It was Thoreau who wrote that men lead lives of quiet desperation; this was after he hiked a dozen or so miles up river from Emerson’s home town of Concord, Massachusetts to build a little cabin in the woods and find some calm. It is a very nineteenth century characterisation of the conundrums of modernity. One can imagine Edward Whymper saying something similar as he came down from the Matterhorn, similarly Dr Livingstone as he wandered central Africa seeking savages for Jesus. Contrarily, not for a second would such a thought have occurred to Stanley, or Sir Richard Burton: rather, as they toured genuine wilderness they saw it as a burlesque of civilised existence. For them denial of desperation was a central virtue, their sense of superiority precluded desperation.
Quiet desperation may have been the case for the many living unremarked-on lives: desperation implies the thin ledge of survival and self improvement that many must have grappled with in the project to civilise the wilderness throughout the colonial era, the struggles for food, water, shelter, and salvation.
Here, today, Thoreau’s idea of desperation still has considerable currency, his phrase is entrenched in cliché but it isn’t quite the same. Thoreau, although about as close to genuine wilderness as a Canberra suburb when he heads down to the woods, was thinking about the struggles of the complexities of urban, capitalist, democratic cultures, none of which were to his taste. He was attempting to reduce life to “its lowest terms” and “to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life.”
These remain noble aspirations but they are harder than ever to reach: when we use the cliché “live of quiet desperation” we are usually referring to the day to day negotiation of banal complexities, the management of our emotional, financial, and material lives, which (despite a kind of transferability) are a long way from worrying about where the next few hundred calories are coming from or how to keep warm this evening. Desperation is applicable where the stakes are high, and it is a kind of vanity that sees desperation deployed as the tenor of modern times. I’ve come to think that most of what we think of as our lives of quiet desperation are, in practice, lives of unstated ambivalence.
Thoreau was not ambivalent; he did not approve of quiet desperation. He was absolutely sure that he could “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life,” getting right to the core of living and when he got there, for good or ill, he would know it and it would be clear to him and from that others would also be able to reacquaint themselves with the “true knowledge” of life. Unsurprisingly, for nineteenth century America, Thoreau is a kind of evangelist.
But evangelism is marketing of one kind or another and we, here in the twenty first century, know a bit about marketing and because we are subject to it twenty four seven the only reasonable response to all the promises of “true knowledge” is a contingent shrug. Thoreau’s clarity in describing the mass of men’s lives is based on the single path, a grand narrative authorised by God or the President or Standard Oil or Manifest Destiny or Civilisation.
My thinking is that, these days, there’s no monopoly of paths, no grand narrative that crosses all over all lives. There are so many, so many, routes to righteousness that given the opportunity to choose a path all we can do in light of such competing avenues to divinity, to certainty, is make qualified gestures embracing contradiction and vacillation. Lives of unstated ambivalence indeed.