Walden’s Epigraph 2: Ode to Dejection?

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…

More soon

Words on Holy Days (Essay Fragment, Unfinished)

An essay I have had around for a long time, unfinished and more-or-less in first-draft limbo.  Posting it here to remind myself to trash it or finish it.


The Liturgy refers to itself at one point—or rather the celebrant, celebrating the Liturgy, refers to it at one point—as “the work of our human hands”. The rhetorical figure here stresses that the Liturgy is the work of our minds and our lips: we make these words, on this day, in this place, together. Around the altar we gather in a holy place, a place of prayer. “And my house shall be called an house of prayer.”

How do we begin to pray? What standing have we to call upon the Lord? What words do we have that can stand the strain, even if we had such standing? Augustine famously struggles with this problem of the beginnings of prayer in Confessions. He asks for help: “How shall I call upon my God, my God and Lord?…Have mercy so that I may find words.” Augustine stands in aporia, bewildered. He wills to speak, he must speak, he cannot speak. Yet he speaks. “Yet woe to those who are silent about you…” He believes and so he speaks.  We believe and so we speak.

We speak in worship; worship is the norm of Christian existence.  Christian worship is an encounter, always an encounter:  first and foremost–an encounter with God, a dialogue with him.  There are two partners in this dialogue, God and the praying community (and that praying community is not an impersonal body, but rather a community of responsible, praying persons).  We might say that on one side of the dialogue, our side, there is a duality:  the community stands by personal faith and commitment, and yet it is corporate.  And it helps to remember that one the other side of the dialogue, God’s, there is a trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Holy Illocutionary Space

“Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost; now, and forever: world without end”

So the Liturgy begins. But what so begins? A prayer—long, complex, intricately structured—a prayer bodied forth not just in words but in actions, ritual actions performed by the priest and the faithful. Recall Wittgenstein’s language games. These are not games played with words, but rather activities in which words play a crucial part, of which words are a crucial part. They are wordy deeds. We speak in a holy illocutionary space[1].

Here I agree with Virgil Aldrich:  “A man as a language-using animal lives, moves and has his being distinctively in illocutionary space, with nothing metaphorical about it.”  Aldrich notes that what he means by ‘illocutionary space’ (in its literal sense) has already been spelled out by Wittgenstein and especially Austin.  Of course, Aldrich knew that he was running against the grain here because of our tendency to think that real space is exclusively physical space.  He notes that:

Even Kant thought something like that–and got into a frightful cramp over it as a moral philosopher.  It made moral talk look like an unintelligible metaphor.  His aim was to give an adequate account of a man in moral action.  A moral agent moves freely and surely this “doing” presupposes room for it, “room” in some literal sense.  Kant mentioned the “causality of freedom.”  He had use also (implicitly) for the notion of the “space of freedom.”  Indeed, to be free is to have the sort of room that one takes action in–not just physical space to move in as a physical object.[2]

The Liturgy takes place in the space in which holy actions can be performed.  It needs room that such actions can take place in, and in which the relevant agents can act–and not just as physical objects moving in a physical space.  When I was converting to Orthodoxy, my good friend who had long been Orthodox told me to take off my watch when I entered the church, because I was no longer in the time my watch told, profane time; I was entering sacred time:  likewise,  when we enter the church, we also change from one space to another, from profane into sacred space. When I enter sacred space, a space structured by icons (as is commonly the case in Orthodox churches), eternity moves next door, as it were, the bodiless powers, the Intelligences and the First Cause, are my neighbors.  The saints in the icons are far closer to us than the trees we see through the window.  We can think of this as implicated in the peculiar perspective of most icons.  Instead of perspective running away from us and converging in the pictorial distance, as happens familiarly in paintings, when before an icons, I stand at that point and face a perspective that is running away from me, a space that opens up.  In effect, the perspective of the icon makes it the case that I am in a sense the one that is being represented, contemplated, considered.  The result should be humility.  I stand in this space to be judged–among other things–but not to judge.  The perspective is the perspective of the icon, not mine.  The space is the space of the icon, not mine–at least not in a proprietary sense.  We might say that sacred space, the space in which we can speak the Liturgy and thus do it and not just parrot its words, is a space that reverses our normal perspective on things.  We speak the words of the Liturgy, do the Liturgy in that reverse-perspectival space, that holy illocutionary space.

The larger point here is that there are illocutionary acts that are only felicitous in a certain space, that need a certain kind of room.  Not just any illocutionary act can be performed just anywhere.  (Just as not just anything can be said to just anyone at just anytime:  St. Athanasius reminds of us this when he points out in The Incarnation of the Word that you cannot put straight in someone else what is crooked in yourself.) Obviously, this is a big claim and I have done little put illustrate it–and that only sketchily.  But let me try to head off one misunderstanding.  I have ‘located’ sacred space inside the church, as if it is separated from secular space by windows and doors.  (“The doors, the doors!”)  That is not right, ultimately.  I may first discover–typically, I will first discover–sacred space in the church.  But what I ought also to discover is that what I previously took to be secular space is in fact a distinct region of sacred space:  not one in which the Liturgy can be done, but still one broadly of the sort in which the Liturgy is done.  So what I took to be the difference between sacred and secular space is better taken to be the difference between holy Liturgical space and holy non-Liturgical space (think of the first as more complicatedly ‘structured’ (i.e., as having different, and more complicated, felicity-conditions than the latter).  We live and move and have our being as Christians in a reverse-perspectival space, a space that we take everywhere to open out on eternity.

The Liturgy is a wordy deed, composed of wordy deeds. The Liturgy is work. The Liturgy is done—and we do it.  We have been given this work to do. It is the work of our hands, but we do it according to divine plan. What we offer up, we offer back. We bring nothing of our own, despite the fact that we bring ourselves, for we are not our own.  Recognizing this is not easy, since to recognize that we are not our own is not simply to accept a certain bit of information about ourselves, but to inculcate a way of being:  it is to be humble in a particular way about ourselves, it is to understand and to act in the light of the understanding that we are, and will remain, mysteries to ourselves.  It is to not merely know but to acknowledge being a creature, a created being.  The Liturgy teaches us in a way that changes us.  Our assent to the fact that we are not our own has to work to become ‘real’ and not merely ‘notional’ (in Newman’s terms).  What we do during the Liturgy helps to work this change.

With Love and Fear

During the Liturgy, we stand in fear and we stand in love–in some fusion of the two.

How is that possible?  Fear and love seem incompatible, one a strong inclination fromwards, the other a strong inclination towards. How can these be fused without confusion? One seems undesirable, the other desirable.  Again, how can these be fused without confusion?

A preliminary:  scripture tells us that fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.  But of course ‘beginning’ here cannot mean just something that happens early on and then ceases, as if the wise person began by fearing the Lord but later lost that fear, perhaps having it replaced by something else; perhaps by love.  But that is not what ‘beginning’ means here.  Its meaning is closer to the meaning of the Greek word, ‘arche’.  The fear that is the beginning of wisdom is not just something present at the start, but is something that remains throughout, in the form of the controlling initiative, even as the inner form of that wisdom.  At no time does someone wise not fear the Lord. But at no time does someone who properly fears the Lord not love the Lord.  (The demons in St. James’ Epistle believe and tremble–but they do not fear properly.  Their fear is not proper, not wise fear.  After all, they tremble, then–nothing. They believe without works, and so believe in only an attenuated sense–and so fear in only an inappropriate sense.)

If we are wise, we fear God as a creature, created from nothing, fears its Creator, the plenitude of being.  The fear is the recognition of the distance between creature and Creator.  Love closes the distance without eliminating it.

Fear of the Lord interpenetrates love of the Lord.  If I love the Lord, then I fear Him. If I fear Him, then I love Him. If I claim to do one but not the other, I am confused.  A God I love but do not fear is not the God of Abraham and Jacob and Isaac.  A God I fear but do not love is not the God of Matthew and Mark and Luke and John.  But this still makes it seem as if fear and love could cohabitate the heart of the believer, but in separate chambers.  That is not right.  They need, as it were, to become one flesh:  to marry, not just to live together.  But, again, what does that mean?

Consider the thought that fear is undesirable.  Of course, there is a point beyond which fear becomes, to use H. H. Price’s phrase, ‘catastrophic’.  Such catastrophic fear paralyzes.  But, when short of catastrophic, fear can be desirable.  To be free of fear, as Lord Nelson was said to be, is to lack something crucial.  Such a lack is properly to be pitied.  Such a person would live a life free of thrills, a life in which adventures might be had but could not be lived through as adventures.  No adventure the great in this life–only insipidity all around.  So fear, like love, can be desired.  There is no reason to think …

But how can fear and love fuse?  Augustine sheds light here with his description of the Uncreated Light:

What is the light which shines right through me and strikes my heart without hurting?  It fills me with terror and burning love:  with terror inasmuch as I am utterly other than it, with burning love in that I am akin to it.

Augustine makes clear it is our status as creatures of God but creatures made in his image that allows fear and love to fuse.  We are creatures God made in his image–such are the creatures we are.  We are infinitely far from God; He is more intimate to us than we are to ourselves.  But we are where we are and we are what we are:  we are not in two places (one far from God, one near); we are not two things (a creature and an image of God).  Just as we can be near God and far from God while in one place, and just as we can be a creature and an image of God while one thing, we can love and fear God without confusion, feeling, as it were, one thing and not two.

The ‘Sacrament’ of Attention

Ultimately, the Liturgy demands our attention.  But it is easy to misunderstand this, despite the fact that the celebrant calls us to attention repeatedly during the liturgy.  We misunderstand because we have a mistaken conception of the attention being called upon.  Simone Weil notes this confusion:

Most often attention is confused with a kind of muscular effort.  If one says to one’s pupils:  “Now you must pay attention,” one sees them contracting their brows, holding their breath, stiffening their muscles.  If after two minutes they are asked what they have been paying attention to, the cannot reply.  They have been concentrating on nothing.  They have not been paying attention.  They have been contracting their muscles.

She then continues with a description of the attention that is being called upon:

Attention consists of suspending our thought, leaving it detached, empty, and ready to be penetrated by the object; it means holding in our minds, within reach of this thought, but on a lower level and not in contact with it, the diverse knowledge we have acquired which we are forced to make use of… Above all our thought should be empty, waiting, not seeking anything but ready to receive in its naked truth the object that is to penetrate it.

Weil’s point is that we cannot obtain the most precious gifts–for example, the gifts of the Liturgy–by searching for them actively.  We must wait for them passively, in a state of profoundest attention.  If we search for them actively, our effort itself becomes or creates a doppelganger of the precious gift, and the very intimacy of the doppelganger with us, its being a form or product of our own activity, makes it nearly impossible, if not impossible, to discover.  I am always best at deceiving myself.  It is the counterfeit bills of which I am the printer that I am most likely to take as legal tender.

If we step back from Weil’s way of putting all this, we can, I believe, see that she seems to be right about the logical behavior of the concept of ‘attending’.  “Attending is not a form of searching; it is like looking at or listening to rather than looking for or listening for.”  And, while attending can be done for a particular purpose, it need not be done on purpose.  We can just attend to something–or attend to it for pleasure or because we cannot tear our attention away.  Attending is something that we can decide or resolve or promise to or refuse to do, and it is something we can be blamed for not doing.  We can be trained or train ourselves to attend, as we can be trained or train ourselves to acquire any habit.

But one worry we might have about Weil’s way of putting this is that ‘attending’ seems to be an activity-concept–whereas Weil seems to deny that it is an activity-concept.

But this worry is not serious.  Weil does deny that attention is a kind of muscular effort, but that is not to say that the concept of ‘attention’ is not an activity-concept.  Weil does also say that attention consists of suspending our thought, leaving it empty and receptive.  But Weil is talking about suspending and holding–and the concepts of these are activity-concepts, even if they are, as we might put it, ‘nullifying’ activity-concepts, not ‘positive’ activity-concepts.  Not much rests on these terms.  The main point is that the ‘nullifying’ actions are such that when we perform them, specifiable might-have-been events do not occur or specificable might-have-been states of affairs do not obtain.[3]   …



The Liturgy aims to remake us.

[1] Aldrich

[2] Aldrich, p. 27

[3] Ryle, Negative Actions…

Paul Ziff on Writing Philosophy

Paul was intensely concerned with the problem of how one should write philosophy. I recall comments on the careless and inattentive reading habits of philosophers. Wondering how long he held that opinion, I peruse his preface to Semantic Analysis (1960), and find: “It seems to me that nowadays hardly anyone pays any attention to what a man says, only to what one thinks he means.”

Paul’s papers eventually became experiments in writing, designed to hold his readers to a higher standard of attentiveness. He all but ignored the conventional rules of punctuation. Apart from the colon and period, there was little else. It was risky, of course. The outcome might be a defeat of his intentions, or approximate his intentions but find uncomprehending readers, in both cases risking ridicule. It might, also, exemplify philosophy communicating itself more effectively, in a fusion of form and content releasing new energy for the difficult task of reading.  –Robert Vorsteg

Paying Visits

I have been paying visits on this trip–and talking.  I started at home, at my brother’s place, high and lonesome in the southern Ohio hills.  We played music together–he is a gifted singer and bassist.  We listened to tons of music, from The Johnson Mountain Boys to Frightened Rabbit.  We worked out old Greg Sage songs and old Connells songs.  My dad and mom joined us on Kent’s deck, and we sang bluegrass songs and enjoyed the view.


I stopped in Paducah to visit Shane Ward and Carly Lane.  Carly is one of my favorite writers, and Shane, her husband, is an artist, a sculptor.  We ate pizza and talked about writing, growing up, about intellectual life both inside and outside the academy, and about the strangenesses of academic philosophy.  We also ended up talking a lot about arguments for forms of color relativism, about objectivism, and about blue, a most shady color.

I left for Iowa City, where I visited my son, who just finished his second year (of three) in Iowa’s MFA program in Theater acting.  He and his girlfriend, Natalie, and I spent a lot of time talking, much of it about teaching, and much of it about what is makes sense to expect from students in a core philosophy or acting class.  I think we more or less agreed that about all you can hope for is to convince students that there is a real body of knowledge where philosophy and acting are concerned, and that they are mostly ignorant of that body of knowledge.  But that kind of instructed ignorance is profitable, and can feed later growth.


From there, I headed to Bozeman, Montana, where I spent a few days with my good friend and former student, David Dyas and his wife, Katie.  They live in an amazing spot, at the feet of the Bridger Mountains, in such proximity to them that I felt in supplication to the mountains for the entirety of my visit.  I got to hear several wonderful new songs Dave has written. I heard a lot of other new music, or music new to me.  We spent a lot of time talking about philosophy and public life, about religion and the shape of faith, and about the alarming willingness of chickens to cannibalize each other.  I spent a fascinating day with Dave and his father-in-law, Dan, in Yellowstone, where we talked of the fate of religious movements, bible translation and varieties of proverbial wisdom. Oh, and we watched Old Faithful do its faithful thing.


I went on to Taos, where I got back to work on a novel I am tinkering with.  I also got to spend a memorable morning with Bill Mallonee and his wife, Muriah.  We talked of the relationship between science and knowledge–not coextensive–and about religion and ‘worldly wisdom’.  I got to hear more about Muriah’s history, and about the specific circumstances (including guitar tunings) of the recording of The Vigilantes of Love’s *Jugular*.


I am now in Santa Fe.  My wife will join me here for a few days and I will be a regular tourist.  I am looking forward to that.  There are limits proscribed to self-inspection.

All along the way, I have been listening to Jane Austen.  I re-read all her novels at the beginning of each summer.  This year, because of the trip, I have listened to them rather than read them.  I expect to finish up on the final leg of driving back to Alabama.  I supplemented what I was listening to by re-reading Stuart Tave’s *Some Words of Jane Austen*, a book for which my respect knows no bounds.

stuart tave2

At a coffee shop in Taos, a woman noticed me reading Tave’s book and remarked pleasantly, “You don’t look like the right person to be reading that book.”

(When I interviewed for my job at Auburn, one of the faculty members looked at me disappointedly and pronounced:  “You do not look like a Plotinian scholar ought to look.”  I suppose I look like an elevator repairman ought to look–that is, like the stereotype of an elevator repairman.)


It turned out that what she meant was that I was a big, bearded man, and wearing an Auburn baseball cap.  Her husband, she confided to me, is an Austen fan, at least of the movies, but is always chagrined by the ratio of women to men at the screenings.  I don’t know what to say about that, but I will say that I find the (undoubtedly related) idea that achievement of Austen’s women is a woman’s achievement odd.  Surely, the specific shape of that achievement in each of the novels is due to the central character being a woman–and a woman in that particular place at that particular time–but what each achieves is broadly human, deeply human, and completely compelling.  –Oh, I would be more like Anne Elliot if only I could!


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