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

The Difficulty of Ending (*Chuck*)

[A short excerpt from the penultimate chapter of the Chuck book.  The working title of the book is Chuck:  Nerd Herder and Girl Impossible.  Beware:  this definitely contains spoilers.]

I suspect that one reason why a number of fans of the show disliked the ending was that they confused their reaction to the end of the show with their reaction to the end of the episode, to the storyline about Sarah’s memory loss and its possible return.  Chuck’s power resides ultimately in how invested we became in these characters and in the world they inhabited.  They came to be presences in our real lives despite being fictional.  The show took our hearts captive.  And so its ending is not something we can meet tranquilly.  No, we hate that it ends.  The ending makes us sad.  That is perfectly appropriate.  Watching the final episode is like having to say goodbye to friends who we will not see again.  That sorrow hangs over and permeates the final episode, and it can seem like that sorrow somehow determines the ending, decides how it is to be understood.  We are sad–and so we attribute that sadness to the ending of the storyline.  But they are two separate endings–one can be happy (the storyline ending) while the other is sad (the end of the show).  To respond properly to the final episode, we have to keep the endings and our reactions to them separated.  I have had my say about why I regard the storyline ending as happy.  Let me say a word more about the ending of the show.

Samuel Johnson, writing the final essay in his series of essays, The Idler, discusses what he calls “our secret horror of the last”.  He notes that

There are few things not purely evil, of which we can say, without some emotion of uneasiness, “this is the last”.

He continues by linking this secret horror to the limits of our life and our dread of death.  We mark periods of our life in various ways–and one of them is by the duration of a tv show that matters to us.  And when a period of our life ends, we make a “secret comparison” between part and whole; we are forcibly reminded that life itself has a final episode, that our show too must end.  Eventually, all screens go black. I mention this not to be morbid, but rather to explain why I find reacting to the final episode correctly to be hard to do.  The show is ending, and we experience our secret horror of the last, we experience the pain of parting with these (fictional) friends.  That there is a reminder of death in all this seems to me undeniable.  But there is also a reminder of death internal to the storyline of the final episode.  Sarah’s memory loss, if permanent and complete, feels functionally equivalent, for Chuck, to her dying.  He loses her (or at least five years with her), despite the fact that she goes on living.  Their five years together are irrevocably taken from them.  That does not happen.  Still, the specter of it haunts the unfolding of the storyline.  But then another specter of death–the reminder that the last brings with it–also haunts the ending of the show. One specter is laid to rest, the one in the storyline.  But the other remains.  And in the black of that final screen, it is hard to tell the specters apart.

Newman on the Human Condition

To consider the world in its length and breadth, its various history, the many races of man, their starts, their fortunes, their mutual alienation, their conflicts; and then their ways, habits, governments, forms of worship; their enterprises, their aimless courses, their random achievements and acquirements, the impotent conclusion of long-standing facts, the tokens so faint and broken of a superintending design, the blind evolution of what turn out to be great powers or truths, the progress of things, as if from unreasoning elements, not towards final causes, the greatness and littleness of man, his far-reaching aims, his short duration, the curtain hung over his futurity, the disappointments of life, the defeat of good, the success of evil, physical pain, mental anguish, the prevalence and intensity of sin, the pervading idolatries, the corruptions, the dreary hopeless irreligion, that condition of the whole race, so fearfully yet exactly described in the Apostle’s worlds, “having no hope and without God in the world”–all this is a vision to dizzy and appall; and inflicts upon the mind the sense of a profound mystery, which is absolutely beyond human solution.

What shall be said to this heart-piercing, reason-bewildering fact?

I used to spend pleasant hours with my teacher, Lewis White Beck, talking about our favorite writers.  He introduced me to Cardinal Newman, and to the glories of Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua.  Who has ever written more perfectly controlled English prose?  Here, a piece of prose to range alongside Samuel Johnson’s The Vanity of Human Wishes.  Consider the opening ten lines or so of that great poem.

Let Observation with extensive View,
Survey Mankind from China to Peru;
Remark each anxious Toil, each eager Strife,
And watch the busy scenes of crouded Life;
Then say how Hope and Fear, Desire and Hate,
O’erspread with Snares the clouded Maze of Fate,
Where Wav’ring Man, betray’d by vent’rous Pride,
To tread the dreary Paths without a Guide;
As treach’rous Phantoms in the Mist delude,
Shuns fancied Ills, or chases airy Good.

Book Recommendations: Two Pairs

I don’t explicitly or directly recommend lots of books here, although I mention or quote from many and often make it clear that I think highly of them.  But, as I rode my bike in this morning, I started thinking about two pairs of books that have meant a lot to me, personally and intellectually.  I thought I would recommend them.

The first pair is:

The Achievement of Samuel Johnson (Walter Jackson Bate) and The Silence of St. Thomas (Josef Pieper).  Neither of these books is quite or completely a biography, neither is quite or completely literary criticism (Bate) or philosophy (Pieper).  Each is instead an examination of how the work of each man grew into what and who he was, and was grown into by what and who he was.

The second pair is:

Actor and Spectator (Lewis White Beck) and The Myth of Metaphor (Colin Murray Turbayne).   I was lucky enough to have been taught by both men, although to a lesser extent and mostly informally (in conversation) by Turbayne.  Both books are beautifully written and philosophically significant.  And each is a study of the way in which a person can become so immersed in another’s thought that it is no longer clear who is doing the thinking and who is being thought about.  With Beck, it is Kant; with Turbayne, it is Berkeley.


Leavis on Johnson the Augustan

Every word in a piece of Augustan verse has an air of being able to give the reason why it has been chosen, and placed just there.  The thoughts that the Augustan poet, like any other Augustan writer, sets himself to express are amply provided for by the ready-minted concepts of the common currency.  What he has to do is to put them together with elegance and point according to the rules of grammar, syntax and versification.  The exploratory-creative use of words upon experience, involving the creation of concepts in a free play for which the lines and configurations of the conventionally charted have no finality, is something [Johnson] has no use for; it is completely alien to his habit.  So that even when he is Johnson, whose perception so transcends his training, he cannot securely appreciate the Shakespearean creativeness.

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