Sunday, May 31, 2009

Deny, deny, deny

Over at the Blog of Henry David Thoreau is posted one of my favorite passages from his journals. You see, HDT had been out fishing with a friend and had set fire to some woods--yes, those woods. What he concludes is sort of tragic and comic at the same time:
I said to myself, "Who are these men who are said to be the owners of these woods, and how am I related to them ? I have set fire to the forest, but I have done no wrong therein, and now it is as if the lightning had done it. These flames are but consuming their natural food." It has never troubled me from that day to this more than if the lightning had done it. . . . I at once ceased to regard the owners and my own fault, — if fault there was any in the matter, — and attended to the phenomenon before me, determined to make the most of it.
What's funny about this, besides the obvious irony of his burning up those woods, is that he never even gets around to saying "Whoops! My bad" or its nineteenth-century equivalent. "If fault there was any in the matter"--none at all if you say so, Henry. Break out the marshmallows and make the most of it, by all means.

What's sad about it is the self-righteous denial of responsibility, the one that nowadays manifests itself with phrases like "It's obvious that X happened, but there is nothing to be gained by rehashing the past, so let's move on."

Let's move on.
Let's put this behind us and look to the future.
There's nothing to be gained from second-guessing this decision.
There's no reason for a post-mortem about this issue.

It is what it is.

Every time I hear one of these coming from the government ("Markopolos knew about Madoff's Ponzi scheme and tried to warn the government? That's not relevant right now"), or from large corporations ("You've wanted us to make small cars for the last thirty years? Why didn't you say so?"), or from university administration, or from an individual who has colossally screwed something up in ways that it will take someone days to untangle, it makes me crazy.

But what this passage says is that this kind of rationalization didn't spring up overnight; it has its roots in human nature and, yes, American individualism.

(Next time: happy thoughts, I promise.)

3 comments:

profacero said...

And machismo, right? I mean, didn't HDT send his mother his laundry from Walden, or something like that?

ArticulateDad said...

Very interesting.

undine said...

profacero--pretty much, yes, which always confounds students when I tell them that.

ArticulateDad, glad to see you back blogging again.