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J Cage: Music is permanent; only listening is intermittent

Thursday, January 13, 2011


I now first began to inhabit my house, I may say, when I began to use it for warmth as well as shelter.

—HD Thoreau

The house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace.

—G Bachelard

He who walks with his house on his head is heaven.

—C Olson

For Kirsten and Emilie

Settling into our new house up on the ridge in Todd, NC this week, unpacking boxes, walking the dog over to see deer tracks in the Daniel Boone cemetery, carrying in firewood, learning new students’ names, and driving down slippery mountain roads in the snow, I am thinking about HD Thoreau’s house warming at Walden. The buzz of living close to the bone in his cabin allows Thoreau to dream of a house “larger and more populous” than most of the houses he sees in Concord. Dedicated to eternity, Thoreau’s dream house stands in “a golden age, of enduring materials.” It is expansive and open to others; it allows more of the world into it, and it goes to the world.

Thoreau’s initial descriptions also stress practicality and simplicity in a way that calls to the writing of Walden. His house is “without gingerbread work,” it “consists of only one room, a vast, rude, substantial, primitive hall, without ceiling plastering, with bare rafters and purlins supporting a sort of lower heaven over one’s head, —useful to keep off rain and snow; where the king and queen post stand out to receive your homage, when you have done reverence to the prostrate Saturn of an older dynasty on stepping over the sill; a cavernous house, wherein you must reach up a torch upon a pole to see the roof.” In contact with the elements, this house honors the old gods by restoring its inhabitants to the activity of nature. Even the seeming ambiguity of Thoreau’s use of the word some is a clarity as it blurs the distinction between the human-world and the world at large: “Some may live in the fire-place, some in the recess of a window, and some on settles, some at one end of the hall, some at another, and some aloft on rafters with the spiders, if they choose.”

Honoring the old gods, Thoreau commits himself to ancient hospitality traditions. One of his primary desires is that his house is capable of providing rest to “the weary traveler” during storms. It shelters the way poems shelter; it provides a brief respite to travel just as Walden provides rest because it leaves a fossil of Thoreau’s time at Walden Pond, marking the experience of a life that continues. (Remember that Thoreau’s introduction to Walden in “Economy” states in explicit terms that he is not there anymore: “I lived there two years and two months. At present I am a sojourner in civilized life again.”) The word shelter also doubles, becoming an exposure as the house shelters by revealing the frayed edge where domesticity gives way to the experience of wilderness. Asserting that the only way into the house is to “[open] the outside door,” Thoreau identifies his home with an ecstatic realization of outside space. Doing so, he recognizes wildness in the doorway that ends “the ceremony” of routine by awakening inhabitants from the dull wood into an expansive precision where “everything hangs upon its peg” according to its own nature.

In heaven, the work is eternity (which is no work). The bifurcation between now and then melts into a measureless present where Thoreau dedicates life to the cultivation of attention. His house answers the present without giving thought to what exists outside the moment (after). It “[contains] all the essentials of a house, and nothing for house-keeping.” (It is a process like “Old Marlborough Road,” not a product: “Nobody repairs it,/ For nobody wears it;/ It is a living way.”)

As shelter promises rest and makes way for exposure, good housekeeping gives itself away. Walden, Thoreau’s dream house, doesn’t hide anything. (“You can see all the treasures of the house at one view.”) All of the inhabitants are presented to guests upon arrival. Everything in the field is luminous, including traces of the circumstances in which Walden was composed, and Thoreau counts himself one among the other objects. His home is generous as a poem can be: “[its] inside is as open and manifest as a bird’s nest, and you cannot go in at the front door and out at the back without seeing some of its inhabitants; where to be a guest is to be presented with the freedom of the house, and not to be carefully excluded from seven eighths of it, shut up in a particular cell, and told to make yourself at home there, —in solitary confinement.” Opening his door to guests and readers alike, Thoreau welcomes them into the most vital parts of the house. He relinquishes privilege to divorce authorship from authority, warning that the dangerous implications of agency “poison” the possibility of true companionship: “Nowadays the host does not admit you to his hearth, but has got the mason to build one for yourself somewhere in his alley, and hospitality is the art of keeping you at the greatest distance. There is as much secrecy about the cooking as if he had a design to poison you.” Thoreau knows that the buoyancy and warmth of guests charges the creative process of homemaking (“worlding”) anew. He also knows that readers, in turn, write the afterlife of Walden.

When Thoreau closes his discussion of his dream house in “House-warming,” he puns, linking parlor to parlaver in order to critique empty or profane talk. He dismisses metaphors, techniques, and “artistry” that unnecessarily complicate our houses (“slides and dumb-waiters”) by keeping guests and readers at a distance from the reality of the places where we eat and work: “It would seem as if the very language of our parlors would lose all its nerve and degenerate into parlaver wholly, our lives pass at such remoteness from its symbols, and its metaphors and tropes are necessarily so far fetched, through slides and dumb-waiters, as it were; in other words, the parlor is so far from the kitchen and workshop. The dinner even is only the parable of a dinner, commonly.” Focusing on craft, etc., we orient ourselves to representations rather than activity. We get the “parable of dinner,” and I want the real thing. I’m hungry.

What’s for lunch? Atlas Sound while wind carves drifts down the ridge from our house where snow glitters in the sun like tinsel. Finches fall down from branches like leaves, and a little woodpecker hammers a new tree at the window.

I want that for a sandwich.