Spark

Walden, revisited

How can we find solitude in a world that runs at the speed of a smartphone?

In a world where you blink and you miss something, it's hard to shut your eyes.

The New Circadia installation at the University of Toronto allows visitors to relax in a cave-like, quiet atmosphere. (Scott Norsworthy)

Originally published Dec. 6, 2019.

Even without smartphones, streaming and social media, at the ripe old age of 28, Henry David Thoreau was ready to "unplug," at least in a way that made sense to 19th-century society.

He abandoned all his material possessions and his job at the family pencil factory in the bustling town of Concord, Mass. 

For two years, two months, and two days, he lived alone, in a tiny cabin he built on the edge of Walden Pond.

In 1854, shortly after his time alone, he published Walden; or, Life in the Woods. 

It's one of the greatest arguments ever made in favour of simple living.

And even though Thoreau was writing more than 150 years ago, his words were prescient: his angst at the relentless pace of life is something that many of us feel today.

Michael Harris calls Walden a "swan song for an antique enjoyment of time alone." He's the author of The End of Absence and Solitude.
Michael Harris (endofabsence.com)

Speaking to Spark's Nora Young, he explained how our devices cheat us out of the solitude we might otherwise appreciate.

"[When we wake up,] we reach for our phone, instead of for the person next to us, or we get in the shower, and even the five minutes of solitude in the shower feels like maybe too much. This is the state of being that we're in," he said.

"The primary conundrum we're in is balancing solitude with our technologies."

Harris pointed out that Thoreau once suggested that the more unhappy we are with ourselves, the more we run to the mailbox. 

"And I think about that a lot when I dig into my pocket for my phone. It says something about what's going on inside of me; how content I am with my own life. And I think the reverse must be true to that, if we design a rich interior life for ourselves."


Video: Author Eva Hoffman on 'how to be bored'


People living in the Greater Toronto Area have a great way to examine their interior lives, or just relax in a device-free environment, at a new installation at the University of Toronto. New Circadia: Adventures in Mental Spelunking is housed at the Daniels School of Architecture and features a giant, sound-muffled cave where visitors can grab a pillow, put on some felt slippers and escape into a space of serenity and quiet solitude.

Nora went to the installation, which is in place until the end of April, 2020, and you can watch her experience below.

Spark host Nora Young visits an art installation at the University of Toronto, which invites visitors to disconnect from their fast-paced, tech-infused lives and relax inside a "soft utopia" of pillows and felt. 5:59

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