Mystical experiences — do I care if I’m wired?

Thoreau said you could call him, among other things, a mystic.  He also said you could call him a transcendentalist or a natural philosopher.  I’d add, a poet, or prose-poet.  (We could extend the list.)  Recently two articles, one in the New York Times, another in the Chronicle of Higher Education, have juggled about with “mystical experiences.”  I’ll only say that I’m aghast at the alacrity with which the authors jump to metaphysical structures to explain these experiences — as if our first response to something awesome or wondrous or uncanny ought to be to tame it by explanation.  (You ask your host, mid-way through the meal, “Can you explain why red pepper tastes so good in the soup?  I mean the chemistry of it?) Why not just relish the moment of awe or surprise or pleasure?   The poetry of life deserves to be preserved by befitting poetic response.

When Thoreau eases us into an extraordinary, ecstatic moment — say his finding his reflection in the pond as he kneels by its edge, or as he finds a bird’s egg nestled  in the crack of a rainbow-trimmed cloud (OK, you’ll have to read them yourself to be bowled over)  — he doesn’t immediately run to explain them. Having them is far more important than establishing a causal chain. The chain du jour is cognitive wires hooked up to the wires of cosmic consciousnesses.   It’s as if you have to jamb experience into a model of consciousness, preferably a model that exploits the latest brain research, and even hypothesize God as a consciousness tickling our consciousness; you draw divinity as a set of wires hooked (or crossed) with our wires.  It’s fit for a New Yorker cartoon.  But it shows how fragile the sort of sensibility we find in Thoreau really is, given contemporary fear of letting wondrous experience just be — period.  Are we losing the knack for sensing and cherishing what’s around?

We’re addressed by the things of the world — a child’s smile, a tree’s uprightness, a storm cloud’s foreboding.  The address can be terrifying or gentle and everything in between.  Can we make ourselves available to such address?  If I can avail myself of the best the world offers, that’s not a bad thing.  And why not tarry with what comes my way?  Sometimes the intensity of experience moves us to call it mystical — mystical/ethical-religious (the sublime goodness of a saint), mystical/aesthetic-religious (an overpowering Bach choral performance),  mystical/natural-religious (we awake with Thoreau to a dawning new world).  In some circles, on encounter with non-pedestrian experience triggers a knee jerk reaction to  jump into an unnecessary metaphysical box — a cage of ‘consciousness-cognitive study’ from which it’s hard to escape.  The crazy view is that nothing can be meaningful if it can’t be explained by science — nowadays, by brain science.  So we flee the good things in a rush to the science of them. If your walk in the woods with your kids and the dog is at all memorable or special, you have to validate it right then as special and non-illusory; and it can only be validated if you can probe that brain-in-a-vat to show the why and the how of the specialnessshow exactly which wires heat up and glow.  The faces that light up are not enough.



I’m about to give a talk on Thoreau’s Walden to folks in American Studies. Musing on Thoreau’s decades writing, well before natural science, poetry, and philosophy had become distinct disciplines, I wondered once more how to articulate what made Thoreau at least a poet-philosopher — as I agreed with myself to set aside claims that he has fathered the green movement or has reincarnated himself as a yogi or holy man towing a religion unnamed.  I opened a very good book on Walden by an English literature professor who takes his critical innovation to be finding the poet in Thoreau — so there was a lot about symbols, repeated images, metaphors.  Why not?  Well, Thoreau leaves us with philosophy even though he abjures the ‘view from nowhere,’ the stance where one is set to capture all time and eternity in a pellucid system.  I decided that I needed an image of Thoreau on-the-go, on a walk, or a row, and a philosophy that revealed reality by sharing what the world looks like to a very sensitive observer, recorder, singer.  Of course the world flows like streams and winds (though occasionally sitting still, like the bottom of Walden or the top of Mt Greylock).  But sits still for how long?  For more than an instant?  And if neither we nor the world sit still, how do we recover for ourselves or for others that sense of movement-and-stasis?  We just do our best.  And what do we do with the hankering for semi-permanent ‘results’ in a philosophy on the go, in motion in a mobile world?  Learn to live with it, and don’t let it rule.

Preparing for my talk, I thought of a term of appraisal that might work to capture Thoreau’s wonderfully transporting passages.  So many of his captivating and transporting sentences must form something like  “befitting reveries.”  I want a reverie that is not ‘just a day dream” or “just a fantasy,” things to dismiss once we awake.  I want a reverie that awakens us, that is more than a mere day dream or fantasy.  I want to hold up for praise, one by one, those reveries that so befit our condition at the moment, and are so befitting in moving us to new appreciations of the world, that we wouldn’t trash them, ever.  And if a befitting reverie is really befitting, it carries forward an insight and orientation we cherish.  It contains something we can be true to, and beyond any pretense to verisimilitude to this or that object, it is an unabashed truth we can live for.

From Taxonomy or Definition to Augenblick

More along the lines pursed in Steve’s response to my last post.  A late entry  from Thoreau’s Journal — one of the last before his death, dated 1861 —“ All this is perfectly distinct to an observant eye, and yet could easily pass unnoticed by most. Thus each wind is self-registering” (J XIV: 346).

Each die that is cast (in Steve’s imagery), or each ‘egg laid in its nest,’ or each ‘wind passing through’ (to use Thoreau’s images)  is self-registering, sufficient unto itself, in no need of explanation, definition, transcendental deduction or taxonomical file-name.  It doesn’t need these because it contains its own intelligibility intrinsically in its act of coming-to-be.

Of course at times Thoreau does give us plant taxonomy, by the Latinate bushel.  But I think his hope is that a biologist’s label and classification and ordering will intensify our perception of the radiant import and glory of this moment of time, of kairos — that moment when chronological time holds still or evaporates, and is occupied by a ‘moment of vision’ [Kierkegaard’s Oieblikket (Augenblick)].  This is a moment of indeterminate, indefinite, infinite time in which something special happens — we get an infinite intensification of the presence of the thing (or the event of its coming-to-be).

After all is said and done, for Thoreau the point of taxonomic identification is not to increase scientific knowledge for its own sake.  (If science progresses as a side effect, that’s OK.)  He wants to increase Sympathy with Intelligence (as he says in “Walking”).  As I’d translate, he wants Intelligibility, and sympathetic immersion in the moment of its radiance.  He wants to acknowledge, or perhaps to induce, yet another Augenblick.

Excursions with Edward F. Mooney Pt. III

Dean Dettloff

Excursions with Edward F. Mooney

Part III: Whirling, Living, Dancing

This post is part of an ongoing series. Part I.Part II.

 Dean Dettloff:You covered a lot of ground in your previous answer, Ed, anticipating a few other questions I could have followed-up with. Your previous response ended in a reflection highlighting the pin-wheeled nature of your being, that is, while you may have distinguishable parts or facets, all of them blur together in the motion of life itself. This feeds retroactively into your discussion of teaching and intimacy, wherein your commitments to intimacy and its recovery are not put on hold when you enter your “professional” role but instead integrate wholly together as you touch the lives of students through the gifts you have been given. With this in mind and your veteran-status as an educator, what kind of advice would you have for those…

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Wild Ethics

Just put finishing touches on a piece, “Thoreau’s Wild Ethics,” to appear soon in The Concord Saunterer.  Here’s a sample.

One sees moral salience and hears its call. Ethics is experiential and reflexive, a Source that makes the call of things audible, as light is a Source that makes color and shape visible. The face of a river, or the flight of a swallow, or the plight of a child call on our preservative care. The motif of recurring wonder (even amidst devastation) is a motif of enduring care. As we behold such luminous things, we inwardly feel their imperatives to see and hear more, to respond and become better, in this quite particular situation. Such felt-imperatives do not derive from theory or from a fanciful system “any rational mind” ought to accept. I see a child in danger and reach to protect her. I might think, “She’s about to fall, about to be harmed.” But that is not to enunciate or defend a principle. It is not to endorse the maxim, “Always treat children well.” It is caring for this child, the one here at hand, this very moment.

Rivers, persons at risk, meadowlarks, are, in a sense, “primitive”: we can delve no deeper
than their presence and their call on our care. And our increasingly attentive flow with them is “primitive,” too: there is no deeper or better contact to be had. Thoreau’s narratives deliver thankful celebration of our cohabiting common life, in growth and decline. We are of nature, and nature is of us. We startle in happy wonder and gratitude that such events are occurring, that this is the place of our moving and being.  

We value the particular and deliberate way Thoreau lived out his cares and we value his steadfastness in adversity and loss. He gave stoic attention to every passing moment, not letting a thing pass unnoticed. He had a way with words that was the other side of his way with perception: he could see more in a week than most of us see in a year. And he had faith in enigmatic shifts from suffering, trauma, and sadness to absolute delight—not something effected by denying terrors or degradations but something arising in letting the lily or muskrat not escape notice. Like Goethe and perhaps Nietzsche, he knew how to see into the abyss and yet sparkle with life. A rare knack: perhaps the heart of his genius, wild as it is.