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.

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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A kind of Meditation

This morning I came across Kelly Jolley’s blog-entry for today.  Rather than re-blog it, I’ll give you the Heidegger passage he quotes.  (See his preamble at Quantum Est In Rebus Inane).

Thirst for knowledge and greed for explanations never lead to a thinking inquiry.  Curiosity is always the concealed arrogance of a self-consciousness that banks on a self-invented ratio and its rationality.  The will to know does not will to abide in hope before  what is worthy of thought.  –“A Dialogue on Language”

I found myself percolating, and writing in response:  The first startle is linking thirst with greed, as if our ‘pursuit of knowledge’ were a vice.  Then curiosity gets unlinked from wonder, leaving us with the curiosity that killed the cat, and then rationality gets linked to the arrogance and falsity of invention.  And then . . . then the wonderful resolution, that beyond the pit of self-importance that plagues philosophy there lies a kind of embraceable desire or wish or will for an apparently utterly different sort of knowledge-orientation, one that ‘abides’ (lives tenderly, perhaps in a paradise) in rising hope before something so very worthy of hope, attention, and meditation. His words carry us to that place and position, uplifted.

Thanks to Kelly, it’s a good morning already!  The sort Thoreau would greet with a rooster crow!

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?