Tuesday, October 20, 2015

On Smugness

At the risk of losing friends and inciting vandalism, I'm going to announce that I dislike the New England Patriots football team. Of course, I'm not all that interested in football anyway, but there's something about the Patriots that particularly annoys me. As an organization, the Patriots are smug, and that's a quality I don't like.

Yet how does one define smugness? Rather than describing a quantifiable attribute, it frames an observer's opinion of someone else's self-love. So if I call another person smug, I'm also revealing an urge toward defensive self-protection:  e.g.,"you're so pleased with yourself that you make me feel like saying something mean about you."

I've been thinking about this quality of smugness as I've been reading Katherine Schulz's New Yorker article about Henry David Thoreau. Any long-time reader of my blog knows that I have always had grumpy mixed feelings about Thoreau. I like his naturalist writings very much, but I find Walden almost unreadable. Talk about smug! As Schulz writes, "Thoreau lived a complicated life but pretended to live a simple one. Worse, he preached at others to live as he did not, while berating them for their own compromises and complexities."

Thoreau's I'm-purer-than-you smugness is not the same as the Patriots' we're-the-best-best-best! smugness, but both share an arrogance that makes me itch. At the same time, I would be sad but not surprised to learn that someone else has been calling me smug--maybe about the kinds of books I read or think are important, maybe about my confidence in my own ability to educate myself. "How obnoxious she is," that person mutters. "She thinks she knows everything."

The corrective here is that I, at least, am positing the notion that I might be in the wrong. Thoreau never seems to have asked himself such a question. Yet Schulz notes, "Walden Pond in 1845 was scarcely more off the grid, relative to contemporaneous society, than Prospect Park is today. The commuter train to Boston ran along its southwest side; in summer the place swarmed with picnickers and swimmers, while in winter it was frequented by ice cutters and skaters." Thoreau fictionalized his isolation and self-reliance. Apparently it was easy to forget to mention all those twenty-minute walks back to his parents' house for dinner and cookies.

But truly I can't take myself off the hook either. Like Thoreau, I wrote a book about living quietly in the woods . . . though I owned a car that could take me out of the woods whenever I felt like leaving. For many writers, part of the conundrum of modern life is dealing aesthetically with the nostalgia of solitude. We're alone, but we're never alone. Thoreau was an annoying man, and I'm glad he's not my dad, but our subject matter, our motivations, and our mistakes are not so far apart. Nonetheless, I think his cogitations on loneliness and self-reliance are far less vital than, say, Willa Cather's or Laura Ingalls Wilder's. Schulz agrees with me about Wilder's work, which she calls "an excellent corrective to 'Walden.'"
Wilder lived what Thoreau merely played at, and her books are not only more joyful and interesting than "Walden" but also, when reread, a thousand times more harrowing. Real isolation presents real risks, both emotional and mortal, and, had Thoreau truly lived at a remove from other people, he might have valued them more. Instead, his case against community rested on an ersatz experience of doing without it.
Begin with false premises and you risk reaching false conclusions. Begin with falsified premises and you forfeit your authority. 


Jenne' R. Andrews said...

So very timely and as ever, brilliantly conceived and executed. You do, Dawn, have the misfortune of a kind of natural erudition that we your readers feel we cannot equal. But for me, how timely a post. I live in the "country," about 5 minutes from the heart of a city teeming with people, including old friends I am estranged from for a host of unimportant reasons. But it doesn't seem like the madding crowd is close by. At last I am happy with the thick bosque of poplars I have just beyond the window--yet a major Western conduit to Wyoming and beyond lies a tenth of a mile east of the poplars. We are not isolated as the crow flies, and isolation is a habit of mind I wish I could celebrate as solitude. Only recently have I noticed that beyond the comfortable community of husband and animals I have neighbors in all directions, also esconced on their acreage and living somewhat in the manner of survivalists all somewhat alienated from each other save for one farm family to the north we call on when a dog dies or the pump breaks. What you said about this dilemma--falling into nostalgic rhapsodizing about the country--so true. But my objective correlatives are indeed the trees, the sky, the thrum of semis on asphalt far away; the 4 a.m. train, the coyote howls I hear when the wind is right, the infernal blueness of the mountains to the west...the challenge for me is to move beyond lyric poetry and write less about me than to somehow write toward solidarity with those like me; if we weren't somewhat isolated, might we lose our voices--might we take such a privilege as to live a remove or two from everyone else for granted? Love, Jenne'.

Dawn Potter said...

Jenne, this is such a beautiful description of both your personal place and your sense of the ambiguities of definition and delineation. It seems that we are always struggling to balance the "I" and the universal, but sometimes we can't get out of our own way. That 4 a.m. train keep singing its song, regardless. Thanks for sharing these words.