Henry David Thoreau: “Walden” (1854): Part Two

Patriotism is a maggot in their heads. What was the meaning of that South-Sea Exploring Expedition, with all its parade and expense, but an indirect recognition of the fact, that there are continents and seas in the moral world, to which every man is an isthmus or an inlet, yet unexplored by him, but that it is easier to sail many thousands of miles through cold and storm and cannibals, in a government ship, with five hundred men and boys to assist one, than it is to explore the private seas, the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean of one’s being alone. (578)

The chapters in Henry David Thoreau’s Walden or, Life in the Woods, following the indispensable introductory chapter “Economy,” consider different aspects of Thoreau’s economic, social, and philosophical life. They all flow from “Economy” and can be read in really any order once that initial chapter has been mastered. Oft-repeated, in many different ways, is his claim that most of the accoutrements of modern living are unnecessary—or even hostile—to living a good and reflective (he might say a “philosophical”) life. A handful of the chapters will be of special interest to people interested in nature writing, since they are focused on the local environment near Thoreau’s home at Walden pond. No chapter, even the ones devoted to nature, are indifferent to the social. Although he lived alone, he was never far enough away from society. Despite his choice to live alone, in the woods, Thoreau seems to have longed for human encounters and the authentic solidarity that came from interacting with neighbors. He has, however, utter disgust for the hierarchy and presumption that shapes so many human experiences. In his view, solidarity and community must be based on individual autonomy. Without it, you travel inexorably down the path to hierarchy.

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The joint chapters “Solitude” and “Visitors” consider the nature of loneliness and society. He finds most social interactions worthless compared to a more spiritual connection. It bears mentioning that most of the lonely people are surrounded by others all the time and Thoreau, living alone, claims to have been rarely lonely surrounded by nature and never far from potential visitors and conversation.

Society is commonly too cheap. We meet at very short intervals, not having had time to acquire any new value for each other. We meet at meals three times a day, and give each other a new taste of that old musty cheese that we are. We have had to agree on a certain set of rules, called etiquette and politeness, to make this frequent meeting tolerable, and tat we need not come to open war. We meet at the post office, and at the sociable, and about the fireside every night; we live thick and are in each other’s way, and stumble over one another, and I think we thus lose some respect for one another. Certainly less frequency would suffice for all important and hearty communications. Consider the girls in a factory,—never alone, hardly in their dreams. (430)

Perhaps this is the introvert’s perspective on social life. Looking around, I see plenty of people who seem to relish the constant companionship of others (otherwise explain the constant texting and Facebook updating). Are those who do not see a contradiction between withdrawing from the banality of society and yet longing for some rich company in the minority?

The chapter “Higher Laws” is of particular interest to me for it takes on the question of the morality of eating meat. He suggests that eating meat (as with hunting) is something that exists in the larval state of humanity. (That is his metaphor.) “We cannot but pity the boy who has never fired a gun; he is no more humane, while his education has been sadly neglected. This was my answer with respect to those youths who were bent on this pursuit, trusting that they would soon outgrow it. No humane being, past the thoughtless age of boyhood, will wantonly murder any creature, which holds its life by the same tenure that he does.” (492) The argument, fully developed, is that when people takes the time to understand their neighbors they will less likely be desiring to exploit and harm them. He then goes onto a discussion of other appetites and how they do not satisfy him, but we can develop his argument in another way and suggest that is it not also true that capitalism and its values exist in the larval stages of modernity. Thrust from our communities only recently, we are still like the young boy who first picks up his rifle, when we interact with our neighbors. Thoreau overcomes the desire to eat meat as he comes to understand the animals he shares his world with. In the same way, actually building communities and solidarity is the key to destroying the violence of capitalism. An interesting suggestion in this chapter is that self-sufficiency demands solidarity and simplicity in life. Someone who cooks their own food, washes their own dishes, and builds their own home will naturally accept a bit more simplicity than one who relies on others to do that job for them.

I am sure many readers of Walden find the type of he lives appealing, but has anyone read this account with a bit of disgust. Are most enthusiastic readers of Walden deceiving themselves? Deep down, do they really think such a life is possible for themselves? I have not uncommonly heard people proclaim the virtues of a simple life, yet maintain massive wardrobes. I am sure every “hoarder” can read a book like Walden and see its wisdom. Why is the gap between thought and action so far in this respect? Perhaps they will equivocate and say: “Well, that was possible in nineteenth century New England, but not now.” Was Thoreau any better prepared for two years in the woods than anyone living today? Perhaps, but it did not sound like anything he did was beyond the capacity of someone with a bit of common sense.

I think we should set aside the critique of “lifestylism” and take Thoreau seriously as a systemic critique of industrial capitalism and a model of an alternative. He clearly desired a future written with a new set of rules. In this way, he remains a politically important voice as we engage in creative imagining of the future.

There is an incessant influx of novelty into the world, and yet we tolerate incredible dulness [sic]. I need only suggest what kind of sermons are still listened to in the most enlightened countries. There are such words as joy and sorrow, but they are only the burden of a psalm, sung with a nasal twang, while we believe in the ordinary and mean. We think that we can change our clothes only. It is said that the British Empire is very large and respectable, and that the United States are a first-rate power. We do not believe that a tide rises and falls behind every man which can float the British Empire like a chip, if he should ever harbor it in his mind. Who knows what sort of seventeenth-year locust will next come out of the ground? The government of the world I live in was not framed, like that of Britain, in after-dinner conversations over the wine. (587)

Henry David Thoreau: “Walden” (1854): Part One

I do not speak to those who are well employed, in whatever circumstance, 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)

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Walden by Henry David Thoreau probably is the central text in the American anarchist tradition, although Thoreau never used that word as far as I know. Walden describes the technical details about Thoreau’s two years living near Walden Pond in relative isolation from his neighbors (although he was in walking distance from Concord). He saw it as a successful experiment in self-sufficiency. He took pains to describe how his experiment worked and why his model of simplicity was preferable to the values embraced by industrializing America. He was not rejecting progress. He saw what he was doing as clearly improvements and developments, including building a house, raising crops, and experimenting in innovative techniques. Through it all, however, his pursued these improvements in respect to his own values, needs, and desires.

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I am not sure how applicable the way of life described in Walden is to our world. I am sure many anarchists today would accuse someone pursuing a similar experiment today of engaging in “lifestylism,” or point out how his privileged position (having access to Emerson’s land near Concord, being a white male, etc.). These critiques may be fair, but throughout Walden, Thoreau neither rejects the need to critique the world he lives in (the one that began again a mile from his house) nor turns his back on community and society.

Some of you, we all know, are poor, find it hard to live, are sometimes, as it were, gasping for breath. I have no doubts that some of you who read this book are unable to pay for all the dinners which you have actually eaten, or for the coats and shoes which are fast wearing or are already worn out, and have come to this page to spend borrowed or stolen time, robbing your creditors of an hour. (328)

The opening chapter of Walden is the longest. Since it is such a doozy, I will focus just on it today. This chapter stands as one of the great individualist critiques of industrial capitalism. Its prominent place in the book reminds us that Thoreau is interested in the social relations at the root of the rapidly changing world that he lived in. The fact of rapid transformation makes the lessons of the elders meaningless to Thoreau. One problem that industrial capitalism is that is distances us from a knowledge of what is really needed for life and our own capacities. The appeal of the “frontier life” is that it articulates the boundaries of this need and individual potential. He uses the metaphor of being too “warm” to suggest the nefarious aspect of growing wealthy and pursuing luxuries. Intellectual labors have been similarly degraded into the pursuit of luxury, rather than philosophy. By dwelling on the question of necessity, Thoreau tells us that we are not actually that far from post-scarcity (and if we were in 1854 we certainly are now). Increased false needs, luxuries and the like, are one of the major chains preventing us from living freely. Another aspect of this is the feeling that production has value only for commerce. For an individual, the fact that someone does not want to purchase what another has created does not decrease the value of that thing for the creator.

Following this, he explores some of the necessities of life, such as clothing, shelter, and food. The purpose of economy must be to achieve these needs, but our understanding of our needs has been perverted. While some of his arguments about self-sufficiency are dated, others seem inspiring to me. The idea of people building their own home rather than accept a lifetime of debt to banks is not only admirable, but perfectly within the realm of possibility, especially is pursed in community solidarity. From our late capitalist perspective we can look at Thoreau’s model for individual self-sufficiency as a model for sustainability by limited consumption. It is also an argument against work. He insisted that he had to work for others only as a day laborer for a few days per year. Compare this to the endless wage slavery most people of the world face today (if they are the “lucky” ones with jobs). In short, limited needs means limited need to work and limited obligation to institutions indifferent to your survival. This is not an anti-social argument, but a foundation for a much more sociable experience. He does think it is hard for people of radically different values and strategies in life to work together, but he is open to people getting their “living together.” (379)

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He has a useful examples of the added benefit of a simple life. Two people want to travel. One walks, working along the way as necessary, but always making progress toward her goal. The second, works to save up enough to purchase a train ticket. Thoreau was unconvinced that the later would reach the destination first and would have a much less meaningful experience. Today, I guess few people still take the option of working on a merchant ship to see the world, but I think we can think seriously about travelling in lower tech ways. Two weeks on a train, instead of one day on a plane may seem rational and ensure I will miss the least amount of work, but I can think of much added value that could come from the slower option.

The chapter on economy ends with a criticism of the reformism that was so popular in Thoreau’s day. He targeting philanthropy as essentially an outside imposition on people’s lives, full of moral baggage. He may have underestimated the horror of poverty, often making an assumption that a poor person may enjoy his life, but we can still take from him a belief that charity need not be presumptuous.

Following “Economy” is a series of shorter chapters that go on until the end of the book. They deal with a variety of topics. Sometimes building off of themes in the first chapter. They can, and should be, read in small chunks for various bits of applied wisdom. I think outside of “Economy,” which really is a primer for the rest, the chapters of Walden can be consumed freely and willfully. I, however, was systematic. I will talk about some of these seventeen chapters in the next post.

Nathaniel Hawthorne: Stories (1832-1835), Triumph of the Vernacular

“She feels that impulse to go strolling away—that longing after the mystery of the great world—which many children feel, and which I felt in my childhood. Little Annie shall take a ramble with me.” (228, from “Little Annie’s Ramble”)

I am finding in Nathanial Hawthorne’s short stories a touching documentation of the endurance and power of the American vernacular. I will confess to being heavily influenced lately by James Scott’s newest book Two Cheers for Anarchism, which suggests that the anarchist tension of everyday life exists in the many vernacular processes at work in all social spaces (whether in traffic, the workplace, or in the actual functioning of a city). Take for instance, “Mr. Higginbotham’s Catastrophe,” first published in 1834. The story is about a traveling tobacco peddler, who makes his way through New England. This man, Dominicus Pike, plays a role in the area far beyond his selling of various grades of tobacco and seducing local farm girls. He was a reporter of sorts, “always itching to hear the news, and anxious to tell it again.” (188) When hearing the news about the murder of Mr. Migginbotham by “an Irishman and a nigger.” He begins to make a name for himself retelling the story in every town on his circuit. The story develops with each telling. This is the power of an oral culture. With stories written down, confirmed, and supported by evidence, they become reified and quickly stale. With rapid retellings it becomes possible to improve on the truth. This tension is worked out when the lawyers get involved and try to get Pike to write down his deposition. As it turns out, Higginbotham is not dead, a fact confirmed by lawyers and members of the Higginbotham family. The one telling the story to Pike was a conspirator hoping to commit the murder but was stopped by Pike’s fortunate arrival. Another benefit to having plenty of well-natured people wandering civilization seems to be that they work as a set of eyes that reaches places the state  cannot. Hawthorne does touch on the more insidious nature of vernacular myth-making, such as the real threats it posed to a black man, deemed by listeners to be the murderer. This aside, I want to touch on the joy created by Pike’s constant retelling of the tale. He did this not as an authority (as an author) but in a more popular format, laced with uncertainty. “He deemed it advisable, however, not to be too positive as to the date of the direful fact, and also to be uncertain whether it were perpetrated by an Irishman and a mulatto, or by the son of Erin along. Neither did he profess to relate it on his own authority, or that of any one person; but mentioned it as a report general diffused.” (192) This way, the tale could evolve on its own right.

Brother Jonathan, the Yankee pedlar, makes an appearance in this blog. It is about time.

Brother Jonathan, the Yankee pedlar, makes an appearance in this blog. It is about time.

“The Gentle Boy” is a nice little story about a Puritan family taking in the surviving son of a persecuted Quaker family. They are conflicted between their desires to take in this wounded child, but their duty to the Puritan community which saw Quakers (even children) as unredeemable. Their solution—not unexpected—is to raise the child in a good Puritan fashion. Although this turns out to be easier vowed than achieved. When the boy’s mother returns to preach Quakerism and mostly against Puritan persecution, she initially attempts to take her son with her but changes her mind due to the potential of a good home, even if it is bought at the price of her religious values. Her sacrifice is total. When persecution ends due to royal order, it is too late. Interesting for us is how both the boys natural and adopted parents attempted a more practical and humane approach to the one offered by religious doctrine.

The Hawthorne stories for this post cover the period from 1832 and 1835, consisting of “The Gentle Boy,” “The Seven Vagabonds,” “The Canterbury Pilgrims,” “Sir William Pepperell,” “Passages from a Relinquished Work,” “Mr. Higginbotham’s Catastrophe,” “The Haunted Mind,” “Alice Doane’s Appeal,” “The Vilage Uncle,” and “Little Annie’s Ramble.” As you can see from some of the titles, the marginal, mobile person is prominent in these texts. At times, Hawthorne all but shouts at us to break free from our provincial, hometown perspective and venture out. Sometimes, that requires uncovering the truth behind the local history, so important to the New England setting for Hawthorne.

As “Alice Doane’s Appeal,” opens we meet a trio walking up a hill on the outskirts of town. It is “Gallows Hill,” a place of executions in an earlier era. “But the curious wanderer on the hill will perceive that all the grass, and everything that should nourish man or beast, has been destroyed by this vile and ineradicable weed [wood-wax]: its tufted roots make the soil their own, and permit nothing else to vegetate among them; so that a physical curse may be said to have blasted the spot, where guilt and phrenzy consummated the most execrable scene, that our history blushes to report.” While a horrifying place in many ways, deemed off limits by the society, the narrator urges its exploration. “[H]ow few come on pilgrimage to this famous hill; how many spend their lives almost at its base, and never once obey the summons of the shadowy past, as it beckons them to the summit.” (205–206) This place of horrible punishment and Puritan tyranny is confronted, imagined, and ultimately challenged by the boldness of the narrator and his two companions. The community’s silence and isolation of Gallows Hill allowed the suppression of this historical memory. The past may not be fully escapable but it can often be forgotten. This is another role of the vernacular in our communities. They hold onto memories that would more likely be forgotten by institutions and too often by communities (e.g. violent labor conflicts, lynching).

I started here with “Little Annie’s Ramble,” which I found breathtakingly beautiful in its celebration of the optimism, curiosity, and moral courage of children. (I cannot help but be reminded of Huck Finn in a story like this.) “Is not little Annie afraid. . . No; she does not even shrink closer to my side, but passes on with fearless courage. . . . Many, many have leaden feet, because their hearts are far heavier than lead.” (229) Ah the contrast here almost does not need commentary. During the ramble we learn that Annie is not bound by the burden of the written word but consumes literature for the pictures, which create new worlds in her imagination. The story is mostly a journey through Annie’s imagination and her creative reworking of the tales and folklore of her culture. Along with her is an older companion who appreciates her freedom and dwells on the comparative confinement and banality of the adult world. When we come to the community of the beasts, so important to the minds of children we find this lovely thesis on liberty, lost on so many of our leaders. “But they are choosing neither a king nor a Presidents; else we should hear a more horrible snarling! They have come from the deep woods, and the wild mountains, and the desert sands, and the polar snows, only to homage to my little Annie.” (232) Later, the related statement: “Are there any two living creatures who have so few sympathies that they cannot possibly be friends?” (232–233) If to make his point about the huge divide between the mind of the child and the adult world, the only animal that Annie dislikes is the monkey, because it looks just too human.

Ah, Hawthorne’s advice for us is well-taken. “When our infancy is almost forgotten, and our boyhood long departed, though it seems but as yesterday; when life settles darkly down upon us, and we doubt whether to call ourselves young any more; then it is good to steal away from the society of bearded men, and even of gentler women, and spend an hour or two with children.” (235)

Aldo Leopold, “A Sand County Almanac” (1949): Part Two

“Seeing Like a Mountain” in the second part of Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac touches on the dramatic turn in his own mind about wildlife management. In earlier years, Leopold believed that the killing off of wolves would increase the deer population, thus ensuring the survival of deer (one type of wildlife) for the use of hunters. In a sense, this was seen in the early twentieth century as a mutually beneficial act, a way of mitigating the divide between the human need for outdoor sports and nature. “Seeing like a mountain” suggests the poverty of that view. Although he did look into the “green fire” of the eyes of the wolf, he did not need to in order to take the broader perspective. Leopold’s realization was that the mountain needed the wolves to prevent the destruction of the mountain ecosystem by uncontested deer populations. “I have seen every edible bush and seedling browsed, first to anaemic desuetude, and then to death. I have seen every edible tree defoliated to the height of a saddlehorn.” (116)

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The second part of A Sand County Almanac branches out from Sauk County Wisconsin and draws from Leopold’s experiences in wildlife management and conservation across the country, particularly the Southwest, where he worked for almost two decades after he earned his degree. While the first part are more impressionistic, in which he hopes to allow the dynamics of the woods around his farm to speak for itself. Starting with part two, he embraces a more polemical tone challenging many of the assumptions about conservation that he embraced throughout his career. Centrally, his idea is that wildlife management is fundamentally flawed because it requires an intrusion by humans. Managing the wilderness means the end of the wilderness. “Thus always does history, whether of marsh or market place, end in paradox. The ultimate value in these marshes is wildness, and the crane is wildness incarnate. But all conservation of wildness is self-defeating, for to cherish we must see and fondle, and when enough have seen and fondled, there is no wilderness left to cherish.” (89)

When reading this I was thinking of the consequences of this for human freedom. This goes beyond Leopold’s belief that human’s requires some relationship with nature to be free. What I considered was that even within human societies Leopold’s point about managing is true. James Scott’s books Two Cheers for Anarchism and Seeing Like a State argues about our preference for vernacular organizations rather that state-managed organizations. He shows how the vernacular order tends to look messy but work very well (the bartender providing mental health counseling or the local naming of roads to match their real purpose are two examples he gives), but state-run attempts at order (Stalin’s collectivization or general urban planning) tend to both destroy the vernacular order and make things objectively worse. We are reminded that dangerous, disorderly and often bizarre nature can teach us about the virtue of the vernacular in our own societies. A minor extension of “seeing like a mountain,” if you will.
A similar lesson about nature comes from “Cheat Takes Over,” an essay showing that “solidarity and co-operation among plant and animal pests” exists much like the human “honor among thieves.” While Kropotkin suggested that such mutual aid tended to exist only within species, Leopold sees it among entire subcultures of plant life, the “ecological stowaways.” (136—138)

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The third and final section of A Sand County Almanac, titled “The Upshot” is made up of four essays. The first of these “Conservation Esthetic” takes on the dilemma of humans in industrial societies seeking wilderness, while that quest rapidly destroys that wildness. Mass-use of these resources necessitates (it seems) a degree of artificiality, whether it is a road or a pier or a restroom. Mass-use also seems to destroy the reason humans seek the wilderness, solitude and communion with nature. Leopold could not fully answer the questions brought up by democratic access to the commons, although he was burdened by it his entire life. It may be one of his most important questions for free societies to grapple with, as we all know too well.

“Wildlife in American Culture” makes the same point but goes deeper into the American affection toward nature. “Wildlife once fed us and shaped our culture. It still yields us pleasure for leisure hours, but we try to reap that pleasure by modern machinery and thus destroy part of its value. Reaping it by modern mentality would yield not only pleasure, but wisdom as well.” (160)

“Wilderness” begins to propose a solution. Some wilderness needs to be sustained for “the primitive arts of wilderness travel” such as hunting and foot travel. This may be undemocratic but as most of the woods are already conquered by the “mechanized recreation” this amounts to minority rights. Another part of wilderness needs to be sustained for science, mostly untouched so that they can understand how the land sustains itself. Finally, humans needs to devote some part of their land to “permanent wilderness.” This is only a “rear-guard” action, however. However, if this is the best we can do, we will expect wilderness to slowly decline.
This leads up to Leopold’s famous “Land Ethic,” the final essay of the A Sand County Almanac. Its beauty is in its simplicity. The Land Ethic consists simply of including the land (and now we can add oceans and air) to our ethical decision making process. It does not require accepting any of the metaphysical baggage that comes with some aspects of deep ecology. For Leopold it was as simple as extending our obligations to one another to the lands that we have power over. “Obligations have no meaning without conscience, and the problem we face is the extension of the social conscience from people to land.” (176–177) Leopold does not fail to add that for many farmers at least (if not quite so much for the people partaking in “mechanized recreation”) this is in their self-interest anyway and an easy sell.

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A Sand County Almanac came at the end of Leopold’s life. It was accepted for publication just days before his death of a heart attack after helping his neighbors with a fire. The rest of the Library of America collection consists of his assorted writings, his journals, and some of his letters. In the coming posts, I will explore Leopold’s ideas with an eye to his changing values as well as take on some of the very practical issues of the management of the commons in free societies.

Isaac Bashevis Singer, “A Crown of Feathers and Other Stories” (1973)

The twenty four stories in Isaac Bashevis Singer’s A Crown of Feathers and Other Stories shift across the Jewish Diaspora creating a network of relationships and themes across Poland, New York, and Palestine. His most common characters are scholars frustrated by profound questions or hedonists without an ultimate purpose. The stories set in the United States are mostly shrouded by the legacy of the Holocaust. This was not a strong theme in some of his earlier stories that I looked at months ago in this blog. It seems that the Holocaust became a greater part of Singer’s consciousness over time. In the same way, the Diaspora becomes more significant. His first stories were all set in Poland and emerged from Jewish folklore. These carry on elements of that folklore tradition but thrust them onto a global stage. One thing that seems to run throughout his work without too much alternation is the feeling that characters have lost control of their lives, whether due to malevolent beings, malevolent historical burden, or others powers (institutions, family, and ideas). As with A Friend of Kafka, the characters in A Crown of Feathers are unable to find freedom under the heavy weight of the historical burden they carry. Even in the mundane and slightly beneficial this is true. “The man in the white uniform must have been the owner, or the manager, and the cashier didn’t want him to see that he was a customer get by without paying. The powers were conspiring to provide me with one stroke of luck after another. I went out, and through the glass door I saw the cashier and the man in the white uniform laughing. They were laughing at me, the greenhorn, with my Yiddish.” (304)

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One thing we can consistently take away from Singer’s work is that freedom is difficult and the institutions that surround us shape so much of the details of our lives that escape is often unthinkable. The solution is either resistance, flight, or acceptance. However, none of these really work out. Flight most of all, because if the demons from Poland can come to haunt Jewish immigrants in New York (or more to the point the brutal legacy of the Holocaust). I am often reminded of Melville’s thesis in Omoo when I ponder desertion, flight and migration in respect to freedom. In his maritime fiction, Melville’s characters were often seeking something better elsewhere but always feel short, necessitating a permanent state of wandering. This may be seen most strongly in Mardi, where the wandering is truly endless.  Singer’s scale is less grand and his characters less able to move. Whether due to family, tradition, language, or age, their mobility cannot take them much farther than New York (or more rarely Miami). These migrants had one chance to leave the burdens of their homeland and they failed.

A Crown of Feathers also discusses the legacy of Jewish radicalism in the later twentieth century. Movement anarchists do not often come up in American literature despite the fact that vernacular anarchists are almost always there (a point I am trying to make in this blog). Singer’s Jewish intellectuals in Poland or New York often had ties to anarchists movements, but he describes these people as used up radicals, sometimes akin to the dried up and useless hedonists he also likes to describe. This point is strongest in the story “Property,” which is a deeply nostalgic look at these radicals. “Our Socialists have completely cooled off. They use the old phrases, but the spirit isn’t there. As for our Communists, they read the Red Sheet every morning, and repeat it like gospel… If their paper came out saying that Stalin was an enemy of the people and a mad dog, they would repeat it too.” (338) The anarchists were in decline even though Singer asserts that they were the ones with individuality (“even the ignorant ones had a kind of independence.”) Most of the story is a conversation with a movement anarchist Max Peshkin, who like the narrator, has moved to New York from Poland. However, his old radicalism exists only in memory, like the pictures of radical thinkers hanging on the apartment walls of washed up movement activists. Peshkin’s story moves from discussing the state of the movement to giving a rather gratuitous account of one of his affairs. The affair becomes metaphoric for the movement. “Strange, I remember in all its details how our affair began, but I have forgotten how it collapsed.” (346) If you read any histories of radical movements and revolutions you will know that this is commonly true.  (This is actually a good thing, since it means that movements and currents never fully die. Their body is never found.)

A second story on the theme of radicalism in Jewish life takes a look from the completely opposite perspective. “Grandfather and Grandson” is about a young man who rejects his grandfather’s strong Jewish identity through the emergence of his anti-capitalist beliefs. Instead of “Property,” which looked at a dying radical spirit this story considers it at its birth. As an idealistic and rather uninformed socialist, the youth thinks that all exploitation is rooted in capitalism. His grandfather tries to correct him by looking (like Singer does in these stories) at the numerous powers working to take away our freedom. The son thinks that capitalism is the only cause of Antisemitism. But his grandfather reminds him that “whoever rules will persecute Jews.” (552) I suppose both views are narrow and can be broken down without too much trouble, but we do find in this generational tale how the immigrants were ultimately able to break free of one form of ideological confinement (only to enter another one).

Singer wrote these tales at a time when cultural malaise was strong across America, affecting not only Jewish immigrants burdened by the legacy of the Holocaust. The paralysis evident in these tales is as horrifying as any of the demons that Singer’s characters encounter.

Here is Studs Terkel’s interview with Singer.

James Baldwin, Conclusions (Assorted Essays)

Now it is time to close the book on my companion of the past two weeks, James Baldwin.  It was one of the more exhilarating experiences I had since starting this blog because he is so profoundly interested in informal power, the way power functions on the psychological level, building up walls from our childhood.  I suppose we would now call this bio-power, but we do not need any philosophical concepts to understand that oppression needs to work on the mental level first.  Without a lifetime of institutional, interpersonal, and systemic lessons and disciplining it is unlikely that Jim Crow could have survived as long as it did.  Baldwin documents the dismantling of this mental regimen of power.  Another theme in his work is what Dubois called “double consciousness” or “the veil.”  This refers to the fact that the United States really looked different depending on your position across the color line.  As Dubois points out and Baldwin makes clear, black people had the burden (and unique ability I suppose) to look at the United States from the perspective of their own live and experiences as well as clearly understand white America because it was white people who created the superstructure of the color line.  White people, privileged to only look at the world through the superstructure they created, are not quite so omniscient.  (While I am certain this is generally true, I am not sure it is universal.  I do think empathy is possible, but that may be an ahistorical observation.)

baldwin

Looking over some of his collected essays included in this volume (there are around 40), arranged chronologically, we can summarize Baldwin’s career into three phases.  The first period (1950 until 1961) began with the publication of book reviews and includes his extended period living abroad in France.  He is observing the beginnings of the Civil Rights movement but seemed very interested in pursuing a literary life.  He published novels that were not novels about race and his essays (which were about race) were attempts to understand the color line.

The second period, from 1961 until the early 1970s, are his revolutionary writings.  It is during this time he completes Another Country, The FirNext Time, and No Name in the StreetHis essays from this period are mostly interested in the political issues.  His “A Talk to Teachers” is about the ramifications of the revolution for the education of black children.  During this period he talked to political figures, engaged in debates, met with Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad, and wrote some of his most provocative essays.  “Negroes are Anti-Semitic Because They’re Anti-White” is a good example of this, engaging in a class analysis of black anti-Semitism.

The selections form Baldwin’s final period are slim, amounting to no more than 70 pages.  This period is that of revolutionary Thermidor.  After the political agitation ended and after the cities stopped burning, Baldwin and other writers turned in part to cultural politics.  We have his review of Roots, a defense of “black English” as a language, and at least one essay on sexuality (“Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood”).  What comes out strongly in these essays is that although there were many successes to the revolution, much remanded unchanged.  “The Price of the Ticket” is the most somber essay making this point and perhaps a good ending.

When people question my anarchist leanings, the Civil Rights movement often comes up in conversation because one of the historical lessons of Civil Rights is that it took a powerful state to impose itself on the criminal behavior of Southern communities.  In this logic, it is at the community level that we are most at risk of losing our freedoms.  Only a powerful state can enforce our rights.  It is not a bad historical argument, but it does require a whole lot of bracketing of the of the long list of freedoms the state seizes from us anyway, and their defense of capital.  Baldwin suggests that atonement cannot be possible be the crimes of racism were perpetuated by a multitude, but it is a multitude that serves the interests of power not one running against it.  “A mob is not autonomous: it executes the real will of the people who rule the State.  The slaughter in Birmingham, Alabama, for example, was not, merely, the action of a mob.  That blood is on the hands of the state of Alabama: which sent those mobs into the streets to execute the will of the State.  And, though I know that it has now become inconvenient and impolite to speak of the American Jew in the same breath with which one speaks of the American black, I yet contend that the mobs in the streets of Hitler’s Germany were in those streets not only by the will of the German State, but by the will of the western world, including the architects of human freedom, the British, and the presumed guardian of Christian and human morality, the Pope.” (840)

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Henry David Thoreau, “Selected Essays” Part Two: Civil Disobedience

As hinted at in my last post, one of Thoreau’s great contributions was to suggest (it would be too much to say he moved much in his lifetime since his influence is mostly posthumous) that the proper response to injustice, specifically unjust laws or governments sustained injustice, should be disobedience not non-resistance, which was commonly held by many of his contemporaries, including prominent abolitionists.  “Civil Disobedience” is one of the selections that I read for today and will be inevitably the focus on my comments.  I did read the following works:

thoreau

“Herald of Freedom” (1844): A celebration of the anti-slavery journalist Nathaniel P. Rogers, which repeats Roger’s important point about undo respect for religious traditions.  “that Jesus Christ did not preach the abolition of slavery, then I say, he didn’t do his duty.”  (161)

“Thomas Carlyle and His Works” (1846): Furthering Thoreau’s search for greatness in writers.  Here is his examination of Thomas Carlyle search for heroes and Thoreau’s search for heroism in Carlyle.

“Civil Disobedience” (1848): Thoreau’s declaration of independence from the unjust laws of the state of Massachusetts in protest of the Mexican War and its pro-slavery goals.

“Walking” (1851/1862 published): An attempt to find “absolute freedom” in nature, through a rediscovery of “wildness.”

“A Yankee in Canada” (1853): A travelogue of Thoreau’s 1850 trip to Canada.  He writes much on the differences between Canada and New England, suggesting stark differences between the two civilizations.

We see the continuation of many of the themes in Thoreau’s work from the early 1840s such as the Promethean spirit of man and how to revive it from a civilization of mediocrity and his fascination with wilderness as a locus for the search for human greatness.  We also see his movement into politics as Thoreau moved into the sectional conversation.  Most of his political writing is tied directly or indirectly to the sectional conflicts of the 1840s and 1850s, up to and including his great writings on John Brown, which I will explore in the next post.

If we put “Walking” and “Civil Disobedience” next to each other we see mirror image arguments.  While “Walking” is suggesting that the locus of a true freedom is in nature and wildness, “Civil Disobedience” looks for how we can come to terms with civil government.   I would suggest that the libertarian cannot afford to examine just one or the other.  It is not enough to just come to terms with some limited government or struggle against imposed injustices, as essential as those struggles may be.  We also need imagination.  Conversely, imagination and a lifestyle of “true freedom” (perhaps variants of lifestyle anarchism) does not go far enough if it is not also in rebellion against the injustice of civil government.  We cannot ignore that governments exist and commit cruelties.  Remember, Thoreau was relatively immune from the injustices of slavery and the Mexican War (outside of the small tax he was to pay).  He was enjoying a relatively free bachelor life in Concord.  His debate with civil government was his attempt to maximize freedom for others.  This is the shortcoming of lifestyle anarchism, because it can only save the few, the lucky, the most imaginative, or the bravest.

“Walking” opens with: “I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil, — to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society.” (225)  Walking through an untouched landscape is particularly special because it is separated (often by fences) from development, civilization, and private property.  Thoreau is careful to separate freedom from property.  “The landscape is not owned, and the walked enjoys comparative freedom.” (233) We also might see in this essay some of his profound anxiety about the Mexican War.  The Mexican War promised not only to spread slavery to the West, but also civilization.  Thoreau admired the west but hoped it could remain “the Wild.” (239) Thoreau is also, of course, interested in sustaining a world that is suitable for art and creativity.  I am reminded of Oscar Wilde’s claim that socialism is essential for a world that can cultivate individualism and artistic expression when I read Thoreau calling for halting the spread of civilization and ensuring the Wild’s sustainability (he does not use this late 21st century term) for the aid of art.  “In Literature it is only the wild that attracts us.  Dulness is but another name for tameness.  It is the uncivilized free and wild thinking in “Hamlet” and the “Iliad,” in all the Scripture and Mythologies, not learned in schools, that delights us.” (244)  All is not lost.  Even as domestic animals can “reassert their native rights,” civilization can find its way back to the Wild.  He is only resigned in that for the time being most of us will be “fit subjects for civilization” and only a few will not.

It is that reality that civilization has domesticated most people that makes “Civil Disobedience” such an important essays.  Its inspiration to the methods of countless social movements and radical thinkers in the past century and a half likely makes anything I have to say banal.  Yet, this blog is about the American tradition and anarchism and this is a central text of that intersection so I am obliged to express my thoughts, as banal as they may end up being.  We start with his hope that government govern as little as possible, maximizing the principle of leaving people alone.  This seems unlikely because government will tend to express the will of the majority, and who makes up this majority?  “The mass of men serve the that thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies.  They are the standing army, and the militia, jailers, constables, posse comitatus.” (205)  Furthermore, that majority will and indeed has established and actively defends unjust laws.  We also have, from the American Revolution (actually from the Magna Carta but Thoreau does not mention that) the right of revolution against unjust governments.  What Thoreau masterfully does here is extend the principle of revolution against unjust governments to revolution against unjust laws.  Voting, which is just a “form of gaming” (208) does not go far enough because it still leaves the judgment to the majority.  The proper challenge to democracy’s unjust laws is a tendency toward greater individualism, and this requires the individual resistance against injustice through open opposition to those laws – not opting out or “non-resistance.”  “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.” (213)  Liberty is finally rooted in disobedience.  Perhaps it is through such disobedience that we can go from the reality of civil government to the absolute freedom Thoreau pines for in “Walking.”

Well, I reckon this is not a new observation, but I do find that by reading “Walking” and “Civil Disobedience” side by side we find ourselves pondering the debate between the activist and the lifestylist.  Where they come together is in an assertion of individualism.  The strongest activism is that which comes out of individual and active resistance to civil government, while the true home of the individual is in “the Wild.”