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Thoreau, Solitude and Society: the infinite extent of our relations

September 11, 2016
English: Replica of Thoreau's cabin near Walde...

English: Replica of Thoreau’s cabin near Walden Pond (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Solitude is surely a keyword of Thoreau’s project in Walden (the book); it is perhaps the idea, if not the activity, he is most remembered for–living alone in the woods for two years. But as we read it more deliberately, and read this book in its complex crafting of simplicity, solitude is not exactly about being alone. For starters, note the beautiful–we can call it “delicious” following Thoreau–opening paragraph of the chapter “Solitude,” where Thoreau emphasizes his sympathy with Nature. This idea of sympathy is carried through the next pages, emphasizing the he finds “society” in Nature, an “atmosphere sustaining me,” even to the point of “a slight insanity in my mood” (62). Why should he feel lonely? In other words, solitude doesn’t mean being alone or even being self-reliant (in the more conventional senses of those terms). And thus, once again, we are being challenged, or at least invited, to follow Thoreau in this re-reading and re-thinking of what our most basic concepts and words mean. This could be considered another irony, in the deeper senses of the word I have been discussing, suggesting it is Thoreau’s interest to have us distinguish between some common, shallow irony and something deeper. The something deeper is a recognition of our doubleness. This is the language he uses in the chapter “The Village” when he picks up this theme of sympathy and relation to nature. We see there that such relation is about strangeness, about being lost, or needing to be lost, in order to locate this double identity we have.

Not till we are lost, in other words, not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations. [118]

In my reading of Walden and Thoreau’s writing, we not only recognize his deeper, ecological interest in irony  (the doubleness and strangeness inherent in language) in this passage, we encounter it: Thoreau’s style is an experience in solitude (and the ironic, infinite extent of our relations). In other words, reading Walden Thoreau helps us get lost and find ourselves (irony). Doing so, we read and recognize that solitude is about infinite relation with others, and that humans are related to those others, are never alone. This takes us back to that early scene in the book (p. 10) where Thoreau imagines his relation, by way of the sun, to distant others in and beyond our galaxy. For a visual representation of this sort of ironic de-centering that comes when the breadth and scale of relation is revealed, consider this video “Powers of Ten.”

Again, this isn’t the conventional way that Thoreau and solitude is usually invoked. Consider this  recent article titled The End of Solitude. A critique of the kinds of social connectivity and network that digital technology and web 2.0 has brought (wrought?). Thoreau makes an appearance (also Emerson). You might be interested to browse this invocation of Thoreau. While I can’t say that Thoreau would have had a Facebook page or a blog–there does seem to be room for that in the larger irony that solitude means larger relation than the self. And that what the writer of the article seems to miss in criticizing our inability to find solitude anymore, to find ourselves, is that Thoreau argues, at the same time, that we need to get lost in the strangeness of relations, get away from our familiar selves. The irony–again that word–seems to be that the best place for solitude, that kind of deeper solitude, these days is on the web. But is that a solitude that can sustain us?

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