Thoreau’s Cove on Walden Pond. Library of Congress.
In times of difficulty, when I need to remember who I am and what I am about, I often turn to books and poetry. From my bookshelf I feel my patron saints watching over me–or at least I feel the closest thing to that possible for one who subscribes to the natural supernaturalism of the Earth Church. Sometimes its Wendell Berry or Wallace Stevens; other times its Hegel and Marx; sometimes I’m buoyed by some Adrienne Rich or uncle Walt, other times I find sympathy from Thomas Hardy.
Lately I’ve been turning to Thoreau–the patron saint of radical simplicity, he of shedding false conveniences and burdensome accumulation in the favor of a life lived amongst the trees. For those of us inhabiting a small corner of the sustainability world not given over to the goal of maintaining our current way of life with a simple change in energy supply—those of us who believe, in other words, that we will need to simplify and thrive with fewer pretty toys and a more careful home economics—some words from Thoreau are from time to time indispensable.
It is impossible for me to imagine his reaction to our current way of life, with its layer upon layer of ugly and burdensome complexities, and its high-volume distractions making inaudible any quiet desperation to which he might be attuned. But it is not difficult to imagine what he would say. About the current fantasy that we can create a wealthy and all-inclusive global middle class society that consumes to its heart’s content. . . if only we “get off oil” and plug directly into the sun with our photovoltaics, for instance. . . Thoreau has already provided us with a number of epigrams from which we might choose. My favorite would remind us that “they are but improved means to an unimproved end.” This, I might add, is a pretty good one-line synopsis of the Pope’s recent Encyclical Letter.
In my own loud and rambunctious house, one of the few places where I can find a moment of peace is in our unfinished addition. This is where I do almost all my reading.
The irony of rereading Walden from within a half-finished attempt to make our house bigger has not been lost on me. Just the opposite in fact. It is quite embarrassing, to be honest. Would that I had been happy with a simple pine box for my sleeping and a nice pumpkin in the shade to sit on for my reading! It reminds one, anyways, that reading is always an act performed in the here and now, an ever-changing conversation with the present; this is why true lovers of truth and meaning (philosophers, not professors of philosophy) are accustomed to re-reading a few good books rather than impatiently skimming images and words as a sort of act of self-defence from the vapid-fire onslaught of the same. It also reminds me that while some writing deserves no patience and should be put down immediately, sometimes one encounters a few paragraphs whose meanderings are bursting with thoughtful intent.
This may all be a long way of expressing the strange mixture of admiration, identification, and distinct envy with which I am considering Thoreau and the luxuries he enjoyed—luxuries far more lavish then those I am likely to find, even should I someday finish this addition and stuff it full of leather couches and oversized televisions. For the most part, I like to think, he would nod smiling at my list of his luxuries, though a few might give him pause. For Walden, we should remember, was a book written by a young man living in a young country, and many of his luxuries were simply those of this double youth. Many of our current struggles, I should note with great emphasis—struggles that might inhabit the realms of political economy, fashion, and emotional self-actualization—can find their roots in our ongoing attempt to regain some sort of fictive eternal youth. This, after all, explains the unending confidence of our economists, but we go along with them with our belief, as a society, that life’s promises can be found in the desires of youth.
In this category—that of the luxuries of youth—I would put the concept of “nature” itself, at least as apprehended by Thoreau and his peers. Thoreau lived at a time in which nature could be referenced without much burden, as if it were a unified spirit that could speak for itself. It lacked the complexity that we see in it, now, as we destroy it and break it down, so that its delicate and interconnected systems become more apparent. Because there was still so much of it left when he took the two mile hike out of Concord, he could look upon it as a reliable balm rather than a quivering network on the brink of collapse. Nature, to put it another way was a far more robust and rugged fellow than he is today, and one might have visited him and sat simply with him without any need of careful manners and delicate negotiations. That understanding of nature, alone, provided Thoreau with a relief that is scarcely possible today.
But it was not just his understanding of nature, like that of a faithful servant of a benevolent god, that provided him with a measure of relief, for there was also the plain matter of the physical abundance to which he could retreat. Thoreau enjoyed margins, as Wendell Berry would say, that no longer exist, resources upon which there is not already a claim; their existence made his very life possible. We live on a far different planet today, in which nature has been stripped bare as if by a wildfire of human wants and demands. It was their first smoldering, I could add, that Thoreau sagaciously noticed. In Thoreau’s time and place, it was possible, of course, to overshoot one’s personal capacities, but there was no apparent global budget that might itself lay constraints to such endeavors as his. Large margins yet remained between his aspirations, and even those of his most thoughtless neighbors, and any planetary limits. This, in more practical terms, is better described as the luxury of being able to find a few acres upon which one might be able to conduct an experiment of the self–something all but impossible today, even for those with the Harvard education and the wealth or resiliencies one might develop when nurtured with all of life’s surpluses. With no available forests or a pond full of fish just around the corner, the fate of today’s Thoreaus may be better captured in the story of Chris McCandless than in some two year reflection made two miles out of town.
But beyond these luxuries, another perhaps less obvious one kept leaping of the page, seeking my attention in large part because of the bare studs and rafters which formed my forest canopy as I was reading. I speak of the luxurious quarters from which Thoreau was able to consider the economy. For him, economy could, and was, boiled down to a list of inputs and outputs. It is a one page “spreadsheet” found early in Walden in which Thoreau adds and subtracts his income and expenses, and over which, no doubt, he spent hours of rather unhurried reflection, in between weeding his bean crop and harvesting his corn, or perhaps reading a page or two of Hesiod.
Although he does calculate part of his personal home economics in terms of money, he does not “monetize” its true costs, using an approach far closer to the one I’ve been considering in previous installments of “On Surplus.” This is especially true–and was especially noticeable to me in my awning of rafters, studs, and plywood–with regard to his thoughts on housing. The average homes of Concord—indecent third world hovels by our standards—were for Thoreau sprawling and unnecessarily expansive coffins for which one might work himself to death. As such, the demand for this sort of well-appointed shelter was, relatively speaking, the most humble and modest precursors, but the precursor nonetheless, to a habit with accelerating dependence the closer to brink we’ve travelled—the smoldering of our wildfire. It is no coincidence that the awkward and ostentatious “McMansion” is the symbol both of the American Dream and of the 2008 housing crash. Because of their expanse and expense, houses in America are not something that you get, Thoreau would say; rather your house will get you.
This certainly applies to me. I’ve been got—there is no doubt there. Many of us have. Perhaps my own negative grandiosity merely provides a more striking example. But Thoreau does a better job of explaining where these costs come from (or go to) and how we might consider them than any commentary emerging from the fragments of the most recent housing bubble. Instead of seeing housing in terms of interest rates, “the housing market” (which we are told to pray for), the consumer price index, or net trade imbalances creating headwinds for of our GDP—instead of seeing our homes according to the faith that houses will by their very existence accrue value over time[i]—instead of this level of abstraction or complexity in whose winding halls we will surely lose our way, Thoreau boils housing down to the years of servitude yours may require of you. The cost of your house might be calculated in terms of books not read, walks not taken, sunsets missed, song-bird concerts not heard. Or as he puts it:
If it is asserted that civilization is real advance in the conditions of man. . . it must be shown that it has produced better dwellings without making them more costly; and the cost of a thing is the amount of what I call life which is required in exchange for it, immediately or in the long run. An average house in this neighborhood costs perhaps eight hundred dollars, and to lay up this sum will take ten to fifteen years of the laborer’s life. . . so that he must have spent more than half of his life commonly before his wigwam will be earned. . . . Would a savage [sic] have been wise to exchange his wigwam for a palace on these terms?
Thoreau of course refers to the Native American’s ability to live happily in dwelling costing them only a few days, freeing them up for a lifetime of life. We however have it stuck in our minds that we need something far grander, something that will set us apart, and spend much of our life pursuing this unhappy fantasy of smug, but alienated, sociability. Thus, to paraphrase, do we endeavor to solve our problems by construction more complicated than the problem itself.
Just as I have been arguing, Thoreau is correct in seeing cost, at root, as the amount of life we exchange for something. On this none of the economists get it right (though why they don’t is a central and crucial question). That’s what I’ve been discussing in “On Surplus.” Let us refer to this view as the “life economy,” which could also be referred to as the energy economy, the real economy, or the thermodynamic economy. But I like “life economy” better
But that’s not the way we are given to understand our own struggles, and for reasons, again, that are also a central part of our struggles. For we are given to understand our plight in life (and who we should vote for) according to formulas that economists use to predict and attempt to control how much life and energy we will devote to this or that in the short and long term. We hear endless talk about the projections, indices, hedges and, of course, the endless bickering about which true and all-American values are no longer wagging the dog,
In contrast to the Life Economy (the economy understood in terms of surplus or the amount of life it costs us), then, we have another version of the economy that also needs a name. I was going to call this other version of the economy the “money economy,” for it refers to the world of finance, fiscal policy, interest rates and, ultimately, the literal “making” of money. But I think we might better refer to it as “the mystery economy,” for there are at least two mysteries at its core. The first is the way the economy stands over us like a mystery, the oracles weaving incomprehensible riddles about our fate, its priests offering sacrifices (often us), and the idolatrous sages telling of a future that no one can really know, but that we should do everything in our power to avoid. For we are anxious being living under the constant threat of an economy we cannot predict and control.
But there is another mystery about this view of human work, toil, and energy: and that is why it is so difficult to see it as a matter, in the end, of work, life, toil, and energy. Why can we no longer see the economy as a matter of using energy to turn resources into products? Why can we no longer see the economy as did Thoreau? How much development and consensual blindness stand in the way, lost, perhaps, as the trees of Walden made way for a new Dunkin Donuts or a better highway leading to somewhere no one really needed to get. Why does all this accrual make the basic simplicity of economics, even if as a faraway destination towards which we yearn, so difficult for all but a very few to fathom in the first place.
For Thoreau’s ultimate luxury was his page of simple calculations that determined his economy; it was the values according to which he could live, with which he determined that we would not spend his life in the foolish pursuit of what, in the end, would have amounted to a large and cumbersome casket. For us, in contrast, the economy stands over us like a mystery whose grasp upon the cuff of our neck we cannot so easily escape. How did we get here?
[i] To put this in the terms I’ve been using over the past installments, this is to assume, in effect, that the house that cost me 15 years of my life will at once cost you only 10 years of yours, and that the difference will be someway given to me, perhaps in a surplus upon which I might feed as I fade into old age.