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Kathryn Todd on Henry David Thoreau

Kathryn Todd is a graduate student in the Physics Department at Stanford University. She completed her B.S. in Physics and Literature at Caltech in 2001. She is also the current Program Director at KZSU 90.1 FM.

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This is KZSU Stanford.
Welcome to entitled opinions.
My name is Robert Harrison.
And we're coming to you live from the Stanford campus.
Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion.
That's what Dasman says.
But is it true?
Is everybody entitled to an opinion?
That's a question we're not going to resolve here today.
All I know is that on this show, everyone is entitled to my opinions
and to the opinions of my guests.
We're not miserly here.
We're in fact exceedingly generous with our opinions.
We're here to instruct and delight and to talk about literature.
So is everybody in?
Is everybody in?
The symposium is about to begin.
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.
He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary,
new universal and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves
around and within him,
or the old laws be expanded and interpreted in his favor
in a more liberal sense.
And he will live with the license of a higher order of beings.
In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe
will appear less complex and solitude will not be solitude,
nor poverty, poverty, nor weakness, weakness.
If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost.
That is where they should be.
Now put the foundations under them.
That is a paragraph from the conclusion of Walden by Henry David Thoreau
whom we are going to be talking about this hour.
But first let me throw out an opinion.
I think we should have a citizens test in this country.
That is right, a citizens test to be taken say by the age of 25 or 30.
Not the kind of thing that if you failed it you would lose your citizenship.
Just something that goes on record.
Citizens test past or citizens test failed.
It would require I suppose that you demonstrate a basic familiarity with American history,
some knowledge of the Constitution,
a solid understanding of the rights of the citizen,
and also the responsibilities of a citizen in a republic.
And if I were drawing up the test,
I would require that you be able to recite by heart,
Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.
And at least ten memorable lines from the speeches of Martin Luther King
and maybe five lines from JFK's speeches.
The reason I bring this up is because I would also require
that the person taking the test be able to give a rudimentary account of Walden
and on civil disobedience.
Two books by Thoreau that I believe are part of the founding scripture of this nation.
At least that's my opinion,
which I know is not shared by everyone,
but as I said before everyone is entitled to it.
Now why would I privilege Thoreau over someone like Melville or Ed Geralen Poe
or any number of other great American writers?
The reason is that Thoreau, in my view,
consistently challenges his fellow citizens to think about what it means to be an American.
And what kind of society we as citizens want to live in,
whether we're on the right track or the wrong track,
and whether the dominant values of American society,
such as the accumulation of wealth and property,
serve to promote happiness and the cause of freedom,
or whether they in fact meditate against our spiritual well-being and civic freedom.
Almost every sentence in those two books put America on trial.
And if America is going to live up to its promise,
it has to continuously put itself on trial.
One thing Thoreau insists on over and over is that you should never, ever accept the opinions of other people
without verifying them for yourself.
And that includes above all his opinions.
So in Good Thoreau, in Spirit, we're going to put Thoreau himself on trial during the next hour.
Does he really live up to my billing?
Is he worth reading?
Did he practice what he preached?
We'll be discussing these issues with a special guest who joins me here in the studio.
Her name is Catherine Todd, and she has a talk show of her own on KZSU.
Catherine, welcome.
Catherine, you're a graduate student here at Stanford.
That's right.
In the Department of Physics?
That's right.
Can you tell us something about what you're working on, what your research consists in?
Well, in a very broad sense, all of the people in the lab that I work in are trying to understand the behavior of electrons and materials.
One of the things that I think is really beautiful and fascinating about this field of research is that,
for a long time, physicists have worked to understand the smallest, the most elemental components of matter of the world.
Can we understand everything about one electron?
Can we strip the world down to just one electron and understand everything about it, for instance?
But lately, that approach has been changed in some fields.
People are still working to break matter down into its fundamentals and understand those fundamentals.
But this other approach has arisen, which is that people have realized that if you understand everything, there is to understand about one electron.
It's charged and it's spin and it's mass.
That doesn't necessarily mean that you understand the behavior of a piece of matter that has 10 to the 23rd electrons in it.
And people are beginning to understand that in order to really have a good understanding of the world around you, you have to understand not only the fundamental parts, but how they relate to each other.
And it turns out that you can get this really complex and beautiful behavior from the simple interaction of many simple parts.
And so that's what I love about the field of research that I'm in.
Well, this is fascinating because I think something similar hopefully is going on in the field of genetic research.
And you know how it is. There's this reductionism that has dominated certain fields of the science where you think that if you can just understand the gene and decode its sequence, then you have the secret to all of life.
Now people are understanding from what I'm told, and an expert by any means, from what I'm told, that it's all in the interaction of the gene with the cell and the cell with the organism and the organism with its environment.
There's a sense of a world to which all these things belong. Would you say that that's a kind of premise that is taking hold in your field?
I think that that's very true. I mean, as I said, there are still people. There are still things that aren't known about the simplest components of matter.
But I think that we have enough knowledge to begin to build things up again and realize that there's as much richness in the interactions as in the things themselves.
That's great. And you're at a good stage in your research.
Can we expect any great discoveries from you soon?
I don't know about any great discoveries. This all sounds very grand. These wonderful ideas about interactions and the fundamental nature of the universe.
But actually, what one does every day as an experimental physicist is mostly, sodders, wires to things and curses when they break.
And this is sort of a Theruvian idea. I wanted to be an experimental physicist because I didn't want to spend my whole life doing only one kind of thing.
I wanted to be a person who could build something with my hands and build something with my mind. I wanted to spend my days thinking and doing.
And I felt like in a world where many people live such specialized lives, spend their whole work lives sitting in front of one computer screen and doing one thing.
I thought that being an experimental physicist would give me a chance to lead in a way almost to craftsmen like life, thinking and doing.
Yeah, that does have connections to the row. In more ways than one, he talks about Walden. He calls the two years that he spent there an experiment.
And he keeps using that word experiment in a, I would say, quasi-scientific manner because what he means by experiment is trying to establish the matters of fact.
Nothing matters of fact about matter or a scientific phenomenon, but really the matters of fact about life in America in this nation at that particular time in history.
Well, I have my own doubts about claiming the row as a person who is in some way in spirit as scientists, but we can argue about that later.
I guess the one thing that I wanted to say is that even that idea of being a craftsman sounds very wonderful and Theruvian, but I find actually that I get frustrated with wires breaking and sometimes I wish that I could be a person less of hands and more of mind and just wave.
You know, wave my magic wand and make things work and not break.
Would there be any satisfaction at the end of it though? That's the question.
Well, you know, there might be, but or there might not, but there would certainly be much less frustration.
Okay, well, let's talk a little bit about the row. First, let me ask you, you're obviously not an expert on the row. No one here is as such.
And it's the whole point of our discussion today is not to bring a scholarly academic sort of perspective to bear on the row, but really to speak as Americans.
And to probe the question of to what extent has the rose legacy been inherited, to what extent it deserves to be inherited or not?
And I guess I would begin by asking.
Would you agree with part of my opening statement there about the rose importance as a kind of consummate American who kept putting his nation on trial by asking the kind of questions that were uncomfortable to hear for the row and his neighbors?
I agree with you that the rose writings are in some sense these important founding documents of America that and I can point to almost every important movement in American history after the row.
I feel like I can say these elements of this are are the row. People are are trying to carry out these ideals in some way, but when I think of movements like that, I think of as many movements that I view as negative as positive.
I feel like in some ways this this influence and I agree with you that there is this very strong influence that the row still wields over American culture, but I think that it's pernicious as often as it is.
For nicious is a very strong word to use in this context first thing. Before I hear why you think it's pernicious I'm not sure that the row has had such a major impact. I don't believe that he's had the impact that he deserves to have had in our culture. Yes, obviously he's a classic and he's venerated, but whether you know America is the
the row of you in any real sense that the question we're going to leave open, but why pernicious? Well, I think and I don't want to come across as a as an inflexible through a hater. I think that many of the things that the
was not so was not for our wonderful things, but I think that there are certain ways in which he is blind and and those ways are ways in which we continue to be blind as Americans or there are certain ways in which he is
unfeeling and those are ways in which we continue in America to be unfeeling and the biggest you're going to have to explain. You can have to explain those are two things blind and feeling.
I think that they are similar in certain ways and maybe it will make more sense when I say that I think that his worst sin is that he seems to me to care nothing about community.
And almost to believe that community is not really in some sense possible that there's no way that we can understand each other and there's no way that we can help each other.
And I think that this continues to be an American idea, the idea that the idea of self-reliance and the idea of finding your own way.
I think that's a negative aspect of American culture.
Well, okay, we put through an trial and you're prosecuting, let me defend.
And first, take issue with the statement that through had no concern for community.
And I would find that contradicts first the very gesture of writing a book like Walden,
which in his epigraph he says that he wants to sing as lustily as a chantalier and brag, I don't remember the exact words here.
If only to wake my neighbors up.
This is a book that is addressed very specifically to his neighbors or to those of you who are said to live in New England.
That's a great kind of jab.
And he said that he moved a mile from any neighbor, which I think we have to understand as him insisting on being within your shot of his neighbor and trying to engage with his neighbor, even if it was at a certain margin of distance.
So what do you make of the kind of social act that writing a book like Walden entails?
Well, I agree that writing a book is fundamentally a social act, but I would actually point to the text itself as evidence that he does this almost under protest.
There was this one sentence that really stuck in my craw near the beginning of Walden.
He says he's complaining about how people older than him, people with more experience than him have never given him good advice that people older than him are experts in their way of living, but that he needs to find a different way of living for himself.
And he says I've lived some 30 years on this planet and I've yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors.
And I couldn't help thinking on reading that sentence. Then why are you giving me advice? What do you think if nobody has ever had anything useful to say to you, what possibly, you know, what do you have to give to me?
Well, he does have a way of stating things which are meant to provoke, but there I think he's just taking on this whole supposition that wisdom lies with the elders.
And we should obsequiously listen to the opinions of our elders and blindly sort of embrace them, repeat them, reproduce them without thinking for ourselves.
And we have to remember just how gerontocratic American society was in the 19th century where the elders really had a kind of absolute power when it came to the mores and the customs and the sort of beliefs that they were.
So I think that there he's trying to debunk this common assumption that the elders always know better.
Then you say, well, why is he trying to give me his opinions? But again, I would say that the purpose of Walden is not to disseminate his opinions or impose them on you, but try to wake you up or us up to the necessity to think for ourselves.
Well, this is sort of a side point, but I just want to say that one of the things that's hard for me about reading Thoreau is that he is such a provocateur, that in some sense you're not being fair to him if you take what he says at face value, that he's always trying to shock you and get under your skin.
And so you almost can't analyze him calmly if you don't discount in some sense what he says.
I thought your introduction to the piece, by the way, was very the rovian in its provocativeness and fireiness.
And I thought that as a surly 25 to 30 year old who read Thoreau in high school only under protest I probably would fail my citizenship test.
Yeah, well, you would have to study for it. But here's what, here's how I would answer that charge at least, which is that Thoreau was an ornery guy and he wrote in a way that he knew was intended to actually distress his reader.
In fact, Emerson, his friend Emerson confessed that when he read Thoreau, he always at every sentence he read made him nervous and wretched.
And Thoreau really wanted, I suppose, people to feel nervous and wretched when they read him.
So that might be part of his whole agenda to the provocator and stating things overstating them as it were.
But by getting back to the notion of his anti-communitarianism, there is, I mean the obvious point to make, which I'll say in passing, but I'm really on my way to something else, is that he talks a great deal about how people have said to him, why are you doing this project of going to live in the woods and when you could be, if you really want to do something worthwhile for your life with your life,
why not devote all that energy to being charitable, why not adopt a poor family in the village and he says charity is always a nuisance to the people who are being helped that this is, I couldn't find any family that wanted to be adopted, he says.
And it's true, of course, that he is saying something that's partially true and of course the sort of interfering charity where you go to someone and analyze their life and say what you really need is this and I'm going to give it to you now.
I mean undoubtedly what he says about that is very true, but I think that it's wrong of him to abandon this project, not of determining for other people what they need and giving it to them, but improving our common world.
I think that he sets up sort of a straw man when he says that charitableness is only interference and never right.
Yeah, that's a very strong moment in the text where he's denouncing what was the supreme value, Christian charitable value of an American society that still had a lot of the elements of Puritanism present, where philanthropy, which was almost required of every upstanding citizen, was something that was engaged in, oftentimes maybe in bad faith,
to preserve appearances.
And I think the role thought that philanthropy in his context took the form of material assistance without any concern for the spiritual improvement that or help and assistance that could be brought to bear to the neighbor in need.
And maybe Walden is an act of philanthropy in the realm of the spirit rather than in terms of donation of money or providing a material good.
I don't know.
Well, I think that that is what he implies without going out and saying it that he's doing mankind a better service by waking them up as it were than by providing them with food and clothing.
But I just have to say that I don't feel as though I've received a gift of great value.
But I think that what's missing in his concept of philanthropy, which he does set up as the sort of straw man, I think, he says early in the book he's talking about, he's apologizing for writing about himself in his own experience.
I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else who might do as well.
And of course he's trying to be funny, but I also think that there's this underlying belief that you can't be inside anyone else's experience that you can't, that in some sense there's nothing really important that you can learn from an experience that you haven't yourself undergone that I'm reminded in this sense.
And maybe I'm making too much out of it of Richard III crying, I am myself alone.
And I think that this is, I'm sorry for being so provocative in Therovian, but I think it's an evil tendency to think that you're an island, you can't be touched by any other person.
Again, the question is whether that's a premise that could throw commits himself to that we are completely isolated.
I would phrase it differently, that clearly we are separated one from the other, that to be an American means to live in a certain measure of separation of citizen from citizen.
And that the individual is the basic unit, even political unit of the society.
And that the constitution of the United States was designed in order essentially to protect the rights of the individual over and against, not the community per se, but the state and so forth.
And that the individual is not an isolated island, but is rather in constant relations with his or her neighbors.
But relations that at a certain point reach a limit of communicability where the sort of spiritual experiences that throw communicates to us in language, which is already a public meeting.
I think he understood something about the threshold at which something personal does escape the kind of circuitry of communications, whether it's through language or through the newspapers and the media and so forth.
And that there was something sacred about that, something to be affirmed, and that it was on the basis of such a self, that the neighbors could come together on a really genuine basis and have something meaningful to say to one another.
Well, I can't really quibble with such an articulate and heartfelt defense of the row, although I think I would find it hard to find that in the text myself.
I think though that that understanding of one's neighbor is the missing element in his philanthropy, that of course when you are ostentatiously bringing your neighbor, your cast off clothes because it's what everybody does, that that's not really in some sense truly a good action, but that, you know, coming to know your neighbor and understand what he needs and believing yourself to be part of a community with him.
Is something that I feel that the row doesn't, doesn't do very well and that we as Americans don't do very well.
We are in the courtroom with the row on trial and we're going to be back in just one minute.
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We're here in the studio of KZSU with Catherine Todd talking about the row, and we've really gone to the heart of some of the issues that surround this controversial figure about whether he is a consummate American, or is he a rugged individualist, egoist who wasn't island unto himself, or whether he had a sense of responsibility,
if not directly to his community, then to his nation and the destiny that his nation was embarking on.
So, Catherine, apart from reading the row in high school, forcibly being coerced to read him, as you said,
what other sort of personal considerations do you bring to bear in your reactions to him?
Because obviously when one reads a writer like the row or Emerson or these people who challenge us in such a profound way, one brings a lot of personal baggage to the text.
Well, it's interesting that you ask that because I have a very good answer.
I have this sort of lens through which I read the row, and that lens is the story of my parents' lives who were in the late 1960s and early 1970s, part of this sort of back to the land movement that I see as a very
significant element of American culture.
I think they appeal to him very directly in that aeronome building your house in the woods and growing your own food.
My father actually in the late '60s was living in Boston, and he was an apprentice architect.
In the firm where he worked, his last job, the last one before he quit, was to design a multi-story glass-clad office building in the woods near Walden Pond.
And he hated it.
He hated that his life was being spent in something that he thought of as desecration.
And he quit the architecture firm, and he was going to work with his hands until he saved up enough money to go to Mexico and make pottery.
And meanwhile, my mother, who was recently divorced with a small child, was also living in Boston.
And she had spent her college years in another great Theruvian tradition, that of civil disobedience.
She and her first husband both believed that the Vietnam War was very wrong, and that it was their responsibility to do whatever they could to stop it.
My mother thought that if she just stood outside of the White House blocking the gate where Hylie Salas' limousine was going to come through, that if she could only stand there long enough and get Lyndon Johnson to talk to her, she could explain to him why the Vietnam War was wrong.
And once he heard what she had to say, he would understand that the war was wrong, and that would be an end to it.
Cindy She and Mm-hmm.
Well, it was just about as effective, I think.
But she sort of, I think, came to that belief after a while.
I think she became disillusioned with her ability to change the world on a grand scale.
Bruce, civil disobedience.
Through civil disobedience.
And she had this young young child.
And I think that she came to think that it's either not possible, or it's much too discouraging, one of the two.
For us to spend all our energies breaking against the rock of these enormous issues that are beyond our control.
And that the way to remake the world as you would wish it to be is on the small scale of a child or a classroom of children or a vegetable garden.
And so that was the state that she was in.
And when she was driving around Boston one day in her mail truck, her surplus mail truck that she had bought that and post office auction.
And it had a rust hole in the side.
You know, there was a hole in the metal where it had rested through.
And she was looking for some sheet metal to patch the wall of her mail truck.
And she stopped at this store that had a sign out front that said earth killed.
We sell everything.
And she went in looking for sheet metal.
And of course they didn't have any sheet metal because it was like a hippie dry goods store that had like hemp, twine, and candles and stuff.
But she asked the woman behind the counter anyway, you know, do you have any sheet metal?
And it was a slow day and they got to talking and finally the woman said, well, we don't have sheet metal, but we do have salmon.
And so my dad came out from the back where he was fixing a kiln as a, you know, preface to, you know, getting enough money to move to Mexico and build pottery.
And eventually my parents pooled their mail truck resources.
And they ended up driving across the country for a year with my older sister.
And they had to find the most beautiful place in the country where they would spend the money that they had to buy a place where they could plant a garden and settle down.
That sounds like a Theruvian retreat.
In many ways, I would add that.
The disobedience theme is one that is full of discouragement and demoralization and the row.
If you read that text on civil disobedience, he knows he knew what odds were all up against, you know, as citizens.
But he believed that we have, we can't abandon responsibility for the public sphere in whatever impotent the gesture is that, you know, one does it.
So I would, it sounds like in the case of your parents, there was a combination of a kind of ethic of civil disobedience combined with the
Theruvian sense that life is too precious to devote it entirely to banging your head up against the wall of the world.
And that in the meantime, there's a world, there's an earth above all, not a world as much as an earth, you know, full of miracles right there where we live.
And it calls out for our attention and our dwelling, our learning how to inhabit it with the sense of affirmation.
So it would seem to me that your personal family legacy would predispose you perfectly for this guy.
So it's still a bit of an enigma to me where the resistance to him comes from.
Well, you haven't heard the conclusion of the story. And I think that so far I agree with you that the story is very Theruvian.
What happened at the end of their male truck year though, they were in Santa Cruz visiting with an old friend of theirs and wondering what they were going to do when they read and add in the back of the mother earth news that was explaining that there were, you know,
five good acres of hilltop land in Potter Valley, California, and that there was plenty of water and, you know, that it would be sold for such and such a price anyway.
They went up to Potter Valley to examine this pot of land and it was up a sort of non-existent dirt road at the top of this dry hill.
And my dad asked the man, you know, is there, do you think there's any water up here?
He said, oh yeah, you know, you cut down one of these oak trees, you'll get a hundred gallons a day.
And they didn't quite believe that. So they were discouraged and they went back down to the bottom of the hill where they were seeing in their male truck in the parking lot of Del's wagon wheel motel.
And Del was an inquisitive woman and she, you know, asked them what they were doing in Potter Valley and they said, well, they were looking at this land. And she said, oh yeah, you know, that, that, well, she said it more colorfully than I can really say on the radio, but she explained to them that the man who was selling the land had been trying to pawn it off to a succession of city slickers and that he hadn't had any success yet.
But she said that she had some property to sell and she hopped on the running board of the male truck and took them down the road, not to some isolated hilltop parcel, but to the corner lot on the end of Main Street, which was not so small because you have to understand Potter Valley is not a bustling, you know, urban place, but sort of a one, two stop sign kind of town.
Anyway, so this, this plot at the end of Main Street had a, you know, an innaker or so on, which you could plant a vegetable garden. And it was, it was actually a set of apartments and they were all occupied so my parents camped out in the male truck for a few months until one of the gentlemen occupying one of the apartments died actually and then they moved in and they spent their time renovating.
These apartments and growing a vegetable garden, you know, summers underneath the foundation of the house, throwing it up and afternoons at the river.
It still doesn't explain where the resistance come. I mean, I don't see a dissonance between this narrative which is very moving and palpable.
I don't see where, where, where there's a disconnect with the, the, the rose experiment. Yeah, so I think that the disconnect comes from the fact that this house is on the corner of Main Street and that there are neighbors there who will walk by when you're painting your house and tell you, you know, you're using the wrong kind of paint and it's going to peel off in a month.
And how many times has that happened in Walden where the neighbors go by and they give them advice from remember there's a beautiful chapter on the bean field where he's planting beans and hoe and hoeing and the farmers are going by by on their carriages and each one stops and gives them advice about you have to manure it more you have to use this and that.
He was a mile from any from any neighbor but a mile from any neighbors not very far away and it sounds very similar to the circumstances you're describing.
I think that that let's see how do I defend this. I think the difference comes in here that eventually my parents found that growing their vegetables and showing up the the foundation of their house got boring.
My mom became a school teacher and my dad worked for many years on the irrigation district which involved going around to all the farmers fields and turning the water from you know the valves from the ditch into their fields on and off which he said was a great job because he got to shoot the breeze with every farmer in the valley and they all knew that he was the kind of person that they really had to stay in good with because he controlled the water flow.
But power that's right. But I think that I think that the for me the way that I've read Walden as as a surly 25 year old who would fail my citizenship test is as a story of retreat from the world that you have to set yourself apart a mile from any neighbor in order to live alone in the purity of your own thoughts.
We have to keep in mind that the rose sojourn in Walden lasted just over two years. He never intended it as a mode of life. He never promoted it as the kind of example that had to be emulated by everyone in order to live. He went there for a limited period of time the way a scientist again sets up an experiment in order to put certain facts to the test.
One of the motifs said is so powerful I think in the text is the fact that he knew that he was always going to leave Walden.
He was going to go back to Concord which in fact he did and this was a hiatus of two and a half year experiment that I don't think he ever tried to propose was reader as a permanent way of being mode of living.
Anyway, we're talking with Catherine Todd about Thoreau we're going to take one little break and we'll be right back.
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We're back on air here with Catherine Todd. I'd like to read you just a quote from Walden and this has to do with I think the question of demoralization which is a serious problem in our society.
There was a problem also in the 60s which had a moment of flourish and great hopes and the disappointments maybe that ensued after there was a return to the kind of status quo.
The demoralization that Thoreau himself was so well aware of on behalf of his own countrymen.
Maybe the demoralization that we all feel today given the enormity and the magnitude of the kind of forces that control our lives and control even our democracy.
It takes a big effort not to just fall into a sense of hopelessness.
But Thoreau probes, I think, something that underlies this sort of disposition.
There's a passage there in the first book where he's speaking about loss.
He says, "I long ago lost a hound, a bay horse, and a turtle dove, and I'm still on their trail."
No one has been able to figure out what the hound or the bay horse or the turtle dove are supposed to mean.
Are they allegories or they symbols?
I think they're deliberately indeterminate creatures.
Nevertheless, let me continue. Many are the travelers I have spoken to concerning them describing their tracks and what calls they answer to.
I have met one or two who have met the hound and the tramp of the horse.
And even seen the dove disappear behind a cloud and they seemed as anxious to recover them as if they had lost them themselves.
I read that because in that passage it would seem that there was nothing more personal and intimate than what an individual has lost.
And these turtle doves, and they seem to be specific to Thoreau himself as an individual.
And yet when you speak to your neighbor about these losses, it seems that they recognize.
And that we come together in the acknowledgement that all of us insofar as we're mortal human beings and above all even as we're Americans, we come together in this common experience of a loss that sometimes we can't even find words for.
And I think that is a genuine basis for founding a community if we can first acknowledge to ourselves that the endless accumulation of material goods or of success and ambitions that all these are in the final analysis going to be very sorry substitutes for a loss for which nothing can really compensate.
And maybe the whole course of a country could change if one could bring to bear this sort of awareness.
I think that that is one of the passages that make one stop and take breath and stop quarreling with Thoreau for a moment to just be in communion with him.
But I think it's interesting too what you point out it's important to note that what he's lost is not something that you can hold in your hand.
He speaks Thoreau Walden with contempt for people who are dragging their possessions behind them like a great weight.
But what he's talking about that's so terrible to lose is not your house or your livelihood or any certain material thing but is your freedom and your time.
These are the things that he safeguards so jealously in his description of his time in the woods.
Almost, you know, I think in doing so he loses sight of other things but he definitely feels a horror of losing any more of his time and his freedom to experience the world as he sees fit.
We should probably also keep in mind that the book is written in 1854 and I personally believe there's no more important thing about a book than the date it was written.
And the history of America or the founding of America and the pre, I mean the colonial period and the Puritan experiment where the Puritans came to America with these hugely wild hyperbolic expectations.
Finding the kingdom of God on Earth, of making it, of having the real thing right here and now.
And subsequently, again, the disappointments and demoralization for the fact that we're still on the Earth, it's not the kingdom of God on Earth yet.
This kind of endless waiting for something that really doesn't happen that there is a loss on a national level that the promise of paradise.
I don't know how to define what the expectation was but I think there was no doubt that that America that he belonged to in Concord and Boston and Massachusetts and New England, that newness of New England was supposed to be not new in the sense that it's just a reproduction of the old England.
It's supposed to be new in the conversional Christian sense of another order than the old.
And so when he says those of you who are said to live in New England, he's saying that we don't live in New England and that that kind of new world in the conversional sense has been lost and maybe we should deal with it.
Because perhaps if we can get over that disappointment, we might awaken to the wonder and miracle of the actual nature of the continent itself.
And the everyday ordinary miracles that take place as he records them and archives them in Walden, whether it's the squirrels that are feeding on his bean crops or whether it's the wood chuck or the way the ice melts in the springtime and so forth.
There is an America out there who's promise actually hasn't been so betrayed.
It's just that you have to look for it in the right place, namely in its nature and its elements, the land, seas, skies, forests and so forth.
And that's not going to fill this void of loss that comes from perhaps other sources, but it is what we get in return for it if we can just get over our disappointments.
And yet this world of wonder is something that for him one can only experience by oneself. You can't, I think for the row, you can't give this world to another person.
That is a limitation of the row. I'm not going to debate you on that. He had problems with intimacy.
We don't know if he had ever any intimate relations with women.
He was oftentimes a very rude guest at the dinner table, never made any concessions to manners and so forth.
And there's no doubt that he had a problem there.
But I guess the question we're debating is whether that problem, which I would say is a personal psychological problem specific to the individual thorough, whether that carries over into the message and so pervades it that we come away from Walden with the sense that this is a book that is really speaking, it's a self speaking to itself about its own self and its own experiences.
And that we're just looking at it from the outside and we can never really get to the inside of it. And therefore in the final analysis it doesn't have any great lessons to teach us as Americans.
So I presume that's really the bone of contention here.
Well, I think that what is either a loveable or infuriating about the row depending on your point of view is his unwillingness to compromise.
That a little freedom is not what he is looking for, that he will have complete freedom or not at all.
And that a little understanding and appreciation of the world around him is not what he's looking for.
He will be understanding it and with in communion with it all the time or not at all.
Yeah, in ancient Greece there were the cynics, the diogenes, the famous cynic and they would live in barrels and they would go around naked and they were there in the public sphere in order to completely shock and flaunt their non-conformism to think.
And they served a purpose, they just deliberately situated themselves on the complete outside of things.
And we're like gadflies. The row, although I don't believe that he was a modern day kind of diogenes or cynic because I think that he had too many genuinely held beliefs, positive affirmative beliefs to be called a cynic.
If anything, I think it was an Epicurean, but nevertheless there are some parallels between a diogenes to the cynic in Athens and the row there in Concord being the gruff aggressive and obnoxious outsider.
And the way that you phrase that, the outsider, I think that that's the core of why he can't be a communitarian, why he isn't a writer of community.
Because he's looking for perfection, he's looking for the world made anew and community requires compromise of your ideals.
Well, perfection is a loaded word that he was searching for perfection.
I prefer the other way you put it, which is that he was always looking for this newness.
And he found it if we're to believe what he tells us. He found that every morning, in particular every dawn, most beautiful pages involved in my view are the ones where he speaks about that moment right before the dawn.
And that there's a kind of sacrality to this kind of in-between moment where it's still dark, but something is being born on the horizon.
And the way that the sun comes up, that it's rising is a miracle that happens day in and day out and that it's always new.
It's always new. It's a very source of newness. And that his objective for his whole life, he says, was to be awake every dawn in expectation for this diurnal miracle that happened.
And he wants to wake his neighbors up, not only intellectually and politically, but he wants them to almost literally be awake for the sunrise so that they can witness it for themselves.
That is very beautiful. But as an anti-therovia, I can't let the program end on that note.
No, go ahead.
In our last 15 minutes, I just wanted to raise one question, which is, can you picture the row being a woman? Can you picture a woman writing this narrative?
I can. I really can. Because I think the experiences that he's trying to communicate the deep inner, let's say spiritual experiences, take him into a realm of the soul, which is, I think, not unlike that which Emily Dickinson probed in her palms, although she articulated them in a very different way.
I would imagine who can know if I would have to a statistical investigation, but I would imagine that as many women are devoted to thorough as men.
Who knows, that may be true, that may not be true, but I certainly have women friends who are totally devoted. In fact, I'll have one of them on this program shortly. I hope Andrea Nightingale, my colleague here in the Department of Classics, is Stanford.
Now, I'm perhaps revealing my lack of imagination here, or maybe my latent sexism, but I can't really picture a woman writing Walden.
And in fact, when I think of my parents' lives, I think of my father's journey as the rovean, but I don't think of my mothers that way, and I was trying to understand why this was.
And I think that it has something to do with the fact that my mother, during this period of time, had a child.
And I feel like Thoreau is, in some sense, desperately looking for something to care about, some reason to, you know, some reason to be in the world.
And that he finds this reason in himself, in his own thoughts, in his freedom to do as he likes.
But I think that as somebody who had responsibility for a child during her Thoreauvian journey, that my mother didn't think in this way,
and that her quest was not so much to find a place in the world where she could be herself be unfettered, but to create a world in which her child could lead the life that she would want for her.
And I guess that this is one of the things that I just find hard to deal with about Thoreau, is that this focus on the self is, I think he would find it hard to imagine someone with other priorities.
That I get angry when he speaks with contempt about people who care about having a roof over their heads of a certain kind.
That when you're responsible for another person, that their safety is important to you.
And so I guess that this is one of the things that bothers me about Thoreau.
Catherine, that's very hard one to answer because I think you're right. I will concede that Thoreau, for all this kind of going to the bottom of what it means to live, to what it means to establish an economy, make a house so much about Walden is about building a house and living in the house.
There's hardly any mention of cohabitation and there is hardly any mention really of procreation.
And certainly if one is a mother, like you described your mother's case, the experiment in the woods is not going to be that relevant to your experience as a mother or as a woman, let's say.
The question still remains that whether there is relevance, not insofar as you're a mother or a woman, but insofar as you are a citizen or maybe a spiritual entity with a spiritual life of your own, that's still an open question.
I guess that I'm thinking more and trying to understand what is it about Thoreau that is so inaccessible from the point of view of someone who's responsible for someone else.
I guess that for him being free requires taking risks, that if you're to be self-reliant and eat the crops that you plant, you have to deal with the possibility of them not ripening.
And that this risk is something that if you're responsible for someone else's life, you want most of all to avoid.
And so I guess what I'm trying to understand is if you can have a sort of Thoreau light, you know, freedom without living so close to the edge.
Well, this discussion has been fruitful and has convinced me at least that we can continue talking about Thoreau in ways that are as relevant today as they are, they were in his own time.
And this is a discussion really to be continued. Catherine Todd, thank you very much.
Hello, it's my pleasure.
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