Skip to content

A Cumulative Reflection

December 6, 2018

I want to record and expand upon our discussion from the beginning of the semester, as it touched on a variety of profound subjects that I feel we didn’t get to expand upon then. This piece of writing, while heavily edited for coherence and clear direction of thought, has served as a notepad for my thoughts during the course of the semester, and has evolved with my revelations over the course of the class.

Ricky’s opening quote, Thoreau speaking of his own wish to live deliberately, was a profound starter for our discussion. “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived,” he says. This passage cuts to the bone of Thoreau’s mission- to discover if Nature could provide some sanctity from the meanness of human civilization he describes, and how he could live transcendentally from it. In our discussion, Ricky built off that idea well by asking if it’s worth trying to live life to the fullest, if making the most of life is worth it. Jake spoke up to deliver what I believe is today’s attitude towards this topic: that it is one’s duty to live life to the fullest, to explore the corners of the earth and experience as much as one can, and transcendental thinking will follow naturally. To fulfill this imperative, Jake told us how he would study abroad in Asia. This position, that one must do everything, go everywhere, and see everything, is supported by Thoreau’s own words, as he says: “Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour. If we refused, or rather used up, such paltry information as we get, the oracles would distinctly inform us how this might be done.” In context, Thoreau here is talking about men being awake, alive early in the morning, and using our time wisely. His sentiment here is the advancement of humanity- we must seize the day not for our own pleasure, but for a divine purpose. This divine imperative is so important, he states, that if we failed to reach it ourselves, the very heavens would open up and show us the way. So to Thoreau, a transcendental apotheosis of all of humanity is inevitable, it is our fate to reach it ourselves, or to simply receive it.

However, I feel like the modern iteration of this sentiment is based in both indulgence and fear rather than objective understanding and introspection. It is, instead, a fear that if one doesn’t live life to the fullest, then they have somehow failed in the human experience, that their life has been “wasted.” Thoreau’s teachings do, technically, back this up, but I believe it’s important to frame these two different cultural impulses in the vastly different zeitgeists they were born in. Thoreau himself journeyed to and lived in Walden distinctly against the norms and standards of the time, but traveling abroad is common and even expected today as common.

This sentiment as it manifests today is also a sign of status, both monetary and societally. This is a uniquely modern phenomenon exacerbated, as Gillian described, by the advent of social media’s ability to pick and choose what we display. The ability to go to exotic locations, and display all of it for the world to see is, subtly, a display of wealth and status. Even if these people do have grand revelations there, rarely is that the displayed purpose. While many people do journey across the globe to discover themselves, it is more often the case that others travelled for a pleasure cruise. Displaying this instills the fear in those watching that they themselves are wasting their time at home, when they could be abroad in Paris, Hong Kong, Tokyo, or Los Angeles. I want to clarify, here, that I am not deriding people who travel abroad, that their experiences are somehow “lesser” than other’s. I want to clarify, instead, from my own experience that our zeitgeist has framed these experiences as a status symbol, as external fulfillment first, and individual, personal fulfillment second. I feel that fear of missing out, it’s a very real phenomenon.I’m sure that this fear has been felt by most everyone. It’s pervasive enough, I feel, to be recognized as a hallmark of our emerging culture. A common phrase we use when even discussing the subject is “spending your life.” The term “spend” in that context implies an exchange- by its very nature, it implies that one is not living one’s live enjoying what they do, but paying for it. That word choice alone tells us, subtly, that we pay for our time, and that we must “spend” is wisely lest we “waste” it. Thoreau himself seems to reinforce this idea by saying “To be awake is to be alive.” According to Thoreau, sleeping, and by proxy, resting or relaxing, is tantamount to death, un-life. I don’t agree with Thoreau’s sentiment here- I find that night offers the same quiet, meditative time that Thoreau gives the mornings. And Thoreau himself, however, spends a lot of time postulating on the importance of leisure time to reflect and introspect. In our increasingly work-oriented culture, people would call this time “wasted,” but I can’t agree. I don’t believe that anyone could ever achieve transcendental thought without a considerable amount of quiet time to self-reflect, introspect, and observe the natural world. There is a balance here, between the time spent observing and the time spent reflecting, even if he contradicts himself. And even people who aren’t trying to reflect need time for themselves, it is a necessary part of everyday life.

Thoreau’s teachings, as extensively detailed in Pond Scum, come off as didactic, almost preaching- a self-contradictory blueprint for humanity. However, the idea that we could all identically thrive off Thoreau’s methodology is absurd. This brought forward the idea that we all expect others to have a similar individual fulfillment that we do- that the same values they hold should be held by most others. This ties into a conundrum of the larger zeitgeist- that is, a rejection of the traditional norms, but husking them for newer ones. I assume that many would agree when I say that for years, the set path to self-fulfillment has been rigidly defined. Go to college, get a job at a cubicle, raise a family, make lots of money. These were touted as a blueprint for the pinnacle of internal and external fulfillment for generations. However, this has been slowly phased out, rightfully so, for individual discovery. Which is, I believe, the ideal route, people should have the freedom to choose and discover what they want to pursue in life, and if common ideal doesn’t work for them. However, we don’t provide any support systems for this, beyond disturbingly work-oriented “What Career Are You Suited For?” pamphlets. Here in academia, we expect that others have all already figured everything out, so we never spend time on introspection- it’s unneeded, here.

So that is why I was unsurprised to see Kathryn Schulz frustrated with Walden. With no support for introspection beyond career choice pamphlets, we are not prepared in academia to fully appreciate a stream of consciousness work of literature like Walden. And the fault there is that our expectations are removed from reality. It seems to me that the expectation of Walden from Pond Scum’s author, Kathryn Schulz, was that Thoreau would hand Schulz knowledge directly. The expectation, surrounding American classics, is that they are classics for a reason. Academia would not laud Walden as a tenant of American literature and philosophy if it did not deliver worth its praise. So, it’s not out of the question that Schulz would open Walden expecting a grand revelation, only to feel disappointed at Thoreau’s contradictions inherent in his stream of consciousness. Contradictions absent from academia and the discourse surrounding Walden today. Walden is not so much a blueprint for living and thinking transcendentally as much as it is a transcription of Thoreau’s observations. The problem, inherent in our own expectations surrounding Thoreau’s work is that he will hand us a transcendental lens at the end of the book. And he does do just that for many readers, stating:  

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.

Where Schulz’s frustrations seems to stem, here, I believe, is from the lack of a clear, definitive transcendental lens presented for the reader in Walden. That is a perspective the reader has to develop and hone themselves. The book concludes saying, that as long as the reader has developed agency- that is- self-determination and the ability to do what they inwardly desire, a transcendental lens will naturally follow. For readers who have agency, who can already do as they desire, this final reflection isn’t useful at all. I believe that a natural inherent optimism is necessary for a transcendental lens; an optimism lacking in Schulz’s critique. “However mean your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names. It is not so bad as you are. It looks poorest when you are richest. The fault- finder will find faults even in paradise. Love your life, poor as it is.” Thoreau says, which, on a surface level, is contrary to his endless complaining about the people of Concord.

Gillian explained this by putting forth the idea of the internal and the external self. He used the example of social media to get his point across- that while one might have their own interests, likes and dislikes in the internal self, that they would project an entirely different self on social media. This model encapsulates much of what we observe in Walden, and in everyday life, as people are pressured by larger society to conform their external selves, but still maintain their internal selves. Thoreau’s internal self, we assume, was so broad and indescribable that it could only manifest with contradictions. Now, I must preface that Schulz’s criticism of Thoreau is entirely valid- he does contradict himself multiple times, on many important core values. However, I believe that Schulz’s lens going into Walden was not one open to transcendentalism to begin with, but a frustrated, myopic lens. Last year, my suite and I took a class named “Reparative Reading,” which was a meta-analysis of the different lenses and perspective in literary criticism throughout the history of academia. We cycled through Marxist, feminist, and other lenses, finally arriving at the two cumulative lenses for looking at the world, ones we called paranoid and reparative. A paranoid lens, as described by Sedgewick, is myopic, it fails to see the larger picture, and is focused on minute details and word choice as Schulz is. This mindset may feel transcendent for a brief moment, because it gives the person the ability to think critically about commonly esteemed institutions. Having scorn for the world, knowing it’s bad may make you feel powerful, but it takes real emotional intelligence to look past that and appreciate the better aspects for their own merit.

A reparative lens, on the other hand, is very similar to thinking transcendentally as we have learned from Thoreau. It forces the reader to consider every factor, every lens, every interpretation, and, finally, forces the reader to introspect on the text’s impact on them, and what in their lives led to them thinking about the text in that way. It also removes the ability for the author to neurotically nitpick and verbally vivisect a text as Schulz does. This, I believe, is a transcendental way of thinking, but removed from looking at the world, and applied to analyzing literary text. A paranoid lens, as we see in Schulz’s blatant contempt for Thoreau, is rewarded in academia because it is direct, to the point, and more interesting to read than reparative transcendentalism. The criterion for our grading states “analyze what this text says” and not “prove to me that this text broadened your perception of yourself and the world.”

While Schulz’s antithesis is entirely valid, I suspect that our own understanding of Walden is but a glimpse into the emotions and revelations that Thoreau poured into his work. Our perceptions of others can never fully be accurate, we can never truly perceive the depth of other people’s lives, their emotions, their imagination and ideas. The conversation here turned to individual versus external fulfillment- Ricky asked us if the perceptions of others reflect dutifully on one’s self. The conversation stopped as we considered the question. It seemed to ask if others’ base judgements were true. I brought up how even communicating our ideas can lead to innumerable misconceptions. The words we speak, however eloquent, are only a fraction of our infinitely complex thoughts. And other people perceiving our words, through the lens of their own experiences and projections, perceive our words differently than we intended, even if they agree. It is impossible, with conventional language, to convey our thoughts exactly. Schulz, seemingly ignoring this, nonetheless jumps on Thoreau’s ideas as inhumane pretension. Accepting his contradictions is, I believe, part of reparative transcendentalism. Lauding his ideas for their inherent merit, despite the bad ones, is seen as cherry-picking. It isn’t. It is mentally healthy and intelligent to accept good ideas while recognizing their faults. This is only seen as a problem because of our expectation for consistency, born from a paranoid mindset, as described by Sedgewick, that punishes inconsistency because it is not an iron-clad thesis.

I want to bring up the idea of a blueprint again. In a later discussion, we talked about our expectations as a blueprint for success from the previous generations, that we are only here because this ever-evolving blueprint has worked with incredibly accuracy. The proof is all around us, in the mere existence in our lives as the product of older generations. This is a great metaphor for describing the complex web of intentions, influences, and constant but subtle societal pressures we experience and are imparted on to succeed as they have. I have to stipulate, though, that these expectations for us do not always correlate with transcendental thought. With the exception of this class, I can’t think of a time when larger society would compel me, incentivize me, and reward me for thinking transcendentally. Thoreau himself could only afford to spend the time necessary to achieve this transcendental thought because his family’s pencil and later graphite factory was successful enough to allow him to not work for the two years he spent at Walden. There is a certain amount of economic status Thoreau had, that wasn’t a result of his philosophy, but enabled it. Youth today, especially with the stratification of the upper and lower classes, the hoarding of wealth and crippling of public infrastructure for private corporatization, are less incentivized than previous generations to look inward. There is more pressure today than ever to succeed, grab and scale the corporate ladder before it rises out of reach. Transcendentalism is not particularly profitable, and thus pushed to the side. It is not a product to be consumed, it cannot be sold, commodified, or traded on the stock market.

I know many people who tie their own sense of self-worth to society’s expectations that they conform their own internal and external fulfillment to more profitable career paths. Think people lying about their work ethic on their resumes. While this is not unhealthy, it is not the majority. Many people’s internal fulfillment cannot be capitalized or commodified, so society does not provide career paths that fulfill those. I spoke earlier of the only widespread tools distributed being pamphlets that guided people to career paths they would succeed in. The expectation placed on us today is that being transcendentally aware isn’t worthwhile. There is a conflation, here, about what has led us to success and what is worthy. Success, as a means of acquiring and maintaining wealth, is a worthy pursuit. However, conflating practices that are not necessary to success, like art, music, philosophy, literature, and so on as un-worthy is a dire mistake. I would say, in fact, that writing off the arts and transcendentalism as non-necessary because they are not included in the blueprint of success is, fittingly, antithetical to transcendentalism itself. I believe that transcendentalism requires a strong degree of independent thinking and reflection on ideas we generally take for granted. Thoreau, for example, realized that many of the conventions we hold dear are irrational and not necessarily beneficial. The blueprint for success is always evolving, always changing, always being rewritten by the younger generations. The terrible price, then, is to let it change.

Going back to Thoreau’s quote in the opening paragraph- “If we refused, or rather used up, such paltry information as we get, the oracles would distinctly inform us how this might be done,” I have to disagree. The firmament will not just hand us the keys to the gates of heaven, we as a species have to do it ourselves, and have only gotten so far as we have because of our own diligent work. The historical context, and economic status that allows us to think transcendentally is a product of our relative privilege in this point in history. Today, we are at the apex of humanity. We are higher elevated than we ever have been before in science, technology, information and connectivity. We know more than all other civilizations combined, and this gives us both the free time that comes with raised standards of living and informational resources to let us think transcendentally relatively very easily. However, these privileges we have made for ourselves, all our wisdom, technology, knowledge of history are not an assured foundation. It is incredibly easy for us as a civilization to regress and lose everything, reducing us to the Dark Ages like civilizations before us. Many people fail to realize that our status as a technologically, intelligent global civilization could collapse and bring all of our progress with us. Progress to transcendental thought is an uphill battle, a battle where if we slip- even for a moment- we could fall down to the bottom much more easily than we could get there again. Especially today, seeing a persistent death cult of dark-web fearmongers prop up a gang of violent sycophants and self-destructive demagogues with stochastic terrorism, all trying to null human rights we take for granted with centuries-outdated thought. Our blueprint for success covers survival first – ethics, morals and transcendentalism come last. Thoreau was wrong. Even with all our transcendental thought, we never thought to guard against this.

The conversation is only complicated when we remember that this everchanging blueprint for success is not universal. Other people live by entirely different virtues, born out of entirely different experiences, and taught through entirely different routes of success. Of course, a life lived to the fullest is always what one should strive for- however, Ricky discussed that living life to the “fullest” is always and should be subjective. He asked if there was an ideal for living life to the fullest, and if our ideal is equal to others. This question drives home a critical flaw in philosophical discourse. When asking these questions, we tend to speak in broad terms that encapsulate humanity as homogenous. They forget, however, that one’s values might be entirely different from another’s- that while Thoreau might detest the “meanness” of modern civilization, others might thrive in it, and draw their own transcendentalist revelations from being surrounded by people. We must consider, rightly, that other’s goals and motivations might not suit them to what we consider the expected path to transcendentalism. Thoreau’s own discontentment with his life in Concord led him to search for fulfillment suitable to him in his cabin- as does Jake’s yearning for adventure lead him to travel abroad in Asia. But that does not mean personal fulfillment and transcendental thought can only be found in total isolation or immersed in company. Patrick brought up a great point, that it’s entirely possible for people to live deliberate, transcendental, fulfilling lives without throwing ourselves to the wolves or isolating ourselves entirely, and that it’s ridiculous that Thoreau expects us to. Thoreau himself did not fully commit to his cabin experiment- he regularly ate dinner with his family. However, this does not contradict Thoreau’s message- even though Thoreau regularly returned home, Walden pond served as a source of individual fulfillment, his self-actualization. I suspect that part of the reason he is admired, is for the fact that he did self-actualize completely, did what he wanted, and was made all the better for it.

Thoreau living at Walden rejects the external fulfillment of his time for the internal fulfillment that he really sought for. This present an almost anthropological question, if our own internal desires and goals are shaped not by ourselves, but by our larger culture, economy, and the expectations put upon us. Thoreau is noble for going off to solely support himself alone. Ideally, we could all be like Thoreau, able to support ourselves, but able to fall back onto a support system if we so will it. Modern capitalism mandates our expectations as a symbol and pursuit of wealth- and by foregoing that Thoreau ekes out his own path for transcendence. Our own system of “finding yourself” is virtuous, yes, but isn’t supported in any concrete way. If we truly desire to live deliberately, we must distance ourselves from the tangled web of marketing influences and self-actualize. We must decide our own expectations based on their righteousness and virtue, rather than if they worked for the past generation or are sold to us.

In conclusion, Walden seems to only raise more uncertainties than it could ever answer. Our mistake was looking at it as a textbook for successfully thinking transcendentally, rather than a stream of consciousness and revelations. Before we can even look at it, we have to completely re-orient our way of thinking. We must see it as a work that can elevate our lives and thought. Thinking of Walden as a textbook, as Schulz does, will only manifest our own neurotic mindset for approaching literature, and display our need for structured discourse as flagrant contempt. A mindset, I must stipulate, that was forced on us by higher academia’s move towards myopia as a legitimization of the discourse in the wake of a culture that is placing increasingly less and less value on it. It could also be said that the value ascertained in Walden are completely antithetical to what the larger population values today. So we arrive here, with no tools to look at Walden beyond ourselves, and must decide for ourselves how we become transcendent, even if those methods are confabulated to us. That seems to be the most difficult part of all.


By: Nick Vanamee


Discussion from 11/6/18

December 6, 2018

Ravenna opened up the discussion with a great question, about the value of the older technology and the old ways in a contemporary by asking if there was a value in the old ways. Patrick started by saying that it was good to preserve the old ways, and respect the shoulders of the giants whose shoulders we stand on. Ravenna expanded upon that idea by asking about the resurgence of vinyl and polaroid’s, and Ricky stated that it is good to be nostalgic.

Jake agreed that it was good to be nostalgic, but raised the concern of loss of control in the face of new technology phasing out human involvement entirely in some fields. He went on to say that it is good to have more control, more tech and less human involvement means less control and more capacity for a crisis. Steph agreed that we are losing the ability to control tech.

Ricky expanded, saying we can liken new tech to a double-edged sword, in that it allows us to progress, but can cause great harm if we’re not steadfast in our control and involvement. Raina brought up the internet as an example, in that it improved our lives in so many ways, but is harmful psychologically, and has incredible capacity for harm on an individual and massive scale. Stephanie countered that point by bringing up her father’s research decades ago. She told us how, with no internet, his research was painstakingly slow. But today, with the internet, her own research is lightning fast by comparison.

Ravenna continued, asking if learning the old ways should be mandated. Jake disagreed, stating that with newer technology, manual labor is largely obsolete, difficult, and shouldn’t be mandatory if we could avoid it. Ricky countered that if everyone was handy, people could very easily repair their own cars or sinks. The fact that most people can’t makes many feel helpless. Justin agreed, by telling us how his uncles’ John Deere tractors could only be repaired by an agent from the manufacturer plugging in a laptop, with considerable cost. And they were always breaking down, it was structured very similar to the planned obsolescence of smartphones. Ravenna pointed out that the internet can help us in many other ways in our daily lives, in more day-to-day tasks, such as how-to videos and do-it-yourself instructions found in an instant can make previously hidden knowledge widely accessible. Justin agreed, but pointed out that there was an intellectual wall barring information, in the case of the basic repairs for his uncle’s tractor.

Ricky agreed, and pointed out that we never really appreciate the internet until it goes down, and that we take it for granted every day. I think there’s something to be said here about using the internet to it’s fullest potential, but that didn’t come up in the discussion. Ravenna stated how they weren’t allowed to use technology until a certain age, and how they had to gain a technological literacy in a short amount of time that many of us acquire throughout our lives, such as using Word or other software.

Jake expanded upon that idea, by telling us how his parents’ homes were either tech heavy or tech-absent, and adjusting to either was very disorienting, but let him appreciate both a lack of tech and gave him the technological literacy he needed to excel. Stephanie, Ravenna, and Raina added that none of them were allowed a smartphone until very recently and adjusting to an increasingly tech-obsessed community without those same tools was difficult. Ravenna mentioned how they were worried about the psychological impacts of tablets and smartphones on children. Stephanie stated that she couldn’t participate in a lot of class activities, because many of them were based on Kahoot or other online quizzes. She said that adding this barrier to basic classroom participation forced many to buy phones they couldn’t afford. Ravenna agreed, and added that many families can’t afford the latest phones that are now reaching four-figure price tags. Steph added that it bars many students from learning, especially in the modern classroom that relies on those phones as the medium of instruction.

Justin added that the well-documented and confirmed planned obsolescence of many smartphones is intentionally draining on many people’s wallets as a way for revenue. He continued that non-renewable resources used for phones that are built to be discarded after about three years is incredibly short-sighted, and will cost us greatly in the coming years. Ricky added that this is a perfect example of consumerism taken to the extreme. He insightfully explained that creates more revenue for the corporations if you sell a new product, instead of repairing it. ??? added that this is fake progress- while the product improves, the way we use it isn’t improving, and it necessarily isn’t improving us.

Ricky added that during his practicum, the students found the online lessons more boring than not. He asked us if the push for more online lessons is largely manufactured, rather than found through science. Ravenna brought the conversation full-circle by asking if the push for less tech was an attempt for greater control. Ricky answered in saying that it was for nostalgia, and that there are cycles of nostalgia that happen every thirty years or so, idealizing a time that had better perceived security and safety. He said that this is completely removed from the reality of the situation, but was a fantasy. Ravenna asked if that idealization was justified, if those times really were better compared to today or not. Patrick countered that contextuality is always important. He said that any time will be idealized in the future, if it better than the future will be. Jake stated that could be construed as nitpicking themes from the past. Justin said that there is an idealization of the past that overlooks the horrors. People who say that they “were born in the wrong generation” only say so for very facetious reasons, only out of a desire to see a band or artist play live. Jake added that no one from a minority group would ever say that, wanting to go back to the past for that reason alone. Justin added that many people who idealize the past ignore the horrors of that era. Ricky mentioned that happens because people can very easily enjoy music and art from the safety and comfort of their contemporary time. He pointed out that t their height, many disliked the Beatles just for the fad nature of their fame. Jake mentioned that it is perfectly okay to enjoy aspects of and products from the past, with content. Patrick agreed that recognizing context is important, as in better informs your enjoyment of that idea, and you can disavow the problematic aspects.

Ravenna asked what we thought Thoreau’s utilitarianism said about living deliberately, and what we thought that said about our own lives today. I jumped in to mention HGTV, the wide propagation of the home as a display of luxury first and a living space second in stark contrast to Thoreau’s praxis. Steph countered that no one would ever want to live in a tiny hut like Thoreau did. Raina stated that the home for Thoreau was performative- Stephanie elaborated on that idea, by telling the class how her family cleaned their home as a performative gesture for guests. Jake agreed, saying that the clean home was removed from reality entirely. Raina stated that she was more comfortable in a real home, that is, she stated, one more lived in than performative. Steph added it was unrewarding to clean just for guests who also had dirty homes.

Yadeline added that the performative aspect of cleaning is subjective, and that while she would clean her home for someone noble like Obama, she wouldn’t clean for her close friends. Ravenna agreed, and asked why we fear judgement. Jennifer brought the conversation back to the performative aspect of our daily lives, how we pretend to conform to social norms. There’s a lot more on this topic we didn’t get to. Yadeline mentioned that as social creatures, we are inherently worried about strangers. Jennifer used the example of people dressed skimpily in the cold to illustrated the idea that. Yadeline used that example to express that she was just worried for those people, not spiteful of them. I brought the conversation back to judgement, and said how people judge others as a subtle way of policing what others do for their own standards and ideals.

Ricky brought the idea of judgment back to the home, by telling us how his own family cleaned the house for guests as a way of escaping projected judgement. Jake brought up an interesting idea, how paranoia of judgment, and passing on or normalizing that fear is a projection of that same self-judgment. Tying his idea back to Raina’s idea, Ricky brought up how in any home, the beauty is in the kitchen or the workshop where you can see one’s train of thought very clearly. You can’t see this same window into someone’s mind with a house cleaned against that very perception. There’s something to be said here, about that presentation as a guard against such clear perception of yourself. Steph added by saying that guests always seem to congregate in the kitchen, for the same reason Ricky brought up, but also to eat. She continued, saying that presentable organization, and, by extension, all forms of presentation do not have to serve from fear of judgment. They can be righteous in of themselves, even if they are rooted entirely in and circulated only by a fear of judgment. There is something to be said here for unconscious conditioning- values made habits. Ravenna ended the discussion by reminding us all that no matter how messy our homes may be, it could never be as bad as Thoreau himself bringing active beehives into his own home.


By: Nick Vanamee


November 1st Discussion

December 6, 2018

Pond Scum by Katharine Schulz and Discovery at Walden by Roland Wells Robbins

Lead by Nick Vanamee

Walden was written about 1849 and was published in 1854, seven years after he had left Walden Pond… as a sort of literary Bible” (Robbins 17). Do we idolize the idea of a secluded cabin more so than the reality of Thoreau’s ideas? Has your own respect of Thoreau faded after learning the truth, or has it grown?

As a class, we agreed that Thoreau was not necessarily lying. What he wrote in Walden is his version of the truth. Embellishment is not always lying. We also discussed the point made by Schulz that we enjoy Walden because we read selectively. The class had mixed feelings about this statement. Some believed that we cherry pick naturally and that it might not always be a bad thing. Others questioned whether Schulz was correct. Do we only like Thoreau because we ignore its flaws? There seemed to be some consensus that things can be appreciated while also being acknowledged as flawed.

We also discussed how idolization can lead to polarized opinions. People react emotionally first before they use logic to justify their emotions. In this way, people’s ideas are built from their emotions. If Schulz does not like Thoreau, her interpretations of his writings will naturally reflect on him badly to match her negative emotions. We wondered why Schulz did not mention the Baker Fields section in her article, agreeing that it was the most offensive part. We did agree with Schulz that Thoreau should not be idolized, but not because we thought he was terrible, but because we thought that no one should be idolized.

Do we want to remember things for how they were or how we want them to be?

We discussed what influenced our memories. Our goals and intentions was agreed to be a major influence. When we tell a story, we want it to be interesting and might embellish it to be that way even if its not entirely accurate. The more we tell these stories, the harder it becomes to remember which was the original “true” version. Overall, we agreed that memories are not completely trustworthy. We also discussed the possibility of multiple truths. What is true for one person may not be true for another. But if truth is that subjective, is it important? The truth or the idea of one truth at least is still valuable. Having “the truth” on your side adds support to your arguments that would not exist if everything depended on circumstances or people.

Do we live without contradictions?

We agreed that there is value to living how you preach, but its okay to not always live up to them because we’re only human and the world is imperfect. Everybody makes mistakes, so don’t be too hard on yourself. Still, one should strive to meet the ideals they preach.

Nature versus nurture

We discussed whether our experiences determine the value of our opinions. Do our opinions count less if we do not have much experience? We talked about how not everyone is presented with the same opportunities and how testing yourself can lead to strength, but too much stress at once can break a person instead of strengthen them. 

Reflections on the Cabin

December 6, 2018

Every time I tell someone about this class, they are always surprised. They often ask, “why?” Why are we building a copy of Walden? Whenever they asked, I didn’t really have an answer–“I don’t know. That’s just part of the course”– but now that this semester is almost over, I think I have a better answer.

I think anyone can get something beneficial from reading and discussing Thoreau even without building their own Walden cabin, but I think building the cabin, doing as Thoreau did, adds a new level to our understanding. Its probably safe to assume few people today live similar to Thoreau’s because of advancements in technology and general culture shifts, but by building this cabin as Thoreau did, we can at least share one significant experience in common with him that no doubt influenced Walden. The cabin needs a lot more work to be done before its complete, so we might never be able to live in it like Thoreau did, but just working in nature (even when it was freezing cold outside) gave me the opportunity to experience Thoreau’s definition of living deliberately. For two hours a week, we worked removed from modern technology and materialism. There were no distractions from TVs, smart phones, or other class. It provided a productive getaway from our regular lives. I remember someone in class once said that physical labor helped them clear their mind, and after working so hard on this cabin, I think there is truth in that. There are no outside responsibilities or expectations when working on the cabin; there’s just wood (lots of it) and a job that needs to get done.

Thoreau and Women

December 6, 2018

Thoreau had two unsuccessful romances with women in his life before deciding to live out his days as a bachelor. According to Harding, “he delighted in jibing at women and at marriage… In one of his commonplace books, he copied down in the margin with relish a sentence he had come across: ‘take your wife’s opinion and act in opposition to it.'” (110). Thoreau’s beliefs remind me of the current incel movement. Men of this movement believe that their is a hierarchy of attractiveness among men and that woman, being shallow creatures, will always flock towards the higher ranking alpha males. Most incels develop these beliefs after a few romantic failures with women. They are quick to blame women for their lack of success. Many of them actively dislike women for “ignoring them.” Thoreau’s response to his failed romantic endeavors reminds me of this modern issue. He is quick to blame women for his lack of success (after only two attempts) and constantly insults them. The modern incel movement and Thoreau’s attitude both highlight a still pervasive misogynistic culture in our society. Women are identified as the source of problems and disparaged for it unjustly. Harding later writes “Thoreau made almost a fetish of belittling attractive women” (110). Incels and most likely Thoreau hate women for not loving them. They feel entitled to a woman, and when they don’t get that, they get mad. They do not consider their part in the relationship’s failure instead choosing to blame the alpha males for stealing “their” women and the women themselves for being shallow and only interested in one type. Even without the violence this view often leads to, the view itself is problematic. It erases the individuality of women by forcing them all into one (demeaning) identity. In reality, women are not all the same and relationships are the responsibility of both members, not just the female.

When I read this part of the biography, I was admittedly very disappointed. It made me lose some respect for Thoreau which still has not come back.

The Complexity of Nature

December 6, 2018

In the past, I use to never spend my time considering nature remarkable qualities. Throughout Walden, Thoreau uses his sense to give in-depth descriptions of his surroundings to his readers. Being utterly consumed with nature definitely has an impact on solitude. Not only is this idea expressed time and time again throughout Walden, but I have experienced this first hand. I have attached several visuals to hopefully allow you all to a better understanding of my experiences with nature.

One question that I constantly ask myself no matter the occasion is if everything is done on purpose, although to specify, by “everything” I simply mean in nature. If I’m being honest, this question in itself has an infinite number of answers which is the polar opposite of nature since it proposes an infinite number of questions. If nature could be summed into one comment then its mysterious quality would cease to exist. This is one of the reasons why I have a new appreciation for nature because it is not straightforward. There is no direct path to figuring out how it exists, we just have to accept it for what it is. Of course, this is just a fraction of the unknown, but it still holds meaning.

Looking back at these images, I remember feeling hypnotized by the water as it dripped off the rim of a metal cylinder. The ripples on the water’s surface were amplified as water continued to spew from the rim. As I pounded on the pavement through the path, streams of clouds peered through small gaps from the trees overhead. My nostrils were filled with a woodsy fragrance from the surrounding trees. The unique odor I was experiencing had a calming-like effect. I guess the saying, “Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder” holds true because every object that I redirected my attention to was just as spectacular as the last image engraved in my memory. Enjoy these images and hopefully, the beauties of nature will consume you too!


Looking back at Justin Anderson’s Class Discussion

December 6, 2018
In this entry, I will be focusing on Justin Anderson’s class discussion questions which covered chapters “Solitude,” “Visitors” and “The Bean Field”. During our discussion, Justin asked us multiple questions regarding our relationship with others and our relationship
Question: Do large urban populations develop a disassociation from nature and does isolation breed indifference?
When this question came up there was a quick divide in the classroom. The question itself seems to express that urban locations don’t have a strong relationship with nature. Students who lived in rural areas shared many similar experiences with nature. Jacob Tabor mentioned how his upbringing in a rural setting made it easier for him to be able to work with and understand nature. He then followed up and mentioned how hunting with his father was a way in which they were both able to bond and strengthen their relationship.
Students who live in urban areas such as New York City mention how they are not deprived of nature because of the area in which they live in. As I mentioned in my previous post where I discussed my relationship with nature as a resident of the city, it is clear that many big cities such a New York are home to many recreational areas such as parks.  With a small amount of space, cities do their best to offer their tourist and residents with the best of both worlds. Defining nature may be complex, someone from a rural area may have a different description of nature as to that of someone that lives in an urban area.
To discuss the last part of the question, we must remind ourselves of Thoreau’s living situation while he was at Walden Pond. Thoreau’s cabin was located 200 ft off the shore where he spent most of his time writing and observing his surroundings. He would often go back home and visit his family. Being alone made him feel as if he had his “own sun and moon and stars, and a little world all to [him]self.” (pg. 85) Being away from society and distancing oneself from others may create such sort egotistic personality. Being in complete solitude for such a long time may develop such characteristics to the point where”nothing can make life a burden to [you]” (pg.85)  Yet, one major flaw from this form of living is that when one “re-enters” society, these expectations reappear.
Overall, I believe living in solitude may develop certain characteristics one may have not had before. However, if the ultimate goal for the person is to remove themselves from society, they must distance themselves entirely from it. *Sometimes we cannot help but wonder what has changed from the life that we left behind*
Question: Do people feel lonely when doing work? When working or doing physical labor, does this occupy your mind?
Justin opened up this question by saying “I never feel bored or lonely when I’m pushing shopping carts at work.”
While discussing this question we thought of our experience at the cabin and any previous experience regarding manual labor. A common answer throughout the classroom was “it depends.”
Starting with the first part of the question, many of us believe that when we do work it is not about having the need to have company but rather feeling satisfaction due to completion of the task that was being performed.
Moving on towards the second part, most tasks may occupy the mind momentarily but this feeling may fluctuate as the task is being performed. There me stages where one is determined and just thinking of the task but just like many of us do at times, our mind starts traveling elsewhere.
Question: Thoreau had 3 chairs in his house, one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society, is conversational depth limited as more people are added to a conversation.
The discussion on this question was very limited and short. To summarize, it was a battle between “quality over quantity” which is similar to one of my favorite sayings that go, “I rather have 4 quarters than 100 pennies.”
Intellectual conversations are not limited to a certain amount of people. It may be possible that having a limited amount of people may allow one to express more ideas to whoever one is having the conversation with. However, limiting the number of people into the conversation may leave out any other possible intellectuality
Question: Are humans a small part of the natural world or are we here for a grander reason and quest for understanding?
Although this question was not discussed in class, I will provide a personal answer. Although there are 7 billion people in the world we must think of what else exists. I must say that if there were a human to nature ratio, nature or any aspect part of it would be at a larger quantity. There is so much to discover from what we have standing before us. Our drive to find these things (answers) is up to us. If there is a grander reason or a quest to understand it should not be pointed just to us but how we as a single person affect every other person’s life.
5. How would Thoreau feel about the massive population (millions) of starving people in the world despite the extreme abundance of food that could feed this entire population?
This question was also not discussed in class, once again, I will provide a personal answer.
Thoreau would have a mental breakdown if he were told of this current situation.
The problem mainly relies on politics. Stronger countries work together to stay on top and produce as much as they can to have their residents/citizens content. However, poorer countries struggle to climb to the top and get any aid from the stronger countries without giving anything in return.
As I continue to further my ideas on this specific question I couldn’t help but think of the first question. How would anyone be able to figure out any of these problems if they were living in complete solitude? Thoreau’s attempt to remove himself from society was thought of as a smart idea in terms of removing societal pressures, yet, what about others?

A Reflection from Walden on the Village Chapter

December 6, 2018

In this entry, I will be discussing the chapter on The Village. Thoreau thinks that the men on the streets are as curious to him as prairie dogs. I think it’s interesting that Thoreau concludes this about the villagers on the main road. I think this situation is ironic based on the villagers’ perception of Thoreau. He chose to live life deliberately in the woods which the townspeople inquired about because he wanted to disconnect himself from civilization. Essentially, there is no difference between Thoreau’s isolation and lack of social interaction at Walden Pond, and the “prairie dogs”  as he describes in the village. The townspeople’s view of Thoreau lifestyle at Walden Pond does not seem more bizarre than Thoreau’s view of their lifestyle in the village because, in both settings, the topic of observation was still regarded with the same perceptions about lifestyle choices.

Later on in this chapter, Thoreau expresses, “By night, the perplexity is infinitely greater…” (page 111) and that individuals must go beyond their usual course because we are lost within ourselves, but find ourselves within the world. I began to wonder if this holds true in my own life. Do I find myself more perplexed when I am asleep versus when I am awake? How does this alertness alter my perception of reality? Do I feel like I have lost my way in the darkness at nighttime or find yourself?

Questions like these require a lot of self-reflection, but personally, I think I find myself more perplexed at night because that is when I am more conscious of my reality. At night while I sleep, my mind wanders to a place where I question my reality and its complexity. I begin to analyze every aspect of my life such as my goals, expectations, or even imaginative scenarios of an ideal future I long for. I would describe myself as a night owl because that is when I have a deeper understanding or better awareness of my surroundings and lifestyle. I am able to appreciate my relations to the world and find myself through analyzing the details of my days.

By the end of this chapter, on page 112, Thoreau addresses that if every man were to live their life as simply as he did, thieving and robbery wouldn’t occur. Following that comment, he discusses how these acts only occur in higher class communities that have more than enough to survive and are sufficient. This idea has not occurred in society today because of greed and the capitalistic economy. In order to continuously produce consumers, individuals need to buy goods even if it is not a necessity (this refers to the chapter on Economy where Thoreau discusses the issue with luxuries). If everyone lived a simplistic life as Thoreau did, there would be a communist society where every individual would be of equal rank.


Cannibalism in “Baker Farm”

December 5, 2018

Henry David Thoreau reveals himself to be a pretentious fisherman in the chapter of Walden entitled “Baker Farm.” John Field comes from a different, less privileged background than Thoreau. Throughout the chapter, Thoreau criticizes Mr. Field and his family’s living conditions. There is a specific line of interest in this chapter which we discussed briefly during a classroom session. “Poor John Field!- I trust he does not read this, unless he will improve by it,- thinking to live by some derivative old country mode in this primitive new country,- to catch perch with shiners. It is good bait sometimes, I allow” (Walden 135-136).


I interpreted this section in two different ways. Firstly, color is important to consider when selecting bait to fish in a particular body of water. The composition of a body of water determines the amount of light which can be transmitted and in turn reflect off different baits. Shiners tend to be silver and quite reflective, making them more effective in murkier conditions. If the body of water that Thoreau and John Field were fishing in was quite clear and free of sediment, a shiner may be too reflective. Fish grow wary of food if it seems excessively out-of-place.


An alternative perspective I hold lies in the species of the shiner compared to the species of the fish they were trying to catch. There is a species of perch called a “Shiner Perch.” These specific perch are often colloquially referred to as “shiners.” In the context of perch fishing, a desirable catch is not likely to target a young member of its own species as prey. If this is the situation that Thoreau was describing, it might make a bit more sense. As a fisherman myself, I would be skeptical if one of my fishing companions sought to catch a trophy with one of its own kind.


In modern fishing scenarios in which humans have severely altered the natural state of fish ecosystems, it can be a bit more common for a fish to eat one of its own kind. With imported predators and invasive species scattered throughout bodies of water, some endemic species are at a loss for food. An example I consider is that of the largemouth bass. Larger, domineering bass are near the top of their food chain, and an irritated specimen might eat individuals of their own kind simply to establish and maintain control. Additionally, I have watched numerous bass swoop through hordes of minnows of their own kind. I don’t know for certain, yet I would assert that these fish may be preying on the babies of adult competitors in order to secure a future for their bloodline, though I digress.


No matter the reason for Thoreau’s mention of shiners, I find this section to be revealing of the author’s true character. “Baker Farm” serves as a platform for Thoreau to criticize a poor family and juxtapose their way of life to his own. This exposes the pretentious nature of Thoreau’s outlook on life, as he feels that his own livelihood is somehow superior.

Discussion 10/16/2018

December 5, 2018

Jennifer lead the classroom Walden discussion mainly focused on chapters “The Village” and “The Ponds” on Tuesday, October sixteenth, 2018. On this day, Jennifer began by bringing up how Thoreau claimed to use senses to guide himself. She asked our class if we find ourselves utilizing senses in order to guide ourselves. We proceeded to describe ways in which our senses are employed on a daily basis. Patrick claims to feel the ground underneath his feet when he walks. Jake told the class about walking into the room where our class discussions are held, the Harding Lounge, and how the odor immediately reminds him of old couches and rugs. Professor Gillin provided information about strides to the class. Apparently, strides are uneven and a dominant stride can be determined by walking blindfolded into a field, and then examining the trajectory of the path walked. Our collectively seems to be quite conscious of our powerful senses.


Next, Jennifer shared the quote, “By night, of course, perplexity is infinitely greater” (Walden 111). Our group talked at length about our sleep and work habits and the possible implications of our routines on our mental health and wellness. Additionally, Jake proposed that some individuals are more emotionally vulnerable, or motivated at night. Dr. Gillin told the group a story of a night-hike that a former project-group embarked on. While a sense such as sight is dampened, it can be necessary to rely more on the complementary senses. Jennifer then commented that the day goes by quicker with company and slower alone. Jake rounded out this portion of the conversation by saying “Time slowing is the name of the game when there’s so little of it.” This resonated with the group.


The next quote Jennifer presented reads, “I am convinced, that if all men were to live as simply as I then did, thieving and robbery would be unknown” (Walden 112). Our group now debated at length different types of stealing and whether or not we lock our doors. Group members from suburban and rural areas mainly do not lock their doors, while individuals from larger urban areas or cities claimed that they regularly lock their doors. Some individuals claimed that they don’t need to lock their doors but their parents insisted anyway. Jake told the class a story about his great-grandfather confronting a man who was stealing food out of necessity. The great-grandfather allowed the thief to keep the food they were attempting to steal and the house was not robbed again. This continued a debate regarding the merits of theft and whether or not any theft is justifiable. A claim was made that “where I’m from, there is no need to steal.” Nick also mentioned how in some cases the poor will steal from the rich. Nick then asked the class how we feel about stealing from the rich. Patrick expressed his intent to rob Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon. This evoked laughter from the group and Dr. Gillin questioned the righteousness of this theoretical act. Ricky raised the point that theft is immoral, it was remarked that morals are a social construction, and morals allow us to classify theft as not good.


The group’s discussion came to a close with an analysis of “The Ponds.” Dr. Gillin classified this as Thoreau’s most “overtly transcendental” chapter. Jennifer asked the class what we think the pond in Walden is symbolic of. Annie identified the pond as “God’s eyes.” Nick claimed, “People are looking for heaven but ignore Earth,” and then said that Walden Pond is seemingly like heaven on Earth to Thoreau. Jake commented on the prevalence of religious imagery in this section, and Dr. Gillin denoted Walden Pond as a place on Earth with comparable significance to heaven.


Overall, I observed our group discussion led by Jennifer to be self-reflective. Much of this session was spent sharing personal anecdotes in relation to Thoreau’s writing. My main takeaway is that we live in a complex world which can be experienced and interpreted differently by every individual.

  • Justin Anderson