From a war-zone — with Thoreau in mind

Thoreau endured the moral-political chaos of the 1850s and 60s with passion and aplomb.  He rested by the still waters of Walden, and hosted an abolitionist meeting at his cabin, met John Brown, and contributed to the the purchase of arms for a raid on Harpers Ferry.  If not simultaneously, he knew both moral outrage and the deepest serenity in proximity to one another.  So I hold him up as someone who endured neighboring and distant moral-political violence with passion and aplomb.

Here are some aspects, impressionistically delivered, of the difficult reality I confront — not in Gaza, and not near it, and not on the West Bank, but near Tel Aviv, where I teach Thoreau (among other things) and am clearly an American.

For nearly all Israelis ‘on the street,’ apart from those who have friends or relatives in the invading army units, there is little sense of immediate danger.  There is communal mourning at Israeli deaths, on a scale one has never seen in America (thousands or even tens of thousands of citizens mourn a single soldier’s death).  But Israelis, Palestinians or Jews not in  or near Gaza, and not in the West Bank or near it,, don’t feel physically threatened. People hear the sirens and disregard the official protocols (dive for cover, enter a shelter).

Tami still visits her Palestinian-Israeli butcher, with whom she’s had amiable relations for a dozen years. He’s in an Arab village down the road (not in the West Bank).  He tells her, as she inquires after his feelings about the mess, that all the sensible Arabs he knows want a cease-fire and think that Hamas is suicidal and making trouble for everyone. We have hummus later in the day at an Arab-owned cafe, and pick up an orchid at a Palestinian-owned nursery. The headlines of (real) horrors blot out the reality of peaceful relations, sustained over decades and through these days of trouble. The moral evil is evil. The moral good is good. The challenge is to live with eyes open to both. I write from Hod HaSharon, near Tel Aviv, where you can hear one or two booms each day, preceded by sirens. Talking of “the” Palestinians or “the” Muslims or “the” Israelis hardly does justice to realities too easily blurred or erased.  Thoreau lived with eyes open.

The news (and the Israeli government) like to keep the justification for retaliation and “success” against the rockets and tunnels front and center, and so report (more or less) that Israel dropped 100 bombs in answer to 100 rockets from Hamas.  You have to read on to paragraph two or three to be reminded that exactly zero Israelis have been hurt or killed by this ‘rain of rockets’ over populated areas.  That’s not to discount the potential danger.  And that’s not to say that Israeli response is in error, period — though I’ll pass up polemics on this issue.

I’m not exactly nonchalant abut the potential threats to Israeli non-combatants — far from it.  But seeking for analogies from my own now relatively long experience, I’m reminded of my early days in Berkeley where terrorists kidnapped Patty Hurst, shot a judge in his Marin County courtroom to free the San Quentin prisoner James Jackson, and killed a Black Oakland school principal with poisoned bullets all within a few months and a few miles in the late sixties  — raising the level of fear and outrage even as life — and the Vietnam War — went on.  I wasn’t exactly nonchalant, but I wasn’t scared out of my mind, either, even as friends from miles away wrote that they were scared for my safety. The National Guard occupied the Berkeley campus, teargassed students from helicopters, shot rubber bullets, and tented out in surrounding neighborhoods, just a few blocks away.  Not to mention a dozen or more students shot by the Guard at Kent State.

Here, around Tel Aviv, restaurants and summer camps stay open, buses and trains run, and no one misses a day of work.   There was more panic (legitimate, in my view) in America after 911 and for  months after than there is around here right now.

Of course all it would take is a new tunnel-entry into Israel, a kidnapping, a suicide bomber, or a Hamas rocket that actually hit a target, to upset the relative “life goes on” atmosphere in towns more than 10 miles from Gaza and not in or near the West Bank.

Hate it, and hope that assembled world figures descending on the region this week can enforce some sort of halt, though I’m not optimistic.  Tomorrow I’ll bath not in Walden but in the Sea close to where Odysseus was washed up by the surf.


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.

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 !

Wild words

William Eaton has just passed on an essay, “Wild Life, Wild Mind” (from the July 31 Chronicle of Higher Ed) that seems just right as I approach the mid-point in my Thoreau seminar.

I just finish pecking that word ‘seminar,’ and leap startled to see a flotilla of yellow-green wild parrots with long tails chasing each other and alighting for rest on the discolored one-time white stucco walls of the apartments in view from my 5th story window.  I’ve heard they’re an invasion from Africa.  The contrast with rusted iron window grates and endless smatterings of air-conditioning units clinging to walls is extreme.

As if by design, they are making William’s point — or one of them: that the wild is not a place but a strange intrusion of the unexpected and un-corralable.  He adds that we can’t try to sustain these moments.  The parrots flee as quickly as they noisily arrived.  That’s linked to the Susan Sontag epigraph: “None of us can ever retrieve that innocence before all theory.”  Note, she doesn’t deny that there are moments of innocence before all theory.  She just says that they can’t be retrieved.  They can’t exactly be sought after either, though they may be of the highest imaginable value to us.  Unbidden, they speak to us.  What’s uncanny, for we who are self-starters and always getting here and there, is that they initiate, they corral us.  That’s  to see — or hear — that something addresses us.  We’re out of the driver’s seat.  We listen up or lose it.

I think Thoreau’s prose in Walden works that way. A sentence starts; we’re in the driver’s seat; no strange words or syntax (for  the most part).  A change gathers strength behind our back.  Suddenly we’re lost in the wild.  We had been comfortably beside Thoreau as he listened to a freight train rumble by, shaking the silence of the pond.  By degrees the parrots start squawking, transforming our resentment at noisy intrusion.  We refused ‘an ode to dejection,’ but who could have anticipated what gathers behind our back, this slow startle into minor transfigurations, hearing palm for summer hats, remnants of sails from ocean storms, lumber itself transformed from trees, and lime from Maine.  It’s as bad as hearing ice from Walden become a monument on  Concord Commons, and then ripple at the ankles of Holy men reciting Vedas in the Ganges.

Thoreau has the wild accost us.  And if we try too hard to stare down what’s happening, it’ll disappear: it’s an innocence before theory.

Thoreau’s Cabin, Wittgenstein’s Hut

In case you think Thoreau was the only one seeking peace and quiet to write, and finding it in a solitary hut overlooking water, Wittgenstein built his in Norway about 90 years after Thoreau built his.  Both are extremely spartan.  Thoreau had a sizable village to walk  to, Wittgenstein (so far as I can determine) didn’t.

In a book I’ll mention, there are some wonderful pictures of Norway scenery, and the remains of the hut’s foundations.  I take it there is no completed restoration, though there is a well-marked trail (with quips from LW for the uninitiated) up the mountain to its location.

What brought me to this was the rediscovery on my shelf of  an extraordinary project, LUDWIG WITTGENSTEIN: THERE WHERE YOU ARE NOT, loosely assembled narrative, poetry, and photographs on the theme of Wittgenstein’s ache for vocation, satisfied at times, it seems, in the quiet for writing he found in his hut.  Put together by Neto, Moreton, and Finlay and issued by Black Dog Publishing, 2005.  They specialize, we’re told, in   “Architecture Art Design Fashion History Photography Theory and Things.”  We have here a 150 p. large format relatively inexpensive gem — a visual, poetic and biographical collage of Wittgenstein’s life and work.

“People nowadays think, scientists are there to instruct them, poets, musicians, etc., to entertain them.  That the latter have something to teach them; that never occurs to them.” (1940)

Russell said it would be dark; Wittgenstein said he hated daylight

Russell said he was mad; Wittgenstein said God preserve him from sanity

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.

Back from vacation !

Thoreau famously said he needn’t travel West or to Europe, that right around Concord gave him universe enough to explore for several lifetimes.  So do I take his wisdom to heart?  Well, the Concord of his day was an extraordinarily cosmopolitan place (though he low-keyed this in his writing).  And he did travel to NYC, meeting Whitman there, and then out to Minnesota, just before he died.

Nevertheless, I like the image of burrowing in where you are, rather than always looking elsewhere for the interesting and inspiring.  On the other hand, I don’t regret for a moment my recent tours to Reykjavik, Tel Aviv, Johns Hopkins, Auburn, and Vilnius.  And there’s always a reminder to tell oneself when getting too attached to the specific advice of a guide like Thoreau (or Nietzsche, or Emerson).

They say, after all, “Don’t follow me, follow your own path, or better, cut your path, hew it where none existed.”  So we read them not to find a path to slavishly follow but read them to soak in the intensity of their hewing, and to discern what it would be like to hew ours with such intensity.  Of course, not any old path will do.  I can’t take the path to Wall Street, or hew a new one there; there’s just no wild between here and there, and I don’t want to get there.  I could learn hard labor, perhaps, but not hewing.  And now I’m back home, ready to burrow in again, I can see my travels as walks in the wild . . .  I hope.

More on Heidegger on unknowing via Thoreau

If I read late at night about “Eco-phenomenology,” that might be just a banal way to get through sleeplessness, or it might be a case of curiosity whose trajectory should satisfy a thirst for knowledge.  I can still ask, what lies beneath this thirst?  Do I want to know about Eco-phenomenology in order to score well in a competition with other thinkers who will show up at a conference on Eco-phenomenology – or at least not be exposed as utterly clueless?  If my curiosity were always-and-nothing-but a stage on the way to knowledge-seeking aiming to satisfy and defuse such curiosity, I’d feel I was missing something, that the heart was left out, that a sort of wonder that is distinct from such knowledge-tracking curiosity was left out, and I was the worse for it.

Is there a way to be ‘open to the world,” to be “curious” in a way that sets knowledge-acquisition aside?  Or is there at least a way to be that honors a knowledge we could call intimate, close to the heart, to the heart-beat of others, to the heart beat of the world (whether the world’s heart beats in terror or serenity or warm excitement)?

What should we call a state of ‘relaxation and wonder,’ where information- or explanation-seeking curiosity seems to fall away and one dwells in the moment, a moment, say, of unknowing intimacy?  I call this is a moment of relaxation because a search is set aside.  Yet it’s not a feeling of self-congratulation that one has ‘explained’ something, or ‘found the reason’ for something (though on plenty of occasions, it’s certainly OK to ‘kick back,’ cease seeking, and relish an answer or explanation one has come upon).

Yesterday I shared a haunting and unsettling passage from Heidegger, passed on by Kelly Jolley.  Heidegger suggests a thinking that veers off from explanation- or reason-seeking , that’s not a banal or sophisticated curiosity, chained to an impulse to mastery or the victory of intelligence.  Today it still mesmerizes  . . .

In the sort of moment that interests me here, the need-to-know is silent,  not because one has a satisfying answer.  One can wonder silently at the smile of a child, and seek nothing, be curious about nothing at all.  So wonder need not be the launch to knowledge (as Aristotle held).  In the moment that interests me and interests Heidegger, I think, wonder — say, at the smile of a child —  is a satisfying end-point, sufficient unto itself.  It needn’t be a start up toward Knowledge (that end-all divinity for creatures with minds).  Wonder needn’t be a start up for anything.

Thoreau has a memorable — and perplexing — line in “Walking.”  He says, roughly, “I don’t seek Knowledge, but Sympathy with Intelligence.”  On a good day, the world sends us luminous intelligibility (we’re not in the dark, things make sense, we’re not afflicted by anxiety or doubt).  To be bathed in intelligibility, as I hear Thoreau’s 19th century diction, is to be bathed in Intelligence.  Things vibrate sympathetically with intelligibility, as the old Viola de Gamba has extra strings under the finger board that vibrate sympathetically with the strings above, the ones that are set in motion by the bow.  A shower stall vibrates sympathetically with a certain pitch sounded by my voice.

The vibrating under-strings of the Gamba sense the luminous ‘intelligence’ of the tones sounding on upper-strings, and the shower stall senses the intelligibility — the luminous intelligence and fittingness — of the C below middle C that I voice; it vibrates sympathetically.  Looking out over the river, I don’t know it . . . but I sense its ‘intelligence,’ its flowing luminosity, and tremble gently in sympathy.  Looking at the child’s smile, I wonder, that is, take in its luminosity, and respond sympathetically.  That moment is a moment of highest value, but it is not a moment of Knowledge.  Sympathy with Intelligence is not knowledge but attunement to the world, others, words, sounds, sights, tastes, the very breath of life.