From Taxonomy or Definition to Augenblick

More along the lines pursed in Steve’s response to my last post.  A late entry  from Thoreau’s Journal — one of the last before his death, dated 1861 —“ All this is perfectly distinct to an observant eye, and yet could easily pass unnoticed by most. Thus each wind is self-registering” (J XIV: 346).

Each die that is cast (in Steve’s imagery), or each ‘egg laid in its nest,’ or each ‘wind passing through’ (to use Thoreau’s images)  is self-registering, sufficient unto itself, in no need of explanation, definition, transcendental deduction or taxonomical file-name.  It doesn’t need these because it contains its own intelligibility intrinsically in its act of coming-to-be.

Of course at times Thoreau does give us plant taxonomy, by the Latinate bushel.  But I think his hope is that a biologist’s label and classification and ordering will intensify our perception of the radiant import and glory of this moment of time, of kairos — that moment when chronological time holds still or evaporates, and is occupied by a ‘moment of vision’ [Kierkegaard’s Oieblikket (Augenblick)].  This is a moment of indeterminate, indefinite, infinite time in which something special happens — we get an infinite intensification of the presence of the thing (or the event of its coming-to-be).

After all is said and done, for Thoreau the point of taxonomic identification is not to increase scientific knowledge for its own sake.  (If science progresses as a side effect, that’s OK.)  He wants to increase Sympathy with Intelligence (as he says in “Walking”).  As I’d translate, he wants Intelligibility, and sympathetic immersion in the moment of its radiance.  He wants to acknowledge, or perhaps to induce, yet another Augenblick.


7 comments on “From Taxonomy or Definition to Augenblick

  1. dmf says:
    For Love of the Things Themselves: Derrida’s Hyper-Realism

  2. Steve says:

    When it comes to those standout moments as they appear in “Walden” and elsewhere in Thoreau, I find it helpful to remember that every last one of them is a literary moment. This means that they were creatively worked and reworked, often over years, until they were just right for Thoreau’s purposes. They were not, because they couldn’t possibly be, literal transcriptions of ineffable experiences. Indeed, whether Thoreau’s literary moments originated directly from an immediate experiences is at best a matter of conjecture; they may well have been inventions, or very nearly so. Thoreau gives us a hint about this in his Journal: “Do not tread on the heals of your experience. Be impressed without making a minute of it. Poetry puts an interval between the impression and the expression – waits until the seed germinates.” Just how wide an interval might interpose between the impression and the expression no doubt varies with the experience, but it may be as wide as that between a seed and the full-grown plant that grows from it. Once the plant unfolds in all the splendor of its foliage and flowers, perhaps the seed vanishes in importance. To generalize, “Walden” was almost certainly the ultimate Walden for Thoreau.

    What about the literary moment’s ability to precipitate (as you nicely put it) an Augenblick in us? Well, that experience – assuming it really is an experience of the text and not extraneous to it – is also literary in nature and therefore not immediate in the ineffable sense you seem to have in mind. This fact, by the way, does not make the literary moment somehow inferior or less intense. Possibly just opposite. Literary moments have a wonderful feature that is not shared by the truly immediate and nonverbal variety. As inscribed, they have a permanence that enables us to return to them again and again, while “real” moments vanish in the blink of an eye. What’s more, literary moments can be experienced by more than one person, even by many people at the same time, and this accessibility makes them profoundly communal, not private, mute, and esoteric.

    Thoreau’s accent on the present is a wonderfully deep topic, and these remarks barely scratch the surface. There’s plenty of call for dialogue!

    • dmf says:

      where do you imagine this “assuming it really is an experience of the text and not extraneous to it ” happening and what about a public happening makes the various individual experiences of it communal?

      • Steve says:

        Good questions! Does this help? A young divinity student, reclining under a tree on a languid spring day, is reading “Sinner in the Hands of an Angry God,” just at the harrowing place where Edwards, a genius at ginning up religious panic, is likening the reader to a loathsome spider dangling over the fires of hell. Does he comprehend his imminent danger? Shall he be dropped in the flames and singed to vapor in an instant? What possible claim has negligent he on god’s mercy? Whereupon the student looks up from the page and experiences a sudden exhilaration at the beauty of the day, it’s ineffable mildness and serenity, and utters to himself with heartfelt joy, “All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well.” Now, I think it’s fair to say that this was not the experience the author intended to instill in his reader, that the reader’s actual experience was extraneous to the text. In other words, there are many different ways for a reader to be intellectually or emotionally out of phase with what he is reading.

        As for the communal nature of the literary moment, I don’t mean that everyone who reads it has an identical experience or that a collectivity of readers is magically fused into one mind. God forbid! Obviously everyone’s response is be conditioned by who they are. What I mean is something like this: the literary moment – as the paradoxically refined expression of a putatively ineffable “real” moment – is available for shared experience and discussion. It’s just a fact, isn’t it, that great books are the gravitational centers of large communities of readers? And that goes for a great book like Thoreau’s, which seems to strongly emphasize nonliterary experiences that strain at the boundaries of what can be said and therefore shared. Perhaps I’m making it sound more paradoxical than is. Sorry.

        And you’re right; it requires a lot more thought!

      • dmf says:

        yes thanks that gives me a better sense of what you are driving at but not so sanguine that authorial intentions are so clear/available and in the case of reader-responses easy (or even possible really) to tease out, and I would emphasize more the sociology of such assemblages than just assume “It’s just a fact, isn’t it, that great books are the gravitational centers of large communities of readers”, among other things that statement seems to raise more questions (like what is meant by “great”) than it answers, and are on the other point are expressions like speech-acts or dance less available/public than say texts? In general I would say we should be careful in such complex matters about our confusing our prescriptions with descriptions.

      • Steve says:

        Excuse the delay…. I agree that authorial intention or the point of a book can often be very difficult to get at. Much depends on the author, the genre he works in, the quality of his writing, and the sensitivity of his reader. If the author is being intentionally ironic or self-concealing, then of course the reader might have doubts about “getting it.” On the other hand, she might be swept away by the author’s bravura style and find that its turning facets and glinting lights are more than enough for her. Clearly, though, the book whose intentions are totally elusive is not typical of all books, just as a poem that is all sound and no sense is not typical of all poems. Individual works of art, like individual genre, can show intention in strikingly different ways; and the range and subtlety of the questions one can ask of a book are practically endless. This fact is what can transform reading a great book into a lifetime’s devotion. It also helps explain why great books attract large congregations of readers: we can all benefit from the extra eyes and ears as well as from the good fellowship.

        If your remark about sociology was intended to mean that the widespread reception of a book as “great” is to some extent a social or historical accident, I would have to agree with that as well, but only up to a point. I doubt that accidents of reception alone have any real bearing on whether a work deserves to be called great. Perhaps a time will come when everyone considers Homer to be a crashing bore. Then the question will be (in heaven if not on earth): “Has Homer ceased to be great, or have the times themselves become unbearable small?” If we’re to agree that normative terms – ‘perfect’ and ‘imperfect,’ ‘great’ and ‘trivial,’ ‘good’ and ‘bad,’ etc. – reflect anything more than personal or tribal tastes, then it seems to me that we have to start with intuitively clear examples of their application and work from there. Is it even possible that individual taste or period bias determines whether “David Copperfield” is a better novel than “Ragged Dick”? If the stalwart relativist replies, yes, it is possible, then is he not tasked to explain how? Why should anyone have to explain the obvious?

        Well, in case you haven’t guessed, I myself can’t explain it; and Aristotle – if I can hide behind my big brother – would recommend I not bother. Perhaps it’s best simply to start with the actual books, those rumored to be The Great Ones, read them deeply, lie down with them, rise with them, bring them to table and dine with them, and, above all, discuss them with others. Maybe then their excellent qualities will become more apparent and our judgments about them more sensitive and assured. Maybe then their greatness will become something more than rumor.

        Thanks for making me think!

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