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 !

Hunkering down

I confess: it’s not easy to re-root.  I am just now returning to Thoreau after a year’s distraction with things Kierkegaardian.  This last year has been endless celebrations of the 200th anniversary of Kierkegaard’s birth, which left little time for Thoreau.  But this fall I’m teaching a seminar on him at Tel AViv University, and have the time to dive back into the texts, and catch up.  I’m hunkering down.

Just came across a collection of essays, Thoreauvian Modernities,  half of which come from European scholars.  I’m a New Englander by birth, growing up just miles from Concord (in Dedham) and I’m afraid through high school and college I had a provincial and condescending attitude — Thoreau was a ‘local’, and those tourists who visited Walden Pond were, well, . . . just tourists!  The Thoreau striding toward his cabin at the tourist spot somehow superseded the writer. Recently I’ve snapped awake learning that Virginia Woolf reviewed Walden favorably, and that Pierre Hadot has praise for Thoreau’s philosophy as a way of life.  Some of that probably rubbed off on Foucault — not that American thinkers need confirmation by Europeans.

I didn’t read Thoreau closely (with the care I’d devote to a complex passage from Kierkegaard or Kant) until a few years ago, when suddenly his literary-philosophical-religious-political genius shone through.  And of course, once that happened, I could easily imagine readers in France or Germany being mesmerized too — the way we accept classical (and good non-classical) music  ‘immediately,’ quickly forgetting (or never knowing) its point of origin.

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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Who am I?

Occasionally someone holds up a mirror that gives one a startling view of oneself.  Not that one isn’t getting partial glimpses all the time.  But we need another for self-knowledge, and just today a friend passed on such a startling view.  I pass it on to my readers for an account of what leads me to write that I can’t imagine bettering.  I know it’s flattering to find a holiday snapshot of oneself that one likes, but this, if I may be permitted, is more like a late Rembrandt self-portrait.  I tremble a bit sharing it:

Does it focus in on my world as for the moment it seems to?

What friends are for

Even before this blog got rolling, I happened  on Kelly Jolley’s remarks on “The Considered Experience of an Author.”  [ Quantum Est . . . January 12  ]  He took an author’s considered experience to be a legitimate source of insight about, and partial confirmation of, a perspective in play philosophically.  We could listen to suggestions, and learn.  All exchange among philosophers needn’t be argument or detached quasi-objective exposition.
Within a few weeks I began drafting portions of my introduction to Excursions with Kierkegaard: Others, Goods, Death, and Final Faith, coming out this October.  I couldn’t resist quoting.  Thus
We should not discount insight lodged in what Kelly Jolley calls “the considered experience of its author” (rather than lodged exclusively in meticulous reasoning or argument). A writer gives out a prospect we’re invited to share, all the while knowing that it is, in due time, “open to analysis and to disagreement.”  Therein we encounter “experience as something to which we can be loyal, something to which we can rally, something that can obligate us, something that can be educated, … [experience] as accumulating, as having weight.”
Kelly puts his points beautifully, and I’m glad to have quoted and amplified them.  What brings this to the fore this afternoon is a blurb written for Excursions by George Pattison.  In a moment of praise, he says that my new work is, “in particular, the kind of philosophy that, in Mooney’s own words, reflects ‘the considered life-experience of its author’.”  I was flattered to think my ‘considered life-experience’ might have worked its way into my essays, and was happy Pattison saw this as a strength, not as a retreat from rigor into sentimentality.  And I was also – well — aghast to hear Kelly’s words now appearing as my own. Of course my text and footnote show otherwise, giving credit where credit is due.

A wider lesson here is that words are on loan, only temporarily our own.  We borrow them from here and there, and outfit, score, and rearrange them in new ways.  They then take on a life of their own, and may or may not return home (whose home?) in acceptable dress.