A few days ago I picked up Thoreau’s Walden. Mostly because it was on our shelf and I had yet to read it, but partially because he’s kinda living my dream (you know, living in a cabin in the woods with lots of beans). Except he doesn’t have a dog, or a snuggly man-creature–which are both prerequisites to my dream.
The guy has some really good things to say about the importance of literature, what it is to find solace in nature, and socially how we relate to each other, among other things. But (you knew it was coming, didn’t you?) I find him to be a hugely pretentious jerk. For instance, he describes one of his only friends’ intellect as “slumbering as an infant” (146). When you have only one friend, it’s generally not wise to write in your journal about how they’re nice but really dumb. Similar attitudes about most of humanity also explain why he went off to live in the woods. He was the queen and the townsfolk were the sorry people.
But that isn’t what I wanted to write about, because jerk or not, I’m enjoying his book. Instead, I wanted to talk about my favorite line of the whole entire book. On page 135, Thoreau writes: “Society is commonly too cheap. We meet at very short intervals, not having had time to acquire any new value for each other. We meet at meals three times a day, and give each other a new taste of that old musty cheese that we are.”
Yep, you read right. He refers to people, including himself, as “old musty cheese.” That has got to be the best thing I have ever read. So what’s he trying to say in that line? My take on it is that people in general see too much of each other, so that when they come back together they have nothing new or important to share. Which, you know, equates to being a piece of musty old cheese instead of say, a sharp new cheddar.
Hilarious language aside, it did make me think. Do we lose something when we spend too much time with a person? In my experience, that hasn’t been the case. I’ve spent hour upon hour with my closest friends, and while sometimes we get cranky with each other when we haven’t had a break, for the most part the things we come up with to share with each other only flourish. It allows us to get beyond the shallow “how are you and what’s going on,” chatter of daily life, and to talk about all the passion and emotion that goes on beneath the words. With some of my friends, it means we develop our own slang, shed light on subjects that’ve never before seen daylight in our friendship, and make each other giggle ridiculous amounts.
Thinking about it that way made me feel kind of sorry for Thoreau. I mean, from everything he wrote in his book it sounds like there weren’t many people that he really connected to. Like maybe the sun and the stars and the trees were enough company, but only because he never had the kind of company that really clicked for him.
That isn’t to say I think solitude is a bad thing. Being alone can be really wonderful. It serves as time to reflect, to notice smaller and smaller details about the world around us. When I’m alone (particularly long term), I eat healthier, exercise more, and am more organized. I’m a lot closer to the sharp cheddar that I want to be, and I think that’s because I don’t have the huge distraction of this other human in my life to focus on. But huge distraction or not, it’s a huge wonderful distraction, and even if I enjoy being alone sometimes (or even most of the time), I can’t imagine feeling like I didn’t have people in the world that were worth distracting myself with.
Thoreau also talks about finding the person whose company is as good as solitude, and how he has yet to find someone like that. My first reaction was to turn to my own life, and think about how Jordan’s company was as good as being alone for me, and how I was lucky to have him. On second examination I’m not so sure (I mean the being alone while together thing, not the lucky to have him thing–I feel incredibly lucky).
Jordan and I can sit in silence for hours without talking and feel perfectly comfortable. Sometimes I forget that he’s a person outside of myself, and that if I want to communicate I have to actually tell him what I’m thinking.
But I don’t think that being around him is the same as being alone. As much as it can feel like we’re alone when we’re really together, there are still two distinct people in our relationship. Our personalities delight and frustrate each other, and sometimes they contradict each other. There are times when he wants to watch TV and I want to go for a walk, and we end up in some compromise in between that neither of us is really happy with. Or there are times we go for a walk and wind up so engrossed talking to each other that I don’t register a single leaf on a tree, or print in the ground. Sometimes that pull of personalities is a good thing. We entertain and balance each other. But it isn’t the same as being alone.
When you’re alone, really alone, you’re forced to externalize more. While sometimes you get immersed in your own thoughts, at other points those thoughts wear thin (or at least mine do), and you’re forced to notice things, like how balmy the breeze is or how the stars are incredibly brilliant.
I suppose my main question here is: is it possible to find another person to be with where it’s truly like being alone? And what are the implications of being with a person like that? Is there any merit to Thoreau’s idea that time spent apart gives you more and deeper thoughts to share with people? And most importantly, are old musty cheeses always a bad thing? Because my grandparents really love that stinky old brie, and they seem pretty happy spending all their time together too.