Was Thoreau “Extra?”: or is that even the right question to ask?

By Sesha Kammula

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. -Henry David Thoreau

Extra is associated with excess. To have extra is to have more than strictly necessary, to have too much, to have miscalculated. To be told “guac is extra” is to be told that guacamole is a luxury item, worth more money, inaccessible to those without the means. To be extra is to be more than the standard. On the surface, the word extra in its colloquial sense seems to fit in with this definition. Calling someone extra is to heap these same associations onto them. A person who is extra tries too hard, does too much, takes up too much space. They have qualities in excess. However, in practice, being extra is a little more nuanced. Such a general term is almost irresponsibly broad. Using it to describe someone without parsing out the meaning seems, in itself, a bit extra.

First we encounter the question of whether extra is an inherent trait or a performative one. How can we make a distinction between being extra and performing extra? In a perfect world, there would be no difference between performance and being, but in reality, most actions we see are performative. For example, giving a hug sends a message. It is a physical expression of affection. It is showing rather than telling. Where there is room for misunderstanding with words, actions convey the message on a baser level. They represent what we want others to know and what we want to express. Hugs, like all actions, can be disingenuous, but because there is less room for interpretation, performing actions is often much more convincing than expressing things with language. On the topic of extra, we generally associate actions with “being extra,” and so it follows that extra is essentially a performative trait.

Language has managed to slip a rope around all our minds and hold us hostage to the ideas we try to express. Language evolves from itself, but at its core there is no one true sound to express a meaning. Despite this, a dog in any language is still a dog; we can point to it and mime it and draw it. The difficulty we generally associate with higher language arises with abstract thoughts. For example, before schizophrenia was classified as a diagnosable illness, no one had schizophrenia. They may have had symptoms that fit the current classification of the illness, but no one was diagnosed with schizophrenia itself.

This dependence on words is why so many things cannot be exactly translated. Context matters, word choice matters, tone matters. Though people around the globe may fit the English definition of “extra,” it would be incorrect to translate the word extra into the language of the region and use it to describe them. Similarly, though people in the past may have fit the current definition of extra, they were not extra. Language is tenuous and anchored in the context of the present. A word is only as meaningful as the ones that surround it, and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Just as every action exists in the context of the actions around it, so does every word.

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Art by Fauna Mahootian

Which brings us back to overly dramatic individuals, those with an inflated sense of self-importance. Perhaps someone who was arrogant and obnoxious, claiming that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Henry David Thoreau happens to fit all of these characteristics. He placed himself above other writers of his day, but received only modest initial attention for Walden. He spurned society to live in the woods, but often returned to his mother’s to do laundry. In an individual today, these facts would earn them the label “extra,” but Thoreau was decidedly not. He is not a Kardashian, celebrating himself on TV, nor is he a teenager at his high school prom, spending hours matching his pocket square color to his date’s eyes. Thoreau is not a serial monogamist, creating drama surrounding his lovers and then replacing them every few months, nor is he a young adult trying to eat only green foods. Rather, he is misunderstood; he is trying to find himself in his world. While “finding oneself” has been fetishized in the years following Thoreau’s death, during his lifetime he was unique, albeit the kind of unique you might laugh about from behind closed doors. His placement in history demands that language be used accurately to describe him, his actions, and the context of his actions. His timeline evokes a different era where, though he was histrionic and arrogant, he was still somewhat visionary. While today he would be, technically speaking, an “extra ho,” respect for his time calls for a different adjective.

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