“The millions are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, only one in a hundred millions to a poetic or divine life. To be awake is to be alive. I have never yet met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face?” — Henry David Thoreau, “Where I lived and What I Lived For,” Walden
In a physical sense, being awake wasn’t something Thoreau took for granted: he suffered from narcolepsy, which sometimes interfered with his ability to work. But sleep and waking is an important metaphor here and throughout the book.
Henry is leading up to perhaps the most quoted passage in Walden (we’ll get to that next time). But what he’s saying here doesn’t sound very promising. It leaves most of us fit only for physical labor. But notice his choice of words. Being “awake” (whatever that means) isn’t a trait. It’s a state of being, and it can change. He continues:
“We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor. It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts. 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.”
I think he’s being too dismissive of the arts as human expression of parts of ourselves that are otherwise inexpressible. Maybe I’m reading too much into this; mostly he’s emphasizing the idea that life itself can be a work of art. And not just life in a broad sense, but in an immediate, moment by moment sense. This is what it is to be “awake.” Bit by bit he’s been showing us how he thinks this is done, and will continue to do so throughout the rest of the book.
(About “A Year in Walden”)