Contact! Contact !

And E M Forester said, “Only connect!”  Some have read that iconic passage from Ktaadn (15 paragraphs from the end) as praising Scottish “Common Sense” philosophy, especially when Thoreau, after feeling his soul slip away between his ribs, pleads for  “The Common Sense.”  He’s terrorized by loss of orientation at the top of the mountain where Titans are creating a world out of worse that waste and welter and he crys in desperation before tumbling out of the clouds into familiar burnt forrest, “Contact! Contact! The Common Sense, Who are we . . .”  I don’t think the stress should be on having good old  ‘common sense’ but on having the shared sense of orientation that gives us up-and-down, left-and-right, me-here, you-there, Dasein, feet-on-rock — the sort of orientation that makes sense experience or contact possible, the sensus communus (as I recall — is it Vico? — and maybe I don’t have the Latin quite right).  And notice that as he loses his way the way for all is in question — who are we!

What a refutation of those who scoff, as if he found wilderness only at Walden a mile from town.  Here he found it and was happy not to enjoy it, and leaves it to the gods  — he doesn’t even tell a nice redeeming story about it, the way he does with the dead horse just off the path to town, whose stench makes him take a detour.  The corpse may offend the senses but it doesn’t make him gasp in horror.  Even the human corpses piled on the sand after shipwreak off Cape Cod, flesh bloated, don’t disorient and disembowel him the way Ktaddn does.


6 comments on “Contact! Contact !

  1. dmf says:

    was listening to Pema Chodron teaching about how she and her fellow high-seekers were dressed down to earth by their teacher Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche who called them out on their reality denying, ego-driven, spiritual materialism and that they needed to embrace the pain of alternation that life’s experiences do not come together, are not aufheben, and will always keep shifting in mood and tone…

  2. Steve says:

    The Burnt Lands paragraph reminds me of John Masefield’s poem “The Passing Strange.”

    Out of the earth to rest or range
    Perpetual in perpetual change,
    The unknown passing through the strange.

    Water and saltness held together
    To tread the dust and stand the weather….

    The poem goes on in that vein for many stanzas.

    It’s interesting how you read the “Contact! Contact!” passage as Thoreau finding his orientation after returning from the mountain top. I read it, very differently, as Thoreau’s overwhelming realization that the earth is indubitably material, and that his own body is composed of the same uncanny, even terrifying “stuff” that the earth is made of. This almost ecstatic contact with actual, solid matter – as commonsense realism apprehends it, free of all philosophical idealism – instills in Thoreau a feeling of physical estrangement. Not only is the Earth ‘vast,’ ‘drear,’ ‘terrific,’ ‘savage,’ ‘awful,’ and so forth, but in its most palpable and proximate form, the human body, it is positively fearful. “Contact! Contact!” is the double jolt that registers, on the one hand, Thoreau’s immediate perceptual grasp of metaphysical realism; and, on the one hand, his trembling bewilderment at the fact of his own body. That the concluding series of exclamations ends in questions about who and where we are would seem to confirm the disorienting effect of that peculiar landscape. As for the “familiarity” of the landscape, that’s only only a temporary illusion, a function of Thoreau’s habitual expectations. It is precisely the sudden “disappointment” of those expectations, the shift from the illusion of human significance to their utter absence, that makes the Burnt Lands far more disorienting than anything Thoreau encountered in the mountain’s “cloud factory.”

    • Steve says:

      In the fourth sentence, “palpable and proximate form” should read “proximate and palpable form….”

      In the last sentence, “the illusion of human significance….” should read “the illusion of human presence and significance…”

      An alternative and perhaps preferable word for “realism” is, obviously, ‘materialism.’

    • Steve says:

      If I may make one more run at the baffling phrase “the common sense.” Thoreau is inviting us to think of our everyday physical contact with matter, the mystery of it – rocks, trees, the wind on our cheeks, all that is solid and actual. How does “the common sense” fit into that sequence of palpable things? Surely we don’t have physical contact with “the common sense,” whatever it may be. This is why I read it as an ellipsis that summarizes the preceding sequence, its missing words being something like “…of things,” giving us: “the common sense of things.” Furthermore, I’m assuming that Thoreau is inviting us, for the moment anyway, to accept this “common sense of things” as metaphysically final, i.e., to see the world as thoroughgoing materialists do – everything just three-dimensional objects knocking about in space and time, something like that. If that is so, then all “idealistic” redemptions of the transcendentalist variety are suspended and we are left with the stark and distinctly unsettling reality of contact with nothing more than a planet’s surface. Ah, but what, in that case, is the fact of contact itself? Can it, too, be construed as the stuff planets are made of, just matter? Talk of mysteries! Is it not the uncanny fact of contact that makes “this matter to which I am bound [this body]…so strange to me,” eliciting at once my reverence and dread, my awe?

      (I think if I blow any more air into this, it’s going to burst.)

    • Steve says:

      More thoughts with nowhere else to go…

      “What is it to be admitted to a museum, to see a myriad of particular things [like mineral samples on display], compared with being shown…some hard matter in its home!” Are we intended to notice here Thoreau’s shift from the active “to see” to the passive “being shown”? One goes to a museum intentionally, to see one thing or another, to satisfy an interest or curiosity. But in Nature one is often shown, perhaps without asking for “admittance,” mysteries that are not necessarily kind to one’s sensibilities – in this case a vision of gross, hard, inhuman matter. Taking Thoreau’s shift to the passive voice as deliberate, I find myself asking, Who or What is doing the showing here? The passive voice suggests that we must simply leave it indeterminate, that there is no solution to this mystery. Following the just quoted, Thoreau confesses that his own body is “strange” to him and that he stands in “awe” of it. It would appear, then, that his being shown the very materiality of “matter in its home” is of a piece with his being shown the very materiality of his body. It is uncanny to him, this matter, and he finds it awful. Given Thoreau’s keenness for etymologies, it’s perhaps worth stressing that the word ‘awe,’ even in current usage, is an ambiguous term, suggesting at once respect or reverence and fear or dread. And sure enough, in the very next sentence, Thoreau tells us that he fears his body, indeed fears all bodies. Why fear? Because, he suggests, matter and spirit are mutually antipathetic, each fearing the other; and he goes on to tell us that he himself, his essential being, is not matter but spirit. This uniquely vivid revelation, the thing that he’s been shown with the impact of direct perception, is that his body is gross matter and that he, spirit, is inexplicably “bound” to it. The awful mystery for Thoreau is “daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it.” The contact in question is the experience of being shown and feeling himself “possessed” by a material Titan, a god of sorts, and not knowing what to make of it. Thoreau’s metaphysical quandary – if I can speak for him! – seems to be how it is so much as possible that this mysterious and fearful showing, by whatever unknown power performed, is somehow done to both his body and his spirit together; for whatever of matter the spirit is shown, it is shown through the body. And this means, to put it simply, that matter is shown by way of itself. Contact! Contact! A fearsome riddle, indeed!

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