Children Who Play Life

Before I was a scientist, I was an artist.  The world, my world, was dominated by emotion.  I spent my days drawing and painting.  I saw the world, not for the objects within it, but for their colors and lines.  I loved the way paint flowed from my brush, and the way a line, the simplest of forms next to the point, both divided and focused a page.  I thought in the language of asthetics.  “If it could be said with words, we would not need the painting,”  I used to say.

That idea spoke to me.  I finally understood abstraction, and it was very dear to me.  My eyes opened to a new world, previously hidden to me–hidden to the masses.  I bathed in my new understanding.

All that changed, I’m not sure when and why.  I lost that “true sight” somewhere along the way.  Thoreau has reminded me, though.

“Children, who play life, discern its true law and relations more clearly than men, who fail to live it worthily, but who think that they are wiser by experience, that is, by failure.”

– Thoreau, Walden, Where I Lived and What I Lived For

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
  Hath had elsewhere its setting,
  And cometh from afar:
  Not in entire forgetfulness,
  And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
  From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
  Upon the growing Boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,
  He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
  Must travel, still is Nature’s priest,
  And by the vision splendid
  Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.

-Wordsworth, Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood

Walden: Reading

thoreau - portraitthoreau - portraitWell, had I known what awaited me in the next chapter of Walden, I wouldn’t have gone on and on about how poorly-versed I am in the classics.  Now I feel like a complete illiterate!

“The heroic books, even if printed in the character of our mother tongue, will always be in  a language dead to degenerate times; and we must laboriously seek the meaning of each word and line, conjecturing a larger sense than common use permits out of what wisdom and valor and generosity we have.”

Thoreau goes on to discuss the virtues of the classics.  He equates reading the classics with actually making acquaintance with their authors. 

“For what are the classics but the noblest recorded thoughts of man?  They are the only oracles which are not decayed … I aspire to be acquainted with wiser men than this our Concord soil has produced, whose names are hardly known here.  Or shall I hear the name of Plato and never read his book?  As if Plato were my townsman and I never saw him–my next neighbor and I never heard him speak …”

He has answered my questions, and more, he inspired me!  Not just to wade through the classics rather than to skim them, but to bathe in them.  Perhaps the skimming may be a means to an end.  To be honest with myself, I must see that the goal is not to read, but to understand.

“The orator yields to the inspiration of a transient occasion, and speaks to the mob before him, to those who can hear him; but the writer, whose more equable life is his occasion, and who would be distracted by the event and the crowd which inspire the orator, speaks to the intellect and heart of mankind, to all in any age who can understand him.”

I have asked my questions and Thoreau has answered them.  I feel as though I have spoken with the man.

“How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book!”

Reading Walden

Like On The Origin of Species, until now I have read most of Walden in bits and pieces, but never the whole thing through. I admit it, though am a bit ashamed to tell the truth. I have thus set out to read Walden in its entirety–front to back. I have been told there is an art to reading classic texts. Writers are so careful in choosing their words, that once the spoken language has changed, as through time, the writing becomes more difficult to understand. Gone, are the clues of clumsy, repetitive writing. If you don’t get the meaning the first time through, you are forever lost. Turning the sentence over again and again in your head is useless, as there is just not enough information there to help.

Sometimes, there is just enough information to make out the meaning, but only after carefully contemplating each word, and perhaps reading the same sentence a dozen or so times. While I do have faith that every thought of certain authors holds profound beauty, the method does not lend itself to inspiration, and one is easily distracted. Many have told me that the best way to read the classics is to read through them without stopping to understand the meaning of every part. What you didn’t understand at first, may become clearer later. Otherwise, perhaps the big picture is more important than the details. I contemplated the difference for some time, wondering which was the right way to go about it, but eventually realized that I was probably only capable of the latter, having merely started so many of the classics.

So, let me now come clean. The only Shakespeare I have read is A Midsummer’s Night Dream–no Othello, Romeo and Juliet. I have never read Tolstoy, Melville, or anything Greek. I read some Sherlock Holmes, some Poe, a little Washington Irving here and there, but mostly, I’m an ignoramus. My friends, however, like to say that I know a little about everything. I usually tell people that I know everything that is not important. For those who try and test me, I point out that by asking, they lend the thing importance, and I suddenly don’t know it. But really, I have spent my life thirsty for knowledge, compulsive in acquiring it, but too impatient to stick with one thing for any length of time. My favorite reading as a child was either the dictionary–a nice fat encyclopedic one–or, when available the encyclopedia itself–Britannica, of course. Today, I am usually “in the middle of” reading several books. My book shelves are littered with books with bookmarks. I generally have a stack of between 5 and 10 books on my nightstand–everything from text books and field guides to novels, magazines, and journals. For a while I was “into” short stories–being the perfect length and tempo to hold my attention.

So here I am wading through Walden–actually skimming the surface like a skipped stone. I’ve bounced through “Economy” and am now making ripples in “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For.” Before me, I see a chapter called “Reading,” which ironically deals with reading the classics. That should be a hoot. I’m thoroughly enjoying the book, I must say (no pun intended). I’ll put my thoughts together a bit more and get back to you to discuss the actual content.