Tuesday 10 November 2015

Pond scum and rotting flesh

On a lengthy roadtrip over the weekend I caught up on recent Slate Culture Gabfest episodes, including one that discussed Kathryn Schulz's recent New Yorker article on Henry David Thoreau, 'Pond Scum'.

I've never read Walden, and I certainly can't evaluate Schulz's piece in terms of its fairness to the author and the text (though the Gabfest has some spirited disagreement on this topic). Her article is a wonderful piece of writing though, and through these combined moments, I'm suddenly thinking about American individualism: as Schulz observes at one point
Although Thoreau is often regarded as a kind of cross between Emerson, John Muir, and William Lloyd Garrison, the man who emerges in “Walden” is far closer in spirit to Ayn Rand: suspicious of government, fanatical about individualism, egotistical, √©litist, convinced that other people lead pathetic lives yet categorically opposed to helping them. It is not despite but because of these qualities that Thoreau makes such a convenient national hero.
As I read the article something kept pinging away in the back of my mind, and somewhere around Taihape it clicked. A few weeks ago I stumbled across Rob Rhinehart's (creator of food replacement Soylent) August blog post 'How I Gave Up Alternating Current'.  What begins as a quite straightforward essay about becoming electrically self-sufficient descends into what I can't help reading as a rather obsessive cleansing of his life from all the entanglements that makes our messy, disorganised, rubbing-up-against-each-other society - not unlike Thoreau.

The wonder is how they, how you and I, can live this slimy, beastly life, eating and drinking (Thoreau)

I utilize soylent only at home and go out to eat when craving company or flavor. This eliminates a panoply of expensive tools and rotting ingredients I would need to spend an unconscionable amount of time sourcing, preparing, and cleaning. (Rhinehart)

He contemplated gathering the wild herbs around Walden to sell in Concord but concluded that “I should probably be on my way to the devil.” He permitted himself to plant beans, but cautiously, calling it “a rare amusement, which, continued too long, might have become a dissipation.” (Schulz quoting Thoreau)

I have not set foot in a grocery store in years. Nevermore will I bumble through endless confusing aisles like a pack-donkey searching for feed while the smell of rotting flesh fills my nostrils and fluorescent lights sear my eyeballs and sappy love songs torture my ears. Grocery shopping is a multisensory living nightmare. There are services that will make someone else do it for me but I cannot in good conscience force a fellow soul through this gauntlet. (Rhinehart)

He shunned alcohol, although with scarcely more horror than he shunned every beverage except water: “Think of dashing the hopes of a morning with a cup of warm coffee, or of an evening with a dish of tea! Ah, how low I fall when I am tempted by them!” (Schulz quoting Thoreau)

Next, I switched from beer to red wine. I buy with Saucey so I don’t have to use awful retail stores. Decent red wine is surprisingly cheap, pleasurable, and does not require refrigeration. I also end up drinking less liquid overall, meaning fewer bottles to throw away (I average about one trashbag / month) and fewer trips to the bathroom, meaning for a comparable amount of alcohol, when wine is consumed instead of beer there is less electrolyte loss and less after effects. (Rhinehart)

Sometimes, when I compare myself with other men, it seems as if I were more favored by the gods than they, beyond any deserts that I am conscious of; as if I had a warrant and surety at their hands which my fellows have not, and were especially guided and guarded. (Thoreau)

I enjoy doing laundry about as much as doing dishes. I get my clothing custom made in China for prices you would not believe and have new ones regularly shipped to me. Shipping is a problem. I wish container ships had nuclear engines but it’s still much more efficient and convenient than retail. Thanks to synthetic fabrics it takes less water to make my clothes than it would to wash them, and I donate my used garments.

The overwhelming majority of clothing Americans buy is made overseas anyways. I just buy direct. And container ships are amazingly efficient.

It bothers me immensely that all clothing is hand made. Automation is woefully absent from the textile industry, but I don’t think it always will be. For now a few new t shirts and jeans per month is not very offensive. I certainly buy less clothing overall than a typical consumer. Synthetic fabrics are easy to recycle and I believe will soon be made with biofuels. Still, this area needs some work. (Rhinehart)

Schulz concludes
Ultimately, it is impossible not to feel sorry for the author of “Walden,” who dedicated himself to establishing the bare necessities of life without ever realizing that the necessary is a low, dull bar; whose account of how to live reads less like an existential reckoning than like a poor man’s budget, with its calculations of how much to eat and sleep crowding out questions of why we are here and how we should treat one another ...
Now, I'm comparing two texts rather than two people, neither of whom I know a great deal about. Mostly I'm just mentally testing out how my on society-first approach to life runs up against these two hard-line drives for personal efficiency and betterment. But the pieces by Schulz and Rhinehart are both fascinating, for different reasons, and I thoroughly recommend them.

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