Henry David Thoreau: “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers”: Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday

Friendship is, at any rate, a relation of perfect equality. It cannot well spare any outward sign of equal obligation and advantage. The nobleman can never have a Friend among his retainers, nor the king among his subjects. Not that the parties to it are in all respects equal, but they are equal in all that respects or affects their Friendship. The one’s love is exactly balanced and represented by the other’s. (220–221)

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This lovely passage comes from the “Wednesday” chapter of Henry David Thoreau’s book A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. The chapter, which is devoted to the question of this fundamental social relationship is one of the most memorable for me because it is looking at what an egalitarian relationship can look like, while acknowledging that most relationships between people fall far short of the friendship ideal. He perhaps takes too seriously the Confucian ideal of friendship (but if we ignore the rest of that system we can see that one part as redeeming). He goes beyond a strict definition of friendship and see friendship and love as a place of creative experimentation in social relationships. “Ignorance and bungling with love are better than wisdom and skill without.” (231) Only at that point does the usefulness of friendship come into play. It is almost presented as an afterthought in the chapter. What does come across strongly he is belief that the foundation of friendship is a more rational and just organization of society than in hierarchical or strictly pecuniary relationships. As a cooperative relationship it is better foundation for people to engage in individual re-creation and experimentation. Forgive a rather lengthy quotation:

I am never rich in money, and I am never meanly poor. If debts are incurred, why, debts are in the course of events cancelled, as it were by the same law by which they were incurred. I heard that an engagement was entered into between a certain youth and a maiden, and then I heard that it was broken off, but I did not know the reason in either case. We are hedged about, we think, by accident and circumstance, now we creep as in a dream, and now again we run, as if there were a fate in it, and all things thwarted or assisted. . . . When every other path would fail, with singular and unerring confidence we advance on our particular course. What risks we run! Famine and fire and pestilence, and the thousand forms of a cruel fate,—and yet every man lives till he—dies. How did he manage that? Is there no immediate danger? . . . No matter what imprudent haste in my career; I am permitted to be rash. (239–240)

It is compelling enough out of context, but in the context we realize that this freedom to explore and dare is the wages of friendship. Notice with me that Thoreau’s primary concern throughout A Week is a type of freedom that has a strong social foundation.

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“Thursday” and “Friday” are thematically united around creativity, first artistic and then scientific. As might be expected, Thoreau believed that nature was often a source of inspiration for creativity, but it is more than that. Art and nature are thematically united. “Art is no tame, and Nature is now wild, in the ordinary sense. A perfect work of man’s art would also be wild or natural in a good sense. Man tames Nature only that he may at last make her more free even than he found her, though he may never yet have succeeded.” (258) That last big seems a backhanded strike at industrialization, which tames Nature by making it a devastated servant of humanity’s more crass needs.

In these chapters, Thoreau may be foreshadowing Nietzsche in his definition of “the Man of Genius,” which includes artists. The Man of Genius is “an originator, an inspired or demonic man, who produces a perfect work in obedience to laws yet unexplored.” (267) In contrast to the Man of Genius (the Artist) is the Artisan, who applies such rules. The poet is a special case of the Man of Genius because his laws cannot be easily applied or decoded. It seems to me Thoreau may define the Man of Genius a bit too narrowly, in part to justify his own life and accomplishments, but there is still something to be said for the creative and promethean urge.

A Week ends with Thoreau’s summation of the role of Nature in human life. Rather than something to overcome, Thoreau sees nature as something that must be achieved. “Men nowhere, east or west, live yet a natural life, round which the vine clings, and which the elm willingly shadows. Man would desecrate it by his touch, and so the beauty of the world remained veiled to his touch, and so the beauty of the world remains veiled to him. He needs not only to be spiritualized, but naturalized, on the soil of the earth.” (307) In this end we find a tension in Thoreau’s vision articulated most clearly. He appreciates the creative urge and the risk-taking spirit in other parts of his work, but remains dissatisfied with what humanity has accomplished. This is less of a dilemma than you would think, because it is the very creative and promethean urge that is the essence of nature. Civilization is what limits our creativity. Perhaps for some this will be a call for primitivism, but there is no looking back in Thoreau’s writings, except for the brief lesson. His is a projectural philosophy.

A Week is a challenging book to read and certainly not one that can be dissected quickly in two short blog posts. Walden, when I first read it years ago, struck me as fairly straightforward compare to this. Perhaps we see two sides. A Week is Thoreau as a poet, Walden is Thoreau as an artisan. I suspect many people will find the mystical speculations of A Week appealing, but both works are actually interested in our social lives and our ways of being together, even when we seek out periods of isolation and solitude. This is one of those works I may come back to sooner, in hopes of digging deeper into Thoreau’s mind. But for now, I am not flustered. Yes, A Week was opaque to me from time to time but that is part of what keep it so fascinating.

William James, “Psychology: A Briefer Course” Part 1 (Read like a Student)

This week, I am striving to gain at least a superficial understanding of William James’ work and ideas.  The writings collected in William James: Writings 1878–1899 include his abridgement of his Principles of Psychology (called Psychology: A Briefer Course), The Will to Believe, Talks to Teachers on Psychology and to Students on Some of Life’s Ideals, and some of his philosophical essays.  After getting into this, I again wonder why we should require young people to get college degrees.  For the price of lunch, I got William James’ Psychology and I did not need to sit through any boring lectures.   Because it was at the beginning, I will start with Psychology.

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This textbook seems to me to be arguing against strict materialism and at the same time arguing against a belief in the soul.  The dust jacket says that James described consciousness as a “wonderful stream” (I myself missed that description in the text).  This is somewhere between the material brain and a mind run by spirits.  Ah, I almost forgot.  This blog is about anarchist perspectives on American writers.  Psychology does not seem to be supportive of liberty, particularly in this day of medicated conformity and the domination of therapy.

Like a good student (this is a textbook), I tried to get what I could out of the introduction.  Psychology must be studied as a natural science.  Fine.  “The human mind is all that can be touched upon in this book.” How modest of you, James.  “Mental facts cannot be properly studied apart from the physical environment of which they take cognizance.”  Indeed.  This is the problem.  “Mental life is primarily teleological.” An evolutionary conception of the mind.  “All mental states . . . are followed by bodily activity of some sort.”  Ah, if only all thoughts led to action.  But, I suspect we should carry this rule around more.  Enough though and debate.  More action.  “The immediate condition of a state of consciousness is an activity of some sort in the cerebral hemispheres.”  Of course, unless we are run by spooks.

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Okay, onto the text.  James starts with the physical context of the mind.  The senses and the brain.  This may be of interest to people looking to understand how scientists in 1890 understood these things.  What I got out of my skimming of this was there is ultimately a physical nature to consciousness and our interactions with the world.  Wait…it says here he wants me to dissect a sheep brain.  Sounds like an extra lab session.

It took him till page 106 to talk about sex.  Thanks James!  Chasity is evidence that we are capable of forestalling happiness for “aesthetic and moral fitness.”  Fair enough.   I like this, maybe I can use it for my paper. “The tramp who lives from hour to hour; the bohemian whose engagements are from day to day; the bachelor who builds but for a single life; the father who acts for another generation; the patriot who thinks of a whole community and many generations; and, finally, the philosopher and saint whose cares are for humanity and for eternity, — these range themselves in an unbroken hierarchy, wherein each successive grade results from an increased manifestation of the special forms of action by which the cerebral centres are distinguished from all below them.” (107)  This seems to challenge strict mechanism, which would suggest a reflex dominating every aspects of life.  Over drinks, I heard someone argue against animal rights because most animals would be incapable of this conception of time, living only in direct reflex.  Maybe. . . I am not taking chances.

Page 138 and he finally is done with the physiological aspects of the mind.  “Habit”  — that is relevant to my life.  I never could stop biting my fingernails.  James gives some hints toward cultivating good habits.  I am certain the same methods can be used to cultivate bad ones, but he does not promote that.  Habits also keep society running, the good and the bad.  Mostly bad.  “Habit is thus the enormous fly-wheel of society, its most precious conservative agent.  It alone is what keeps us all within the bounds of ordinance, and saves the children of fortune from the envious uprisings of the poor.  It alone prevents the hardest and most repulsive walks of life from being deserted by those brought up to tread therein.  It keeps the fisherman and the deck-hand at sea through the winter; it holds the miner in his darkness, and nails the countryman to his log-cabin and his lonely farm throughout all the months of snow; it protects us from invasion by the natives of the desert and frozen snow.” (145)

James again reminds us of the importance of action.  Habits cannot be made or unmade by thought alone.  It requires action.  Good man, James.  I agree entirely.

His next chapter looks at the “stream of consciousness.”  Having mastered Ulysses and braved Finnegan’s Wake, I am enjoying this part.  He does much here defining what actually goes on in our mind as we create a narrative for our daily life.  Novelty is important.  When we see something new, it has a stronger influence on my consciousness than the everyday.  We know this from our permanent memory of one night stands contrasted with the “weekend routine” (term from George Costanza) with our regular lovers.  He also speaks of the individualism inherent in the stream of consciousness.  It is mine. Everyone experiences the world differently and those experiences are untouchable for our mind.  True and often forgotten.

What I see James building up to, from a foundation in the material commonality of all people (the brain and the senses) is a theory of individualism.  And thus we get to chapter 12 “The Self” (thankfully the end of the reading for today).  The “self” is made up of a “hierarchy of Mes”: material (appetites, instincts, clothing, shelter), social (honor, envy, family pride), and spiritual (intellectual, religious).  Thankfully, James provided a conclusion to this chapter.  He thinks “Me” is the aggregate of what can be know, while the “I” is “thought, at each moment different form that of the last moment.”  (208)

Ah.  While I admit I do not understand all of this, I do see a clear path from material commonality to psychological individualism.  We can be materialist in our conception of the mind, but this does not preclude individual experiences, consciousness, and values (all of those things that make strife so easy and community so difficult).  Indeed, our material commonality predicts an autonomous and individual experience.

Is it too late to start drinking?