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.

A shadow that perspires toward the sun!

A single sentence from the Conclusion to Walden gives us what seems like simple avuncular advice–at least as the line starts off: “In view of the future or possible, we should live quite laxly and undefined in front, our outlines dim and misty on that side; as our shadows reveal an insensible perspiration toward the sun.” 

Let’s say the idea of hanging loose toward the future is clear enough, and that the idea of a shadow behind is commonplace. But then the going gets murky. The idea of a ‘dim and misty’ shadow-like figure of our future, cast forward by the body here and now, is not at all common.  But talk of the uncommon! When did a backward slanting — or frontward slanting — shadow begin to perspire?  And not only that, when did shadows begin to perspire toward the sun?

Well, perspiration is “heat breathing out through the skin” into the great outdoors.  And all living things had best orient themselves, when possible, toward the sun.  It’s the donor of light and heat and dawning bliss, eliciting rooster-crows of exhilaration.    The clayey sandbank by Thoreau’s cabin sweats its joy toward the sun.  Our vital heat casts a fore-shadow as well as a back-shadow and both shadows know how to bask, as the body does, in the here and now, letting the body as well as its shadows fore and aft perspire.  And look what’s happened!  Shadows are alive and breathing!

Now let me change gears. Let’s say Thoreau is a Socrates who wants to spread ignorance.  He wants, like Socrates (or Kierkegaard, for that matter), to take away the sleepy, contented sense that we’re know-it-alls — been there, done that.  Socrates, flirting with Phaedrus,  is exhilarated by the country sunlight and meadows as speeches on Love’s mad beauty descend.  Thoreau is exhilarated by country walks, and by the sense of ignorance (or wonder) they express.  How does he instill and maintain both exhilaration and ignorance?  Socrates gets into a dialogue.  Thoreau lets his words, unrolling one by one, engage us in dialogue.

Here’s how.  We think we’re on common ground with him, thinking of shadows.  Starting with the banal is thoreauvian bait, but also the place we all start — a place of easy truths of the commonplace, before  transport to new dawns begins. But hardly has Thoreau drawn us in, self-assured in the banal, than he unsettles us, throws us into ignorance, wave after wave.    We’re ignorant of forward-tilting shadows that he suddenly springs on us.  Well, we catch up with that.  Catch up just in time to be tripped by another splash of ignorance — the idea that shadows are alive and perspire.  And if we manage to survive that, we’re unseated by another shaft of light from the unknown: perspiration can tilt toward the sun!  So the sentence itself is Socratic, over and over.

A single sentence carries us the length of three or four dialectical exchanges in a Socratic dialogue.  Yet it’s so artless, childlike, guileless, we can almost miss the whole thing.  Thoreau can lull us as well as wake us.  He picks us up in our sleep, comforts us a bit, all the while thinking ahead to the time when he’ll introduce the discomfort of ignorance — he has to!  We must be weaned!  But he makes that transition (or translation) in the most lovely way possible.

He draws us into dialogue that continually exposes our ignorance about the most simple of things: sweat, heat, the past, breathing, shadows, the future.  And it’s wonder-infused, exhilarating ignorance — inordinate knowledge — to boot !

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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Inordinate Knowledge

Espen Dahl cites Cavell on a register of passionate speech that verges on prophecy, or madness.  In such moments speech seems at the limits, inordinate, vastly profound, vastly ungluing, vastly elusive.  It is speech that seems addressed “to all and no one” (as Nietzsche famously imagines his audience at the start of Zarathustra). Here is Cavell, from his essay “Companionable Thinking”:

the right to enter such a claim universally […], has roughly the logic of a voice in the wilderness, crying out news that may be known (inordinately) to virtually none, but to all virtually. It is a voice invoking a religious, not alone a philosophical, register: it is uninvited, it goes beyond an appeal to experiences we can assume all humans share, or recognize, and it is meant to instill belief and a commentary and community based on belief, yielding a very particular form of passionate utterance, call it prophecy.

This quote, especially the opening sentence, invites (shall we say softly) comment or paraphrase.   […], has roughly the logic of a voice in the wilderness, crying out news that may be known (inordinately) to virtually none, but to all virtually.”  Let me try to unravel.

  • the right to enter such a claim universally”  —  I take Cavell’s invocation of a ‘claim to universality’ in this sort of speech to be an instance of the sort of claim Kant finds in aesthetic judgment.  It’s my invitation for all to consider my claim.  I exclude no one, and hence offer a universal invitation. Whether it earns universal assent is another matter.
  • news that may be known (inordinately)” — Cavell’s mention of inordinate knowing must mean that in this sort of passionate speech I cry out news that is known (if it is) outside ordinary coordinates of knowledge and intelligibility.  The reality I invoke in crying out is off the chart, off the grid of ordinary exchange – as in knowing something is terribly wrong but finding the right-wrong coordinates for such knowledge terribly elusive, and fearing that I may be alone in seeing something terribly wrong screaming before my eyes.
  • may be known (inordinately) to virtually none, but to all virtually.”  —  Leave out the “virtual” and we have something known to none and all.  Nietzsche addresses all and no one.  I am off the usual grids, and so perhaps the reality I sense and cry out is “virtual.”  Would this mean imagined, powerful, inescapable, seemingly not only imagined, first-personally?  I can have wild ‘mood swings’ between imagining that my target audience is virtually none, I’ll be utterly dismissed, or scorned, or only raise eyebrows of bewilderment – and on the other hand, imagining simultaneously that what I cry out can’t help but be heard by all, is inescapably true.

Does thinking and writing in philosophy (and the humanities) err if it strays into this domain of passionate speech, of prophecy — of “inordinate knowledge”?

[Dahl’s essay is “Seeing wonders and the wonder of seeing: Religion at the borders of the ordinary”]