Sympathy with Intelligence

In my maiden post, Concordian Thoughts, I pulled  a rich passage from Thoreau’s Journals.  I took the liberty of presenting it not in its published prose but in its poetic lyricism.  It begins with a simple plea, “Shall we not have sympathy . . .“  A bit further down in what he calls a “prayer and praise,”  Thoreau invites us to “look round” and not fail to see, amidst the apparently trivial and banal, what he calls “majestic pains and pleasures.” Once recognized, “They have our sympathy, both in their joys and their pains.

This plea reminds me of his remark in “Walking” that in place of an obsession with useful knowledge, we who saunter with him in the holy land should seek “Sympathy with Intelligence.”  When we confront pains and pleasures what is asked of us is sympathy, acknowledgment, an affective recognition — whether those pleasures and pains be majestic or something less.  And this plea for sympathy rather than ever-more knowledge reminds me also of Cavell, who presses for acknowledgement where we so typically default toward seeking deeper knowledge, deeper grounds, thus abandoning the pain and pleasure before us.

In bringing Sympathy with Intelligence center-stage, Thoreau is not down-staging his great love of observation, of rummaging through woods and swamps and meadows, recording useful information.   Intelligence accompanies our sympathies, infuses them, and guides our observations — just as sympathy guides our curiosity and intelligence.  Sympathy brings what’s there into salience.  Not a warehouse of knowledge but mindful sympathy is the rationale for our time on the river or in the Maine woods.  The affective and cognitive work hand in glove.

Without sympathy we would pass by “the tragedies which are constantly permitted in the course of all animal life.”  And imagination links arms with sympathy, intelligence, and perception — or is a modulation of these.  In any case, it tunes us to hear in such sadness, in tragedy coursing through all animal life, “the plaintive strain of the universal harp which elevates us above the trivial.”  Can this foretell Nietzsche’s marriage of tragedy and music?

In the desolation of tragedy, who could berate gnashing of teeth, howls of despair, or numb silence?  Tragedy can crumble.  Thoreau shocks us with a cruelly  diminished muskrat.  Who can face its bloody self-amputations?  Yet he transfigures our horror, gives us the muskrat’s valor, its affirmation, against all odds, of living on, unbroken.

Thoreau leads us to heavenly mourning where songs of lamentation confide subtle dawns.  There must be life  where there is song.  There is tender communion in acknowledgment of shared mortality.  Mourners embrace in remembrance of the dead that is simultaneously an embrace of their own assured death.  But to embrace is to live and against all odds, affirm living.  Sympathy, wonder, and mourning meet that magnificent, undiminished animal in a mood beyond rancor or self-pity. 


7 comments on “Sympathy with Intelligence

  1. Ishmael says:

    The passage from the Journals – which you so finely render in poetic lines – strikes me as an improvement over the passage that ends the chapter “Spring” in Walden (third paragraph from the end). There, to my ear, Thoreau phrases the “innocence of nature” altogether too harshly, with almost a laugh of defiance. Oddly enough, it makes innocence sound almost like heartlessness. I have always found it disturbing in a way reminiscent of some of Nietzsche’s harsher sayings. My reaction may only signify my own lack of courage, of course; my weakness in the face of truth. But it seems to me that one bravely says these things and then ends up hugging the neck of a beaten horse and weeping helplessly. Thoreau concludes his paragraph as follows: “With the liability to accident, we must see how little account is to be made of it. The impression made on a wise man is that of universal innocence. Poison is not poisonous after all, nor any wounds fatal. Compassion [sympathy?] is very untenable ground. It must be expeditious. Its pleadings will not bear to be stereotyped.” I also think here of Thoreau’s brother, John, who died gruesomely of lockjaw following a shaving accident. The incident caused Thoreau himself to be seized with a “sympathetic” lockjaw. It lasted for weeks on end before he finally recovered himself. Do these lines in Walden perhaps summarize the lesson that Thoreau drew from that sad era of crippling grief? Is it really the right lesson, I wonder? Is it not perhaps a literary over-reaction on his part? I suppose we’d have to explore the etymologies of “untenable,” “expeditious,” and “stereotyped” to fully appreciate Thoreau’s full meaning. Is he simply saying that we must not linger too long in sorrow, or something more?

    • efmooney says:

      It’s quite amazing to see how majestic moods in Thoreau can hide darker ones that are not at all inviting. I think you’re right, he scoffs at “innocent” nature. How can she be innocent when she knows so well how to mangle creatures and drown many thousands of TRUE innocents on Japan’s northeast coast? But — isn’t there a sense in which nature is indeed ‘innocent’, without dark motives? It’s as if we need to have ‘Innocent” mean “without ill intention” as well as mean “couldn’t harm a flea.”

      Nature can be terribly harmful and terribly innocent — harmful without intending harm. I find Thoreau continually making me rethink our simplest words, discovering hidden valences to them, hidden possibilities of extension and projection. He lets us hear “innocent” as the simple opposite of “heartless and cruel.” But a Tsunami is both innocent of malice and cruelly heartless. Each word has to be heard in its proper register — proper to the mood-scene he’s setting for our approval.

      There’s no shortcut, no faster way, no plainer way to capture the complex of admiration for innocence and hatred of cruel indifference that Thoreau finds integral to his response to the sea at Fire Island. Surveying shipwreck, it’s almost necessary to scoff at ‘innocent nature’ and to affirm her cruelty on the spot. Yet isn’t it also true, as we linger after the storm, that we can fall away from indignation, fall quiet before the water’s magnificence and power, and know then and there that the sea is guileless? Do we at that moment become indifferent to affliction brought on by the self-same sea? I think not.

      Poison is a motiveless potion and so not poisonous after all — not like a person with a poisonous tongue. How dark and heartless was Thoreau “really”, “all things considered”? Can we tally up darks and lights, repulsions and attractions, that way? His apparent steely coldness helped him get through John’s death, the extermination of Native Americans, the atrocity of slavery. To look at a bloody self-mutilated, one-legged muskrat takes steely coldness — just to escape giving way to disgust and distress. Thoreau can affect a kind of surgeon’s indifference to gore. But he is also, to my ear, replete with delight and innocence, with guileless infatuation with life.

      At the last trumpet, it is we who must mix the portion of realism (looking unflinchingly at devastation and horror) with the portion of compassion or sympathy, as we taste the remains of the day. Horror abets cold hearts, but not inescapably. The worst way out is to buy into an offensive conclusion, as if one had hold on a doctrinal truth — the view that the heavenly viol somehow makes the suffering here and now less bitter. To make suffering more sufferable by way of doctrinal dicta, offered on cue, makes me insufferable.

      I must couple apparently incompatible takes on the world without lessening the grip of the harsh polarity. I must WANT to be outraged; I must WANT to bathe in delight; and only poetry can touch these extremes in their burning intensity and make the case.

      • efmooney says:

        Another thought. Beyond my wrestling with parts of your post, Ishmael, it also occurred to me to try out Emerson’s famous line “So I contradict myself” [it’s Whitman’s line, actually; Emerson quipped that consistency was a hobgoblin] in a new way. The line is really a way to allow Emerson mood shifts, and it makes a “grammatical” point about mood variance and mood consistency. In his near flippancy (anathema to anyone trying to get beliefs lined up in a consistent way), Emerson gives himself permission to move among, and abide with, moods that are so complex and labile that delivering what they feel like sounds like getting all bollixed up in contradictions — like a teenager trying to explain the love-hate he has of his older brothers. Maybe Emerson isn’t saying, “let me believe p and not-p,” but instead, “let me weather contrary, conflictual moods, moods that, were I to try to lay out their valencies, would seem grossly ‘contradictory’.”

        So perhaps Thoreau is trying to temper a sympathy for creatures and creation, delight in their goodness say, with another mood to which it is unhappily yoked, a “contrary” mood. He is trying to temper an affirmation of welcome and delight with a cranky, irritable, neighboring impulse. He has a legitimate and visceral outrage at the suffering that creation and creatures deliver. Given this tension between opposed responses to the world (delight vs outrage), perhaps Thoreau, alas, ends up shaving off too much of one side or the other to make them have a better coupling, a better composition. He wants, as much as possible, to have his responses fit under a single passional motif, under a single umbrella of response-to-world. And in shaving, he inevitably slights part of his being, either sympathy-delight or punchy-outrage.

        On the other hand, perhaps WE are expecting too much ‘consistency’ from him — too much ‘harmony-among-moods’, that is. Maybe his capacity to write at the very edge of our tolerance for moral inconsistency conflict, and elusiveness — and write beyond it — is just what the doctor ordered.

        (Treading the deep end of the pool here, trying to stay afloat. Pull me in.)

      • Ishmael says:

        Professor Mooney, thank you for your impressive reply! I hope you won’t think me churlish if I continue to disagree. I think the distinction you make about “universal innocence” is a good one, but perhaps not to the point. It’s true that non-human nature lacks anything like moral agency and therefore can’t possibly be faulted for anything it “does”. Despite the harm that accidentally befalls individual creatures in nature, “she” intends no harm by it and continues on her sublime way undisturbed. The dead horse in the hollow may stink to high heaven, Thoreau says, but there is “compensation” in the knowledge that nature herself still has “a strong appetite and inviolable health.” The Whole continues to live and thrive even as the its myriads “parts” are extinguished wholesale.

        Still, as you also observe, saying that nature is harmless in this sense is NOT the same as saying that no harm issues from it – namely, to those beings who experience pain and suffering. But it’s just the latter, more radical belief – that no harm actually is done – that is the real issue here. I’m strongly inclined to think that Thoreau, in the chapter “Spring” and elsewhere, is making this much stronger claim. It’s the literal point of his line: “Poison is not poisonous after all, nor are any wounds fatal.” I instinctively (I hope not too hastily) take this to mean that pain, suffering, and death are in some sense illusions – along with nature herself! There seems to be an ambivalence or tension running throughout Walden between awakening to nature and awakening from it. This tension is supported by Thoreau’s implicit metaphysical dualism, his apparent belief that our nature is split between our animal side and our spiritual side. He seems genuinely unsure about which side of the divide to abide in, and this unsureness on his part constitutes the main (excuse the word) inconsistency in his thinking. When the spiritual side is uppermost in his mind, he says things like: “He is blessed who is assured that the animal is dying out in him day by day, and the divine being established” and “Nature is hard to overcome, but she must be overcome.”

        This assessment, needless to say, is not original with me and is even somewhat trite to anyone familiar with Thoreau and the literature. But it bears remembering in our present discussion about what Thoreau intends when he says poisons don’t poison and wounds don’t kill. It’s this metaphysical dualism of his that allows him to assume at times a hyper-detached, more-Stoic-than-thou attitude toward the more terrible aspects of existence; an attitude that is positively “otherworldly” in its aloofness. Let me close with this memorable passage, which you certainly know, from “Solitude”:

        “With thinking we may be beside ourselves in a sane sense. By a conscious effort of the mind we can stand aloof from actions and their consequences; and all things, good and bad, go by us like a torrent. We are not wholly involved in Nature. …I only know myself as…the scene, so to speak, of thoughts and affections; and am sensible of a certain doubleness by which I can stand as remote from myself as from another. However intense my experience, I am conscious of the presence and criticism of a part of me, which, as it were, is not a part of me, but a spectator, sharing no experience, but taking note of it, and that is no more I than it is you. When the play, it may be the tragedy of life is over, the spectator goes his way. It was a kind of fiction, a work of the imagination only, so far as we are concerned.”


      • Ishmael says:

        “Given this tension between opposed responses to the world (delight vs outrage), perhaps Thoreau, alas, ends up shaving off too much of one side or the other to make them have a better coupling, a better composition. He wants, as much as possible, to have his responses fit under a single passional motif, under a single umbrella of response-to-world.”

        Why should Thoreau be unable to enunciate the ambivalence as such? Is it really so very difficult to say: the world is a bewildering contradiction, rapturously beautiful and uplifting on the one hand, terror-riddled and heartbreaking on the other? How can we human beings stay whole and sane between the clash of such contraries? And if Thoreau believes that the answer is poetry and poetry alone, then why should he not say so? He can be very emphatic about plenty else. Thoreau’s reluctance to directly state the matter seems to slight his emphasis on “the elaborate beauty and finish” of the classics, which he so ardently admired and sought to emulate in Walden. Allowing contradictory notions to bump and grate noisily against one another seems to disappoint such ambition, leaving the impression of a work unfinished and unlovely in one extremely important respect: the coherence of its governing ideas. Despite my own blunt way of putting this, I am asking a question, and I think your statement comes very close to supplying a possible answer. Here is how I would put it today.

        Like Emerson, Thoreau was an inveterate journal-keeper. This genre allows for and even demands the kind of free, open-ended, digressive, mood-shifting, and contradictory meditation that you prize so highly. It is the genre which, by its nature, is most free, exploratory, tentative, and “undefined up front.” In a way, it is the perfect vehicle for a notionally nomadic temperament such a Thoreau’s. If I remember correctly,Thoreau eventually came to think of his journal as his true masterpiece, literally the work of his life, compared to which all of his other writings were like excursions away from home. Emerson for his part explicitly said (somewhere) that he preferred keeping a journal to writing the finished essays, because the essay’s obligation to smooth rough edges and straighten crooked lines tended to kill the aliveness and candor of his day-to-day thinking. I have thought that the attitudes and style of life that Emerson expresses in the essays are actually the credo of a journal-keeper, his daily habits of writing writ large as an entire way of life. In the journal, life is closest to its expression, and its expression is closest to life; one literally lives into it and out of it. In this respect, too, Thoreau was Emerson’s disciple.

        It’s a hunch…

        I love your blog, professor Mooney!

      • Ishmael says:

        I just realized I misquoted the last line of that passage from “Solitude” I presented here last month. It does not end with “so far as WE ARE concerned” but with “so far as HE WAS concerned”. Shocking! How does that happen, I wonder? The whole sentence should read: “It [the tragedy of life] was a kind of fiction, a work of the imagination only, so far as he [the spectator] was concerned.” Does this correction affect my use of the passage to “demonstrate” Thoreau’s dualistic metaphysics? Stanley Cavell would certainly say it does. I think it might not. But that’s another long story….

  2. dmf says:

    To pray you open your whole self
    To sky, to earth, to sun, to moon
    To one whole voice that is you.
    And know there is more
    That you can’t see, can’t hear
    Can’t know except in moments
    Steadily growing, and in languages
    That aren’t always sound but other
    Circles of motion.
    Like eagle that Sunday morning
    Over Salt River. Circled in blue sky
    In wind, swept our hearts clean
    With sacred wings.
    We see you, see ourselves and know
    That we must take the utmost care
    And kindness in all things.
    Breathe in, knowing we are made of
    All this, and breathe, knowing
    We are truly blessed because we
    Were born, and die soon, within a
    True circle of motion,
    Like eagle rounding out the morning
    Inside us.
    We pray that it will be done
    In beauty.
    In beauty.

    “Eagle Poem” by Joy Harjo

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