I find myself listening to a lecture on Thoreau’s theory of perpetual grief.  At his brother’s death, he seems to say that terminating grief is a short-cut we take, we want to ‘get over’ sorrow, yet that should not be an option, we are false to those we mourn if we get over mourning them.  And he characterizes nature as capable of unending grief — is in unending grief — yet that is not a possibility for us.  Now rather than fill out this striking view, expressed in an early letter to a friend, I want to juxtapose it with a quote our companion Ishmael has found:

I am grateful for what I am & have. My thanksgiving is perpetual. It is surprising how contented one can be with nothing definite. …O how I laugh when I think of my vague and indefinite riches.” (HDT to H.G.O. Blake, Dec. 12, 1856)

This opens the question that has simmered off and on the last month in these conversations:  how can consciousness (or the heart) both be full of joy and full of sadness?  Does the heart have two chambers, one dark, one light, pumping alternately?  Can the two chambers beat in unison, as it were, sad-happy, rather than now sad, now happy?  We want to clear this up the way we clear up the tension between two propositions that contradict each other.  But of course, we do have love-hate relations, and don’t think they’re as impermissible as thinking X is both a square and not a square.  What is the logic of emotions?  I just leave these questions sitting, for the moment, and share that ever-so-upbeat quote, Thoreau to Blake, and let the mists rise or fall as they will, for the moment.



  1. There’s an old view of the Orthodox Liturgy–that it is celebrated in joyful sadness. I suppose we might think of this as the complex emotion demanded when the object of the Liturgy is (believed to be) the God-Man. –I don’t pretend this helps much with your question.

    • efmooney says:

      It does help. Life can be seen from so many angles, and one, you remind me, is as practice that aspires to, and can become, liturgy; as if we’re not here to answer questions held at a distance but to ‘take them personally’ (the questions, that is) and find new ways to preserve them as the spirit of life. Does this make sense?

  2. dmf says:

    the loneliness—
    whichever way I look
    wild violets


  3. Ishmael says:

    Maybe the heart is full of sadness because it’s sullied by a past full of failures, unfinished business, and bad behavior, while it is full of joy because it has an open future into which it might live and see its past redeemed – or at least hopes it has. And maybe as the future shrinks, the joy shrinks with it. The young, it is said, are creatures of the future (joy), while the old are creatures of the past (sorrow). Or maybe, if one can believe that “the sun is but a morning star”, the future outruns the past into infinity and thus expands into joy forever. I think our Henry believed something like that – or wanted to.

    • efmooney says:

      This is beautifully, and truly expressed — it suggests how Thoreau can mourn, and find nature in perpetual mourning, and yet always open to joy, new joys, infinite joys.

  4. Andrew Corsa says:

    From an introduction to one of Seth!! Benardete’s collections, written by Ronna Burger and Michael Davis:

    (1) “The way to poetry lies through tragedy . . . The general formula for this truth is pathei mathos – learning through suffering, experiencing, or undergoing. It is the original location in the parados of Aeschylus’s Agamemnon . . . patthei mathos is meant by the chorus to articulate the univeral condition for human understanding . . . To learn, we must first have erred, for leanring amounts to disclosing the underlying reasons for such errors. Pathei mathos. Philosophy generally reflects this same pattern; the Platonic dialogue, in its representation of Socratic philosophy, makes the pattern thematic . . . It is, more specificially, the function of reversal and recognition, on which such a tragic plot pivots, that has its philsophical equivalent in the Platonic dialogue. It is not sufficient, therefore, to articulate the formal structure of the dialogue as a whole constituted of parts; this structure must be understood in relation to the sequential unfolding of the argument, which – not despite but because of the reversal itundergoes – proves finally to have been governed by deeper necessity.”

    (2) [Andrew’s note: So, here’s the part perhaps most relevant to your post, above]: “The Phaedo again provides a concrete illustration. At the outset of the conversation, Socrates rubs his leg after the chains havebeen removed and reflects on his wonder-inspiring experience: that which is called pleasant is naturally related to the painful, which is thought to be its opposite, in such a way that the pursuit of one makes it necessary to take the other with it, as if they were bound in one head. Aesop, Socrates imagines, might ahve made a myth about a god who, wishint to end the war between the two but nable, could only join their two heads. This Aesopian myth presents what Benardete calls a “conjunctive two,” and he proposes that it provides Plato’s model for myth in general . . . The two presumed opposites are naturally bound together “in one head.” . . . . Diotima’s myth about the birth of Eros . . . begins with a conjunctive two: Poverty, the mother of Eros, and Resource, his father, are presented as two indepdneint beings that must somehow unite with each other to generate their offspring . . . The awareness of our need is never really separable from the thoughts of how to alleviate it.”

    I haven’t been able to trace out the connection (if there is one) between the idea of conjunction-of-seeming-opposites in 2# above, with the idea of learning-through-undergoing in 1# above. I feel like there SHOULD be some sort of connection. Might it be that, when we learn through experience, we naturally arrive at the necessary conjunction of what might have first seemed to be opposites?

    I really don’t know. But doesn’t this all seem incredibly relevant to Thoreau’s perpetual joy and simultaneous perpetual grief? It seems remarkably, strikingly similar to Socrates’ Eros/Poverty and Pleasure/Pain connections. And, with Thoreau as poet-philosopher, I can’t help but feel that there is a strong element of Pathei Mathos in his work.


    • efmooney says:

      Yes, yes, and yes again. This is great background and underpinning. Now I just have to read it a few more times! I think you have a kind of dialectical path to wisdom-insight here when you ask “Might it be that, when we learn through experience, we naturally arrive at the necessary conjunction of what might have first seemed to be opposites?” That is, if I hear you correctly, experience can arrive as a kind of jumble, opposites and polarities slipping by unnoticed, and then on reflection, we try to neaten up the picture, often by throwing out one member of the offending polarity (so Augustine says evil is unreal, or Socrates throws out grief) — but with luck and imagination we can learn to hold those polarities in some kind of reflective and lived-conjunction. Maybe we get convinced that phenomenologically we just CAN experience gratitude to have gone through X and gotten out the other side — AND an equal part grief that the ‘going through X’ involved pain left and right. Now I should return to your opening examples —

      • dmf says:

        I’m not so sure that we are as much getting closer to, more intimate with, the phenomenon by heading too far down these kinds of familiar academic paths of taxonomy and genealogy, are we in the mode of re-presenting or of enacting/enabling?

      • Andrew Corsa says:

        Thank you for such articulate, thought-provoking language.

        Yes. I do wonder if pathei mathos – “learning through suffering, experiencing, or undergoing” might play a special role in revealing what seem to be opposites and helping us us to hold them in a reflective, lived-in conjunction. Is this particular kind of learning – pathei mathos – perhaps particularly well-suited to this?

      • Andrew Corsa says:

        And “dmf”: Here’s my approach. When I want to get closer to, and more intimate with, a phenomenon, I look to the authors and artists who have talked (painted, performed, etc.) about it the best. I don’t limit myself to just one theorist, or one time period. I get the most out of connections; I find “closeness” in the way puzzle pieces lock up. Making comparisons often involves forming categories, viewing ideas as members of sets, and “doing” taxonomy in general. But it isn’t the taxonomy that’s important; it’s the phenomonen, and the comparisons the taxonomy helps make possible. Reading Thoreau against Plato makes sense. I’m convinced there is valube to be found in the similarity between their approaches to philosophy, and their conclusions about how two things might become (or be linked together as) one. I think it has, perhaps, to do with variations of the notion of “pathei mathos.” If so, some taxonomy might be useful, to get a grip on – and get closer to – what’s going on. But that’s just my approach. Others approaches might be better, and I’m open to change.

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