Against Everything: Thoreau Trailer Park
Against Everything: On Dishonest Times is a brilliant collection of essays from Mark Greif, one of the most exciting writers of his generation.
In this invigorating collection, Greif challenges us to rethink the ordinary world and take life seriously – in short, to stay honest in dishonest times. In a series of coruscating set pieces he asks why we put ourselves through the pains of exercise, what our concerns about diet or sex does for our fundamental worth, what political identity the hipster might possess, and what happens to us when we listen to Radiohead or hip-hop. This engaging extract is part of our Cultural and Literary Theory student reading, and is 50% of during the month of September – click here for more information.
This excerpt is taken from his concluding essay "Thoreau Trailer Park - The Meaning of Life, Part IV'", in which Greif reflects on Thoreau, public parks, and the Occupy Movement.
It is hard to remember what Thoreau said because it is all so disturbing. It is easier on us to think of a thin man who erected a cabin with his own hands on the shores of a lovely pond. Thoreau deliberately didn’t build his cabin from scratch. He hacked a free timber frame from someone else’s trees, got friends to help him raise it, and recycled the rest from a laborer’s bivouac, buying cheap, for boards and roof, “the shanty of James Collins, an Irishman who worked on the Fitchburg Railroad.” This was philosophical, with all its shortcuts and offenses. Thoreau’s fire burned to irradiate a fundamental mutation into “economy.” Economy for him followed from his theorem: “The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.” Knowing “life” in two senses—holding a yardstick to it, putting it on the scales, to measure it and value it, while at the same time experiencing it, submitting to its manifestations—is the chief philosophical, and daily, task. The challenge reminds me of Schiller’s metaphor of social reform, in Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man, as repairing a clock without stopping it or failing to let it tell the time.
In Thoreau’s Concord, farming seemed the most estimable pursuit. Economic concentration, as at the big farms in his neighborhood, was revealed to him, once he had begun his fateful measurements of life, as an enslavement from which only death would free its beneficiaries: “When the farmer has got his house, he may not be the richer but the poorer for it, and it be the house that has got him.” Instead of the farmer gathering his necessities in the least expensive and destructive way, he abstracts magnitudes he doesn’t need. “To get his shoestrings he speculates in herds of cattle.” It might be better, Thoreau suggested, that we sleep even in coffin-sized toolboxes, of the kind he saw among the railroad tracks; we could dwell in them at less expense to our lives, anyway, than that exacted by the big coffins, called houses and properties, on which we pay a thirty-year mortgage. “Many a man is harassed to death to pay the rent of “a larger and more luxurious box who would not have frozen to death in such a box as this.”
All of his words can be hard to bear, but no American is spared. “I began to occupy my house on the 4th of July,” Thoreau boasts, and he means to rival the pretenders to the Fourth of July—those founding Americans of 1776, who claimed they fought for independence, freeing the new nation, when really they left it in ignorant bondage. Thoreau makes war on jobs; debts; houses; inheritances; governments; states. Only his economy can give the country a new chance in its bankruptcy. Thoreau passionately adores the pond and the woods, to be sure, and wildness, and nature, but not because they are adornment, or refreshment, or comfort to human lives. They are, for human life, brute lessons. Beautiful nature is beautiful for men and women because it strips our life to essentials, reflects us, dismisses us, and smashes our idols and objets d’art. “Before we can adorn our houses with beautiful objects the walls must be stripped, and our lives must be stripped, and beautiful housekeeping and beautiful living be laid for a foundation; now, a taste for the beautiful is most cultivated out of doors, where there is no house and no housekeeper.
The philosopher occupied a cabin, because he wished to live outside all houses. He left Walden, too—apparently Heaven—once he had gotten what his soul needed at that time. “Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.”
Occupy Wall Street occupied a park in the financial center of the United States, not because it wanted to sleep out of doors, but because its participants wanted to live in a democracy. Was that connection clear, to all who saw it on TV, to everyone who held an opinion of it? Eight weeks it lasted—eight weeks!—and then it was shoved out with sticks and fists by police, its experiment uncompleted. I was there on the Sunday morning it started, and blocked from the park by police on the weeknight it ended. I had known parks, and tents, and little camps—seriousness and play; the American landscape is littered with them. So what was Zuccotti Park, which the inhabitants insisted on calling by an alternate name (which may have been the old, original name), Liberty Square? Was it a Walden, a project in philosophy? Was it another trailer park, cleared by the state, a disreputable idyll of those who lacked greater means?—despised for that reason, as will be all havens of those too weak to impose their wills upon their betters?
Walden Pond, for all its beauties, is a pond only, not a lake or a seashore—a puddle in the grander scheme of things. Thoreau knew that well. Liberty Square, a tiny rectangle of unlovable paving, hardly ever deserved the name of park; one knew how unwanted it was, how undesirable and unknown. What made it seem a park was just the legal guarantee that it must stay open for the public twenty-four hours a day, though that contract, too, was intermittently abrogated by its “owners.” (The park had been promised as a permanent public space, in a deal in the 1960s, in exchange for allowing its owners to build new office space in violation of existing laws. Thus this leftover plot could be “public,” yet not owned by the public or managed by the state. This mutual irresponsibility proved essential to Occupy, as the mayor and realtors dithered over who should suffer the bad press of destroying it.) What sort of park Zuccotti was becoming, though, depended on the angle from which you looked at it. To me, in my idealism or naiveté, it seemed a renewal of the basic reference of America, the visible presence of the People, the living unruliness at the core of dead memorials. Six days before the first Occupy gathering, September 17, 2011, officials had opened, a few blocks away, a foolish, meaningless September 11 memorial, on the tenth anniversary, while we could see them continue to build a giant tower of private corporate office space above the hole, the real offering, amidst their crocodile tears, to the mass murder of American citizens. The free speech emerging in Zuccotti Park was the living memorial in the building’s shadow.
The occupation’s purpose was to address the economy. No one could deny that private Wall Street banks had, in 2008, nearing collapse, made themselves whole with billions from the taxpayers’ treasury, and put great sums from the rescue into their own pockets. They took taxpayers’ money and foreclosed on taxpayers’ homes. They unhoused the middle class while the executives renovated their third and fourth and fifth vacation houses. But principally banks, brought back from the brink of death, cast their weight, and all the power the democracy restored to them, against democracy: spending the citizens’ money in election funding and lobbying, to ensuring that good old laws, born in the Great Depression, retired in the 1990s, which had prevented such profitable (and self-destructive) speculation, could not be restored. Banks spent the citizens’ money to guarantee they were heard before any citizen. So the Wall Street occupation was meant as a reminder that the country could still demand its democracy, and put banks under the rule of law, and take something from them in recompense for our foolish generosity. Many cynics who pretended sympathy said: “You should be protesting in Washington, not on Wall Street.” But if arsonists burn down houses (and collect the insurance), and the fire department won’t rouse itself (or is bribed not to), you should go and stand where the fires originate, and the rags are being soaked and lit—until your neighbors, the whole city, will turn and look.
Still, I underestimated the degree to which Liberty Square had the character of a trailer park, too, not just an experiment in philosophy. Because I am bourgeois. I had an apartment to go to; at night I slept in my own bed. I believed I was at ease with Thoreau in my wish not to make politics take over the rest of my life, remembering the daily individual matters as more important, except when interrupted by injustice. “If I devote myself to other pursuits and contemplations, I must first see, at least, that I do not pursue them sitting upon another man’s shoulders.” Quite right; and then I went home. In the encampment, however, it became clear that others, much of the core of the occupation, really did want to live together. They wanted to create a democracy not of symbols, but of fact. A bit of the miscellaneous old New York port city or the self-governing Yankee town, a village. A home. People wanted to live democracy together—no matter how bad this looked to those of us, and our less committed fellows, from the home-dwelling petty bourgeoisie. The homeless began to join Occupy. When the vast metropolis of Bloomberg’s New York sees them as human trash, littering the parks and squares that business committees primp into window displays, this park alone meant not just a hiding place, but safety, sleep, conversation, amusement, and food, without condescension and conditions.
That a democracy could become a community in actuality, exposing its conflicts and sufferings, with none of the paper stuffing of symbols to cushion it—that a park could furnish people a place to live, under such outside scrutiny—this spelled terrible danger for the protests. As many times as crowds chanted, “This is what democracy looks like” when the police threatened us, I cringed to hear how the words advertised our weakness. Few enough people want to see what democracy looks like, unless it has been cast and burnished in bright symbols. Too much seeing “the Democracy,” as the citizenry used to be called, will make it easier for many people to wish that it be gone.
The Democracy does not wear new clothes. Its kindness and manners, transpiring between individuals, will not be visible from boardroom windows high above. From up above, in air-conditioned rooms, one cannot smell that the Democracy is clean, sweet; so it is called smelly, dirty, unwashed. The distant citizenry, cut off from it, treats the Democracy with disgust. And parts of the Democracy will be poor and weak; this, many can’t bear to see, especially those closest to the middle or to poverty. It reminds us what we are, where we can fall. So, after eight weeks, without great resistance from other parts of the city, the police were able to hoist their klieg lights, barricade or arrest the press and beat the Democracy: chase and push the Democracy, arrest it for running into the fists of the police—all in the name, as the mayor’s orders came down, of “public health.” Garbagemen threw the occupation’s five-thousand-book library into the trash to “keep it safe.” Those books were ruined, as certainly as if they had been burned. In the empty square, with America’s children bruised and bleeding in paddy wagons or on the sidelines, the City of New York brought out the power washers, to make a park glisten, into which no human was allowed. They ended the protests in the name of cleanliness.
I discovered myself, the little bourgeois, pushed by the police, insulted, mocked. So I turned out to be in the trailer park after all. Or, as the thought has gradually grown on me, in one place no one had thought existed with the protesters there, at all: a jail. The liberty of Liberty Square, for those two months, had in fact meant the creation of a jail. On every side, the police lined up facing us—day after day; and I had thought of them as benign. I thought their presence was a gross expenditure and waste of my tax money, certainly; a stimulus to fear, undoubtedly; a sort of marketing gift from the city to the banks, unfairly, as if free assembly, but more specifically these opinions, were dangerous. I saw our police line up at the perimeter of Bank of America like employees, fence posts, servants of the bank; but, of course, we pay them. The blue-uniformed guardians stood along the margin with Broadway, facing off with us. They lined Liberty Street, closed it up with police cars and equipment and men. Well, hadn’t these silent barriers in the end produced a jail, containing us? Or had the existence of this tiny pathetic space, the one place in the city for the supposed American virtues, of the Constitution’s free assembly, and free speech, the Founders’ contest of opinions, brought out the jail from the city around it? Each bank building was a bar of our cell, or a stone block of the wall. Now the hideous “Freedom Tower” erected itself, to bar the window of the open sky.