“Saturday” (Henry Green)

I don’t know how many are fans of Henry Green, but I thought I would share a fragment of one of his lesser-known short stories, “Saturday”.  Green was “experimenting with the definite article”.


Life was in her.  Life was in her and beat there.  Her bed was next theirs.  Their beds took up the room.  Her father and mother slept now in that bed.  No blind was over window.  Sun came by it.  And she turned head over from sun toward them sleeping and did not see them.  She smiled.  Head on bolster was in sunshine.

Life was in her belly.  Life beat there.

Morning.  Thousands slept.  Town was over miles round.  Thousands of houses.  In each they slept.

Under blanket hands were pressed to her belly.  Her fingers stuck out round.  With them she felt beating there.  She smiled.  Sun came in over her.  She was just out of sleep, just in sleep.  All of her was under sunshine, in that life beating under her fingers stuck out round.

Thousands slept.  Were thousands of houses.  In each they slept.


Thoreau as Philosopher

Below is the Prefatory Statement I wrote for an issue of Reason Papers devoted to Thoreau that I edited back in the 90’s.  Ed Mooney’s recent blog entries on Thoreau have me thinking about Thoreau again.

Thoreau as philosopher: Why does this theme still seem a bit strange, a bit forced – like
an attempt to fob off something phoney on us? Well, one problem is that most of us
met Thoreau too early. We met him in adolescence, and we thought of him then as a quirky nature prose-poet; or, as a rustic rebel whose name connected up vaguely with peaceful political protest. Did we think of Thoreau as a philosopher? – No; we poeticized him; we rusticated him. How, then, to reclaim him?

At a time when philosophy is increasingly professionalized, Thoreau is worth reading
because he reminds us of the distinction – and of the relationship – between philosophy
professed and philosophy lived. Like the Greeks, Thoreau heard philosophy’s call, heard
philosophy call for a life, heard philosophy call for professing – in Thoreau’s case, for
writing. What Thoreau understood was that the authority of philosophical writing must
always be won anew, word by word, inkling by inkling. The authority of philosophical
writing is won anew not by displays of virtuosity, whether literary or argumentative, but
by displays of vitality, by finding words that incorporate, and are incorporated by, a
well-lived life. Philosophically authoritative words are words that stand face-to-face with
a well-lived life; such words and such a life reciprocally implicate one another. Thoreau
demonstrates his understanding of this by writing in the first-person and by providing
what he demands from others – “a simple and sincere account of his own life.” Clearly,
this understanding of philosophical authority is dangerous – by that I mean, has its dangers: empty self-obsession, stultifying idiosyncracy, blank unintelligibility. But perhaps worse than these dangers is the danger that such an understanding of philosophical writing renders philosophy written in its service unavailable to contemporary professional philosophy. Put crudely, the danger is that philosophy written in the service of such an understanding and contemporary professional philosophy will end up out of even spitting distance of one another. To contemporary professional philosophy, Thoreau’s writing is writing ad hominem, or worse, writing ad personam: philosophical writing conceived in a matrix of fallacies, not to be borne. If philosophy as Thoreau writes it and contemporary professional philosophy continue to recoil from each other, philosophy will lose much of what has made it admirable – its stubborn efforts to make ends meet, to keep body and soul together. Philosophy will then exist only as a zombie, or as a ghost, of its former self, demanding either voodoo or exorcism.

Thoreau’s philosophical writing alternately provokes and pacifies. It knots together
paradox and platitude. Thoreau does not write books to be held at arm’s length; he writes
books to be either pitched angrily or clutched greedily; or, maybe, both. Thoreau gives
and requires a live response, the response of a life. Call this Thoreau’s Concordian
Revolution: Copernicus taught us that our sun with all its furies is at the center of the
galaxy; Kant taught us that our mind with all its categories is at the center of space and
time; Thoreau teaches us that our life with all its forms is at the center of things. Kant set
reason after reason, because reason is fated to ask itself questions that it cannot answer.
Thoreau set life after life, because life is fated to ask itself questions it cannot answer.
Reason and life are alike antinomian: both require transcendental responses. Thoreau
requires that we read him against our lives, and through our lives.

Before clearing the way for the essays that follow, I acknowledge the overwhelming
debt this collection owes to the pioneering work of Stanley Cavell. I also record my
sadness, and the sadness of others, at the death of David L. Norton. Had David lived, he
would have contributed an essay to this collection. If time is, as Thoreau said, “a stream
we go a-fishing in,” David was the Compleat Angler.

Auburn, Alabama

Immortal Openings, 9: Kurt H. Wolff, Surrender and Catch

Perhaps this book on surrender-and-catch begins thus (or even:  thus begins).

After this walk.  After this–so it might seem–initiatory walk.  For it is to walk, between the stones and walls between which the walking goes, to communicate with the gates and the houses, the ochre paint, or the outrageous red, on the walls around the olive gardens, to greet the forbidding fort, whose walls preclude the view of our cupola, our campanile, our civic tower.  And the cypresses:  black brush slips in the towering sky–for the weather is not good.  The olive trees shimmer, shivering in their own mean color of graygreen against the dark-gray lumpiness of a sky.  And yet:  nothing can happen because one returns home, out of the wind that makes itself known as possibly not joking, and there it is still and warming, and soon expectant.  Expectant?  These words.  I can wait a while.

(For Ed Mooney–in belated (alas!) celebration of his being Ten Days In)

Gerard Manley Hopkins on the Keontic Hymn (Phil 2: 5-11)

Photo by Rowan Gillespie

From The Letters of G. M. Hopkins to Robert Bridges (Letter xcix)

Christ’s life and character are such as appeal to all the world’s admiration, but there is one insight St. Paul gives of it which is very secret and seems to me more touching and constraining than anything else:  This mind he says; was in Christ Jesus–he means as man:  being in the form of God—that is, finding, as in the first instant of his incarnation he did, his human nature informed by the godhead—he thought it nevertheless no snatching-matter for him to be equal with God, but annihilated himself, taking the form of a servant; that is, he could not but see that he was, God, but he would see it as if he did not see it, and be it as if he were not instead of snatching at once at what all the time was his, or was himself, he emptied or exhausted himself so far as that was possible, of godhead and behaved only as God’s slave, as his creature, as man, which also he was, and then being in the guise of man humbled himself to death, the death of the cross.  It is this holding of himself back, and not snatching at the truest and highest good, the good that was his right, nay his possession from a past eternity in his other nature, his own being and self, which seems to me the root of all his holiness and the imitation of this the root of all other moral good in other men.

Reading Ebersole, Reading Bouwsma

(A section from an unpublished essay.)

Their pages crucially differ in animating spirits: I have talked about one
as mulish the other as sprightly. But I can say more. At an even deeper
level, Ebersole’s pages are animated by a strictness of linguistic conscience.
Bouwsma’s are animated by a spontaneity of linguistic consciousness—a lin-
guistic hilaritas libertatis. For example, there is an deep-going reason why
Bouwsma was attracted to and imitated pages of James Joyce, and self-
consciously built unacknowledged quotations or near-quotations of literary
works into the structure of his essays. Bouwsma provokes his reader ver-
bally, reminds his reader of all of the highways and byways of words, of all
the wonders of words, and of how their wonders can and should make us
marvel at them. Ebersole minces words. He was a working poet as well as a
working philosopher, but anyone who knows Ebersole’s poetry knows that in
it the same strictness of linguistic conscience is on display. I cannot imagine
Ebersole on a spree among words like Bouwsma’s in this passage of his John
Locke Lectures, a passage describing Plato’s Realm of Being:

Imagine…a museum—a museum, deep in calm, fixed in breath-
lessness, done in silence, clothed in invisibility, awful, laid away
in heaven. And the walls thereof are purest essence, some quint-
essence, some tri-essence, but none semi-essence. If senescence is
no wall, for neither is oldness nor youngerness any ness at all, all
is evermore and never the less. And of what essence and what
essences are those walls? Of all heavenlinessences are they and of
brightlinessence of the beaminest. Essences participating in one
another, they ring-round this conjugation of hyper-supers…This
is the museum of quiddities, of whatnesses in their highest nest,
tucked away, ensconced, waiting for the refiners defining, so fine
are they. The museum of none-such such-and suches.

Line up alongside that this from Ebersole’s (anticipatory-posthumous au-
tobiographical) poem, “Conversation with a Dead Philosopher” (a crow is

The clock can’t tell you what it says
the way a human tells you.
Maybe I am just a mess of gears and wheels,
and everything I say
is just like half past two—
where I can’t tell you
what I say at all.
People stopped and puzzled when I talked,
wondered what to make of
anything I said.
And if I made them ask themselves
What of heads or tails to make
of a philosopher’s talking,
that was a good thing I did,
I would say.
Yes, I would say that.
Then he flew away,
calling “caw-caw.”

Here is another, related deep difference: it makes sense to say that Eber-
sole and Bouwsma each aims at a kind of simplicity, a philosophical sim-
plicity. But the simplicities aimed at are not the same. We can borrow
a pair of terms from French criticism in the nineteenth century: simplicité
and simplesse. The first we might call naive simplicity, the second
sophisticated simplicity.  The first is simplicity as a native endowment,
an unspoiled innocence or uncorruptedness.  The second is simplicity
as a complicated disposition, an achievement of disciplined responsiveness.
Ebersole presents himself as the simple man.  Bouwsma presents
himself as the simple wise man.  Ebersole’s mulishness, his strictness of linguistic
conscience, his simplicité mean that he is prone to be charged with failing to be a
philosopher by being a plain man. Ebersole can seem Xenophonic. Bouwsma’s
sprightliness, his spontaneity of linguistic consciousness, his simplesse mean
that he is prone to be charged with failing to be a philosopher by being a sophist.
Bouwsma can seem Protagorean.

Style Meld–My Partial Answer

I want now to answer my own question, presented earlier in Style Meld.

F. R. Leavis–that is the writer whose writing I would most like to reduplicate in my own.  Part of what I love about Leavis is the spirit on display everywhere in his work, but most obviously perhaps in what he called his “higher pamphleteering”:  a remarkably strong push-back against the dead and deadening relationship to language shown throughout our culture, but particularly (alas!) among academic humanists—to use Leavis’ words, a “blind, blank, urbane unconcern” for the kind of sensibility that can live only in a living relationship to language, a kind of sensibility that runs deeply counter to the “technologico-Benthamite” times in which we live.  Leavis doesn’t just say things in this spirit, though; every sentence he writes embodies it.  His prose appeals, and perhaps can only appeal, to what he termed “the full attention of the waking mind”.   His sentences command a discriminating, nervous energy, and carry a relationship to their full context that shapes their content and the choices of words in which they are expressed.  So often in Leavis, the argumentative burden is borne not only by the relationships among his sentences but also and simultaneously by the relationships among the words of the sentences.  Leavis once remarked that he thought the novel should be a dramatic poem; and certainly for Leavis, criticism is a critical poem.  (Leavis’ clear concern for and complete mastery of the (internal and interrelated) rhythm of his sentences is comparable to a great poet’s concern for and complete mastery of meter.)  As Wittgenstein once said of Frege,  “I wish I could have written like Frege!”, I will say I wish I could write like Leavis!  (And of course I do not mean slavishly to copy his style or to produce some stiff-fingered pastiche of his writing, but rather to write in a way that displays the same spirit, as such a spirit might take form in my prose.)

I’ll supply some illustrative quotations, as separate posts, over the next few days.

Immortal Openings, 7: Clarice Lispector, The Stream of Life

It’s with such intense joy.  It’s such an hallelujah.  “Hallelujah,” I shout, an hallelujah that fuses with the darkest human howl of the pain of separation but is a shout of diabolical happiness.  Because nobody holds me back anymore.  I still have the ability to reason–I’ve studied mathematics, which is the madness of reason–but now I want plasma.  I want to feed directly from the placenta.  I’m a little frightened, still afraid to give myself over since the next instant is the unknown.  Do I make the coming instant?  Or does it make itself?  We make it together with our breathing.  And with the ease of a bullfighter in the ring.

More On Emerson’s Incarnational Method

I intend to get to Emerson on Montaigne, really to get to it, soon.  But I find myself wanting, needing I guess, to say more about what I turbidly called “Emerson’s Incarnational Method“.  I was drawn to that phrase because it seemed, and still seems to me to educe something deeply important in Emerson, something both inspiring and difficult.  I addressed the inspiring last time.  I want now to address the difficult.  I do so with hesitancy, for reasons that should be apparent momentarily.

A common complaint about Emerson is that he lacks a sense of tragedy.  There is something to that.  Recall the awful scene of Emerson having Waldo exhumed, so that he can see that Waldo is dead, that Waldo’s dust is returning to dust.  Emerson wants to think and write Incarnationally; he wants to live that way.  But he cannot manage it resolutely.  (Can anyone?)  When writing to read in public, he tends always to see the relationship of fact to morals, to see the heavens in the earthly world.  And this makes him, and his urging his readers toward self-reliance and self-obedience, too Docetist.  He has a hard time with the hard facts, with the facts in relation to sensation. He writes from a luminous sense of omniscence, of omnipotence:  everything is transfigured, aglow with uncreated light.  But in his writing for himself, in his living, he finds that he is a dwarf, omni-nescient, powerless.  He is too Ebionite.  His son is taken from him in the sixth year of his joy, but Emerson cannot accept that.  Death, in particular the death of Waldo, seems like the triumph of sensation over morals, a putting-out of the uncreated light, darkness.  As he puts it in a journal entry (the one I am weaving into this post), he knows himself defeated constantly, but believes he is “born to victory”.

It strikes me that Emerson lacks a true sense of the sacramental.  (I believe this shows itself in Emerson’s (mis)understanding of religious ritual.)  For Emerson, creation itself is and should be sacramental, and the Incarnation he is and strives better to be is itself an instance of the sacramental, and is oriented toward the fullness of the sacramental.  The Incarnation finishes the sacramental activity of creation. Emerson needs to see the material as itself what realizes the spiritual, the tangible as what itself what realizes the moral.  But he all-too-often sees the material as opposed to the spiritual, the tangible as opposed to the moral.  So seeing, he all-too-often confronts facts divided, divided into the side that is related to sensation and the side that is related to morals.  So seeing, he becomes overwhelmed with the material, with sensation, and cannot find his way out of the darkness.  He would have Waldo immortal; he cannot imagine Waldo resurrected:  he is left with Waldo dead.  –How can someone born to victory be so defeated?

Emerson’s Incarnational Method

Right at the beginning of his essay on Montaigne, Emerson writes:

Every fact is related on one side to sensation, and on the other to morals.  The game of thought is, on the appearance of one of these sides, to find the other.

I take this to be a method–Emerson’s method.  For us, raised as we have been to believe that there is a gulf fixed between sensation and morals, the method is hard to imagine.  To play the game one way, finding the morals in sensation, seems romantic.  To play the other way, finding the sensation in morals, seems crass.  And anyway, what exactly is Emerson saying?  Facts have sides?  They can be rotated, reoriented, so that the apparent side changes?

I am not really going to answer these questions.  Instead, I want the asking of them to provide the occasion for saying this:  Emerson writes scripture.  As he says in his essay on Goethe, “we too must write Bibles, to unite again the heavens and the earthly world.”  This is a close to a skeleton key to Emerson as I know.  The broad outlines of Emerson’s work become clear when we reflect on it.  Christian dogma treats Jesus, the God-Man, as the one who unites the heavens and the earthly world.  Emerson will dispense with the dogma but without dispensing with its structure:  the heavens do need to be united to the earthly world.  Jesus was taken to have done that in fact, ontologically, we might say.  But for Emerson Jesus is a man, merely a man.  Jesus, like Montaigne and Goethe, is a representative man, the greatest of representative men.  Still, a mere man.  For Emerson the Incarnation–the uniting of the heavens to the earthly world–is not something that has been done.  It is something that must needs be done.  Incarnation, for Emerson, is not so much a fact or a point of departure; it is more a conquest and a goal.  He writes toward it.  He writes his Bible.

Emerson urges his readers to unite the heavens and the earthly world in themselves; he asks his readers to become Incarnations.  Well, that is not quite right:  he reminds his readers that they are always already Incarnating, becoming more fully Incarnations than they are; his readers are to strive toward an ever more perfect unity of the heavens and the earthly world in themselves.  The heavens and the earthly world need to more fully interpenetrate one another.  The centerpiece of Emerson’s understanding of human greatness–this is it.  Over and over Emerson reminds and urges his readers:  Incarnate yourselves!

For Emerson, each human being is and is called to Incarnation.  Emerson begs us to hear and heed that call.  Because we are Incarnations we can hear it.  Because we can become more fully Incarnations we must heed it.

Emerson’s line about facts is an Incarnational method, a reminder that the good gamester of thought always understands each fact in relation to the heavens and the earthly world, and always works to reveal one when the other threatens to eclipse it.  To fail in the method is either to become a Docetist or an Ebionite about yourself, about everything, it is to leave your task of uniting the heavens and the earthly world undone.

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