In Boswell’s Life of Johnson (I think, I haven’t had time to check), an old acquaintance accosts Johnson to tell him that he (the acquaintance) had tried, like Johnson, to be a philosopher. “But,” the man went on to say, “cheerfulness kept breaking in.”
Stanley Cavell, writing of Wittgenstein’s philosophical work, notes that Wittgenstein writes to create change in his readers, to deliver them to self-knowledge. And, Cavell adds, “self-knowledge is bitter.”
I want to address a few words about Thoreau’s worry about Walden being mistaken for an “ode to dejection”. I will not finish with the topic in this post.
Philosophy sounds in a minor key. At least, it does when it undertakes the living of a human life. Its lessons are of the need to change: to rethink, re-look, re-tell: Thoreau’s first chapter is Economy. If we were already leading the life philosophy would tell us to lead it would lack illocutionary space in which to speak. It sounds in the margins, narrow or wide, between what we are and what we should (and might) be.
Thoreau will tell his readers that he writes for “poor students”. He will tell them that most idle in “quiet desperation”. Even without exploring the linguistic densities of these two phrases, two of the densest in all of the book, it is easy enough to see why Thoreau worries that his reader will mistake Walden for an ode to dejection. The reader is a poor student, lives in quiet desperation. Not good news. Not big on uplift. If this is gospel, it is not the Prosperity Gospel.
To read Walden as an ode to dejection is to turn it into a metrical set piece. A bit of lofty sentimentalizing on a grand topic. Kierkegaard somewhere underlines that it served the Athenians to treat Socrates as a genius. Because, as a genius, he was eccentric, not really one of them, and, as such, his life had no claim on their lives: Socrates was a different form of life: his was not the form of Athenian life.
To treat Socrates as a genius was to (functionally) banish him from the city, excommunicate him. Teachers discover their own form of this banishment when they urgently recommend a book to students and the students take the recommendation only to reveal (more of) the eccentricity of the teacher. Thoreau writes Walden because he believes the life he led at Walden makes a claim on his reader’s life, on the discordant lives of the citizens of Concord (Everywhere, USA). That life exerts the pressure of an exemplar.
An effective means for escaping this claim, reducing its pressure, is to recategorize Thoreau’s communicative act (a kind of excommunication). “Ah! I see! An ode to dejection! Isn’t it fine? Highflown, lovely turns of phrase, — fighting ants, — splendid!” The reader aesthetisizes the book, as if its aim were to please by its magniloquent descriptions. Perhaps what it describes displeases, but the focus is not on the object of the description but on the description itself . And so Thoreau’s cannot discomfort his reader — everything has been rendered comfortable. “Write on, Thoreau, write on! Beautiful! Oh, look, a pun,” the reader mutters, reclining. “Write on!”
A strategy for refusing Thoreau’s Walden-life as an exemplar…
I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as Chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake his neighbors up.
Thoreau chooses to write an epigraph for his own book, not to use a quotation, although he goes on in Walden to quote other writers constantly, to seed his book with the words of others. So why not choose a quotation to serve as the epigraph? It was standard practice at the time, as it is now.
Thoreau chooses his own words. Now, of course, no one owns words as such: if anyone did, they would not serve their manifold purposes. If your words are really yours, owned, then they are not available to me to be understood. An owned word is incommunicable, unsharable. Yours but inert. Language is a mutual, joint-stock world in all meridians. But these are the words Thoreau chooses, his long and elegant sentence. Why these words and in this order?
The first word of Walden is: ‘I’. — Thoreau underwrites that choice in the opening paragraphs of Chapter one but here he simply makes the choice.
Thoreau steps into view, in propria persona, first to resist a misunderstanding of the action he performed in writing Walden, and then to embrace — and subtilize — an understanding of it.
We will return to ‘I’.
After stepping into view, Thoreau, in effect, puts his hands up, stopping the reader, gesticulating. “I do not propose to write an ode to dejection…” Why would Thoreau refuse this, expect his reader to expect such a proposal?
I suspect the answer has to be that Thoreau writes ahead of his reader’s actual expectations and anticipates what the reader may take the book to be if read in the wrong way, the wrong posture, the wrong spirit. If that’s correct, then Thoreau gives his reader the benefit of his own experience of Walden.
Being the writer of Walden complicates Thoreau’s reading of the book, of course. The writer relives the spontaneity that produced the ordered words: unless the action of writing is completely forgotten, that action returns to the writer in reading: Thoreau cannot encounter his words for the first time as his reader can. The words cannot speak to a passivity unaffected by the writerly activity that produced the words. Still, admitting that is not to admit that Thoreau cannot make an educated guess about how his words will strike his reader, address his reader’s passivity.
Thoreau anticipates that his reader will mistake Walden as an ode to dejection.
A few words about Bill Mallonee’s lush, cornucopia of songs.
Ending the Preface to his Philosophical Investigations, Ludwig Wittgenstein writes these words.
It is not impossible that it should fall to the lot of this work, in its poverty and in the darkness of this time, to bring light into one brain or another—but, of course, it is not likely.
Bill Mallonee’s newest offering, Lead on, Kindly Light faces a similar problem. Mallonee would no doubt grant the poverty of his work, and he calls attention repeatedly to the darkness of this time. But, much like Wittgenstein, he stubbornly hopes to bring light into one heart or another. No, it is not likely. We each have a heart full of weeds, tall weeds; it is hard for light to get in. And even if we see a little light, true blue, we are too ponderous, too full of devices and of the 21st Century to rouse into concerted action. Mostly, like Nietzsche’s ‘Last Man’, we blink. And turn on the blue-light filter. A little sleep, a little closing of the eyes in sleep. All apps, we lack application.
Kindly Light is a dialogic album, lush with interlocutory guitars. Mallonee’s singing, his plain but precise phrasing, his wife Muriah’s delicate, tasteful harmonies, needlework through the songs, stitching together the different conceptual orders of melody and words. Like exceptional conversation, the songs become bearers of meaning as wholes beyond what they are about, centrifugally. In an elusive sense, they are meaningful in themselves, centripetally.
But, centrifugally, what are the songs about? — About the accumulated weight of human experience, bourne by an individual but touching the lives of all: about the unappeasable hunger of the human imagination, the irrepressible vanity of human wishes, the endless tedium of another day and our sickened anxiety over wasted time, — about our damaged hearts and darkling fates. There is no emigration from a world bursting with evil and sorrow, despite the fact that we all seem to have immigrated here. Death guards the borders, fencing us in.
That makes Kindly Light seem more about (the) darkness (of this time) than about light, and that is misleading. The songs chart the path of light in the darkness, its dimming and brightening. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not. The light is there, never really gone, but we will not admit it. It’s easier to lapse into darkness. A little sleep…
The songs of Kindly Light all are cries of, cries for, wakefulness, for admitting the light, fighting toward it, for it. But it is also a reminder that our spontaneity is ever a receptive spontaneity, that our words were never the first words, are never The Word. And the light we admit, fight toward, fight for, will never allow us (to borrow John Henry Newman’s phrase) “to see the distant scene”. Light enough for the next step — that is what we can admit, fight toward, fight for. Some light in the brain, in the heart, enough to hazard everything, as we all do everyday, — no choice —, though we hide the fact from ourselves. We do not choose or see our path but we have to walk nonetheless. Time forces our footfalls. Will we sleepwalk or take the single step, awake, we have light enough to see?
The songs are sermons but not of the televangelist variety that rules today, preachers on screens, holygrams. No. The sermonizer here is sermonizing himself: Mallonee is his own congregation. He needs to hear what he is saying. We all need to be reminded more than informed. No message here from on-high, UHF. The message is sung from a modest place among the least of these, in poorness of spirit, from among the weeds by the wall.
For fans of melody, there is much here, songs that stay in the ear of the mind, that end up being hummed almost absently during the day’s business. The songs are unhurried, the guitars linger on, over and around the melodies. The listener is drawn into the dialog of the songs, asked to join it, given spaces to fill. These songs are, as Mallonee says life is (in “A Borrowing of Bones”), “a gift by slow degrees…
No blinding flash of light & few epiphanies/No one really leaves with anything that is his own/You get your doubts and a borrowing of bones…
Mallonee gets his doubts and he gets ours. All our bones are borrowed bones. We must return them in the end, like it or not. But, until then — lead on, kindly light. These songs hallow that light and, moonlike, reflect it back to the listener.
I was standing in front of the library wishing for the old days, a smoking campus, a campus that had not banished Lady Nicotine, when I saw him approaching: Socrates.
He had on his usual garb, a dark knit cap, a green flannel shirt under ancient bibbed jeans. His heavy work boots had soles with peculiar wear — no doubt the product of his awkward duck walk, each foot falling as though pissed with the other and determined to find its separate way. He grinned when he saw me, a Socratic grin, half-ignorance, half-knowledge, and he waved.
“Kelly,” he started, the rare cold morning air in Auburn making his exhalations visible against the threatening dark sky, “what are you doing outside the library? Wouldn’t you be better off inside?”
I eyed him cooly. He was always asking questions with multiple meanings but he would never own up to it. He just smiled a Cheshire Cat smile while the question, with its hidden questions, vanished away. I wasn’t sure what question I wanted to answer so I kept my mouth shut and endured the vanishment.
He laughed at me, as he often did, but there was a dollop of frustration in his laugh, since he couldn’t work his magic if I wouldn’t give him words. He waited for me to speak but I took off my backpack and unzipped it, hunting around in the bottom. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular, just looking, just hoping he might let his question suffice and move along.
After a moment, the silence seemed to move him to further speech instead of a change of location. “So, are you writing these days?”
I looked up at him quizzically. This had always been a sore spot between us. I wrote. He didn’t. I had tenure. He didn’t. Never would. He could wipe the floor with me philosophically, but I had a windowed office while he had a darkened carrel in the library, if he was lucky. I knew he had written a little poetry, but he resisted my one request to see any of it and I never asked again.
“I am — but mostly fiction. I have written no philosophy. Not lately.” I stood up and glanced down at my tennis shoes, “Maybe never again. Who knows?”
He grinned again at that. “Not me,” he noted, “I’m not one of those teachers who knows things. And how goes the fiction? Are you troubled by the thought of writing about what-is-not instead of what-is?”
I groaned and only afterward realized I groaned aloud. He seemed tempted to smile and then did, and I smiled back. “Let’s not have that conversation again, Soc, okay? You studied with Elias Stranger at Princeton — and you did that plenum post-doc at the Parmenidean Institute. You can tie me in knots of what-is-not or knots of what-is, maybe even knots of what-is-and-is-not.”
A flash showed in his eyes. “Is there anything that is-and-is-not, or is there not?”
I donned my backpack instead of answering. After a moment, I gave him a teasing glare. “You know, there’s a reason why the other profs hate you.”
We both laughed at that. “So,” he added, after the laugh disappeared, “how do you keep yourself at it, fiction writing? I’ve never been able to get myself to stick to the blank page, to screw my philosophical courage to that sticking-place. I like conversation — philosophy with no pretensions to draw the limits of things, or to occupy their center, or to have achieved some War Eagle-eye point of view. I like the on-the-spotness of conversation, the circumscribed, improvisatory exercises of a kind of human wisdom.”
I nodded. I’d been improvised on often enough, shown to lack a kind of human wisdom, dragged dizzy and dithering from Socrates’ vortex of dialectic. But even so, I couldn’t help liking the guy, even if he was a pain in the ass.
I threw caution to the wind— it’s that tendency that made me into a philosopher — and I bit: “I guess I keep at it because I’m disciplined.”
He smiled and leaned in. “You know, I have often wondered about discipline…”
I groaned but kept it wholly internal this time. I set the hook in my own jaw: “And…”
He leaned further, one of his eyes drifting outward as it often did when he concentrated, as though he was focused on me and lost in thought. It was disconcerting. I braced myself for a beating.
“And I wonder — is discipline just habit or is it more than a habit, or is it habit at all?”
We stood for a moment in low-hanging cumulus clouds of our visible breaths.
I yielded. Spoke. “Well, I guess it depends. If you compare my discipline in writing to, I don’t know, a habit like smoking or nail-biting, it seems distant from that, but if you compare it to something like map-reading, it seems closer to that.”
“Yes, but map-reading is a skill, that kind of habit. Nail-biting, unless it is a tip of the finger form of topiary, isn’t. Some habits you just have: you can’t be good or bad at them. Others, skills, you can be good or bad at.”
I considered myself. “But if you are bad enough, can you be said to have the skill?”
His eyes shined — or at least the one focused on me did. I couldn’t quite describe what happened with the other.
“Good question. I think the answer is that only someone with the skill can be said to be bad at it, but that’s a discussion for another day.”
I blew out a breath in relief, hoping that maybe he had to be somewhere else. I had heard some gossip about him being called to the President’s office — some parent had accused him of uprooting her son’s faith in the God of the Presbyterians. Maybe I would be spared a long conversation after all.
He rocked back on his feet. Then he leaned in again. Shit.
“But isn’t it true that discipline is required to learn a skill?”
“Um, yeah, I guess, usually. Unless the skill is really easy.”
“Ah, yes, but if it is easy enough, does it count as a skill? You can zip your backpack; I just witnessed it. Is that a skill?”
I shrugged. “No, I don’t think so. I mean, it is something I know how to do, but not every knowing-how counts as a skill, does it?”
He gaped at me. “You’re asking me? Me? Why? You know I don’t know. I am an ignorant man.”
Jesus, I think, sometimes I want to punch him right in his good eye. Ignorant! He’s like an X-Man mutant. Doctor Ignorance. Maybe he could borrow half of Cyclops’ visor!
I realized I was being mean-spirited.
He believed all that ignorance mumbo-jumbo, I think, as much as he believed anything, or at least as much as anyone could tell he believed anything. At any rate, it was no overt parrot belief, no mere ventriloquized form of someone else’s words. It meant something to him; it was rooted in him. He said once it had something to do with his mother, but I couldn’t tell if that was some darkling Freudian comment or a was claim about the family business.
“Can’t we say, at least provisionally,” — and as soon as I used that phrase I sank a little inside, because I knew he had me — “that there are kinds of know-how that are skills, things we do well or poorly, and forms of know-how that are not skills, things we can just do, but where evaluation seems otiose.”
He stared at me for a moment. “Provisionally? I would rather like to know what you really do believe.”
“Yeah,” I added, and gave him a defensive, one-shoulder shrug, “I’d like to know what I really believe too, but I don’t. You’re going to have to deal in half-measures. No full-scale, ad hominem, you’ve-refuted-yourself in the offing today, Soc.”
He let me slide. “So, operating a zipper doesn’t seem like a skill even though it is a kind of know-how?”
“Yeah, at least around these parts.”
“So, is a skill then a kind of know-how that you need discipline to gain?”
“Let’s say, yes.”
I could tell he wasn’t happy about my flippancy, but, hey, no one — except him, apparently — could spend the day in argument.
“Ookay. So, could we say that discipline is the habit needed to gain skills?”
“Would that make it the habit habit?”
He chuckled. “And you complained about my is and is-not.”
He gave me a flat look, hard to do with one eye straying toward the heavens.
I sighed. This is how it always went, no steps forward, countless steps back, a marathon to the starting line.
“I dunno,” I murmured, finally, putting all my higher learning to work, “how can there be a habit habit — short of a nunnery?”
“Isn’t discipline taught? That was what I was taught back in my Marine training. Oohrah.”
I winced. I couldn’t seem to keep in mind that he was not always an academic, that he was a military man once, that he somehow tucked that lifetime into his other lifetimes as a bricklayer and as a programmer for Oracle Corporation before he became a professor. He seemed younger than his seventy years, didn’t seem to be unhappily married, though I knew he was, didn’t seem to be a father, although I knew he was that too.
“So, if I understand, you mean that my discipline, if I have it, started as someone else’s discipline?”
He shrugged. “Yes, although when you put it that way it seems more paradoxical than it is. If you are lucky, your parents were disciplined people and instilled that discipline in you, raised you to be disciplined, rewarding and punishing you when you were too young to be reasoned with concerning the need for discipline, later explaining to you why the brief displeasures of discipline were key to life’s durable pleasures.”
My childhood had been about discipline; I was unconvinced that ‘brief displeasure’ was quite apt as phrases went, but I left it alone. I got the point, his point, as I got my father’s.
The point was that we have to internalize external discipline — that’s the making yours mine part of it — and all too often, parents didn’t have enough of it to pass it onto their children. Luckily, there were other sources, but it was still unlucky when that normal source turned out to be empty.
“This all sounds like Aristotle to me,” I finally said, a non-sequitur of truly non-stunning non-grossness.
He blinked. “Aristotle? Must be a new guy. Should I read him?”
Another shrug, my gesture of the day. “I don’t know. He’s a student of that student of yours, Plato.”
Socrates shakes his head. “Don’t blame me for Plato. Like you,” he says, glancing at me and narrowing the eye focused on me, “he can’t decide if he is writing fiction or philosophy. I tried to beat the fiction out of him, you know, dialectically, but he’s hard to pin down. Who knows what he actually thinks?”
“But in that,” I say, and somehow felt the gleam in own my eye, “isn’t he a chip off the old brick? After all, he says he’s your disciple.”
Socrates shook his head more emphatically. “I don’t have disciples. How could I? I have got nothing to teach.”
I pressed my lips into a line, sealing in a string of curses.
He seemed to expect a comment. “Well?”
“Well,” I echo, pausing, “isn’t your sort of ignorance itself a discipline? It’s not like you just don’t know, like a child just doesn’t know — and you know it.”
He closes his eyes and seems to drift off into existential abstraction, communing with his Unknown God. I waited, no interest in interrupting his moment, glad for a moment to recollect myself.
It took a little while, but Socrates returned to where he was. “I suppose,” he said in a slightly concessive tone, “that you are right. I know that I’m ignorant, I’m not just ignorant.”
“Yeah,” I added, “but even that’s not enough. You know it and you…embrace it, or something like that…Anyway, you don’t seem alarmed by it or ashamed of it…Being ignorant the way you are requires discipline, right, is itself a discipline?”
We stood there for a moment. He shifted his weight from one foot to another, an externalization of some inward motion. “You can’t learn if you think you know.”
“True,” I say, nodding, “but you won’t learn if you think you can’t.”
He seemed to agree with that, and I fought down a sudden desire to follow-up my remark with, “It must be so, Kelly,” to philosophize with myself in the third-person.
“But you shouldn’t confuse my ignorance with skepticism; I’m no skeptic.”
“No, you aren’t simply ignorant and you aren’t a skeptic. You’re in-between.”
He seemed to like that phrase although his quick grin turned down just as quickly. “Yes, but don’t plot me in two dimensions, I’m both in between them and behind them.”
“Thanks for that, ” I say, thanking him for nothing, “it’s a big help.”
He ducked his head a bit and shrugged and smirked — a mockery turtle. “I guess I have to go. I have to meet with President Gogue. Some well-meaning parent claims I made her son impious.”
We stood there for a moment, him delaying, me unsure what else to say. I glanced at him.
“Do you ever tire of philosophy?”
He scratched his scraggly beard, shaking his head. “I have to be about my father’s business.”
“Your father?” I asked, confused.
“Apollo.” It occured to me for the first time in several minutes that I could see his answer and not just hear it.
“Hell, Socrates.” I shouldered my backpack into a more comfortable position. “Good luck with the President. I’d…um…keep the Apollo stuff to myself.”
We parted company. I headed toward Haley Center. He headed toward Samford Hall.