Walden on the Rocks

Thoreau believed that we, like Nature itself, can renew ourselves “completely each day.”

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This is an essay by the Chilean-Ameican writer Ariel Dorfman found in the latest NYReview of Books.  It treads the shores of Cape Cod, strewn with the bodies of shipwrecked Irish immigrants.

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The bodies are strewn everywhere along the beach. Burials are complicated because nobody knows the names of the dead—mostly women and children fleeing famine and poverty, trying to reach the land of plenty that has been promised to them but finding, instead, an early end in turbulent waters. Spectators gape at the debris from the recent shipwreck “cracked up like an eggshell on the rocks,” while others go about their business.

“In the very midst of the crowd about this wreck,” writes an eyewitness to the aftermath of the disaster, “there were men with carts busily collecting seaweed which the storm had cast up, and conveying it beyond the reach of the tide, though they were often obliged to separate fragments of clothing from it.”

This scene of devastation and indifference seems torn from the latest headlines or photos from around the world, just one more group of refugees appearing fleetingly on our screens and in our consideration. In fact, the victims of this particular wreckage were 140 Irish immigrants who perished when the St. John, the ship upon which they had sailed to “the New World, as Columbus and the Pilgrims did,” crashed on the shores of Cape Cod during a huge storm in October 1849. The eyewitness referred to above, without whom we might not remember the incident at all, was none other than Henry David Thoreau.

It is not that story of bereavement on the shore that first comes to mind when thinking about Thoreau today. This year’s articles, exhibits, commemorative stamps and the like to mark the bicentennial of his birth have focused, rightly, on a life dedicated to nature in its multiple and luminous forms, and his ground-breaking call to civil disobedience. But it is worth turning our attention as well to that lesser known experience of his on Cape Cod, the calamity he witnessed such a long time ago that nevertheless feels so sadly contemporary. Thoreau issues a challenge to us over the chasm of time and we would do well to listen to him.

What strikes me most today is how Thoreau understood and demarcated the moral dilemma posed by anyone confronting a catastrophe such as the sinking of the St. John. He contemplates the workers who, with “no human interest in the matter,” go on with their everyday lives: “Drown who might, they did not forget that this weed was a valuable manure. This shipwreck had not produced a visible vibration in the fabric of society.” And he notes that, for an old man who, along with his son, was carting “the wrecked weed” to his barnyard, “those bodies were… but other weeds which the tide cast up, but which were of no use to him.”

Thoreau is not judgmental about this attitude, perhaps because it strangely mirrors his own dispassionate detachment. With the eloquence typical of his discussions of his own mental meanderings and contradictions, Thoreau explains the reason for his emotional distance: “If I had found one body cast upon the beach in some lonely place, it would have affected me more,” adding that rather than “all the graveyards together… it is the individual and private that demands our sympathy.”

It is an uncomfortable observation, all the more so for being undeniable. In this year alone, the bicentennial of Thoreau’s birth, innumerable migrants continue to die without most of us in the West having any idea about the contours of those lives, their identities, dreams, faces. Who knows anything about the hundreds of unheralded Mexican and Central American migrants who have died anonymously this year trying to cross the desert which, like a vast dry perilous ocean, separates Mexico from the United States? Or about the Rohingya who have recently been consumed by the Bay of Bengal as they attempted to escape the massacres in Myanmar? Are we in the privileged West not equally ignorant of the lives and deaths of almost three thousand migrants from Africa and the Middle East who have perished at sea in search of sanctuary in Europe, one hundred of them in the last few days alone, including twenty-six Nigerian women, most of them underage, who may have been raped before they drowned?

Could it not be said of them, as Thoreau wrote of the Irish corpses he contemplated, “Why care for these dead bodies? They really have no friends but the worms or fishes.”

We are faced today, as we will unfortunately be tomorrow, with the same ethical quandary that Thoreau formulated so elegantly but was unable to resolve: How can we breach the gap in empathy that resurfaces every time we are bombarded with news and images of corpses on the shore or in the desert or under the ruins of a city, so many bodies blurring into one another that we cannot meaningfully process the fact of their deaths?

One way of counteracting that “collapse of compassion,” as psychologists call it, is to take a route that Thoreau did not follow. He ascribed the fate of those corpses to the workings of Nature, avoiding any mention of the “visible vibration in the fabric of society” that led those families to flee their homeland. He does not address (either here or elsewhere in his work) the famine that drove so many starving inhabitants of Ireland to emigrate, a famine that was man-made and not at all due to “the law of Nature.” The potato blight that compelled those Irish families to mount perilous boats was exacerbated by social and economic afflictions: exploitation by absentee landlords; land tenancy that favored grazing over crops and made farmers dependent on one vulnerable strain of potatoes; the export, by Ireland’s colonial government, of enormous amounts of food at the very moment when the people of that island were starving.

Today, if each of us cannot fully bring into our hearts all the faraway fatalities we see on the news, we can at least try to acknowledge and understand the causes of such cataclysms, a necessary step toward preventing further carnage. Civil wars, poverty, political repression, droughts, and pollution are ordained not by Nature but by Man. In fact, it is our human ravaging of Nature, the very depredations that Thoreau most dreaded—“Thank God men cannot fly, and lay waste to the sky as well as the earth”—that is so often the source of the conflicts and scarcity that have pushed many millions to search for salvation in foreign lands. A desperate quest destined only to get worse: the International Organization for Migration reports estimate of between 25 million and 1 billion additional refugees created by man-made climate change by 2050.

If Thoreau did not analyze the storm of social ills behind the tragic shipwreck he was witnessing with the perceptiveness and patience he lent to his descriptions of trees and flowers and streams, he does provide a model of what needs to be done when we feel helpless and overwhelmed by the magnitude of the horrors that assail us daily. He would urge us, in these times when the Earth he venerated is so assaulted and pillaged, when communities have been destroyed and their residents forced to flee, that we heed his call, in “Civil Disobedience” (1849), or nonviolent resistance to oppression. He might say to us now, as he said to his fellow citizens then, that it is “not too soon for honest men to rebel.”

Thoreau practiced what he preached. Opposing what he deemed the two evils of his day, slavery and the Mexican-American War (waged, he believed, as an imperial project to expand the territory for slavery), he refused to pay his taxes, preferring to be jailed. It was this stance that prompted him to write the essay “Civil Disobedience,” which was to inspire Tolstoy, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr. The latter echoed Thoreau in his 1963 “Letter From Birmingham Jail”: “An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and willingly accepts the penalty by staying in jail to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the very highest respect for the law.”

It is true that most of us possess neither the courage nor the stamina to undergo such drastic penalties. That does not mean, however, that we are condemned to lead “lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.” Thoreau does not demand that everyone display a taste for martyrdom. On the contrary, two hundred years after his birth, he has gentle advice for his readers, suggesting how each of us might build a legacy of creative protest: “For it matters not how small the beginning may seem to be: what is once done well is done forever.”

Thoreau believed that we, like Nature itself, can renew ourselves “completely each day.” If we listen to his voice intensely and deliberately, perhaps we can be encouraged, each of us on our own terms, to discover that small way to contribute to a different sort of society. Because those bodies scattered upon the sand and the sea that Thoreau saw—a vista obscenely repeated in our time—are, if we dare to look deep into the canvas of our imagination, harbingers of the communal fate that is in store for the ship of humanity as it heads toward the rocks. They are a warning to us to act now, to sing the song that is still in us, before it is too late to prevent the wreck that awaits us all on this damaged planet. And with no Thoreau left on the beach to tell our tale.

November 29, 2017, 12:40 pm

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Some of you will know that I too, EM, am fascinated with the passage Dorfman frames from Thoreau’s book Cape Cod. In Excursions with Thoreau (Bloomsbury), p. 90, I write:

Finding nature accepting deaths in due course releases Thoreau from the sense that his losses are uniquely his to endure or protest alone. “Every part of Nature teaches that the passing away of one life is the making room for another.”[1]  It’s striking that Thoreau makes this entry on the first page of his newborn Journal. For him, from the start, the crack of dawn cuts through lingering darks. There’s nothing dejected in Thoreau’s raising a cairn to Margret Fuller by the surf off Fire Island where she drowned and was ravaged by sharks. [The search for Fuller gets lifted from his Journal into his book, Cape Cod, without mentioning his earlier mission to recover her body.] Here is the passage — I’d call it majestic in its affirmative mourning:
I expected that I should have to look very narrowly at the sand to find so small an object, but so completely smooth and bare was the beach . . . that when I was half a mile distant the insignificant stick or sliver which marked the spot looked like a broken spar in the sand. There lay the relics [Fuller’s bones] in a certain state, rendered perfectly inoffensive to both bodily and spiritual eye by the surrounding scenery, a slight inequality in the sweep of the shore . . . It was as conspicuous on that sandy plain as if a generation had labored to pile up a cairn  . . . It reigned over the shore. That dead body possessed the shore as no living one could.[2]
[1] Journal, Oct. 24, 1837, p.  3.
[2] Cape Cod, p. 123.   The roots of this passage appear in Journal Oct 31, 1850, p. 80.

 

 

 

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Imagination as Strong as Knowledge

Human forms of feeling, objects of human attraction, our reactions constituted in art, are as universal and necessary, as revelatory of the world, as the forms of the laws of physics. This is the writer’s faith . . .                                                     — Stanley Cavell  [The Senses of Walden, 102]

Cavell also announces that not only categories (like causality) but also — and this is a surprise —  images carry the weight of the a priori :

our images . . . of dawn and day and night, of lower and higher, . . . of freezing and melting and moulting, of birds and squirrels and snakes and frogs, of houses and bodies of water and words, . . . are as a priori as our other forms of knowledge of the world.[1]

Putting two and two together, it seems Cavell is willing to grant to Kant’s productive Imagination a power and authority in “world-shaping” no less active and legitimate than Kant’s Understanding in its exercise of  authority  in “world-shaping.”   Understanding prepares us for knowledge of the world filtered by categories like causality.  Kant grants a  necessity to the categories like causality that underlie our grasp of the world that physics and the sciences and lawyers negotiate.  Cavell will grant a necessity no less crucial than the necessity of “causality” —  shall we call it aesthetic or poetic necessity? — to  the images underlying our grasp of the world of artists immersed in their art, or of Thoreau immersed in his seeing a reflection of a Maker in the waters of Walden Pond.  A moment of wonder-apprehension is delivered (when it is) as a moment of poetic [or poetic-religious] necessity held in Imagination; a moment of factual apprehension is delivered (when it is) as  a moment of necessity held in the the storehouse of Knowledge.

If I follow, then the poet’s reality can be just as powerful and real as the physicist’s reality.  Good news for a religiously poetic writer like Thoreau (and so many others).

[1] Cavell, Senses of Walden, 101.

“Violence? ! ” — Why not the startle of Wonder?

For months now, I’ve been among the swamp-lilies and woodchucks and under the sublime heavens of Thoreau.  But occasionally I come up to test the air for another breeze. Yesterday I came across Dean Dettloff’s remarks on Derrida and violence and repentance.  I love the way Dean thinks, but not the way Derrida so often throws care in thinking off to the side for (what seems to me) theatrical effect.

These remarks caught my eye, not least because Thoreau makes you listen to every word you use, and I love his care in renditions of what we are in the world,  and how we assess our positions there.  I’ve come to think Derrida (and many others who are fashionable continental philosophers) doesn’t teach us that, to our misfortune.  I decided to take a short break from Thoreau, to exhibit what I mean by this misfortune — a philosophical and cultural misfortune — that crops up in the jargon of violence.  It spreads like wildfire.

I don’t go directly to any text of Derrida, so I’m dealing with hearsay, except that I trust Dean’s readings.  ( I do know first hand that Derrida doesn’t’ give a close reading of Fear and Trembling on Abraham and Isaac in The Gift of Death.)

Derrida takes up the theme of repentance and notes that if I repent an “I” in the present takes a step back from an “I” in the past to cast judgment on a past bad deed, done by a bad person , and in repentance  I disassociate myself from both deed and person, and then vow to be different, to be better, to be a ‘new person.’ The account, if a bit tongue-twisting, seems on target so far. What struck me as miles off target was Derrida’s description of a self stepping back from its earlier incarnation (the previous self one wants to repent of) as an act of violence against oneself. But philosophically, to my eye, that’s blind thrashing about.

Just a minute ago I blurted something out, and immediately I feel foolish or ashamed of the blurt. Half of conscious life (or maybe it’s only 22%) is kind of ‘self review’, an exercise of self-awareness, an attempt to “know thyself.” Yet ‘self-review’ is not always a violent stepping back.  Sometimes it’s a clinical or curious or doubtful or melancholy or happy stepping back.

We value our capacity to step back, to say — “Gee, I’m sorry!” ; or, “I think I’ve finally got what that movie last night was really all about!” ; or, “I wish I had been more attentive!”  For Derrida to call all this separation of me-now from me-yesterday a line up of violent acts and actors takes a word that has high shock-value — and often legitimate shock value — into a new domain — for theatrical effect. He grabs our attention, the way someone yelling ‘fire’ in the theater grabs our attention. But if someone yells ‘fire’ too often, we come to know there is no fire, it’s just theater in the theater.  Or we come to think that “fire,” yelled in the theater, only means someone is lighting a cigarette.  When a real fire breaks out, we’ve stopped listening — to our peril.  We pay a price. “Violence,” like “rape’ or ‘torture’ or ‘beheading’ should be used when we mean the horror associated with it — used only then. Otherwise the word has no power when we really need it. Derrida both manipulates us with shock-appeal and ‘devalues’ a most important concept we should not throw around carelessly.

A moment of genuine repentance can be a good thing, not a bad thing — not a slicing or slashing or knifing. Many acts of self-awareness, when I in some sense divide myself from myself, are salutary. And many acts of self-separation are neither — neither violent nor salutary but something else altogether.

If I rummage through memory. The me doing the rummaging separates off from the me being rummaged. But that’s a neutral thing if I’m trying to remember where I left my keys.  It’s less neutral  if I’m rummaging for that moment when I made a fool of myself or rummaging for that lost moment when my father looked lovingly at me. I don’t sense violence in these instances of ‘self review,’ only a redirection of my attention. This redirection can be an act of love or self-acceptance or just a neutral review. To violently overuse “violence’ is a little like Tourette’s syndrome, an outburst of profanity. Sure, it grabs your attention, but . . .

On a much happier note, Dean also asks about Merold Westphall’s view that prayer is de-centering. I think to say that prayer is de-centering is a new fashioned way of saying that we work, in prayer, for selflessness, for putting the acquisitive and power-hungry self aside, letting a power say to us what it will, without our anxiously waiting to interrupt or explain — or get angry or confused if all we hear is heaven’s silence. If the self is typically centered on its projects, trying to get something done, that moment of prayer is when the “let’s do it!” executive self melts away. It’s so very hard to pray because it’s hard to deactivate the executive or self-righteous, proud self — without being executive or proud or self-righteous in the process. (Look, mom, look Pastor Q, — aren’t I really righteous now, right now, praying just like you showed me!)

I think we’ve devolved to the point that whenever the world is shattered or our routines are interrupted, we think it can only be a dark moment of violence, a knife suddenly being flashed.  This is not unlike Levinas’s view that I only ‘discover’ the person before me as a source of proper attention as she or he pleads “don’t kill!” –as if my normal way of intervening or interrupting in another’s life is pulling a knife, and I need to be reminded not to.

Both Benjamin and Levinas lived through a great cultural crisis where almost every thing — (almost) — was uniformly ‘negative’ and violent. Benjamin, to simplify, says that we need to be ‘rescued’ and God will do that.  And he labels the appearance of the messiah a moment of “Divine Violence” (that’s an extreme condensation and ought to be qualified in a longer account). But why not frame a messianic interruption as the surprising intervention of good? Not all interventions are violent any more than a caress that intrudes on routine bodily boundaries — and surprises — is always a violation or violent.

Levinas tells a story of gratuitous good – a woman dropping the rock she was about to embed in the skull of her torturer and instead miraculously offers him bread.

If God is a God of love (at least some of the time), or if love has a chance, or if beauty has a chance, or if gentleness has a chance, or if my caress can be tender, and acknowledged by you as tender, then in these cases our worlds are shattered not by violence but by love, by beauty, by the charm of a child’s smile, by a gentle touch.

To think that love is violence because it in fact shatters our world is falling for an unnecessary verbal-metaphysical trap. Love and wonder and gentleness are one thing. Cuts and hurts are another. Why let a misguided metaphysical theatricality reduce all those loving and wondrous and tender things to acts of violence? (Did Zizek really say Gandhi was more violent than Hitler?)  If we can turn love into violence, why not let bad guys turn violence into love?  We should give a hearty cheer  of appreciation of the metaphysical, ideological sophistication of the murderer or the Hitler who claims philosophically that all murder or extermination is really an act of love.

To circle back to Thoreau, his assurance is that wonder and beauty and allure and melody keep invading his world, yes, in a shattering way — and I cherish his unflinching assurance that all that shattering is so often heavenly, rebuilding and restoring – and that to undergo it is to come alive anew, now.

In the present cultural-philosophical dispensation, that’s quite a novel philosophical outlook! We’re in dark times, and Thoreau would have us see light.  The common wisdom seems so often to promote the opposite. We are in dark times, and should only nod approval as  our philosophers make them darker.