December 26, 2015

Saturday Morning Essay: "Pond Scum," a New Yorker article by Kathryn Schulz

Such was the title of Ms. Schulz's essay about Henry David Thoreau.

She doesn't like Henry very much.  She threw the whole DSM-V (or whatever Roman numeral they're up to now) at Thoreau in her ill-tempered screed, particularly those chapters on personality disorders. It's the only thing about Thoreau I've ever read that had the word "Kardashians" in it.  Anyway, according to her, Thoreau was "narcissistic," "anti-social," "hypocritical," and a bunch of other things.

I read a rejoinder to Ms. Schulz's essay in a Sierra Club publication, which was much better written and set the record straight, including her scandalous beginning where she took Thoreau's account of a visit to the site of a shipwreck on Cape Cod completely out of context.  After I read that corrective, I realized what Schulz was doing: she was acting as the literary equivalent, in the case of the Transcendentalists (and Thoreau in particular), as Ann Coulter is to the "Liberals."  It accounts for her inflammatory title, idiotic over-simplifications and adamant refusal to delve beneath the surface to see what Thoreau was actually writing about.  The whole point of her essay was simply to draw attention to herself.

One of her main criticisms of Thoreau is that he occasionally went home to the family residence in Concord to get his laundry done and eat some of his mother's cooking.  I've reported on that here. I realize that for Ms. Schulz this violated one of the rules of "Survivor," which I think is the basis of her analysis of Walden. What Thoreau was doing at the pond, for her, was attempting to see if he could survive out in the woods for 26 months, without exogenous sustenance or assistance.  If he didn't do that, then he should be voted Off The Island.  He cheated.  Plus, he was a "failure," because Walden was not a best-seller in his lifetime.  And nobody reads its turgid prose, she says, and I have to admit it sounded as if she hadn't.

I'm sure Thoreau was something of a prickly and difficult personality.  From what I've read, so was Sir Isaac Newton and a lot of other geniuses.  Kathryn Schulz might have parked her own ego long enough to attempt an understanding of why so many people think Thoreau was great despite his asceticism or indifference to New York cocktail parties (another of her criticisms - Thoreau didn't drink).  A lot of it had to do with his willingness to "throw away" his brief life on the development of a philosophy that ran counter to the prevailing ethos of the Industrial Revolution. That's what Walden is actually about.  If you simplify life to the point where you meet the base requirements of maintaing "vital heat," what other things do you need to add to life in order to achieve a satisfying existence, and which things (when you keep adding) result in diminishing returns?  That's pretty interesting as an experiment, don't you think? To figure it out, maybe you have to be a little "narcissistic" and "self-involved" for a while.  Why does that matter at all?  What does that really have to do with the Kardashians?

He could have been, I guess, a successful academic or maybe a hack who cranked out dumb shit for the New Yorker of his own time.  But then America would have been deprived of one of its most interesting and original philosophers.  One could similarly argue that John Lennon would probably have made a pretty clever barrister, but then he wouldn't have written "In My Life," and the English bar association would have been only marginally better.

The essay is easily forgettable and apparently it did not serve Schulz's purpose of drawing a lot of attention to herself, despite her somewhat frenzied and dishonest efforts.  The net effect for me is that the New Yorker, in allowing such a terrible misrepresentation to be published between its covers, has fallen greatly in my estimation.  To compete against the rising tsunami of internet writing, the New Yorker now hires shock-jock writers and gives them free rein to publish unedited nonsense.  In her own ironic way, Kathryn Schulz has reaffirmed the importance of classic thinkers like Henry David Thoreau and the value of real integrity.

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