Thursday, March 18, 2010

The tortoise shell

In my readings as I continue to prepare Ives' Concord sonata, I am inspired by these remarkable comments by Thoreau, from a letter to H.G.O. Blake in 1850. 160 years ago, stunningly sharp observations on the challenge of living the life of a contemplative artist in a distracted, event-driven society. Sound familiar?
I find that actual events, notwithstanding the singular prominence which we allow them, are far less real than the creations of my imagination. They are truly visionary and insignificant-all that we call life and death-and affect me me less than my dreams. This petty stream which from time to time swells and carries away the mills and bridges of our habitual life, and that mightier stream of ocean on which we securely float-what makes the difference between them? I have in my pocket a button which I ripped off the coat of the Marquis of Ossoli, on the seashore, the other day. Held up, it intercepts the light-an actual button-and yet all the life it is connected with is less substantial to me, and interests me less, than my faintest dream. Our thoughts are the epochs of our lives: all else is but as a journal of the winds that blew while we were here.
And then a sort of artist's ten commandments:
I say to myself, Do a little more of that work which you have confessed to be good. You are neither satisfied nor dissatisfied with yourself, without reason. Have you not a thinking faculty of inestimable value? If there is an experiment which you would like to try, try it. Do not entertain doubts if they are not agreeable to you. Remember that you need not eat unless you are hungry. Do not read the newspapers. Improve every opportunity to be melancholy. As for health, consider yourself well. Do not engage to find things as you think they are. Do what nobody else can do for you. Omit to do anything else. It is not easy to make our lives respectable by any course of activity. We must repeatedly withdraw into our shells of thought, like a tortoise, somewhat helplessly; yet there is more than philosophy in that.
After this brilliant manifesto, a return to his characteristic modesty:
Do not waste any reverence on my attitude. I merely manage to sit up where I have dropped.

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