Sojourners on the Shifting Sands of the Present
THE FARTHER SHORE: A NATURAL HISTORY OF PERCEPTION by Don Gifford, New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 257 pp., $19.95
WHAT this deceptively modest-looking volume achieves is nothing less than to give an example of someone living his own mind.
I take the phrase from a passage in which Don Gifford, professor emeritus of English at Williams College, explains Henry David Thoreau
But living one's own mind has gotten more difficult since Thoreau removed to Walden Pond in 1851. Gifford wants to step back even from Thoreau. He finds his ``farthest shore'' in the Hampshire village of Selborne in south-central England, made famous in the pages of Gilbert White's ``Natural History of Selborne,'' composed in the second half of the 18th century.
White was even more isolated than Thoreau. He was a self-described ``stationary man'' whose lucid and ever fresh investigations of his habitat, natural and historical, have made him long admired by connoisseurs of natural history and natural English prose.
Using Walden Pond and Selborne - or rather the writings of Thoreau and White devoted to them - Gifford triangulates on his own situation in Williamstown. The differences are almost as important as the similarities. Admiring White's amateur, nonspecialist approach to his environment (he wrote before there were field guides) and Thoreau's moral analysis, Gifford finds himself cabined and confined as well as liberated by the technological advances that separate him from Walden and even more from Selborne.
His book contains a mini-history of technology. It's composed as an anatomy of the senses, and indeed of the human person as a whole. He opens with a fascinating account of how technology has extended and sharpened our eyes and ears since humankind left the farther shore of the late 18th century.
Startling suggestions leap from almost every page. The railroads collapsed time and space, but did the experience of looking out the window at the passing countryside prepare the eye for the movies? The inquiry gains point when Gifford notes the false comparison between the larger-than-life image produced on the big screen and the smaller-than-life imagery of the television set.
Gifford's argument gathers momentum - it seems to coil rather than step off its measure - as he approaches the penultimate chapter on self worth. The center of the book focuses on the use of statistics to measure everything from economic probability to economic man. Much cultural history has prepared us to accept the fictions of statistical persons.
One of Gifford's richly and precisely told anecdotes is about the great Crystal Palace exhibition in Hyde Park, London, in 1851 (when Thoreau was moving in at Walden Pond). The palace was a giant greenhouse covering a space four times the size of Saint Peter's in Rome and filled with inventions, gadgets, and crafts - steam engines, printing presses, and paintings. Gifford notes that the aristocracy feared the spectacle would incite the visiting masses to revolt. Instead, Gifford suggests, it prepared us for endless window-shopping in Sears Roebuck catalogs.
Self-worth is related to the perception of inner worth. But when our own senses, influenced by decades of conditioning from technology, seem to belittle us, what then?
Gifford has no easy answers: ``The Farther Shore'' is not a self-help book. Rather, in weaving the far and the near in time and space, he unweaves our condition as sojourners on the shifting sands of the present. Historical analysis and self-analysis are two tracks of one process.
If modern, independent living in Williamstown, Mass., in the late 20th century depends on far sources of energy and information so that the very walls seem an illusion, can the stationary man live at peace with himself? While Don Gifford's argument, vigorous, lucid, and graceful, suggests why not, his example proves it can be done.