More on Gratitude and Grief

From Thoreau’s Journal, March 27, 1842, a couple of months after his brother’s death:

The eagle must have an educated eye.

See what a life the Gods have given us — set round with pain and pleasure — it is too strange for sorrow it is too strange for joy . . . . Say not that nature is trivial–for tomorrow she will be radiant with beauty.  I am as old as old as the Alleghanies — but it excites a youthful feeling – as I were but too happy to be so young.

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6 comments on “More on Gratitude and Grief

  1. Ishmael says:

    Neither/nor or both/and – which is it, I wonder? I agree with Emerson: Thoreau’s penchant for paradox can get damn irritating at times; it’s a serious blot on his style. Listen to THIS moment of affirmation, which Thoreau penned the day before the one you quote: “I thank God that the cheapness which appears in time and the world, the trivialness of the whole scheme of things, is in my own cheap and trivial moment. I am time and the world.” Yippee! A hop and a skip further on and we hear: “Why does not God make some mistake to show us that time is a delusion? Why did I invent time but to destroy it?” Okay, so God Henry is having a bad day, feeling a touch out of touch with himself, so to speak. That’s a thought Schopenhauer might appreciate. But is this metaphysics in any way consonant with Thoreau’s wish to affirm life in time despite its inevitable gleams and glooms? Does it not amount to letting gloom having the final say? See, now he’s made ME peevish!

    • Ishmael says:

      What a lovely thump on the head, Catlin! To begin with, I don’t agree that Thoreau ever tried to capture the “conditions of affirmation”, i.e., to ask in any explicit or orderly way how it’s possible for human beings to say ‘yes’ to the riddle of suffering. So it’s not clear to me that I’m begging his question. Perhaps you can show me a) where he articulates this question, and b) where he makes any headway in answering it – I mean apart form his often breathtaking rhetoric.

      I disagree also with your apparent and surprising endorsement of Emerson’s hyperbole. No, I do not think that human beings are both gods in nature and weeds by the wall, and I certainly don’t think that such extravagances should be the starting point of philosophy or anything else. We are neither gods nor weeds, but rational (linguistic) animals with numerous irrational tendencies who struggle daily to cope with the exigencies of life and to achieve, if possible, some degree of what we’re presently calling affirmation. (By the way, my agreeing with Emerson’s perhaps hypocritical irritation with Thoreau’s paradox-compulsion does not make me an Emersonian.)

      Finally, I think you misunderstood my main point. I did not mean to suggest that gloom must have the last word simply because we have mood swings. As my final few lines pointedly say, Thoreau DOES wish to affirm life in time despite its revolving gleams and glooms. Perhaps I should have clarified that “gleams and glooms” – a phrase I’m beginning regret! – includes our mood swings. Of course, then I would have to also clarify that affirmation is not one mood among the others, but a kind of second-order attitude or disposition (perhaps a virtue?) that enables us to anticipate, as it were, the dawn beyond our dark moods and to live for that. I do think Thoreau makes some progress in this direction.

      So what, according to me, is the problem? Well, it’s the thing I’m calling, probably misleadingly, his metaphysics. By that I obviously do not mean anything like a system worked out from plausible premises to clear conclusions. Rather I mean Thoreau’s recurrent use throughout his writings of world- and time-denying metaphysical imagery. I am saying that this imagery, when allowed to gain the upper hand, is what amounts to “letting gloom have the final say.” The quotation I gave above is a particularly repellant instance of this metaphysical imagery – or so it seems to me.

      I know that the quotation comes from his Journal and that a journal is by its nature an open-ended experiment in ideas and expressions, and therefore non-binding as a witness to the author’s final opinions. But even Walden, Thoreau’s most deliberate work, is littered with imagery of awakening from time, of somehow getting beyond it, though usually the images are more gently and invitingly expressed.

      Obviously, I find such metaphysical imagery to be inherently world-negating and gloomy, in much the same way that Nietzsche, for example, might find it. In my opinion, the world that stands to be affirmed is the world that existed before I was born and will continue to exist after I am dead, with all its mixed lights, shadows, joys, pains, and the rest. It is not “my” world in any strong sense of that possessive. For a person to think, to hope, or even just to imagine with some regularity that the world of matter and time is his own self-induced delusion – that, I’m inclined to say, is a metaphor and a metaphysics of despair. I could me wrong!

      Thanks, Catlin, for making me think.

      • Catlin Lowe says:

        A thump on the head? And here I meant to reach for your elbow and search out a smile: philosophy as flirtation.

        Need one be explicit or orderly to be seriously undertaking a project? (Consider any artistic attempt, effort toward goodness, lovemaking, parenting, adventuring, etc.) It seems to me that we often don’t know ourselves what we’re up to until after the fact (“I see now I was trying to find a way to honor my father” ” . . . say goodbye,” “. . . write a hymn of thanksgiving”); that we come by these things late and by accident needn’t discredit our earnestness.

        I don’t have Thoreau at my fingertips the way I do Emerson, so you’ll have to be patient with me on the passage-front. The civil disobedience essay comes to mind as an instance of his trying to search out the conditions of his own yes-saying to society, the conditions of his own concord in Concord. One of the conditions of his assent is, of course, this full expression of his dissent–so here we have something like the movement I take to be definitive of his work (saying no that he might honestly say yes).

        Why do you want a proof ‘apart’ form his breathtaking rhetoric, I wonder? (Why do we so often crave such proofs?) Not long ago I read a philosophical exchange in which one professor wrote of another that he had “beautiful speech on his side.” He wrote this with utter derision. But my God! What a boon to have beautiful speech on one’s side! We worry about rhetoric and deceit: the brass coin painted gold, the gold idol in which no god dwells. As if truth and beauty never walked hand in hand.

        You mention Nietzsche, and I take it to be an insight Thoreau and Nietzsche share that our inherited currencies are inflated, bankrupt. We must recalibrate our economies, re-mint our very words (sincere speech as a creative forge). According to both thinkers, we have no gold standard save our lives, our needs and desires and passions and whims (so Thoreau specifies the cut of his coat to the tailor; he would have it fashioned to his purposes; so Nietzsche writes in aphorisms and goes on and on about his health). But the re-minting of our words (of our thoughts and our deeds even) won’t resolve for us finally the relationship between inner and outer. That relationship is always to be achieved: the painted brass coin is as good as gold for as long as it carries value between us; I’m prepared to say that God dwells in the idol so long as the idol is an object of praise.

        (I want to say: If truth is no longer in beauty’s keeping, shame on us for persisting in calling her by that name. We must educate ourselves into a more refined aesthetic!)

        There’s a kind of deep pragmatism (relativism? skepticism?) here. Surprised by my endorsement of Emerson, you write, “We are neither gods nor weeds, but rational (linguistic) animals with numerous irrational tendencies . . . ” You know, I feel like a lot of things over the course of any given day, but never like a rational (linguistic) animal. What does that feel like? What does the world feel like when you feel that way? If I’m endorsing old Em’ it’s because his experience is representative of mine; I discover myself in his prose. I’m willing to discover myself otherwise–perhaps the start would be to read of how you came to discover yourself in precisely those terms.

        (About weeds and gods: Have you never been caught in a lie? Or caught someone you respected in a lie? Or heard a piece of gossip you desperately wish you hadn’t? Or, worse, passed on that same piece of gossip, for the guffaw and the slap on the back? And then: Have you never written a really excellent sentence? (I’m quite sure you have.) Or run farther than you thought you could? Or done the brave thing? Or been kissed hard when you least expected it? To deny the phenomenological truth of these experiences seems just too sad to me.)

        You say it isn’t my world, but it seems to me that one of the tragedies I live and die in is that it is my world (or better, I am its): I drank too much wine last night and have nothing to wear, my flat is filthy, and this coffee’s no good. Tomorrow I’ll wake to all my favorite dresses, a sun-drenched retreat, the best coffee of my life. Mood is imperial: It colonizes experience. (Emerson: Dream delivers us to dream.) When you write of “the world that existed before I was born and will continue to exist after I am dead,” and of us as rational animals, I take it you want us to wake up. Thoreau wants us to wake up, too! And as you point out, Thoreau sometimes makes it sound as though waking up means waking up out of time. I’m with you that this is very weird, very disturbing. When I’m feeling generous (more like a God in nature, less like a weed by the wall) I think Thoreau is probably writing true to one of his moods, say his mystical or metaphysical mood.

        Need affirmation be prior to or outside of such moods–a second-order attitude, disposition, or virtue? I don’t know . . . Are our dreams educable? Say educable from within? My instinct is to say that dreams are educable just as they are educative. Yesterday’s hope tempers today’s despair and teaches me patience for the ‘morrow.

        What I want to sugget is that waking up to “the world that existed before I was born and will continue to exist after I am dead,” may just mean dreaming a more capacious dream.

        Please don’t regret “gleams and glooms”–it’s a million-dollar line.
        And thanks for playing, C.

  2. Catlin Lowe says:

    But (Dear) Ishmael: Your suggestion that gloom has the final say if our moods are as fickle as all this is to beg just the question Thoreau’s asking. That is, What are the conditions of an honest (we might say phenomenologically honest) affirmation? Isn’t it true–true to life, true to feeling–that I am a God in nature, I am a weed by the wall (and that’s your friend, Emerson–one to talk about paradox)? If it is true, that should be our start point–that should be what we lend our words to in search of a deeper grammar. Yes? No? To announce unity as our first principle (or integrity or principle or logic even) is to risk abstraction on the one hand and dogmatism on the other: like trying to write a language top-down. C.

  3. dmf says:

    The Waking

    I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
    I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
    I learn by going where I have to go.

    We think by feeling. What is there to know?
    I hear my being dance from ear to ear.
    I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

    Of those so close beside me, which are you?
    God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there,
    And learn by going where I have to go.

    Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?
    The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;
    I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

    Great Nature has another thing to do
    To you and me; so take the lively air,
    And, lovely, learn by going where to go.

    This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
    What falls away is always. And is near.
    I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
    I learn by going where I have to go.

    -Theodore Roethke

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