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.

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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Gratitude and joy, Thoreau and Arendt

  Thoreau didn’t preach serenity and joy.  He found them under leaves and in a heron’s flight — in the least meadow or bobbing cranberry in the marsh. His brother John died an agonizing death, yet was also serene, grateful to have lived.

gratitude for life having been given at all is the spring of remembrance, for a life is cherished even in misery . . .  What ultimately stills the fear of death is not hope or desire, but remembrance and gratitude . . .

These are the words of a young Hannah Arendt, writing in Love and Saint Augustine.  They might have been Thoreau’s. 


You may know the phrase from Kierkegaard, “Love, that lenient interpreter.”  I had occasion to use it as the title of an essay some years ago that expressed my disfavor with biographers who fixate on flaws and hidden motives and indiscretions in a writer’s life, often to the neglect of the text, and often, when the text in fact was read closely, to the neglect of what might be of value in it — what we might learn from it (other than mistakes to avoid), or what we might come to love in it, or marvel at, something overlooked, perhaps, in our previous readings.  As I read Thoreau or Kierkegaard the last thing in the world I’d seek out is an occasion for unmasking or for revealing a scandal, intellectual or otherwise.  Perhaps this approach to matters philosophical and literary and intellectual is a minority voice.  This occurred to me as I read a concluding expression of gratitude in a fine overview of a recent book on Terry’s blog, Vertigo.  He was passing on appreciation of a recent study of W. G. Sebald.  Terry loves (or values or can’t do without) Sebald’s work — not because it ‘makes him happy’ (how could it!) but, I’d guess, because it brings him — brings us — closer to reality, closer to life, than we would ever get without it. Here is what he writes:

  ” I am extremely grateful for, and I know I’ll never read either of these [Sebald] books again without saying a silent “thank you” to Osborne for opening my eyes to a new way of looking at them.” 

I quote this because I’m happy to have confirmed my conviction that among the many styles of review and critique and exploration, we need a criticism permitting  gratitude for the text in view.  There must be some texts we love like a garden landscape or a sea view or a child happily at play — where, in response, we have no impulse to unmask or dwell on imperfections or flaws or to put into play abstractions or some elitist critical machinery.  Can’t we crow a new dawn, with Thoreau’s chanticleer? Why think that frank appreciation, gratitude, praise, and joy are out of place in ‘serious’ readings of texts?  In acknowledging our gratitude, directly or indirectly, we perform a valuable public service, or at least expose a bit of our souls for friends.  We preserve and pass on what we find worthy in the life of books and art.  And if gratitude seldom is so frankly avowed, it can nevertheless subliminally animate our accounts and expositions and explorations, reminding us that that there still exist for we who rummage in books objects and moments to unstintingly praise.

Concordian Thoughts


Shall we not have sympathy with the muskrat which

gnaws its third leg off, not as pitying its sufferings,

     but through our kindred mortality,

           appreciating its majestic pains and its heroic virtue?

Are we not made its brothers by fate?


For whom are psalms sung and mass said,

             if not for worthies as these?

When I hear the church organ peal,

or feel the trembling tones of the bass viol,

I see in imagination the musquash gnawing off his leg,

     I offer up a note

            that his affliction may be sanctified to each and all of us.


Prayer and praise fitly follow such exploits.

I look round for majestic pains and pleasures.

     They have our sympathy,

               both in their joys and their pains.


When I think of the tragedies which are constantly permitted

   in the course of all animal life,

       they make the plaintive strain of the universal harp

             which elevates us above the trivial.


When I think of the muskrat gnawing off his leg

it is as the plectrum on the harp or the bow upon the viol,

      drawing forth a majestic strain or psalm,

               which immeasurably dignifies our common fate.


Even as the worthies of mankind

are said to recommend human life having lived it,

          so I could not spare the example of the muskrat.


                                                                          [Thoreau – J, VI, pp. 98-99]