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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What kind of beast?

Sometimes it seems that Plato’s faith in reason, or Socrates’ faith in reasoned dialogue, is pie-in-the-sky optimism.  By Bk 10 of the Republic, Socrates, tongue in cheek, announces that if some person . . .  measures the interval by which the king is parted from the tyrant. . . he will find him . . . living 729 times more pleasantly, and the tyrant more painfully by this same interval.   What a wonderful calculation!

Then there’s the question, how hard is it to become the king or a just person (and avoid becoming the tyrant)?

In the next few lines we get a wonderful summation of the difficulty of being a just person. It’s my impression that this doesn’t get much discussion in the commentaries (but I’m no expert here).

Socrates says, quite casually, “Let us make an image of the soul.   We will a) model the form of a multitudinous, many-headed monster, having a ring of heads of all manner of beasts, tame and wild, which the monster is able to generate and metamorphose at will. . .    Then we will b) make a second form a lion, and c) make a third of a man, the lion smaller than the monster, and the man smaller than the lion. . . .   And now join the three to have them grow into one.  . . .  into a single image, as of the outer hull of a man.  He who is not able to look within, and sees only the outer hull, may believe the beast to be a single human creature. . . .

[Now ‘the beast’ must be the composite  a) + b) + c), right ?  That is, the beast is neither the lion nor the monster — even though the monster is a ‘many headed beast’]

Socrates goes on to say, “He should watch over the many-headed monster like a good husbandman, fostering and cultivating the gentle qualities, and preventing the wild ones from growing; he should be making the lion-heart his ally, and in common care of them all should be uniting the several parts with one another and with himself.” 

As for the difficulty of being just and happy, note that this puts one figure, c), the little man, in charge of moderating the wilder elements – that is, the lion-heart b) and the monster a) — a monster, as Cavell suggests, of volatile multitudinous, self-generating moods.  (See Cavell, City of Words, p 337)

And as for the unity of the Republic’s argument, if I’m reading this composite image correctly, note that these powers of husbanding, fostering, cultivating, and creating reconciliation do not seem straightforwardly to be the capabilities of the rational figure who earlier in the Republic was pictured as a ruling King – am I right?   Can the King be the tripartite ‘beast’ writ large, or is he instead the little man blessed with enormous powers of husbanding and conciliation?

Does anyone else feel an enormous tension between the business-like education of the philosopher-king, and the task the ‘little man’ faces?