I can imagine someone asking: ‘Against everything?’ I’ll tell you what the impulse means to me. My mother used to take me to a pond, when I was small, because it was a place to swim and walk in the suburbs where I grew up. Its name, Walden, also named a scandalous book. 

My mother had never read the book. I was too young to read it. We circled the pond, many afternoons, and speculated. In olden days there had been a man named Thoreau. He walked and thought here. He had written in his book that the things people considered superior were often inferior. The best things might be in nobody’s possession. Trash was treasure. Work was overrated, insofar as most people worked at the wrong things for the wrong reasons. Walking without a goal was superior to running. Conversation was the true purpose of everything, even of solitude and reading and thinking.

Our knowledge of his words was very dim. It came from short quotations reproduced on coffee mugs, bumper stickers, and T-shirts: ‘Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.’ Our ignorance, though, did not mislead us as to the sense of what the philosopher had meant. Absence of detail proved to be the best instruction conceivable. ‘I wonder what he would have thought of that?’ said my mother as we passed every folly, driving to the pond or coming home: billboards, luxury cars, malls political signage, mansions, families fighting in backseats, radio insipidity, entreaties to good behavior from the road signs, the infinite unlovely and inane.

It was my task to do the wondering. The pact between us was that ‘he’ knew how to question and discredit anything we might think of – things we doubted, but also things we did. My portion was to figure out exactly what his critique and alternative could be. I had to show how every commonplace thing might be a compromise. The standards universally supposed might not be ‘universal’. Or they simply might not suit a universe in which my mother and I could happily live. I chattered – childishly, I guess, but buoyed by a medium other than youth and age – while kicking my sloppy sneakers against the dash. I taught myself to overturn, undo, deflate, rearrange, unthink, and rethink. ‘But it isn’t really possible,’ my mother would warn. ‘You can’t go down to the root. Some things don’t change.’ ‘I’ll bet he would think it’s possible.’

The most important thinker for me, ever, was thus just a principle when he mattered most, and his period of greatest importance was when I had not read him. I knew a ‘philosopher’ to be a mind that was unafraid to be against everything. Against everything, if it was corrupt, dubious, enervating, untrue to us, false to happiness. And to attempt this was to try to be our friend, my mother’s and mine.

I finally read Walden when I was seventeen, about to leave home tot start life on my own. The book was more implacable than I could ever have imagined, and more hopeful and loving. I had with it the experience I’ve had with only a handful of books, of knowing I didn’t deserve to finish it until I would no longer have to cast down my eyes, abashed, in the presence of its words. That kind of growing up, I thought uneasily, could take a lifetime.

I identify with my mother, as she was then, and adult, who knows that many things don’t change, and with myself, as I was then, a child, who knew that life was not worth entering if it couldn’t become better than it is. And I speak as myself now, still learning to be different than I am. To wish to be against everthing is to want the world to be bigger than all of it, disposed to dissolve rules and compromises in a gallon or a drop, while an ocean of possibility rolls around us. No matter what you are supposed to do, you can prove the supposition wrong, just by doing something else.

stem: mark greif
titel: preface
perspectief: ‘contrarian, sceptical, at the same time never cynical, opening out on to the beauty and possibility of change’
bron: against everything, on dishonest times (2016)
mopw: meerstemmige encyclopedie