December Immersion – from Walden to Paris

No, I’ve not been soaking in Walden water, or any other water, as our winter comes on, but I have been re-immersed recently in Henry Thoreau’s words. Prompted by an invitation to explain Thoreau’s experiment in living to 20 graduate students at Institut des Hautes Études en Arts Plastique (IHEAP) in Paris, I’ve returned to Walden, and, as always happens when I reread this deeply familiar book, I’ve been amazed by its insights and universality.

At the same time, I’ve been challenged by the “seminar” that lies ahead this week. Not only will it be via SKYPE, not for me a familiar way of being with others, but the group of artists from around the world I’ll be working with reportedly have only the slightest sense of who Henry Thoreau was. And, as added complexity, a number of them will be working in a 2nd language.

How to bring Henry into sharp and real focus in our 90 minutes?

IHEAP’s focus for this year’s program is a help: soustraire, or subtraction, as method for and in support of creativity and art is the year’s theme, and I’ve found it a fine lens for looking at Henry’s Walden experiment. After all, Walden is all about subtracting the usual or familiar from life in pursuit of awakening and then adhering to the real, and Thoreau, crucially, has to subtract the expected self in favor of finding a real self.

Hmmm…I’ve just reread the last sentence and found myself saying, “show me what you mean.”

Okay, here’s example: Henry Thoreau, possessor of exceptional physical and mental vitality, and – very rare for his day – a college education, would have been expected to be a central figure in Concord. He became just that, but not in the way local society would have imagined. Rather than becoming a “select” man of the town, at 27 Henry decamped for a nearby pond and set up solitary living. “What’s that Henry (or David) Thoreau up to?” many must have muttered. Added to that consternation was Thoreau’s determination to become a writer. “He’s gone off the tracks,” more than one Concordian must have declared. And indeed he had (as well as going off on the tracks, but that’s a pun only Henry would like.)

What more did Henry subtract from his life so that he might develop his insights and art? Here’s a partial list of identities not pursued or subtracted: husband, father, teacher, householder, pillar of town society, rich man, majority member, all-day worker, church-goer, elected official.

And what subtractions might you add to this list? Or remove from it?

Thinking of creativity and art as subtraction has been fascinating; it is, among other things, another application of Thoreau’s famous advice: “simplify, simplify”;  it is also acknowledgement that we are in need of less rather than more in this age of surfeit.

1 Comment

Filed under Arts, General, Henry David Thoreau, Literature, Living Deliberately, News and Events, The Roost, Thoreau Quote, Walden

One Response to December Immersion – from Walden to Paris

  1. Libelle Spirit level
    4 september 2014 om 10:18



    Dragonfly, Dragonfly, you

    Light equal Beauty,

    Not in the
    air But

    To the cosmic ether light equal.

    Your electric flutter

    Transparent wings, flights of

    Yours, sometimes standing

    up in the air,

    let me my

    Thoughts transparency equal to that

    Words still standing
    in the ether

    Gripping, equal to the kiss

    The Muse, the art
    of poetry.

    You love, lovely

    Your name,

    the call for you:

    To linger in my

    Etheric light, light

    flooded time.

    Like the bell of

    the gift to and

    Fluelie the meadow

    the sharp rocks

    Seelisberg and Seelisee

    Below the Eternal Glacier

    Dormant. Alive.

    You’re alive like
    William Tell,

    not only the
    legend trails,

    Simply the apple

    As Romeo’s Kiss,
    the cheering

    Julia whole of Rome and that kingdom

    of Earthy Matter

    has blown away,
    as the impact

    The Mystic Dragonfly
    wings, my garden,

    Which nest I have
    prepared that you

    Yourself to me in my native tongue, in

    Educated and well-moving


    You, Dragon fly, probably
    misunderstood by the

    The Commonwealth -.
    Here with me you’re

    The elves’ eagle
    with your

    Wonderful all prudent

    I’ll call you when your flight with silent

    But conscious voice
    of My Heart.

    Dragonfly, love, lovable

    You are my ambassador

    Sweetest, sounding in

    Words to poems

    Locals fairy a like. You are mine.