Thursday, September 4, 2014

Hercules and Minerva at Thoreau's Walden

A former student, who might not need to remain nameless, shared the following observations with me. He comments on two mentions of classical mythology in Thoreau's On Walden Pond. I'd categorize them as OGCMA0249NOTAthena_Thoreau and  0556NOTHeraclesAugeas_Thoreau, respectively. Enjoy. Thanks, M.N.!

"So, I graduated and moved away so I don't have easy access to the Oxford Guide to Classical Mythology in the Arts to know if this usage was in there already or not; but, I did find a couple of usages during some leisure reading that you were probably already aware of, but just in case you didn't know them, I thought I would send them to help you in your quest to take over the world by recording all usages of classical myth. :) [The secret is getting out!]
Both usages are from Henry David Thoreau's Walden. The first of which is as follows:
The twelve labors of Hercules were trifling in comparison with those which my
neighbors have undertaken; for they were only twelve, and had an
end; but I could never see that these men slew or captured any
monster or finished any labor. They have no friend Iolas to burn with
a hot iron the root of the Hydra’s head, but as soon as one head is
crushed, two spring up... How many a poor immortal soul have I met well
nigh crushed and smothered under its load, creeping down the road of
life, pushing before it a barn seventy-five feet by forty, its Augean
stables never cleansed, and one hundred acres of land, tillage,
mowing, pasture, and wood-lot! The portionless, who struggle with
no such unnecessary inherited encumbrances, find it labor enough to
subdue and cultivate a few cubic feet of flesh. (Pages 7-8)
The smoking gun is clear enough, as is his meaning. It is hard to miss the call to live simply in Walden, and the fact that many people find themselves in ceaseless labor throughout their lives in order to satisfy their lavish and worldly desires, they are worse off than Hercules, who at least eventually finished his labors. [Thoreau's] poor countrymen labor endlessly, all their lives, and never have anything to show for it. No trophies, no accolades, and no reason to remember them after they are gone.

The second usage invokes the Minerva myth...
And 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. As I
understand it, that was a valid objection urged by Momus against the
house which Minerva made, that she “had not made it movable, by
which means a bad neighborhood might be avoided;” and it may still
be urged, for our houses are such unwieldy property that we are often
imprisoned rather than housed in them; and the bad neighborhood to
be avoided is our own scurvy selves. I know one or two families, at
least, in this town, who, for nearly a generation, have been wishing to
sell their houses in the outskirts and move into the village, but have
not been able to accomplish it, and only death will set them free. (Pages 27-28)
Again, it is unfortunate that I was unable to grab a copy of the OGCMA to read up further on this mythical reference in a zero-grade setting, as it was I was forced to consult Wikipedia. 
It is telling that Thoreau would side with Momos, the minor figure who was ultimately cast out for his criticism of those in power. [See Hesiod Theog. 214, for the earliest mention of this personification of fault-finding.] Rather than siding with the major Gods as most narratives do, deriding Momos for his unjust and jealous criticism, [Thoroeau] claims that it was a valid objection. He would be no stranger to criticism for his writings, especially his essay on Civil Disobedience, in which he criticized government and its lack of morality, especially in matters of taxation. Perhaps, (and this may be a stretch) he means to draw a parallel between the foolish and vain Gods of antiquity and the unjust, overreaching government.

Just some thoughts. I didn't know who else to share them with that might get a kick of them, but I remembered you hoped that your students would continue to alert you to narrative gains and uses of classical myths."

— submitted by M.N. 30 June 2014

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