In Walden, Henry David Thoreau famously wrote that "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation."
Nearly everyone has heard this, for it is widely quoted, fitting, as it does, so many different circumstances.
Such a sentence must have many uses, and is handy to use in conversation- a usually safe bet in average company, even if you may not remember the author's name, for the chances are that neither does your listener.
We've grown, in fact, as accustomed to Thoreau's saying as the man in the song is accustomed to her face.
We are as comfortable and facile with it as we can be with other old horse chestnuts such as "a stitch in time saves nine", or "idle hands are the Devil's playground"*, or "It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas."
It would seem that such a radical statement- a statement which accuses nearly everyone of not just misery but actual desperation- would raise alarms, or hackles, or some kind of posse at least.
Today's world is one in which words matter, and it follows that big words probably matter more. The snag surfaces when it is seen that, in general, in these parlous times, bigger words, and multi-syllabic words especially, are taken, by this same mass of men, to be "fightin' words."
That is, a word like "desperation' is not only quite a mouthful, and certainly at least a onetime spelling bee stalwart, it's a dropped glove and a slap, just like "Jesus", or "nine-eleven", or "liberal", and of the many possible words available, including the articles, participles, adjectives, ablatives, dysfunctives, and gerunds, and all the rest of 'em.
Words from the fightin' vocabulary subgroup are statistically- [there's another example]- more likely to lead to gerbil disputes, lawsuits, combat boots, and other physical altercations (!), not to mention broken families, loss of job, and something like the heartbreak of sore eyes & asses. In a word, trouble.
Words are also useful, and used so awful. That is not today's subject, yet could be tomorrow's- if we do not behave like the little ladies and gentlemen we are meant to be, between now and Christmas morning, if not longer.
The main thing is, it's all about - another big word coming- perspective.
And pirates. Pirates are always in there. Somewharr. Over the Arrrainbow.
But when that line, which I mentioned what seems ages ago now, but is right near the top of the page, would, by the use of what is commonly called reason and reasonably called common sense, be expected to amount to fightin' words, (or wworrrds, if in fact pirates are involved) somehow it has not.
No, instead of what one should expect, and against intuition, and almost immune from cogitation, it is instead respected, quoted, and even reverently misquoted.
And, as mentioned sometime last year above, it is used in almost as many varieties of situation as a pair of pliers or a slab of Canadian bacon. I need not get into enumerating all of those. People do strange things when winters are long and light is low, as they do in Canada. I'm not one to judge.
Personally, I don't eat it anymore, even if the whole idea of bacon in a can remains strangely, almost erotically, fascinating. But that's just me.
International bacon sounds cosmopolitan to me- rightly or wrongly I care not; even if that is another multi-syllabic word. It's de-fanged, anyway, big as it doubtless is. It's as harmless as a kitchen.
And obviously, despite its size, it's in common parlance, due to that magazine, with which every American is no doubt familiar enough as to not be frightened by it- beyond the normal fears of aging, and suspicions that eminently toothsome has become permanently loathsome.
It would be no risk at all, to say, in public, "desperation! Cosmopolitan! Perspective!". It would not make the fright light go to orange or red, nor cause men to suddenly reach for things behind the driver's seat and then crouch and move toward you. No lawsuit will ensue, and no swindle be kindled.
No one, in fact, out of that mass of men- of course I include woman as well- will attack the speaker, just for using those words, even though the first two, at least, should be extremely troubling to hear on a street corner, with all the implications of social unrest and Molly McGuires that could spring right up like a wand and never look back.
The discerning reader will surely already know this, and will, if I do not miss my guest, be quite ready to continue on into the dips of this stumbling, slockingly sans cara deafertation of mine.
Now, the thing to remember about desperation is that as long as it's not you but someone else who has it, you don't have to be bothered about it very much.
Here's why. You, and I, and that annoying mass of men, all pride ourselves on our self-control, our sagacity, and our adherence to the principle of that old poem about you'll be a man, my son. The point is, calm, or at least the appearance of calm, and desperation just can't exist together. If you're one, the other flies out the window, and that works both ways, which indicates it is probably reliable, or if not reliable, likely fair and balanced, or as some say, balanced and fair.
The man of steely calm and a rock-solid disposition is not ever, if rarely, at the same time desperate. Therefore, it is easy to see that a modicum of calm and a sufficiency of serenity chase out desperation as quickly as a person can hop on a table to escape a possum.
I know you already feel as if you have been reading for a century or more, but the beast is yet to come.
The sentence which follows Thoreau's accusation-
"What is called resignation is confirmed desperation"
-is, however, usually left out. Why?
Well, for one thing, no one wants to think about what that means.
Because everyone, you see, is resigned, and usually quite thoroughly.
But in almost all cases, this resignation, this confirmed desperation, is misunderstood to be acceptance.
* i.e., this essay.