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

Half Rumination, Half Scrutiny (Mervyn Peake)

The long-sounding final paragraph of MP’s The Craft of the Lead Pencil:

What does it matter how long or slow you are in the traffic of lead and paper?  The advance from virtual blindness to that state of perception–half rumination, half scrutiny–is all that matters.  The end is hypothetical.  It is the journey that counts.

We could say this of writing too, and philosophy, and of thoughtful living generally. 

With an ‘L’ on his Forehead…

There are more values available for response in human life than anyone can possibly be responsible to.

I think of this as the Not World Enough and Time Problem:  we are all missing out on things that are objectively such as not to be missed.  That is the human predicament.

I am strongly tempted to think that a lure to relativism, and to psychologizing the values of others, is our desire to deny the Problem:  we are never missing out; we just made different decisions, believed or desired different things, than so-and-so did.  We aren’t missing out and neither is he, neither is she.  But we know–and we do know–that in many cases we are missing out and that we will have to miss out.  It may not be our fault, but it is always our loss.

Gone

Reading Annie Dillard on a picnic table.  Tiny ants trudge around in myopic busyness.  One ambitious climber clambers up and onto the open pages of the book.  I fail to observe him and so crush him with my hand.  He dies slowly over minutes, seconds, aeons.  I watch him die:  it is the only gift I can give him.  His filament legs stop moving and he goes still.  Goes. Gone.  A universe of death packed into his inarticulate articulated body.  Goes.  Gone.  I look up at the patchy blue sky.  It seems to ripple above the water of the lake.  It envies the lake’s shores, the lake’s shapeliness.  A form of meaning.  The horizon is an obstruction, not a limit.  Gone.  I begin again to read, now careful where I put my hands.

Receptions End

Receptions End

A daughter is a treasure
That keeps her father wakeful

Gather the Bud Lite bottles
Dump the undrunk champagne
Lavender table cloths shake and refold
Abandoned bouquets water and take home

The tent lights the night
Fans blow back the August heat

Revelry done, collect unopened gifts

Stray flowers decorate the ground
As if they would re-root
But life goes on
And life goes on
Sweet-sour sweet

Done is done

Drink what wine you may
With the rest honor the mysteries

Put the trash in the dumpster
On Debardeleben St.

Treasureless, go home to sleep

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