Don’t crowd Thoreau’s personal space! (Walden 101)

As much as I admire Thoreau, I don’t always agree with him. That’s OK. It’s been said that if two people agree on everything, only one is doing the thinking. Today the topic is friendship and physical space, and I think Henry’s ideas (quoted from the “Solitude” chapter of Walden) don’t make a lot of sense:

“Individuals, like nations, must have suitable broad and natural boundaries, even a considerable neutral ground, between them… if we speak reservedly and thoughtfully, we want to be farther apart, that all animal heat and moisture may have a chance to evaporate. If we would enjoy the most intimate society with that in each of us which is without, or above, being spoken to, we must not only be silent, but commonly so far apart bodily that we cannot possibly hear each other’s voice in any case.”

This follows immediately after the material I quoted last time in which (as I read it, anyway) Henry is kind of poking fun at the earnest and boisterous way he and a friend were holding forth on ideas. But now he seems to be serious about this idea of physical space being necessary for intimacy. Puzzled by this, I searched to see who else was writing about this strange passage and came across a chapter by Millette Shamir, writing in Boys Don’t Cry?: Rethinking Narratives of Masculinity and Emotion in the U.S. She says this reflects Thoreau’s (and Emerson’s) views of a “privatist masculinity,” which discouraged talking about oneself in favor of less personal, “loftier” topics:

 “Rather than serve as a masculine adhesive, speech endangers intimacy, because it tends to drift to the concrete facts of personal life rather than to the universal, to the ‘husk’ rather than the ‘kernel.’ ‘All words are gossip,’ Thoreau writes in his journal, ‘what has speech to do with [friendship]…'” (p.77)

John D. Barbour, in The Value of Solitude: The Ethics and Spirituality of Aloneness in Autobiography, writes, “These reflections reveal both the limitations of Thoreau’s capacity for intimacy and his insight about the conditions that best allowed him to relax, commune in silence, or speak honestly.”

I’ve said it before, and will repeat it here: part of effective reading is identifying what it is that a particular author can and cannot teach you. Our friend Henry can teach us many things about life, but personal, emotional intimacy is probably not one of them. I think in many ways he’d have been a good (if sometimes exasperating) friend, but there are some kinds of conversations you probably just wouldn’t have with him.

(About  “A Year in Walden”)


4 thoughts on “Don’t crowd Thoreau’s personal space! (Walden 101)

  1. auntynini

    “… if we speak reservedly and thoughtfully.” <– This is the operative qualifier that leads me to understand and agree with Thoreau's thinking on the first issue.

    And I can agree on the second as well.

    Maybe an analogy would be that of spices and the difference between the intimacy of knowing the essence of a spice compared to the merging of spices to create a different experience of the spices, both individually and as a composite. In speech, as in physicality, there is a merging that makes — purity — essence — of the parts harder to distill and therefore more difficult to experience the essence of a thing — most intimately, most knowingly.

    My 2 cents. 🙂 Thank you for sharing this. It's very nice!

  2. Gail

    From having read Walden and The Duty of Civil Disobedience, I feel pretty sure he was on the autism spectrum. People get quite indignant when I say this, as if I were insulting him, but I don’t see it as derogatory at all, being on the autism spectrum myself, and having a lot of friends on the autism spectrum. It simply means a person’s mind works in a particular way, which is different from the norm – a different way of processing the world. His way of thinking makes total sense to me. It was actually refreshing to read for that very reason.


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