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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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. 

Joy is the condition of life

Thoreau confides in his essay on The Natural History of Massachusetts that “Joy is the condition of life.”  This could be read in several ways, and needs to be aligned with Thoreau’s ‘dark side.’  Here’s one alignment.

In a recent New York Review of Books, the novelist, Zadie Smith writes that joy is a troubling mix of rapture, affliction, and terror — perhaps a kind of extraordinary Dionysian seizure, though it can be triggered by something as pedestrian as love of a child.  Joy is not just an intense happiness, for its opposite, she says, is not suffering or melancholy, and it is not just delight.  We ought to fear it as well as cherish its irruption into ordinary life. (What is it to have both delight and terror in the otherness of God or Nature?) The scariness in joy (an anxiety absent in pleasure) is that it overtakes us, takes over: it leaves us naked. It’s a gift, as wonderful and terrible as our humanity:

Occasionally the child . . . is a pleasure, though mostly she is a joy, which means in fact she gives us not much pleasure at all, but rather that strange admixture of terror, pain, and delight that I have come to recognize as joy, and now must find some way to live with daily.

Learning to live with this daily must be a task and gift of faith, perhaps Thoreauvian faith.  

Real love came much later. It lay at the end of a long and arduous road, and up to the very last moment I had been convinced it wouldn’t happen.  I was so surprised by its arrival, so unprepared, that on the day it arrived I had already arranged for us to visit the Holocaust museum at Auschwitz. 

Love’s joy arrives on the way to . . . Auschwitz?  (But then, Abraham’s faith arrives on the way to Moriah, and Thoreau’s, after the death of his brother and Waldo. Perhaps horror hollows us to make room for love.)  Then this summation of paradox: “We were heading toward all that makes life intolerable, feeling the only thing that makes it worthwhile.”  Love among the ruins.  She adds:

[Joy] doesn’t fit with the everyday. The thing no one ever tells you about joy is that it has very little real pleasure in it. And yet if it hadn’t happened at all, at least once, how would we live?  . . . Isn’t it bad enough that the beloved, with whom you have experienced genuine joy, will eventually be lost to you?  Why add to this nightmare the child, whose loss, if it ever happened, would mean nothing less than your total annihilation? . . .  Joy is such a human madness . . . .  Surely if we were sane and reasonable we would every time choose a pleasure over a joy, as animals themselves sensibly do.

It seems that horrendous loss and wondrous gift can be inextricably wed.