Why we know — and don’t know — classics

Why do I have this sense that it was inevitable that I’d discover Thoreau only late in the game?  One obvious reason is that as a know-it-all teenager I knew all about Thoreau: he was great to taunt Emerson who stood outside the jail asking why Waldo wasn’t in with him, where he should be.  I knew he was a neighbor on a river just over from mine.  I knew he had a beef with the local church and would rather be walking than be an observing Christian.  Of course I also knew he liked — how shall I say it — camping.  He was a known quantity, I knew him and a lot of my running and basketball buddies didn’t.  My musical buddies weren’t likely to have an interest.  So on through college and years teaching college he remained a high school sweetheart, a first love remembered well, but left behind as I moved on to — what shall I say — more challenging writers. I learned from my philosophy profs that he was not a philosopher.  And that was decades before I began to learn that you could be a philosopher who found philosophy in George Eliot, Dickinson . . . or Thoreau. 

In grad school, I actually heard Cavell lecture on Walden.  But I took his interest as quirky, a circus act, an extravagant hobby a Harvard Prof could indulge but a grad student or young professor better not.  You get  the picture: I knew all about him, and he was not where it was at; in the academy, that is: I could dream of him on long hikes in the Sierras.  It was quite an accident that brought me to reopen Cavell-on-Thoreau well into my philosophical career, and to begin reading the Journals, and A Week, and Cape Cod, and with a bittersweet shock of recognition, realize what I had been missing all those years. I had never read a sentence of his slowly! Thinking I knew him when I didn’t at all. I’ve know him all my life, and I’ve just started to get to know him, or maybe . . . struggle and love as I will, I’ll never know him.

Now I read and reread those sentences, word by precious word always amazed, a mitzvah, a blessing. Maybe like Jacob, wrestle and love him as I will, with my broken hip — he’ll always slip away. (But ah what a wrestle . . .)


8 comments on “Why we know — and don’t know — classics

  1. dmf says:

    seems fitting as I take much of his continuing value to be re-minding us of what is too familiar, too mundane, to notice.

  2. Marcia Robinson says:

    Well put. Unfortunately in college and grad school, as well as early in the profession, we learn or are encouraged by “peer pressure” to dismiss figures who are not trendy. Thankfully, though, maturing allows us to see more clearly why this should not be so.

    • dmf says:

      sadly so few academics mature in this way, and with the current market pressures bearing down on the academy I fear that the push to be trendy will only increase.

      • efmooney says:

        Avant-gardism, whether packaged as the new rococo, gothic, baroque, or materialistic, dares us to board the train of tomorrow and leave yesterday in the dust. But this fear of the passe and conventionally bourgeois can become adolescent. Merged with the dogma that attraction to things past is always weak-kneed “nostalgia,” we lose nourishment from the past, and thus become imprisoned in ever-narrowing moments of discourse consumption (and resale). Which is more deadening, the stodgy classicism or the trendy vanguardism? Clearly we are shallow characters if we read Thoreau.

      • Professor Mooney, I’m not sure I understand why avant-gardism includes a fear of the passe. I don’t even understand why avant-gardism and classicism are mutually exclusive (as I think you suggest). I thought avant-gardism — as a practice of modernism — required continuity with the past. I mean, the object of modernism is to make the works of the past relevant today (resale?). Sometimes that by itself pushes traditional boundaries. Say that one reads Aristotle religiously and lives for Eudaimonia. She realizes that her consumer society makes that difficult and decides to create artwork that expresses the tension between being fully human and living in the status quo. The kind of advances she’s pushing are still tethered to the classical works. No?

        (I hope this doesn’t come off antagonistically. I’m genuinely curious. I’m thrilled you’ve started this blog. And I’m already learning a tremendous amount, not of knowledge, but about the mood you’re describing and its tone.)

      • efmooney says:

        Yes, yes, if only that were the tone I pick up around me. What you say makes perfect sense. But so often I hear in avant-gardism a tone of knowing more than the past, and knowing more than the present, and having won a position that licenses disdain, of having ‘been there done that.’ I sense (maybe it’s just a protective affectation) an impatience with slow reading and immersion and praise of those words and voices bequeathed as an inheritance. Rather, one unmasks the construction of this and that. I don’t know that I’d use the image of ‘pushing the boundaries’of tradition; that makes it a delimited locale. Maybe I’d rather let tradition speak ‘enter its depths’ or let its depths speak again, anew, to these virgin ears.

      • Thank you for the response Professor.

        I don’t know that I’d use the image of ‘pushing the boundaries’of tradition; that makes it a delimited locale. Maybe I’d rather let tradition speak ‘enter its depths’ or let its depths speak again, anew, to these virgin ears.

        I meant to say ‘pushing the boundaries of the status quo’ (by means of the traditional). My apologies. As a southerner, it’s easy to mix up tradition (Confederate heritage) and the status quo. They’re –unfortunately — deeply intertwined down here.

        I certainly understand how that kind of arrogance could be present in the name of avant-garde. And probably more often than not.

  3. Ishmael says:

    Is Thoreau a philosopher? Maybe a good place to start answering that question would be to consider one of his own more explicit statements on the subject and see what we can make of it:

    “There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers. Yet it is admirable to profess because it was once admirable to live. To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but to so love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not merely theoretically, but practically.” (Walden, Chap. 1, about 19 paragraphs in.)

    Here Thoreau apparently identifies four philosophical virtues which he thinks summarize the dictates of wisdom. Presumably they are the marks of character that make a life admirable, worthy of being professed, and, by implication, imitated by others. I think we can safely say – setting aside what these virtues actually entail and whether indeed wisdom dictates them – that most philosophers these days would feel uncomfortable professing themselves as exemplars. Call it their modesty – also a virtue, if I’m not mistaken.

    And this reminds me of that other current in Thoreau’s thought, his insistence on speaking in the first person: “I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody whom I knew as well.” “I…require of every writer, first or last, a simple and sincere account of his own life….” Thoreau, we should remember, says at one point: “If the birds and flowers had tried me by their standards, I should not have been found wanting.” Is he joshing? It’s often hard to tell.

    Let me venture a suggestion: if the details of your life are so tedious to yourself that you think their truthful telling would be tedious to others, then you probably aren’t a philosopher in Thoreau’s estimation. Unless, that is, you happen to be quoting something else from him, as for example: “It is only by forgetting yourself that you draw near to him.” God.

    Which leads me to ask: Is it a philosophical virtue to strive for (non-foolish) consistency?

    There, now I’ve stepped in it…

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