Befitting Reverie, again

There is a cramped view of reality that separates it from value, from non-fact, from reverie, from dream, from art. To our great loss.

Today I return to a review of an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art of artifacts of all sorts from Jerusalem, 10,000-14,000.

The writer has this to say:

The ambience is conducive less to learning than to dreaming. This feels right for a history that is incomprehensible without reference to religious passions. I am reminded of Marianne Moore’s description of poems as “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.”Jerusalem was then, as it remains for many, as much an idea as a locale.

Of course, if I were to quibble I’d say dreams — especially reveries before art and special landscape and gardens, imaginary or not — can be sites of learning as well as transport.

And I’d say religious passion is not the last word about religious landscape. And idea and locale needn’t be divorced. But these are quibbles for the point is well taken. A mood and movement of reverie attends the best of encounters and immersions in art or place or poems. As readers will know, Thoreau put much stock in befitting reverie, as did Rousseau.

No doubt there are dangers. Perhaps wanting to return us quickly to sober awakening, the author of this review reports a truth that nevertheless is full of its own dream-like atmosphere:

In 2000, the British Journal of Psychiatry reported on about twelve hundred cases, during the previous decade, of “Jerusalem syndrome,” in which ordinary tourists were seized by convictions of a sacred mission and made public nuisances of themselves, often by sermonizing at holy sites while clad in hotel sheets.

Luckily we have no reports of Thoreau running through the streets of Concord naked. Though if the analogy worked we’d be looking for new age disciples running naked.

I think there’s a “Thoreau syndrome” evidenced in the regular bashing and ridicule he receives (“fraud, hypocrite, misanthrope”) not unlike a Superbowl fan jeering at a rabbi in yarmulka and tefflin.

** Peter Schjeldahl,, October 3rd, 2016


Creation and the tang of life — again

In two or three posts of the past few days I’ve made a plea that environmental philosophy sometimes let Creation or Nature step forward, initiating what I called “immersive contact.” It was a plea for registering poetically the tang and feel of life among natural things, natural settings, natural creatures. These thoughts can be brought around to Thoreau again.

Here he is in a familiar mood:

There is nothing so poetic, as a walk in the woods and fields.  I come to myself, I once more feel myself grandly related.  It is as if I always met in those places some grand, serene, immortal, infinitely encouraging though invisible companion, and walked with him.  There at last my nerves are steadied, my senses and my mind do their office. . . I love and celebrate nature.

I would not say all of environmental philosophy should be as poetic or fanciful as this; only that the draw of the fanciful, the pull of the sublime, the allure of Creation, should have a place at the table – perhaps not a privileged place, but a place of honor nonetheless.

My own sense is that my own sometimes technical and sometimes exploring philosophy – whether exploring Kierkegaard on the tang of life or Nietzsche on dancing Gods or Thoreau on dreaming frogs — would be impossible without letting a muse sing.

Homer gently begins, beseechingly, “Sing in me muse, of that man of many moves.” We might remember, as we write of environment, nature, or Creation, to ask, even in a whisper, for assistance:

“Sing in me muse, of this world of many textures, presences, alluring wonders, even holiness.

Sing in me muse of Creation.”


I want to pass on some extended quotes (some are contracted) from Sarah Mangusco’s reflections on flow, self-absence, and singing from the NYTimes, Oct. 20, 2016.

They stand on their own, and also reflect my own experience singing over seven decades of a life, and also my experience playing in string quartets. These experiences are hard to encapsulate, so I stop and listen when I come across an account that rings true.  I can’t help thinking that these experiences are also not so very different from the ones Thoreau sought — not singing, but walking amidst choirs in woods.

I sang in my college’s church choir every Sunday . . .  We were Mormons and Baptists, Protestants who knew the Anglican hymns, Catholics who could translate the Latin, closeted baritones who were planning careers in music or the church or both. A chronically under-slept Reform Jew, I usually dozed through the sermon.

As a young pianist I had been taught meticulously to disturb the silence of a well-insulated concert hall. Though I loved music, I didn’t have the temperament for performing. Even while banging out one of my favorite pieces, I shrank from the instrument.

Some of my earliest memories are of the strange mix of crisis and accomplishment as I’d steps forward to sing or play fiddle for an audition or concert and feel that music was my medium even as it threw me into anxious nightmares. But as Sarah Mangusco goes on, she reveals a contrasting way of making music — or being and being with music — that was mine as well.

But in a choir, I can make sound, focus the mind, enjoy myself and forget myself, all at once. . . . After enough practice, you can learn to feel the vibration in your skull and tell by the sensation whether your pitch is right, your timbre true. It is a kind of listening without hearing. Perhaps this combination of experiences is as common as what psychologists call flow, a state of complete absorption in an activity.

Here I’d add that Thoreau sought something like flow as he tramped or rowed or slumbered under stars.

I feel an additional pleasure . . . greater than flow, when I sing in a choir. It’s a mode of singing that strikes a balance between feeling necessary — each voice must participate to achieve the grand unified sound — and feeling invisible, absorbed into the choir, your voice no longer yours. I can work hard, listen hard and disappear, let the ocean of sound close over me. It is comforting to disappear into all that sound . . .

Do you ever feel that Thoreau wants to disappear into his walks, be invisible, even as he listens and tromps? Can we think of him as not only solitary but as a flowing member of a celestial chorus?

I see the beauty in the sheet music and hear it in the recordings, but when I try to remember what it was like to sing my favorite pieces by Tallis, Byrd and Bach, I can’t; I was singing, not remembering.

I think Thoreau’s daily journal writing might be an effort to remember something that would naturally slip away otherwise.

I don’t remember . . . performances, because I had no self-consciousness during them. I’m not talking about shyness or self-doubt or any of those other near-synonyms of the word; I mean that I forgot myself. I forgot that I had a self. Accountability is a standard of adulthood; we drag our lives behind us; consequences accumulate. You said this, you did that. If you’re lucky, you develop a means of regular and temporary escape from perpetual self-awareness; if you’re very lucky, your escape hatch isn’t a habit that will eventually kill you.

With a choir, you can take a breath and escape physically and metaphysically, occupying and occupied by the music. When you return to the rest of life, all that remains is an echo of overtone, a brief silence and then the applause. You’re back, and it’s as if you’ve skipped forward an hour in time, if it weren’t for the residue, that telltale joy, and the sense that some part of your life has been gladly surrendered. You know you were there, even if you weren’t completely, exactly there at all.

This all rings true for me. I think it’s a marvelous evocation of being-there/not-being-there that can mark a transcendence to cherish. We can cherish our being absent in presence. As Manguso says,

Singing with a choir is precisely the opposite of what I do in the rest of my life, which is to sign my name to things and speak to people who hold me responsible for what I say.

Then she gives thanks for moments beyond responsibility.

I am obliged to affix my name to everything I do. Later, if I want to remove it, I cannot. But no one, not even the conductor, can sign their name alone to a choir. Thank heaven, thank heavenly song.

This reminds me that Thoreau was heroically responsible in defending John Brown or in assisting fleeing slaves or in writing an obituary for an otherwise forgotten townswoman; and that he also longed for and discovered an invaluable world beyond such duty, where he could be alone, or be putting his arm around the shoulder of a  Canadian wood-chopper while reciting or singing lines from Homer — and finding imminent-transcendence there in a choir of three.

Sarah Manguso is the author, most recently, of “Ongoingness: The End of a Diary.”

Restoring the Landscape

Stanley Cavell was the first Anglophone philosopher to write a full book on Walden. That was back in 1972. Nearly fifty years after this breakthrough study, he writes sadly, poignantly,

That philosophers who have grudgingly come to accept the pertinence of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche persist in turning deaf ears to Thoreau strikes me . . . as soul-boggling and heartbreaking.

Thoreau effortlessly shifts between stepping back from nature for reporting what he sees – and then letting Creation step toward him, letting himself be immersed, getting the touch and tang of the Numinous, Sacred or Holy. For Thoreau, Creation is the touch of the Holy, a Holiness as much Vedic as Hebraic or Christian.  Creation or Nature is  sacred or holy without his becoming thereby  religiously fundamentalist – he has no position whatsoever about how creation was created. We see holiness directly – or don’t.

Nature for Thoreau is an object of research, and a place for extraction of resources but it’s also a place of wonder, terror, and simple beauty. Objective environmental research is eminently valuable. Absorbing the tang and taste of the world is eminently valuable, too. We can study the chemistry of a good tomato and savor its taste as well. His sense that we live in a holy place is not a Biblical article of faith. It is a report of experience.

The holy interpenetrates a five-fold set of couplings. A person is a relational interplay of psyche, soma, social others, things, and natural surrounds. The holy is a shimmer hovering over and though each. To dispense with associations with church or temple, we can speak of the wondrous or holy hovering over relations among mind and body, mind-body and our kin and fellows, among mind-body-other and things of the world, and among mind-body-things and the emplacement of all in an environment, place or landscape. If each of these relata — psyche, soma, social others, things, and natural surrounds – can appear individually and in concert under the aspect of the wondrous, it is but a small step to say they can appear under the aspect of the holy.

We might feel the satisfaction of having pure matter sustain the complexity and wonder of the human body, or of a plant’s stem, rather than staying only in the domain of scientific research. But what satisfaction comes from having the living human body or plant-stem drift beyond the wondrous to also inhabit the numinous or Holy?

Allowing things to appear, acknowledging their appearance, not only as wondrous but as holy lets us link the great religious literatures of our traditions to our daily experiences – not only of rocks or trees but our experiences of musicians, parklands, night skies, and seas. The Biblical Whirlwind immerses us in the wondrous and the Holy. Thus the address of storms and seas might also immerse us in the holy. Is there not even a glimmer of Holiness-aspect mixed in with the Wondrous?

Of course if we do not resonate with the Holy in the Biblical Whirlwind, we won’t hear it in Melville’s storms or late Fall Hurricanes, either. The sense of the holy for Thoreau, flows from Vedic divinities or intelligences dispersed throughout creation; creation is that dispersion of divinity. The holy also flows – Thoreau is not theoretical about this, only evocative — from a more condensed divinity, say, the “Maker” of Walden Pond, or the divinity – the beauty – that he addresses in A Week:

The eyes were not made for such groveling uses as they are now put to and worn out by, but to behold beauty now invisible. May we not see God?

Perceiving the Poetry of Creation

In a passage that is nothing if not provocative, Stanley Cavell writes,

Human forms of feeling, objects of human attraction, our reactions constituted in art, are as universal and necessary, as revelatory of the world, as the forms of the laws of physics. This is the writer’s faith . . .

What have poets to do with philosophers? What do both have to do with the sort of personal narrative that we find in Thoreau’s Walden, or A Week on the Concord?  Can Thoreau’s writing be simultaneously philosophical, poetic, and autobiographical?  As they become part of deadening chatter or routine, words can begin to sound like administrative or legal or workaday protocols.

A poet loosens up the hardening of words, returning new life to them as they roll out in phrases and sentences — thus the world is reanimated. Thoreau loosens the grip of routine perceptions of Concord River – it is only a place on a map or the river over there.  He amplifies its life, extending the name backward in time.  “Concord River” is an extension of  “Musketaquid.” This gives it lively historical depth.

He loosens the sands and the dunes of Cape Cod back toward a more poetic history.  He calls it an arm of New France. Name-shifts poetically stretch our sense of time and place toward the endlessness of Creation.

These transfigurations are relayed in first-personal narration. Thoreau verges on autobiography, extending a canon that would feature Montaigne’s Essays, Rousseau’s Reveries, and Kierkegaard’s The Point of View of my Work as an Author. To acknowledge this alternative canon means setting aside a presumption that reason must quarrel with poetry, the personal, or the spiritual.

Cavell’s brilliant and difficult The Senses of Walden (from which my opening quote is extracted) counts Thoreau as a first-rate philosopher of an alternative canon where reason is not at odds with a religious and poetic sensibility.

Kant is an icon in the tradition of pursuing reason. Cavell makes Thoreau more Kantian than we would have thought, and stretches a Kantian perspective to include more than we would have thought possible – a poetic-religious sensibility.

As Cavell puts it, Kant’s “thing-in-itself” can clarify Thoreau’s wedding of objective research and his response to alluring presences. The thing in itself is that elusive presence that holds multiple perspectives in thrall.

Here’s a related surprise from Cavell:

our images . . . of dawn and day and night, of lower and higher, . . .  of freezing and melting and moulting, of birds and squirrels and snakes and frogs, of houses and bodies of water and words, . . . are as a priori as our other forms of knowledge of the world.

Images of birds and moulting, of water and dawn, give us the vital presence of things in the world. And they’re a priori, available before the poet works them up in a revelation of reality.

Only because prior images gather to prepare our reception of Thoreau’s poetic witness are we convinced — if we are — of the sublimity, of the revelation, delivered in the reflection of distant hills in the surface of the pond. The reflection of hills on water tells us, as Thoreau puts it,  “how intimate heaven is with earth.”

Then there’s the culminating reverie from Walden. There are multiple reflections delivered as Thoreau kneels by the edge of the pond, almost in prayer. He finds his face looking up from still waters, and finds it next to the pond’s Maker’s, also reflected in water, as if the three – Thoreau, the Pond, and its Maker — were in communion, in intimate dialogue:

Why, here is Walden, the same woodland lake that I discovered so many years ago.

Thoreau remembers a moment when he was very young – and very wise. That memory expands to become a reverie both religious and poetic:

it is the same liquid joy and happiness to itself and its Maker, ay, and it may be to me. It is the work of a brave man surely, . . .  He rounded this water with his hand, deepened and clarified it in his thought, and in his will bequeathed it to Concord. I see by its face that it is visited by the same reflection; and I can almost say, Walden, is it you?

We’re given a pond that draws joy into itself, a pond that enjoys a “liquid joy” that is also her Maker’s joy. God is a joyful Maker, one who can “excite in us a pure morning joy.” We become who we are through everyday looks, through smiles of joyful affirmation – we become who we are through smiles between friends, between mother and child, between pilgrim, creator, and pond.

She rounded this water with her hand, deepened and clarified it in her thought, and in her will bequeathed it to Concord.

This moment, whether sublime or holy, is not a bare-bones observation from the canvas of experience, nor from the watery surface of the pond. It arrives from imagination’s resources and from the resources of the world, available in moments of immersive reverie. As Cavell put it,

our images of dawn and day and night, of lower and higher, of freezing and melting and moulting, are as a priori as our other forms of knowledge of the world.

The reflected allure of distant hills or of a face on the waters bursts in on us, self-evident in its glory, just awaiting its recollection, right now. It’s not a posteriori registration of data. It’s as if we were discovering something that had been sleeping deep in the soul, and is now suddenly being brought to full life. The wonderful constellation of watery reflections of my face and the face of a Maker, and perhaps fish below, seems to speak from eternity, and to carry the eternity of a just-now-perceived poetical necessity.

Thoreau discovers gods in the fields and forests; he steals from the Bhagavad-Gita, calling these gods “Intelligences” — he hears them singing, laughing, and spinning wool – a joyful family; he sees workers trudging home on the road as if gods in disguise; he hears his body as a musical instrument on which god plays melodies; he preaches what he calls a Newer Testament, the gospel of the present moment; he finds God in the moment, speaking through all things, one by one.

If Thoreau has a creed it is this: an experience of full life is a full experience of the divine, of creation.

This is not Brand Name religion. It’s not found in Cathedrals, Synagogues, Mosques, Temples or Shrines. He’s one of a kind — as it should be.

The Sacrament of the World

 The world is a friendly place when friends share their news.
Image may contain: 1 person , smiling, hat and closeup


In those years I personally knew Mother Maria, and often visited her. An old house on a poor and run-down Paris lane, a tiny courtyard, a few scraggly trees, an old garage in the back turned into a chapel. . . . In the house day and night: crowds, activity, the poor, ragged, unemployed, forgotten and abandoned. Everyone is being fed, attempts made to find work for all, and mainly—everyone is received with love and brotherliness.

In the middle of everything, a large red-cheeked, always smiling woman in monastic garb, flitting about in some unstoppable, seamless action. She is making soup in the kitchen, sweeping stairs, painting icons on the damp walls of the garagechapel, embroidering vestments, and in the evenings sitting in the half-lit sparse living room, greedily absorbing a passionately debated lecture.

What a panoply of stars met on those evenings: that’s where I will always recall the Assyrian head of Berdyayev, the scraping voice—he had throat cancer—of Father Sergius Bulgakov, the fragile, tender, kind countenance of Constantine Vasilievich Mochulsky.

Soup, the poor, hospitality—all this was during the daytime, but at evening—the deep problems of life, poetry, and culture. She sits embroidering under a lamp, and her vestments are always bright, paschal, radiant with flowers. There was not one iota here of anything formal or sanctimonious, or rigoristic, but always the lightness and joy of love, the freedom of faith.

— Alexander Schmemann, Sunday Talks, Radio Liberty, trans. Alexis Vinogradov. Alexander Schmemann was an Orthodox Christian priest, teacher, and writer who taught in Paris from 1946 to 1951 later in New York. Here he speaks of Mother Maria Skobtsova. This was passed on by Kelly Jolley who found it in Jim Forest who found it in a forthcoming book by Michael Plekon, The Sacrament of the World. The world is a friendly place when friends share their news.

Letting Creation Step Forward


As Philosophers we step back to take the wide and deep view of things. Or we burrow into detail to analyze their inner mechanics.  But is stepping back or taking apart for precise analysis always a good thing? What if these actions alter the landscapes and inner mechanics at issue?

If we step back to examine the Environment, or Nature, or Creation, we destroy something crucial.  We lose immersive contact. If we step back from the edge of the pool we’ll miss a crucial aspect of its width and depth, an aspect we can only get through immersion, immersive contact through diving in, swimming its width and depth. If we erect a large poster on the wall depicting the shape and detail of Nature or Creation, we forego diving into the original – or letting it dive into us, letting Nature or Creation overcome us, sweep us away, enter our being.

Professional philosophy is not written to sweep us away, or to acknowledge our being swept away, by an evening’s sunset. The professional stance, as it’s now understood, guarantees we’ll miss the power and wonder of Nature or Creation – unless from time to time we change our professional writing. Or unless we read more Kierkegaard as well as Kant. And unless we not shy from words stirring us the way Annie Dillard or Coleridge can, and not shy from calling these legitimate philosophical stirrings.

Religious writers sometimes take the backward step. From the second balcony they report God’s Creation over seven days: we’re interested onlookers listening to Regal Declarations: “Let there be light.” But as often religious writers fill us with awe, effect intimate immersions — on a gentle scale, “I lay me down by still waters.”  Or on a more violent and grandiose scale we’re plunged into a Whirlwind, as in the Creation that sings toward the end of the Book of Job in what Tennyson calls the greatest poem in literature.

Moby Dick is a rough and unsettling Creation, a secular-sacred immersion in turbulent waters. It can also turn on a dime toward serenity. Rather than attack, the crew becomes immobilized, immersed in the slow circle of mother whales gently nursing. In Creation we are embraced by both birth and death, coming into being and annihilation, on scales both gentle and catastrophic. But if you’re a professional philosopher, you can’t write of Creation or Nature immersively as Melville does, or sing as the Whirlwind does — until after you get tenure. My advice is: don’t let the impulse die in the waiting. If you have passions here, keep them alive.

I have a friend from Montana, Henry Bugbee, now departed who wrote by still waters and swept us up in whirlwinds. It was all in a little book called The Inward Morning written from the Harvard Philosophy Department as they bid him good bye. He was hired as an Assistant Professor to write about Creation – it was not kosher to immerse readers in Creation’s tang and taste and powers of annihilation. I have a friend from South Dakota, David O’Hara, who’s tenured and immerses his philosophy students in equatorial jungles and Alaska tundra. His informal writing pulls us into particulars, into the tang and taste and life of immersive contacts with Nature-as-Creation. Of course, he can also take backward steps to write up the ecology and economics of the terrain. For him, and for Henry Bugbee, philosophy isn’t only theory. It’s also wise practice and the evocation of worlds.

We are Touched; We are Called

Genesis and Job’s Whirlwind don’t give us two ways to see Creation, two different overviews. Genesis gives us oversight, but the Whirlwind synesthetically gives us sight merged with smell and touch and terror and wind – gives us the feel of these. Even sight has a feel.  What does it feel like to look down a thousand feet over the edge of a cliff?

This makes it hard for straight-laced philosophers to rehabilitate the notion of Creation, or to amend or expand the rather pinched notions of Environment or Re-enchanted Nature.

If we’re professionally straight-laced we take our domain to be detached assessment, impersonal argument, and lawyer-like policy recommendations. A glance at our IAEP program gives us plenty of this. If we like the poetry, drama, and music, the sweet blossoms and smiles that give us the feel of Creation, that’s fine for our off-campus life! But none of that is the business of straight-laced philosophy.

I’d loosen the corsets and stays and let the philosopher’s body relax into wider domains, relax into the feel and bloom of things. I’d plea – or pray – not for philosophical knowledge but for a wisdom that revels and recoils as the tangs and smells and feels of Creation or Nature intrude – as they touch us. My plea is to allow ourselves, as philosophers, to periodically refuse the backward step, to periodically let Creation touch or invade us — leave us its smells, feels, tastes, and tangs.

It is not enough that environmental philosophy restricts its program by holding nature and environment at bay, stepping back for perfectly valid research or policy formulation. That program, by itself, maintains a cramped and incomplete sense of nature and environment. Even when its program is preservation or sustainability, laudatory and necessary aims, to be sure, this will fall far short of asking what would it be like to have nature and environment be ever-unfolding invitations to immersion, to precious moments of the Sublime, the Numinous, the Sacred or the Holy.

My plea is to invite into the fold writers like Thoreau and Annie Dillard, Henry Bugbee and Bruce Wilshire and David O’Hara – and so many others – who can wed analysis and evocation — immersive contact and wise observation.  These thinkers and their kin can be more than suspect transients in the halls of philosophy. Let’s not forget that the canon can radically change. Hegel and Marx, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Schopenhauer are no longer unwelcome interlopers. The canon has grown in the last fifty years and can grow further.