Absurd Joy amidst Suffering

Let me lead up to Thoreau’s life of absurd joy by mentioning a recent heartbreaking report from Scandinavia. It’s relevance will become clear.

It’s been officially decided by pollsters that Sweden and Norway are the two happiest countries in the world. The US is ranked 14th and falling. A few weeks ago a photo circulated of two early teens in a Swedish hospital.

These teens are lying on hospital cots, unconscious. The accompanying New Yorker article of a week ago reports that they are two of hundreds of teens dying not from opiate abuse and not from any disease of the body. Their souls are dying.

They are unconscious, and only tubes keep them alive. They have no will to live. They have slipped into the pit, into Sheol, into the land of the dead.

Days earlier they learned they would be deported. We become helpless, hopeless onlookers. Abundant joy is nowhere in sight.


We seem to live in the middle of an infinite or boundless contradiction, an infinite absurdity, if you will.  Deep Joy and deep Suffering suffuse all of death-and-life.

We find this harsh contradiction, “absurd joy,” in the life of Thoreau.

We know from Walden and other writing that he celebrated a joyful life.  And we know from his political writing how much he worked for abolition and detested the evil of slavery.  Less well known is a personal trauma undergone before his writing career was launched. 

Despite what reads like a  joyful life Thoreau underwent first-hand the boundless absurdity of death. He sang the joys of nature. He might have joined Psalm 16:

Make me know the path of life.

Joys overflow in your presence,

Delights flow from Your right hand forever.

But he knew infinite suffering, as well. His writing, his singing, was therapy for the tragic loss of his brother John.

When the brothers were in their mid-twenties, as Henry held him, John died from lockjaw.  Henry had been an uncle to the five year old Waldo Emerson, and a few days after John’s death, Waldo died.

 “Joy is the condition of life,” he writes in one of the earliest of his Journal entries.  

John’s death was excruciating. He doubled backward in death-spasms. Henry held him through it all. A few days after John’s death those terrible symptoms overtook Henry. It was as if Henry would not let his brother die alone, and would follow him into the pit. His body mimicked John’s death. Doctors were baffled.

Like the hundreds of young adults in Sweden, unconscious for no discernible physiological reason, he seemed to have lost the will to live.  Gradually, he recovered but he was convalescent for nearly a month.


Thoreau had an enormous capacity to find joy in life — despite his brother’s death, despite slavery, despite the hanging of John Brown, despite slave-catchers in Concord woods.

This was, in a sense, an “absurd joy,” a joy held against his unblinking knowledge of tragedy. He came to believe that Nature’s life-and-death should be joyously affirmed and stoically mourned. Nature herself mourned the constant dying of her children.

In his indignant essay, “Slavery in Massachusetts,” Thoreau complains that he can no longer take pleasure in his walks. He hears gunshots in the woods as Southern slaveholders pursue their fleeing property.

Then, a miracle occurs. The scent of a swamp Lilly wafts from the waters as he trudges in near despair. It gives him a whiff of paradise, arising bracingly from the muck. It gives him an eff of the ineffable.

For us this is a parable of the inscrutable marriage of heaven and hell. Yet faced with this inscrutable clashing of despair and abundant joy, we have little choice but to side with the singer of song 16, side with Thoreau and with joy.

The Psalm ends,

You will not forsake my life to Sheol,

You won’t let your faithful one see the Pit.

Make me know the path of life.

Joys overflow in your presence,

Delights flow from Your right hand forever.



Thoreau suffered a severe mental and physical collapse on the sudden deaths, within days, of his brother John, and the equally sudden shock, just 10 days later, of little Waldo Emerson.  He was as close as brothers can be to John, and had lived in the Emerson household with little Waldo. He loved children.

His collapse was sudden and to doctors, mysterious and life-threatening.

John had died of lockjaw, and Henry had held him for hours as he went through excruciating spasms that threw his head back, and bent his back backward, over and over.

Several days later Henry took on all of John’s symptoms, terrifying his family and friends. They were relieved when this episode of involuntary physical mimicry subsided and his own death was no longer in question. But Henry went through a long period of convalescence when he wrote nothing, and was more or less housebound, unable to continue his daily journal writing or walking.

The collapse still seems frightening to me, and his recovery through writing somewhat miraculous. A Week on the Concord and Merrimack was his eulogy for John and therapy for Henry.

His despair and recovery came to mind as I read portions of an academic report from two Princeton economists who described white working-class Americans caught in a deadly “sea of despair.” Consider these charts:



I know what led me to juxtapose these charts and Thoreau’s “sea of despair.” I take Thoreau’s recovery to be rather miraculous, and I wondered what miracle would rescue working class whites from their “sea of despair.” [That’s the term Case and Deaton use.]

I plead utter ignorance on this score. Writing journals and taking walks will not rescue these victims of deadly depression. Jobs would be the more obvious answer. And of course Washington’s strong-man appeals to the weak, depressed, and forgotten. Yet the juxtaposition of this sea of despair and Thoreau’s remains somehow poignant to me.

Perhaps my readers will have a way to make sense of it.

A Book on Thoreau

It is a pleasure to be known, to be acknowledged, and when the space of acknowledgment is broadly public rather than private and personal, there is added gratification. Thus I feel both humbled and buoyed by a review essay by a colleague in philosophy who gives a generous, and to my (far from disinterested) ear, sensitive and discerning account of a project that absorbed several years of my writing life, Excursions with Thoreau: Philosophy, Poetry, Religion [Bloomsbury, 2015, 274pp.]

The review that follows is by Stanley Bates, Middlebury College, and appears in the most recent Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews.

This is, from my point of view, a delightful book. It consists of 15 chapters, 12 of which are “heavily revised” versions of previously published essays, and three brief closing sections. It is addressed to those who are at least somewhat familiar with the work of Thoreau, and who will take seriously the idea that his work is relevant to philosophy. The philosopher who is most responsible for the existence of such readers is, of course, Stanley Cavell, and Cavell is a continuing background to, and inspiration for, Edward F. Mooney’s work. However, his focus is somewhat different. Cavell concentrated on Walden in his The Senses of Walden, because he found it to have been dramatically underread. Mooney refers to, and occasionally quotes from, Walden, but he attempts to cultivate a more intimate relationship with Thoreau, and to understand Thoreau’s own way of life, or, perhaps better, the phenomenology of Thoreau’s being-in-the-world, against the background of Thoreau’s commitment to the idea of philosophy as a way of life. Mooney, therefore, draws more on A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, and on Thoreau’s essays, journals and letters, as well as Walden. In all of these writings, Thoreau’s personality (or, perhaps, persona) is self-consciously to the fore. Thoreau is not however intentionally providing an autobiography, and a reader of Mooney’s book would be helped by some familiarity with Thoreau’s biography. Because Mooney’s book collects, and revises, essays, he does not attempt to provide a full biographical and historical account of Thoreau’s life.

Mooney is not just interested in explicating Thoreau. The title, Excursions with Thoreau, is meant more seriously. The essays attempt not only to show us Thoreau’s way of living, (or, what I called above, his being-in-the-world) but, to some degree, to initiate Mooney himself, and his readers, into that way of life. He wants his readers to see what he sees in Thoreau’s writing, and to be affected by it in the way Mooney himself has been. Of course, this fits exactly with the tradition of “philosophy as a way of life” that Thoreau both preaches and exemplifies. Thoreau in the works discussed, not only provides a number of descriptions of his encounters with the natural world including his human encounters; he also provides a kind of phenomenology of the moods that these encounters evoke. Mooney masterfully characterizes the complexity (and sometimes contradiction) that structure these ways of being in the world. Thoreau gives accounts of the beauty and terror of natural scenes, of the celebration and the mourning that are part of our existence. He is both happy in the world, and so revolted by the reality of slavery that the world can seem utterly disgusting (though that mood is redeemed in the text by an encounter with a flower).

What may be the biggest problem of the structure of this book may also be its greatest strength. As I wrote above, the chapters are revisions of earlier papers written on different occasions for different journals and books. This means that not only are the major themes of the author’s reading of Thoreau present in most of the essays, but even the same passages and quotations are visited pretty frequently. One is reminded of Wittgenstein’s remark, in the preface to the Philosophical Investigations, in which he compares his (lack of) method to “sketches of landscapes.” He continues, “The same or almost the same points were always being approached afresh from different directions, and new sketches made.” If one reads the book from start to finish, one is struck by this sense of seeing the same issues from different points of view. Some of the events of Thoreau’s life have a particularly central role in influencing Mooney’s reading of him. The death of his brother John, and the death of Waldo Emerson, which occurred near in time, were shattering instances of human mortality for Thoreau. His attempt to recover something of the remains of Margaret Fuller after her drowning, and his description of that attempt, seem revelatory to Mooney. Thoreau’s experience of desolation at the top of Mount Katahdin is a crucial moment that Mooney cites in considering the complexity of Thoreau’s account of his response to the world. The combination of mourning and celebration in his writing are understood relative to those events. In these cases, Thoreau’s writing about the events demands serious interpretive study, and Mooney provides close readings of his carefully constructed sentences.

Another central occurrence in Thoreau’s life was his meeting with John Brown. Thoreau wrote about Brown’s capture at Harper’s Ferry and his subsequent hanging in two lectures/essays. Brown’s character is, of course, one of the most contested topics in American history. He is often, now, portrayed as a murderous fanatic. Thoreau would have none of that. It is useful to be reminded that abolitionists like Thoreau and Emerson could regard the United States constitution as a contract with absolute evil. They regarded the great constitutional compromise on slavery as what we would now call a crime against humanity. Were they wrong? Surely not. Until the abolition of slavery during and after the Civil War, the United States permitted one of the most radically unjust systems in human history — racially-based chattel slavery. Mooney explicates Thoreau’s understanding of Brown beautifully — most memorably his claim that Brown had not died at his hanging. Thoreau, of course, wrote strikingly on the limits of our duty to the state. Indeed, this may have been his most influential writing because of its impact on Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr.. Thoreau is often mocked because of his willingness to spend one night in jail (until Emerson got him out) as though this limited punishment undercuts his account of the limits of political obligation. Mooney will have none of such mockery.

I’ll briefly comment on one more aspect of Mooney’s reading of Thoreau. This like several other themes runs through several essays. He interprets Thoreau as a thinker who is, in a broad sense, a part of Romanticism. (This is no surprise since American Transcendentalism is usually thought of as a part of the broad current of Romanticism.) This bears on the relationship of Romanticism to modern science. The great Romantic thinkers are often thought of as hostile to science. (This is, in fact, false. Richard Holmes has written a marvelous book about Romanticism and science.[1]) However, what was being resisted was a kind of scientism that had been erected on the foundation of an 18th century materialism (derived from ancient atomism) and the overpowering example of Newtonian physics. This scientism was held to entail what has been called the disenchantment of the world. The central theme of Romanticism, in philosophy and poetry, is a refusal of this disenchantment.[2] Mooney sees Thoreau with his commitment to the observation of the natural world as both grounded in science, and as resisting scientism. This seems fair to me. Moreover, Mooney in several passages, particularly in the essay “Grounding Poetry” relates this to current debates and concerns about the value of the humanities in the university curriculum. He argues that it is a stunted conception of knowledge that would deny the reality of what Thoreau calls “Sympathy with Intelligence.” Mooney goes on, “Our highest most fulfilling attunement to the world comes when we are alert for local ‘Intelligence,’ as radiant things give radiant news of love, dread, grief, or delight — from this alder or that rock, or from this grand vista.”[3] Mooney is clear that Thoreau does not hold the view (which he calls hyper-Romantic) that science somehow kills poetry or is incompatible with it — but science (or scientific knowing) is not our basic way of being-in-the-world. This account of Thoreau runs through all of Mooney’s readings and, one hopes, might bring his readers back to Thoreau’s writings. I’ll let Mooney have the final word here on the kind of writing that he finds in Thoreau.


The writing articulates life at once philosophical, religious, literary-poetic. It is a life of walking, seeing, tasting, hearing in imagination-drenched immersions. We sense a way of taking up with the world and of being happy to be of it. Yet seeking life and serenity can miserably fail. Will the emphasis fall on despair or exaltation, on confidence or self-doubt, on loss or return? Reality is difficult and gives us reasons for both . . . Thoreau is startled into life and delight and invites us along.[4]


[1] Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder: The Romantic Generation and the Discovery of the Wonder and Terror of Science. (Pantheon Books, 2008)

[2] For elaboration, see Stanley Bates, “Refusing Disenchantment: Romanticism, Criticism, Philosophy, Philosophy and Literature, (Vol. 40, No. 2, October 2016)

[3] Mooney, p. 220

[4] ibid., p. 198

The Gentle Transformations of Snow


Of course the near-landscape is transformed: parked cars morph into snow-banks, streets and sidewalks are conjoined, one walks in one as well as in the other. The view to blue water is set off by billows and borders of white. As flakes drift steadily down, no matter which way you look, all lines between earth and sky are dissolved.

Inhabitants seem cheered by it all. One, dusting off his car, says cheerily, “Another day in paradise.” A septuagenarian sipping coffee as I wait in line says, “I kicked snow all the way here.” She was gently transformed. For an hour or so, she would be a kid.

As I waited to order a middle aged bundled woman said to no one in particular, “Oh, I forgot my wallet, I’ll be back in a minute.” But she had just trudged through cold and snow to arrive, and however happily in snow, just then coffee was on her mind. Although she was a stranger, I said without losing a beat, “Let me buy you one.” She was surprised, I was surprised, and I attribute any generosity in the air to the snow in the air. We exchanged names and chatted about dogs and snow.

As I returned, coffee in hand, to my flat, oblivious whether I was walking on streets or sidewalks or space in between, without exception people called out from under their muffling caps and scarfs (it was 10 degrees Fahrenheit). We hailed each other as friendly wayfarers in the gentle, slightly windswept whiteness. The snow had lightened our spirits and brought in good cheer.


Everywhere, it invited quiet and rest and welcome.

An Experiment with News

As some of you know from a previous post on the menace of news, I’ve been struggling with a dilemma: I find it nearly impossible not to read the news. Yet I don’t like the bitter taste it leaves. In an attempt at self-preservation, I started a small file of worthy bits of resistance that left me hopeful and heartened rather than despairing.

Here are selections from my file perhaps of interest to those who remember that Thoreau followed political news carefully even as he confessed on Mt Greylock that the advertisements were more interesting than the news. In “Slavery in Massachusetts” he says the news has made it impossible to delight in his daily walks.

Disclaimer: obviously I’m cheering on the sometimes quiet resisters in our midst, and trying to counter my own doldrums and outrage. The following items are ‘cherry picked,’  and in an attempt to minimize clutter I’ve not cited sources, though I confess, I’m addicted to daily reading in NYTimes, Washington Post, and Boston Globe.

In no particular order of importance, and just from this week:

**At least three members of the Super Bowl-winning New England Patriots have said they will not visit the White House for the traditional meeting that championship teams have with the president.

**Some critics are calling on cable news outlets to bar Kelleyanne Conway from appearing on air, and CNN declined to have her on as a guest Sunday.

**with Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly, Trump said that “maybe it’ll take till sometime into next year” for his administration to unveil a new health-care plan. It is, the president said, “very complicated.”

**Nordstrom, Trump’s latest Twitter target, seems largely immune to the president’s public bashing. He criticized the retailer for dropping Ivanka Trump products — and its stock value climbed.

**Ivanka’s clothing line removed from prominence at T J Maxx and Marshals [Nordstrom has already dropped her]

** Trump’s Supreme Court nominee called Trump’s attacks on the independent judiciary “demoralizing” and “disheartening.” (Trump found the judges had failed to grasp concepts even “a bad high school student would understand.”

**Silencing Warren has given her a boost nationally.

The first of a predicted 14 inches of snow falls silently outside . . .

Leaving this world

What is a transcendental experience?

I stood there in my filthy Birkenstocks feeling a sense of religious transcendental soaring: the promise that my true self was not bound by the constraints of my childhood

— by freeway exits, office parks, after-school programs, coin-operated laundry rooms at dingy apartment complexes, vineyards plowed under and converted into Walmarts, instability, change, dead dogs, divorce.


The David suggested that my true self existed most fully in some interstellar superhistorical realm in which all the ideal things of the universe commingled in a perpetual ecstasy of harmonizing trumpet blasts.

If such perfection could exist in the world, I felt, then so many other things were suddenly possible: to live a perfect life creating perfect things, to find an ideal way to be. What was the point of anything less?


Then there’s a very slight let down:



and another:




quotes and photos are from Sam Anderson,  Michelangelo’s David



Why Teach Humanities?

I teach a religion class that requires weekly “check-ins,” short responses to some passage in the reading assigned. This Spring students have just finished reading Kathleen Norris’ The Cloister Walk. 

Here is a response that confirms my sense that great (and even minor) humanities texts can carry unexpected riches, can probe the soul in ways no one can foresee.

It also illustrates how the genesis of a powerful insight can be shrouded in mist and confusion and unclarity. Here is the email, signature removed:

Professor Mooney,

As I near the end of “Cloister Walk”, I realize I have struggled to find passages that mean something to me. Nevertheless, the book has been endlessly interesting.

Below is an excerpt from a reaction I had to an early quote in the book.

           Norris: “I felt as hard and dry as the bristly grasses of early fall, as exhausted as the drought-            stricken trees around me. Then Gregory reminded me of the greatness of souls, how their true strength can emerge in the worst of times, when the known world is collapsing. ‘My mind divided’, he said of himself, ‘torn to pieces by so many problems.’”

I could not find my own words to better describe my current state, and the country’s current state. I write this a week after Donald Trump has become president. I have participated in two different protests in a matter of one week. I feel emotionally exhausted, lost, confused, left wondering what values are held by the people of this country – the people I know and love.

I am a policy studies student who graduates in a few months. My entire plan of probable careers is shifting. My mother is a teacher in Michigan. She has dealt with the atrocities of DeVos long before she became a household name throughout the country. She fears for her job, her school, and her students. I have friends who work at Catholic Charities. They are unsure how long they will have their jobs. They go to work every day, trying to comfort the fears, confusion, and sadness of their clients. Several of their clients are separated from husbands, wives, or children, and because of current policies, will continue to be separated. My partner is from Turkey and is Muslim. He is afraid that he will be forced to leave. I am afraid he will be humiliated by my government, mistreated by my fellow citizens, and possibly be told he must leave. I worry for what that means for him, for me, for this whole country.


This shows how a thoughtful writer (Norris) can filter her own experience through a piece of Scripture and prompt her reader (our student) to filter her own experience through a text previously unknown.

The humanities give us access to modulations of experience that prompt modulations of experience. That modulation needn’t clarify much more than a region of life that resists easy clarification. We resonate with times past and that makes presents vivid, in melancholy or joy or both.