Why Thoreau was wrong about “this slimy, beastly life, eating and drinking” (Walden 151)

Following up on last time, I want to say a little more today about Thoreau’s asceticism. Individual statements taken in isolation seem to convey mixed messages. “He who distinguishes the true savor of his food can never be a glutton; he who does not cannot be otherwise,” he writes. OK, so it’s not about food, but how you enjoy it. But a little later he laments “this slimy, beastly life, eating and drinking.”

I think the key sentence occurs just a bit earlier: “Who has not sometimes derived an inexpressible satisfaction from his food in which appetite had no share?” It’s the part about satisfying a physical appetite that somehow lowers the satisfaction from some ideal state to mere animal nature. A bit later he writes,

“We are conscious of an animal in us, which awakens in proportion as our higher nature slumbers. It is reptile and sensual, and perhaps cannot be wholly expelled; like the worms which, even in life and health, occupy our bodies. Possibly we may withdraw from it, but never change its nature.”

I’m reminded of passages in the New Testament in which Paul speaks of the struggles of “the flesh” against “the spirit.” I’m no philosopher but I think this all reflects Platonic thought, in which the abstract world of ideal forms is seen as higher and purer, and the physical world is seen as an imperfect manifestation of those forms.

Put another way, thanks to Plato you have generation after generation of well meaning, intelligent writers denigrating nature — along with their own bodies — in favor of abstract ideals that are, in the end, imaginary.

And I think Thoreau is wrestling with this whole thing, because, on the one hand, he’s obviously been influenced by this line of thinking, and on the other, he’s spent a lot of time in nature paying close attention to the real world in all its bloodiness and imperfection. He knows real nature — not just some idyllic conception of nature — well enough by now not to despise it, and he spends much of the book praising it eloquently and passionately. But he seems to draw a line when it comes to physical appetite. It’s as if he’s still not quite comfortable in his own skin.

I suppose part of it, too, is that he’s afraid of being distracted from his great quest. Most of his neighbors thought he was lazy and shiftless. Even Emerson was disappointed in Henry’s apparent lack of ambition. In fact, Thoreau was the most wildly ambitious man in Concord. He was consciously trying to become a great writer. He looked at the classics as a standard to try to match or exceed. He wanted to write a classic himself. And cocky as he could be, at this stage in his life he didn’t have a lot to show for his ambition — and maybe what he feared was failure, or being lured away to live an ordinary life. So he had to maintain his discipline. He could not afford to fall in love with luxury.

And so all this is working together in Henry’s mind (or so I infer). And I think that leads him to get some things wrong. Here’s how I see it: We have this dual nature — a base of instinct and pure physicality shaped by evolution, and over this is laid a relatively new ability for self-awareness and abstract thought. Some people want to explore this contemplative space, but it’s hard to do. It just doesn’t come as easily to us as does our older “animal” physicality.

So to an ascetic, physicality is the background noise that’s blocking the pure signal coming from the abstract or intellectual or spiritual realm. They try to block the noise through self-discipline. Doing so is a valuable skill, I think, unless you do it all the time. Because then you’re essentially rejecting a real part of yourself. You end up living in your head. You end up denigrating many of the genuine pleasures of this all-too-brief life.

Rather, I would have preferred to see Henry write about the struggle to find the balance between the intellectual/spiritual and the physical, embracing both. In some ways he does this, but only, unfortunately, when looking at those parts of nature outside of himself.

(End of chapter, “Higher Laws”)

(About  “A Year in Walden”)


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