Monday, September 29, 2008

Back to Basics: Thoreau and Gauguin

Thoreau goes to live in the woods because he wishes to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, to discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion. For most men it appears to me, are in a strange uncertainty about it, whether it is of the devil or God, and have somewhat hastily concluded that it is the chief end of men here to "glorify God and enjoy him forever."....

Let us settle ourselves, and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance, that alluvion which covers the globe, through Paris and London, through New York and Boston and Concord, through church and state, through poetry and philosophy and religion, till we come to hard bottom and rocks in place, which we can call reality, and say, This is, and no mistake; and then begin, having a point d'appui, below freshet and frost and fire, a place where you might found a wall or a state, or set a lamp-post safely, or perhaps a gauge...[or] a Realometer, that future ages might know how deep a freshet of shams and appearances had gathered from time to time. If you stand right fronting and face to face to a fact, you will see the sun glimmer on both its surfaces, as if it were a scimitar, and feel its sweet edge dividing you through the heart and marrow, and so you will happily conclude your mortal career. Be it life or death, we crave only reality. If we are really dying, let us hear the rattle in our throats and feel cold in the extremities; if we are alive, let us go about our business.

Paul Gauguin went to live and paint in exotic Tahiti, in 1892, for reasons that are similar to Thoreau's. Thoreau built his cabin at Walden Pond partly for the reasons he gives in the passages I have just quoted, but mainly to write a book about the necessary struggle of intelligence in modern times to find bedrock beneath the "mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance..."
Gauguin did not go to Tahiti because that was a romantic thing to do but because he had to paint and painting for him meant finding bedrock beneath the shams, appearances and proprieties of the bourgeois art market in France with its official canons of taste and beauty. He thought he could live in Tahiti more cheaply than he could in France. He soon realized his mistake: to live like one of the islanders, he would have had to possess the skills that they had spent a lifetime learning. He could not climb a palm tree to get a coconut--besides those trees were the property of others; he had no idea how to catch fish. So for a time he almost starved.

1 comment:

  1. Thoreau did not manufacture his own axe, and Gauguin never even tried to live in a world without money. Division of labor is what gives us artists like Gauguin and philosophers like Thoreau.

    When God expels Adam and Eve from Eden he says they will toil by the sweat of their brow. He didn't understand the necessity for division of labor because He had never eaten the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Had God known how to distinguish between good and evil, He would have known that placing the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden was leading Adam and Eve into temptation, and so it was a sin in its own right.

    Thoreau agreed with God that human cooperation—the existence of society—was simultaneously a form of punishment and a sin in itself.