Monday, December 7, 2009

I have never yet met a man who was quite awake - in which I try to awaken, and confess to the existence of my PhD

Last summer (right here, actually), I borrowed an axe and went down to the woods by Walden Pond, nearest to where I intended to build my house -

No, not exactly. But I did leave a fine job for something riskier. No more "free" trips to Tokyo for me. 

Henry David Thoreau knew what I was experiencing:

Why is it that men give so poor an account of their day if they have not been slumbering? They are not such poor calculators. If they had not been overcome with drowsiness, they would have performed something. The millions are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, only one in a hundred millions to a poetic or divine life. To be awake is to be alive. I have never yet met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face? (Walden, "Where I Lived, and What I Lived For")

I am a pretty good calculator - that is, in fact, my profession - but I was overcome with drowsiness.  I am far from sure that I am awake now, and have grave doubts about the existence of that "poetic or divine life."

Henry David Thoreau claimed "that by working about six weeks in a year, I could meet all the expenses of living," but of course he recommended that we live in railroad crates (be sure to punch out an air hole) and eat unsalted corn meal cakes, along with the occasional woodchuck or fried rat.  I may have to work for more than six weeks, although that's just what Thoreau knew I was going to say: "One young man of my acquaintance, who has inherited some acres, told me that he thought he should live as I did, if he had the means" ("Economy").  Fortunately, I don't have the means, either, although I am working on the problem.

One thing I have become, this fall, and will remain through May, is that exploited drudge, the adjunct professor.  I am professing a social science, in which I have a PhD, which I don't think I have ever mentioned before, as irrelevant to literary matters.  Wuthering Expectations remains constant - it is, as before, bad for my career, something I should not be doing.  Teaching has been so much more meaningful than my previous job that it is like a joke.  So I hope to hoe this particular row of beans for a while.

Walden - much of Thoreau's writing - is a challenge.  You are not, he says, doing it right.  Living, eating, reading - you're not doing it right.  Fortunately, Thoreau is a crackpot, so I can easily dismiss him.  I could not eat the fried rat with good relish (see "Higher Laws"), assuming he means "with enthusiasm" and not "with spicy Indian pickles," in which case, fire up the deep fat frier. 

He's right, I'm not doing it right, and neither is he, nor will we ever.  I guess I did not actually need Walden to know all this - I have just read it for the first time - but I can use the challenge to keep trying.  "We need to be provoked - goaded like oxen, as we are, into a trot."  I don't mind Thoreau's poke in the ribs.  It helps me stay awake.


  1. Well, I hope you are finding your new job enjoyable. But I also hope that you don't abandon your blog duties, no matter what kind of guilt trip Thoreau lays on you.

  2. I think Thoreau would recommend the blog over the job! He was not so well-disposed towards income-generating activity.

  3. Didn't Thoreau actually spend wander back into town most days to hang out at his mom's place, or something? I seem to remember hearing something like that.

    As for the PhD -- hey, it happens to a lot of guys. Hell, it happened to me! (Geography) Nothing to be embarassed about.

  4. Not just to hang out, but to eat dinner. Which somehow does not affect the simple-living experiment at all.

    From the "Economy" chapter, after drawing up his accounts (One watermelon, 2 cents; salt 3 cents; etc., total $8.74 for the year):

    "To meet the objections of some inveterate cavillers, I may as well state, that if I dined out occasionally, as I had always done, and I trust I shall have opportunities to do again, it was frequently to the detriment of my domestic arrangements. But the dining out, being, as I have stated, a constant element, does not in the least affect a comparative statement like this."

    To which I say: ????. The first sentence is nonsense, while the second approaches gibberish.

  5. That's OK. Some of my best friends (actually, most of my best friends) have PhDs.

    You are brave to strike out in search of work that keeps you awake. I hope the teaching continues to be meaningful! Best part of the job, no question--though right now, staring down final papers and exams, I confess to feeling a bit numb about it all.

  6. Thanks for the encouragement. The teaching really has been positive.

  7. I'm glad you are enjoying teaching! Like Rohan I need to remind myself now and then about what a great job it is, but really, there is so much that's great about it.

  8. For Thoreau teaching was itself a path to complacency. Louisa May Alcott remembered him as a marvelous teacher, but to Thoreau the experience was a series of failures.

    I'm glad to hear the pros say nice things, though, things I have to be careful not to say. As an adjunct, I am shielded from the more bureaucratic side of the job.

  9. I think it also helped Thoreau that he had a friend like Emerson whose property he could build his little house and who was always willing to lend him a few dollars.

    Congrats on the teaching gig! I hope you enjoy it.