Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity: so advised Thoreau more than a century ago. It’s the kind of advice rarely heeded, then or now. For some perverse reason, most of us prefer to labor ceaselessly to make our lives more complex, to clutter our minds and fritter away our days in the trivial pursuit of superfluous things or meaningless experiences. Essential questions, not to say living, get lost beneath the clutter.
“But men labor under a mistake,” Thoreau writes in Walden. “The better part of a man is soon plowed into the soil for compost. By a seeming fate, commonly called necessity, they are employed, as it says in an old book, laying up treasures which moth and rust will corrupt and thieves break through and steal. It is a fool’s life, as they will find when they get to the end of it if not before.”
Perhaps that realization will dawn on them in the summer, when, if they are lucky enough, they are on vacation from the toils and troubles of their normal lives. For as the word attests, a vacation can, if properly spent, grant one the freedom or creative emptiness necessary to think clearly and well.
Memorial Day weekend, considered the unofficial beginning of summer, is a good time to consider whether or not one will do that, and how one will occupy one’s mind.
It’s very common, of course, for people, in the name of relaxation, to use their summer vacations not to simplify but to complicate their lives, to head to the mountains or seashore armed with trashy “beach books” that they assume will allow them to “get away from it all.” It seems to me these books do the opposite: they guarantee that their readers stay stuck in the muck of moronic nonsense, the very stuff of life in a frenetic society.
There are some books, however, that make excellent vacation reading. Thoreau’s Walden is surely one of them. It is in so many vital ways more contemporary today than when it was written. I can think of no book more pertinent to our present era of greed and consumer mania. One does not have to want to be a hermit to profit from its sage advice.
Is it still not true that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” and “what is called resignation is confirmed desperation”? Do not people still go “from the desperate city. . . . into the desperate country” in pursuit of games and amusements that conceal “a stereotyped but unconscious despair”?
Why is this? Thoreau has many profound things to say on the subject, and they are best heard—and perhaps heeded—in the quiet of a country cottage, by the lapping of a lake, or the ebb and flow of the seashore—in that empty contemplative space a vacation can provide. Walden is a book to be read deliberately and in one place, best in the early morning and outdoors. It’s the kind of writing that can change one’s life, just as Thoreau said of himself: “I went to the woods to see if I could live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
If one wishes to leave New England and travel a bit, then I can think of no better book that Henry Miller’s The Colossus of Maroussi, the story of his journey to Greece and his discovery of himself. Miller is in many ways a descendent of Thoreau; he too writes to discover and uncover essentials, not trifles. One journey for him becomes the essence of all journeys: the voyage into the heart of things. “Voyages are accomplished inwardly, and the most hazardous ones, needless to say, are made without moving from the spot.” Going to Greece, going to Walden Pond, or for that matter going to any vacation spot, can all be opportunities or pretexts for that venture into the interior that can yield true treasure.
Miller’s long vacation becomes for the reader a glimpse into a way of life. “It is not until I look about me,” he writes, “and realize that the vast majority of my fellow men are desperately trying to hold on to what they possess or to increase their possessions that I begin to understand the wisdom of giving is not so simple as it seems. Giving and receiving are at bottom one thing, dependent on whether one lives open or one lives closed. Living openly one becomes a medium, a transmitter; living thus, as a river, one experiences life to the full, flows along with the current of life, and dies in order to live again as an ocean.”
Or what more appropriate way to spend hot summer days than to read a refulgent novel that opens with a blizzard—Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago. Forget the movie; this is a book of untold depths and symbolic resonances. It is a true work of art that leads one to ask questions usually relegated to the back burner. What is love? What is the relationship between life and art? What is the good life, not just personally but socially—of what does it consist? How does one cope, when by force of circumstances, not choice, one is compelled to simplify one’s life? Why are we anxious about death? Pasternak writes, “You are anxious about whether you will rise from the dead or not, but you rose from the dead when you were born and you didn’t notice it.” Now that’s a startling summer thought.
So whether you call it a vacation or a holiday, it might be wise to abandon those beach books, vacate your preoccupations, and feel the holy emptiness of writing that will clarify the mind and rekindle the heart. You may return a different person.
Edward Curtin is a writer whose work has appeared widely. He teaches sociology at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. His website is edwardcurtin.com.