The Threat of Slumber

While writing at very different moments of American history, both Henry David Thoreau and John Ashbery had similar opinions on the ways people should interact with the world. They both encourage us to question norms and reduce our lives to only what is most essential. While there is no evidence that Thoreau directly influenced Ashbery, it is obvious through his writing that the transcendental idea of “waking up” from the bubble that is society had affected and encouraged the expansion of his thinking and writing. Both authors encourage us to think more broadly about the world and tell us not to get lost in the less important day-today things that distract our consciousness. Thoreau, having lived in the mid-19th century, was surrounded by a more pious, conventional world than Ashbery was in the sixties, where hippies and “free love” were acknowledged as relatively acceptable. The barrier of time fails to change the main ideas of the transcendental philosophy, but, instead, requires Ashbery to apply the philosophy in specific ways. One could say that Thoreau’s philosophy is a call to action expressed in the phrase “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Ashbery expresses a similar call to action throughout his poem by stating that we are “on the brink of destruction.” Thoreau’s “Walden” and Ashbery’s “Soonest Mended” decry the danger of living an unconscious life and encourage us to find hope in questioning the way that we live.

Thoreau’s philosophy consists of several main ideas all centered on the belief that man must cease to be blind in order to really live. The virtue of simplicity was something that deeply resonated within Thoreau, for he believed that, “it is life near the bone where it is sweetest (p.261).” Thoreau uses the metaphor of the bone to describe the essential needs and foundations of life, and by praising it he implies that one must scrape the fatty meat off the bone in order to reach the healthiest substance, the marrow. Men rely on the meat, the superfluities that appeal to our taste buds but clog up our heart. Society is so often the meat; the thick, heavy substance that’s juiciness lures animals. Thoreau severely criticizes our dependence on society when he says, “So much for blind obedience to a blundering oracle (p.41).” Closing our eyes, we submit ourselves to an institution that is praised and regarded as significant. We refuse to observe and analyze the institutions we study because of existential fear, thinking, “Maybe what we worshipped will be gone.” The society we all assume is the only solution is thought of as the only solution because we haven’t looked for alternatives. The oracle that men bleed under is just as confused as the men who made it.

Thoreau composes a formula for transcendence: awaken, realize the external allure of society while noticing the broken bones, and adopt the doctrine of self-reliance. Superfluities and distractions multiply so rapidly in a capitalist world that Thoreau needed to go to the woods in order to escape the “mass of men leading lives of quiet desperation (43).” This quote is the first idea Thoreau wants society to recognize, for once we understand the empty, poisonous cave of society, we can then rip apart the cave and build wide open pastures. Using the word “desperation”, Thoreau alleviates the importance of tearing down prejudices in order to see the world through clear eyes. The “quietness” of our desperation is the reason why it still dominates, why it still grows exponentially within us. By conquering our fear of self-reliance we eliminate our desperation and focus on improving our internal selves, rather than agonizing over external things we cannot control. Before the mass of men can take action, they must awaken from their slumber. “We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake,” Thoreau explains, revealing that not only must we wake up, but we also must make the conscious effort to stay awake. Once we understand the deficient organization of society; we then can use our intuition to build our own foundations.

Ashbery’s poem “Soonest Mended” is introduced by three lines that convey a sense of mankind’s desperation, desperation similar to what Thoreau tells us to wake up from. Ashbery’s conscious decision not include a subject before the words “barely tolerated” implies he was referring to the masses. Therefore, he begins the poem with a powerful yet subtle statement: the majority of people in Ashbery’s time understood how affected their society was. While the masses claimed to grasp the artificiality of their society, they quietly tolerated it, “living on the margin.” Ashbery creates the image of society living dangerously not because his purpose is to criticize risk takers, but because we are “always having to be rescued”. The very idea of being rescued implies reliance on something other than oneself, and mankind’s dependency on the by-products of life are at the root of man’s misery. Innovation and society’s values are looked at with sincerity because of their reflective gilding. Ashbery says our dependence on these superfluities leads us to “the brink of destruction”, using such strong language to convey mankind’s hidden anguish, silenced by the distractions of our “technological society” and embroidered truths. The inventions of our society do little to make us sincerely happy; they merely fill our emptiness with flowery perfumes. Thoreau observes that our innovations “are but improved means to an unimproved end (p. 74).” Thoreau states what Ashbery describes by telling us that our new appliances haven’t changed what will give us genuine happiness. Only finding truth within ourselves can we be happy, for new microwaves merely make dinner go by a little faster, they don’t have an effect on the overall quality of the meal. Life must be improved internally, not externally.

Ashbery takes Thoreau’s idea of simplicity and composes four lines that not only explain Thoreau’s point, but also add a new idea to the transcendentalist philosophy. The meat that surrounds the bone of life isn’t always so scrumptious, for there is a side of brown sauce called “duties.” Men compromise their freedom for expendable goods. Ashbery reveals that alongside luxury lies our “daily quandary about food and the rent and bills to be paid.” The availability of ready-made food, already built houses, and automatic light all create a contract with men: I will let you have me as long as you devote your life to paying my manufacturers, extending my technology and adopting the values I am associated with. Subconsciously, men are dragged down by the fine print of the contract: You are my slave. Ashbery suggests we focus on “reducing all this to a small variant,” in order “to step free at last.” By men scraping the meat off the bone of their selves, they carry nothing to weigh them down; they are now “miniscule on the gigantic plateau.” Once all is reduced, one’s eyes are no longer blurred by the dust of excess, one can see the horizon circling around the plateau, one can appreciate each shade of orange.

Ashbery and Thoreau urge us to leave the cave we are hibernating in and take action against the desperation that is eating away the fruits that delicately hang on the tree of life. They identify the fine line between ecstasy and real happiness through detecting the vacuity of luxury and the long-term benefits of waking up. One must sacrifice a surge in dopamine for a chemically balanced mind in order to escape the one-way contract society manipulates people into signing. If their ideas were sent to the world in a letter, the post office would write “urgent” in big red letters on every envelope, for their ideas are not mere philosophical concepts that encourage “deeper thinking.” Both writers demand us to leave the movie theater that’s playing society’s illusions, and move to Hollywood so we can direct our own movies.

Tatiana Dubin
Age 16, Grade 10,
Hewitt School
Gold Key

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