|The Thoreau Society eNewsletter: November 2010 - Founded in 1941, The Thoreau Society, Inc. is the oldest and largest organization devoted to an American author. The Society exists to stimulate interest in and foster education about Thoreau's life, works, legacy and his place in his world and in ours, challenging all to live a deliberate, considered life.|
|Greetings! |Welcome to the fourth issue of our eNewsletter. We will feature excerpts from our publications: The Thoreau Society Bulletin and The Concord Saunterer: A Journal of Thoreau Studies in this and future issues. From The Thoreau Society Homepage, you can click to view our eNewsletter archive.
If you enjoy reading the eNewsletter, I invite you to consider joining The Thoreau Society by visiting our membership page.
Executive Director, The Thoreau Society
|I do not wish to quarrel with any man or nation. I do not wish to split hairs, to make fine distinctions, or set myself up as better than my neighbors. |
Henry D. Thoreau, "Resistance to Civil Government"
|Thoreau Society Bulletin, Number 268, Fall 2009|
Resisting the Absurd: Thoreau in Lithuania
On May 31, 1999, Rolandas Pavilionis, rector of Lithuania's most prestigious university and a candidate for the country's parliament, wrote an open letter to President Bill Clinton angrily protesting the American bombardment of Yugoslavia. In the letter, entitled "The America I Fear," he attempted to convince Clinton that in pursuing "cowboy politics" in Eastern Europe, the United States "was not delivering the region from terror and violence, but spreading further terror and violence." Pavilionis also expressed his assumption that Clinton would certainly be familiar with, and perhaps willing to take counsel from, a writer and philosopher "quite well-known in Europe and Lithuania, Henry David Thoreau."1 The Lithuanian professor reminded Clinton that "Thoreau greatly regretted the direction chosen by the United States in his time. More than anyone else, he strongly and persuasively defended the right of the free individual to resist the absurd, to oppose an amoral social order, an order founded on brutal force and the supremacy of so-called national interests."2
Pavilionis's effort to educate the president about American literary history may seem presumptuous, but it was actually not so. In this case, the Lithuanian almost certainly knew his Thoreau as well as or better than the American. In 1984, Pavilionis completed the first translation of Walden into the Lithuanian language. When it was published in 1985, the Lithuanian version of Thoreau's masterpiece became a cult favorite, especially among university students. Its print run of twenty thousand copies-a large number in a country of three million-sold out within a few weeks. Recalling the stir created by Walden, one Lithuanian literature professor recently observed, "They could have printed fifty thousand copies and it would have sold out."3 Clearly, Thoreau had touched a nerve in the small Baltic country. In those days, however, print runs for literary works were controlled not by the market but by the Soviet Ministry of Culture, which responded to the demand for this American classic by not authorizing a second printing and allowing the book to become unavailable in bookstores.
The circumstances of Thoreau's reception changed in March 1990, when Lithuania achieved its independence from the Soviet Union. In 1997, a new political use was found for Thoreau, when Pavilionis applied for and received joint funding from the American Embassy and Vilnius University for a reprinting of his Lithuanian Walden-this time along with the essay, "On the Duty of Civil Disobedience." For the new edition, which also sold out quickly, Pavilionis wrote a bold introduction that told the fascinating story of Thoreau's influence in pre-glasnost Lithuania.
Pavilionis's 1997 introductory essay is titled "'To Be' Means To Resist the Absurd." Its opening paragraph notes that Walden "provoked a powerful and interesting reaction" upon its initial publication under Soviet rule.4 The book "strongly ignited the consciousness of especially the younger generation of the then-imprisoned Lithuanian nation," where Thoreau's ideas "quite painfully pierced the collective intellect of all of us who thirsted for the recovery of freedom."5
Once Lithuanian independence was achieved, however, the nation became quickly and severely disillusioned with the challenges of building an orderly democratic government and managing the threats to its traditional values posed by a capitalist, market-based, consumer society. Pavilionis followed his explanation of the meaning of Walden in Soviet Lithuania by passionately underscoring the urgency of Thoreau's message during the country's painful post-Soviet period of transition in the 1990s: "As we in our own way repeat the American experiment one hundred and fifty years later, we walk a similar path, experience similar trials, but in more bizarre, more civilized forms in an increasingly technologically advanced world."6
Assessing his nation's recent history, Pavilionis discerned a profound contradiction: "Thoreau's realization that western civilization, especially in its American phase, though exceptionally materially impressive, was by no means the wisest way, and perhaps even one of the most destructive forms of man's objectification and dehumanization, seemed strangely attractive to our young people-even as they were in the process of passionately and hopefully self-actualizing according to the American model."7
Pavilionis went on to claim a new form of relevance for Thoreau in Lithuania. This time, his work was not only a force for political freedom but also a reminder of the false promises of materialistic western society: "For us, as for the Americans of Thoreau's time, a universal truth applies: material-technological progress alone does not necessarily entail corresponding spiritual progress. Improved possessions themselves do not inspire improved humanity . . . As Thoreau knew and our own experience shows, the opposite is often the case: things advance while man regresses."8
A second major difference between the Soviet-era publication of Walden in 1985 and the American-funded printing of 1997 is the newer edition's inclusion of the essay "On the Duty of Civil Disobedience." Pavilionis explained in his introduction: "Twelve years ago, in Lithuania as it then existed, this essay could not have been made public. Though it is recognized as among the greatest in American literary history, it was, paradoxically, much too morally subversive for the country in that period."9
"Civil Disobedience" was deemed seditious under the Soviet system, but the Lithuanian translator expressed his belief that "the essay sounds even more revolutionary in the world of today."10 The current social order, Pavilionis observed, based its existence "first of all on the creation and use of material things rather than on inner culture, on the opinion of the masses rather than the individual."11 It was therefore "not a community of free human beings but of slaves, however modern it may seem, no matter what attributes of civil society it adorns itself with, no matter how much it sparkles with material splendor."12 A culture that "serves the god of materialism, that recognizes this as its highest value, that with its laws and systems protects and worships this god more than the free human being and the unbound spirit, inevitably becomes a mockery of an open and democratic civil society."13 A society in which the spiritual serves the material rather than the reverse, Pavilionis concluded, was not one in which Henry Thoreau wished to live.
Since Lithuania had ostensibly become democratic, there were even greater threats to the self than those that had existed under Soviet captivity. Ideological resistance was more difficult in a democracy, Pavilionis believed, because "here disobedience is often viewed as anarchism, undermining the very foundations of the democratic order . . . Against it stands the full weight and force of 'public opinion,' the final and most threatening arbiter of modern societies."14 In a system based on democratic principles, "there may be just as much cause for civil disobedience as under the tyranny of a totalitarian regime."15
Quite explicitly, the Lithuanian translator drew attention to a remarkable flexibility in Thoreau's ideology. To subvert Soviet power, or to dispute American political hegemony, or to defend against the lure of the material, Thoreau was a powerful tool: "To resist the absurd, stupidity and injustice, for the benefit of the sanctioned state or its obedient majority, is the right and duty of every person living-whether in America or in Lithuania . . . This right and duty is the most striking manifestation of the eternal, never-to-be-resolved conflict between the individual and society. This right and duty is the most basic reminder, that we are a free people."16
Rolandas Pavilionis, the strongest single advocate for Thoreau in Lithuania, became an important cultural and political figure in Eastern Europe. After his term as president of Vilnius University ended in 2000, he was elected to the Lithuanian Parliament. In 2004, he was elected to the Parliament of the European Union, where he served until his death from cancer in May 2006. Though Pavilionis authored several academic books and collections of essays, his translation of Walden was his most popular publication. In a collection of articles, interviews, and speeches he published in 2000, Pavilionis did not forget his debt to the American writer. The book's title, translated as Against the Absurd, echoes the title of his essay on Walden and "Civil Disobedience." In his foreword, Pavilionis recognized Thoreau as his philosophical touchstone: "The content of this collection is shot through with the often-repeated, simple worldview of American writer and philosopher Henry David Thoreau: 'Only that day dawns to which we are awake.'" The Lithuanian politician asserted, "I also strongly believe that the dawn doesn't awaken us, but that we awaken the dawn."17
In his 1999 letter to Bill Clinton, Pavilionis had acknowledged that "Thoreau was probably not always right." Perhaps it is just as accurate to say that Pavilionis's interpretations of Thoreau's ideas were subject to historical revision. But having brought Walden to Soviet Lithuania-and "Civil Disobedience" to post-Soviet Lithuania-Pavilionis could assert with some confidence, even to the American president, that "Thoreau's wonderful book and essay have inspired millions throughout the world. In my country to the present day, these works are read quite often. These are the works of a great American, one of his country's great patriots."18
All translations from Lithuanian language texts are by the author.
1 Rolandas Pavilionis, "Amerika, kurios bijau" ["The America I Fear"], in Pries Absurda [Against the Absurd] (Vilnius: Kultura, 2000), 555.
2 Pavilionis, "Amerika, kurios bijau" ["The America I Fear"], 555.
3 Gintaras Lazdynas, in conversation with the author, May 13, 2009.
4 Pavilionis, "'Buti' Reiskia Nepaklusti Absurdui" ["'To Be' Means to Resist the Absurd"], introduction to Voldenas, arba, Gyvenimas Miske [Walden or, Life in the Woods] (Vilnius: Baltos Lankos, 1997), 7.
5 Pavilionis, "'Buti' Reiskia Nepaklusti Absurdui" ["'To Be' Means to Resist the Absurd"], 7.
6 Pavilionis, "'Buti' Reiskia Nepaklusti Absurdui" ["'To Be' Means to Resist the Absurd"], 8.
7 Pavilionis, "'Buti' Reiskia Nepaklusti Absurdui" ["'To Be' Means to Resist the Absurd"], 8.
8 Pavilionis, "'Buti' Reiskia Nepaklusti Absurdui" ["'To Be' Means to Resist the Absurd"], 8.
9 Pavilionis, "'Buti' Reiskia Nepaklusti Absurdui" ["'To Be' Means to Resist the Absurd"], 9.
10 Pavilionis, "'Buti' Reiskia Nepaklusti Absurdui" ["'To Be' Means to Resist the Absurd"], 9.
11 Pavilionis, "'Buti' Reiskia Nepaklusti Absurdui" ["'To Be' Means to Resist the Absurd"], 14.
12 Pavilionis, "'Buti' Reiskia Nepaklusti Absurdui" ["'To Be' Means to Resist the Absurd"], 14.
13 Pavilionis, "'Buti' Reiskia Nepaklusti Absurdui" ["'To Be' Means to Resist the Absurd"], 14.
14 Pavilionis, "'Buti' Reiskia Nepaklusti Absurdui" ["'To Be' Means to Resist the Absurd"], 10.
15 Pavilionis, "'Buti' Reiskia Nepaklusti Absurdui" ["'To Be' Means to Resist the Absurd"], 10.
16 Pavilionis, "'Buti' Reiskia Nepaklusti Absurdui" ["'To Be' Means to Resist the Absurd"], 17.
17 Pavilionis, Pries Absurda, 16.
18 Pavilionis, "Amerika, kurios bijau" ["The America I Fear"], 555.
Annual Gathering of The Thoreau Society
All are welcome to register to attend community-wide events in Concord Massachusetts, and at the Walden Pond State Reservation
Henry D. Thoreau's
Then and Now
July 7 - 10, 2011 Concord, MAKeynote Speaker: Laura Dassow Walls
Author of 1).Seeing New Worlds: Henry David Thoreau and Nineteenth-Century Natural Science; 2) Emerson's Life in Science: The Culture of Truth; 3) The Passage to Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Shaping of America
"The publication of this superbly written book is one of those rare events that changes an entire field of study. Not only does Laura Dassow Walls show that Alexander von Humboldt is inescapably central to an understanding of nineteenth-century American literature, she also shows how, despite C.P. Snow's contention and our own current assumptions, science and literature were for a time the most powerful of allies in America. For anyone interested in American thought and literature The Passage to Cosmos is a beautiful and necessary book."
- Robert D. Richardson, author of Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind, Emerson: The Mind on Fire, and William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism.
Call for Papers due Dec. 7, 2010
Submit Proposals for walks, talks, and discussions to
Walking to Wachusett
The Perfect Fall Program
Window on Walden Authors Series
in cooperation with The Thoreau Society's Friends of Walden Pond and
the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR)
FREE and open to the publicWalden Pond State Reservation
NOVEMBER 20, 2010 - 1:30-3pm
Shop at Walden Pond -
Walking to Wachusett-A Re-enactment of Thoreau's "A Walk to Wachusett"
Join Leominster resident Bob Young for a slide presentation of his re-enactment of the journey taken by Concord native Henry David Thoreau and described in his essay "A Walk to Wachusett." Thoreau's walk was taken on July 19, 1842. Beginning in Concord, he and companion Richard Fuller walked to Mt. Wachusett and back.
Bob and his wife Kathy have resided in Leominster for the past 17 years. While researching a trip to Mount Katahdin in Maine (also visited by Thoreau), Bob came across the Wachusett essay and decided to study it further. It was Kathy who suggested walking the route in order to capture in observations and photographs his thoughts and feelings about the historic, but little known journey.
To experience Thoreau's trip, he first researched and then walked the exact route taken by Thoreau. Re-enacting the journey consisted of a three-day excursion in 2005 through the towns of Concord, Acton, Stow, Bolton, Lancaster, Sterling, West Sterling, East Princeton, and Princeton. His walk is believed to be the fi rst complete recorded reenactment of Thoreau's journey.
The presentation will provide background information followed by a series of pictures and explanations of what Bob found and learned along the route. A real educational experience. At the end of the presentation, there will be time for questions. Also copies of Bob's book, which describes his adventure, Walking to Wachusett, will be available for sale and signing.
Shop at Walden Pond, 915 Walden Street, Concord, MA , 01742 - tel. 978-287-5477 - fax 978-287-5620 - www.ShopatWaldenPond.org
The Thoreau Society and
the Concord Free Public Library present
Thoreau the Land Surveyor
Free and Open to the Public
Henry D. Thoreau was a land surveyor as well as a great American author. His keen attention to land and landscape, mathematics and science, informed his writing throughout his life as an author. Learn more about Thoreau's life, writings, and legacy by joining us for this special upcoming event.
Patrick Chura, author of THOREAU THE LAND SURVEYOR, will speak at the Concord Free Public Library on Friday, December 10 at 7:00 pm.
Special Event Price - Book on sale at Shop at Walden Pond.
Sponsored by The Thoreau Society in cooperation with the Concord Free Public Library, the event is free and open to the public.Patrick Chura is associate professor of English at the University ofAkron, where he teaches courses in American literature. He is the author of two books-Vital Contact in 2005; Thoreau the Land Surveyor in 2010-and has published articles on a variety of literary-historical topics. Dr. Chura is a former Peace Corps volunteer and Fulbright scholar in the Republic of Lithuania. He has received research grants from the European Union, the Fulbright Foundation and the University of Akron.
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