Brazil Questions: Thoreau

 

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I am heading to Brazil to talk about Thoreau at a bi-centennial conference. I was sent a set of questions to answer for a pre-conference publication.*  Here are the answers. I haven’t included the questions, but they are easy enough to reverse engineer.

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Question 1: Wittgenstein and Thoreau.

I have long been most fascinated, most challenged and changed, by philosophers who combine analytical rigor with existential pathos. I strategize that bringing Wittgenstein and Thoreau together makes more visible the existential pathos of the one, Wittgenstein, and the analytical rigor of the other, Thoreau. So you could say that my strategy is to use each to insist on the completeness of the other, and so to offset the tendency to find only analytical rigor in Wittgenstein (if even that) or existential pathos in Thoreau (if even that).

Each writes in a way that creates a desire to refuse him: Wittgenstein constantly targets what Dewey once called the “occupational psychoses” of philosophers (meaning, by ‘psychoses’, not so much psychological disturbances as a pronounced characters of the mind). By doing so, Wittgenstein courts philosophers’ ire–self-knowledge is almost always unflattering, and philosophers (and I include myself) all too often placidly think that their character of mind only promotes the search for truth and does not, could not, hinder it. Philosophers yield that placidity grudgingly. Even worse, Wittgenstein often targets the occupational psychoses by satirizing them, sometimes harshly. And he problematizes the lexicon of philosophy, he takes favorite words and checkers them, creates pangs of worried conscience where before there had apparently been only clear consciousness–’theory’, ‘essence’, definition’. Thoreau constantly targets our existential psychoses, numbers them among our failures of economy. He too courts ire–the citizens of Concord (and they of course stand in for all of us, myself included) are in no hurry to surrender their complacency. They are living good lives, drawing close to the good life itself, and to be told that they are rather living in despair–even a quiet despair–is a dysangel, bad news. The citizens find such news unwelcome, and they surrender their complacency grumbling and grousing. Even worse, he satirizes their lives, makes fun of their clothes, their houses, their very civilization, and his satire is often harsh. He steals off with their favorite words, ‘economy’, ‘law’, ‘neighbor’, ‘living’, and he drags them into the woods and re-natures them, so that they become unfamiliar, unwieldy, partly wild. –Given all this, bringing the two together also helps to highlight the purpose of each, helps to show what each is about, that each is writing “to the glory of God and that his neighbor might be benefitted thereby”. But each reckons that his chosen audience is illusioned, and each knows that the illusions present themselves as rational, prudent, proper. To argue with the illusions, or only to argue with the illusions, drives their anchors deeper, since argument seems to sanction their claimed status as rational, prudent, proper–at least in a generic way. So each man attacks the illusions in other ways, with redescriptions, jokes, satires, rotations of the axes of investigation, shifts of aspect, –across many varieties of lusty crowing, hoping to wake their neighbors up, to disillusion them.

Thoreau emphasizes the necessaries of life, and he rolls them together into “retaining the vital heat”. I have always found that a happy way of presenting what is required for human life, and it seems to me to center Walden well. The question Thoreau asks his reader is nothing more than–and nothing less than–”How do you keep warm, stay vital?” That question has a way of getting at you, since it will not allow you to escape into luxuries of self-justification. However high-mindedly we may spend our days, we are still attempting to do what those who spend their days less high-mindedly are doing: we are keeping warm, we are all keeping warm. Thoreau will not let us forget that. We are all always answering his question, even if we do not want to and even if we tell ourselves we somehow are not. If we do not answer in words, we answer in deeds. Of course, we are most of us doing more than just keeping warm, but that does not mean that we ever stop keeping warm. It is easy to think we do when we do not build our houses, raise our own food, sew our own clothes. We lose track of the necessaries of life, and thus lose track of who and what we ultimately are, believing we can substitute second nature for first nature, to choose or create our own very standing in the world. Forcing us to acknowledge our need to keep warm, the inescapability of that task and the way it equalizes us all, brings our contingency and vulnerability into view, keeps it always before us. I take Thoreau to believe that we live in a motivated forgetfulness of our nature, and that our tendencies to focus on what is unnecessary are both result and cause of that forgetfulness. By going to the woods, Thoreau becomes a living reminder of what we forget. He becomes an externalized conscience–to put it paradoxically–calling each of us back to what we (all) are.

I read both Wittgenstein and Thoreau as first philosophical anthropologists, whatever else they may be, and I take each to be deeply concerned to elucidate the original living context of human life, and to work to rebuild our confidence in everyday human experience, to get us to see that the various uncertainties that attend to everyday human experience are no reason for a blanket mistrust of it. It is what we have: we must make as much of it as possible. Each man wrote a book that endeavors to bring its reader to independence of thought and independence of vision–an independence secured by trusting in everyday human experience and by making as much of it as possible. Properly husbanded, the grey rags and dust of everyday experience contain surprises, and may be shown to hide what, once seen, is most striking and powerful.

Question: Emerson and Thoreau and Eastern Religions

There is more to say about Emerson and Thoreau’s bows to the East than I can say here. But let me at least address what I take to be a framing consideration. As is well known, both men wanted America to realize itself–and to do so in a significant independence from Europe. Both feared that the Old World would have the last word for the New World. Now, I do not think either was naive enough to believe that the Old World would not get the first word in the New World. Their worry was about the hegemony of that Old World’s first word. Both knew that much of what the Old World offered had denatured into empty forms (I think here of Emerson’s sermon on the Eucharist, for example). But neither thought that what the Old World offered was fated to be mere dead forms: it might be possible to reanimate it. But that reanimation was not any simple process. And here the East became important. Think about a famous passage of Wittgenstein’s, the one about The Fall of philosophers (Philosophical Investigations 131):

For we can avoid ineptness or emptiness in our assertions only by presenting the model as what it is, as an object of comparison–as, so to speak, a measuring-rod; not as a preconceived idea to which reality must correspond. (The dogmatism into which we fall so easily in doing philosophy.)

For Emerson and Thoreau, what the Old World was offering had become, in its way, inept, empty. It was presented, or it presented itself, as that to which reality must correspond. It had become merely dogma. If it was to undergo a second birth, it had to re-presented, it had to become an object of comparison, a model, so that life could re-inhabit it.

Now, I don’t want to be misunderstood. I do not mean to say that either man wanted the Old World’s first word to end up, reborn, as the New World’s last word–that this was a strategy to reinvigorate Christianity–but I do think they wanted to challenge the dogmatism of dead forms, and to see what might be brought to live again. In a way, their goal was something like Kierkegaard’s–we cannot see Christianity for what it is unless we can see alternatives, other models, other objects of comparison. When Christianity becomes thoroughly acculturated, it no longer knows itself. (Christianity–indeed, religion–is always grammatically a way of seeing the world. When it becomes the way of seeing the world, it can no longer be distinguished from the world, and so is no longer Christianity–no longer religion.) But unlike Kierkegaard, neither Emerson nor Thoreau was hoping to re-make people Christian–but neither was hoping to make people followers of some Eastern religion. No, what both wanted was for people to see past the forms of religion, Western or Eastern, and to see the teeming life of the New World to which those forms often blinded them–to see the New World as New full stop (and not as New York or New England), to see one another as new men and women, to see the new trees and the flowers. In short, to allow the New World to feed their imaginations instead of allowing the Old World to imagine the New. (America is not the new Israel, a land of 2% milk and organic honey, and imagining it to be so is part of what makes it, keeps it, unapproachable.) When I consider Emerson and Thoreau’s use of Eastern religion, a passage of John Wisdom comes to mind (a final paragraph of one of the essays in Philosophy and Psychoanalysis):

As we all know but won’t remember, any classificatory system is a net spread on the blessed manifold of the individual and blinding us not to all but to many of its varieties and continuities. A new system will do the same but not in just the same ways. So that in accepting all the systems their blinding power is broken, their revealing power becomes acceptable; the individual is restored to us, not isolated as before we used language, not in a box as when language mastered us, but in ‘creation’s chorus’.

I find it hard to think of a more Emersonian or Thoreauvian passage than that, allowing for the differences of philosophical styles. Emerson and Thoreau wanted to hear creation’s chorus in the New World, not just some echo of a bare, ruined choir of Europe. The East was to help us remember what we all know but won’t remember. The East was to remind us that the West is just the West.

Question: Thoreau’s Education

One of the underappreciated themes of Walden is its sense of the power of remembered or acknowledged ignorance. Call it Walden’s Socratic theme. Early in the book, Thoreau asks (of himself and his neighbors): “How can he remember well his ignorance–which his growth requires–who has so often to use his knowledge?” It is easy to miss or to elide that little parenthetical–”which his growth requires”. Remembered ignorance is the fertile soil of personal growth. Socrates knew this, and it is a shame, I think, that we manage so often to miss it when we talk of Socratic ignorance. For Socrates, remembered or acknowledged ignorance is a source of power, not of weakness. So too for Thoreau. Remembering or acknowledging our ignorance marks out our limits, opens us to our finitude. Realizing that we don’t have the answer allows us to experience the question, to be put in question, and the question, thus experienced, spurs growth. We can’t outgrow our finitude, of course, but we can enlarge ourselves, reckon with our finitude, be more its master and less its thrall–and, at any rate, there is a difference in kind between submitting to our finitude and living in subjection to it.

I mention this theme, and Thoreau’s line about ignorance, because they tell us a great deal about Thoreau’s relationship to his education. We cannot ignore his education for a moment; I do not think that he did. But it is true that his relationship to his education was complicated. Perhaps the most important part of that complicated relationship was Thoreau’s abhorrence for an education as ornament, as something possessed but external, like a watch or a waistcoat. The only education he took to be worth having was one so deeply assimilated that it became indistinguishable from the expression of the educated person’s inner life. By that standard, much that we are taught is not worth having, not worth having learnt. Here, Thoreau’s thinking crosses paths with Gabriel Marcel’s, and in particular with Marcel’s distinction between being and having. Much of Walden is engaged with that distinction, albeit in Thoreau’s own terms. Thoreau is always asking what we can shed, part with, surrender: the things we have and that we could live without. The question about our education is whether it can become part of what we are, digested into our very being, or whether it is to remain something we have, indigestible. Odd as it may sound, I believe that Thoreau rates an education that is assimilated, digested, that becomes part of what we are, as itself something that helps to maintains our vital heat–it is a necessary of life. If we reflect carefully on Thoreau’s life at the cabin, we will see that it was a life of reading and writing and that its being so was internal to the deliberate life he went there to live.

Question: Cavell

This is a hard question to answer. Cavell’s work has certainly brought people to Thoreau, and gotten them to take Thoreau seriously as a philosopher–but I do not know that Cavell’s work has established Thoreau in analytic philosophy. I think most academic philosophers regard interest in Thoreau as, at best, a ‘soft’ interest, comparable to interest in applied ethics or the history of philosophy. Maybe they would think it ‘Continental’ if it weren’t for the embarrassing wrong continent thing. Anyway, as wonderful as Cavell’s work is–and it has been of the first importance to me–his own bona fides as a philosopher are often challenged in academic philosophy, if not dismissed. All hands concede his brilliance–but many have little patience for his work. So, Cavell’s own position in academic philosophy is not such as to garner Thoreau a reception; Cavell himself has never wholly been received into academic philosophy.

I guess that means that there is more work to do where Thoreau is concerned. But I am lukewarm about the prospect of that work. I do not know if it matters very much whether Thoreau is received into academic philosophy. He was clearly less than sanguine about professors of philosophy. “Honorable to profess because it was once honorable to live…”–that is not a compliment, unless you count left-handed compliments as actual compliments. It is really a rather severe asteism. I don’t think Thoreau himself would have been too worried about where the readers of Walden are housed, in the academy or out of it. He would have cared how they were housed–and why they were so housed.

I used to worry about this sort of thing, and used to worry about why so many of the philosophers I care about are so deliberately and purposefully shunted aside by academic philosophy. The answer is complicated–but one part of it is what academic philosophers know how to teach and what they don’t. They do not know how to teach Thoreau. You simply cannot teach a page of Thoreau in the same way that you can a page of Frege or a page of David Lewis. Teaching it requires a set of habits most philosophers do not cultivate–particular habits of reading and novel habits of tracking conceptual accuracy (especially when that accuracy is achieved by means other than formalizable argumentation). Should philosophers cultivate those habits? Well, some do and that is good; I hope that continues, and I try to teach students to cultivate them. But no one can cultivate every habit that might be useful in teaching a page of a worthwhile text. I hope Walden continues to find readers and I trust that it will. I trust some of them will be somewhere in the academy, sometimes even in philosophy, and that now and then the book will find its way onto a syllabus or at least that now and then copies will get pressed into the eager hands of poor students.

Question: Nietzsche and Thoreau, Conceptually Relevant Parallels

Both Thoreau and Nietzsche are philosophers of the morning. Both want their readers to awaken. Both take their readers to be worse off than their readers know. For each, an inflection of the concept of ‘repetition’ is central. But they part company, it seems to me, in a way that can be captured by reference to a passage from Emerson, that passage about “sitting at the feet of the familiar, the low”. Emerson is willing to surrender the past and future worlds for the tutelage of the commonplace, to surrender the great, the remote, the romantic. There are of course moments like this in Nietzsche, but I do not think that he is willing as Emerson is willing–certainly he is not as willing as Emerson is willing–to accept the tutelage of the familiar and the low. Thoreau is. In fact, Thoreau is willing to submit himself to that tutelage to a degree that even Emerson did not equal. This difference makes itself felt in the specific way that Thoreau and Nietzsche are philosophers of the morning. Thoreau is always thinking about tomorrow, the next day of the week, a Monday or a Tuesday or…. Nietzsche is always thinking about the end of an age, the end of some abstract noun with a majuscule first letter, Morality, Christianity, Philosophy, Truth. Thoreau worries about the workaday, about our work week. Nietzsche worries about the Eternal. Nietzsche strides abroad in seven-league boots. Thoreau saunters in cowhide boots, boots that cost him a dollar and a half a pair. This may make it sound that I think less of Nietzsche than I do of Thoreau, and that is true. But I think very highly indeed of Nietzsche, so it tells you more, perhaps, about how I rank Thoreau.

There are many passages in Nietzsche I can imagine Thoreau enjoying, but I cannot imagine him writing them. Take, for example, “How the ‘True World’ Finally Became a Fable”. I can easily imagine Thoreau chuckling over that, and finding justice in it. But wouldn’t he also have found it a bit much? Overheated? Thoreau may intend to, and may succeed at, crowing as lustily as Chanticleer, but Thoreau’s crowing has no ambition to be “the cockcrow of positivism”. Incipit Monday, not Zarathustra.

Take none of this to suggest that I think that studying Thoreau in conjunction with Nietzsche a bad idea (or vice versa). They are both Emersonian–but in different ways, taking different things from him, both acting in his spirit while acting differently. (Some proof, I suppose, that Emerson was no slave to a foolish consistency.) Nietzsche occasionally sneaks a look down, at the commonplace, just as Thoreau does a look up, at the Eternal, but their orientations in thought remain quite different.

Thoreau writes to an audience of poor students, not collectively, but rather distributively, in a way that individualizes them, that speaks to their individual, shaky hearts and consciences. Even Thoreau’s crowing carries a sense of privacy, as if he crowed just for me or just for you. Nietzsche writes to everyone and no one, massively, in a language of plate tectonics, of ponderous, vast, lithospherical movements, spoken by mysterious subterranean forces, spoken to the blue sky above.

Question: Walden in Trump’s America

There’s an idea of which I have long been convinced, namely that the more conscience we have, the more consciousness we have. Walden is written to the individual conscience (there is no non-individual conscience, conscience always has one individual owner). President Trump, so far as I can tell, does not just lack a conscience, conscience itself is his aversion. (Who is Trump to tell Trump what he may and may not do?) And an important reason for that is that he does not himself seem to want to be more conscious, and he certainly does not want others to be more conscious. He would entrap us all in a dubious twilight–a twilight in which we reconcile ourselves to our limitations of conscience and consciousness by dallying with stuff: cell phones, flat screen televisions, clothes and cars. Satiety replaces clarity. Orange is the new stupid.

Thoreau would force us from that dubious twilight, into the white light of the sun. He would turn us from our relationships toward stuff and to our relationship toward ourselves. I don’t know that Thoreau would think the most crucial lines of resistance to Trump are to be drawn between groups on the streets of Washington or of…Anywhere, USA. I don’t know that he would think the most crucial lines of resistance are to be drawn between any us and them. The most crucial line of resistance must divide my own heart: I must set my face against the Trump in myself, against the glacial, self-diddling sloth that threatens eventually to consume me. If I pretend that I have no Trump in myself, I strengthen both that Trump and the one in the White House. My guess at Thoreau’s advice to us in Trump’s America (even, dare I say it, in Trump’s world)? —Disobey yourself! Not in the sense, of course, of slighting conscience, but in the sense of acquiring an effectual self-command, enough of fortitude and temperance to actually do what prudence and justice reveal to be right. If we can’t say No to ourselves how can we say No to Trump?

Question: Thoreau’s Poetry

My impression is that Thoreau’s poetry is not much read. If that is right, it is too bad; the poetry is quite good. But it is true that Thoreau’s best poetry is in Walden itself, in those passages in the book that–looked at from the right angle–clearly anticipate some of the best poetry of Francis Ponge (consider, for example, Ponge’s “The Frog”). It is those passages, somewhat more than the acknowledged, less prosing poetry, that have influenced my own poetry most–along with Thoreau’s various observations on writing, most importantly his observations on writing and seeing, on seeing as a writer and writing as a seer.

I shrink from comparing my poetry to Thoreau’s, but I will briefly compare it with his. Like Thoreau, I am concerned with place, with the sense of place. I am happy to write poetry that concerns itself with the abstract. And, more importantly, I am endlessly fascinated by paths, trails, creeks, rivers, ponds, trees and barns. I believe they have meaning in themselves and that they can withstand the gaze sub specie aeterni–because that gaze, rightly practiced, does not see through things but sees them, in all their imponderable hic-et-nunc-ness. That great reader of Thoreau, Henry Bugbee (Inward Morning) writes:

Only as things are dense and opaque do they stand forth in the light of eternity, and take the light. To take that which exists as existing, and not as a symbol for something else; to find something to which one gives full heed, and not merely to push right through it in search of a beyond, or to have from it only a message at once directing the mind away from it and onto other things; such is the experience of things as eternal, in the making. To experience things in their density is to experience containment in reality. But the agile mind and the distraught soul militate against true perception; for true perception requires stillness in the presence of things, the active, open reception of the limitless gift of things.

To experience things in their density as they take the light of eternity: there’s an aim for a Thoreauvian poet. And like all expressions of high-mindedness, it is profoundly humbling–for I have never gotten close to doing it, despite bending myself and my words that way again and again.

Question: Snowden

I often think about that passage in “Economy” in which Thoreau talks of the slave trade. That passage can be read as if Thoreau fails to condemn slavery as he ought. But that is not the right way to read it. His point is that slavery exists in many forms, Southern, surely–a form he terms ‘gross but somewhat foreign’–but also Northern, less gross but more native. And, worst of all, that form of enslavement to self that is the lot of most of us, self-enslavement. Thoreau is not trying to rank these slaveries as social ills, in terms of their consequences, but rather as moral evils, in terms of their structures. The southern form, which, remember, we know Thoreau detested, is in this context treated as less worse than the other two only because there is no blameworthiness as such that falls on the slaves themselves. Each of the other two requires, to differing degrees and in different ways, that the slave be blameworthy for his status as slave. He could make other choices. He could live in other ways. And he I would, he might also help to end the enforced slavery of those in the South, to which his voluntary slavery contributes. Thoreau writes in his essay on John Brown that

Our foes are in our midst and all about us. There is hardly a house but is divided against itself, for our foe is the all but universal woodenness of both head and heart, the want of vitality in man, which is the effect of our vice; and hence are begotten fear, superstition, bigotry, persecution, and slavery of all kinds. We are mere figure-heads upon a hulk, with livers in the place of hearts. The curse is the worship of idols, which at length changes the worshipper into a stone image himself…

When I think about people like Edward Snowden–who I do not know and of whose character I am uninformed–I wonder about our reaction to them. Is Snowden a hero of civil disobedience? I see no reason to deny it. Snowden, hurrah! –But what do we learn from him? Does he increase our desire to root the foes out of our own breasts–the woodenness of our hearts, our lack of vital heat. Or do we want to turn on others, as if their breasts were wooden but our fleshly? Do we ask what it is about ourselves that has made us willing to live in the Five Eyes Panopticon? Why tolerate constant surveillance? What are we getting in trade? Can we live the lives we currently want without making ourselves liable to global surveillance? I find it hard to believe we are not more worried about these questions. But we are not, are we?

Instead we cluck-cluck at Five Eyes and wish away the Panopticon, all the while living the life of Panopticism. We want instant access to everything, without remembering that we number among the everything. (What we really want is to see everything without being seen, like the eye that limits the visual field in the Tractatus.) We worship idols that petrify us. We want our vices for free. We will to live lives of what Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn called “muzzled freedom” just so that we can have the stuff we want. Snowden should remind us of that fact. And then, after we have come to some just settlement with ourselves, perhaps we can seek a just settlement with Five Eyes without docilely handing over the very thing that we keep loudly protesting that we will never yield.

Question: Work on Thoreau

I do not keep up with scholarly work on Thoreau in any disciplined way. Ed Mooney’s recent work means a lot to me. But the work that matters most is work that is older, and not, as such, Thoreau scholarship: Henry Bugbee’s Inward Morning and his essays, John M. Anderson’s The Individual and the New World and David Norton’s Personal Destinies. What matters most about Walden is where you go from it. Thoreau himself did not stay.

*The interview was conducted by Eduardo Vincentini de Medeiros.  My thanks to him.

Buckner’s Surrounded (Album Review)

Buckner has perfected a shaken rosebush sound–all at once moving, woody, thorny, and petaled in difficult beauty.  His album, Surrounded, attests to his remarkable virtues as a singer-songwriter.  But his virtues are not easy to appreciate; he offers no ease of access to them. The melodies of the songs on the album are lovely, but they exist more as traceries than as simple single lines, they are densely structured and closely knit–there are few big, dramatic chord changes, few reaches for the immediate, call it the hummable.  You might deem the melodies ruminative–but that should not suggest the bucolic or the pastoral:  they are fiercely ruminative, the rumination determined not to spare the ruminator or the ruminated topic or the listener–intense, brooding ruminations.

 

Perhaps the best way to understand the difficulty of Buckner is to consider the writing process that produced the songs on the album.  The nine songs are built from the text of five prose vignettes.  (The album liner supplies these.)  The vignettes are numbered, and their text looks a little like the text of old New Testaments–some of the words are in black, the words that become lyrics of the songs, and other are in read, the words that are part of the vignettes but not themselves lyrics of the songs.  There are also words in green bold face, the words that serve as the titles of the songs.  So each song is a complicated distillation of a vignette or of some portion of a vignette.  For illustration, the opening section of the first vignette is:

[Those static arrangements have led you to attempt a rest, but] you just won’t lie down.  Even closing your eyes, you can’t let it go, surrounded inside.

The words in brackets are the words printed in red.  The other words are the opening lyrics of the first song, “Surrounded”, whose title is the bold-faced word.  The vignette continues:

Leave it alone.  You don’t get it back [by] undoing the scenes [that] you can’t explain, whatever [it is that] you dream that you’ve buried away.

It seems like you’re there as someone removed [of the proof, then returned to the pride] and [abandoned with others] left in their place with nothing to do, [still] bound to the switch.  [But], railing again at the thought of the fight for well-earned dissent (undeserved at the time, as you’ve been shown), the motion has gone a shade of the night, only leading you on.

Before I say much more about the process of building songs this way, it is worth pausing to consider the vignette itself, independent of the song that Buckner scries within it.  Anyone who knows Bucker’s recording history and who has reflected on the character of his lyrics, knows that they are elliptical exercises, worse even than the prophecies of the Oracle at Delphi.  Buckner does not speak but conceals, gives signs, hints, suggestions.  But he won’t come clean.  Early songs were built around an implied but never actually used word (“Blue and Wonder”):

And what’s that word:
I forget sometimes
It’s the one that means
The love has left your eyes?

Bucker never actually supplies that word.  He leaves the reader wondering (perhaps a deliberate pun in the title of the song), since there is not a single English word with that exact meaning, or none I can think of.  (Maybe I have forgotten it too?)  Part of the artistry here is that by claiming that there is such a word but that he has forgotten it, Buckner supplies that sense of familiarity with everyday tragedies that we all have, even if we would like to forget it.  But Buckner always cares more to bring us around to a cold plunge into a familiar but uncomfortable reality than about telling us about such realities. That continues here:  this vignette never really tells us, in so many words, about what surrounds the narrator–it instead surrounds us itself, won’t let us rest.  What does it mean?  Something has been done, something undone, something buried, something dissented from.  But what?  Several of the sentences have a murky grammatical structure, stringing the reader from word to word without the benefit of creating any clear lexical expectation.  You find yourself at the period, stopping. but only then, if at all, having any sense of where you have been.  This is clearly deliberate–not a failure, but a success of art.  It bears comparisons with James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and with, say, Claire Lispector.

The hollow at the heart of the vignette deepens in the song Buckner finds in the vignette.  (The relationship between the generating vignettes and the generated songs varies in each case.  “Surrounded” is perhaps the song that most fully preserves its generating vignette.)  Consider the lyrics.

You just won’t lie down
Even closing your eyes
You can’t let it go
Surrounded inside

Leave it alone
You don’t get it back
Undoing the scenes
You can’t get explain
Whatever you dream

That you buried away
It seems like you’re there
As someone removed
And left in their place
With nothing to do

Bound to the switch
Railing again
At the thought of the fight
For well-earned dissent
Undeserved at the time

As you’ve been shown
The motion has gone
A shade of the night
Only leading you on

There is no straightforward verse/chorus structure here exactly.  There are no rhymes.  But it is far from formless.  The words ingather around whatever it is that is missing from the lyrics, some skeleton key word or phrase that would allow escape.  The words create claustrophobia, crowd densely around.  No escape offered, the lyrics end in stasis, the only hope (?) a shade of the night–a grayer black, a ghost? both?–that offers to lead you–only you?–on.  But is that an offer of anything more than empty change?Substituting one siege for another?  Railing, fighting, dissenting get us nothing deserved.

Buckner finger-picks insistently, weaving the lyrics through the pattern.  His vocal expression gives little away–the words matter, the delivery is not inflectionless.  But the singing reveals mainly the intensity of the self-questioning, of the restlessness of the desire for explanation, the restlessness full stop.

Perhaps nothing more thematizes this song, this album, and Buckner’s career, than his grappling with a wide-eyed sleeplessness, physical and psychological.  In Emerson’s essay, “Experience”, Emerson bemoans not just the death of his son, Waldo, but also, and even more intently, he bemoans the fact that he cannot fully realize Waldo’s death, concretize it into a current circumstance of his life.  He writes

In the death of my son, now more than two years ago, I seem to have lost a beautiful estate, –no more.  I cannot get it nearer to me…[I]t does not touch me; something which I fancied was a part of me, which could not be torn away without tearing me nor enlarged without enriching me, falls off and leaves no scar.  It was caducous.  I grieve that grief can teach me nothing, nor carry me one step into real nature.

Buckner lives out a kind of nepsis; he paces the walls while the rest of us sleep.  He spends his nights inquiring up and down, tiring his animal eyes and the eyes of his mind.  But he cannot sleep.  He cannot bring the things that move him–those that calm him, those that grieve him, those he has loved and those he has lost, –he cannot bring them nearer to him.  They have done what they have done and he and they have moved on, no lesson surely learnt.  Everything touches him but nothing touches him:  everything slides away, led on by a shade of the night.  Life itself proves caducous.  Dream delivers him to dream, and there is no end to illusion.  –How can we hold onto lives that flux like water, running out of our clutches, leaving behind only trails of tears?  How can we step into real nature–not just as observers, pacers of the wall, but as bodily entrants into reality itself?  Our skin seems sometimes to get in between us and the world, making our grasp of things gloved, mediated, distant.  Sleep comes to seem like an acceptance, a yielding to dreams, a conniving at agreeable illusions.  Buckner will not yield.  He remains awake in the inextricable darkness.

The sheer intensity of Buckner’s refusal of sleep can overwhelm the listener.  Buckner is determined to exhaust exhaustion.  He is bound to the switch.  How can art arrest life, incarcerate it? That is a question that will keep you up nights.  Perhaps there is a confusion in it, as perhaps there is a confusion in Emerson’s grievance about grief–but, even if there is, it is a confusion we all find ourselves in eventually.  What we want nearer we can get only so near, and no more.  Nothing we care about seems capable of being both ours and other.  Everything eventually sees or saws, settling in one place or another, wholly ours and so not of interest, or wholly other and so out of reach.

Buckner always brings Emerson to mind for me.  That is because each man devotes himself to what I call, if you will excuse the term, a phenomenology of moods.  Each is more interested in finding a way to capture a mood than he is in capturing the object or scene or whatever it might be that creates the mood.  (One of the songs on Surrounded is, fittingly, “Mood”.)  Each takes mood itself to be his ‘object’.  This, I take it, helps to explain what I have called the hollowness of the lyrics, the fact that something seems always to be left out, left up to us to supply, if it is supplied at all.  –The fascination with mood has developed over Buckner’s career.  You find it on early albums, but usually as a bit or a piece of a song, not as the song itself.  As he has continued to record, the fascination has deepened.  Now, the songs are often fogs of mood, obscuring all non-moody objects, and leaving us with only the fog itself as a subject of attention.  No doubt to some this seems like willful obscurantism–but that is true only of those who cannot bring themselves to focus on the fog, to see that it is worthy of attention, despite its shifty, ephemeral nature, despite the fact that it seems always to recede just as we lean in to study it.

Buckner’s problem (and, so, not his willful obscurity) is how to bring into focus the very stuff that we take to soften or blur our focus, to hinder our gaze.  The things it is hard to see from up close, because they are often best visible in the distance.  (Emerson has his own version of this problem.)  I suspect that Buckner’s method of composition, the creating of the vignette, then the subtracting from it until the lyric emerges, is itself driven by his problem.  The vignette captures the mood, but does so in a way that threatens to solidify it, to make it too object-like.  Subtracting to find the lyric de-objectifies the mood, as does adding the music, the melody.  Buckner captures the mood by capturing us in it, by getting us to find ourselves inside it, instead of standing over and above it, outside it.  We come to know the fog by learning how to see it, and to see in it, as best we can.  Buckner’s pursuit of mood creates the strange mix of determinacy and indeterminacy in his lyrics, the combining of sketchy personal presences with carefully delineated emotional detail.  The songs are scenescapes of free-floating emotional disturbances.

“Surrounded” is one of the best of the songs on the album; but there are no weak songs.  There are deeply lovely songs, like the unanswered mystery of “Beautiful Question”.  There’s the trembling demon seance of “Mood”.  The album ends with a transcendental take on a symbol of the temporary, “Lean-To”.

Buckner is a songwriter of real brilliance.  His songs are exercises of that brilliance, a force creating its appropriate expression.  These are not songs that wear what makes them so wonderful on their sleeves.  They require time, frequentation, serious thinking.  Thoreau once remarked that books must be read as deliberately as they are written.  These songs must be listened to as deliberately as they were composed.  Buckner wears himself out.  He wears his listener out.  And that, odd as it may be to put it this way, is part of the point:  what Buckner is doing is demanding.

Bill Mallonee’s *Lands and Peoples* (Review)

America, American, Americana

[In what follows I weave together a response to Bill Mallonee’s latest album and answers he gave to me to questions I asked him about it. I thank him for his time.]

Our life drives us apart and forces us upon science and invention–away from touch.  Or if we do touch, our breed knows no better than the course fiber of football.  Though Bill Bird say that American men are the greatest business men in the world:  the only ones who understand the passion of making money:  absorbed, enthralled in it.  It’s a game.  To me, it is because we fear to wake up that we play so well.  Imagine stopping money making.  Our whole conception of reality would have to be altered…

…Who is open to injuries? Not Americans!  Get hurt; you’re a fool.  The only hero is he who is not hurt.  We have no feeling for the tragic. Let the sucker who fails get his.  What’s tragic in that?  That’s funny! To hell with him.  He didn’t make good, that’s all.  –William Carlos Williams, In the American Grain

Love has a million faces
But only one heart

Bill Mallonee sings this line with meditative authority on his darkly beautiful new album, Lands and Peoples.  It is hard enough to pen a line like this, and another to sing it with such presence, to sing it with tested conviction.  From Mallonee, the line is not sentimentality, but realism–it calls us to recognize that what concerns us is not human hearts, but the human heart.  We are all possessed by love, for better or for worse.  The line between good and evil cleaves the human heart itself; it does not cleave one heart from another. I can treat another human heart as alien only to the degree that I am alienated from my own.

The stocktaking gaze that Mallonee turned on himself and his art in last year’s Winnowing he now turns outward:  Lands and Peoples stretches far and wide.  Mallonee chases a dream of America on the album, asking why the dream has proven so hard to realize and why we cannot give it up, why it continues to inspire love even while much we have built in its name continues to spawn misery.  “This new yet unapproachable America”–that is what our greatest philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, called his beloved country.  He meant that America is always running ahead of itself, that it is always trying to become itself, that it always remains a problem for itself.  Mallonee sees the country similarly.  I asked him if he thought of the new album as a political album.  His answer was No.

Political albums bore the hell out of me.  I wanted to ask the deeper, evaluating questions in the form of small, individual stories/songs.  I wanted to hold up a bit of a mirror to ourselves.  Do we like what we see?  We live in a system.  Is the system working?  This grand experiment we call democracy:  is it playing out well?  If it is working, is it working for all?  If not, why not?

The album does not take political sides, left or right, but expresses a deep unhappiness with what politics has become, left and right.  Mallonee rightly deplores the vice that seems all-too-often to characterize those in power, our contemporary oligarchy.  For example, he calls out the abuse of flags and rhetoric–and the reduction of everything and everyone to commodity:

There is only inventory left to take and some history to invent
For a nation forged with guns and lies, flags and rhetoric
There ain’t nothing like the past to remind you of who you are
There ain’t nothing like the present to remind you of who you aren’t
After everyone’s been bought and everyone’s been sold
The steering wheel is a prayer wheel on the open road

Mallonee remains in an interrogative posture toward America, and the songs invite us to take up that posture.

It is really just basic questions:  In our often unquestioned rush to embrace whatever version of modernity is making its way on to the shelf of our consumer lives, are we perhaps losing something?  What is it we’re losing? Add in all the mind-numbing technological ‘trimmings’.  We seem dulled, hardly motivated.  Are we becoming incapable of being passionate about the big ideas? What Christ called the weightier matters of the law?  Things like Compassion, Justice and Mercy? Has a form of cynicism crept in, leaving us vacant in spirit and (I think) prone to manipulation?  That manipulation takes many forms.  I think about these things.

The songs on Lands and Peoples ruminate on these questions, think about these things. The title track, a new entrant into the Great American Song Book, closes with the notes of closing songs, played for an ending national holiday, maybe played for an ending nation:

Now, closing songs from sad bandstands can bring you some relief
‘Cross a parking lot that littered with our grandeur and our griefs
Tonight moonlight plays her hand beneath a field of pure star-shine
All the lands and peoples, stretching far and wide

But it is important to understand that the plaintive notes are not all that there is:  as they linger in the night, the sky overlooks the litter, and stars glitter in continuing promise:  the parking lot need not be our greatest, our final accomplishment.

An amazing song, built on an outside-of-time structure of guitar, banjo and harmonica. It manages to bring past America into fully present Americana.  And it does that while asking us to consider our future. The presence of the past and of the present and of the future collect in one song.  Its melody is both completely new and rooted firmly in the vernacular of American popular music. The vocals perfectly express both fatigue and determination, both acknowledgment of the failures of the past and hope for something better.

But in general, the album faces America story by story and character by character, not just in the larger, collective terms of the title song. Mallonee’s imagination has been gripped by the stories of various places in the American past, particularly the dust-swept Great Plains of the 1930’s.  The plight faced by those people has become iconic for Mallonee–worth considering itself, and serving as a metaphor for the current state of the country, and for our own individual fates.  Mallonee ends the album with “It All Turns to Dust”.

No, there’s not much you can count on
But, here’s one thing you can trust
Everything and everyone?
It all turns to dust

Mallonee reminds us not only of the Dust Bowl, not only of the continuing exploitation of the downtrodden, but also of our own of-the-earth earthiness:  dust to dust.  Robert Frost once suggested that we might think of ourselves as having been made by God from prepared mud (a nod to evolution), but even so we will eventually become unprepared mud.  Cheaters and the cheated will end up mixed together under the feet of a new generation.

I think Lands and Peoples  is a dark and sober album…[It] looks…outward, but through the eyes of characters who have fallen through the cracks of the American Dream through no fault of their own.  [The album] might be seen as a…grieving process about hallowed and precious things that get lost, things that go “unborn”.  Beautiful, sacred things that go unrecognized.

Mallonee sings the stories of his characters in his unstudied, Everyman’s voice–one clearly close in various ways to Mallonee’s speaking voice.  His unstudied (but far from careless) delivery aims at reducing barriers between himself and his listener.  Mallonee wants to be heard, not just listened to.  The question that guides his singing/writing is simple:

Have I won your trust with whatever truth I sang?

Mallonee is deeply concerned with both the modulation and the exposition of the thoughts his songs represent.  His concern with exposition is his concern with truth.  His concern with modulation is his concern to present the truth truly.  Mallonee–perhaps in part because of the spiritual realities faced in his songs–is more aware than most that it is possible to so say what is true in an untrue way:  for example, to say what is true but to do so simply to feed one’s pride. He works to present his characters in a way that respects them and makes them recognizable–so that listeners can know their pains are shared.

You take notes from those who are generous enough to come to shows and say things like:  “Thanks for understanding me.  The songs make me know I am not alone.  They make me know that others have borne similar griefs, trials, etc.”  So, things like that have a profound, humbling effect on a writer.  It means you are starting to hit the mark.

Put it this way:  Mallonee allows the experience of others to speak through him.  To do this, he employs the common tongue, speaks in the words of proverb, slang, idiom.  He knows he cannot let others speak through them unless he uses the words we share–speaks from and for the human heart.

If a song is written in the second-person, like many of the songs on [the album], I want you (the listener) to feel like you are having all of your questions answered by him/her by the time the song is over.  Of course, the particular instrumentation lends to the conversation as well, you know?  Is he lonely? forsaken? desperate? has he just cast caution to the wind? Then, let the instruments reinforce that stance.

America speaks on the album.  Its current peoples, its past peoples–they gather here for a conversation about a country that seems itself all too often lonely, forsaken and desperate.

Mallonee has a sense for the tragic.  For men and women who can be hurt.  He knows that getting hurt often happens to those who are not fools.

The album opens with “At Least for a Little While”.  The song asks for a little light, or, failing that, just some break in the darkness.

No more dark clouds; Oh, baby, that’s not your style
No more dark clouds, at least for a little while
At least for a little while
So if you’re walking wounded, bedeviled and all
Honey, if you’re walking wounded, darling, I won’t let you fall
One more thing about that drifting, every place becomes your home
And, yes, you may be lonely but you never are alone

The album takes us under the dark clouds.  But Mallonee does not leave us alone.  What is to be made of our plight, our current predicament?  What verdict or sentence will be given?  In a moment that mixes a remarkable image with a bit of self-reference (the words ‘audible sigh’ are the title of an earlier album), Mallonee imagines

All the words of the Lord in an audible sigh

His comment on the image was this:

I liked the idea of God pronouncing a verdict of sorts on us contained in that line.  As if the Lord was shaking his head and rubbing the back of his neck over our blindness.

Memorable.  This is a challenging and deeply rewarding album, heart-wrenching and mindful.  And beautiful.  Few albums have ever undertaken the searching tour of America that Lands and Peoples does.  Few songwriters have ever been more concerned sympathetically to understand the making and the unmaking of Americans.

Emerson and Montaigne 1

I will begin with a quotation–as I so often do.  But–“we are all quotation”–so, why hide it?

This is from Firkins’ strange and compelling book on Emerson.  He is addressing the issue of clarity in Emerson.

Dr. Garnett writes of the individual sentence in Emerson:  “His thought is transparent and almost chillingly clear.”  For most men, the clarity is hardly of the sort that regulates the temperature.  It is true, nevertheless, that for Emerson, as for Browning and Meredith, around the fact of obscurity and illusion of greater obscurity has grown up.  The trouble with Emerson is more often strangeness than dimness; the indistinctness of the moral Monadnock or Agiochook which he points out to us is due rather to the distance of the peak than to the haze of the atmosphere.

I will let this quotation stand alone for a moment.  I will have something to say about it, and about other moments in Firkins, in the next post.

Emerson on Montaigne, a New Start

Last year, around this time, I was writing here about Emerson’s essay on Montaigne.  I got distracted from that and moved on to other things.  But I am going to get back to it now.  Look for more posts in the coming days.  In the meantime, you might want to look at the initial post I wrote last year.

Draft of MMP Talk

Here is a draft of a talk I am to give soon.  I was asked to present something that might inspire majors and non-majors, and to do something more like what I would do in a class than what I would do giving a conference paper.  This is the result so far.  It is a  formalization of the sort of thing I might do in an upper-level class.  Since I think of it as a talk and not a paper, it is not bedecked with all the scholarly niceties–footnotes or full footnotes, etc.  Most of the footnotes are really just drawers in which I have stashed useful quotations or (I hope) brief, helpful clarifications.  Comments welcome.

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