So, what happened?
We began Thoreau’s journey in the woods. He explains the nature of the text, then the experiment and then of men as a whole. Highlights include how he can only tell his own story in first person because that’s how he told it to himself:
“In most books, the I, or first person, is omitted; in this it will be retained; that, in respect to egotism, is the main difference. We commonly do not remember that it is, after all, always the first person that is speaking. I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well.”
how much schoolin he’s had:
“They have no friend Iolas to burn with a hot iron the root of the hydra's head, but as soon as one head is crushed, two spring up.”
what he thinks about people:
“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”
and that old people suck:
“Practically, the old have no very important advice to give the young, their own experience has been so partial, and their lives have been such miserable failures, for private reasons, as they must believe; and it may be that they have some faith left which belies that experience, and they are only less young than they were. I have lived some thirty years on this planet, and I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors. They have told me nothing, and probably cannot tell me anything, to the purpose. Here is life, an experiment to a great extent untried by me; but it does not avail me that they have tried it. If I have any experience which I think valuable, I am sure to reflect that this my Mentors said nothing about.”
What do I think?
This is honestly the ballsiest way to begin a book I think I have ever re-read. A treaty to “look at how smart I am and here’s why you all suck. Yes, even you, the asshole taking a minute out of his miserable day to read how much you suck. Get a job you love, hippie.”
Thoreau throws down the gauntlet to prove how smart he is by quoting scholars, poems, Greek myths, and even latin. I understand it was common in the day for a man of wealth to be educated like that and to be expected to show that knowledge as a societal placement, but as he continues... There is just no subtlety in the craft of writing here. Yeah, he turns out some awesome phrases and shows some insight into the human condition, but the fucking arrogance of it as he moves into his treaty about how most people just plain out suck at being. Just that. “Being, full stop. You suck at it.”
His point here is that men, the great mass of humanity, go through life with blinders on, stumbling through life as reactionist jerks rather than proud men striving for more. They get into or are given debt, work themselves to buy more debt, and then die. And he has a point, except for the unseen hand pointing at his own chest saying, “I see it differently.” If you watch much stand up comedy, this is the basis for a lot of acts, but they hide it behind a layer of humor. Thoreau just says it and moves on with little deference to the audience.
Thoreau reminds me of one of those dating tip guys. “Okay, first you gotta make them feel bad about themselves because humanity ain’t that smart then you compliment them and you have them in bed in no time.”
Then he moves on to how nobody can teach him anything (after displaying all that education) because he is his own vessel for learning. He talks about past generations of people and growing their knowledge. And do not take the assumption that he is implying “standing on the shoulders of giants,” building on the knowledge of the old. Nope. He basically calls out every generation before him and tells them they did not know shit and the new people, himself mostly, are breaking new ground in the areas of knowing shit. Then he illustrates that by talking about a farmer with vegetable bones.
For the first twelve pages of Walden, we see the birth of stand-up comedy without the jokes. That is the best way I can put it. I can guarantee you that somebody at some point after reading this tried to make a speech and impart these ideals and got booed something fierce. Then his buddy said to the future comedian, “You know, they might like you if you told some jokes.”
Thoreau in these first pages stands tall, tells the truth as he sees it, and uses some analogies to make his point. His point? Most people suck, have always sucked, and the best hope they can have is to suck less.
And you know what? He kinda has a point.