Trees, Forests, Artifice


We have no doubt these golden creatures above are trees.

How about these strange creatures below?


They are in a “nature park” in Singapore. These things have roots in the ground. They are called “Giant Trees.” But to me they are impostors, aliens, or tricksters. Here’s what they look like with the lights off:


As you can see, they’re giant (note the tiny human figures on the walkways, ground level and bridge-level, up where the limbs begin to flare out).

And they’re manicured. Or more accurately, they’re human constructions, through and through. They’re woven by artifice rather than trimmed to reveal a natural shape. And what are those inner cones guiding the flaring?

Wikipedia tells us:

Gardens by the Bay is part of a strategy by the Singapore government to transform Singapore from a “Garden City” to a “City in a Garden”. The stated aim is to raise the quality of life by enhancing greenery and flora in the city.

Wait! Let’s look closer at these “super trees” as high as skyscrapers: They’re metal mesh all the way up.  Nothing is alive.  And they’re electrified for glamor and padded with artificial moss to cover the faux-trunks at their base.


It seems that the price of making a “City in a Garden” is to uproot our very sense of “garden,” “trees,” “greenery,” and “flora.”  There’s something topsy-turvy here.

Metal and florescent light are masquerading as life.

**  **

Here is a further example of “adding greenery” to the city.


Note the spiraling walk way that, as in the pathway through the “tree” tops we show above, is hardly the sort of path that lets one be immersed in or lost among hedges in an English Garden or dwarfed by over-towering elms or THE GENERAL SHERMAN in Sequoia National Park.

Is an elevated bridge in any way still a path?


Thoreau famously wrote “In wildness is the preservation of the earth.”

These trees and attempts at greenery in Singapore seem to say,

In artifice is the apogee of human elevation!

This isn’t walking through nature.  But what is it? It must be something like

overseeing technological mastery.



Luckily you can get some distance on the city.

These little guys are otters. They’re sensibly looking away from the glass enclosures, while we look at them looking — and then look across the waters to the curvy glass artifices that hold the “gardens” safe and sound.

And while we’re viewing, notice the platter  atop the flexed multi-story buildings in back of the garden-enclosures. It looks like a flat garden or park resting atop them. Worse than Topsy turvey.

There, you only get “nature” because giant buildings have conceded to lift it-and-you there, allowing a dash of green to adorn their caps, or like bruised mint at the crest of a tall glass of gin-and-tonic.

Thank god for the otters and swamp lilies.


The bittersweet

Life is full of unexpected slams and sadness – full of irredeemable loss; and also full of gentle kindness and unexpected human goodness.  A friend has just died. His memorial arched over the fullness of kindness and love and the fullness of sadness and mourning.

There was a palpable sense of the bittersweet, of blended sadness and love, separation and togetherness, loneliness and solidarity. There was a palpable blend of isolating grief and overflowing, all-embracing comfort.

There’s fullness of love and grief in every real signing off, in every real goodbye. A true goodbye is bittersweet — full of loss and emptiness, full of waves of affection. There is something bittersweet, too, in knowing that though the body be lost, a kind and vital spirit remains.


The Vitalist: A Literary Laundry Blog  8th Jul 2012   Interview:

Professor Mooney teaches courses in the Religion and Philosophy Departments, relying on authors as diverse as Kierkegaard, Cavell, Nussbaum, Lao Tzu, Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, Heidegger, Thoreau, and Iris Murdoch. His writings include On Søren Kierkegaard: Dialogue, Polemics, Lost Intimacy and Time (2007), and two other books on Kierkegaard, a figure who defines for him the vital intersection of religion, philosophy, and literature. Lost Intimacy in American Thought: Recovering Personal Philosophy from Thoreau to Cavell evokes the intersection of the poetic, the religious, and the philosophical in American writers; it came out in October 2009. Postcards Dropped in Flight is a set of lyrical meditations on birds, water, and the soul. [Excursions with Thoreau: Philosophy, Poetry, Religion, appeared in 2015.]

VITALIST: What does the phrase “lyrical philosophy” mean to you?

EM   I’ve always thought that there were certain passages from philosophers that just begged to be read aloud, as if at a poetry reading, for the very musicality of their expression.  Of course that goes against the grain if philosophy is exclusively the isolation of arguments assessed for their truth-value in detached, objective fashion.  As someone said recently, philosophy aims at truth, music doesn’t.  But I love certain sentences, say hearing Thoreau sound out in my ear “I long ago lost a hound, a bay horse and a turtle dove”   (that’s in Walden) and I can repeat it like a nursery rhyme. It makes me smile and sad simultaneously.  And then I can move from its lyricism to think of it as part of his view of grief and mourning, whereupon the words enter a more detached framework for assessing what life’s all about. Or the hound and bay horse can remind me of reading a sober line from Hamlet or Emily Dickinson.  And there are whole paragraphs from Schopenhauer or from a Wallace Stevens essay, or poem, that are poetry AND philosophy and need to be read aloud as well as pondered in the way we would if our existential attitudes or feelings were at issue.

So the quick answer is that lyrical philosophy is philosophy to be sung, read aloud again and again.  Once you get a philosophical proof, or good argument, you can set it aside, and move on; it has no more interest, it’s like solving an equation or balancing the budget — you do it once and that’s that.  You know the answer and the argument.  But lyrical philosophy doesn’t give you an answer to pocket because it does not respond to true-false questions, or good-bad argument questions, as if on a philosophy exam.  You tune into lyrical philosophy every morning, or at least once a week, because you never tire of the tune, and you attend to the way it’s performed today (as opposed to yesterday) and how it fits your mood today (as opposed to yesterday’s mood).  I think the biblical psalms and wisdom literature (the Whirlwind in Job, Ecclesiastes), are often lyrical philosophy.  We love musical philosophy because we’re musical creatures, creatures of rhythm and sound, and voice, not just evidence-collecting, proof-producing, and argument-hawking creatures.  Lyrical philosophy, like music, explores, sounds, sympathizes, excites.

VITALIST  Do you see then, a larger role for philosophy in the every (presumably American) day than it currently has? In other words, could you see there being a “common-reader” of meditative, lyrical philosophy in the way that Woolf imagined there was a common reader of English literature? Or as may have briefly existed among a people, among friends, in Concord?

 EM  I think there are at least two temperaments at war here.  One is the ideal of a community sharing common bread, reading from a common stock of literature and poetry and philosophy that inspires and binds souls together, the sort of wedding-scene of comedy, with wine and dance and circling communions of flesh and spirit, a wedding scene built around celebration of words, words of rhythm and color, of anchoring and affecting in the world.  Of course such a dream no doubt hovered over Concord for a spell, where utopian communities and joint writing, philosophical, and literary projects sought (and momentarily found) a convergence and transcendence of the dull and deadening.

Many – and I include myself when I don’t judge myself too deluded — hope for such a community hovering at the edge of humanities departments in colleges and universities, or at least at the edge of faculty and student watering holes.  But of course the reality is that faculty are pushing their mortgages ahead of them, heads down, making payments through the labor of specialized publications, etc., and have very little time (or interest) in chatting to neighbors or enjoying or constructing “A Common Reader.”  If a wedding were in progress in the meadow to the left, they’d trudge on by.  If they happened by Walden, they’d not notice, and fall right in.  So that’s one ideal of community, known mostly by its sad shadow, a desperate inattention to its fragile buds of existence and deep ignorance of even its possibility.

The other temperament — and of course to say “two temperaments” is immediately to provoke us to think of three or four or five — is not marked by community-yearning but by battle-seeking.  Non-lyrical philosophy loves a fight, loves to defeat the competition in getting the ‘right theory’ of this and that, and thinks of intellectual inquiry and exploration as a Darwinian survival struggle or as justified colonial imperialism.  The barbarians must be made to listen.  If there’s a moment of lyricism, it’s in celebration of victory over benighted, now defeated or mortally crippled, opponents, or over those so benighted and superfluous that they never even saw there was an issue there to fight over, settle, or to be correct about.

I try to repress my attraction to philosophy-as-warfare.  I once half-jokingly planned a journal, with a colleague, conceived on long runs in the Berkeley Hills.  It would be called “The Journal of Refutations.”  In whatever field an argument might be advanced, we’d just deliver the refutation by return mail.  But I wished my gravestone to have other than “EM, A Beloved Refutation Machine”.  Hence my essays often have titles like “Love, that lenient interpreter” (as a counter to “How to Become a Master of Suspicion”).

To take your question a bit further, I’d want to say that we are ironic creatures in the sense that we can see ourselves naked as we now are (minus aspirations and hopes) full of awareness of failure and limits — “We’ll never sit down and enjoy a set of essays, poems, and music together — there’s just too much difference and competition and disinterest — poetry readings are an anomaly and blue grass concerts are all-too-selective in audience, like conventions of dentists interested in the latest extraction-techniques — community is like that, narrow and mostly uninteresting except to the select-few — Get Real!”.

As ironic creatures we are painfully aware of our limits and of the actual impediments to doing much that is going to join us in celebration around literature and poetry and philosophy.  But if we’re not just defeatist or cynical or nay-saying creatures, if we are, structurally speaking, ironic creatures, then there is another fact about us beyond our capacity to see ourselves naked.  The second fact about us is that we DO have aspirations and hopes and we DO (some good number of us, at least) have faith that these hopes and aspirations and yearnings are not utterly illusory and futile. The gap between these two facts about us hurts, is our wound, a wound in our ontology (if that doesn’t sound too grand).

If religion means harboring ideals that seem a little outrageous, or learning to live with our ontological wounds, learning to grieve (as well as celebrate), then this is where we get a little religious – or call it something else, if you want.  The embrace of ideals makes even an avowedly secular philosopher look a little like a person of faith.  Without faith, without having a disposition toward being outrageously hopeful, would we really overcome disillusionment and start blogs on Thoreau that create mini-communities, or start journals like The Vitalist that seek to smoke out others of a lyrical-philosophical bent, or write books (like I do) that say that thinkers, philosophers, and literary types have a role in saving all that’s best in a culture, preserving it, nurturing it — not just a duty to expose its clay feet and corrupt underbelly?

So I have great hope for a “common-reader” of lyrical philosophy and I hope that I am doing something (by example) to push recognition of such a genre.  I also realize that this is a Quixotic task, that another (including myself in some moods) could find such hope ridiculous.  But as you know, Kierkegaard taught us that although the world be stripped away, the possibility of its return (as a blessing) is never foreclosed.  Let’s collect that “common reader.”  If not now, when?

VITALIST Richard Rorty wrote just before he died, a piece in Poetry magazine where he said  “I now wish that I had spent somewhat more of my life with verse. This is not because I fear having missed out on truths that are incapable of statement in prose. There are no such truths; there is nothing about death that Swinburne and Landor knew but Epicurus and Heidegger failed to grasp. Rather, it is because I would have lived more fully if I had been able to rattle off more old chestnuts — just as I would have if I had made more close friends.”

What I think Rorty is saying here is that in a deeply contingent, unstable epistemological landscape- we are perhaps better off sticking with what is enriching to the soul, rather than be tempted by the doomed pursuit of objective truth… Now forgive the length of this question- but this seems to me like, ultimately, a very Kierkegaardian statement – an assault on rationalistic philosophy for failing to equip the soul for its journey from life to death… Now, you’re someone who started, I believe, studying analytic philosophy and eventually became a Kierkegaard scholar, and lyric philosopher yourself- so would you say that your progress was similar to Rorty’s? And what was that process like- that evolution in philosophical approach?

EM   Much as I respect what Rorty did for philosophy by deserting the ranks for literature, back in the 80s, I think in the long run he just maintained the old fissure between poetry and philosophy, opting for the other side and leaving philosophy for dead.   And I’m sad he thinks that what poetry would have given him is so meager and trivial – that with more attention to poetry in his life, he would have had more “old chestnuts’ to “rattle off” to spice up conversation.  Those are more or less his dying words?  It’s a shame.

Socrates wished that he had had more ‘music making’ in his life, but that music, I’m sure, was not just repeating ‘old chestnuts.’  We can get something, a truth, a fidelity to experience, from a poem about death, and Hamlet’s truths will differ from those of Socrates or Tolstoi or Heidegger.  Rorty is so anxious to distance himself from what you rightly call ’objective truth’, Matt, that he thinks there are no truths to be had, period — poetry gives only ‘chestnuts’, glorified fortune-cookie ‘sayings.’  Socrates doesn’t think that the voice that whispers, “Socrates, make music and compose” is telling him to give up on truth, but rather, to hear truth in a different register than objective argument.

I started out as an undergraduate and grad on the analytic side of philosophy because I loved clear, jargon-free writing – Rorty’s kind of writing.  I thought that the existentialists had all the right questions but a far too Teutonic way of writing about them; and that the linguistic analysts had the right way of writing but a woefully impoverished  sense of what to write about. (Wittgenstein was an exception here.)  I liked Iris Murdoch, Cavell, and later Nussbaum and Cora Diamond because they were clear as a bell about good things like the passions, life, death, and intimate relations (three out of four, women?) and they took poetry seriously.    Philosophy should equip the soul, in the sense of giving it a foretaste of the challenges it will face in its journeys.

True, Rorty fixates on a “deeply contingent, unstable epistemological landscape.”  But that doesn’t silence us, does it?  I may realize that each sentence I write is open to a counter sentence, just as each tune I play is open to a counter-tune that may displace or upstage my opening notes.  But that shouldn’t stop my playing.

I can be more or less truthful in my fidelity to the sense of a tune, and to modes of performance.  I can expose my subjectivity through artful, poetic, lyrical philosophy, and let that exposure prompt others to respond, as they will, matching my commitment (I hope) to getting the sound and rhythm and color ‘right.’ We who join in these back-and-forths believe in our bones, as we write like hell, that the fake and the true are often self-evidently what they are, and that we’d better not forget that the difference matters.

Then philosophical conversation becomes more like jazz improvisation than like truth-claims in a physics text.  Rorty’s right, his life would be richer with more jazz and poetry, but the richness is not in more chestnuts but in more fidelity to experience, more wisdom, as we undergo life’s vicissitudes, as we are exposed to them, and share our exposure with others.

VITALIST  So it seems like you’re saying, that pace Rorty, that “the fake and the true are often self-evidently what they are”- that philosophers are still capable of uncovering or at least offering questions that can guide us to those truths. You also seem to suggest, that each philosopher’s (or each person’s for that matter) honest pursuit of that truth, takes on the quality of music. The mistake you seem to be assigning to Rorty then, is the false assumption that because the philosopher can’t make truth statements, there is no truth- when in reality, there is truth, and the philosopher just has to find creative ways of illuminating those truths. A metaphilosophy which would, I imagine, allow us to say that Emerson and Kierkegaard, are the contemporaries of Plato and Hegel- that Hegel’s “Owl of Minerva” or Plato’s “Cave” are no more or less  flights into (truth-illuminating) language than sections of Either/Or or Representative Men. Do you think that this is a fair exegesis of your thinking about what philosophy is? A broader network of illuminating thinkers, rather than the narrower canon of system builders?

EM     Right! That’s it! Our spontaneous ‘truth search’ is tending toward truth, we’re avoiding the fake. ‘Truth’ can be a static proclamation or assertion decreed from on high or through an ‘infallible’ series of argumentative moves, or it can be a looser series of illuminations we can’t but affirm, or at least consider over wine.

We hardly ever hear a philosopher say that Socrates is a fake, no matter how many errors in reasoning he commits (we’ve tabulated thousands).  He’s true to himself, faithful to his sense of what’s right, that he should not run from Athens, for instance.  How do we know he’s true to something here?  Well, he acts loyally, and in keeping with a promise implicit in his life.  How do we know what’s implicit in his life, such that we know he’s being true to something in not fleeing?  You see, at each step of this exploration, we expose our willingness to grant that the question makes sense: Is Socrates true to himself?  And each move in clarification is something like being mesmerized by the ‘rightness’ of his responses.  We know he is true, even as we’re puzzled (somewhat) about the degree of our confidence.  It’s, as if we were tracking the rightness of a jazz musician’s “true sense” of where an improvisatory line should go.  We want to stand up and cheer and weep as Socrates ‘self-evidently’ acts and speaks truly at the end, even as we’re puzzled by the voice at the end that tells him to make music.

I like your way of saying it, that the philosopher “just has to find creative ways of illuminating those truths” — truths, I’d add that shine forth in moments of recognition, as we sense that Socrates is right in his loyalties, and sense that something is disastrously wrong as Ezra Pound began to flippantly endorse fascism and spout antisemitism and at the end of WWII finally commits himself to an asylum to avoid a firing squad.  His poetry might be tracking truths, but his life and radio broadcasts became rubbish and worse.

The network of “mutually illuminating thinkers” you hypothesize helps us out here.  Of those we trust (Gandhi, Socrates, Bergson, Thoreau, Spinoza, Sartre, Russell), none can be imagined broadcasting anything as vile as Pound did.  Now maybe I could be disabused of this assurance.  But a good account of ‘truths to live by’ would begin by saying we aren’t raising a chimera in asking if Pound is fake and Socrates true.

Now everyone should leave a discussion like this with a sense that there’s more to be said.  That’s true, isn’t it?  So not to disappoint, let me just say that in addition to truths of systems and of the sciences, and things we are true to in a life, there are also what I call ‘contact truths.’  Well beyond my capacity to give a good account of the matter, I nevertheless know that it’s true I was born in NY State. It can’t be a good reason to say “My mother told me!”  I know that it’s true that I am nauseated by roller coasters (do I have to do more experiments to know this?) and that I get ravenous when I see a Starbuck’s pastry.  How do I know it’s true I get ravenous?  I’m in contact with something I know isn’t fake, that’s ‘self evidently what it is.’

I ask you to accept my exposing this truth to you, and to know in your bones that truth matters, and that in this instance, I’m not faking it — in the matter of Ezra Pound and in the matter of my ravenous need for a morning bun.  I’d also ask you to expose yourself to a truth (I know you’ll comply!), or a set of truths, that, as we’ve seen, Rorty is utterly tone-deaf to. And that that set of truths might culminate in a wonderful line from Wallace Stevens, spoken truthfully from Connecticut: “The search for reality is as momentous as the search for god.” Truth is an ordinary event, or then a series of glimmering and audacious and painful and remarkable events, moments of illumination.

A good time now to have a sip of Grigio — true?

Philosophical Style, Lyricism, Intimacy

An interview: from Dean Dettloff’s blog, Re-petitions,  Sept. 2013

Dean Dettloff: I first encountered Ed’s work as I studied the philosophy of Søren Kierkegaard. Ed managed to open Kierkegaard’s work up for me in new and exciting ways, and I’ve been gobbling his articles and books ever since. As you will see, Ed’s interests extend well beyond Kierkegaard studies. I have broken the interview into three parts. Without further ado, please enjoy the following interview, where we begin by discussing questions of style, lyricism, and lost intimacy.

Dean Dettloff: You have had a broad and eclectic career, with work ranging from original poetry to studies of American writing to, of course, the life and work of Søren Kierkegaard. In all of your writing, I have personally been impressed and formed by your commitment to a lyrical style that expresses philosophical concepts clearly while being anything but dry. Your recent release, Excursions with Kierkegaard, which is followed by Excursions with Thoreau, allows that style to continue to shine through, and that this is done in an interpretive work gives your commentary the added effect of also being a work of original philosophy. Can you discuss the interplay of form and content, particularly in relation to investigating the world of philosophy?

Edward F. Mooney: I’ve always been moved emotionally as well as intellectually by writers as varied as Kierkegaard, Thoreau, Nietzsche, Plato, and Henry Bugbee (just for a start).  I’ve wanted my writing to have some of that visceral “sting” or “tang” that can make you stop in your tracks, something that I find in the writers I read and return to. I want to keep a “feeling-thought” or “thought-feeling” alive and on the move. I want to let it transfer its energy from the page of my reading to the page of my writing. This accounts for the lyricism others have found in my work. I want to meet the writers I like in a way that shows my appreciation. It’s as if they start a song, and instead of wanting to write the notes down on a piece of staff paper, I want to sing along—without intrusion, but showing my solidarity with the project. Of course, writing down the notes I’ve heard on staff paper might happen along the way. But if I only did that, I’d be an engineer or copyist, not a musician.

If a writer knocks on my door, and I only remark on her height or weight, I’ll have missed essential dimensions of her being. I can report on what a philosopher said — for an exam, if required. But that would leave the living spirit of the saying well out of my response. I want to convey my sense of the living spirit that I’ve been excited by. If I adopt “professional distance” as my posture of response, then I’ll be leaving out ever so much that is essential. Lyrical philosophers (I can’t think of a better name) deserve lyrical response, especially if there’s a reason they need to be lyrical. So I guess that leads to a question beyond the question of why I write the way I do. It leads to asking why Thoreau and Kierkegaard (for example) write the way they do. Why does anybody need lyrical philosophy?

DD: That, of course, is a question deserving some exploration. Why does anybody need lyrical philosophy?

EFM: Of course, that’s the big question. Let’s say we grant that Kierkegaard or Nietzsche or Plato or Schopenhauer have moments of great lyricism. Let’s assume this isn’t an accident or mere aesthetic flourish but a moment when each feels that to say what they want to say lyricism is inescapable. Why should this be?

Well, it’s based in philosophical anthropology, I think.

We are calculating logic-wielding creatures and can be marvelous proof machines (and counter-example machines).  We can shine at producing persuasive logical argument tending toward definitive conclusions.  As philosophers, that’s our stock in trade. And we are also, at a more primal level, deeply moral creatures, wanting a fair deal, wanting reciprocal trust, needing to promise and to have promises honored. So lots of philosophy deals with understanding these matters of logic, argument, and morals.

At an equally primal, though often neglected level, we are creatures of dance and singing, theater and narrative. Sometimes—especially when we move out of the corrals of logic and forensic morality—we face wild questions (Why death? Why birth? Why suffering? Why rain? Why love lost? Why love requited? Why injustice? Why beauty?). These can be given “social scientific” answers, but they also resonate much deeper than that.

At this deeper level, they can best be articulated (if not answered) lyrically, artistically, religiously. Dance and singing, theater and narrative, religion and community celebration, articulate the enigma that we are creatures who in fact just do agonize over these questions. (Why do we bother? What’s the evolutionary advantage? What’s the practical advantage?) And perhaps it’s our essence as humans to be self-reflective this way. We agonize even as answers continue to elude us, and even as we know they will always elude us.

I see lyrical philosophy as approaching poetry and great narrative, myth and song—say in Schopenhauer or Thoreau or parts of Plato—at exactly those moments when these wild questions obtrude. They strike at an angle that tells us that logic and morals and standard arguments fall short. These fail to address them in their depth. And we know just as certainly that we will falter in giving lasting or satisfying answers. But we can’t leave the questions — in all their intensity and passion — unvoiced, suppressed, abandoned by the road. We dance without practical or logical rationale to express what seems to elude our everyday philosophical capacities. We write a hybrid philosophy that melds with the poetic, musical and dance-like.

Not all philosophers appreciate this lyrical-dialectical mix.

W.V.O. Quine makes a revealing comment at the end of his autobiography (a story that relates every airline flight over borders around the globe on his way to delivering sophisticated papers on logic). He says, “Sometimes I have been strangely moved by great music, especially opera . . . and so I avoid it as much as possible.” He suppresses what moves his soul. I too have been moved by great music, and by the musical undertows of many so-called “literary philosophers.” And I have tried to immerse myself in their writings, letting myself be carried along by the emotion and passion, the lyricism. It has its own philosophical bearing, hovering on the other side of staid ethics and rigorous argument — matters that too quickly become technical and dry.

The philosophical vocation of lyrical philosophy is answering the call to express those heartfelt, nagging, inescapably wild questions that are often – but surely ought not to be — buried or avoided. As full persons, we are drenched in love and love-lost, envy and eloquence, new life and old age, iniquity and pain of every sort—and also drenched in great moments of unspeakable serenity and joy. These are worth philosophical memorialization, praise, and lament.

DD: I find it telling that even your response to the question is done in lyrical fashion, honoring the can of worms I opened by expressing the idea in both content and form. You’ve done work on what you call “lost intimacy,” a phrase appearing in the titles of both a book on Kierkegaard and a book on American thought. Is your recovery of lyrical philosophy an attempt to bring intimacy back to the fore? What kind of healing do you think this might bring to a land that has lost its tradition of intimacy?

EFM: I think anyone would want to “bring healing to the land,” but maybe it has to be done through a whole spectrum of ways, keyed to the gifts we’re bequeathed. I end up writing philosophy (who knows to what effect); my neighbor is a therapist who went down to Louisiana after Katrina to hear people’s stories as a help to shattered lives; some try local politics or activism; I think the Beatles had a profound effect in their day. We surely need healing words and actions in this time of senseless neighborhood killing, failing cities, and gassing of civilians. I gave a talk in Iceland last month: they have no standing army, no armed police, and exactly 157 people in jail from a population of 300,000. That’s a special case; but still, in America we jail more than any other industrialized nation. We cause pain.

I shouldn’t forget the quieter hurts that could use quieter healings. There are sufferings that don’t appear in the daily news or in hospital or suicide statistics. My student with a blank look on her face; or the other one who drops out, preferring dorm drinking to whatever a poem might offer. There’s the other one, who freaks at the idea of putting a thought in a sentence; there’s the one whose parents exert devastating pressure to succeed on their kid, now a senior (translation: “make enough money that our investment in your education won’t have been in vain”); then, there’s the one who has become a smart-aleck cynic. Often the hurt comes from a sense of disconnection from anything that matters—a lost intimacy with others and with our shared world.

I think sometimes it’s only when we come across writing that speaks to soul-ache that we can “discover” how much we hurt. We’re given a measure of articulation and depth. We unexpectedly feel recognition of our own pains and joys that we had not yet found words to equal. The discovery of expressiveness is a discovery of what we have to express. At the moment it arrives to us, we become vulnerable and then capable of returning expressiveness in kind. We can find ourselves hurting or singing or carried away in exaltation just as a sentence we’ve encountered bespeaks hurt or song or exaltation.

What I’ve called “lost intimacy” is the loss, I suppose, of participating in occasions of such expressive mutuality.  It’s the loss of lyricism in philosophy, or the feel of the poetic in universities and much of cultural life, and the hegemony of an ideal of professional distance and suspicion of what I’ve called the soul. It’s related to the fact that we don’t have companions or mentors with whom we can speak about the joys that course through our lives, or about the emptiness that can cloud our days, or make nightmares of sleep. We have professionals who in therapy “hear our story,” and we sometimes have Rabbis or Gurus, Pastors or Coaches or Priests or Grandmothers.  But we also need to share intimate matters as equals, not just as client to an expert responder, or as parishioner to a priest. Attentive aunts, parents, siblings, or lovers might fill the bill. I think complaints about unchecked globalization and technology bespeak a fear that fragile enclaves of intimacy (if they exist) are increasingly at risk.

I know this is utterly romantic, but when I read a lyric poet or novelist or philosopher, I imagine them speaking to me as a companion who knows me better than I know myself. And when I read such writing, I also imagine walking with this author or another, or visiting them, soul-sharing. Utter fantasy, I know. Yet it reveals a real need, I think. It’s not an ideal easy to confess, in an age of self-sufficiency and “just do it” grappling and militant secularity. And it’s an ideal that can’t be marketed in a culture where mall-driven consumerism is a substitute for community, and where even the ideal of an intimate community of 3 or 13 can seem on many days hopelessly utopian. Books and writing then become solace.

Lyricism brings people together in song, and sharing song is a form of intimacy. I like to read aloud passages from Emily Dickinson or Melville or Kierkegaard in the midst of class—read them as if performed on stage at a recital. If the looks from the seats are an indication, this often works. I think we don’t hear intimate words delivered intimately often enough—perhaps the exception is at religious services, or at exceptional political moments of mourning (or celebration). Lyric philosophy is a great compendium of material to deliver performatively. It can cure or heal in the way serious theater can heal—through its “acting out” intimacies, showing that they are shared, and showing that for the moment, we can know we’ve become privy to the satisfactions of reciprocal communication and the bonds it installs.

from:  Sept. 2013

Harvesting Grief

The ex-Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, on the occasion of a memorial service for the poet Sir Geoffrey  Hill, says this about pain and grief:

sitting with our ‘imprecise’ grief, the loss we can’t turn into anything finished and impressive, we listen to Geoffrey’s words, in one context after another, burrowing, shouldering, worrying their way towards some redirection of pain.

One thought here is that poetry is a way deal with grief, a grief that by its nature is imprecise because its object is so often fluid or elusive. Is it the body – exactly – that was his brother John’s, that Thoreau grieves at the start of his writing career? Was it John Thoreau’s soul . . . and what would it be to grieve another’s soul?

Does Thoreau grieve their relationship, their now-lost companionship? Does he grieve the cruelty of taking a brother and at so young an age, and in such trivial circumstance (a slice from a contaminated razor)? Does he grieve the loss of a future with John, the loss of future trips and brotherly adventures?

Does he grieve his laugh, or kindness? Does he grieve, more abstractly, but still poignantly, the cruel ways of nature generally — its refusal of unlimited life?

Poetry might deal with any of these ways to make grief less imprecise.  But the fact remains that inundations of grief just are imprecise in their origins. And words work to narrow its imprecision, Williams says.

The work of narrowing imprecision is hard work: a “burrowing, shouldering, worrying” with words, as Williams has it. All in the interest of redirecting pain.

The implication seems to be that the “burrowing, shouldering, worrying” that is the working out of a line of poetry responsive to grief doesn’t erase or bury pain. It redirects it — presumably in directions that are not self-destructive, or idle wailing, simply diversionary, or sustained melancholy. The pain remains but takes different paths, some that will evince honesty and courage.

One encouraging path taken, Rowan Williams suggests, is the path leading to memorials to the dead, memorials to whatever we imprecisely grieve, laid out in some detail. This gives precision to the pain while preserving it, transformed.

If we stay with the case of Thoreau’s bereavement, the question can be to what extent much of Henry David’s early — or even later — writing was in fact a memorial to the dead. If it is a successful memorial to the suddenly dead John Thoreau, then, in a sense, John’s death is not in vain. Or so one might argue.

–Rowan Williams, memorial sermon, PN Review, Vol.43, No. 2, Nov – Dec 2016.

The Wisdom of John Wisdom

It is a fine gift of age — of decades beyond four or five — that one can take a serene look at the past one has tread and feel the intimacy of surprise. John Wisdom was a writer from my 1960’s who was so very human in his writing, even when I barely knew what to do with his prose and his insights. I fear he is largely forgotten today,  but just now I’ve been thrown into an intimacy of surprise encounter, meeting an old friend, and wondering how it’s been.

I wonder what I’ll hear from those nearly ancient times — carrying through from the all the years he’s been absent.  Yet here he is, on the pages of Kelly Jolley’s fine blog. He’s singing in his philosophically tuned, culturally attuned, inimitable style and depth. A unique, unmistakable, and lyrical voice.

I wouldn’t presume to say he should be read more, or presume to say what his relevance is. But I know a kind and wise voice when I hear one. It’s been a pleasure to hear him again today after so many decades.

Amongst the Shadows of Metaphysics…

by kellydeanjolley

On the road to Solipsism–which is the doctrine not that I matter to nobody but that nobody exists but me–on the road to Solipsism there blows the same wind of loneliness which blows on the road to the house with walls of glass which none can break.  In the labyrinth of metaphysics are the same whispers as one hears when climbing Kafka’s staircases to the tribunal which is always one floor further up.  Is it perhaps because of this that when in metaphysics we seem to have arranged by a new technique a new dawn we find ourselves again on Chirico’s sad terraces, where those whom we can never know still sit and it is neither night nor day?

We may hurry away and drown the cries that follow us from those silent places–drown them in endless talk, drown them in the whine of the saxophone or the roar from the stands.  Or, more effective, we may quiet those phantasmal voices by doing something for people real and alive.  But if we can’t we must return, force the accusers to speak up, and insist on recognizing the featureless faces.  We can hardly do this by ourselves.  But there are those who will go with us, and however terrifying the way, not desert us.

—  John Wisdom

The Times

It has been shown that disjointedness was not alone a *private* matter, hidden in the individual, but that also a whole *public* world of disjointedness was extant outside the individual. The.disjointedness which the individual had overlooked as long as it was hiding in himself, now confronted him built up into a gigantic phenomenon which stood there solidly…Even then [they] failed to see the danger of this phenomenon; they did not separate themselves from it; they did not destroy it; on the contrary, they identified themselves with it, and they lived with it as if they belonged together, as if disjointedness were natural to man.
Max Picard, *Hitler in Ourselves*

Thanks for this to Kelly Dean Jolley