The Wisdom of Simple Lives

In “Visitors,” Henry David Thoreau very much mixes praise and critique of the nebulous concept of ‘society.’ Throughout Walden, thorough celebrates his own efforts to live simply and deliberately on Walden Pond, though in “Visitors” he shows even more admiration for the wisdom of those who make such simple deliberateness their being. Thoreau explores the wisdom of those who live simply, those who are often considered to be of little value to society. He shows how these simple lives are often more deliberate, more wise, and perhaps more content than the superfluous trappings of high society. These individuals, who are of a lower social class, often have their superior wisdom contrasted positively with the lack of wisdom of society. In doing so, Thoreau offers scathing critique of the excess without thought of upper social classes, as well as the higher institutions that said classes celebrate and, most of all, the determiners of “high” and “low” class in the first place.

Still, even with Thoreau’s criticism of society, it is not as if he can or wants to reject society completely. Indeed, despite living isolated in the woods, Thoreau will often have conversations in nature and host many “Visitors.” The topic sentence of paragraph two of “Visitors” is one of the strongest in Walden, and demonstrates this well: “I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.” In some ways these three chairs function as a hierarchical representation of where Thoreau sees wisdom coming from during his time on Walden Pond. First and foremost, one becomes wise by being alone with one’s thoughts and becoming to understand them. Second, Thoreau interacts with his friends, such as his fellow isolate Alex Therien, and Thoreau receives knowledge to better ponder and understand on his own. Then, finally, Thoreau has his chair for society, a distinct recognition that, while Thoreau may condemn society, he still sees it as having value and still wishes to be a part of society, even when choosing a life far from town on Walden Pond.

I do not know how much it would be accurate to describe a “process” for the encoding of part of “Visitors” into TEI, nor for the creation of our timeline. Group six theoretically had five members, but in actuality had three, all joining at different times. Emma was the first to be active in our Slack, and she led the choosing of the topic and ultimately ended up creating the timeline on her own. I was next, present early on when discussing topics to show that I existed, but I ultimately began active participation when I started encoding the TEI. Anthony joined relatively late on, and assisted with the TEI, doing the smaller upper section that I had not yet touched. I ultimately completed the final touches and debugging on the TEI, as well as being the one responsible for the crafting of our final blog post, as should be obvious. It is written on my account, after all.

The biggest obstacle, and one I would hesitate to say we ever overcame, was the issue of coordination. As stated above, our five-person group had two members who never made themselves known, with the other three all becoming active on the project at different times. Calling the project collaborative in this setting, especially considering our highly limited and disjointed communications on Slack amid the pandemic, would be generous. To a large extent, the three of us did three separate projects with little to no interaction with the others. This ultimately led to a functional result, although I cannot help but wonder what our result would have been like had we skillfully collaborated and communicated. Truly, however, I, at least, am content with what we have created. Under the circumstances of the coronavirus pandemic, when none of us are well mentally even when we are not ill physically, pushing through and completing this project is an achievement in and of itself. We did ultimately establish passable communication via Slack during the last few days of working on the project, as it was a focus for all of us due to the looming due date, and we did ultimately create a cohesive product. Well I would not say we ever truly overcame our difficulties, we did improve and we did ultimately succeed in completing this project.

Weaving Kaleidoscopes

I cannot claim that taking English 340, or “Digital Humanities,” had some profound impact on my life. That would be nonsense, and a very poor attempt at obsequiousness. That is the dream, yes, of teaching some course that truly changes the course of a student’s life? Or, at the very least, one hopes to touch them in some way, to change their worldview, to reach the very essence of their being. At least, that is a musing from a future teacher.

I could give tautologies about how every action causes change in us all, and they would certainly be true. Their level of usefulness is more dubious, but they would be accurate. It is true to say that we are the product of our every moment of being, and the experiences that lie therein. Certainly, humans do not change simply with a snap, with a large, notable action. Rather, it is all the tiny, fractured pieces that one must piece together to attempt to understand a human being, be that another or oneself. Unfortunately, humans are more like kaleidoscopes, beautiful in their individual parts and incomprehensible when trying to force their pieces together.

Perhaps that is what learning is, hm? Attempting to piece together shards of shattered glass. Sometimes one gets cut, and certainly the pieces are not all there, but finding how they fit together, that journey, is what one can hope to strive for in life.

Of course, I have a Camusian bent, and I recognise full well the impossibility of attempting to complete a puzzle with only a fraction of the pieces. It is that desire to put together the few clumps of interconnected pieces into a larger tapestry that creates the absurd. But Camus’ solution is to accept the absurd and carry on, and so we shall and so we must.

What is literature, then? It is the art of weaving, I would say. There is not enough thread to make a bolt of cloth, so first the writer must spin their own. Having spun the thread of their mind, they may weave the cloth. But weaving is not always a simple task. The difficulty, as it often is, is the quality of the loom. Is it a loom millennia old, or is it one powered and industrial? Or, rather, is the device modern? To say another way, must one tread new paths, or does one simply follow well-worn trails?

Back to the spinning. Thread comes not from ether, but is instead corporeal. So, how is more spun? Well, to spin thread, one needs material, be that silk or cotton or wool. Wool is the author’s trade, well grown by their minds’ sheep, so long as one is wise enough to shear. Wool can come from brilliant fantasies or from exotic travels or from extraordinary experiences. Though, sometimes, one best enjoys the wool obtained from the loons on the lake or the beans in the ground.

For some, that sheared wool becomes a nest for the creatures all around. This can fill one with the gossips and transience and impactful knowledge of society. Or, sometimes, the wool is best nested in by the woodchucks and the sparrows and the drumming of the rain. Being alone with thoughts leaves much time for shearing. And, certainly, the more one can shear, the more one can spin and the more nests can be made.

So, what did I learn in this class, hm? I think the coronavirus and Walden both granted me appreciation of the loons on the lake, the sparrows in the tree, the rain from above, and the peace that can bring.

Mak Accssibility and as a Txt Bttr?

            Th invntion of th computr and th intrnt wr transformational for t Oxford nglish Dictionary. Indd, th OD bcam accssabl to th ntir world via th intrnt, as Jams Glick nots: “[there now existed] instantaneous connection to a worldwide network of proxy amateur lexicographers and access to a vast, interlocking set of databases growing asymptotically towards the ideal of All Previous Text” (Gleick 65). This massiv xpansion of accss to all of thos who had intrnt across th glob is rmarkabl, and indd is a major part of th rason to push forward th dvlopmnt of th digital humanitis. This prolifration of accss to lxicographical information throughout th world, much lik what is currntly occurring in spurts with litratur, allows a much largr audinc not just to apprciat ths txts but to study thm. Similarly, such a databas for th OD or a work of litratur allows for analysis in mannrs that would not hav bn fficint bfor, such as statistical analysis of languag on a larg scal.

            This is not without problms, howvr. It is th natur of litratur that on is unabl to fully tak account of vry individual word in a work. Just lik how Jams Glick uss th xampl of th word “mackerel” for th OD, th automatd statistical analysis that is mad much asir, mor accssabl, and mor fficint by th bginnings of litrary txts prolifrating onlin, on also has to b wary of looking to hard at ach individual word, missing th forst for th trs, if on will. Just as thirty diffrnt spllings of “mackerel” ar usd in an impossibl qust for compltnss, it can also b possibl to look too far into manings or pattrns that ar not rally thr. On could crtainly mak a litrary intrprtation basd on how many tims on word is usd in a txt or anothr is not, but not all such things ar so dlibrat. As a studnt of litratur, on must by natur assum that vry word is as dlibrat, or othrwis analysis can fall apart. But not vry charactr in vry grat work of litratur is anothr strok of gnius. Somtims word choic is simply coincidntal, and somtims looking for analysis lads to a blif in manings that ar not rally thr. Th digitization of th humanitis allows for a much fficnt dgr of diffrnt typs of analysis, but it can also lad to thirty diffrnt spllings of “mackerel” imbud with a maning that thy hav nvr rally had.

            Some attempts at cleverness in writing are clear, such as my deliberate avoidance of the letter “e” (sans in quotes) in the words above. But, as my eleventh grade AP English teacher put it, “sometimes the curtains are just blue.” There does not need to be meaning in everything. But the more we are able to use technology to search for meanings, especially with the decrease in labor that is made possible by said technologies, it is important we also are careful not to create patterns and meanings that were never there. And, at the same time, one must remember that a database or a digitized version of a text is only so accessible as the original text was. That is, a search function may find words and their frequency well, so long as they are not missing their e’s. But that is devoid of context, and while being able to search a dictionary for information is nice, and literature can to some extent be the same way. But it is not each individual word that makes a work of literature, just as a definition out of context defines nothing. Accessibility and different functionalities for searching and automated data analysis for a text could be incredibly useful, as can the different format. But one must not forget that books were written to be books, not text on a screen.