Saturday, March 21, 2009

Walled-in Pawn

Henry David Thoreau is an overrated poet, though not an overrated American poet, but Thoreau still warrants our intellectual, aesthetic, and philosophical attention. A second-rate poet, yes; a middlin' philosopher, yes; a better narrator, yes; but Thoreau is a proverbialist par excellence.

By a proverbialist I mean one who is able to craft pithy witticisims (The Bard is the master here). Burned upon my memory and oft upon my tongue are such Thoreauisms as,

"Hospitality is the art of keeping one's friends at a distance";

"Time is the stream I go a'fishing in";

"The morning is the epitome of the day; with morning all things are reborn";

And my favorite, "A man who is right constitutes a majority of one."

We generally think of Thoreau as an untouchable and unapproachable recluse, daily intimate with everything natural except other human beings; that's an incorrect perspective. Yes, for two years and two months Thoreau left civil society for the woods, but other folks haunted those woods too, and if you read Walden Pond you might be surprised to see that, not only did Thoreau have about twenty-five or thirty visitors during his twenty-six month stay at Walden, he also made the short trek to Concord every few days to see firsthand a local sample of "the mass of men leading lives of quiet desperation."

We romanticize about being our own Thoreaus, but too many of us fall into his category of "the mass of men who lead lives of quiet desperation," the operative phrase being "quiet desperation." Desperation usually conjures an image of someone in a panic, terrified by adversity or adversary, but Thoreau warps that image with the adjective "quiet." "Quiet desperation" - not desperation that results in resolution, but desperation that acquiesces in resignation to trappedness, mediocrity, melancholy, and disappointment. What a genuinely pathetic state of being - quiet desperation! What an horrific homophone for Walden Pond - "walled-in pawn."

I'm sure that's how Thoreau must have felt when he "went to the woods to live deliberately," as if he were a "walled-in pawn." No doubt the complexities and intricacies of his modern life were just too much for the sensitive young Henry David, what with all the wagons and buggies, snorting horses, ploughs, blacksmith hammers and the bristling whir and grinding pace of a metropolis like 19th-century Boston. No wonder he retreated to the woods. If Thoreau needed respite from modernity, how much more do we?

If you've played chess, you know that the pawn is the least important piece on the board, like the infantry in an army, on the front lines, the first to die, the last to matter, expendable. How easy it is for the pawn to perish, his movements limited by his own inadequacies, his capacity to defend himself impeded by his own weakness and imperiled by the formidable strength of kings, queens, knights, bishops, and castles.

Do you feel that way sometimes, like a pawn, surrounded by powers too great for you to overcome, and circumstances that seem to have you "walled-in"? If so, perhaps Thoreau's Walden Pond has a few remedies for you.

The central theme of Thoreau's book is "simplify, simplify, simplify," which seems like a pipe dream in twenty-first century Dallas. Truthfully, however, simplification of one's life is quite possible by mimicking a few of Thoreau's behaviors that I have extrapolated from my memory of his book On Walden Pond:

1. economize
2. read often
3. talk less
4. write more
5. stay home
6. explore nature
7. think philosophically
8. think poetically
9. think transcendentally
10. fortify your conscience; it's an impregnable tower to any and every foe
11. explore nature
12. don't compromise
13. circumscribe your dependence upon technology
14. endeavor to be a wise and witty conversationalist
15. wake up early and meditate
16. manage your time well
17. think
18. get out of the city
19. explore nature
20. simplify, simplify, simplify

No Christian should be a walled-in pawn, but rather a king or a queen, inhabiting a psychological landscape beyond Thoreau's Walden, what another poet described as "green pastures" and "still waters."

O, Sister, O Brother, what art thou? Where art thou?


Beau Morgan said...

Excellent post and a very good reminder too of a another favorite Thoreauian maxim -- "a man is rich in proportion to the amount of things he can afford to live without."

I'd like to suggest a slight double entendre to "quiet desperation" and "Walled-in Pawn" to go along with what you write here. Could "quietness" of man's "desperation" also have to do with an the "unknowingness" of his own condition as well?

"Know thyself" is far less common today than "show thyself."

In other words, men are "quiet" about their own "desperation" since they have masked or continually ignored that it even exists. Most men rarely let the guard down of their own souls, even for themselves--after all, there is too much beer to drink, women to be had and money to be made.

When i think of desperate, I think of those athletes recently lost at sea in Florida--truly "desperate" men. Two realized their "desperate" state early on and gave up; one faught until becoming delirious then died thinking he saw a way out of his "desperation"--the shore--and died; the last one held on and survived--miraculously. From the moment that 21-foot boat capsized, they all must have known that they were in trouble, big trouble.

When I think of someone in a state of "quiet desperation," I think of someone in an equal state of peril--but without knowing it. Like a man living with a disease unknowingly or like your "Walled-in Pawn"--unable to consider any other place on the board but the one directly in front of him, so there he fixates.

In "The Fall" (just started re-reading) Camus writes: "I was at ease in everything, to be sure, but at the same time satisfied with nothing. Each joy made me desire another. I went from festivity to festivity."

Sadly, "quiet desperation" will eventually only lead one to rather than "still waters," waters so rough they make the Florida gulf look like Walden Pond.

Shane said...

In January I read Kierkegaard's "Sickness Unto Death." In it, SK argued that all men live in a state of despair. One of the blessings men can have is to recognize that they are in this state. However, according to SK, most people never realize they are in a state of despair. Not realizing their state, they're destined to remain in it.

Interestingly, SK wrote that part of being in despair is desiring to be someone other than who you are. This could mean not wanting to be anyone but Caesar, but more commonly means wanting to be so-and-so's spouse or to possess certain personality traits that one simply doesn't have.

Thanks for the post, Hal.

And Beau, I love the word, "Thoreauian." That's the most vowels I've seen in a row since reading my cab-driver's name in NYC.

Beau Morgan said...


As we digress, you've heard Seinfeld's bit about the Taxi driver and B.O.? If not, it's worth checking out.

My favorite missionary--Alistair Begg--once stated in a sermon : "Christ will not save a man unless he makes him to feel undone and utterly hopeless."

Perhaps many are never truly saved since their Care Bear Band Aid is insufficient for their unknown arteriosclerosis. A CBBA is cute and stands out appropriately on a 4-yr old girl who sings "Jesus Loves Me", but not so much on a 50-yr old man who sports a "WWJD" bracelet.

Problem is that 50-yr old has so arranged his life as to never know the "utter hopelessness" of his condition, all the while appeasing the conscience with a 15-minute elliptical routine just once a week.

Which is the least enviable position--desperation or "quiet" desperation? Is there more virtue in knowing how desperate you are and yet not knowing how to be saved?

Perhaps, since they might be one step closer to salvation, but perhaps not because they are still just as far from being saved.