Jerome Shea       November 22, 2009      Weekend Wonk

Way early in my teaching career, I used a book by Joseph Wood Krutch entitled The Desert Year. Krutch (1893-1970) was a drama critic, an English professor, a naturalist, a graceful writer, and, I have always thought, a wise man. The Desert Year is a collection of essays inspired by his observing and contemplating a year of life in the Sonoran Desert. Think Thoreau in Arizona.

One line in that book struck me so forcefully that I wrote it down and I still have it: “Security depends not so much upon how much you have, as upon how much you can do without.” Over the years I have used this intellectual McNugget to feed my writing students, to try to confound them, to upset their assumptions. I have had students spend a whole semester wrestling with this counterintuitive conundrum and producing some excellent papers in the process. If I run across Krutch in the hereafter, I must stand him a goblet of nectar.

For the record, it must be pointed out that the line refers not to Everyman but to the creatures of the Sonoran Desert: the lizard and the horned toad, the packrat and the rattlesnake. From their perspective it makes perfect sense. Where the annual rainfall is less than three inches, a lizard had better learn to do without water. If daytime temperatures reach 140 degrees on the desert floor, these critters had better be willing to do their foraging at night. Because they cannot call the shots, they have learned over the centuries how to survive in one of the harshest climates imaginable. They have learned to do without, or darned close to it. Krutch is making a virtue of a necessity.

So what about us, what about Everyman? Is it better to emulate the humble monks and all those other models of poverty, or chase the material dream, to try to keep up with those ever-receding Joneses? Here in the university neighborhood is a guy who lives in a minuscule apartment on about three grand a year, does not own a car (nor will he even ride in one), is of course a raw food vegetarian who raises almost all of his food in a little garden plot, and so forth. He is always writing letters to the editor extolling this lifestyle (“crowing” might be a better word) and decrying all the waste and evil in the world. Sort of an unappealing cross between Francis of Assisi and Henry of Concord. Still, when I am writing the mortgage check or paying the car insurance premium, I find myself envying this character who travels so light.

But Sandy MacTight , as we’ll call him, has neither wife nor children. That’s his right, of course, but it does rub me the wrong way when he gets so sanctimonious. He also, by the way, lives off a trust fund. It’s a very small one, and he is to be commended for admitting to the trust fund in those letters to the paper: he is nothing if not endlessly forthcoming. Imagine St. Francis with a trust fund! Still, Sandy’s life is hardly possible for most of us, and most of us fervently wish he would give his smug sermonizing a rest.

At any rate, now is a good time to reflect on Krutch’s words. We seem to have avoided a replay of the Great Depression, but not by much. In the last eighteen months, many people have lost their homes, and a house is the biggest investment that most of us will ever make. Others lost thousands in the stock market, or in pension plans, or in schemes like Bernie Madoff’s. Unemployment is reported to be around 9% and some say that is a very rosy reading of the real figures—it might be more like 15%. If you still have a job, your hours may have been cut back, your salary reduced. Times, in short, are tough. A lot of people will be sorely tested and have a lot of time to think of having and not having. A lot of people will deeply miss the life they had. Mental health care may be one of the few growth stocks in the months to come.

Seen in this light, you could be forgiven for wondering why you got up every morning to trudge to that job that you secretly hated, why you moonlighted to make the house payments, why you socked money away every month for that college fund. Why did you build up this life brick by patient brick if somebody was going to come by with a wrecking ball and smash it all to pieces?

The stark truth is that whatever you have you can lose, which would seem to argue for the horned toad philosophy. As the old song wails, “When ya got nothin’, ya got nothin’ to lose.” Which is why the horned toad philosophy seems inherently bracing, even heroic, and the opposite position dangerous and pernicious: if you feel you need more than a loincloth and a begging bowl, you are not only setting yourself up for a hard fall but you are also courting corruption and imperiling your soul.

Krutch’s argument—can we dignify it as “Krutch’s axiom”?—is a moral position masquerading as a material one. And we’ll come back to it next week. Maybe we will invite along our friends the ant and the grasshopper.

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