Sunday, April 29, 2012

`A Stereotyped But Unconscious Despair'

The National Endowment for the Arts has given a $40,000 grant to the University of Southern California “to support production costs for a video game based on the writings of Henry David Thoreau at Walden Pond.” Yet again, the real world outstrips parody. One hopes the designers incorporate into their game Henry’s shining moment, on April 40, 1844, when he burned down a woodland plot in Concord and wrote of it: “It has never troubled me from that day to this more than if the lightning had done it.” Or the time he wrote of the unapologetic murderer John Brown: “They all called him crazy then; who calls him crazy now?” Almost everyone, Henry.

Inevitably, one wonders what Thoreau would make of the lucrative time-wasting recreation known as video gaming. He gives us a clue in Walden. Two sentences after what is surely his most-quoted line, a veritable bumper sticker known to thousands who have never read the book – “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” – Thoreau writes:

“A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them for this comes after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.”

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