The Romance of the Real
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately,” wrote Henry David Thoreau, and he’ll never live it down.
Every child in America is assigned Walden in high school. Few students (and fewer teachers) get around to reading it. Yet everyone with an internet connection knows that its author sometimes let his mother do his laundry or bake him pies. As one biographer said, no man has ever been so widely scorned for enjoying a meal with his family.
We love to hate Thoreau. But why? Is it because he failed to live deliberately—“authentically,” as we hipsters say—or because he succeeded? He did spend two years alone in the woods. He built his own cabin and whittled his own bed. He baked his own bread and grew his own beans. Sure, Bear Grylls might not be impressed. But maybe the rest of us should hear him out.
“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” Thoreau said. Every schoolboy who reads those words nods along vigorously. And he is right, isn’t he?
I kept thinking about the Sage of Walden as I watched Mark Zuckerberg’s guided tour of his new metaverse. Nothing screams “quiet desperation” like a bunch of nerds playing poker in a 3D chat room. It’s like something normal grown-ups would do… except you don’t have to put on pants, or leave the house, or interact with people in real life. When you get tired of your friends you can go into another “room” and look at flying koi fish. Plus you get to be a super-cool robot!!!
Yes, it’s pathetic. But is Mark Zuckerberg really so much weirder than we are? Put it this way. Growing up, I worked as a farmhand. I loved it—except for the summer of my freshman year. I’d pick beans for eight hours a day, grumbling the whole time. All I wanted to do was go home, sit in front of the AC, and check my FarmVille. And I didn’t detect the faintest whiff of irony.
We’re already living in a virtual reality. For years now, social media has been turning us into little Zuckerbots.
No: at the end of the day, we don’t hate Thoreau for his flaws. We hate him for ours. We don’t live deliberately. We lack authenticity. Everything in our lives is cheap, banal, and fake.
Our relationships are fake. Our presence on the internet is perfectly manicured, as are those of our “friends.” We only know each other by our masks. Often enough, we forget what our own faces look like beneath them.
If it’s possible, the “metaverse” is going to make it worse, though I guess that’s a matter of perspective. There’s nothing quite so depressing as seeing a pack of young men walking down the street, marching shoulder-to-shoulder, all looking down at their phones. If the “metaverse” persuades them to stay at home in their parents’ basements, at least they’re less likely to walk in front of my car.
Our sex is fake. Thanks to condoms, contraceptives, and abortion-on-demand, sex has been divorced from its reproductive function. There are still consequences, of course, but they’re not quite so visible. According to one survey, nearly half of all women under the age of 40 have experienced “unwanted slapping, choking, gagging, or spitting during consensual sex”—violent pornography teaches that women enjoy it when men beat them up during sex.
Even if there’s no element of abuse during the act itself, there’s still the potential emotional trauma. Women form emotional bonds with the men they have sex with. They don’t always want to, but they do. That’s why “ghosting” has become such a peril in the dating scene. Actually, women seem embarrassed to admit that a sexual partner can wound them simply by not texting them after a hookup.
Chastity has a certain hard-nosed realism that modern courtship (such as it is) totally lacks. The truth is, there’s no such thing as free love. Childbirth isn’t the only consequence of sex, and the others can’t be “managed” so easily.
Our commerce is also fake. Right now, virtually every sector of the economy is starving for employees. Tens of millions of would-be workers are staying home because they’ve realized they can live off of welfare and Covid-19 “stimulus packages.” In a normal, sane economy, having so many citizens simply refuse to work would cause mass starvation.
Not here—at least, not yet. Since the 1980s, America has been dumping its productive industries on the third world. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, goods-producing sectors comprise about 14 percent of the workforce. For reference, that’s the same as transportation, warehousing, and retail. We employ as many people to sell goods as to make them. That’s unreal. It shouldn’t be possible.
But it is! (At least for now.) Because most jobs in the United States are what David Graeber calls “bullshit jobs”. They’re jobs that no one really wants to do and we don’t actually need anyone to do them. They’re fake jobs. Think of all-night pizza delivery boys, or dog-walkers, or anyone in human resources. These careers are really a form of workfare. They’re not real, either. And if folks think the government will keep sending them checks so that Amazon can deliver their groceries… well, they’re probably right.
(By the way, China draws all of its power by creating the illusion that we can have a prosperous First World economy while only ten percent of adults actually work. We’re Hansel and Gretel; Amazon is the gingerbread house; Xi Jinping is the witch.)
Even our leisure is fake. In his modern classic Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam chronicled the social malaise caused by the decline of civic institutions, labor unions, and social organizations. Some of these institutions may seem silly, like the eponymous bowling leagues. But they formed the bedrock of our democracy. They created bonds of affection and trust between neighbors. They grounded us in a shared experience of the world.
And now? Now the Almighty Screen has destroyed those, too. From Netflix to Xbox, we relax by allowing ourselves to be absorbed into these unreal worlds. Unlike books or boardgames, they don’t require us to use our imagination. In fact, they bypass our conscious minds altogether. They create a state of “radical passivity,” as John Senior put it.
This radical passivity actually alters the way our brains work. As Lenore Skenazy points out in her book Free-Range Kids, someone who binges on crime dramas is going to severely overestimate the likelihood of being murdered. It’s going to seem like a much bigger threat than it really is.
If Law & Order can convince you that everyone you meet in Central Park is a rapist, there’s really no telling how much digital media shapes the way we perceive reality. For starters, we’ve seen the emergence of new psychological disorders like rapid onset gender dysphoria. Also, girls are giving themselves Tourette’s by watching videos on TikTok.
Even when we manage to tear our gaze away from the screen for a while, it haunts us. Hiking in New Hampshire this autumn, I was amazed by how many cars there were from Massachusetts and New York. Most of the “hikers” were women in their late 20s and a full face of makeup, boyfriends in tow. When we reached the bluff, my wife and I stood back and watched as they spent ten or 20 minutes posing for endless photos. As Thoreau said, “From the desperate city you go into the desperate country…”
And, of course, our news is fake. All news is fake news. I don’t have to explain that one, do I?
We have no idea just how much control Big Tech has over our lives. We desire what they tell us to desire. We believe what they tell us to believe. We buy what they tell us to buy. We’ve sold ourselves into virtual slavery. And if anyone (like Thoreau) urges us to seize our freedom, we call him a hipster and laugh him off.
But as a great presidential Thoreauvian once said,
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena… who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
If Thoreau failed, he failed while daring greatly. And it’s the daring that we hate him for. Deep down, there’s a part of us—all of us—that longs to be free, as Thoreau longed to be free. We want to live deliberately. We crave authenticity. As we should! But, like Theodore said, that means we have to do something.
Start by falling in love with the world. Let yourself be swept away by the romance of reality.
Living authentically doesn’t mean growing a big, bushy beard. It could mean growing a little tomato. Plant yourself in the soil, if it’s only a little pot on the windowsill.
Spend at least an hour outside every day. Look at things. Listen to things. Smell things. If you can’t go outside, clean the bathroom or do the dishes without listening to music or podcasts. Be alone with your thoughts.
Get rid of your smartphone and get a flip-phone. This is the best decision you’ll ever make in your entire life. You’ll look back in ten years and wish you’d done it ten years sooner.
Download one of the many apps and extensions that let you limit your time on the computer. I use Cold Turkey and couldn’t recommend it more highly.
Read at least one book every fortnight. It’s easier than it sounds. As a wise man once said, the secret to reading more is simple: spend more time reading. Yet another reason to cut back on your screen time.
Get together with people in real life. Set rules for yourselves: no phones for an hour, two hours, however long you’re together. Make eye contact. Smile. Laugh together. The first ten minutes will be painful, but power through it. If you’ve been looking and hearing and thinking and reading, it will be much easier.
If neither of you have anything to say, be at ease in the silence. The most unnatural thing about the modern world is the total lack of quiet. We fill the world with meaningless sounds to avoid being alone with ourselves. St. Augustine spoke of those who “live for their bodies and their blather.” I think he meant us.
Do real work, even if it’s menial. Rake your leaves instead of using a leaf-blower. Cut up a tree with an axe instead of a chainsaw. When your friend asks for help moving furniture, go for it.
Get a hobby. Learn an instrument. Collect stamps. Write letters. Whittle. Box. Whatever floats your boat. Actually, boating is a good one, too.
Shop at local stores, farmers markets, etc. If you can’t find it within a 20-mile radius, you probably don’t need it. (Of course, books don’t count.)
If you’re a boy, find a nice girl. If you’re a girl, find a nice boy. Don’t mess around until you’re married, but don’t waste time with a long courtship, either. Have lots of kids. Take them camping and hiking and hunting and fishing. Life is an adventure. Share it with your family.
Go for walks. As Thoreau said, “We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return,—prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only as relics to our desolate kingdoms.” Anyone who’s tempted to snigger has never been on a real walk.
It’ll be hard. You’re addicted to the illusions, and addictions are always hard to break. Still, I think you’ll agree, it’s worth being disillusioned.
Michael Warren Davis is author of The Reactionary Mind. Subscribe to his newsletter, “Nor’easter”.