Friday, 14 December 2007

The Simple Life - Read All About It

The complaint Christmas has become too materialistic is so familiar it needs no further explanation. The title of this blog being Stories From The Diogenes Club, here are ten inspirational stories in the spirit of Diogenes. For those who intend, as I do, to spend Xmas quietly reading, these are ten books about, or sometimes by, those who pursued the simple life in their own ways. For there are more interesting ways to attempt the simple life than living in a barrel in Athens marketplace and insulting curious visitors.
Proceeding chronologically, our top-ten book list would have to start with Defoe's 1719 Robinson Crusoe [
free e-text version here], the original 'desert island' novel, based on a true story. Defoe's was a hit inspirational tale of survival, though today it seems somewhat naive in its slightly capitalistic and Christian-evangelist handling of themes of self-reliance and enterprise. The novel, written as if it were a real memoir, started an ongoing desert-island-castaway literary genre (from Swiss Family Robinson to plane-crash survivor stories like Cast Away with Tom Hanks). The list of real-life castaways includes some (like Gerald Kingsland and Lucy Irvine) who got themselves deliberately stranded as a lifestyle experiment (Wikipedia page here). The real-life original of Crusoe, Alexander Selkirk, had done this, and after being rescued lived in a cave on his family property as a hermit until the new-found celebrity created by Defoe's book led to a stream of visitors, which forced him to return to sea, where he perished.
The first such inspirational work in American literature, with major impact, would be
Walden (1854) . Henry David Thoreau's journal of his year or so living in a log cabin he builds by a pond in rural Vermont as an attempt at 'voluntary simplicity' became part of the modern American dream, rediscovered in the Sixties as part of the back-to-the-land approach to dropout culture.
Thoreau's WaldenWe should also list his 1861 essay collection
Walking here. It is the philosophical forerunner of the 'long walk' type of travel book, where the geographic journey is paralleled by an inner one, a journey which clears the mind of non-essentials.
When Thor Heyerdahl's The Kon-Tiki Expedition (1950) was sent to a New York publisher, her famous response was: who wants to read about a bunch of crazy Scandinavians crossing the Pacific on a balsa raft? Of course she could not have been more wrong - it was merely the forerunner of a new genre. The account provided a new way of vicariously experiencing getting back to basics while retracing an 'ancestral' route, and even had a desert-island finale as the raft grounded after 4000 miles on a coral reef near Tahiti.
In US literature Western novels dominate here: the typical hero is a 'saddle tramp', an exemplar of rugged individualism who owns and needs no more than can fit on a saddle, and sleeps by a campfire under the stars. In fact frontier literature went back to the so-called captivity narrative, an early sensational memoir or pseudo-memoir where a ‘civilised’ protagonist is made captive and forced to 'go native' - taking a native wife and so on. This was eventually worked into the conventional 20th-C western in novels like Will Henry's 1950 No Survivors, a pseudo-memoir where the narrator John Clayton (the birth-name of another Simple Lifer better known as Tarzan) is an ex Confederate who lives with the Sioux until dragged into the middle of Custer's last battle, which he survives. (If it sounds familiar it's because the story was later parodied in Little Big Man, and reworked in Dances With Wolves).
The 20th-Century conservation movement began in Canada with the nature writings of Grey Owl, who made the beaver a Canadian national symbol in the 1930s. He was actually an impostor, an Englishman from Hastings called Archie Belaney who after WWI service turned his back on civilisation forever and went to live his life in the Canadian woods as an Ojibwa Indian hunter and trapper. The biography Wilderness Man is the main one of several by his publisher Lovat Dickson, who knew him from his English tours. Grey Owl not only wrote outdoors books like Pilgrims Of The Wild but exploited his colourful image to promote the conservationist cause through gruelling speaking tours, which killed him – he died of exhaustion within days of returning to his log cabin.
Of course in the modern era it isn't practical for most people to go off into the wilderness for extended periods to pursue the simple life. The modern urban variant is the 'bohemian' option, pursued by many a starting writer - living a spare solo existence in a room in a strange town or city to be alone with one's thoughts. An example of this is Jean Paul Sartre's 1938 diary-style existentialist novel Nausea, where the
alienated writer-protagonist finds his sojourn alone in a provincial French seaside town leads to an intellectual breakthrough.
There have of course been genuine hermits throughout history, the famous British one being Myrddin The Wild. In 1985 Nikolai Tolstoi (descendant of the Russian novelist) wrote one of those 'in quest of' books searching for the historical figure who inspired the Merlin of the Arthurian Romances. His The Quest For Merlin describes his search for biographical information regarding this 6th C. hermit who, after giving his king some disastrous advice, cast himself away in the Scottish Border Forests to live in a hut with only a piglet for company, where he wrote poetry and struggled to keep his sanity as he was overwhelmed by the awen, the bardic inspiration that can drive men mad.
Fantasy-SF literature has also contributed the idea of time warps whereby a modern civilised type can return to a primitive, perhaps ancestral environment. In England, this is “The Wildwood,” and the classic here, in terms of convincing detail, is a 1984 novel (again written in memoir or journal style) by Robert Holdstock, Mythago Wood. Here the English hero spends months at a time on expeditions exploring a local woodland where a mysterious shamanistic vortex has created a Wildwood where ‘mythago’ (mythic-image) entities survive from Celtic, Saxon and prehistoric eras.
Of course, the token version of 'back to nature' is the modern camping trip, which in literature lends itself to satire (going back to Three Men In A Boat) where the characters are unable to abandon their civilised ways, even briefly. A modern non-fiction example set in wilder surroundings (America’s Appalachian Trail) is humourist-turned-conservationist Bill Bryson's autobiographical 1998
A Walk In The Woods, where the desire for ‘the wilderness experience’ is offset by inability to abandon modern comforts like junk food.
The simple life is a major and increasingly popular theme in literature, and even if you can't live it at the moment, you can still read all about it.

1 comment:

John Haslett and Voyage of the Manteño said...

To Diogenes Club:

I was wondering if I could induce you to read my new book. It's called Voyage of the Manteño, and it is the true story of how my colleagues and I built and sailed a series of balsa rafts very similar to Heyerdahl's Kon-Tiki. We made many important discoveries about the ancient culture that invented these rafts, and along the way we lived and survived many harrowing adventures. People have really enjoyed reading it, and I have recieved quite a warm outpouring of praise; nevertheless, I could sure use some online reviews from interested Bloggers. I've included the first chapter as a sample. If you find the time, I hope you'll check it out.

Best Wishes,

John Haslett
Voyage of the Manteño
(St. Martin's Press, Dec.'06)