“I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one. It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves. I had not lived there a week before my feet wore a path from my door to the pond-side; and though it is five or six years since I trod it, it is still quite distinct. It is true, I fear, that others may have fallen into it, and so helped to keep it open. The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of men; and so with the paths which the mind travels. How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity! I did not wish to take a cabin passage, but rather to go before the mast and on the deck of the world, for there I could best see the moonlight amid the mountains. I do not wish to go below now.
I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”
From the conclusion of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden.
Like a lot of American guys of my generation, Dead Poets Society was once my favorite movie. As a young teenager, I not only idolized the charming cast and envied their engaging English class, I also identified with their first forays into that unknown and alluring world of independence, rebellion, and girls. Now, sadly, the movie has lost a lot of its resonance with me. I revisited it this summer, and although I can still seem to quote several entire scenes, the story just doesn’t manage to make the same impact it once did. (I wonder now if the twenty-something movies I like most — Good Will Hunting, The Graduate — will also one day lose their respective power.)
Yet even though the Dead Poets aren’t what they once were, their compulsive quoting of Thoreau will always be cool and will always remain, above all, relevant. They led me to Walden, and for that, I owe them.