Rolling Out of Bed

Long before the sun came up, I heard murmurs from the other room, thought I was dreaming, then realized that the symposium was still going.  It seems Cat was still talking to Ishmael, while I (apparently) had passed out from fatigue and Grigio.  I didn’t get everything (though I’m told a full transcription can be found somewhere in the clutter (below)).  The recorders were running, but I needed no tape to startle awake at this particular wisdom afloat, which I share: 

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!)


[. . . the unanticipated boon of a blog; I’m a wonder-wounded hearer . . . ]



14 comments on “Rolling Out of Bed

  1. dmf says:

    don’t think we need (or can achieve) resolutions, sublations, or balance/harmony.
    fortunately all we need to do is to keeping going, keep relating, and maybe along the way to richen our experiences both given and manufactured.

  2. Ishmael says:

    Catlan (and Ed?), it seems that aphorisms, apothegms, riddles, and parables are the only things that might win you over.  So here goes.

    [1]  “Need one be explicit or orderly to be seriously undertaking a project?”  Thoreau thought that people should be very clear with themselves about their ends and should carefully consider the choice of means to achieve them.  He believed that anxiety, wretchedness, bustle, haste, waste of time, and assorted other ills were the punishments for failing to live deliberately.  Accordingly, he was a very orderly and methodical man.

    [2]  Naturally, the creative process is “a zigzag line of a hundred tacks”.  But, Emerson also says, what imparts to that erratic line its “average tendency” or definite direction is “one will”.  Applying this to Thoreau, we might say that affirmation is the one will that runs through the zig of his gloom and the zag of his gladness.  This single will is the overall attitude or settled disposition, the virtue, that keeps him going forward.  The simpler name for this virtue – his own name for it, in fact – is trust or faith.  This virtue is not an emotion, not a caprice, not a swoon of enthusiasm, never a “letting go”.  He’ll plunge straight to Davie Jones locker if he gives in to that.  No, his faith alertly keeps its sight on the horizon as his eyes and hands deftly manage the boat.  It’s the disciplined spiritual focus that enables him to come about briskly at just the right time and not too close to the wind.

    [3]  Rhetoric, in my book, is neither a dirty word nor a dirty practice.  It’s the high art of persuasion.  In the classical world, it was considered the natural twin of logic.  Thoreau was a brilliant rhetorician, no doubt of that.  I confess that it takes an effort of will to pull my eyes from the ravishing face of the writer to engage the homelier looks of his reasoning twin.  Considering them together – over a bottle of wine, say – I can’t help wondering how they came from the same parents.

    [4]  Recently a woman uttered in my hearing the phrase “condition of affirmation” and claimed that this was what Thoreau, the philosopher, was asking for. According to her, it was nothing less than his guiding question.  My associative mind immediately leaped from her phrase to the phrase “condition for the possibility of affirmation,” and from that, all the way to Immanuel Kant.  I thought to myself, surely here’s a mistake.  What two thinkers could be more different in intention and style than Henry Thoreau and Immanuel Kant?  Ha!  And so, somewhat rashly, I challenged this person to a friendly contest of chapter and verse, pretty confident that I would win.  It was only later that a sinking feeling dimpled its way stealthily up my spine – yes, strange to say, in both directions at once! I tore off my shirt and danced franticly about for a few seconds, and there it fell, right in front me: Stanley Cavell!  Might the woman’s “condition of affirmation” have been an allusion to Thoreau’s (in Cavell’s words) “transcendental deduction of the thing in itself”? Maybe I’m imaging things…?

    [5]  “We have no gold standard save our lives, our needs and desires and passions and whims.”  I hope and pray that remark is not true.  In any case, since the remark itself apparently rests on nothing more solid than needs and desires and passions and whims, it amounts, in public value, to so much iron pyrite. It might have a private, sentimental worth, as a sort of keepsake one places on a window sill, to catch the light; but there are plenty of people who actually hope to buy with it their way through the world; and to them, a sympathetic word of caution might be in order.  It will get them disappointingly little in the marketplace of ideas. Emerson was an exception.

    [6]  When I was a child, a girl who was sweet on me walked over to where I hung seductively from the monkey-bars, and handed over to me a brand new packet of play money.  Just gave it to me, without a word.  One side of the bills pictured a big seal balancing a ball on its nose, with the caption: The Great Seal of the United States.  The other side pictured a mule pulling a wagon heavily loaded with hay, with the caption: That Ain’t Hay!  She thought she had won my love that day, and I believed she had, too.  We did not grow up to marry. (A parable.)     

    [7]  “If truth is no longer in beauty’s keeping, shame on us for persisting in calling her by that name.”  With at least equal authority, Nietzsche (or somebody) said: Beauty is the lie we tell ourselves in order not to be destroyed by the truth.  Bringing these two wise sayings together, let us pose the question: Is it a shame that truth is no longer in the keeping of a lie? One might very well answer Yes!

    [8]  “You say it isn’t my world…”  No, I say it isn’t my world in a STRONG sense of that possessive – a glum solipsist’s sense, for example.

    [9]  “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?”  A creature as nervy and passionate and exquisitely voluble as you doesn’t know what it’s like to be a linguistic animal?  Gemme a break!

    Thanks for the pleasure, Catlan.

    • Catlin Lowe says:

      [4] And what exactly would you be imagining if you were imagining things? I suppose I did make an allusion (though of the belated, accidental sort I mentioned earlier) to SC and that long, late footnote of his in “Portions.” Belated, accidental: SC would let me claim intention (see his discussion of Fellini and Philomel in “A Matter of Meaning It”); I wonder, will you? But now it’s on you to help me see what exactly the reference wins us.

      [5] Perhaps one thing we win is a clearer sense of what’s at stake between relative and absolute value. That we tend to mistake the limits of knowledge as failures of knowledge (by turns mourning them and revenging ourselves on them), has an analogue I think in our perennial disappointment that value isn’t pinned to something more stable than us, our common life together and the exigencies of each moment. A further analogue would be our ongoing frustration with the seeming impurities of language and grammar, the fantasy that God speaks in some tongue other than ours. But then these are all so thoroughly imbricated in one another that they seem not so much analogous, as reformulations of the very same grievance. You hope and pray for some other standard: What do you have in mind?

      [6] And what does marriage have to do with it? When you were a child you loved as a child, and now that you are grown you love differently. You’ll love differently yet, and that doesn’t (needn’t) undermine the love you feel today. Even a marriage has many chapters. I once thought to write an essay on fraudulent love (an ethical interpretation of Michael Fried’s aesthetic theory), but I dropped the project almost as soon as I started: What do I know, what do I know, of love’s many tempered offices? Who am I to arbitrate what my fellow man calls love? (Except when he addresses me and I will or will not accept his terms, will or will not take his penny.)


      • Ishmael says:

        Okay, then. As nothing is taken back and as you’re now fully assured of my good will, courtesy requires me to answer your latest questions. Hopefully I can make the answers less cryptic than their botched, “literary” originals.

        [4] Let you claim intention?! Yes, indeed! I was trying to explain the associative process that got me from your phrase “conditions of affirmation” all the way to Stanley Cavell’s rather strained Kantian interpretation of Thoreau (the spider in my shirt). I had missed altogether your direct references to SC, and certainly to his dark-corner footnote in “Portions”. So I had only a suspicion that your phrase might point in that direction and thought I could be imaging it.

        Also, I was trying to “demonstrate” (as with most of those numbered items) that I DO have an imagination. This was a defensive reaction against what I felt was your perception of me as a “rationalist” who looks down his long nose at the noetic depths of dream and poetry. I’m not and I don’t. My overall “thesis” is this: in a work purporting to be or purported by others to be a work of philosophy, the twins of rhetoric and logic should be of like proportions and comeliness. Hence my constant carping about dear Henry’s overall coherence and consistency. This MAY be only a personal crotchet, I grant you; but it’s MY crotchet and I WON’T give it up. So there.

        What does this reference win us? Well, it GOT us explicitly to The Senses of Walden and to my sense that Cavell’s picture of Thoreau as an omni-competent philosopher (AND epic poet! AND prophet!), in total control of his language, is largely bunk. So instead of an “easy” contest of chapter and verse centered on Walden, as I expected at first, I thought we might be headed for a tug-o-war over Cavell. In other words, the contest wasn’t going to be so easy after all, and my heart just wasn’t in it. Did my little fantasy make my intention clear? Apparently not.

        [5] Your response is absolutely smash-on Cavellian and wonderfully uttered, i.e., SO well spoken that even to name it I must reach for a more gorgeous word than ‘spoken’. It’s really great, C.! But you do ask: what other standard do you, Ishmael, have in mind? My answer is the same (for philosophers): homely things like coming to “terms”; respecting the “laws” of logic; and engaging in carefully constructed argument. It’s a form of bigotry I suppose, and of course I’m a hypocrite. And I certainly don’t imagine that you despise these things, so don’t think for a minute I’m accusing you. However, when you suggest that our ONLY standard is “our needs and desires and passions and whims,” I react like I’ve just been brushed by a stinging nettle. Surely our situation can’t be as bad as all that! And by the way (returning our focus of Thoreau), for all his liberal acceptance of indefinitely many modes of “doing and thinking” (which I admire), he WAS an absolutist when it came to HOW any one of those modes is chosen and pursued. I don’t say that he tried to justify his absolute prescriptions – in fact, I’ve said he didn’t – but they are there.

        [6] The parable is not about love. Besides, can children love fraudulently? Let me give the parable’s simple equivalencies, as my disordered brain imagined them. Play (fake) money equals pure rhetoric (fake thought) – that’s the key. The gifting of the money can be charming and give a glow of enchantment to the moment. Ultimately, however, it is found to be no more serious than its “engravings”. By itself, in other words, rhetoric does not a true marriage of mature minds make. As for why I’m speaking in parables, remember our Lord’s clarifying words: “I speak to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and they hearing hear not, neither do they understand.” (I joke, of course; but it is a real memory from childhood, so the parable has that going for it.)

        A last word about [2]. After I posted it, I had my doubts about the nautical phrase “come about briskly” and emailed a sailor friend of mine for reassurance. No, he said, it should be “come about smartly.” That’s the PERFECT word for my meaning, don’t you think?

        Your friend, Ish

  3. Ishmael says:

    My past is litered with many embarrassments of pretended intelligence (ask Ed!), but this latest folly takes the cake. To “go up” against the likes of you – good heavens, what was I thinking? This came home to me vividly this afternoon, actually, when I read the latest post on your blog. How natural and authentic and lovely your voice is, Catlan. And what a intelligent eye you have. Now, with your reply above, I feel justly chastened. I regret that you even felt called on to bother, but it was kind of you to do so and no doubt typical. My poor, over-wound ego has been sprung, but I think I might be a slightly better person this evening than I was this morning. And that must mean a good day of blogging after all. Thank you much!

    Apologies to you too, Ed. You have the patience of a saint.

  4. Catlin Lowe says:

    Oh, Ishmael, my goodness! I wouldn’t have replied if these questions and frustrations (your questions and frustrations) weren’t my very own. Don’t take anything back! All things giving and forward, C.

  5. Catlin Lowe says:

    PS And the idea of a ‘sprung’ ego! Well, that’s worth at least twenty-mill’. Watch out: There are pick-pockets about . . .

  6. Catlin Lowe says:

    Dear Ishmael,

    Briefly, as I’m both up against a deadline and mindful that we may be overstaying our welcome at Ed’s:

    “Surely our situation can’t be as bad as all that!” Need all that be so bad? When I’m in my right heart and head, my whim is an organ of mercy. When my whim turns petty, trivial, spiteful, or cruel, my recourse is to nothing beyond my own passionate desire and need to be better than I am, the passionate desires and needs of those who would be my moral educators. To be sure, our situation often is bad, but I don’t see a rescue beyond the terms as I named them. Whatever mast I lash myself to, it will be a mast of my choosing, a mast that appeals to me, aesthetically say; its curvature will fit the impress of my spine.

    Even the cross? The temptation (my temptation) is to claim some intervention that does, precisely, rescue me from myself. Here, now, this is not a mast of my choosing; I was called to carry this (and another will drive in the nails). But to answer a call is to compromise the otherness of its origin (it was not set upon my back, I took it up, I followed). Thus Emerson (with what I imagine to be no small grief) drops discussion of the Spirit or the Lord, and writes instead of his own genius, that other within himself, whom he must answer, but also for whom he must answer (if only down the road). As painful as it is, this seems right to me. (My father often comforts himself that our relationship (his and mine) is to be redeemed in the next life. When he has been neglectful of me or otherwise hurtful he says, “You know Honey, I just thank God that this isn’t where we’re supposed to work this stuff out. Our home is in eternity.” But by his own lights I won’t be with him in eternity, so the conversation turns predictably away from this life and what hope we may have for a redeemed relationship in it, to the fantasized urgency of my salvation.) We may be inspired, but whatever inspires us is more than happy to wear the cloth of our nature–from the outside, from the inside even, it begins to look like we’re driven by personal convenience, habit, and style.

    I don’t despise terms or coming to terms (let’s leave law for later). I delight in them. But I claim nothing deeper than fancy for my abiding affection, my commitment even.

    Jesus speaks in parables to fulfill the first condition of Isaiah’s prophecy, but this only that the second might come to pass: that they would see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn. Matthew 13 represents a rare lesson in how to see and hear. After working through some problem sets, Jesus sends the disciples off with a take-home quiz, a parable that goes uninterpreted: “Have you understood all these things?” Jesus asked. “Yes,” they replied. He said to them, “Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.”

    In all of this I am trying to make this turn: from being a teacher of law, to being a student and disciple, not of Christ, or even Jesus, but of the kingdom, as that which is within us and at hand, overrun with weeds, but also the only field of our hope.


    • efmooney says:

      Of course I welcome this conversation, Catlin and Ishmael — you capture my heart-soul with nearly every line. I’m wide eyed, open-eared, and inevitably ready to meet the day better for having been present. Thanks. Ed

  7. Ishmael says:

    I confess to being somewhat disoriented by your intense religious language, so I shall try to begin with your interesting transition from ship mast to cross. I’m not all that familiar with the comfortable contours of masts, but I’m sure a cross has no curves. A literal Roman crucifixion, of the sort that demonstrated God’s love for humankind, was designed to cause its victim’s body parts to war against one another in order to inflict maximum protracted agony as a prelude to death by slow suffocation. Honestly, I can’t imagine anyone fitting their back to THAT for aesthetic reasons, and I think Kierkegaard will back me up on this. Soren, will you step in here a moment, please….

    I suppose that Emerson and Thoreau, for consistency’s sake, would be forced to acknowledge that a certain type of person might have a positive “genius” for self-sacrifice, and thus, in obeying Christ, might still meet the formal conditions of self-reliance. But being decidedly non-Christian themselves, I think they might also have observed that Christ’s commandment to follow Him is not universally binding, and indeed is truly binding only on that small minority of people who find it authentically attractive to their individual natures. This translated means, simply, that Transcendentalism cancels historical Christianity. Full stop. (Besides which, as Kierkegaard tirelessly declaimed, being attracted to Christianity is strictly speaking impossible, since it absolutely contradicts human nature.)

    Looking at the mismatch from the other side, Christians categorically reject the relativist religious tolerance that Transcendentalists revel in. Of course, on grounds of Christian charity and wise political policy, they smile benignly on Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, and the rest; but they otherwise emphatically believe that the life of Jesus Christ expresses God’s law for all people without exception (post-Incarnation). Thoreau and Kierkegaard, in other words, would have climbed into bed together with several fat pillows between them. And you can forget the Pope; he sleeps alone. Orestes Brownson, you may recall, converted from Transcendentalism to Catholicism and never looked back. He knew how to plow like a Christian. To repeat, these two spiritual orientations, properly delineated, are impossible to reconcile.

    Having said that, let me look back at your comment. Despite having a preacher’s facility with Scripture, you appear not to be a dogmatic Christian, and perhaps not even a confessing one. Your talk of the Kingdom rather reminds me of Tolstoy’s Gospel in Brief, but I wouldn’t bet on that either. Whatever the source of your spiritual aspirations, any association of them with whims and aesthetics and comfortable or uncomfortable “fits” seems to hit the wrong notes. I will merely observe that your diction is an unstable mixture of the voluntaristic (whims and passions), the relativistic-aesthetic (preferences), and the normative-ethical (moral teachers). You do talk of a “right [as opposed to a wrong] heart and mind” which you identify generally with “mercy”. Such talk does not feel to me like it is subject to whim or individual preference. Compassion seems to be overarching and non-negotiable.

    But I’m afraid all of the above only reenforces my opening disorientation. Believe me when I say that I am deeply moved by your religious passion and I approach it with a bare head and shoes off. God bless and keep you, Catlin.

    Your friend, Ishmael.

  8. Catlin Lowe says:

    I am willing that my diction be an unstable mixture. These are experiments (from the same root as experience–experiri, to try). New compositions (new melds, new tempers). Of course not everything will prove soft to the bite. (Writing as alchemy, thinking as alchemy.) What can I say except: I’ll keep trying?

    • Ishmael says:

      Contrary to the effects of my coarse “voice” – which I worry about a lot but can’t seem to do much about – your experiments are helping me think, and that’s extremely valuable to my experiments. Mine will never discover the philosophers stone, I feel sure, but something tells me yours might. I’ve been flattered by your attention, believe me, and have warmed to the idea of earning your respect. Please feel free to strike your hammer against this old anvil anytime you please.

      • Catlin Lowe says:

        Dear Ishmael, I couldn’t help but write portions of this exchange into my recent talk. Thank you so very much for the prompting. If you’re interested, I’ll happily forward you the relevant excerpts (just shoot me an email). Of course you needn’t feel obliged: We are none of us hurting for good reads, and this is rather tight academic prose. Either way, all my best– C.

  9. […] appeal (to say nothing of eros, flirtation, seduction, and sex).  As I’ve tried to work out elsewhere, attraction points up our vulnerability to one another, both for better and for worse.  When […]

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