On the nothing new, having no alternative, the sun shone
I have not read Samuel Beckett’s Murphy, but I shall not let this self-consciousness quell the rising tide of injustice within me.
On the nothing new,
Whitman enjoys giving lists. There is good reason for this: lists do not require any imposition of form, beyond the minimum of sequence. Then, if “the press of my foot to the earth springs a hundred affections,” and if “they scorn the best I can do to relate them,” there is a solution: list them. It is a misfortune of human cognition, no more, that we must experience the list sequentially. Perhaps it is impossible to experience Whitman as he ought be experienced: all at once, in a single gulp. Only this is no accident; the poetry is a resting place for the wayfarer, and the moment she leaves Whitman’s side the hundred affections crowd around her.
What Whitman lists, is nothing new. They are the old things. What Whitman comments of them, is nothing new. Hundreds of thousands of years and billions of individuals—do you believe there are any recesses of human experience yet to be explored? Humanity and human possibility is an old thing. There are no new ways of being human, no new ways of seeing. There is nothing new under the sun, as they say. You believe in new things? “You foolish child!”
having no alternative,
The concept of inevitability gives philosophers fits, yet not because it is elusive, rather, familiar. Stepping out of our closet, the problem is easily inhumed, with a simple look at the sun. The sun is not virtuous, has no free will, yet it shines, having no alternative, none the less for it. Choice is the precondition for virtue, goodness: one is not morally commendable for what one had no choice but to do. It is a fool’s errand to praise or thank the sun. No supplication will modify its shining.
Moral-commendability-enhancing actions are praiseworthy, if ungainly. There is a quieter beauty to be found in the self-contained animals. “Not one is respectable or industrious over the whole earth,” and in just this lack of virtue they command our admiration. Morality has a downside: it produces words, endless words, moaning words—I am a sinner, I am a wretch—encouraging words—do it, for it is your duty to God—praising words—you are a good person. Much better the quiet contentment of a furiously pounding April rain. Praise to the man or woman who has no more intricate purpose than does the April rain, no more private and parochial purpose than the mica on the side of a rock.
the sun shone.
Walt Whitman enjoys giving lists; he illuminates what is there. What is there? The old things are there, “the old forever new things.” What illuminates them? The soul. The soul is no intentional agent, no purveyor of purpose; “Not you will yield forth the dawn again more surely than you will yield forth me again.” There is an ontological assumption here. Let us not say—here is the sun, here are the things, now let us relate them by shining—that will not do. Let us instead say that each comes into existence with the other. “All architecture is what you do to it when you look upon it.” Architecture does not lie in the stones. The things do not lie in themselves, without the sun.
The soul is my most intimate companion, but it stands beside and not within me. It remains to be realized. Not just soul is realized; “animals and vegetables,” “laws of the earth and air” equally must be realized. None are given. The nothing new remains untried. Only when the soul illuminates the animals, are they both. Things are the biography of the soul, contain its themes.
Nothing is new, but all is unknown. What confidence is possible, then? “But I know it is sure and alive, and sufficient.” Beckett’s sun is an experimenter.
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[All quotations are from the 1855 edition of Walt Whitman’s leaves of grass, as published by the Library of America.]