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munky books


thoreau in today's context
an old perspective on modern society

Life doesn't seem all that different from what it was several decades ago. Sure, we have faster cars, more advanced technology, longer lifespans. But other than these physical manifestations of progress, can we say that deep down, as thinking and feeling individuals, we are any different?

I've been trying to finish reading Walden; or, Life in the Woods since I first bought it in San Francisco in early March. The book is considered a defining text in American literature; it is considered an American classic. Henry David Thoreau wrote it in 1854; since then it "has inspired readers of widely varying circumstances (including Tolstoy and Gandhi) to improve their lives", according to the Note at the beginning of my copy of the book.

Two of my friends were appalled to hear that I had actually paid good money for the book - which, incidentally, only cost me US$2.50 - because they think it is one of the most boring (and worst) books they have ever read. While I have to agree that Thoreau's writing can sometimes be a little tedious to read - he seems to ramble at some points - it cannot be denied that much of the content of Walden is not only of literary value, but of philosophical and moral value as well.

Today I read the section titled Higher Laws. Thoreau writes about his growing aversion to "animal food", saying his "practical objection to animal food ... was its uncleanness" and describes it as "insignificant and unnecessary".

"Like many of my contemporaries, I had rarely for many years used animal food, or tea, or coffee, &c.; not so much because of any ill effects which I had traced to them, as because they were not agreeable to my imagination. The repugnance to animal food is not the effect of experience, but is an instinct. It appeared more beautiful to live low and fare hard in many respects; and though I never did so, I went far enough to please my imagination. I believe that every man who has ever been earnest to preserve his higher or poetic faculties in the best condition has been particularly inclined to abstain from animal food, and from much food of any kind."

I can think of no other way to explain this; each word seemed to be articulating something I have believed for some time but could never properly express.

He continues:
"The gross feeder is a man in the larva state; and there are whole nations in that condition, nations without fancy or imagination, whose vast abdomens betray them."

Today, in the age of the individual, we are taught to expect the best life has to offer. Every day we become more and more convinced that living the 'good life' means being able to eat good food, buy nice things, and go to nice places. Capitalism has created a society in which more is more, and there is no end to what we can buy or how much we can have. We consume tirelessly, like larvae - it is what we are born to do, it is what we live for. What a terrible and frightening reality we live in. How surreal it is!

The fantasy of consumption has made us forget how wonderful the real world is. We are living in a world of made-up imagery, constantly pursuing what will always be just beyond our reach.

"If the day and the night are such that you greet them with joy, and life emits a fragrance like flowers and sweet-scented herbs, is more elastic, more starry, more immortal, - that is your success. All nature is your congratulation, and you have cause to momentarily bless yourself. The greatest gains and values are farthest from being appreciated. We easily come to doubt if they exist. We soon forget them. They are the highest reality. Perhaps the facts most astounding and most real are never communicated by man to man. The true harvest of my daily life is somewhat as intangible and indescribable as the tints of morning or evening. It is a little star-dust caught, a segment of the rainbow which I have clutched."

We need to try and remember the reality we live in, before we lose it altogether.

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