Lawrence Ferlinghetti, poet, global activist and indie publisher extraordinaire, turns 90 years old today. Here's his Litkicks biography page, and here's the poem we've been running on this site for many years:
The pennycandystore beyond the El is where I first fell in love with unreality Jellybeans glowed in the semi-gloom of that september afternoon A cat upon the counter moved among the licorice sticks and tootsie rolls and Oh Boy Gum Outside the leaves were falling as they died A wind had blown away the sun A girl ran in Her hair was rainy Her breasts were breathless in the little room Outside the leaves were falling and they cried Too soon! too soon!
The great folksinger Pete Seeger will also turn 90 on May 3, and New York City will celebrate him in big style on this date at Madison Square Garden featuring performers like Bruce Springsteen, Eddie Vedder, Arlo Guthrie, Dave Matthews and John Cougar Mellencamp. That's going to be some hootenanny birthday party. Pete Seeger and Lawrence Ferlinghetti are two American sages, feisty, stubborn and deeply politically engaged. What blacklisted Communist Pete Seeger and embattled Howl publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti had in common is that they both loved to fight for their causes. They both wore out their competition.
In several posts between now and the end of the 2008 USA Presidential election on November 4, LitKicks is going to attempt a new meme, a new venture. How can we use the wisdom of classic literature to help illuminate the tough issues of the day? Many of us feel cowed by our surreal, hectic public dialogue, the never-ending "day's news", which we puzzle over and discuss with each other so often -- but with so little satisfaction. The news has us in a defensive crouch all too often lately, and in our shock and disgust we quickly react but sometimes forget to pause and think. The purpose of this LitKicks series is to examine one hot topical issue at a time through the viewpoint of one particular great writer, and to get your comments and ideas at the end of each post.
We'll start with undoubtedly the hottest issue of today: America's financial crisis, brought on by the inflation of mortgage-backed securities, now destined to be "solved" with a $700 billion bailout by the U.S. government. For commentary on this, our special guest is Mr. Henry David Thoreau of Concord, Massachusetts.
The economy, in the broadest sense of the word, is a major theme in the work of Henry David Thoreau, who taught himself how to survive by establishing a harmonious but minimalistic private relationship with nature. The first chapter of his Walden, a memoir regarded by some as the greatest American book of all time, is called "Economy".
Here's a rather amazing paragraph from this chapter that depicts Thoreau's approach to business. It also includes one of the longest sentences I've ever read:
I have always endeavored to acquire strict business habits; they are indispensable to every man. If your trade is with the Celestial Empire, then some small counting house on the coast, in some Salem harbor, will be fixture enough. You will export such articles as the country affords, purely native products, much ice and pine timber and a little granite, always in native bottoms. These will be good ventures. To oversee all the details yourself in person; to be at once pilot and captain, and owner and underwriter; to buy and sell and keep the accounts; to read every letter received, and write or read every letter sent; to superintend the discharge of imports night and day; to be upon many parts of the coast almost at the same time -- often the richest freight will be discharged upon a Jersey shore; -- to be your own telegraph, unweariedly sweeping the horizon, speaking all passing vessels bound coastwise; to keep up a steady despatch of commodities, for the supply of such a distant and exorbitant market; to keep yourself informed of the state of the markets, prospects of war and peace everywhere, and anticipate the tendencies of trade and civilization -- taking advantage of the results of all exploring expeditions, using new passages and all improvements in navigation; -- charts to be studied, the position of reefs and new lights and buoys to be ascertained, and ever, and ever, the logarithmic tables to be corrected, for by the error of some calculator the vessel often splits upon a rock that should have reached a friendly pier -- there is the untold fate of La Prouse; -- universal science to be kept pace with, studying the lives of all great discoverers and navigators, great adventurers and merchants, from Hanno and the Phoenicians down to our day; in fine, account of stock to be taken from time to time, to know how you stand. It is a labor to task the faculties of a man -- such problems of profit and loss, of interest, of tare and tret, and gauging of all kinds in it, as demand a universal knowledge.
It's a funny thing that Thoreau advocates extreme economy in life, but luxuriates in words. Regardless, his constant argument throughout Walden is that an enlightened and happy person will remain highly attuned and responsive to his environment, and will avoid the traps of wealth, greed, competition and possession. Elsewhere in "Economy", the book's first chapter, Thoreau brags about how inexpensively he is able to live, and lists all the costs he incurred in building his cabin by Walden Pond ("Boards: $8.03 1/2, mostly shanty boards ... Refuse shingles for roof and sides: $4.00 ... Laths: $1.25 ... Two second-hand windows with glass: $2.43"). He prided himself on spending little, working little and earning little, and he considered his hardworking Massachusetts neighbors to be no more free than the African-American slaves of the South (Thoreau, like the other New England Transcendentalists, was also an ardent opponent of American slavery).
Thoreau was also a master of sarcasm, and it's easy to imagine how he would respond to anyone who complained of losing a home during today's housing crisis:
Consider first how slight a shelter is absolutely necessary. I have seen Penobscot Indians, in this town, living in tents of thin cotton cloth, while the snow was nearly a foot deep around them, and I thought that they would be glad to have it deeper to keep out the wind. Formerly, when how to get my living honestly, with freedom left for my proper pursuits, was a question which vexed me even more than it does now, for unfortunately I am become somewhat callous, I used to see a large box by the railroad, six feet long by three wide, in which the laborers locked up their tools at night; and it suggested to me that every man who was hard pushed might get such a one for a dollar, and, having bored a few auger holes in it, to admit the air at least, get into it when it rained and at night, and hook down the lid, and so have freedom in his love, and in his soul be free. This did not appear the worst, nor by any means a despicable alternative. You could sit up as late as you pleased, and, whenever you got up, go abroad without any landlord or house-lord dogging you for rent. Many a man is harassed to death to pay the rent of a larger and more luxurious box who would not have frozen to death in such a box as this.
But Thoreau would reserve even harsher advice for the lenders, bankers and businessmen who turned money lending into a source of obscene profit while leading our nation's finances over a cliff. He felt that popular American capitalism and materialism had humiliated and emasculated our society, and felt that working Americans lived as virtual slaves to their employers and debtors. For these reasons, I think it's safe to say that if Henry David Thoreau were alive today he would strongly advocate a return to financial simplicity and away from the culture of debt, and would definitely not support the $700 billion Wall Street/Main Street bailout that our government is debating right now.
Nor, however, would he despair for our future. Some shrink at reading Walden, a thorny but deliriously happy book about nature and society, but it does seem like a good text for anyone who'd like to think more deeply about what it means to have an economy, and what economy means to each of us. The book counsels creativity, hope and courage in times of change:
I think that we may safely trust a good deal more than we do. We may waive just so much care of ourselves as we honestly bestow elsewhere. Nature is as well adapted to our weakness as to our strength. The incessant anxiety and strain of some is a well-nigh incurable form of disease. We are made to exaggerate the importance of what work we do; and yet how much is not done by us! or, what if we had been taken sick? How vigilant we are! determined not to live by faith if we can avoid it; all the day long on the alert, at night we unwillingly say our prayers and commit ourselves to uncertainties. So thoroughly and sincerely are we compelled to live, reverencing our life, and denying the possibility of change.
What do you think?
(photo on top of page by Steven Arat, who has many great photos of Concord, Massachusetts)
American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau by Bill McKibben is a substantial, eclectic anthology of original texts by many American writers concerned with ecology or nature: John Muir, Frederick Law Olmsted, Theodore Roosevelt, John Burroughs, Theodore Dreiser, Robinson Jeffers, John Steinbeck, Woody Guthrie, E. B. White, Jane Jacobs, Rachel Carson, Russell Baker, Lyndon B. Johnson (? !), Edward Abbey, Philip K. Dick, R. Buckminster Fuller, Gary Snyder, Stephanie Mills, Joni Mitchell, Marvin Gaye, John McFee, Annie Dillard, Robert Crumb (the great "Main Street America" series), Jonathan Schell, Al Gore and Barbara Kingsolver. No sign of Richard Gere. But McKibben has put together a powerful collection, and of course I agree with McKibben that it all starts back at the pond with my own favorite writer, you know who.
My only slight quibble is the packaging, the $40 price tag and shiny decorative slip cover. Shouldn't an ecology book avoid slick slipcovers? But what do I know. McKibben did a great job, and this book would make a good gift to anybody who'd like to try a different kind of reading.
2. I really like the new design at the Syntax of Things blog. The background graphic gives new meaning to the phrase "scroll down".*
3. Activist, author and former President Jimmy Carter gets nothing but ridicule and polite disinterest in the American press as he tries to walk the lonely road for Israeli/Palestinian peace. Carter is getting flak for talking with Hamas, but we need more dialogue, not less, between warring parties. This is called "peacemaking". What a concept.
I think Jimmy Carter deserves more respect than he generally gets. When will journalists and bloggers stop making "cranky old peanut farmer" jokes and realize that our crusty ex-President is actually some kind of saint? Seriously, folks -- seriously. It's called "peacemaking", and I don't see anybody else out there working up a sweat.
4. Harold Augenbraum at ComicCon (via Soft Skull)
* = if you don't get this joke, for dummies.
This little-known 1963 Bob Dylan song popped up in my iPod Shuffle recently. It's an ecstatic nature poem, vaguely Blake-ian, and I find it most remarkable for its unlikely metaphors, each describing the passage of a day in orchestral terms.
A lesser lyricist would have given us rain for drums and a trumpet for dawn. Leave it to Dylan to dare dawn as drums, seaweed as an organ, rain as trumpet, a tree as a banjo and a river as a harp. This song was recorded for "The Times They Are A-Changin'" and but didn't make the final cut. It was first released on the collection "Biograph" twenty-two years later, in 1985.
Lay Down Your Weary Tune
by Bob Dylan
Struck by the sounds before the sun
I knew the night had gone
The morning breeze like a bugle blew
Against the drums of dawn
The ocean wild like an organ played
The seaweed wove its strands
The crashing waves like cymbals clashed
Against the rocks and sands
I stood unwound beneath the skies
And clouds unbound by laws
The crying rain like a trumpet sang
And asked for no applause
The last of leaves fell from the trees
And clung to a new love's breast
The branches bare like a banjo played
To the winds that listened best
I gazed down in the river's mirror
And watched its winding strum
The water smooth ran like a hymn
And like a harp did hum
Lay down your weary tune, lay down
Lay down the song you strum
And rest yourself beneath the strength of strings
No voice can hope to hum
I also like the verse that ends "and asked for no applause", which gives the static imagery a mystical and emotional edge.
(Note: as I often do when printing song lyrics as poetry, I delay the repeating chorus until the end of the poem above. I think this helps to show lyrics like these to their best advantage when they are presented in poetic form.)
Eco-Libris is a company created to help the book publishing industry adopt more environmentally aware practices. Activities include tree plantings in collaboration with organizations like RIPPLE Africa in countries like Malawi (shown in photo). I recently got a chance to ask the company's CEO, Raz Godelnik, a few questions.
Q: How did you first become involved in environmental causes, and how did you become involved in the specific cause behind Eco-Libris?
Raz: After I completed my MBA in Tel Aviv University, I worked as an economist and in several business development positions in high-tech and advertising industries. Following this, I served as an Advisor to Israel’s Minister of the Interior and worked on policy issues relating to foreign workers, refugees and citizenship which introduced him to social causes. It was very different from being an economist or in the high-tech industry. I felt like I was making a difference and doing something for the benefit of many groups that were, for lack of a better term, weaker groups in society. When I finished working at the ministry, I was determined to do something that would make a difference.
My interest in hemp and other environmental issues brought me to Hemper Jeans, an eco-fashion venture I co-founded that makes fashionable jeans from hemp, a more sustainable alternative to cotton. I also started writing about green business for a newspaper in Israel.
The idea of Eco-Libris started when I began thinking about paper and the environmental impacts of its production. I realized that it might take a while to get to the point where eco-friendly alternatives (from the use of recycled paper to e-books) will replace virgin paper. Then, I talked with some friends about the idea of giving people the opportunity to balance out their paper consumption by planting trees and received good feedback about it.
The decision to focus on books was made after learning that only about 5% of the paper used for printing books is made of recycled paper and because most books don’t have yet an online eco-friendly alternative (e-book), like magazines and newspapers. So, if you want a book, you usually can’t avoid purchasing the paper-made version, unless you go to the library or get it from websites like BookCrossing or BookMooch, which are all excellent choices. You also can’t tell people to stop reading books, so it seemed to me only natural to give book lovers a new alternative to make their reading habit greener -- planting trees for the books they read.
Q: I'm surprised to read on your website that even the "greenest" publishing companies don't often use recycled paper. What are the hurdles to overcome before this changes? Is there a visible difference when a book is printed on recycled paper that readers might resist? Or is it a matter of cost, or something else?
Raz: I know that it is common to think that the main problem is with the price, supply or quality of recycled paper, but I think this is not the main barrier -- recycled paper has achieved today a very high quality and it meets the same technical specifications and performs as well or even better in some cases than virgin paper. The cost is also more competitive than ever and even capacity is not an issue. Just look at the last Harry Potter that is a bestseller and was printed with partially or fully recycled paper worldwide.
Harry Potter is in my opinion a good example that this is mostly about awareness, will to make a change, vision and leadership. I definitely hope to see publishers follow this example and act to become greener. We also aim to become a strong voice of all the eco-conscious readers out there. I am positive that if publishers will know that many readers care about this issue, it will also contribute to move them towards printing books in an eco-friendly manner.
Q: Does Eco-Libris interact directly with publishing companies about these issues, and if so, at what level? What kind of response have you gotten from the publishing industry to your initiatives?
Raz: Yes, we certainly look to work with anyone involved in the book publishing industry, including bookstores, writers and publishers. We already correspond with few publishers and we receive very good feedbacks. There is more awareness to the impacts of printing books on the environment and to the need to make things differently. Our goal is to assist publishers to move in the green direction by balancing out books printed on virgin paper and increasing the awareness to the need to use more recycled paper. I see Eco-Libris as the first step towards sustainable reading and for many publishers looking to start making these steps, we're a perfect fit.
Q: To help put your company's mission into perspective, can you describe how the ecological impact of book publishing compares with, say, the ecological impact of newspapers and magazines, or (more broadly) of other industries more commonly discussed as environmental concerns, such as the automotive industry, the construction industry, etc.?
Raz: Deforestation is a significant contributor to climate change. If you look at the last IPCC report that was published this month, you can see that it is responsible for 17.4% of GHG emissions. Only energy supply and industry contribute more. You asked about cars - well, transport contributes 13.1%. Forests have also other important ecological functions, and anyone who is interested to learn more about this issue, the damages created by deforestation and the need in reforestation is invited to check out the Billion Tree Campaign of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
The paper industry on all its uses (books, newspapers, catalogs, etc.) is a large consumer of the trees cut down worldwide. Just one example - 65% of the trees cut down in the Boreal Forest in Canada are used to make paper - 80% of it goes to U.S. consumers.
Q: I've noticed that your website doesn't address the ecological difference between hardcover and paperback book publishing. Also, what about the industry's "peculiar tradition" of printing and shipping huge runs of potential bestsellers, which are more often than not shipped back and pulped? Shouldn't we examine whether or not publishers like Random House are printing (and then destroying) far more books than they can sell before we call them "green"?
Raz: There are many issues related to the book publishing industry that have environmental impacts. Eco-Libris is focused on the usage of virgin paper for printing as we see it as the most significant issue. It doesn't mean that improvements shouldn't be made in regards with other problems like the current wasteful working models. On the contrary. Still, I think you would agree with me that the materials books are made from are the basic layer of the industry -- take care of it and you got yourself an healthy foundation that can guide to more changes on the way to making this industry eventually environmental friendly.
I'm always glad when the Nobel Prize winner turns out to be an author I've actually read (and this happens less often than I like to admit). I've only read one Doris Lessing novel, 1989's The Fifth Child, but the book has stuck with me all these years.
The Fifth Child is a fable about a happy family. They have one child and everything is great. They have another and everything is great. Then another, and another. Now they have four wonderful children, but as they prepare to welcome a fifth several members of the family begin to suffer from unexpected feelings of dread. Indeed, the new baby arrives looking strangely primitive, almost monstrous, and he doesn't seem to be tuned in to the same sense of joy and togetherness that the rest of the family thrives on.
The story veers towards the disturbing and the tragic, and Lessing's message seems clear: there is an invisible line between blessed happiness and self-indulgent over-happiness, and this line is all too easy to cross. There's also the slightest suggestion that the fifth child is not actually intrinsically different from the rest, but rather that the perfect family found itself unable to extend its love to yet another newcomer.
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, to see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when it came time to die, to discover that I had not lived.
-- Henry David Thoreau, Walden
Last Monday afternoon I asked you to help me name the greatest American book of all time. There've been many replies, and the (serious) suggestions include, in order, Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller, A Movable Feast by Ernest Hemingway, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Walden by Henry David Thoreau, An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser, The Adventures of Hucklebery Finn by Mark Twain, The Education of Henry Adams by Henry Adams, On The Road by Jack Kerouac, Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson, Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury, Black Elk Speaks by John G. Neihardt, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 by Hunter S. Thompson, The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer, Pragmatism by William James, The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner, The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger, The World According to Garp by John Irving, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson, Madame Rosa by Romain Gary (which makes no sense since Romain Gary was French), To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe, The Federalist Papers, Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin, Profiles in Courage by John F. Kennedy, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, Baby and Child Care br Dr. Spock, The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss, The Recognitions by William Gaddis and Franny and Zooey by J. D. Salinger.
I'm surprised that nobody but me mentioned Moby Dick by Herman Melville, and I also thought there'd be more support for The Book of Mormon, Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman, Poems by Emily Dickinson, Howl and Other Poems by Allen Ginsberg, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey and Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut. But that's fine with me, because it happens that several people did mention the book I believe to be the greatest by a citizen or resident of the United States of America: Walden, or Life in the Woods, written by Henry David Thoreau and published by Ticknor and Fields in 1854.
We each have our own favorites, of course. But I'll stake a guess -- for whatever these guesses may be worth -- that future literary historians will consider this book to have the highest stature of any book published in my country so far. I can't tell you everything I want to say about Walden here today, but here are three things that I find exceptional about this book.
You may have to slow your body speed down a bit to catch Henry Thoreau's wavelength, but once you do there is no denying the pure delight found in these words. No other writer -- not even my beloved Henry James -- crafts sentences sharper than those you'll find in Walden.
Thoreau was a social reformer with a distinct philosophy, but nobody might have ever cared about his philosophy if he didn't crystallize it with such artistry and skill. A Harvard graduate and obsessive reader, he learned from the best of the brilliant "New England Transcendentalists" who were his older friends and neighbors in Concord, Massachusetts, and he eventually developed a voice richer than any of theirs, richer even than that of his more famous friend and hero Ralph Waldo Emerson. High-toned, alive to all the human senses, Thoreau's prose presents an attitude that combines humorous warmth with merciless sarcasm. Sarcasm is certainly the top note in Walden, a book designed to attack the mores of polite New England society. Here he is, for instance, on the subject of clothing:
Kings and Queens who wear a suit but once, though made by some tailor or dress-maker to their majesties, cannot know the comfort of wearing a suit that fits. They are no better than wooden horses to hang the clean clothes on. Every day our garments become more assimilated to ourselves, receiving the impress of the wearer's character, until we hesitate to lay them aside, without such delay and medical appliances and some such solemnity even as our bodies. No man ever stood the lower in my estimation for having a patch in his clothes; yet I am sure that there is greater anxiety, commonly, to have fashionable, or at least clean and unpatched clothes, than to have a sound conscience. But even if the rent is not mended, perhaps the worst vice betrayed is improvidence. I sometimes try my acquaintances by such tests as this, -- who could wear a patch, or two extra seams only, over the knee? Most behave as if they believed that their prospects for life would be ruined if they should do it. It would be easier for them to hobble to town with a broken leg than with a broken pantaloon. Often if an accident happens to a gentleman's legs, they can be mended, but if a similar accident happens to the legs of his pantaloon's, there is no help for it; for he considers, not what is respectable, but what is respected. We know but few men, a great many coats and breeches. Dress a scarecrow in your last shift, you standing shiftless by, who would not soonest salute the scarecrow? Passing a cornfield the other day, close by a hat and coat on a stake, I recognized the owner of the farm. He was only a little more weather-beaten than when I saw him last.
Thoreau's writing style is too thick and fanciful for some, but I find he has no equal. Often his imagination carries him towards connections or metaphors no other writer could possibly find. In Walden every small human transaction, such as the borrowing of an axe, is examined for meaning:
Near the end of March, 1845, I borrowed an axe and went down to the woods by Walden Pond, nearest to where I intended to build my house, and began to cut down some tall arrowy white pines, still in their youth, for timber. It is difficult to begin without borrowing, but perhaps it is the most generous course thus to permit your fellow-men to have an interest in your enterprise. The owner of the axe, as he released his hold on it, said that it was the apple of his eye, but I returned it sharper than I received it.
Other times Thoreau becomes downright poetic, or else he shouts "Simplicity! Simplicity!" His voice takes getting used to, but so does his moral message, and they are each a perfect match for each other. Not for nothing is the first chapter of Walden called "Economy".
The Audacity of the Experiment
There's a mistaken belief that Walden is a book about nature. It is incidentally so, but this does not describe the book's essential aim.
Walden takes place in a cabin in the woods, but Thoreau's goal in life was to be a social reformer, and this is a book about society. If you don't believe me, please consider the fact that Thoreau did not actually retreat from civilization to live in the woods, but rather built a cabin in the woods right in the middle of Concord, Massachusetts. In fact, Walden Pond was on the property of Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of the most popular and well-known intellectuals of 19th Century America. Emerson had constant visitors, including many important intellectuals of this age, and Thoreau's purpose in building a cabin to live in for two years on Emerson's property was to make a spectacle of himself. (It's certainly to Emerson's credit that he allowed, and even encouraged, this experiment).
Thoreau could have left civilization behind if he wanted to. He knew where to find the much deeper forests of Maine and New Hampshire, where for all we know other Harvard graduates may have disappeared into lives of true solitude and never been heard from again. Thoreau had no intention of never being heard from again. To build a cabin and live "like a savage" in the center of a celebrated and prosperous New England town is a pronouncement. It's like sitting down on the floor of a fancy party and going into a fetal position; you only do it if you want attention.
Why did Thoreau want attention? Because he had something to say:
The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind.
This is one of the bleaker (though most well-known) passages in what is generally an optimistic book of philosophy and observation. Which brings us to the third exceptional characteristic of this book.
Like Emerson, Thoreau was fascinated with Buddhism and other eastern religions, and in fact his basic message -- "Simplicity! Simplicity!" -- is consistent with the deepest philosophies of the Buddhist religion. Thoreau believed that Americans consumed too much, worked too hard and enjoyed too little. His diatribes against the ingrained American culture of hard labor and grave responsibility make up some of the most memorable passages in this book:
I see young men, my townsmen, whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, houses, barns, cattles and farming tools; for these are more easily acquired than got rid of. Better if they had been born in the open pasture and suckled by a wolf, that they might have seen with clearer eyes what field they were called to labor in. What made them serfs of the soil? Why should they eat their sixty acres, when man is condemned to eat only his peck of dirt?
When he was not occupying himself as a writer, a natural scientist and a critic of social mores, Henry Thoreau worked fervently for the Abolitionist cause (as, of course, most of the New England Transcendentalists did). Slavery was the hot issue of the day -- the American Civil War began seven years after Walden was published -- and Thoreau's other famous "publicity stunt" was to get thrown in jail for refusing to pay taxes, on the grounds that he chose not to support an economic system that tolerated slavery. Many decades later and halfway across the world, the writings and life story of Henry David Thoreau would inspire Mohandas Gandhi to begin a massive public campaign for self-determination among colonized peoples that remains one of the most successful social protest movements of all time. Decades later again, the same thread of civil disobedience was picked up by Martin Luther King back in Thoreau's United States of America. Now, even more decades have passed but our nation and world remain highly confused. Perhaps we all need to pick up this thread once more.
Literary judgements are subjective, but it is perhaps only because I so badly want people to read Walden that I feel compelled to name it as the greatest American book. I should also mention that I don't particularly agree with those who find Thoreau a uniquely American writer. Some critics have said that his personal individualism and love of open space make him a representative of the American soul, but I think that most Americans -- and most people in the world -- could stand to appreciate the wisdom of Thoreau a lot more than they currently do.
But Walden is essentially an optimistic book -- the last line tells us:
The sun is but a morning star.
And there is plenty of hope that someday a large number of people may read and be inspired by this wonderful book.
Consider this scenario: a 6-year-old kid named Ben invites a friend, Zack, over to play. They go up to Ben's room, where Ben has a big train set, and Zack grabs Ben's favorite train and looks at it, causing Ben to suddenly burst out in tears. His Mom comes rushing in, takes the train from Zack, and comforts Ben until he calms down.
Ben's reaction is so extreme that it worries his mother, and from that time on, whenever a new friend comes to visit she makes a point of whispering to them first, "Be careful not to touch his toys. It gets him upset." This seems to head off any future disasters, and the incident is gradually forgotten.
Simple story, simple resolution -- right? But now let's bring in a favorite philosopher, the distinguished William James, to analyze the situation. James, a highly original and important American thinker who happened to be the older brother of novelist Henry James, had a peculiar theory of emotion. According to James, we don't smile because we feel happy or cry because we feel sad. The physical reaction happens first, the philosopher said, and it's more correct to say we feel happy because we smile, or we feel sad because we cry.
Grizzly Man, a new documentary film by Werner Herzog, is an astounding study of humanity and nature. It was pasted together from videotape left behind by Timothy Treadwell, a somewhat goofy and hippy-dippy outdoorsman who spent thirteen summers in a row communing with grizzly bears in Alaska.
Treadwell was not trained or licensed to interact with these dangerous animals, and he freely admitted that he would not be able to defend himself if a bear decided to kill him for food. He worked hard to establish a relationship of mutual trust and respect with the thousand-pound carnivores that surrounded him, and this worked for many years but was doomed in the end; in October 2003 a pilot flew into the area where Treadwell and his girlfriend had been camping and found a surly older grizzly bear gnawing on their scattered rib cages and limbs. Herzog put this film together as a tribute to Treadwell's life's work.
It's amazing to see a blond mop-topped skinny man wearing no protection over his t-shirt and jeans as he cavorts with grizzly bears, touches their noses, rassles with the cubs. Sometimes the bears make threatening moves towards him, and he is careful to stand his ground, explaining to the camera that they are testing him for fear or weakness.
Treadwell knows he loves the bears more than they love him, but he can't help his obsession. The camera often finds him swooning with ecstasy, rapt in loud spontaneous joy, riffing excitedly about his flowing thoughts. He almost never appears depressed on camera, though he cries over a bumblebee that he believes dead, until he sees that the bumblebee is just sleeping. The footage feels alive and refreshing because our guide is an utter unprofessional, not a park ranger or a scientist but a manic nature freak with a videocamera.
The visuals are beautiful. Treadwell sits in the grass and caresses a wild fox the way you'd pet a cat. He basks in the sun, and in one wonderful moment he chases a bear cub who stole his hat at a high speed through the brush and suddenly arrives at the bear's den, a large hole in the ground. This definitely beats Disney.
In the film's most ominous scene, shot just before Treadwell's death, he sits alongside a stream where a large grizzly with a lean and hungry look rummages for fish. Treadwell explains that this bear is older and has a harder time finding food, which makes him more likely to attack a human than the others. The evidence shows that this is the bear that did eventually kill Treadwell and his girlfriend (whose family has opted not to be involved with this film or to seek publicity).
Treadwell was moderately famous for his bear affinity while he was alive. He wrote a book, cofounded a non-profit and appeared on the David Letterman show (the segment is included in this film; Letterman asks Treadwell whether or not a bear will eventually eat him, and the crowd laughs).
Over and over, the real-life character onscreen made me think of Henry David Thoreau, another complex man who could only find joy in the isolation of the woods. Not that I think Thoreau wouldn't have called Treadwell a fool; Thoreau lived in the wilderness but he didn't intend to die there.
The film also called to mind another literary hermit who escaped to the woods, Jack Kerouac, who spent long periods in meditation and alcoholic recovery on mountaintops in the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountains. Treadwell is also a recovering alcoholic, and this seems to explain something about his passionate relationship with the outdoors (it is his salvation) as well, perhaps, about his reckless fatalism and need for the adrenalin of danger.
Werner Herzog's treatment of this material is respectful and artistic. A Kuro5hin article about this film mentions that the theme of this film echoes that of an earlier Herzog film, Fitzcarraldo which I haven't seen but plan to.
Aside from its fascinating human story, Grizzly Man also represents cinema verite taken to a new level of stark realism. As in the Blair Witch Project, the film is spliced together from videotape found at a murder scene. But in Blair Witch Project the actors didn't really die.
I caught this film on the Discovery Channel, and I hope they will be running it again soon.
British novelist John Fowles died this weekend at his home in Lyme Regis, England at the age of 79.
The Magus was Fowles' definitive work, a tour de force in every sense. An earnest but vapid young man accepts an invitation for what appears to be a conventional teaching job on a small Greek island where an eccentric wealthy landowner holds court. Once there, the young man discovers himself imprisoned within an elaborate constructed world in which Greek myths come frighteningly alive and philosophical theories about mankind's Dionysian and Appolonian impulses are put to test.