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)

A. J. Libeling, “Between Meals” (1962): Celebration of Pleasure

Outside of reviews on restaurant windows, this may be the first piece of food journalism I have ever read. I have never cared much about food nor believed that food was a very important thing to spend one’s money on (compared to opera, books and booze anyway). Indeed, as a vegetarian, I always found the “foodie” craze a rather vile celebration of excess, undertook at the cost of violence against animals. A. J. Liebling’s Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris did not convince me to start caring about food but I find myself in agreement with Liebling on one important point: that a life centered on pleasure and appetite is certainly better than one of restraint. Between Meals is a book that actually documents an entire host of appetites, not confined just to meals.

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When you did a Google search for this book by its title–neglecting the author–you find a host of pages calling for restraint. This suggests Liebling’s theme, that taking that extra meal is not a sin.

Liebling begins nostalgically (as he often does) of the time before the First World War when heroic eating was a respected pastime in Europe. “I have known some of the survivors, octogenarians of unblemished appetite and unfailing good humor–spry, wry, and free of the ulcers that come from worrying about a balanced diet–but they have had no emulators in France since the doctors there discovered the existence of the human liver.” (558) A common theme running through his work is that excess is not as unhealthy and restraint. This is probably a clearer case to make with sex, which he does in the second chapter on a M. Mirande. Liebling connects the new regime of restraint on eating with the emerging sexual restraint he saw in France. “He had the pleasure of women. Currently pleasure and women are held matters incompatible, antithetical, and mutually exclusive, like quinine water and Scoth. Mirande also gave women pleasure; many women had pleasure of him. This is no longer considered a fair or honorable exchange.” (574)

One of the major points running through Between Meals is that food is a subjective experience and in this runs some of its power. While the rich can certainly explore food more freely than the poor, there are many foods that the poor enjoy that the rich will rarely get to try. It is an experience shaped in no small degree by class. Tastes in food, wine, lovers, and cities are all ultimately individualized. Interestingly, Liebling is interested not only in the food and his company but in the chefs, who all tended to be colorful, emotionally expressive figures.

The story in Between Meals does not have a moral tale at the end. He does include a chapter about his time at a weight loss “prison,” which failed, as we might expect. (When was the last time a prison rehabilitated a criminal?) The book ends with a narrative of Liebling’s love life during the 1920s in Paris, again connecting the consumption of food with sexuality. Both have been labelled as evils, reflective of excess unsuited to the cultivation of a thrifty, diligent working class. Malthus more of less says this when condemning both charity to the poor along with the the working-poor’s reproductive lives.

Liebling died a very fat man, probably his interest in food played a role in his weight. It is not clear from the biographical details I have that this slowed him down at all. From the 1940s until his death in 1963 he traveled all around the world, spending much of his time in Europe. He continued writing until the end. He tried a few times to lose weight but failed. However, it was not the weight that directly killed him, he died of heart and renal failure after a bout of pneumonia. Perhaps the weight did not help matters, but I do not get the sense that he regretted his appetites at the end. This work, published a year before his death is not a biography of the appetites that killed him. Instead it is a celebration of appetite and a call for a certain degree of professionalism, based on the idea that if you want to write about something (including food) you best know it well.

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Personally, I am a bit conflicted about consumption. Taking the world as it is, I think working people should certainly be allowed to consume more. As the producers of the real wealth in the world, they have a right to consume at least as much as they produce in addition to their right to the commons (‘the common treasury of mankind’). Social inequality and stagnant wages has made it more difficult for working people to consume, although they are producing more than before, and more efficiently. However, I am also a believer that we should move toward less work and less consumption. In my own case, I am now working 6 hours a day but making more money than my modest lifestyle requires. I would much rather work 1-2 hours a day but take home a larger cut. As is commonly remarked, we have moved from to a consumer society which directed increased productivity into disposable goods rather than in time off. However we got here, and David Graeber makes a good argument about this in his article on “bullshit jobs,” I think that moving away from work, spreading it out (so that the unemployed and underemployed can contribute meaningfully), redefining what meaningful and remunerative work entails (so that service, raising children, homeschooling, etc. are not second shifts), and ending Puritanical prohibitions on healthy excess are important components of a free society.

Seems it might be a good time to revive the Bacchus cult

Seems it might be a good time to revive the Bacchus cult

 

Isaac Bashevis Singer: “The Seance and Other Stories” (Vegetarianism)

Many of Singer’s stories speak directly to his vegetarianism.  Earlier stories in this collection (Collected Stories: Grimpel the Fool to The Letter Writer) addressed animal rights. This theme becomes stronger in the collection Seance and Other Stories, published in translation in 1968.  In “Blood”, collected with other stories in Short Friday, Singer connected sexual perversion and excess to the indiscriminate slaughter of animals.  He also case doubt on the entire profession of kosher slaughtering.  No matter how much education the slaughterer acquired, he was still one step from a murderer and easily seduced by criminal behavior.  I think he was casting doubt on the possibility, in the modern world, of kosher butchering.  Behind closed doors, with just the slaughterer and his victim the rules of ritual slaughter cannot be enforced.  (I understand that this is the heart of Jewish vegetarianism as a movement, which argues that all industrial and modern meat processing is inherently against God’s laws.)      In his preface to Food for the Spirit by Steven Rosen, Singer wrote: ” Vegetarianism is my religion. I became a consistent vegetarian some twenty-three years ago. Before that, I would try over and over again. But it was sporadic. Finally, in the mid-1960s, I made up my mind. And I’ve been a vegetarian ever since.  When a human kills an animal for food, he is neglecting his own hunger for justice. Man prays for mercy, but is unwilling to extend it to others. Why should man then expect mercy from God? It’s unfair to expect something that you are not willing to give. It is inconsistent.  I can never accept inconsistency or injustice. Even if it comes from God. If there would come a voice from God saying, “I’m against vegetarianism!” I would say, “Well, I am for it!” This is how strongly I feel in this regard.  In orthodox religious circles, this would be considered heretical. Still, I consider myself a religious man. I’m not against organized religion, but I don’t take part in it. Especially when they interpret their religious books as being in favor of meat-eating. Sometimes they say He wants sacrifice and the killing of animals. If this is true, then I would never be able to comply. But I think God is wiser and more merciful than that. And there are interpretations of religious scriptures which support this, saying that vegetarianism is a very high ideal.  Whether the mass of people accept the vegetarian interpretation of religion or not really doesn’t matter. At least not in my life. I accept it implicitly. Of course, it would be wonderful if the world adopted vegetarianism, on religious grounds or any other. But this is not likely. I am a skeptic, it’s true, but I’m also realistic. In any event, what the people in general do will not affect me. I will continue to be a vegetarian even if the whole world started to eat meat.”

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Now, while I have little patience for the religious path to vegetarianism.  Like Singer, I find God’s existence, non-existence, or revealed guidelines for life irrelevant.  Without too much trouble, one can get to vegetarianism from utilitarian and environmental arguments just as easily, without clouding the question with dubious God-claims.  While I find moralism about vegetarianism and veganism tiresome and unlikely to persuade, I am a vegetarian because the killing and eating of animals reinforces hierarchical sensibilities between people, and between men and women, and between people and the natural world.  If we want to crush authority, we must address authority in our daily lives and the most common for of violence most humans participate in is the consumption of meat.

There are a handful of stories that speak to Singer’s disgust with the production of meat.  “The Slaughterer” is the opposite of “Blood.”  In “Blood” a brutal slaughterer turns from his profession – and meat eating – only after being driven to the depths of violence, thievery, and sexual indiscretion.  In “The Slaughterer” the title character (Yoineh Meir) was unwillingly appointed the town’s ritual slaughterer.  He suffered at the death of every animal he caused.  He was the exception to the rule mentioned in other Singer tales, that for some people slaughtering or murdering are the only two possible professions.  His job forces Yoineh Meir to meditate on death, to engage in deep study of religious texts, and the morality of his profession.  “Verily, in order to create the world, the Infinite One had had to shrink His light; there could be no free choice without pain. But since the beasts were not endowed with free choice, why should they have to suffer?  Yoineh Meir watched, trembling, as the butchers chopped the cows with their axes and skinned them before they had heaved their last breath.  The women plucked the feathers from the chickens while they were still alive.” (548)  His disgust with the horrors of his job eventually leads him to suicide.  His point seems to be, that if ritual slaughtering can cause so much suffering in a good man, how can participation in that system be moral?

“Cockadoodledoo” is told from the perspective of a chicken and we are reminded that celebrations for humans are often the end of the line of beasts.  “I have seen a rooster castrated and force-fed.  I know the end all too well: death.  Whether they’ll make a sacrifice of me for Yom Kippur, whether they’ll put me aside until Passover, Succoth or for the Sabbath of Moses’ Song of the Red Seas, the slaughterer waits, the knife is sharp, everything is prepared: the tub for soaking, the salting board, the gravy bowl, the stew pot, or maybe the roasting over.”

In “The Letter Writer,” a sick, bachelor who was left mostly alone by the Nazi crimes against European Jews meditates on many things but in a striking and often-quoted passage is able to feel empathy for a mouse.  He also is one of the first to contrast the meat-packing industry with the Nazi death camps.  “All other creatures were created merely to provide him with food, pelts, to be tormented, exterminated.  In relation to them, all people are Nazis; for the animals it is an eternal Treblinka.  And yet a man demands compassion from heaven.” (750)

This completes some of my thoughts on the first volume of Singer’s work.  I have decided to set aside the remaining two novels.  I have acquired a book contract and this will require me to review Melville in detail.

Isaac Bashevis Singer: “Short Friday and Other Stories”: Singer on Sex

This third collection of Singer’s short stories collected by The Library of America was published in English in 1964.  Sex is a powerful theme in many of Singer’s stories.  One one end, it is a normal, expected, and celebrated part of life for married couples.  On the other end, it is the window to temptation and the commonly-used weapon of demons to possess the souls of Jewish men and women.  I am here making a humble effort to reflect on what we can learn about sex from Singer’s dilemma.  It is quite clear to me that Singer is a strong moral conservative.  As I wrote about in the earlier postings, Singer seems to reflect the conservatism of the rural moral economy.  His stories suggest a fear of outsiders, the importance of remaining uncorrupted by sin, capitalism, and change.  Often his heroes are the rabbis to stick to their spiritual orientations despite a changing or besieged world.

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In “Taibele and her Demon” an abandoned woman tells her friends the story of a demon who visits a woman and seduces her and lives with her as “man and wife.”  A man in the community, a teachers assistant, her the story and visits Taibele disguised as “Hurmizah” a demon.  He tells her that he will comes twice a week.  She begins to relish the encounters which are not only sexually satisfying but entertaining, as “Hurmizah” tells her stories of the demonic world.  “Thus Hurmizah described his wives, and told Taibele how he disported himself with them, playing tag over roofs and engaging in all sorts of pranks.  Ordinarily, a woman is jealous when a man consorts with other women, but how can a human be jealous of a female devil?  Quite the contrary.  Hurmizah’s tales amused Taibele, and she was always playing him with questions.” (338)  The relationship starts to have broader effects.  The teacher’s assistant remains unmarried despite being a widower.  (Taibele is abandoned herself and the demonic affair takes on the character of a second marriage for both).  While on one level the story works as a playful celebration of sexual freedom and rule-breaking  (Does she really think he is a demon or does it become an excuse to sustain a fulfilling affair?)  The story is also a warning against these transgressions.  The teacher’s assistant career suffers as rumors spread that he is becoming a werewolf.  In fact, he was becoming sicker due to his excessive late-night rendezvous.  While Taibele begins to become fond of the demonic world.  “Taibele knew that it was sinful to pray for devils, that one must curse them and blot them from memory; yet she prayed to God for Hurmizah.  She cried out in anguish: ‘There are so many devils, let there be one more.'” (342)  Eventually, Hurmizah stops coming, for the teacher’s assistant died and Taibele’s health rapidly deteriorated.

Sexual transgression is explored in “Blood” as well, but here it is overshadowed by the passion of a man for the indiscriminate slaughter of animals.  To story begins as an affair between a married woman Risha and a widower butcher Reuben.  The story begins “The cabalists know that the passion for blood and the passion for flesh have the same origin, and this is the reason ‘Thou shall not kill’ is followed by ‘Thou shall not commit adultery.'” (353)  Risha is almost immediately attracted to the honesty of Reuben’s brutality and indifference to the victims of his profession.  “If someone has to eat meat, someone has to do the slaughtering.” (356) She hires him as a private ritual slaughterer for her family’s estate.  Under a pretext, she returns to Reuben.  Their erotic encounter is mixed with the imagery of slaughter.  “He forced Risha down on his beach-bed and she, thrice married, had never before felt desire as great as on that day.  Thought she called him murderer, robber, highwayman, and reproached him for bringing shame to an honest woman, yet at the same time she kissed him, fondled him, and responded to his masculine whims.  In their amorous play, she asked him to slaughter her.  Taking her head, he bent it back and fiddled with his finger across her throat.  When Risha finally arose, she said to Reuben: ‘You have certainly murdered me that time.'” (358)  She finally got Reuben on the estate by opening a butcher shop, selling low-cost meat.  She helped Reuben work as a slaughter and seamlessly connected those acts with her sexual indiscretion.  They are aroused by the slaughter and often has sex near the dead and dying animals.  “One transgression begets another.  One day Satan, the father of all lust and cunning, tempted Risha to take a hand in slaughtering.”  From this point Risha began to expand her crimes by slaughtering meat herself instead of the kosher-slaughter Rueben.  “She got so much satisfaction from deceiving the community that this soon became as powerful a passion with her as lechery and cruelty.” (361)  This made her rich, especially since she commonly deceived her customers.  “The steaming blood gurgled and flowed.  While the beasts were bleeding, Risha threw off all her clothes and stretched out naked on a pile of straw.  Reuben came to her and they were so fat their bodies could barely join.  They puffed and panted.  Their wheezing mixed with the death rattles of the animals and made an unearthly noise.” (363)  This event was witnessed by a spy of the now unemployed butchers and exposes all of Risha and Rueben’s sins.  When confronted she converted and continued her life as a non-kosher butcher.  She did this only after almost immediately adopted all the worst anti-Semitic claims of the local Gentiles. She dies in the end, having become a “werewolf.”  She had taken to the woods and turned into a “carnivorous animal lurking about at night and attacking people.”  Rueben meanwhile had become a vegetarian.

Singer, a vegetarian who had disgust for the slaughter of animals connected this with adultery and sexual indiscretion.  Again, we find the dangerous association of sexuality with decadence, sin, and crime.

Well, how do you feel about transgression?  Where is the line between resistance to cultural norms, hierarchies, tradition, and patriarchal expectations on monogamy?  When does resistance to consumer culture cross into tyrannical Puritanism?  What is the role of sexual and moral transgression (and in this I suppose we could include meat-eating as vegetarianism/veganism often is often quite Puritanical in practice – based on self-restraint, moral mandates, and denial) in resistance to capitalism?