Economy: Small and Personal, Not Nameless and Global

Blog Response: Walden, Economy 9/16/12

After reading almost sixty pages of Mr. Thoreau’s ramblings—what one could consider his introduction to the larger work of Walden, I’m left to ponder exactly what he was trying to say.  Having read Walden, previously, I know how dense and multilayered he can be.  When reading him one is left with the feeling of having read a Greek tragedy where one player played all of the parts as well as the chorus. His strophic and antistrophic movement shuffling across my mind leaving the confusion of having heard multiple and seemingly conflicting voices all from one speaker.

In an effort to wend my way closer to what he was communicating I anchor myself to one word, the title, Economy.  Here in the 21st Century, it is a word with a very negative connotation. It is the word which the upcoming elections hinge on. It is a word that means talking about numbers (often astronomically negative).  It is the word that is not only plaguing our nation and the world, but everyone on a personal level.  The economy that is written about in the New York Times  and the Washington Post is not the economy to which Mr. Thoreau referred in his writing.  Yes, he does write about numbers and money. He writes about labor and leisure—all things pertinent to our own modern economy. HDT could care less about the international economy, he says as much when he mocks the eagerness for a “tunnel under the Atlantic,” to bring news between the old and new worlds.  What he cares about, has a passion great enough to do his experiment on the shores of Walden Pond for, is personal economy.

To him, money is just a unit of measure, time spent, time wasted. Literally, is something “worth” his time. It isn’t something to be amassed in great quantity or played with like in Monopoly. Economy has another, lesser used, definition. In the Oxford English Dictionary, the fourth definition for the word (out of a possible eight—and their subdefinitions) seems to best fit what HDT was speaking to. It states, “careful management of resources, so as to make them go as far as possible.”  By this definition a thoughtfulness is brought forth beyond monetary needs.  This thoughtfulness is where Mr. Thoreau’s mind is dwelling for these sixty pages.

He is examining what he knows modern society values and questioning that value. One instance he relays captures this for me: “A lady once offered me a mat, but as I had no room to spare within the house, nor time to spare within or without to shake it, I declined it, preferring to wipe my feet on the sod before my door.  It is best to avoid the beginnings of evil.”  I had to laugh out loud at this, which isn’t something I do too often while reading HDT. A doormat as the beginings of evil. But, for him it is.  It isn’t civilization he is resisting—it is the trappings of civilization. Literally. He doesn’t want curtains or doormats, because to him they are traps. They waste time that could be used in furtherance of greater causes. Understanding how this planet works, for instance.

On a personal level it reminds me of when my mom got her kitchen redone. Years in the making. My dad is not one for wanting to spend money on the house, unless he absolutely has to. Without getting into how badly the kitchen needed to be redone (thirty year old house… ugly linoleum…) I’ll skip right to what we ended up with. A glass stove top. They, mythically, are supposed to be super easy to keep clean. For the woman who doesn’t have all that time to pop out the burner coils and clean all the crumbs from underneath the stove top. Not the case. My mom easily spends an hour each day cleaning the beast. It requires special cleaner, special cloths, you can’t clean it when it is still hot, and you can’t get sugar on it, you can’t move around the pot or pan you are cooking with because it might scratch. If you’ve ever seen a cooking show, with a real chef you know they abuse their pots and their stove tops. Can’t do that with this beauty. Thoreau is just shaking his head over his little fire with his one pot and pan, in sad dismay over all the time my mom as lost to the cleaning of her glass top stove. Of course, she is a little more enraged at being duped by all the hype.

HDT is asking his readers to really question why they do what they do. Is it really what is best or is it just what everyone else has or does? He wants people to ask, is this worthwhile? And if the answer is no, he wants them to alter course and not do it.

One thought on “Economy: Small and Personal, Not Nameless and Global

  1. In your last point about Thoreau challenging readers, you get to what I take to be one of the central points of the book’s communication–it seems to be, communication itself with readers. Just like you do with the word economy, Thoreau largely approaches the question of values (and invites re-valuing) through our language. And so our tendency to view economy only in larger terms found in newspapers is also under revision in his re-focusing on personal, domestic economy of the home. Would you connect his humor (as in the door mat anecdote) to this way of communicating with his reader?
    Good start to your blog.

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