reject “sensuality” and most food and drink is a sign of Thoreau’s “moral myopia.”  She specifically mentions – I suppose partly in jest – that she cannot idolize anyone who opposes coffee.  I want to pause on this for a moment.  Is this because coffee is so unassailable?  I presume we all are aware that coffee farming is labor-intensive, poorly-paid work in terrible conditions, usually done by child labor.  It is then shipped thousands of miles using fossil fuels to markets.  If there is anything good about “local food,” then coffee would be the opposite of that good.

I do not mean to get derailed, but merely to make a point: that our appetites, for things like coffee or chocolate or food in general, have a political and social and ecological dimension.  And given the massive environmental degradation found all over the world – as the direct result of our appetites – we should doubt a bit if it is wise – or even moral – to let our appetites go wholly without scrutiny.  And yet Schulz seems bent on dismissing these concerns entirely.  Thoreau, in questioning the appetites, I think was putting his finger on a very large problem.

It is in fact, entirely natural and traditional to feel bad about consumption.  This is, for instance, one of the basic ingredients of primitive religion: I am going out to kill an animal, killing is wrong, but my people need this animal for food, please, Spirit, forgive us.  To take food implied a relationship: that mankind was a taker, and potentially destructive, but this was balanced by a reverence and respect for the animal and for nature which would ensure that there would be more animals for food in the future.  This pattern obtained all over the world, and to this day meals often call forth a blessing, because psychologically there is an awareness that gratitude is necessary (i.e., we do not deserve what we are given) and that a sacrifice of a life (animal or vegetable), which is sacred, has occurred in the making of the meal.  Early psychologists thought that all these feelings were entirely natural, and that we all go through them even today.

Thoreau, as I have intimated, really did not know about the degradation of nature and how our habits of consumption would later make the whole earth totter.  He was looking at it from a different end: how consumption affects us.  He thought that there were values inherent in nature, which made the experience of a natural life better than a merely comfortable one.  The dichotomy is all the more powerfully felt today.  On Wildcat Mountain, I not only can see the Milky Way, I can see it from inside my house.  This is the kind of interior decorating you can only get if you give up many other aspects of civilized life.  I think it is very much better than many other types of interior decoration, and some are as cheap, but none are cheaper.  And this is merely symptomatic: dozens of other examples could be used.  There is an intoxication in wine, but there is also one in sobriety, even in fasting, and in being outdoors all day, or going without sleep all night: all these produce different sensations in the body, and it is possible to revel in them as well.  Thoreau thought they were rewarding experiences in themselves, and he was right, and he thought that a life full of them might make some others, who were miserable otherwise, much happier.  It worked for him.  And it has worked for me too.  But I will add what we know today about the global situation, to what Thoreau knew about his own personal happiness: we need many many many more people to live more simply, especially Americans.  And if you do not believe this is a moral obligation, this is merely because you have not reasoned out the consequences yet, or you don’t believe there are moral obligations at all.

I think this is the single most important moral issue of our time, and even the Pope is beginning to suggest something to this effect, but Schulz praises Thoreau’s glorification of wilderness while failing to connect it with Thoreau’s questioning of the appetites.  But the two are surely related.  The greatest threat to our planet is consumerism, which we can define as the  industry of growing, cultivating, and multiplying our appetites.  Our wars, our politics, are all subject to it.  As George Bush so memorably showed us in the days after September 11th, consumerism is war by other means: if you want to support the war effort, go buy stuff.  Thoreau, with all his sales resistance and “appetite resistance,” was one of the pioneers of what Wendell Berry says we need to do, which is find locally available and sustainable replacements for the things that the global economy is selling to us at the cost of the entire natural system of our planet.  Simplicity in our private lives will end up being the only way to save ourselves from ecological catastrophe.  Schulz ends up being what everyone hates about the contemporary liberal: utterly blasé about the great moral struggles of the past, while being oblivious to her own personal role in the great moral questions of our own times.  Thoreau, meanwhile, ends up being far from morally myopic: not only was he right about the most important issue of his day, he was prescient in facing the great moral issue of the future.



This probably says a bit too much too quickly for those who don’t speak this language, but the following set of paragraphs impressed me as deeply true:

In his book, Myths, Gods, Heroes, and Saviors, Leonard Baillas writes, “The supreme achievement of the self is to find an insight that connects together the events, dreams, and relationships that make up our existence.” [1] If there’s no storyline, no integrating images that define who you are or that give your life meaning or direction, you just won’t be happy. It was probably Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell who most developed this idea for our generation of Western rationalists, who had thought that myth meant “not true”–when in fact the older meaning of myth is precisely “always true”!

Jung goes so far as to say that transformation only happens in the presence of story, myth, and image, not mere mental concepts. A great story pulls you inside of a universal story, and it lodges in the unconscious where it is not “subject to the brutalities of your intellect or will,” as Thomas Merton might say. From that hidden place you are “healed.” For Christians, the map of Jesus’ life is the map of Everyman and Everywoman: divine conception, ordinary life, betrayal, abandonment, rejection, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. In the end, it all comes full circle, and we return where we started, but now transformed. Jung saw this basic pattern repeated in every human life, and he called it the Christ Archetype, “an almost perfect map” of the whole journey of human transformation. Jung’s notion of an Archetype or Ruling Image can help us understand a “Corporate Personality” or the “Universal Stand In” that Jesus was meant to be.

I am convinced that Jesus constantly called himself “The Human One” to make this point. Ephesians recognizes this when it speaks of Jesus as the One Single New Humanity (2:15, 4:13), and Paul calls the Christ the “New Adam” or “Adam II” (1 Corinthians 15:22, 45-49). As Walter Wink demonstrated, we did history a disservice by usually translating Jesus’ self-appellation as “Son of Man,” which lost the corporate or inclusive message. [2] And who did not get included? Us, history, humanity as a whole. We ended up with an anemic and individualistic message about how “I” could go to heaven, which is well-disguised narcissism. We missed the social, cosmic, and revolutionary message of God’s infinite love and mercy.

Jesus ended up being an exclusive Savior for us to worship instead of an inclusive Savior with whom we are joined at the hip. This created a disconnect and disinterest for both the heart and the soul. No wonder so many find the Christian message so utterly uncompelling–it became a cheap story line about later rewards for a very, very few and eternal punishment for the overwhelming many in all of human history. Surely it did not foster any love or trust of God, in fact, quite the opposite.

Whether you know it or not, whether or not you are consciously Christian, if you live in Europe or North or South America, you’ve picked up the good storyline (i.e., the Christ map) at least on some minimal level. I often call it “The Virus of the Gospel.” You might not really believe it, surrender to it, or allow it, but if you would, you would be a much happier person because it holds deep and unconscious integrating power for you and for society as a whole. All the suffering of creation, and your own too, now has cosmic significance (Romans 8:18-34). A Great Story Line connects your little life to the One Great Life, and even better, it forgives and even uses even the wounded and seemingly “unworthy” parts (1 Corinthians 12:22). What a message! Nothing else can do that. Like good art, a Cosmic Myth like the Gospel gives you a sense of belonging, meaning, and most especially, personal participation in it.

We are finding it is almost impossible to heal isolated individuals inside of an unhealthy and unhealed culture and inside of a Christianity that is largely about exclusion and superiority. The individual remains inside of an incoherent and unsafe universe and soon falls back into anger, fear, and narcissism. I sadly say this after 46 years of giving retreats, conferences, and initiation rites all over the world. Only those who went on to develop a contemplative mind had the skills to finally grow and profit from the message that they heard. For the others, it was just another consumer experience for their spiritual résumé. [3]

From Richard Rohr’s daily meditations.

The Latin Speakers of West Virginia.


I have some trepidation about putting this piece up online, because I have worked hard on it, over a period of years, and Rusticatio has in that time become a large part of my life, and I’ve wanted to do it some justice in print.  Sitting on it for years meant that I could just add section after section, as new people came to Rusticatio and I heard so many of the discussions about what happens there and why it’s important.  The result was something quite long – but I felt that each part of it really did say something.  When the editor at Eidolon accepted it but said she’d like it shorter, I wrestled with it for few days but then simply offered to withdraw it – I didn’t want it cut.  I could always just put it up here anyway.  But she said she’d bend the rules for it because she thought it was a good piece.  Anyway, here it is – the Latin Speakers of West Virginia.