Post-colonial reading of The Tempest:
The Tempest and the literature of wonder
Prospero: magician and artist
Prospero: a Renaissance Magus
The first night of The Tempest
Tempestuous words: The Tempest and Shakespeare’s linguistic innovation
Post-colonial reading of The Tempest:
The Tempest and the literature of wonder
Prospero: magician and artist
Prospero: a Renaissance Magus
The first night of The Tempest
Tempestuous words: The Tempest and Shakespeare’s linguistic innovation
“Often in a true war story there is not even a point, or else the point doesn’t hit you until 20 years later, in your sleep, and you wake up and shake your wife and start telling the story to her, except when you get to the end you’ve forgotten the point again.”
This passage, from a chapter called “How to Tell a True War Story,” gives succinct voice to some of the themes that preoccupy Tim O’Brien in “The Things They Carried.” Described simply as “a work of fiction,” the book is self-evidently autobiographical, a record of the memories of a writer in his 40s named Tim O’Brien, who two decades earlier was a soldier in Vietnam. His account of what happened — amid the hamlets and forests of the Batangan Peninsula and in other areas of operation — to him and the other members of his platoon is punctuated by rueful, sometimes anguished reflections on the elusiveness of meaning and the fraught relationship between truth and invention.
“War — perhaps especially a war that, on the American side, began in deception and continued in confusion — has a way of blurring such distinctions. What happens in combat can be grotesque, absurd, senseless and transcendent, sometimes all at once. Capturing this in prose that upholds the post-Hemingway, Raymond Carver-era values of plainness and specificity is a challenge. “In any war story, but especially a true one,” O’Brien writes, “it’s difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen.” As a result, the standard of truth is not epistemological, but visceral: “It comes down to gut instinct. A true war story, if truly told, makes the stomach believe.”
““The Things They Carried” has lived in the bellies of American readers for more than two decades. O’Brien’s third book about Vietnam (following “If I Die in a Combat Zone” and “Going After Cacciato”), it sits on the narrow shelf of indispensable works by witnesses to and participants in the fighting, alongside Michael Herr’s “Dispatches,” Tobias Wolff’s “In Pharaoh’s Army” and James Webb’s “Fields of Fire.” While he conveys the details of grunt-level life and death — the weight of boots and weapons, the smell of mud and vegetation, the split-second swerves from tedium to terror — with startling immediacy, O’Brien is also haunted by the way experience is altered by the passage of time, by the gap that opens up between his young and middle-aged selves. Some of the most wrenching moments in the book find him back home, at 43, with a career and a family and a restless itch to make sense of his earlier transformation from a Minnesota college student with mildly antiwar politics to a member of the squad whose stories he will eventually borrow.
“In 1990, when Houghton Mifflin published the book, Vietnam was still recent history, its individual and collective wounds far from healed. Just as the years between combat and publication affected O’Brien’s perception of events, so has an almost exactly equal span changed the character of the writing. “The Things They Carried” is now, like the war it depicts, an object of classroom study, kept relevant more by its craft than by the urgency of its subject matter. The raw, restless, anguished reckoning inscribed in its pages — the “gut hate” and comradely love that motivated the soldiers — has come to reflect conventional historical wisdom. Over time, America’s wars are written in shorthand: World War II is noble sacrifice; the Civil War, tragic fratricide; Vietnam, black humor and moral ambiguity.”
I’m don’t think this book justifies the label of classic: it reads now like a hundred other books, could have been written by a hundred other authors, and has little of anything timeless to say – that is, it may have spoken to those living in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, but it didn’t speak to me. It has no art, over and above the monotonous art of the creative writing workshop, to speak of, and there is nothing novel about it. This book isn’t read now for a reason, it has been buried under a thousand thousand similar works of fiction, and no one can be bothered to dig it up. Reading it is no longer a rich and rewarding experience.
Eventually Updike would write four novels about Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, his suburban everyman. Angstrom is too intellectually limited to be considered Updike’s alter ego; call him instead Updike’s altered ego, an artfully reconstituted, carefully delimited, sometimes monstrous, sometimes pathetic, persona by means of which Updike surveyed US postwar life. The New York Times described Angstrom, a former basketball star feeling trapped by his suburban life of marriage and fatherhood, as “an older and less articulate Holden Caulfield”; it’s not a bad comparison. Updike helped map what later became known as “Cheever country”: the white, affluent, suburban landscape of stunted hopes and spiritual anomie through which Harry Angstrom will take his picaresque journey. Updike’s bitter joke, however, is that Rabbit can’t run.
In this sense, Rabbit, Run is a clever subversion of an old US motif: the man on the run from the suffocating effects of society, as if a tragicomic western had lost its way and ended up trapped in southeastern Pennsylvania. But this tradition is also endlessly troped as men escaping the domestic snares of women, a tradition which Rabbit, Run cheerily joins. From Huck Finn lighting west for the Territory to escape Aunt Polly’s efforts to “sivilize” him, to Charles Ingalls, with his itch for travel and his wife who insists they build a little house on the prairie for their girls, to Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty taking off on the road: US popular culture is riddled with stories of men who yearn to be free, and the women who yearn only for them not to be. These are doubtless very enjoyable stories for men to read, but for women they can be quite irksome. Always cast as the smothering presence, the old ball-and-chain pinning men down who would otherwise roam wild, women end up symbolising dependence and paralysis while men get to symbolise independence and liberty. I know which one I prefer.
At the beginning of the novel, 26-year-old Harry climbs into his car and leaves his depressed, pregnant young wife, Janice, and heads south with dreams of Floridian paradise. He stops for fuel and directions; instead of being given a map, he is given advice that sums up the novel: “The only way to get somewhere, you know, is to figure out where you’re going before you go there.” Drift is not an option; Harry, who shares a rabbit’s proclivities for procreation, also shares its legendary inability to win the race after starting out in front. The imperative of the title means that some unseen voice is telling Rabbit to run, perhaps suggesting his internal compulsions, or some kind of higher power – whether of the authorial or spiritual kind – urging him on. But by 1960, there was nowhere to run: the frontier was well and truly closed, and all that was left for men was the mock heroism of suburban tragicomedy, running in circles.
Part of the problem for women reading Rabbit, Run is that Updike made the decision to have Harry choose between two stereotypes: after returning home Harry leaves Janice again, this time moving in with a prostitute. Janice, the asexual mother, is small, childish, bony; the prostitute Ruth is voluptuous, large, welcoming and fecund. There are those who argue that Updike is ironising this stereotypical choice, showing how narrow and foolish it is, and it is true he gives both Ruth and Janice slightly more complex interior lives at points in the novel. But Updike doesn’t imagine them really having any desires that are not centred around domesticity or keeping a man, whether because, as in Ruth’s case, they fall madly in love with him or, as in Janice’s case, they merely want to avoid social humiliation. Either way, to judge it against a modern metric, it’s fair to say Rabbit, Run fails the Bechdel test (requiring that two or more female characters discuss a topic other than men).
In 1960, Richard Gilman described Rabbit, Run as both a “grotesque allegory of American life, with its myth of happiness and success”, and a “minor epic of the spirit thirsting for room to discover and be itself”. It remains the case that only male characters get to be treated as allegories of US life, grotesque or otherwise. Mankind can denote all humanity; womankind can only denote all women. Surely part of “the curse of incompleteness that had haunted American writing” was its inability to recognise the full humanity of half of humanity – the female half; and if Updike is to be put in the same class as Henry James, then he should be measured by the same standards.
When Henry James looked at women, he imagined that they thought like him. When Updike looked at women, he imagined that they thought about him. For me, questions about misogyny in literature are of limited efficacy at best; I prefer judging a novel by how well it thinks about the problem it has set itself. Rabbit, Run is a novel ruminating on the costs of patriarchal society that is partly limited by the very limits it depicts, but cannot quite overcome. The incompleteness remains, while the novel endures.
• Sarah Churchwell is professorial fellow in American literature at the University of London. Rabbit, Run is Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime until 28 April.
Kierkegaard (1813-1855), unlike the philosophers of his time, based everything on subject experience: there’s no point concerning ourselves with objective truths: thee we have to choose to either accept or reject anyway – rendering them pointless: it still comes back to us to choose. It is that choice, that individual subjective moment, that is at the heart of Kierkegaard’s philosophy, and which makes him the starting point for the existentialist philosophical movement of the 20th Century.
“Kierkegaard wanted to understand the anxiety that must have been present in Abraham when “God tested [him] and said to him, take Isaac, your only son, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah and offer him as a burnt offering on the mountain that I shall show you.” Abraham had a choice to complete the task or to refuse to comply to God’s orders. He resigned himself to the three-and-a-half-day journey and to the loss of his son. “He said nothing to Sarah, nothing to Eliezer. Who, after all, could understand him, for did not the nature of temptation extract from him a pledge of silence? He split the firewood, he bound Isaac, he lit the fire, he drew the knife.” Because he kept everything to himself and chose not to reveal his feelings he “isolated himself as higher than the universal.”
Critics have universally praised the book as one of the lynchpins of the existentialist movement…
“Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche were two of the first philosophers considered fundamental to the existentialist movement, though neither used the term “existentialism” and it is unclear whether they would have supported the existentialism of the 20th century. They focused on subjective human experience rather than the objective truths of mathematics and science, which they believed were too detached or observational to truly get at the human experience. …they were interested in people’s quiet struggle with the apparent meaninglessness of life and the use of diversion to escape from boredom. Kierkegaard and Nietzsche considered the role of making free choices, particularly regarding fundamental values and beliefs, and how such choices change the nature and identity of the chooser. Kierkegaard’s knight of faith and Nietzsche’s Übermensch are representative of people who exhibit Freedom, in that they define the nature of their own existence. Nietzsche’s idealized individual invents his own values and creates the very terms they excel under. By contrast, Kierkegaard, opposed to the level of abstraction in Hegel, and not nearly as hostile (actually welcoming) to Christianity as Nietzsche, argues that the objective certainty of religious truths (specifically Christian) is not only impossible, but even founded on logical paradoxes. Yet he continues to imply that a leap of faith is a possible means for an individual to reach a higher stage of existence that transcends and contains both an aesthetic and ethical value of life.”
“In 1949 Helmut Kuhn wrote of the dread of the choice to follow God. “The decisive act through which everything is won or lost is called choice, a conception formulated by Kierkegaard and faithfully upheld by the majority of Existentialists. Choice, as the term is generally understood, is the act of giving preference to one among several possibilities or of deciding in favor of one or two alternatives. And since every choice has, at least potentially, a moral significance, the primary alternative, which underlies all other alternatives, will be that of good and evil. Choice, according to this common-sense view, lies between good and evil. Kierkegaard and his modern followers entertain an altogether different idea of choice. In the first place, the act under consideration, they insist, is not to be confused with those insignificant decisions with which in every minute of our waking existence we carry on our lives. Each one of these “little choices will reveal itself under analysis as the choice of a means towards a predetermined end. They give effect to a prior determination which underlies and guides them. Not with that merely executive activity are we chiefly concerned as moralists and philosophers. We must rather focus on those cardinal acts on which our whole existence hinges the moments which place us at the parting of roads, and as we then choose, our choice, the dread Either /Or, will either save or ruin us. It is this Great Choice which, as the organizing principle, animates the little choices of our daily lives.”
A very interesting read if you are to understand where Camus is coming from with his notions of the absurd and individual choice: Camus is pretty much Kierkegaard in a world without god: it’s all down to the individual creating a meaningful existence through choosing in a meaningless world.
When writer, politician, and BBC radio and television personality Melvyn Bragg began his long-running radio program In Our Time, which brings academics together to discuss philosophy, history, science, religion, and culture, he didn’t think the show would last very long: “Six months,” he told The Scotsman in 2009, “but I’ll have a go.” Now, seventeen years after the show began in 1998, In Our Timeis going strong, with millions of listeners from around the world who tune in on the radio, or download the In Our Time podcast. Though it’s easy to despair when faced with the onslaught of mass media devoted to triviality and sensationalism, Bragg has shown there’s still a sizable audience that cares about thoughtful engagement with matters of import, and in particular that cares about philosophy.
Though the subject takes a beating these days, especially in unfavorable comparisons to the hard sciences, the concerns articulated by philosophers over the centuries still inform our views of ethics, language, politics, and human existence writ large. In Our Time’s philosophy programs follow the same format as the show’s other topics—in Bragg’s words, he gets “three absolutely top-class academics to discuss one subject and explore as deeply as time allow[s].” In this case, the “subject,” is often a proper name, like Simone Weil, David Hume, Albert Camus, Simone de Beauvoir or Socrates.
The show just as often tackles philosophical movements like Skepticism, Neoplatonism, or The Frankfurt School, that aren’t associated with only one thinker; likewise, Bragg and his guests have devoted their discussions to longstanding philosophical problems, like the existence of Free Will, and historical developments, like the Continental-Analytic Split in Western philosophy.
Though there is certainly no shortage of high quality resources for people who wish to learn more about philosophy—such as the many free courses, podcasts, and lectures we’ve featured on this site—few are as immediately accessible as In Our Time’s philosophy discussions. Bragg describes his preparation for each show as “swotting”—or cramming. He’s not an expert, but he’s knowledgeable enough to ask pertinent questions of his guests, who then go on to educate him, and the listeners, for the almost hour-long conversation. Hear how well the approach works in the In Our Time philosophy programs featured here. At the top, Bragg discusses the philosophy and activism of Bertrand Russell with academic philosophers A.C. Grayling, Mike Beaney, and Hilary Greaves. Below that, he talks Kierkegaard with Jonathan Ree, Clare Carlisle, and John Lippitt. Just above, hear Bragg discuss Jean-Paul Sartre with Jonathan Rée, Benedict O’Donohoe, and Christina Howells. Finally, below, hear his conversation on Karl Marx with Anthony Grayling, Francis Wheen, and Stedman Jones.
These four examples are but a small sampling of the many compelling In Our Timephilosophy discussions. Explore, stream, and download dozens more at the BBC Radio 4 site or hear them on Youtube here. And if any these conversations whet your appetite for more, then head over to our expansive archive of Free Philosophy Courses, and Free Philosophy eBooks.
We all have some vision of what the good life should look like. Days filled with reading and strolls through museums, retirement to a tropical island, unlimited amounts of time for video games…. Whatever they may be, our concepts tend toward fantasy of the grass is greener variety. But what would it mean to live the good life in the here and now, in the life we’re given, with all its warts, routines, and daily obligations? Though the work of philosophers for the past hundred years or so may seem divorced from mundane concerns and desires, this was not always so. Thinkers like Plato, Aristotle, Immanuel Kant, and Friedrich Nietzsche once made the question of the good life central to their philosophy. In the videos here, University of New Orleans philosophy professor Chris Surprenant surveys these four philosophers’ views on that most consequential subject.
The view we’re likely most familiar with comes from Socrates (as imagined by Plato), who, while on trial for corrupting the youth, tells his inquisitors, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Pithy enough for a Twitter bio, the statement itself may too often go unexamined. Socrates does not endorse a life of private self-reflection; he means that “an individual become a master of himself,” says Surprenant,”using his reason to reign in his passions, as well as doing what he can to help promote the stability of his community.” In typical ancient Greek fashion, Plato and his mentor Socrates define the good life in terms of reasonable restraint and civic duty.
The Platonic version of the good life comes in for a thorough drubbing at the hands of Friedrich Nietzsche, as do Aristotelian, Kantian, and Judeo-Christian ideals. Nietzsche’s declaration that “God is dead,” and in particular the Christian god, “allows us the possibility of living more meaningful and fulfilling lives,” Surprenant says. Nietzsche, who describes himself as an “amoralist,” uses the proposed death of god—a metaphor for the loss of religious and metaphysical authority governing human behavior—to stage what he calls a “revaluation of values.” His critique of conventional morality pits what he calls life-denying values of self-restraint, democracy, and compassion (“slave morality”) against life-affirming values.
For Nietzsche, life is best affirmed by a striving for individual excellence that he identified with an idealized aristocracy. But before we begin thinking that his definition of the good life might accord well with, say, Ayn Rand’s, we should attend to the thread of skepticism that runs throughout all his work. Despite his contempt for traditional morality, Nietzsche did not seek to replace it with universal prescriptions, but rather to undermine our confidence in all such notions of universality. As Surprenant points out, “Nietzsche is not looking for followers,” but rather attempting to “disrupt old conceptual schemes,” in order to encourage us to think for ourselves and, as much as it’s possible, embrace the hand we’re dealt in life.
For contrast and comparison, see Surprenant’s summaries of Aristotle and Kant’s views above and below. This series of animated videos comes to us from Wireless Philosophy (Wi-Phi for short), a project jointly created by Yale and MIT in 2013. We’ve previously featured video series on metaphysical problems like free will and the existence of god and logical problems like common cognitive biases. The series here on the good life should give you plenty to reflect on, and to study should you decide to take up the challenge and read some of the philosophical arguments about the good life for yourself, if only to refute them and come up with your own. But as the short videos here should make clear, thinking rigorously about the question will likely force us to seriously re-examine our comfortable illusions.
Yes. This is about some guy merely living in the woods. Here are the essentials of it, in Thoreau’s own words, some 100 pages in:
“I went to the woods because I wished to 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. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion. For most men, it appears to me, are in a strange uncertainty about it, whether it is of the devil or of God, and have somewhat hastily concluded that it is the chief end of man here to “glorify God and enjoy him forever.”
Still we live meanly, like ants; though the fable tells us that we were long ago changed into men; like pygmies we fight with cranes; it is error upon error, and clout upon clout, and our best virtue has for its occasion a superfluous and evitable wretchedness. Our life is frittered away by detail. An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his ten toes, and lump the rest. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail. In the midst of this chopping sea of civilized life, such are the clouds and storms and quicksands and thousand-and-one items to be allowed for, that a man has to live, if he would not founder and go to the bottom and not make his port at all, by dead reckoning, and he must be a great calculator indeed who succeeds. Simplify, simplify. Instead of three meals a day, if it be necessary eat but one; instead of a hundred dishes, five; and reduce other things in proportion. Our life is like a German Confederacy, made up of petty states, with its boundary forever fluctuating, so that even a German cannot tell you how it is bounded at any moment. The nation itself, with all its so-called internal improvements, which, by the way are all external and superficial, is just such an unwieldy and overgrown establishment, cluttered with furniture and tripped up by its own traps, ruined by luxury and heedless expense, by want of calculation and a worthy aim, as the million households in the land; and the only cure for it, as for them, is in a rigid economy, a stern and more than Spartan simplicity of life and elevation of purpose. It lives too fast. Men think that it is essential that the Nation have commerce, and export ice, and talk through a telegraph, and ride thirty miles an hour, without a doubt, whether they do or not; but whether we should live like baboons or like men, is a little uncertain. If we do not get out sleepers, and forge rails, and devote days and nights to the work, but go to tinkering upon our lives to improve them, who will build railroads? And if railroads are not built, how shall we get to heaven in season? But if we stay at home and mind our business, who will want railroads? We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us. Did you ever think what those sleepers are that underlie the railroad? Each one is a man, an Irishman, or a Yankee man. The rails are laid on them, and they are covered with sand, and the cars run smoothly over them. They are sound sleepers, I assure you. And every few years a new lot is laid down and run over; so that, if some have the pleasure of riding on a rail, others have the misfortune to be ridden upon. And when they run over a man that is walking in his sleep, a supernumerary sleeper in the wrong position, and wake him up, they suddenly stop the cars, and make a hue and cry about it, as if this were an exception. I am glad to know that it takes a gang of men for every five miles to keep the sleepers down and level in their beds as it is, for this is a sign that they may sometime get up again.”
Utterly dull as it often is, it is also strangely compelling. Often, this is down to how well Thoreau can write:
“The village appeared to me a great news room; and on one side, to support it, as once at Redding & Company’s on State Street, they kept nuts and raisins, or salt and meal and other groceries. Some have such a vast appetite for the former commodity, that is, the news, and such sound digestive organs, that they can sit forever in public avenues without stirring, and let it simmer and whisper through them like the Etesian winds, or as if inhaling ether, it only producing numbness and insensibility to pain—otherwise it would often be painful to bear—without affecting the consciousness. I hardly ever failed, when I rambled through the village, to see a row of such worthies, either sitting on a ladder sunning themselves, with their bodies inclined forward and their eyes glancing along the line this way and that, from time to time, with a voluptuous expression, or else leaning against a barn with their hands in their pockets, like caryatides, as if to prop it up. They, being commonly out of doors, heard whatever was in the wind. These are the coarsest mills, in which all gossip is first rudely digested or cracked up before it is emptied into finer and more delicate hoppers within doors. I observed that the vitals of the village were the grocery, the bar-room, the post-office, and the bank; and, as a necessary part of the machinery, they kept a bell, a big gun, and a fire-engine, at convenient places; and the houses were so arranged as to make the most of mankind, in lanes and fronting one another, so that every traveller had to run the gauntlet, and every man, woman, and child might get a lick at him. Of course, those who were stationed nearest to the head of the line, where they could most see and be seen, and have the first blow at him, paid the highest prices for their places; and the few straggling inhabitants in the outskirts, where long gaps in the line began to occur, and the traveller could get over walls or turn aside into cow-paths, and so escape, paid a very slight ground or window tax. Signs were hung out on all sides to allure him; some to catch him by the appetite, as the tavern and victualling cellar; some by the fancy, as the dry goods store and the jeweller’s; and others by the hair or the feet or the skirts, as the barber, the shoemaker, or the tailor. Besides, there was a still more terrible standing invitation to call at every one of these houses, and company expected about these times. For the most part I escaped wonderfully from these dangers, either by proceeding at once boldly and without deliberation to the goal, as is recommended to those who run the gauntlet, or by keeping my thoughts on high things, like Orpheus, who, “loudly singing the praises of the gods to his lyre, drowned the voices of the Sirens, and kept out of danger.” Sometimes I bolted suddenly, and nobody could tell my whereabouts, for I did not stand much about gracefulness, and never hesitated at a gap in a fence. I was even accustomed to make an irruption into some houses, where I was well entertained, and after learning the kernels and very last sieveful of news—what had subsided, the prospects of war and peace, and whether the world was likely to hold together much longer—I was let out through the rear avenues, and so escaped to the woods again.
It was very pleasant, when I stayed late in town, to launch myself into the night, especially if it was dark and tempestuous, and set sail from some bright village parlor or lecture room, with a bag of rye or Indian meal upon my shoulder, for my snug harbor in the woods, having made all tight without and withdrawn under hatches with a merry crew of thoughts, leaving only my outer man at the helm, or even tying up the helm when it was plain sailing. I had many a genial thought by the cabin fire “as I sailed.” I was never cast away nor distressed in any weather, though I encountered some severe storms. It is darker in the woods, even in common nights, than most suppose. I frequently had to look up at the opening between the trees above the path in order to learn my route, and, where there was no cart-path, to feel with my feet the faint track which I had worn, or steer by the known relation of particular trees which I felt with my hands, passing between two pines for instance, not more than eighteen inches apart, in the midst of the woods, invariably, in the darkest night. Sometimes, after coming home thus late in a dark and muggy night, when my feet felt the path which my eyes could not see, dreaming and absent-minded all the way, until I was aroused by having to raise my hand to lift the latch, I have not been able to recall a single step of my walk, and I have thought that perhaps my body would find its way home if its master should forsake it, as the hand finds its way to the mouth without assistance.”
This bit about a Loon is typical of the beauty of this book:
“In the fall the loon (Colymbus glacialis) came, as usual, to moult and bathe in the pond, making the woods ring with his wild laughter before I had risen. At rumor of his arrival all the Mill-dam sportsmen are on the alert, in gigs and on foot, two by two and three by three, with patent rifles and conical balls and spy-glasses. They come rustling through the woods like autumn leaves, at least ten men to one loon. Some station themselves on this side of the pond, some on that, for the poor bird cannot be omnipresent; if he dive here he must come up there. But now the kind October wind rises, rustling the leaves and rippling the surface of the water, so that no loon can be heard or seen, though his foes sweep the pond with spy-glasses, and make the woods resound with their discharges. The waves generously rise and dash angrily, taking sides with all water-fowl, and our sportsmen must beat a retreat to town and shop and unfinished jobs. But they were too often successful. When I went to get a pail of water early in the morning I frequently saw this stately bird sailing out of my cove within a few rods. If I endeavored to overtake him in a boat, in order to see how he would manoeuvre, he would dive and be completely lost, so that I did not discover him again, sometimes, till the latter part of the day. But I was more than a match for him on the surface. He commonly went off in a rain.
As I was paddling along the north shore one very calm October afternoon, for such days especially they settle on to the lakes, like the milkweed down, having looked in vain over the pond for a loon, suddenly one, sailing out from the shore toward the middle a few rods in front of me, set up his wild laugh and betrayed himself. I pursued with a paddle and he dived, but when he came up I was nearer than before. He dived again, but I miscalculated the direction he would take, and we were fifty rods apart when he came to the surface this time, for I had helped to widen the interval; and again he laughed long and loud, and with more reason than before. He manoeuvred so cunningly that I could not get within half a dozen rods of him. Each time, when he came to the surface, turning his head this way and that, he cooly surveyed the water and the land, and apparently chose his course so that he might come up where there was the widest expanse of water and at the greatest distance from the boat. It was surprising how quickly he made up his mind and put his resolve into execution. He led me at once to the widest part of the pond, and could not be driven from it. While he was thinking one thing in his brain, I was endeavoring to divine his thought in mine. It was a pretty game, played on the smooth surface of the pond, a man against a loon. Suddenly your adversary’s checker disappears beneath the board, and the problem is to place yours nearest to where his will appear again. Sometimes he would come up unexpectedly on the opposite side of me, having apparently passed directly under the boat. So long-winded was he and so unweariable, that when he had swum farthest he would immediately plunge again, nevertheless; and then no wit could divine where in the deep pond, beneath the smooth surface, he might be speeding his way like a fish, for he had time and ability to visit the bottom of the pond in its deepest part. It is said that loons have been caught in the New York lakes eighty feet beneath the surface, with hooks set for trout—though Walden is deeper than that. How surprised must the fishes be to see this ungainly visitor from another sphere speeding his way amid their schools! Yet he appeared to know his course as surely under water as on the surface, and swam much faster there. Once or twice I saw a ripple where he approached the surface, just put his head out to reconnoitre, and instantly dived again. I found that it was as well for me to rest on my oars and wait his reappearing as to endeavor to calculate where he would rise; for again and again, when I was straining my eyes over the surface one way, I would suddenly be startled by his unearthly laugh behind me. But why, after displaying so much cunning, did he invariably betray himself the moment he came up by that loud laugh? Did not his white breast enough betray him? He was indeed a silly loon, I thought. I could commonly hear the splash of the water when he came up, and so also detected him. But after an hour he seemed as fresh as ever, dived as willingly, and swam yet farther than at first. It was surprising to see how serenely he sailed off with unruffled breast when he came to the surface, doing all the work with his webbed feet beneath. His usual note was this demoniac laughter, yet somewhat like that of a water-fowl; but occasionally, when he had balked me most successfully and come up a long way off, he uttered a long-drawn unearthly howl, probably more like that of a wolf than any bird; as when a beast puts his muzzle to the ground and deliberately howls. This was his looning—perhaps the wildest sound that is ever heard here, making the woods ring far and wide. I concluded that he laughed in derision of my efforts, confident of his own resources. Though the sky was by this time overcast, the pond was so smooth that I could see where he broke the surface when I did not hear him. His white breast, the stillness of the air, and the smoothness of the water were all against him. At length having come up fifty rods off, he uttered one of those prolonged howls, as if calling on the god of loons to aid him, and immediately there came a wind from the east and rippled the surface, and filled the whole air with misty rain, and I was impressed as if it were the prayer of the loon answered, and his god was angry with me; and so I left him disappearing far away on the tumultuous surface.”
This is a very important work of literature, for the ideas that it set in motion: it inspired a whole range of authors and thinkers.
John Updike: “A century and a half after its publication, Walden has become such a totem of the back-to-nature, preservationist, anti-business, civil-disobedience mindset, and Thoreau so vivid a protester, so perfect a crank and hermit saint, that the book risks being as revered and unread as the Bible.”
For whatever reason, on reading this book, one feels that one is reading a work of literature. It feels important. Thoreau’s arrogance, or genius, or originality, or perversity, or whatever it is, makes this a great work of American Literature.