Descartes, Thoreau, and The Brass Tacks 

Louis Gallo

Creative Non-Fiction

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms….

–Thoreau, Walden

Cogito ergo sum.

–Descartes, Discourse on Method

As I entertained these two aforementioned thoughts this morning, which have stuck with me since my undergraduate days and which I had always found unrelatable, it occurred to me that Thoreau and Descartes had after all pursued the same, identical target—getting down to the brass tacks. That cliché does not quite encapsulate the urge to excise excrescences in order to mine essences, but it will do. Some would call it reductionism—in a pejorative sense—while others would welcome the exploration of ultimates. Quantum physicists have always pursued such ultimates by first identifying atoms, then the constituents of atoms such as electrons and protons—and ultimately, so far, down to the varied quarks. This is reductionism par excellence, but no one would dismiss it as negativity.

Turns out that Thoreau engaged in the same enterprise—where Descartes acted cognitively, as a thought experiment, Thoreau’s was a physical endeavor. Descartes meditated, Thoreau acted. Which is not to say that Thoreau’s task lacked rationality or mentality. He used the word “deliberately,” and to deliberate means to think. But Thoreau translated his thought into praxis—he sought the essentials to survival, the sine qua non’s. They turned out to be vital heat, food, shelter and a few others I’ve forgotten. The case of Descartes is more problematic. He strove to reduce thought itself to its bare essential and pronounced cogito ergo sum, the ultimate thought. Why problematic? Because it suggests that only thinking, sentient creatures actually exist. That eliminates the entire inorganic world. Because a rock cannot think, it does not exist? 

We can turn to the physicists to respond to this dilemma. The more mystical physicists might claim that everything possesses some degree of consciousness—and this easily slides into religion, i.e., pantheism or pan-spiritualism. A Fred Allen Wolfe might even assert that the entire universe is conscious, and therefore the cogito become cogitamus. We think therefore we are. But such mysticism remains anathema to more mainstream physicists. The latter might cite one explanation of the very conservative branch of quantum physics, the Copenhagen school, especially the branch that embraces Erwin Schrodinger’s notion of the “collapse of the wave function”—that now infamous thought experiment involving the cat that is both dead and alive at once, which is explained wonderfully for average readers in The Cosmic Code by the late Hans Pagels.

According to Schrodinger (and most physicists) all reality exists in a state of potential in the form of waves not material entities. Things materialize only when some sentient observer perceives them—whereupon their wave functions collapse and they become what we would call real. (Shades of Heisenberg here as well.) This may remind you of the now fully accepted double-slit experiment during which a photon of light is shot toward a screen. The photon is originally in wave form but when it splatters against the screen (the second-degree observer, though the real observer is the conductor of the experiment), it becomes matter. Which is why light can take the form of a wave OR a physical particle. This is in essence the collapse of the wave function. The idea gets extended in cosmic physics to the origins of the Big Bang. Previous to the Bang “reality” consisted of potential wave functions only. One of these potential particles, in what is called “a fluctuation in the void” zooms out of potential and becomes the singularity, i.e., the primal point exploding into what we know as the universe. But this is a matter I cannot quite grasp. Why did a virtual particle lose its wave function; who observed it? Must we resort to God? Since no divine personage appears in either quantum or relativity equations, most physicists opt for the randomness explanation—e.g., the random quantum leaps of electrons. God or Randomness, which the more preposterous? Take your pick.

The Cartesian methodology has been called “bracketing,” that is, bracketing out any superfluities that lead to the desideratum, the essence. Yet such reductionism is a tricky business. Suppose, hypothetically, you could reduce all life to the configuration of quarks held in place (bound) by some sort of gluon-like force. Quarks are not even alive? So how do they generate life? Well, there is something called emergent phenomena specifying that a process or entity can exceed the sum of its constituent parts—as does life, in this case. (The same argument can be made for reducing life to some variation in DNA, DNA not being alive either.) We have already considered such problems in the cogito of Descartes, so how do they apply to Thoreau?

The bare necessities of life, Thoreau claimed, were food, shelter clothing and fuel. The need for food is obvious; shelter and clothing to preserve the “vital heat”; fuel to supply energy in whatever form needed (so could be regarded as a sub-category of food). Critic Leon Edel once wrote an essay detested by rabid, non-compromising Thoreauvians. Why? Because Edel pointed out that the cabin at Walden Pond was often packed with standing-room only visitors (so much for solitude); Thoreau’s mother and sister regularly brought his food in picnic baskets (so much for the bean field); the cabin itself was constructed of leftover timber from a previous cabin (so much for lumberjacking); the land on which the cabin stood was owned by Emerson (so much for economy and self-reliance); the cabin contained a mirror (why would a rugged individualist require a mirror?) It would seem, if Edel was right (and no doubt he was, being a careful scholar) that Thoreau himself could not live up to is own ideals as many “Christians” cannot live up to the ideals of Christ—nor could Christ himself, forced to cry out at the end, “Father, why hast Thou forsaken me? (Daddy, save me).

Should these concessions bother us? I say, resoundingly, NO. Ideals are transcendental, ethereal goals or hopes; an ideal is no less valuable if their admirers cannot achieve them all the time or hardly ever. They resemble Platonic Forms in that all earthly entities are pale imitations of these transcendent models. A more serious question about Thoreau’s bare necessities would involve not necessarily “bare” but other kinds of necessities—required not for mere survival, but for a decent, happier, and more carefree survival. What could such needs be? Medicine, books, music, friendship, communication, subsidy (so that quiet desperation due to debt could evaporate), psychological therapies . . .or what have you? Walden, for example, aside from its proto-self-help book aims, is a work of often beauteous poetry, a respite for the weary, assailed mind. Could it too be regarded as a bare necessity—or does it go beyond “bare” and thrive as a super-necessity for la dolce vita?

Four volumes of Louis Gallo’s poetry, Archaeology, Scherzo Furiant, Crash, and Clearing the Attic, are now available. Why is there Something Rather than Nothing? and Leeway & Advent will be published soon. He was invited for an interview and reading of his work by National Public Radio’s program “With Good Reason,” broadcast across the country, 2021. His work appears in Best Short Fiction 2020. A novella, “The Art Deco Lung,” will soon be published in Storylandia. National Public Radio aired a reading and discussion of his poetry in its “With Good Reason” series (December 2020). His work has appeared or will shortly appear in Wide Awake in the Pelican State (LSU anthology), Southern Literary Review, Fiction Fix, Glimmer Train, Hollins Critic, Rattle, Southern Quarterly, Litro, New Orleans Review, Xavier Review, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Missouri Review, Mississippi Review, Texas Review, Baltimore Review, Pennsylvania Literary Journal, The Ledge, storySouth,  Houston Literary Review, Tampa Review, Raving Dove, The Journal (Ohio), Greensboro Review, and many others. Chapbooks include The Truth Changes, The Abomination of Fascination, Status Updates, and The Ten Most Important Questions. He is the founding editor of the now-defunct journals, The Barataria Review and Books: A New Orleans Review. His work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize several times. He is the recipient of an NEA grant for fiction. He teaches at Radford University in Radford, Virginia.

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