Infinite Gradations of Mystery

Vertigo

Anne Michaels Gradation-001

Halfway through Anne Michael’s short, beautiful book, Infinite Gradation, we finally come across the two words that form the book’s title.

You said you wanted to keep your eyes open at the end; to miss nothing.

Four months before you died, during your last summer, you looked at the sea. For weeks, the most conscious act of looking. If you could take in that unending movement, that light, the moment water is displaced by water. You knew there was an answer there. In that infinite gradation.

Michael’s book about writing, art, memory, love, and loss is infused with death and grief on nearly every page. And yet, Infinite Gradation is a surprisingly celebratory and compassionate book. Death motivates Michaels to try to spin a fragile web of words that might help her (and us) understand the relationship between art and death. And the answer lies – as always –…

View original post 570 more words

Advertisements

Crimes and Misdemeanors: the case of the smart phone

Don’t get me wrong! Mine is a knight in shining armor when I need GPS in a strange part of town. And it’s also useful as a phone directory and instrument of communication which, I suppose trends toward utility. Some people think maximizing utility has to do with morality.  So what’s my gripe?

This morning on my walk by the Bay I angled up toward the playground. There were two little kids on the swings, and their dad was watching over them. Sort of. He wasn’t doing anything illegal. But he was neglecting his kids.

He was in that familiar pose, head cocked toward the screen. You know the look. But every second he disappeared into his smart phone was a minute he might have been smiling at his kids. Instead he telegraphed quite another, and hurtful message. The screen – someone else, something else – was more important than they were.

Sometimes smart phones block aesthetic reality. At the start of a concert we’re warned to turn them off so they don’t interrupt the music. But before the lights dim and the music begins there can be a magical ambiance I wouldn’t miss for anything: the shuffle towards the few remaining balcony seats; the air rife with anticipation; the stage being given its last set-up adjustments.

If it’s an orchestra, I watch the players strolling to their places and warming up. I wonder mischievously who will have to double-time to get the single remaining chair among the second-violins.  Are the kettle drums tuned? To me these moments are sweet, intimate, and not-to-be-missed. If I peer over the balcony and catch a flicker of screens, that’s not immoral (unless it bothers your neighbors trying to soak in the musical scene). But it surely disrupts the subtle aesthetic ambiance.

Sometimes it’s immoral, indecent, to disrupt aesthetic ambiance. Loud music after midnight from across the street is indecent exposure, a flagrant disregard of peace, tranquility, and the softness of dark.  Smart phones can’t be censured for loud noise — except for lecture or concert hall beeps.

The more flagrant crimes and misdemeanors occur when I’ve barely been introduced to a stranger in a restaurant line when he cuts me off to answer his phone, with no apology, or when a driver just ahead jambs on his brakes because his phone was distracting his attention.

Surely it’s a double misdemeanor for that pair of girls in their teens just ahead on the sidewalk to be lost in their phones rather than in tune with each other. For girlfriends to walk home from school side by side, without a giggle or gossip, is for each to tell the other that there are so many OTHERS so much MORE important than the would-be pal at their elbow.

Then there’s that restaurant couple across the room in their 60s. To be so unhappily locked out of conversation or eye-contact, in mutual disattention, is surely more than a misdemeanor. They disturb the peace and assault each other with their screams that yes, their marriage is nothing but boredom, on the rocks, despite the fine wine close at hand.

Let the Mystery Be

***

We live and die in mysteries. They surround and infuse us. The banjo sings “Let the mystery be!  Probably good advice.  But I’m going to examine the mysteries anyway.   

There are morning ones: a morning glory on my path to the bay, a ferry plying the blue, the sheen where the bay meets the sky. I pause — and let them sink in. They pull at my soul. Small boats resist departing tide. Early sunlight catches furled sails. These give goose-bumps. I start my morning walk with goose-bump receptivity.  In these moments of minor glory, mysteries come alive. — Gifts from I know not where: gifts of themselves — awakenings, illuminations.

From reveries on the Prom I turn up Congress toward Hill Top Coffee where my cappuccino’s ready. Cafés and caffeine sped up the French Enlightenment you know.

 A more intellectual mystery than my morning’s sacred, visceral intrusions is cosmos — holistic connections. A child in Sudan is scooped up from disaster by an adopting family in Montreal. Despite chaos, things link: a child is picked up, earth ties into sky, squirrels consort with nuts. Bach links to Blue Grass. At the Big Bang or Birth, disconnect begins. But we have memory and yearn for the atom in me to connect to the atom in you.

No Thing is an Island, Entire of Itself. Cosmos is habitat for humanity. It’s where we live and move and have our being. Mystery type two: Cosmos

From reveries over-looking the bay to coffee I circle home. In my study, I reach for Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. The title signals an austere type of mystery, the mystery of being itself — of my being here, of things being here (rather than not). The bottom line is Being, not Nothing. But it’s a mystery why there’s cosmos rather than void, fullness rather than nothingness. Mystery type three: Being.

Being is like God just being there.  In faith, always there. In doubt, not obviously there. In tragedy God seems to have deserted us. There’s Haiti and massacre in Las Vegas. Here’s Shakespeare (Richard II):

of comfort let no man speak: Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs; Make dust our paper — and with rainy eyes Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth.

Massacre slaps mystery away. Slaps being and God away.

Reality has many faces, not all of them bright, not all of them dark. In dark reality, music can lift us. Yo Yo Ma played a pint sized cello at seven in the White House for President Kennedy. Such class and decorum!!

Reality has many faces.  Of music – and carnage. A good friend from this congregation writes: Through mystery we sense a glory in things despite all their ambiguity. The rose is really beautiful even though it pricked my finger and in a few days will be wilted.”  There’s glory in the rose, in the cosmos, in Being — and in God.  God, like Being, is a mystery, and absorbs dissonance. Pain, evil and absence invade.

We live in difficult reality. . . . with rainy eyesWrite sorrow on the bosom of the earth. Perhaps the greatest mystery – a fourth level, as I see it — is the uncanny transitions we make from sorrow or boundless despair to faith, to sunrise and glory. It’s unfathomable – to me — that we don’t – most of us — get stuck more often in the dark that’s always lurking — or just inescapably there.

Renewal of lost mysteries is possible. This morning I saw a Monarch butterfly, common in my childhood — less so now. A pest in my back yard, Black Swallowwort. It threatens Monarchs. If I pull it up and bag the pods I make things easier for Monarch mysteries.

 In Genesis, God gives us life, light, humankind, the mysteries of blooms and Monarchs, of Cosmos and Being. They’re offered not as cognitive certainties but as goose bump inescapabilities.

The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Psalm 19. 

God and Her glory are mysteries. Writing out our word God, Jews often type “G D” – the dash a refusal to spell out the mystery. Let it be. Muslims refuse portraits of the divine.

Humor turns me from pain. I asked a friend, Does God laugh in the Bible? She twinkles. “Well, it shows God isn’t Jewish.” There’s a Yiddish quip: Men scheme God laughs.  Men explain — God laughs at the silly efforts. Let the mystery be!  Theologians can wise-crack. What did God do before starting creation? His students asked Luther this. My friend tells me that Luther shot back, “God made Hell — for you who ask such questions!

Mystery — whether of the rose, the cosmos, Being, or God — is essential for meaning. It informs our loves, attachments and passions. But the blessings of mystery can be troubling. There are mysteries close to the heart: love and attraction, smiles and silence; heaven and hell. Dickinson sings mystery: Parting is all we know of heaven, and all we need of hell.

The smile of a child is unmixed. But our emotional lives are tangled — smiles and shutters, laughter and bursts . . . from the 32nd floor. We live in difficult, troubled realities.

The heart can be vexed, both happy and miserable. Barack Obama said that leaving off Malia at Harvard was like open heart surgery. He loved and hated her departure. Dickinson wrote him a line: “Parting is all we know of heaven and all we need of hell. We don’t know what we have till it’s gone. Parting boggles the heart or breaks it. It’s a mystery of a dark sort, a dissonance underlying the rose softly singing. 

To be human is to be attached to family, place, friends, fellow worshipers. When strong attachments are weakened it hurts. With weak connections, parting is uneventful. When attachments are strong, parting is heaven and hell.

Can joy at Christ-risen simply wipe out the pain of Christ-tortured?  The soul, the cosmos, is vexed. Talk of graves; and with rainy eyes, Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth. Barren sorrow is not the last word, nor is death in Sandy Hook. But I don’t understand my mysterious transitions from hopelessness to hope, from despair to faith.  Mysteries of lilies or cosmos, of souls or God, or the transitions from hopelessness to hope these give me heart. But how I’m given heart is a mystery.

Christianity is as complex, contradictory, multi-faceted and mysterious as the hearts that act on its precepts and half-comprehend its narratives. We wrestle and lurch and find comfort with a narrative that swings from joy to disaster to joy and try to make sense of it all. The Gospel is good news — and it’s vexed news of partings, telling us all we know of heaven — and all we need of hell. Men and women dodge, explain, analyze — and so abandon the lifeboats: abandon faith, mystery, glory. God’s amused.  She smiles and wishes we’d just let the mysteries be – sad or happy as they may be.                             

 **

ED MOONEY, OCT 8, 2017, STATE STREET CHURCH

 

 

Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, San Juan, Puerto Rico

From William Eaton, Zeteo: 09.30.2017: “San Juan Mayor Cruz’s speeches to cable-news reporters and the world were heroic and heart-rending, and examples of great leadership in a time of crisis.” [See link blow]

Mayor Carmen Yulín CruzSan-Juan-Puerto-Rico-Mayor-Carmen-Yulín-Cruz-cropped

29 September 2017

This is, damn it, this is not a good news story.

This is a ‘people are dying’ story.

This is a ‘life or death’ story.

This is ‘there’s a truckload of stuff that cannot be taken to people’ story.

This is a story of a devastation that continues to worsen.

 

We are dying here.

Mayday, we are in trouble.

The government had the gall this morning of asking me:

‘What are your priorities, mayor?’

 

I have been patient but we have no time for patience any more.

I am asking the president of the United States to make sure somebody is in charge that is up to the task of saving lives.

 

I will do what I never thought I was going to do: I am begging.

I am begging anyone that can hear us to save us from dying.

If anybody out there is listening to us, we are dying.

And you are killing us with the inefficiency and bureaucracy.

 

I am done being polite.

I am done being politically correct.

I am mad as hell because my people’s lives are at stake.

 

So I’m asking members of the press to send a mayday call all over the world.

We are dying here.

And if we don’t stop and if we don’t get the food and the water into people’s hands, what we are going to see is something close to a genocide.

 

So, Mr. Trump, I am begging you to take charge and save lives.

If not, the world will see how we are treated not as second-class citizens but as animals that can be disposed of.

Enough is enough.

 

William Eaton hears Shakespeare, Richard II, Act 3, Scene 2:

No matter where; of comfort no man speak:

Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs;

Make dust our paper and with rainy eyes

Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth,

***I thank William Eaton, at Zeteo, for the excerpt above from his essay found at: http://zeteojournal.com/2017/09/30/puerto-rico-mayor-cruz-shakespeare/. Eaton gives more Shakespeare, and striking images, in his eloquent and timely essay.

Melville’s Moby Dick: Between Philosophy and Literature

 

Passion, Reverie, Disaster, Joy:

What Philosophers Learn at Sea

 

 

 

All men live enveloped in whale-lines.

All are born with halters round their necks; 

And if you be a philosopher,

though seated in the whale-boat,

 you would not at heart feel one whit more of terror,

than though seated before your evening fire with a poker,

 and not a harpoon, by your side.

 

Where lies the final harbor, whence we unmoor no more?

 

I still bathe me in eternal mildness of joy.

– Moby-Dick

 

The broad plot of Melville’s Moby-Dick is too familiar to need retelling. What fascinates me is how the book can clasp — can so seamlessly and happily wed — a sort of philosophy to literature and religion, and to weird and occasionally demonic theology. I’ll join a certain style of philosophy – what I’ll call an informal, multi-valenced episodic philosophy – to a renegade theology and both to the literary form of the novel. This idiosyncratic joining gives us something greater than the sum of the parts. The alluring reward is that I will deliver not a new philosophy, but a rare bounty (and tumult) of philosophical, quasi-theological, and literary reflection.

 

Seas of Unknowing: Philosophies in Narratives

Moby-Dick presents multiple perspectives on life, and presents multiple actual forms of life, each lodged in intense and immense surrounds. This is not a treatise in formal philosophy. It does not drive toward lucid conclusions. Its endless reflections disappoint hope for a composite picture or conclusion. Its informal philosophy, embedded in life and death, doesn’t resolve what Melville sees as the eternal enigmas of human existence. We move in misty, unfinished terrain. The meaning of the white whale or divinity, the mad purposes of love and comradery, the demonic powers of hatred, are elusive. Melville – or Ishmael — seeks flashes of insight.

“[T]through all the thick mists of the dim doubts in my mind, divine intuitions now and then shoot, enkindling my fog with a heavenly ray.”[1] We sail and stall on religious-literary-philosophical seas awaiting “divine intuition.”

There is no rising climax of conviction about the sense, or nonsense, of it all.

Formal philosophy aims to produce answers, even the despairing answer that there just are no answers. Literature can dispense with this expectation of closure. It is free to imagine endless situations, thoughts, and apparent resolutions neglecting either promises or deliveries of definitive results. This proliferation of unanswered philosophical (or rogue-theological) questions needn’t be perturbing: it can be exhilarating — as if we could prosper in a world richer for harboring the unknown along with the known.

Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the . . . image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.[2]

We can find our face in shifting waters without falling in. Wonder can supervene on unknowing:

[W]e now gazed at the most wondrous phenomenon which the secret seas have hitherto revealed to mankind. A vast pulpy mass . . . lay floating on the water, innumerable long arms radiating from its centre . . . as if blindly to clutch at any hapless object within reach. No perceptible face or front did it have . . .  but undulated there on the billows, an unearthly, formless, chance-like apparition of life.[3]

This is the formless giant squid, like the fog or the dark sea it inhabits.

 

An Unknown God, Whale, and the Demonic

The whale is unknown. While alive its bulk lies under its visible skin; it swims mainly unseen in the depths. An unknown whale travels unknown seas, and shape-shifts toward God or the demonic.

It becomes the power, vengeance, and elusiveness of an angry Old Testament God. It elicits fearful reverence in Starbuck, and many of the Pequod’s crew:

It cannot be much matter of surprise that some whalemen should [declare] Moby Dick not only ubiquitous, but immortal; should [he] ever be made to spout thick blood, such a sight would be but a ghastly deception; in . . .  billows hundreds of leagues away, his unsullied jet would once more be seen.[4]

Christ reappears after death. The whale will reappear, though killed. There’s strange piety in this. In searing contrast, Ahab’s regard for the whale is hateful and heretical:

That inscrutable thing [God or whale] is chiefly what I hate.[5] Be the white whale agent [of another Power], or be the white whale [the] principal [Power, God], I will wreak . . . hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.[6]

Ahab hates whale and God — they challenge his power. God knows not his own genesis, so his vaunted omniscience is mocked. Even Nature is scorned. Kant says we can’t know what lies behind appearances; this makes us humble. Ahab knows what lies behind appearances:

the sweet tinges of sunset skies and woods; yea, and the gilded velvets of butterflies, and the butterfly cheeks of young girls; all these are but subtile deceits, not actually inherent in substances, but only laid on from without; so that all deified Nature absolutely paints like the harlot, whose allurements cover nothing but the charnel-house within.[7]

Nature’s beautiful appearance is deception: the “butterfly cheeks of young girls” hide a harlot’s painted face. Nature is whore-some. At the inner core of things Schopenhauer found the wonders of music; Ahab finds repulsive stench.

The novel offers alternatives to Ahab’s disgust with the world. Ishmael’s birthplace, family, and youth are unknown but that doesn’t turn him sour. He seeks out the unknown of the sea with energy, wonder and humility. His biblical namesake is cast into wilderness. He is an innocent but not embittered first son in exile. Bulkington embodies mysterious unknowability, too. He arrives god-like from nowhere: beautiful, charismatic — and then vanishes. “Take heart, take heart, O Bulkington! Bear thee grimly, demigod! Up from the spray of thy ocean-perishing— straight up, leaps thy apotheosis!”[8] Had he lived, his charisma and power might have offset Ahab’s.

 

Socratic Unknowing, Unfinished Philosophy

Socrates embodies ignorance full of wonder and unresolved perplexity. In pursuing the meaning of the whale, Ahab’s demonic obsession, or Pip’s strange access to Ahab’s heart, the novel gives us a Socratic devotion to truth and a Socratic ignorance that won’t deliver final truth. The truths of particular encounters or characters proliferate in Moby-Dick, but an overarching or universal truth is forever just beyond reach. Socrates searches for truth but avers he knows only that he knows nothing. This is not skepticism. He teaches an existential truth: the resolutions I seek will not come from any external authority. Only I, in the particularity of my insights and passions, can provide resolutions — and then, only episodically. They need renewal and resetting through time. There are no enduring answers to grand existential questions, apart from devotion to pursuing answers and making those resolutions we may, one by one, partial and context-bound. There is no rousing, cymbal-clashing truth to proclaim from the summit. This is an unfinished, ever-exploring path that leaves us always on the cusp of the new. Here philosophy begins and ends in wonder.

This is “episodic philosophy,” a non-systematic, personal, love of wisdom responsive to the moment as persons tread uncertain worlds on their own. The face of episodic philosophy is mobile and shifting like the sea. D. M. McKinnon captures its inevitability:

One cannot by magic escape the conditions of humanity, assume the absolute perspective of God.  If it is better to arrive than to travel, we are still inescapably travelling . . . .  And our perspectives are necessarily those of travelers, at least for most of the time.  But there still remains a difference between the traveler who takes the measure of his road and the one who seeks to be oblivious of its windings.[9]

Melville embraces the shifting ways of the sea, of the men who sail it, of episodic truths. Glimpses of truth appear in the lively or melancholy gestures, moods, exchanges, and meditations among the Pequod’s exotic crew. The array is startlingly. Pip’s glimpse is not Starbuck’s; Queequeg’s is not Ishmael’s; Flask’s is not Ahab’s. Each has a moment in an unfolding tapestry. Each addresses others (who return the address). This creates shifting ensembles of meaning underway. Each scenario or episode holds a truth to be existentially weighed by members of shifting shipboard ensembles and by we readers. There is no hope for a single capacious view while there is every hope that the Socratic search for truth will remain funded and thriving.

This is not a random multiplicity of questions without answers. A unifying factor in the voyage and first and last, is Ishmael. He has a presumptive reliability, a somewhat unifying take on accumulations of perspectives. His narrative encircles all actors and sites, ever and again affirming him as the steady, unflinching, openhearted story-teller. At the tale’s end Ishmael cites Job: “And I only am escaped alone to tell thee.” These words remind us that it’s been his tale all along. They also invite us to repeat the journey: “I am here to tell thee!”  The telling will restart for every reader,  replicating life’s eternal repetitions.[i]

**  **

The very idea of a living, unfinished, episodic philosophy — allied with literature and rumors of religion — would be dismissed by the major strand of European post-medieval philosophy.

Since Descartes, such modern philosophy aspires to formality and impersonality. Varieties and textures of experience, its felt-realities, are dismissed as hopelessly flimsy for constructing truth. Philosophy must model itself on rational, impersonal science. But Thoreau, Nietzsche and others would dissent. They embrace episodic felt-realities where discrete individuals prosper or fail, see poorly or see well, find eloquence or boredom, move forward or back or just trudge in place.

The modern classical tradition aims for air-tight arguments, principles that are universally applicable — expositions abstracted from the bogs and heavens of living-dying souls. Plato’s sketch of a city-state aims for rational purity and order — at least on first reading — as does Kant’s deduction of the categories, or Spinoza’s demonstrations. But there’s a counter-movement in modern philosophy: the passionate, partial, epigrammatic and poetic philosophies of Nietzsche or Emerson, Montaigne or Kierkegaard, Thoreau, Wittgenstein or Cavell.[11] Such non-formal philosophy has an existential bite. It declines the brusque impersonality of the sciences. It easily welcome Melville.

The felt-reality of lives-as-lived is too subjective, we say. If subjectivity – respect for felt-realities – is given a foothold, what will happen to the hard-earned prestige of scientific objectivity? But we can live with two-fold vision. Melville gives an objective account of whale-zoology and a subjective account of the whale’s felt-power or magnificence. An impressionistic, context-sensitive subjectivity is no more subversive of scientific objectivity than Bach and Erasmus are subversive of biology or logic. We treasure friends and lovers, children and neighbors, gardens and landscapes, music and sport — and also, discoveries in astronomy. Melville’s poetic truths are in one hand and his aquatic-biology, in the other.[12]

An episodic philosophy honors the lilt of selves in life’s flows.[13] This is the “metaphysical riot” or outburst Cavell finds in Melville, Hawthorne, Emerson, Thoreau, and Dickinson. They put souls at risk and take metaphysics seriously.[14] Melville raises powerful, lyrical reflections from the unschooled mouths of memorable characters. Queequeg, the “cannibal,” works on the slippery back of a dead whale tied precariously to the side of the ship. Ishmael tethers him from a spar high above. He muses philosophically on the rope that binds:

for better or for worse, we two, for the time, were wedded; and should poor Queequeg sink to rise no more, then both usage and honor demanded, that instead of cutting the cord, it should drag me down in his wake.[15]

Ishmael then proposes that personal obligation erases individuality and free will:

So strongly and metaphysically did I conceive of my situation then, that while earnestly watching his motions, I seemed distinctly to perceive that my own individuality was now merged in a joint stock company of two; that my free will had received a mortal wound; and that another’s mistake or misfortune might plunge innocent me into unmerited disaster and death.[16]

Reflection can be solo, or among chatting shipmates, or from intense dialogue. We have a vivid exchange between Ahab and Pip, patterned on Shakespeare’s dialogue between Lear and his fool. Philosophical reflection can be addressed to nature herself — as if she were eloquence eliciting human eloquence. Ahab:

Then hail, for ever hail, O sea, in whose eternal tossings the wild fowl finds his only rest. Born of earth, yet suckled by the sea; though hill and valley mothered me, ye billows are my foster-brothers![17]

For the moment, in Ahab’s glance, we enter an abundant nurturing creation.

 

A Metaphysics of Intimate Abundance

Melville can soar into mystic realms, but he’s not a Platonist. He’s too disorderly to be Aristotelian. If you don’t mind hyphenated identities, he’s a Romantic-Vitalist. Earth, sea and stars are alive –  breathing, growing. Galileo inaugurates a materialism of sticks, stones, and atoms that consigns living, dying, and passions to illusion. Melville’s natural world bespeaks wonder, life, death, and struggle. It bursts with poetic-religious-metaphysical light and dark.[18] This abundance is this-worldly and owes nothing to extra-terrestrial Platonic or Christian orbs:

the industrious earth beneath was as a weaver’s loom, with a gorgeous carpet on it, whereof the ground-vine tendrils formed the warp and woof, and the living flowers the figures

.[19]

And this orb is not always innocent:

Under an abated sun; afloat all day upon smooth, slow heaving swells; seated in his boat, light as a birch canoe; and so sociably mixing with the soft waves themselves… these are the times of dreamy quietude, when beholding the tranquil beauty and brilliancy of the ocean’s skin, one forgets the tiger heart that pants beneath it; and would not willingly remember, that this velvet paw but conceals a remorseless fang.[20]

Waves become sociable, swells become cradling, and velvet paws hide remorseless fangs. Abundance has poetic sheen. The Good or Beautiful are immanent, and companion the Terrible and Devouring. Whether terrible or serene, realities are co-articulate:

[There are] the mild blue hill-sides; as over these there steals the hush, the hum; you almost swear that play-wearied children lie sleeping in these solitudes . . . And all this mixes with your most mystic mood; so that fact and fancy, half-way meeting, interpenetrate, and form one seamless whole.[21]

Playfully and seriously, Ishmael imagines metaphysical riots and spouting:

I am convinced that from the heads of all ponderous profound beings, such as Plato, Pyrrho, the Devil, Jupiter, Dante, and so on, there always goes up a certain semi-visible steam, while in the act of thinking deep thoughts.[22]

Imaginings can be ruminations about ideas, and as likely, triggered by whales or thunderclaps,  an intoxicating moon, or the scent of sea creatures. This is the stuff and “mystic mood” of poetry, of befitting reverie, of philosophy where fact and fancy meet.[23]

 

Christians, Cannibals, Affectionate Address

Philosophy boils up from life’s dramas. Queequeg, a “cannibal,” is the kindest companion and roommate. He observes Ramadan, sitting cross-legged through the night, in a rigorous fast.[24]  On the way to Nantucket he rescues an overboard rube who had insulted him, and remarks “We cannibals must help these Christians.”[25]  Reflecting, Ishmael remarks:

I cherish the greatest respect towards everybody’s religious obligations, never mind how comical, and could not find it in my heart to undervalue even a congregation of ants worshipping a toad-stool.[26]

He begs Queequeg to give up Ramadan, but this bedroom harangue is good humored and intimate. The discourse of professors is never so cozy:

Queequeg, said I, get into bed now, and lie and listen to me. I then went on, beginning with the rise and progress of the primitive religions, and coming down to the various religions of the present time, during which time I labored to show Queequeg that all these Lents, Ramadans, and prolonged ham-squattings in cold, cheerless rooms were stark nonsense; bad for the health; useless for the soul; opposed, in short, to the obvious laws of Hygiene and common sense. I told him . . . it pained me . . . to see him now so deplorably foolish about this ridiculous Ramadan of his.[27]

If we abstract an “argument” we’d lose wit, affections, and Ishmael’s generosity. Plato takes philosophy as care for the soul, and in this case it’s the embodied soul. Ishmael tucks Queequeg in: night fasts are unhealthy.

Plato’s Symposium starts with camaraderie among friends sharing drink and dinner and ends with an embodied flirtatious contest between Alcibiades and Socrates, between lust and love. Ishmael’s critique of Ramadan includes tucking in his friend. Reasons flow from care and affectionate play. And Ishmael doesn’t place Christian practice above Queequeg’s “savage” or “Muslim” practice. Lent also is bad for the body. Eros, humor, and philosophy are embedded in the words, actions, and gestures of the everyday: sleeping, eating, pacing, rowing, climbing.

Speech can be wise or foolish, and life’s pauses and movements can bespeak things wise, conventional, or foolish. Bodily presence bespeaks metaphysical moods. Ahab’s peg-leg and body-length scar bespeak terror and doom:

Threading its way out from among his grey hairs, and continuing right down one side of his tawny scorched face and neck . . . you saw a slender rod-like mark, lividly whitish. It resembled that perpendicular seam sometimes made in the straight, lofty trunk of a great tree, when the upper lightning tearingly darts down it, and without wrenching a single twig, peels and grooves out the bark from top to bottom, ere running off into the soil.[28]

Scar and peg-leg modulate thought and speech; speech modulates pacing; jointly they shape him.

 

Metaphysical Defiance

The infinite world is episodically extended in pacing, laughing, listening, speaking, and offers fickle cosmos amidst intermittent chaos with all levels of order and disorder between. “God” ought to install order, but take Ahab’s twisted “theological” stance. He addresses a God-like Thou and equally disowns it as fraud:

Thou knowest not how came ye, hence callest thyself unbegotten; certainly knowest not thy beginning, hence callest thyself unbegun. I know that of me, which thou knowest not of thyself, oh, thou omnipotent.[29]

Ignorant of His origins, this “God” must bow to Ahab’s knowledge. Divinity’s claims to eternity and creative power also get mocked:

There is some unsuffusing thing beyond thee, thou clear spirit, to whom all thy eternity is but time, all thy creativeness [merely] mechanical. Through thee, thy flaming self, my scorched eyes do dimly see it.[30]

Ahab sees through the pretense despite a “refiner’s fire.” This would-be omnipotence is an orphan – grieving alone and beyond comfort.

Oh, thou foundling fire, thou hermit immemorial, thou too hast thy incommunicable riddle, thy unparticipated [unshared] grief. Here again with haughty agony, I read my sire. Leap! leap up, and lick the sky! I leap with thee; I burn with thee; would fain be welded with thee; defyingly I worship thee![31]

But can worship be defiant and irreverent? Ahab presumes to leap heavenward, the son with the father.  Yet there’s a nice ambiguity in calling God “my sire.” God may have sired him, or he may have sired it! An embracing leap tied to this “blindfolded” divinity ties mortal to immortal:

Oh, oh! Yet blindfold, yet will I talk to thee. Light though thou be, thou leapest out of darkness; but I am darkness leaping out of light, leaping out of thee![32]

“God” emerges as light from darkness, but light can’t illuminate its own dark beginnings without a second source of light. Thus the first light is functionally orphaned, blind to its source.

This is wild surrealism. Only dark Power can say “let there be light!” As Prince of Darkness, Ahab leaps from the brow of this blind, dark, foundling god.

Ahab can see both his own and God’s origins, and so is the greater.

On these seas I as Persian once did worship [thee], till in the sacramental act so burned by thee, that to this hour I bear the scar; I now know thee, thou clear spirit, and I now know that thy right worship is defiance. To neither love nor reverence wilt thou be kind; and e’en for hate thou canst but kill; and all are killed. No fearless fool now fronts thee. I own [grant] thy speechless, placeless power; but to the last gasp of my earthquake life will dispute its unconditional, unintegral mastery in me. In the midst of the personified impersonal, a personality stands here.[33]

The attack on this “speechless, placeless power” morphs into Ahab’s hate-filled welding to a whale, to a speechless, placeless Moby Dick:

Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.[34]

The whale may destroy him but can’t conquer his spitting, defiant spirit. Moby-Dick is tangible magnificence and power while God is illusory magnificence and power — a miserable foundling to stab. Ahab takes vengeance on any beast, man, or divinity who would deny his Magnificence. He welds himself to his harpoon and welds both to the whale. In parallel, he “. . . would fain be welded” to his God, and would kill Him. [35]

But even his vengeance is fickle. We soon find Ahab suffused in compassion: he asks to be tenderly riveted to the slightly crazed cabin boy, Pip – like divinity, a foundling, a holy fool. But there is no defiance here. Shakespeare has Lear seek instruction from his fool. Pip anticipates a tender welding moment, where he would be welded to Ahab:

 Lo! ye believers in gods all goodness, and in man all ill, lo you! see the omniscient gods oblivious of suffering man; and man, though idiotic, and knowing not what he does, yet full of the sweet things of love and gratitude.

Ahab – shockingly — transcends defiance and hatred in this moment of love and gratitude. More surprising still, he can glimpse within himself a serenity and joy:

… amid the tornadoed Atlantic of my being, do I myself still for ever centrally disport in mute calm; and while ponderous planets of unwaning woe revolve round me, deep down and deep inland there I still bathe me in eternal mildness of joy.[36]

In scenes like these, tremendous energy overflows the dissonances of mortals and immortals, sense and nonsense, hatred and joy, bereavement and repair: “Shall I call that wise or foolish; if it be really wise it has a foolish look to it; yet, if it be foolish, then has it a sort of wiseish look to it.” [37]

**   **  **

Genre

In a play within the play, in Hamlet, Polonius presents “the best actors in the world, either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-comical, tragical-comical-historical, one-act plays or long poems.”[38]  Melville too delivers multiple genres: long meditations, dramas (each player named), rollicking adventures, biology or “cetology” lessons, extended overtures and finales.

The prologue features an assembly of words for “whale” from dozens of languages, and a “sub-sub-librarian” assembles a catalogue of passages citing whales. Were this clerk to confront Moby-Dick, he’d try to nail down its catalogue genre — but without success. It’s “historical-comical, tragical-comical-historical, full of one-act plays or a long and unlimited poem” – and so, beyond cataloguing.  A good reader will leave sub-sub-librarians aside to dive with Ishmael into wildness.

Moods and perspectives shift and conflict, and genre escapes us. Yet there is a subtle progress of scenarios: wonder and terror at creation’s abundance; unfolding tales of catastrophe and bursts of new life. The Book of Job gives us a majestic Creator-Whirlwind, a Voice impressed by its own wildness, and by the infinite ingenuity of its scope.[39] Moby-Dick is not just about destructions or a vengeful God, nor just about a vengeful sea-captain, or a place of slaughter:

another and still stranger world met our eyes as we gazed over the side. For, suspended in those watery vaults, floated the forms of the nursing mothers of the whales . . . and as human infants while suckling will calmly and fixedly gaze away from the breast, as if leading two different lives at the time; and while yet drawing mortal nourishment, be still spiritually feasting upon some unearthly reminiscence; — even so did the young of these whales seem looking up towards us, but not at us, as if we were but a bit of Gulf-weed in their new-born sight.[40]

Sucklings are innocent, without hate, and soulful — eyes raised toward heaven.

This tender serenity is redemptive. This particular scenario and mood is divine and comedic.  Killers set harpoons to rest as awe and affection supervene. Serenity cloaks this place of affirmation and rebirth. Peace and new life replace disaster and death.[41]

 

Rebirth as Renewal

The text opens: “Call me Ishmael.” Was this name given at birth? Perhaps this is the nom de plume of an otherwise anonymous story-teller, anticipating new life in the wilds. Perhaps he is born with the birth of his story of adventure, disaster, and rebirth.

The biblical Ishmael is reborn as he survives wilderness. The writer who says, “Call me Ishmael,” is cast out of a tribe of bloodless school-teachers and pupils.  He will be reborn at sea as author of his own story. The wonder of his emerging from nowhere is matched by the wonder of his surviving disaster and by the wonder of the tale he brings to birth. Only he lives to tell. As Job survives his afflictions and the Whirlwind, Ishmael survives the whirlpool that swallows the Pequod.

In Genesis, God delivers light and order from waste and welter, “tohu wabohu,” a place without form and void.[42] Ishmael drifts suicidally through the streets of Manhattan. Leaving the waste and welter of the city, shipboard order follows. Waste and welter return in the chase and final disaster; then birth once more as the story is retold. Order never stays for good. Death never gains full dominion. Genesis concludes with the image of a mummy – Joseph’s – in a coffin.[43] Queequeg makes himself a coffin. It becomes the life-buoy Ishmael clasps in the vortex devouring the ship. He survives to tell a tale of deaths and rebirths.

Tashtego works on the whale laid out on the deck. He squeezes into the head’s narrow spouting-hole, working down to retrieve the valuable ambergris. The carcass slips suddenly into the sea. Trapped, Tashtego plunges doom-ward. Queequeg dives in, pulling him from the birth canal. In a comic touch, he turns Tashtego’s leg to avoid breech birth from the spout hole:

Upon first thrusting in for him, a leg was presented; but well knowing that that was not as it ought to be, and might occasion great trouble;— he had thrust back the leg, and by a dexterous heave and toss, had wrought a somerset upon the Indian; so that with the next trial, he came forth in the good old way— head foremost.[44]

Queequeg is midwife at Tashtego’s rebirth, saving him both from drowning and from an indelicate entry to life.[45]

Moby-Dick begins with satirical prefaces laying out purgatory: the hunt for whale-names and whale-quotes rather than whales.

Moby-Dick features death and disaster, bookish mediocrity and heroic action. We laugh at the sub-sub librarian, but the laugh is on all scholars who bicker over genres: is this tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral – hyperbolic truth, true hyperbole, sublime lie – epic, novel, poem, or mash-up? One lesson of Moby-Dick is that we should flail in wilds rather than argue over labels.  It is an ongoing cycle of deaths and rebirths, resurrections. The final note is the rebirth of the teller of ever-shifting sea-tales.

There is no staying in any one place; for at one and the same time everything has to

be done everywhere. It is much the same with him who endeavors the

descriptions of the scene.[46]

Flux and instability are pervasive.

Even the epilogue is unstable: “Only I have survived to tell ye.” This citation is from Job, and gives Ishmael gravitas. Yet it also inserts doubt. Why believe a wild compendium of stories not a soul can confirm? Why believe in biblical tales or in Melville’s fictions?  “I only am escaped alone to tell thee . . .The drama’s done. Why then here does any one step forth? —Because one did survive the wreck.”[47] We believe – or don’t.

 

Color, Sanity, and Truths

Melville embraces racial and religious diversity, but he doesn’t preach. He shows the virtue unfold. He reveals a fraternal community where race and cultural differences drop away. He appoints Ishmael the ex-school teacher to narrate, and the “cannibal” to be Ishmael’s best friend. Queequeg’s religion is a hodge-podge of rituals and practices including observing Ramadan at night (rather than day). He’s puritanically circumspect about exposing private parts: he’s embarrassed by the nakedness of his feet.

Queequeg is more selflessly Christian than the would-be Christians who taunt him.

We’re immersed in joy and sadness, conflicts and resolutions, kindness and cruelty, bravery and cowardice, confession and exhortation, melancholy and exuberance. And we have extended moments of sanity in madness. Nothing can replace immersion in the power – ethical, literary, religious – of Melville’s lines and paragraphs.  Enter the vengeful Ahab approaching the half-drowned, half-mad Pip, with uncommon tenderness. It’s Shakespearean, fit to be staged:

  • Ahab calls out: — Ha, Pip? come to help; eh, Pip?
  • Pip responds: — Pip? whom call ye Pip? Pip jumped from the whale-boat. Pip’s missing. Let’s see now if ye haven’t fished him up here, fisherman. It drags hard; I guess he’s holding on. Jerk him, Tahiti! Jerk him off; we haul in no cowards here. Ho! there’s his arm just breaking water. A hatchet! a hatchet! cut it off— we haul in no cowards here. Captain Ahab! sir, sir! here’s Pip, trying to get on board again.

Pip wrestles with his half-drowned self. Then the Manxman speaks, seizing Pip by the arm.

  • The Manxman: — Peace, thou crazy loon. Away from the quarter-deck!

Ahab’s sympathy with this nearly drowned and unbalanced black child shines through.

  • Ahab: — The greater idiot [the Manxman] ever scolds the lesser! Hands off from that holiness! Where sayest thou Pip was, boy?
  • Pip: — Astern there, sir, astern! Lo! lo!

In panic, Pip had leapt from the boat in the midst of a chase, fell astern, and nearly drowned. His life was saved but in his immersion his sanity is lost. He hallucinates the boatmen, chopping at his arm, as he clings to the gunwale — “a hatchet, cut it off!” They have only hatred for cowards. Ahab alone acknowledges the shattered humanity before him:

  • Ahab asks: — And who art thou, boy? I see not my reflection in the vacant pupils of thy eyes. Oh God! that man should be a thing for immortal souls to sieve through! Who art thou, boy?

We know Pip is holiness, a holy fool, a shattered vessel. He chatters a confusion of identities, including that of a slaver’s escaped property.

  • Pip answers: — Bell-boy, sir; ship’s-crier; ding, dong, ding! Pip! Pip! Pip! One hundred pounds of clay reward for Pip; five feet high— looks cowardly— quickest known by that! Ding, dong, ding! Who’s seen Pip the coward?
  • Ahab groans: — There can be no hearts above the snow-line. Oh, ye frozen heavens! look down here. Ye did beget this luckless child, and have abandoned him, ye creative libertines. Here, boy; Ahab’s cabin shall be Pip’s home henceforth, while Ahab lives.

In a startling line – is he near tears?–

  • Ahab whispers: — Thou touchest my inmost centre, boy; thou art tied to me by cords woven of my heart-strings. Come, let’s down.

Where is the vengeful, heartless Ahab?

  • Pip asks: — What’s this? here’s velvet shark-skin.

He intently gazes at Ahab’s hand. Is Ahab velvet or shark, mad or sane? Both!

  • Pip continues: — Ah, now, had poor Pip but felt so kind a thing as this, perhaps he had ne’er been lost! This seems to me, sir, as a man-rope; something that weak souls may hold by.
  • Pip pleads: — Oh, sir, let old Perth now come and rivet these two hands together; the black one with the white, for I will not let this go.
  • Ahab responds: — Oh, boy, nor will I thee, unless I should thereby drag thee to worse horrors than are here. Come, then, to my cabin.
  • Ahab continues, bitter yet tender: — Lo! ye believers in gods all goodness, and in man all ill, lo you! see the omniscient gods oblivious of suffering man; and man, though idiotic, and knowing not what he does, yet full of the sweet things of love and gratitude. Come! I feel prouder leading thee by thy black hand, than though I grasped an Emperor’s!

In pre-Civil War America, by Southern lights, these last words are disgusting and seditious, and by many Northern lights, they are heroically humane. The scene taps justice and compassion through and through.  A line of simple wisdom follows from the chorus, played by the Manxman.

  • The old Manxman mutters: — There go two daft ones now. One daft with strength, the other daft with weakness.[48]

 

Partial and Absorbing Views

Elsewhere enter the Captain, Starbuck, and Stubb on a clear day looking into the sea for an image of life. Each recounts what he sees – Ahab, fleeting moments of bliss amidst steady dark; Starbuck, love’s deep joy; Stubb, invitations to dive and play. Here is Ahab, meadows replacing seas:

Oh, grassy glades! oh, ever vernal endless landscapes in the soul; in ye,— though long parched by the dead drought of the earthy life,— in ye, men yet may roll, like young horses in new morning clover; and for some few fleeting moments, feel the cool dew of the life immortal on them. Would to God these blessed calms would last. But the mingled, mingling threads of life are woven by warp and woof: calms crossed by storms, a storm for every calm.[49]

He wonders plaintively where it will end:

Where lies the final harbor, whence we unmoor no more? In what rapt ether sails the world, of which the weariest will never weary? Where is the foundling’s father hidden? Our souls are like those orphans whose unwedded mothers die in bearing them: the secret of our paternity lies in their grave, and we must there to learn it.[50]

And for us Ahab exposes utter and eloquent despair:

Oh! time was, when as the sunrise nobly spurred me, so the sunset soothed. No more. , , ,  Gifted with the high perception, I lack the low, enjoying power; damned, most subtly and most malignantly! Damned in the midst of Paradise![51]

Strangely, in contrast to his earlier unmitigated defiance, Ahab’s unbelief is now chastened:

Oh, lonely death on lonely life! Oh, now I feel my topmost greatness lies in my topmost grief. Ho, ho! from all your furthest bounds, pour ye now in, ye bold billows of my whole foregone life . . . let me then tow to pieces .[52]

 

Starbuck also seeks truth in the mirror of the sea, and finds pure beauty:

And that same day, too, gazing far down from his boat’s side into that same golden sea, Starbuck lowly murmured: — “Loveliness unfathomable, as ever lover saw in his young bride’s eye! — Tell me not of thy teeth-tiered sharks, and thy kidnapping cannibal ways. Let faith oust fact; let fancy oust memory; I look deep down and do believe.”[53]

Now shift to the light-hearted Stubb:

Stubb, fish-like, with sparkling scales, leaped up in that same golden light: — I am Stubb, and Stubb has his history; but here Stubb takes oaths that he has always been jolly! [54]

I quote at length, knowing no substitute for direct exposure to these powerful evocations of truths upon truths. But amidst their differences, what holds these sea-gazers in community?

If Stubb, Starbuck, Ahab see three different seas, do they face the same sea? Yes and no. Imagine seeing a building, first from the street, then from the sky, then from within. We have multiple viewing stations. Melville multiples angles of perception, and withholds an absolute vantage-point for comparison and ranking. I can never see a building’s insides the way plumbers will; I’ll be blind to nuance that’s obvious to them. And the view from the attic is not the view from the basement. In a very crude sense all viewers see “the same sea,” or the same building. Yet once perception becomes extended and nuanced, persons do not scan the same sea — nor do the plumber and I see the same building – except in a trivial sense.

It takes skill and good will to communicate across differences. My plumber may not be adept in presenting his angle to me. Starbuck may not be adept in conveying his view to Stubb or to Ahab.  There may be nods of appreciation — or stares of incomprehension — as each tries to convey a take on the waters. There is no rule book for communicating across aesthetic, moral, or religious differences. Even with careful listening and imagination, we will sometimes part ways disconnected and disappointed or dismayed.

Stubb, a fish who is jolly, won’t understand Ahab, a demon.  Ishmael understands both Ahab and Stubb, and Starbuck has capacious understanding. The Manxman understands neither Pip nor Ahab. It’s futile to look for a single rock-bottom truth here. We understand each other, when we do, one by one, in passing, in this context or that. Too often we discover we don’t understand. Life goes on. Or doesn’t.

The communicative arena is not just bleak with despair. There are shared moments of heart-stopping awe. Men divergent in bearing and belief can congeal in awe and wonder:

Suddenly the waters around them slowly swelled in broad circles; then quickly upheaved, as if sideways sliding from a submerged berg of ice, swiftly rising to the surface . . . Shrouded in a thin drooping veil of mist, it hovered for a moment in the rainbowed air; and then fell swamping back into the deep. Crushed thirty feet upwards, the waters flashed for an instant like heaps of fountains, then brokenly sank in a shower of flakes, leaving the circling surface creamed like new milk round the marble trunk of the whale.[55]

Here a startlingly majesty, even a whiff of tenderness, transcends vast differences.

 

Always Birth After Death?

The magnificent, multi-tiered story is one of birth, death, and rebirth, of death-lines tangled with birth-lines:

Starbuck saw long coils of the umbilical cord of Madame Leviathan, by which the young cub seemed still tethered to its dam. [Often] this natural line, with the maternal end loose, becomes entangled with the hempen one, so that the cub is thereby trapped. Some of the subtlest secrets of the seas seemed divulged to us in this enchanted pond.[56]

The tangled cords release life — and insure death. We’re trapped betwixt and between. The last word might be a breakdown of life, the hunt bringing death — or is it a breakthrough of life escaped from disaster. Does the story end with a sinking vessel — or with a man saved by a coffin? The story rolls on, through disasters and rescues, rescues and disasters.

We hope for life’s joys: children, travel, health, gardens, music – and so much more. Yet life sinks toward inescapable death and is strewn by disaster and horror. Realities are varied and polarized. The crew dies, their story doesn’t. Immortality in – and of — story is the best immortality we’ll get – That’s as good as it gets, and perhaps good enough.

There is no summation or ledger for weighing joys against abjections. There’s no way to freeze life – even if we could — to tally wins and losses. The Pequod is destroyed. The whale-hunt destroys. Which is the greater disaster? A “cunning brute” hunts down another “cunning brute.” There’s no weighing one hunt, one brutishness, against others. And destructions interlock with triumphs of friendship, bravery, and compassion.

A hemp harpoon line brings a whale to death, while the coils of an umbilical cord bespeak life. We’re caught within the cords and lines of life and death, of whales, men, mothers, demi-gods, tyrants, holy fools. All but Ishmael are brought to the bottom. He clings to Queequeg’s coffin and is reborn to tell it all: of devastations and madness, of brides in the sea, of tenderness in mothering whales:

[W]e were now in that enchanted calm which they say lurks at the heart of every commotion. And still in the distracted distance we beheld . . . successive pods of whales, eight or ten in each, swiftly going round and round, like multiplied spans of horses in a ring. . . . We must watch for a breach in the living wall that hemmed us in; the wall that had only admitted us in order to shut us up.[57]

Within the vortex we find “Madame Leviathan,” nursing, swimming in curves of regeneration. This reverses the swirl that swallows the ship:

First, the whales forming the margin of our lake began to crowd a little, and tumble against each other, as if lifted by half spent billows from afar; then the lake itself began faintly to heave and swell; the submarine bridal-chambers and nurseries vanished . . . .[58]

Sinking ships are not the last or only word. Though short-lived,

the best of times are priceless:

And thus, though surrounded by circle upon circle of consternations and affrights, did these inscrutable creatures at the centre freely and fearlessly indulge in all peaceful concernments; yea, serenely reveled in dalliance and delight. But even so . . . do I myself . . . disport in mute calm; and while ponderous planets of unwaning woe revolve round me, deep down and deep inland there I still bathe me in eternal mildness of joy.[59]

These words are not easily reconciled with recurrent melancholy or with the fact of a raucous whale-hunt deservedly crushed. Yet Ishmael’s declares, “I myself still . . .  still bathe me in eternal mildness of joy.”[60] He sits in astonished quiet:

As I sat there at my ease, cross-legged on the deck; after the bitter exertion at the windlass; under a blue tranquil sky; the ship under indolent sail, and gliding so serenely along . . . I felt divinely free from all ill-will, or petulance, or malice, of any sort whatsoever.[61]

In “eternal mildness of joy” he survives, bespeaking a strange resurrection. And in his grand multi-chambered memorial to the dead, he bequeaths a kind of immortality to his ship and shipmates and to the sea they fail to despoil.

 

 

Notes

[1]Herman  Melville, Moby-Dick, or, The Whale. eds. Harrison Hyaford, Hershel Parker, and G. Thomas Tanselle (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1988), 374.

[2] Ibid., 5.

[3] Ibid., 276.

[4] Ibid., 182.

[5]Ibid., 164.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 195.

[8] Ibid., 107.

[9] D. M. MacKinnon,Death, New Essays in Philosophical Theology, ed. MacIntyre and Flew and MacIntyre, (New York: St. Martins,1966), 266.

[10] Ibid., 573.

 

[11] For discussions of Cavell, Thoreau, Bugbee, and Henry James see my Lost Intimacy in American Thought: Recovering Personal Philosophy from Thoreau to Cavell (London: Ashgate, 2009).

[12] There are truths in objectivity, and truths in subjectivity. See On Søren Kierkegaard: Dialogue, Polemic, Lost Intimacy and Time (London: Ashgate, 2007).

[13] See my Lost Intimacy in American Thought: Recovering Personal Philosophy from

 Thoreau to Cavell, Continuum Books, 2009, Ch. 3.

[14] See The Senses of Walden (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992: 33), where Cavell asks if the pinnacle of American philosophy might be found not in pragmatism but in “the metaphysical riot” of 19th Century literature.

[15] Melville, Moby-Dick, 320.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., 497.

[18] The naturalism at issue in might be called simply “Natural-Supernaturalism” or “Natural-Transcendentalism.” However, “Supernaturalism” and “Transcendentalism” resonate too strongly with otherworldliness. See my Excursions with Thoreau: Philosophy, Poetry, Religion (London: Bloomsbury, 2015). For a fine discussion of romanticism and the re-enchantment of nature, see Anthony Rudd, “Wittgenstein and Heidegger as Romantic Modernists,” Wittgenstein and Heidegger, ed. Egan et. al. (London: Routledge, 2013).

[19]  Moby-Dick, 449. Thanks to Tom Nurmi for reminding me of this marvelous passage.

[20] Ibid., 491

[21] Ibid., 492

[22] Ibid., 374.

[23] Ibid. 492, For “befitting reverie.” see Excursions with Thoreau.

[24] Of course Ramadan should be a day long fast – Melville takes liberties.

[25] Moby-Dick, 62.

[26] Ibid., 81

[27] Ibid., 85.

[28] Ibid., 123.

[29] Ibid., 508.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid., 507.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid. 571.

[35] Ibid., 508. All this is before Zarathustra’s “God is dead and we have killed him.”

[36] Ibid., 389.

[37] Ibid., 433.

[38] Hamlet (Act 2, Scene 2); Polonius’ lines are a spoof on scholars forcing literary works into categories. William Shakespeare. Bloomsbury, The Arden Shakespeare 2 edition (2016)

[39] See my discussion of Job in Lost Intimacy, Ch. 3, “A Lyric Philosophy of Place.”

[40] Moby-Dick, 388.

[41] Rowan Williams, speaking at a poet’s funeral: “Loss is ‘imprecise’, nothing serious, grievous, in our humanity allows us the satisfaction of being exact, wrapping it all up. What we do with bereavement is to find words that ‘turn things about.’” See his memorial sermon, PN Review, Vol.43, No. 2, November-December 2016, 232.

[42] Robert Alter translates tohu wabohu as “waste and welter.” See Genesis: a New Translation. (New York: Norton, 1997). Tohu means waste or futility. Wabohu, to his ear, is a neologism. His notes explain his arrival at “waste and welter.”

[43] Genesis 50:26. Bible, New Standard Revised (National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America, 1989)

[44] Moby-Dick, 343.

[45] There is perhaps a farcical allusion here to Jonah reborn from the mouth of a whale.

[46]  Moby-Dick, 319.

[47] Ibid., 573.

[48] Ibid., 521-522.

[49] Ibid. 492; I can’t resist quoting what immediately follows:  “There is no steady unretracing progress in this life; we do not advance through fixed gradations, and at the last one pause:— through infancy’s unconscious spell, boyhood’s thoughtless faith, adolescence’ doubt (the common doom), then scepticism, then disbelief, resting at last in manhood’s pondering repose of If. But once gone through, we trace the round again; and are infants, boys, and men, and Ifs eternally.”

[50] Ibid., 492.

[51] Ibid., 167.

[52] Ibid., 571. Ibid., 374.

[53] Ibid., 492.

[54] Ibid., 492.

[55] Ibid., 567.

[56] Ibid., 388. Women are absent in the novel; whaling is a man’s business. Yet the worlds of nursing, mothering, and childbirth enter in a heart-stopping scene that brings killing to a swift halt: the crew responds in awe to the ocean nursery, mothers and newborns swimming in circles. Childbirth and midwifery appear in Queequeg’s delivery of Tashtego from a whale’s womb-like spouting channel. Ibid., 343. Queequeg and Ishmael sleep in a loving embrace usually reserved for wife and husband. Ibid., 25.

[57] Ibid., 387.

[58] Ibid., 389.

[59] Ibid., 388-389.

[60] Thoreau: “Joy is the condition of life.” Henry David Thoreau, “The Natural History of Massachusetts,” Collected Essays and Poems of Thoreau, Ed. Elizabeth Hall Witherell. (New York: Library of America, 2001), 22.

[61] Moby-Dick, 416.

 

 

Bibliography

Alter, Robert. Genesis: A New Translation. (New York: Norton, 1997).

Bible, New Standard Revised (National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America, 1989).

Cavell, Stanley. The Senses of Walden (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).

MacKinnon, D, M. Death, New Essays in Philosophical Theology, ed. Flew and MacIntyre. (New York: St. Martins, 1963).

Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick, or, The Whale. Ed. Harrison Hyaford, Hershel Parker, and G. Thomas Tanselle.  (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1988).

Mooney, Edward F. Excursions with Thoreau: Philosophy, Poetry, Religion (London: Bloomsbury, 2015).

—-   On Søren Kierkegaard: Dialogue, Polemic, Lost Intimacy and Time (London: Ashgate, 2007).

—–   Lost Intimacy in American Thought: Recovering Personal Philosophy from Thoreau to Cavell (London: Ashgate, 2009).

Rudd, Anthony. “Wittgenstein and Heidegger as Romantic Modernists,” Wittgenstein and Heidegger, ed. Egan et. al. (London: Routledge, 2013).

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet, (Bloomsbury, The Arden Shakespeare 2 edition, 2016).

Thoreau, Henry David. Collected Essays and Poems of Thoreau, Ed. Elizabeth Hall Witherell. (New York: Library of America, 2001).

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

Brazil Questions: Responses from Kelly Dean Jolley

Quantum Est In Rebus Inane

20031876_10105043101855321_990241595142773217_nI am heading to Brazil to talk about Thoreau at a bi-centennial conference.  I was sent a set of questions to answer for a pre-conference publication.  Here are the answers.  I haven’t included the questions, but they are easy enough to reverse engineer.  

Question 1:  Wittgenstein and Thoreau.

I have long been most fascinated, most challenged and changed, by philosophers who combine analytical rigor with existential pathos.  I strategize that bringing Wittgenstein and Thoreau together makes more visible the existential pathos of the one, Wittgenstein, and the analytical rigor of the other, Thoreau.  So you could say that my strategy is to use each to insist on the completeness of the other, and so to offset the tendency to find only analytical rigor in Wittgenstein (if even that) or existential pathos in Thoreau (if even that).  

Each writes in a way that creates a desire to refuse him:…

View original post 4,597 more words

Nature Walks

*

There’s no lack of news about Thoreau this year. The New York Times tells us of the forgotten outcasts, Blacks and Irish, who were his shanty neighbors at Walden.[1] A block-buster biography by Laura Dassow Walls gets lengthy reviews.[2] The July 200th Anniversary Gathering in Concord is a grand success. But Thoreau’s an odd fellow in academia. We hardly know where to tether him: Literature?  Philosophy?  American Studies? No one belittles a nice walk in nature, yet on campus, there’s hang-wringing about how, academically, to fall into step with Thoreau’s poetic walks. Inside colleges and universities, nature writing is suspect. There’s a reason for this suspicion, and to me, it reflects badly on academia. Thoreau is out to enhance our experience, to vivify and expand it, but professors and administrators place knowledge-acquisition and analytical prowess far above openness to new experiential vistas.

*

My field is philosophy. As philosophers we step back to take the wide and deep view of things. Or we burrow into a detail to analyze its inner mechanics.  But stepping back or taking apart for precise analysis isn’t always a good thing.  These very actions – stepping back, taking apart – decisively alter the “material” that originally caught our attention. These actions are partially destructive.

If we step back to examine the environment, nature, or creation, we destroy immersive contact. If we step back from the edge of the pool rather than dive in, we’ll miss a crucial aspect of its width, depth, temperature, and “feel.”  These are aspects we can only get through immersion. We get contact through diving in, swimming the pool’s width and depth. That immersion gives an experience denied to those who keep dry. If we erect a large doctor’s-office-style poster on the wall depicting the shape and detail of some item of nature or creation, we forego diving into the original “stuff” – or letting it dive into us. In our informal walks, we can let nature or creation overcome us, sweep us away, enter our being.

Professional philosophy is not written to sweep us away by a glorious evening sunset — or to acknowledge our being swept away. As it’s now understood, the professional stance guarantees we’ll miss the wonder of that part of nature that right now accosts or overwhelms us. Of course, from time to time we can alter our professional sensibility and writing to leave wonder alive. We don’t need to shy from words stirring us the way Annie Dillard or Coleridge can. And we don’t need to shy from calling these deep stirrings legitimate philosophical stirrings.

Professional writing that relays a sense of “immersive contact” is not a replacement for detached analysis. It’s a supplement that has a rather different goal. Take the case of philosophers making arguments for environmental concerns. The “backward step” of analysis, when sustained, occludes, wipes out, crucial aspects of whatever part of the environment — or nature – is before us. We lose what Thoreau (and others) give us:  the raw or gentle feel of things; their imaginative resonances. Focusing on immersive contact is a healthy reminder of the way many of us are attuned to nature when not writing about it professionally.  And it reminds us of the value of what we study or observe. Observation should be in the interest of things that matter. And one way we’re convinced that something matters is that it accosts us, overwhelms us, gently awakens us.

*

Religious, biblical writers sometimes take the backward step. From the second or third balcony they report God’s creation over seven days. We’re interested onlookers, impressed but detached, listening to regal declarations: “Let there be light!” “Let there be . . . .“ But as often religious writers immerse us, fill us with silencing awe. They can effect gentle immersions. We inwardly sing, “I lay me down by still waters.”  Or we can be swept away by more tumultuous and grandiose events. We are plunged into a Whirlwind as it’s sung toward the end of The Book of Job in what Tennyson calls the greatest poem in all literature.

Moby Dick casts us into a rough and unsettling creation, a secular-sacred immersion in turbulent waters. And the tale can turn on a dime toward serenity. Rather than attack, the crew of the ill-fated Pequod becomes immobilized, in awe:

For, suspended in those watery vaults, floated the forms of the nursing mothers . . . . [The new-born were] as human infants [who] while suckling will calmly and fixedly gaze away from the breast, as if leading two different lives at the time; and while yet drawing mortal nourishment, be still spiritually feasting upon some unearthly reminiscence.[3]

In nature we are embraced by both birth and death, coming into being and annihilation, and on a scale that can reach from gentleness to the 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, and perhaps even then, only intermittently.

Henry Bugbee, a friend, author, and professor, composed by Western Montana’s streams and still waters. His philosophical writings could sweep us up in whirlwinds, lead us on forest walks, or take us on fishing adventures. His little book, The Inward Morning, was written from the Harvard Philosophy Department as they bid him good bye.[4] He was hired as an Assistant Professor to write about aesthetics, but he disliked argumentative essays and preferred to immerse himself and his readers in nature’s taste, its powers of annihilation and renewal. His title comes from a Thoreau poem.

David O’Hara teaches in South Dakota. He leads extended field trips where his students will be immersed in equatorial jungles and Alaska tundra. His informal writing pulls us into immersive contacts with nature’s particulars.[5] Of course, he can also take a backward step to write up the ecology and economics of the terrain. However, for him, and for Henry Bugbee, philosophy isn’t only theory, analysis, or knowledge.  It also models wise practice. And it’s the evocation of experiential worlds, whether they be uplifting or terrifying.[6]

*

Genesis gives us a succinct, declarative overview of nature or creation. Job’s Whirlwind gives us synesthetic, existential immersion in creation’s particulars. Sight is merged with smell, touch, terror, and wind. We are immersed in the feel or tang of these. Even sight, which off-hand seems detached, can have an immersive feel — say as we look down a thousand feet over the edge of a cliff.

Distance and detachment make it hard for straight-laced philosophers to rehabilitate the notion of creation, or to amend or expand pinched notions of the environment or of a re-enchanted nature. If we’re professionally straight-laced we take our domain to be objective assessment, impersonal argument, and lawyer-like policy recommendations. If we like the poetry, drama, and music of walks — the sweet blossoms and smiles that give us the feel of creation — that’s fine for off-campus. But strictly speaking, none of that is philosophy’s business.

I’d loosen the corsets and stays, let a philosopher’s body relax into wider domains, into the feel and bloom of things. I’d plea for a poetic wisdom that revels and recoils as the touch, smell, and color of creation or nature intrudes. Now and then we can refuse the backward step and convey in our writing the sense that creation touches and invades us — leaves us its colors, excitements, lilts, and tangs.

Environmental philosophy holds nature and environment at bay. It steps back for research, analysis, or policy evaluation. But the pre-analytical experiential supplement is often the impetus that gets us to think.  Neglecting that trigger means getting only an incomplete sense of nature or environment. We fear global warming because we’re exposed to evocative depictions of a warmer, eviscerated world. It’s laudatory to present the dynamics of preservation or sustainability rigorously. It’s also essential to know, beyond utilitarian considerations, what should be preserved. We need a taste of nature or creation as an ever-unfolding set of invitations to immersion in places we cherish. We need exposure to the delicate, awesome or sublime – even the numinous, sacred, or holy. Good writing can provide it, as well as first-hand experiential immersion.

Among many good nature writers, I’d invite Thoreau and Annie Dillard, Henry Bugbee and Bruce Wilshire to environmental philosophy. They wed analysis and evocation, immersive contact and wise observation.[7]  They (and their kin) can be more than suspect transients in the halls of academic philosophy. The canon can radically change. Hegel and Marx, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Schopenhauer are no longer unwelcome interlopers. It has expanded in the last fifty years and can expand further.

Stanley Cavell has dramatically expanded the canon. Over the last fifty years, he has taught us, more than anyone, to loosen the borders between traditional philosophy and music, film, theater, literature, and opera. Allowing an experiential immersion in flows of art and literature is essential to his philosophical essays. He draws us into visceral exposure to the themes that capture his interest. Back in 1972, he was the first Anglophone philosopher to write a full book on Walden.[8] Nearly fifty years after this breakthrough, he tells us, 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.[9]

Thoreau shifts effortlessly between stepping back for objective reporting – and then letting creation step forward toward him. He gets immersed in the touch of simple blooms or mountain mists that evoke the numinous, sacred or holy.

*

For Thoreau, creation gives a touch of the holy, and that touch is as much Vedic as it is Hebraic or Christian. He celebrates the touch of the holy while dismissing any religious fundamentalism or affiliation. He has no position whatsoever about how nature – overall — was created, if it was. And he has no position on the purpose or purposes of nature or creation. He finds sufficient immediate encounters with the sublime or divine. Arguments or analysis are distracting and beside the point. We see, taste, or dance with the holy or entrancing directly, immediately, or have no access to them.

Nature beckons us to know her better, she feeds science. She also offers resources: lumber for houses, fish for dinner.  We study apple trees for science, pick their fruit for sustenance, and commodify them for financial gain. Nature also performs. She gives us wonder, terror, and simple beauty. Environmental research is valuable, and some exploitation for resources is inevitable. It’s also valuable to absorb and dwell in the lilt and dance of the world. We study the chemistry of a good tomato without diminishing its savory taste.

To savor or be awe-struck at nature’s performances can morph toward the sense that ours is a holy place. In poetic elaborations, we feel wonder drift toward holiness. Perceptions of God, the divine, or holiness may be the cognitive and historical basis of traditional articles of biblical faith or of the narrative evocations the holy that the world’s religions provide. But for Thoreau, there is no need to move toward formal articles of faith. For him, the weight of perceptions is primary and commitments to narratives, beliefs, or liturgies is superfluous. In his writing, Thoreau is happy to induce religious perceptions and leave it at that.

Heaven or the holy is in the here and now. Thoreau preaches, in his words, “The Gospel of the Present Moment.” When the world isn’t frozen or drab but alive and sparkling, Thoreau is struck by the holy or sublime at particular sites: it animates mind and body, social others and particular things in their natural surrounds. The wondrous or holy hovers over or flows through mind-body or body-soul relations – think of contemplative walks. The holy or wondrous flows through kinship, friendship, and other social relations – think of walking arm in arm.  It flows through and hovers over relations to particular things of the world – think of being stopped by a sunrise or a path-side bloom.  And the holy hovers over and flows through the placement of friends, blooms, souls, and bodies in an embracing place, landscape, or surround—think of a vista holding distant village figures, flowers close by, and clouds above.

Psyche, soma, social others, particular things, natural surrounds can appear both individually and in ensembles as instances of the wondrous or holy. A refined mind can be the site of wonderful spirit. Thoreau tells us his body is his temple.[10] We might see the wondrous or divine in Thoreau’s embrace of the woodchopper as they read the Iliad.[11] We might see it in a flight of geese, or in the infinite vista that holds geese, friends and refined minds and bodies together within a gentle shimmer.

A wondrous presence can be rendered in either secular or religious terms. Someone comfortable with religious renderings of experience will see and attest to a holy presence whereas someone uncomfortable with these renderings will see and attest to a wondrous presence, period. A wondrous presence can shuttle between renderings in secular terms and renderings in religious terms. For those who do not deny a priori that there are religious experiences but only doubt they have them, the wondrous can be an entry spot to the holy, allowing reflective access to the great religious literatures of the world. The wondrous augments the vibrancy of daily life and also reverberates with Hebrew and New Testament scriptures, with Hindu and Buddhist scriptures.

Repeatedly, Thoreau transitions from simple wonder to a holiness or divinity that has scriptural resonance. In Walden he alludes the “Maker” whose visage he sees it its waters. And he claims a role for Vedic “Intelligences” — packets of divinity streaming toward us bringing moments of illumination and ecstasy.[12]  My experience of rocks, birds, or trees — of musicians, parklands, night skies, and seas — is amplified by bridges to the hallowed or holy. These bridges are imaginative elaborations, poetically and religiously improvised. Like the biblical Whirlwind, Thoreau gives us an indissolvable mix of the wondrous, holiness, and divinity. “We need pray for no higher heaven than the pure senses can furnish.”[13]

In A Week on the Concord, Thoreau puts it succinctly:

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?[14]

The Whirlwind resonates, sounds out, holiness.  He find the sacred in Melville’s seas. In Walden, the holy flows from the pond’s “Maker,” and also from Vedic divinities — Intelligences dispersed through creation. Creation just is dispersion of divinity.

*

In a passage from The Senses of Walden 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 . . [15]

What have poets to do with philosophers or physics? What do poets and philosophers have to do with the sort of enchanting personal narratives that we find in Walden, or A Week on the Concord?  Cavell hopes for a three-fold accomplishment here, a way of writing and seeing that is at once philosophical, poetic, and autobiographical, and that reveals necessary structures of reality. His assertion that natural things speak without metaphor is as “universal and necessary, as revelatory of the world, as the forms of the laws of physics.” At least that is the poet’s faith. And how can we deny that breezes whisper (that’s not metaphorical), or that thunder crashes, or that rocks give silent testimony?

Words can be filler or chatter, or the can be more useful as reports and analyses that help to negotiate a utilitarian world. They may function as administrative or legal protocols.  Poetry is neither chatter nor information, neither practical advice nor a set of rules. We can think of poets as taking words from these hardened contexts to effect fresh, lively ways of seeing and feeling. Loosening up the routinization and practicality of words allows our talk of to come alive. Poets make sea and sky and resentment spin free of “same-ole-same-ole” rigid mortifications. Restoring new life to words and the space they animate occurs as the poet rolls out a new world, or the old world seen in new ways.

There are routine perceptions of Concord River. It’s a place on a map or it’s the river over there.  Thoreau breaks up routine perceptions. He amplifies the life of “Concord” by extending the name backward in time.  “Concord River,” we learn, is a replacement for the natives’ name, “Musketaquid.”[16] This gives “Concord River” lively historical depth, and referring to it by its ancient name gives it a poetic sheen. He lets the sands and dunes of Cape Cod drift back toward a more poetic history.  He calls the Cape an arm of New France.[17] Name-shifts poetically stretch our sense of time and place toward the endless vitality of creation.

These transfigurations are relayed in first-person narration. Thoreau verges on autobiography and secular confession, falling in with a canon that features Montaigne’s Essays, Rousseau’s Reveries, and Kierkegaard’s The Point of View of my Work as an Author.  Acknowledging this alternative canon sets aside the presumption that reason must quarrel with poetry, the personal, or the spiritual.

Cavell’s brilliant and difficult The Senses of Walden places Thoreau as a first-rate philosopher in a 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: it can include a poetic-religious sensibility.

Thoreau characterizes the world as “answering to our conceptions,” an uncontroversial Kantian point.[18]  Cavell suggests that Thoreau intimates a Kantian “transcendental deduction” of the “thing-in-itself.”[19] This is a surprise. He suggests that Thoreau’s flux of vivid perceptions lays the groundwork for a “deduction,” or justification, of “the thing in itself” that Kant “didn’t provide, but “should have.”[20]

Kant’s “thing-in-itself,” generously interpreted, can clarify Thoreau’s wedding of objective research to immersion in alluring presences. The thing-in-itself, as Cavell-Thoreau would have it, is that elusive presence that holds in thrall the multiple perspectives we have on things. We know that the apple-in-itself is more than its color, taste, weight, and the side we can’t see. It is something deeper than all apple-attributes. It lies beneath them or within them as that “inexpressible something” that insures that a multitude of differing perspectives will be perspectives on something, on the same thing.

Thoreau’s objective descriptions of an “ice apple,” one that survives fall frosts and thaws in January, is supplemented by Thoreau’s poetic evocation of its exquisite fermented taste.[21] The “apple-in-itself” bundles multiple aspects underwriting that they are aspects of one thing,. This is the “thing-in-itself. The “deduction” of the thing-in-itself is a showing that no one aspect of the apple is the “apple-in-itself” yet all aspects need to be aspects of something unsayable that is deeper or other than any one of its aspects or features, or any collection of them.

*

Here’s another 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.[22]

Images of birds and moulting, of water and dawn, give us the vital presence of things in the world. To say that they’re a priori is to say that they’re available as images of presences before the poet works them up in an expressed 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 image of distant hills reflected on the surface of the pond. The hills shimmering on water make it seem, as Thoreau puts it, “that the heavens and the earth had met.”[23] Then there’s a culminating reverie from Walden.

Thoreau kneels by the edge of the pond, almost in prayer. He finds his own face reflected up from still waters, and finds next to his face the pond’s Maker’s, also reflected. It’s as if 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; 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? [24]

We’re given a pond that draws joy into itself, a pond that enjoys a “liquid joy” that is also her Maker’s joy and Thoreau’s joy.

God, a joyful Maker, can “excite in us a pure morning joy.”[25] We become who we are through everyday smiles of joyful affirmation 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.[26]

This moment – wondrous and holy – passes by all bare-bones scientific observation. Thoreau is immersed in the pond’s reflections and its watery mirror. He calls on the resources of poetic imagination, more or less a priori.

our images of dawn and day and night, of lower and higher, of freezing and melting and moulting, are as a priori [ that is, as dependent on a priori rules and images] as our other forms of knowledge of the world.[27]

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 registration of factual data. It’s as if we were discovering something that had been sleeping deep in the soul, and is now suddenly brought to full life. The wonderful constellation of watery reflections of my face, the face of a Maker, hills beyond, and perhaps fish below, seems to speak from eternity, and to carry the eternity of a just-now-perceived timeless poetic necessity and impact.

Thoreau sees a “Maker” at the pond and discovers gods in the fields and forests. He steals from the Bhagavad-Gita, calling these gods “Intelligences,” packets of illumination throwing light on the world.[28]  He hears them singing, laughing, and spinning wool – a joyful family.[29] He sees workers trudging home on the road as if gods in disguise.[30] He hears his body as a musical instrument on which god plays melodies.[31] He preaches what he calls a Newer Testament, the gospel of the present moment.[32] He finds God in the moment, speaking through all things, one by one and collectively.[33]

*

If Thoreau has a creed it is this: to acknowledge “the actual glory of the universe; the only fact which a human being cannot avoid recognizing, or in some way forget or dispense with.”[34] An experience of full life is ultimately a full experience of the divine, of creation. This is not brand name religion. It’s not found in cathedrals or synagogues, in mosques, temples or shrines. He’s one of a kind — as it should be.

Here is Thoreau 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.[35]

We needn’t say that all environmental philosophy should be so poetic or allusive 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 nonetheless.

My own sometimes technical and sometimes exploring philosophy – whether presenting Kierkegaard on the tang of life, or Nietzsche’s dancing Gods, or Thoreau’s dreaming frogs — would be impossible without letting a muse sing.[36]

Homer beseeches, “Sing in me muse, of that man of twists and turns.”[37] 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 nature and creation.”

*

*

[1] Clancy Martin and John Kaag, NY Times, “The Stone,” July 11, 2017.

[2] Laura Dassow Wells, Henry David Thoreau, A Life (Chicago) 2017; Robert M. Thorson, The Boatman: Thoreau’s River Years (Harvard) 2017; Richard Higgins and Robert D. Richardson, Thoreau and the Language of Trees (California) 2017, rev. TLS July 4, 2017.

[3] Melville, Moby-Dick, Ch. 87, “The Grand Armada.”

[4] Henry Bugbee, The Inward Morning: Philosophical Explorations in Journal Form, Georgia, 1999.

[5] See David O’Hara, Downstream, Cascade Books, 2014.

[6] Paradoxically, even a pessimist like Schopenhauer edifies his melancholy.

[7] Cf. Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Harper, 2007; Bruce Wilshire, Wild Hunger, Roman & Littlefield, 1999.

[8] The Senses of Walden, Viking, 1972.

[9] Quoted in Furtak, et. al., Thoreau’s Importance for Philosophy, Fordham, 2012, 235.

[10] Walden, “Higher Laws.”

[11] Walden, “Visitors.”

[12] See “Sympathy with Intelligence,” Concord Saunterer, 2017.

[13]  A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. ed. Carl F. Hove, William L. Howarth, and Elizabeth Hall Witherell (Princeton) 1980, 382.

[14] Week, 382

[15] Senses, 102.

[16] Week, 9

[17] Cape Cod, sect. on Provincetown.

[18] Walden, 3 para. from end of Ch. 2.

[19] Senses, 104

[20] Ibid.

[21] See “Wild Apples,” 465, the “frozen-thawed” apple.

[22] Senses, 101.

[23] Walden, “Former Inhabitants.”

[24] Walden, “The Ponds,” 10 para. fm.end.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Senses, 101

[28] See ”Sympathy with Intelligence.”

[29] Ibid.

[30] J, August 15, 1845-6.

[31] J. Oct. 26, 1851,  81.

[32] “Walking,” 4 para.fm. end.

[33] Walden, “Where I Lived.”

[34] Concord River, “Monday,” 10 para. fm. end.

[35] J., Jan 7, 1857

[36] Mooney, “The Very Tang of Life: Lyrical Jesting in Kierkegaard’s Postscript Title,” Kierkegaard as an Author, ed. Westfall and Tietjan, 2018; “Nietzsche and the Dance,” Philosophy Today, 1970; “dreaming frogs” J. June 13, 1851, 253, discussed in Excursions with Thoreau..

[37] Odyssey, Fagles trans.