Open holism?

Walden, end of Chapter Two: “Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is.  Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains.  I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars. I cannot count one. I know not the first letter of the alphabet.”

Thoreau doesn’t write ordinary sentences or ordinary verse.

Much happens in his word-strings in unexpected ways.  Perhaps he’s a realist-surrealist, as in the sequence just cited. We find these odd word-strings, starting not so weird but getting so as they pile up:

Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. [OK]

I drink at it; [has he put his fishing pole aside?]

but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. [OK]  Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains.  [OK, we’re following fine]

I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, [! does he see fish — or does he start fishing? ] whose bottom is pebbly with stars. [When we drink we see fish in the sky (so the sky is reflected at the bottom of the stream)? The pebbles are pebbles and stars, or the bottom and pebbles and stars side by side; and the ‘bottom’ is it pebbles or stars; if the latter, the heavens have a bottom . . . ]

I cannot count one. [To count one at a time would make the stars as an array disappear?]

I know not the first letter of the alphabet.  [How did we get from stars to letters?]

—  I take it back.

There are one or two ordinary sentences written there.  But then there are the curve balls, too.  The sky has a bottom.  And note the sudden shift from seeing to the attempt to count.  And without warning we shift from not being able to count stars to not knowing the first letter of the alphabet.

Do we read patterns in the sky the way we read patterns among an array of letters?  [Just as there’s no ‘first star’, so there’s no ‘first letter’ of the alphabet?]

We get the broad hint that nature is legible, readable, like words in the sky or words in the pebbles of the brook.  He writes word strings that are simultaneously simple and complex; and it all ‘hangs together’ in an odd open-ended way.  Perhaps it’s “open holism.”


8 comments on “Open holism?

  1. dmf says:

    perhaps, could also be noting a certain longing unfulfilled

    • efmooney says:

      Longing for eternity, longing to have heavens and creek-bottoms meet, longing to have word and letters interpenetrate the world, longing to drink in reality, longing for the sort of ‘world at a glance’ he delivers and hopes we accept — longing that we don’t dismiss him as beyond the pale.

      • dmf says:

        seems to be along those lines, I like that he leaves it undecided, unsettled, leaves some place for the reader and for things to be and be otherwise.

  2. Don Klose says:

    These sentences evoke in me thoughts of the boundlessness of time and space, and of my connections with each as, incommensurately, intimate, close, humble, everyday. “Time is but [only, merely] the stream I go a-fishing in.” While I drink from the stream, it quenches my thirst. My face is partly in the stream, I swallow its waters, I feel the movement of the water on my lips and face, and the sandy bottom appears so close. I have taken part of this stream into my body; indeed I am now a tributary of this stream itself. And I cannot escape the sensations of the current passing by but of its constancy as well—transience and eternity? I thirst for more…”would drink deeper,” I would “fish the sky.” I would be as intimate with the sky, with the universe and all of creation, as I am with the stream I go a-fishing in whose sandy bottom is so near. For it also feels so near, the starry heavens, like the pebbly bottom of the stream. Yet… What stand out for me in the last two sentences are “cannot count” and “know not.” Though I thirst for more, and through and through am part of the whole, I cannot begin to grasp the magnitude of the whole or begin to know the language of its meaning.

    Yes, these are not ordinary sentences. They can take each of us on our own journeys.

    • efmooney says:

      Yes, he does take us on our journeys. Nice to hear from you, Don. I remember a picture of you by a lake — I’ll guess in the Adirondacks — looking out over serene waters . . .

  3. Dean says:

    The notion of “open holism” seems to be at the heart of contemporary thinking, or at least thinking after Hegel entirely. There’s a really interesting reading of Rosenzweig by Benjamin Pollock on this score; he argues Rosenzweig is trying to take seriously the post-Hegelian revolt yet maintain a “systematic” (loosely defined) approach. The goal for Rosenzweig (according to Pollock) is to articulate the Whole not from a vantage point beyond the whole, but from its exceptions, which always take irreducible priority. This gets the wheels turning on problems and metaphysics, but it seems to be a really interesting way of getting at, philosophically, what you so elegantly elaborate regarding Thoreau.

  4. dmf says:

    All goes back to the earth,
    and so I do not desire
    pride of excess or power,
    but the contentments made
    by men who have had little:
    the fisherman’s silence
    receiving the river’s grace,
    the gardner’s musing on rows.

    I lack the peace of simple things.
    I am never wholly in place.
    I find no peace or grace.
    We sell the world to buy fire,
    our way lighted by burning men,
    and that has bent my mind
    and made me think of darkness
    and wish for the dumb life of roots.

    “The Want of Peace” by Wendell Berry

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