Ktaadn and Nowhere 1

Thoreau:  “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 star’s surface, some hard matter in its home!”

Steve helpfully asks, “Are we intended to notice here Thoreau’s shift from the active “to see” to the passive “being shown”?  And comments, “One goes to a museum intentionally, to see one thing or another, to satisfy an interest or curiosity.” 

It strikes me [em] that the pieces of matter in museums – paintings, small sculptures, cases of handicraft — are discrete items presented for attention.  Thoreau contrasts this with the view of a star’s surface – two occcasions for ‘viewing matter.’  Think of the contrast.  Unlike objects in a museum, a star’s surface gives no single place for the eye to rest or focus. It is an appearance of sheer un-handseled matter.  This is as close as we can get to a perception of pure unadulterated matter of the sort the Titans atop Ktaadn work up into the portions and objects of a material world. We can take that perception as an instance of Thomas Nagel’s ‘view from nowhere’ — a prospect metaphysicians and philosopher’s quixotically strive to attain when they want purity of vision.

When Thoreau wants a prospect on ‘pure matter’ he asks us to imagine the undifferentiated surface of a star.  His request comes as he occupies a non-place, a nowhere.  And the stance — Steve is sharp to notice this — is openness , reception.  This is not perception as construction, as in Kant, and not a perception of the constructions a museum holds.  (Are perceptions of museum artifacts always, as interpretations, constructive?)  For Thoreau, this perception of a star’s surface or of the chaos atop Ktaadn is ‘pure reception’ of something (a bare surface) or things (boulders thrown this way and that) necessarily undomesticated, disorderly, and unkindly. 

The view from nowhere is not the only site for viewing.  It is one end of a spectrum, to be contrasted with the ‘view from here and now.’  And there are places to stall in between. From ‘nowhere,’  Thoreau’s body is strange, as strange as the surface of a star. Climbing down,  he can find himself grounded and  ‘kind’ and is no longer captive in a smoky chimney.   To slide down from the ‘view from nowhere’ is a return to the comparatively domesticated land found down from the Barren Peak and down through the Burnt Land coming at last to the familiar bateau and pond and rivers.  Burk’s sublime is replaced by the aesthetics of the ordinary.

Does this descent accomplish a corresponding metaphysical translation?  Does it make his body less strange?  Or is the privileged, ‘ultimate’ perspective always and forever the ‘view from nowhere’ — not the view from the daily, the local?  Is the privileged view the unsettling and unwelcome revelation that we are definitively, inescapably to be estranged from our particular flesh and bone?

In contrast to the view of a star’s surface, Thoreau gives us another place and perspective, what he calls “our life in nature.” And our life in nature is glossed as” daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it, — rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks!”

It now seems that the metaphysical prospect is not as compelling as the prospect from within life in nature.  If so, the prospect from Ktaadn is not privileged. It affords an escapable, passing glimpse, not a final prospect.  Thank God, Thoreau doesn’t leave us up there!  I think an aspect of his ‘walking philosophy’ is that prospects come and go.  We never get stuck with a single stable picture of ‘the way things are.  Climbing Ktaadn is — well — an experiment.  A crucial one, but not the place of true revelation against which all other prospects or revelations must be judged.


31 comments on “Ktaadn and Nowhere 1

  1. dmf says:

    I placed a jar in Tennessee,
    And round it was, upon a hill.
    It made the slovenly wilderness
    Surround that hill.

    The wilderness rose up to it,
    And sprawled around, no longer wild.
    The jar was round upon the ground
    And tall and of a port in air.

    It took dominion everywhere.
    The jar was gray and bare.
    It did not give of bird or bush,
    Like nothing else in Tennessee.

    -Wallace Stevens, “Anecdote of the Jar”

    • efmooney says:

      So can you talk a bit about the parallels? Wow! They’re there!

      • dmf says:

        the Thoreau struck me not so much as a glimpse of/from nowhere but rather of our sense of being-in-the-midst of and how (not unlike Heidegger on tools and works of art) when we try and isolate aspects to add-up norms/worlds piece by piece we lose the lived-gestalt, how in the act of art-ificially foregrounding we might lose the back-grund.

      • dmf says:

        also I think exposure to very ‘raw’ or otherwise overwhelming/encompassing aspects of nature can have the same uncanny and or sublime effects as might breakdowns and feats of engineering/arts.

    • efmooney says:

      This seems to reverse the Thoreau experience. The poet places something tame and ordinary in nature to see what that act does to the landscape. Thoreau puts nothing on Ktaadn, and finds not only jars absent, and his capacity to put anything domestic in place absent, but also finds the wilderness descending on him, not rising up to him-with-jar. Almost a mirror image. A nifty contrast !

  2. Steve says:

    “It is difficult to conceive of a region uninhabited by man,” Thoreau says. “And yet we have not seen pure Nature, unless we have seen her thus vast and drear and inhuman, though in the midst cities.” Even there? Yes, even there, if we’re able to conceive and to see. But all parts of the earth that have been made familiar and friendly by human works disguise or repress nature as she is. Our humanization of the earth has made us largely insensible to where we live. Yet pure, inhuman nature is ubiquitous, even in the midst of our global urban environment. Usually it takes an earthquake, a tornado, a flood, a thirty-year drought to awaken us to the truth that dear “mother” earth is really the offspring of “Chaos and Old Night” and conceals behind her pleasant face many of her parents’ harshest tendencies. She’s not only not bound to be kind but is also at liberty to be cold and cruel whenever the whim takes her, and she’s a positive terror in her unpredictability. We can thank our lucky stars, up to now at any rate, that most of us are usually elsewhere when she is at her worst. The steely-eyed naturalist, on the other hand, keeps a wary eye on the Yellowstone caldera and a sharp lookout for any boxcar-size asteroids that might be drifting our way. Such things are indeed metaphysically final, even if our ghost-like presence among them impels us to hope and strive or “something else.” I feel fairly sure that even Thomas Nagel would find these remarks commonplace. In other words, Thoreau’s Burnt Lands experience is not, I suspect, Nagel’s view from nowhere. But that would need to be worked out in detail.

    Thoreau, of course, is shown pure and “forever untameable” nature not in the shape of a real or potential natural disaster but as a particularly alien, austere, and beautiful landscape. Here I should emphasize that there’s no incompatibility between the fearfulness of the reality disclosed to Thoreau and its extraordinary beauty. “Savage and awful, though beautiful” – those are his words for it. And I’m just reminded that the poet Robinson Jeffers described his own philosophy as “inhumanism,” an orientation that included his vision of nature as “divinely superfluous beauty.” Thoreau, I think, in some of his moods at least, would find this vision quite sympathetic. The particulars of how he would are what make him so interesting and such a challenge to interpret. The answer he provides in the paragraph we’ve been discussing would seem to be his belief in his non-material nature, his otherworldly spirit. Surveying the daunting materiality and bleakness of the Burnt Lands, he as much as says that he is in it but not of it, an image that I find virtually Manichaean in its dualism. But we don’t necessarily have to hold him to that image. A notional nomad like Thoreau will not be detained for long in any one place. Again, though, it’s the close reading that will tell.

    Thanks for your response, Ed. I find this most illuminating and helpful. More on Nagel later? Or shall we continue to look closely at Thoreau?

    • Steve says:

      “to hope and strive or something else” should be “FOR something else.”

    • dmf says:

      I get the inhuman aspects of nature in Thoreau loud and clear but where do you find the non-material/otherworldly parts?

    • Steve says:

      The reason I don’t think of Thoreau’s Burnt Land experience as Nagel’s “view from nowhere” is that it doesn’t originate in his taking up an objective or theoretical stance toward nature. It happens to him involuntarily and at the level of direct perception. Again, I would emphasize Thoreau’s shift from active-voice seeing to passive-voice being-shown and the exclamatory and even revelatory nature of the experience. Thoreau doesn’t DO anything to cause the familiar, humanized landscape of his lowland experience to suddenly go into eclipse. Rather, despite his habitual expectations to the contrary, he is suddenly SHOWN that the familiar world is not there anymore and that what now lies before him is matter in its pure inhuman state – even as it also exists, mostly unrecognized, in the humanized world below.

      Further, Thoreau does not assume an objective or impersonal stance toward himself. He still takes himself as unreduced spirit, so to speak, and considers it a profound and irresolvable mystery that he is bound to matter. To that extent, at least, he is in rough agreement with Nagel’s own non-reductive views of consciousness. What’s more, Thoreau takes this experience of impersonal matter very personally; it challenges him to the core of his being and his response to it is emotionally extreme. Just look at that climax of exclamation marks and italicized words. My impression is that this experience impacts Thoreau with great authority. In some deep sense, he feels that he has been shown the truth.

      • efmooney says:

        I guess I saw things sequentially — first he imagines naked undifferentiated matter; then that alienates him; then he screams a distress at what ‘raw-naked-matter’ does to him ; then he retreats to burnt lands where common sense and matter as the life of nature can replace the naked surface of a star. Of course if that ‘star’ is just this planet and this planet is the home of natural life, then these several steps I distinguish are all entangled. I think that in his ‘equilibrium’ position (if he has one) these steps would be imbricated in the flow of his life — and separate only when the camera slows way down.

      • Steve says:

        But the Burnt Lands section opens by saying, “Perhaps I most fully realized that this was primeval, untamed, and forever untameable Nature, or whatever men call it, while coming down this part of the mountain.” What he realized on the mountain top he more fully realized walking through the Burnt Lands. The progression to familiarity has not begun yet. It does begin eventually, however, when he descends into the dense forests below. Despite the same grim, wild, stern, savage impressions that he received above, there now open up to him certain “distant views of the forest from hills, and the lake prospects, which are mild and civilizing in a degree.” About five paragraphs from the end of “Ktaadn.”

        (I sure hope this lands where it’s suppose to!)

      • Steve says:

        And then, in the next paragraph, your general hunch, Ed, is fully confirmed. Nature grows milder the farther down Thoreau descends until he finds himself in a paradisal wilderness, a land of perpetual youth. “Who shall describe the inexpressible tenderness and immortal life of the grim forest, where Nature…like a serene infant, is too happy to make a noise, except by a few tinkling, lisping birds and trickling rills?”

        Nature has again turned to us her kinder face. Good night and sweet dreams my friends.

    • efmooney says:

      Just a quick response with regard to Nagel. I take it that a prospect of pure matter (such as the surface of a star) could be a correlate to ‘pure spectatorship’ from nowhere in particular. So if there are experiential correlates to metaphysical standpoints, then seeing a star’s surface would be a place-less observation, unlike seeing a particular material object here and now. That’s not a sustainable standpoint (the one from nowhere) — but we can ‘glimpse it in passing’ or be affected by it such that we run in the opposite direction. If Thoreau has a metaphysics, I’d think it would be one of shifting prospects such as one has while walking, not a stationary timeless snapshot of ‘how things hang together.’

      • Steve says:

        What makes me still hesitate, I guess, is that the Burnt Lands are definitely located somewhere in particular and are populated by all manner of specific things that catch Thoreau’s eye: the pasture-like openness of the land, the absence of charred stumps, the strips of timber crossing it here and there, the low poplars, the patches of blueberries, etc. In other words, the material nature that Thoreau witnesses is still differentiated into ordinary, intelligible entities; or, as he calls them, “bodies.” To that extent, “the common sense” (to return to that!) is still very much intact: old Sam Johnson would have no problem finding a stone to kick at Berkeley’s idealism. Nature has not been assimilated to Mind, nor theoretically reduced to the atomic swarm, nor experientially dissolved into Sartrean glue. Rather commonsense nature, differentiated into ordinary material things, has been de-familiarized by virtue of being presented as truly existing wholly independently of the human (spiritual) world. Of course someone might object that if natural things are to any degree intelligible, then they remain humanized; but that would be an objection leveled above Thoreau’s philosophical horizon. In other words, the purity of material nature for Thoreau is not its namelessness but its REAL existence, “vast and drear and inhuman.” And that, I take it, is the import of his indubitable contact with it and with his own body as part of it. – The human body as inhuman?! Yeah, I think maybe so…. Nonspiritual. By the way, I think “star” is just a figure of speech for “planet,” this planet, and not some conjecture about an anonymous chunk of matter in abstract space.

        Am I still missing your point, Ed? I have to admit it’s been a long time since I read Nagel.

      • Steve says:

        Ellery Channing wrote somewhere that his friend Henry would never disgrace his bookshelf with a work of metaphysics, and I can easily see how that might be true. Nevertheless, Thoreau does from time to time venture high-altitude perspectives on nature and human experience, always colorfully rendered by his dazzling imagination of course. By the standards of Berkeley and Kant, these perspectives are, to say the least, imperfectly thought out. They are more like philosophical poetry than like philosophical reasoning, and they appear, superficially at least, to have no connection with one another. Sometimes, as in the Burnt Lands riff, they swing toward realism; at other times, as in Walden’s transcendental ego fantasy, they swing toward idealism. And it’s easy to say, as I myself have said on more than one occasion, that Thoreau is simply swinging back and forth to no serious philosophical purpose. However, my own strategy for reading him now – at least for as long it doesn’t prove completely barren – is not just to assume that these various points of view lie at odd angles to one another, and leave it at that. I want at least to try to see how they might evince an underlying tendency toward unity and coherence. To be sure, this might require me to supplement Thoreau’s philosophical imagination with a little of my own. I don’t think he’d mind.

    • Steve says:

      I notice that my own rhetoric often gives a misleading impression of what Thoreau means by pure matter. Here’s an example with emendations in brackets: “…he is suddenly SHOWN that the familiar world is not there anymore and that what now lies before him is matter [are material things] in its [their] pure inhuman state – even as it [they] also exists, mostly unrecognized, in the humanized world below.” Would that help?

  3. Steve says:

    Yes, maybe ‘otherworldly’ is overstating it a tad. It was simply another handy label for the strong, almost Manichaean tendency which I detect in that extraordinary passage. I’m referring to the image of the spirit or self being bound (in bondage?) to matter, and of the two (antagonistic metaphysical principles?) being afraid of one another. At the same time, the two together – this is my interpolation – have revealed to them an all-encompassing realm of thoroughly dehumanized matter, of which the body is a part. This image has the effect, to my mind, of reducing the spirit to a helpless spark sunk in the deep recesses of matter. Now, if (I do say IF) we think of the spirit’s being bound to matter as bondage, then the question would be, Where would it go if it were liberated? To another realm? When reading the Burnt Land riff, I hear the echo of other lines from other places, such as the one in Walden where Thoreau says unto us: “He is blessed who is assured that the animal is dying out in him day by day, and the divine being established.” Might the divine being lie beyond the realm of matter? It’s normally thought to.

    I confess (with a wink) that I’m exaggerating here for the sake of a half truth. This is NOT AT ALL the whole story of Thoreau. We have a long way to go….

    • Steve says:

      Also, in my earlier remarks about the Mystery of being shown matter, I intended the emphasis to be more on the event of being-shown – i.e., on the fact of sentient or conscious contact itself – rather than on the daunting nature of the matter shown. Believe it or not, when I started my first comment I vaguely had in mind something like Heidegger’s ‘alethea’ or ‘unconcealedness,’ but I was too timid to actually blurt it out. Then my attention somehow shifted to Thoreau’s attitude toward matter, another extremely important theme. By the way, Heidegger says in “Basic Problems”: “The difference between the ontological constitution of Dasein’s being and that of nature…[are] so disparate that…the two ways of being are incomparable…[,] more disparate than, say, the determinations of God’s being and man’s being in traditional ontology.” – But let’s not go there!

      • Steve says:

        Sorry, I’m referring here to my comments to Ed’s “Contact! Contact!” post of December 23. Ed’s post here picks up from there.

      • Steve says:

        My God! I see that I’ve metastasized horribly. How did that even happen? Forgive me, Ed. I’ll go away now.

      • efmooney says:

        I like this ! You know Henry Bugbee had a knack for taking a metaphysical concept and giving it an experiential grounding. What’s given experientially has exactly that directionality — of being given — not of being made to appear by manipulating one’s position or concepts or expectations.

      • efmooney says:

        There’s a prize out there for anyone who can figure out the temporal- dialogical sequence of these comments-replies-replies to comments . . .

    • dmf says:

      I see, to date I have read Thoreau as a thoroughly terrestrial writer/thinker so literal-minded talk of spirit (as opposed to matter) seems an import from some other worldview but I’m with you that there is a sense in which these encounters/events with the non-human/un-canny are archetypal/god-like in their impact.

  4. Steve says:

    Here’s an interesting shift of perspective! http://thoreau.eserver.org/domestic.html

  5. dmf says:

    Let other mornings honor the miraculous.
    Eternity has festivals enough.
    This is the feast of our mortality,
    The most mundane and human holiday.

    On other days we misinterpret time,
    Pretending that we live the present moment.
    But can this blur, this smudgy in-between,
    This tiny fissure where the future drips

    Into the past, this flyspeck we call now
    Be our true habitat? The present is
    The leaky palm of water that we skim
    From the swift, silent river slipping by.

    The new year always brings us what we want
    Simply by bringing us along—to see
    A calendar with every day uncrossed,
    A field of snow without a single footprint.

    “New Year’s” by Dana Gioia

    • Steve says:

      A nice poem. But “flyspeck” is a bit harsh, don’t you think? The image suggests that the present is not only specious but also in some sense “dirty.” It contrasts jarringly with the milder, more melancholy, and truer image of water leaking through a cupped palm. I might also note that water in a cupped palm doesn’t immediately leak out; it can be held long enough to deliver a drink to the lips. The present is not nothing. Still, the contrast between leaking water skimmed from the swift current (present) and the trackless field of snow (future) is quite effective, I think. The closest we mortals can come to “frozen” time is the time of anticipation, New Years Day, when we celebrate the days we have yet to walk into. Other than that, our life is ceaseless movement. Is that what the poet is saying?

      • dmfant says:

        I think she is pointing, at least, to the transient nature of human-being, are we not carbon-based critters, does it debase life to remind us of this?

        On the morning she became a young widow,
        my grandmother, startled by a sudden shadow,
        looked up from her work to see a hawk turn
        her prized rooster into a cloud of feathers.
        That same moment, halfway around the world
        in a Minnesota mine, her husband died,
        buried under a ton of rock-fall.
        She told me this story sixty years ago.
        I don’t know if it’s true but it ought to be.
        She was a hard old woman, and though she knelt
        on Sundays when the acolyte’s silver bell
        announced the moment of Christ’s miracle,
        it was the darker mysteries she lived by:
        shiver-cry of an owl, black dog by the roadside,
        a tapping at the door and nobody there.
        The moral of the story was plain enough:
        miracles become a burden and require a priest
        to explain them. With signs, you only need
        to keep your wits about you and place your trust
        in a shadow world that lets you know hard luck
        and grief are coming your way. And for that
        —so the story goes—any day will do.

        “A Story Can Change Your Life” by Peter Everwine

      • Steve says:

        No, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with recalling our mortality. I was merely noting that a flyspeck, as an image of the present, doesn’t seem to fit the poem, especially when the immediately preceding image is one of time dripping into the past. Flyspecks don’t drip or move. In fact, once dried, they can be quite stubborn to get out. More damaging to the poem, however, are the connotations of the word. Flies and their specks are associated with filth and decay. Flies are also pests. They are even the symbolic minions of Beelzebub. The poem might have been better, it seems to me, had it kept to water imagery, or at least come up with something less jarring that insect droppings. Perhaps a puff of wind? A ragged cloud blown swiftly by? The poem’s point, after all, is that the present is fleeting and can’t be stayed, not that the present is dirty, pesky, or wicked. – Perhaps I’m being hypersensitive to connotations?

        The next poem strikes me as far more carefully constructed. The images are absolutely stunning and fresh, and their dream-like unfolding carries me without a hitch right through to the end. The sense of the poem is wonderfully elusive, isn’t it? I’m fascinated by how it links the grandmother’s impromptu superstition with what appears to be the narrator’s adult pessimism. This poem will bear up under indefinitely many readings, I think. What do you make of it?

        By the way, I’ve grown quite dependent on your poetry postings. You have very good taste and have introduced me to many things I would never encounter otherwise. Thanks!

  6. dmf says:

    The tally of years
    added up so rapidly
    it appeared I had
    been short-changed,
    tricked by sleight
    of hand, fallen victim
    to false bookkeeping.

    Yet when I checked
    my records, each
    and every year had
    been accounted for,
    down to the last day,
    and could be audited
    against old diary entries
    (client briefings,
    dental check-ups,
    parent-teacher meetings,
    wedding anniversaries),
    verified with credit
    card statements
    (multi-trip insurance,
    antibiotics, concert bookings,
    mobile top-ups).

    And, although
    nagging doubts
    inkling that I had
    been ripped off
    in some way,
    given short shrift,
    made to live at an
    accelerated pace,
    rushed through
    my routines with
    unseemly haste—
    nothing could be proved,
    no hard and fast
    statistics adduced.

    I had, it seems,
    unknown to me,
    been living my
    life to the full.

    “Time Enough” by Dennis O’Driscoll

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