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A reader’s anti-Kantianism

Since deciding, on a whim, to write a book on Emerson, I have thought it prudent to foray further into the viny growths clinging to the trunks of his books, known more colloquially as the secondary literature. From this experience – still only in its beginnings – I have been brought to the following reflections.

I have read Lawrence Buell’s Emerson, and profited by it, but I think the book as a whole is fine, and no more than fine. Now I have begun reading Branka Arsić’ book On Leaving. I have not read much of it, but already I have profited by it. Yet I can foresee that by the end of the book I will most likely think it – just fine. Even as I enjoy it, and gain by reading it, there is a lack of enthusiasm – a dire indictment of a book about Emerson’s philosophy of leaving, given that Emerson seems to see enthusiasm as a necessary condition of leaving:

The one thing which we seek with insatiable desire is to forget ourselves, to be surprised out of our propriety, to lose our sempiternal memory, and to do something without knowing how or why; in short, to draw a new circle. Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm. The way of life is wonderful: it is by abandonment. (414)

Why this lack of enthusiasm? There are a number of reasons; I begin with that reason that furnishes me with my title, and which is the root of all the others. Buell and Arsić both are interpreters of Emerson. They aim to locate what is within his text, and to draw it out. Perhaps they reorganize it, but not out of faithlessness – they only want to bring it into a light that reveals it more clearly.

One might say that their form of reading, interpretation, is Kantian, following the Kantian categorical imperative to always treat another as an end in herself, and never as a mere means to an end. They treat the text, or its meaning, as an end, and make themselves into the means by which that end is aided in its realization. Their own thought is made secondary, subservient to that of Emerson.

There are Emersonian reasons to mistrust such Kantianism. It makes the interpretation into a form of quotation, in the sense in which Emerson despised quotation:

Quotation confesses inferiority. In opening a new book we often discover, from the unguarded devotion with which the writer gives his motto or text, all we have to expect from him. If Lord Bacon appears already in the preface, I go and read the “Instauration” instead of the new book. (Here – I first read it, I believe, in his journals)

Inherent in the very idea of interpretation is the threat of redundancy: in the perfect interpretation, nothing is present that cannot be traced back, without distortion, to the interpreted text—why then, not skip the hassle, and just read the original? (There are reasons why; I shall come to them in time.)

Further disadvantages attend the decision to make the text with which one begins the end and not a means. First among these is the necessary incompleteness of all interpretation. The only text that will ever exhaust all the meaning in Emerson’s corpus, is Emerson’s corpus. Every interpretation is partial, is selective. It may pick out aspects, or strands, and make them clearer, but at the expense of cleaving them from the root system by which they are nourished. They become dead specimens only.

Because there is selection, we must ask on what basis this selection occurs. It may be selfish in a petty fashion (“I chose these aspects because they were those that interested me”), but never selfish in a properly individual fashion (“I chose these aspects because they belong equally to me, as to Emerson”), for, while the former is never complete, it at least actively avoids falsification – the latter does not, is much more careless. If there can be no individual in the selection, there can be no genius in it. It is genius that, when we are genial, redeems selection and partiality.

Where this selection most differs from the original will lie, not in the content selected (for if it is truly selected and not invented, it will all agree with the original), but in the emphases placed upon it. Too often I find these new emphases suspiciously flattering to the vanity of our contemporary tastes. It is true that Emerson was no nationalist, but should we draw our attention to that in an age in which the stupidity of nationalism is rather widely acknowledge? (Consider the audience for which such interpretations are written.) It is true that Emerson had progressive, for his time, views on women and slavery, but should we turn our eyes repeatedly to that, at a time where the non-superiority of white men to other humans is more or less obvious to all? It is, of course, a necessary if unpleasant task to have to defend Emerson from misunderstandings on these points, but this task should be accomplished as quietly and with as little fanfare as possible. To celebrate Emerson most for those aspects of his thought that today we find most comfortable – that we must avoid.

I also detect, in Arsić especially, a related, equally unfortunate tendency to “help” Emerson with the specific ways points are rephrased. Nietzsche speaks (The Wanderer and his Shadow §5) of those who “[accustom] us to a feignedly exaggerated linguistic usage” – i.e. those who surround a thing with purple prose, and make it desirable on account of how it has been described, in order to cover up for its lack of any tangible appeal. I find that same exaggeration in Arsić: who inserts into the reader’s mind images of “unrelenting aversive experimentation,” “radical restlessness,” of habit that “devastates life.” Taken alone, none is egregious, but together they leave a sense less of urgency than merely of being hectored. I cannot help but feel, moreover, that such insistence that Emerson is radical substitutes a façade of interestingness for a delicate attention to his thoughts – for if his thoughts are truly radical, they will impress on their own, without needing the help of the word.

An interpretation is at a further disadvantage with regard to its errors. Once faithfulness is pledged, one is committed to saying what Emerson said, and any deviations are to be regarded as errors. This is especially unfortunate for a book that highlights Emerson’s views on leaving, for the interpreter is chained to Emerson, and cannot leave. Each departure is, again, an error, and not a venture. Thus when Arsić overstates Emerson’s dissatisfaction with habit – e.g. by insisting that Emerson wishes we had no habits, rather than merely short habits (ch. 1, n18), or by claiming that, for Emerson, “there is no identity worthy of keeping or celebrating” (35) – the value of these ideas in themselves is not open for discussion, for discussion ends when it is noted that they are (probably) not Emerson’s ideas. Emerson never, to my knowledge, so unambiguously advocates against any ubiquitous aspect of human life. Emerson does not want there to be no habits, except perhaps in some of his most heavily rhetorical (and inevitably self-undermined) moods.

It is for this reason that I am skeptical of the interpretive enterprise, especially as it pertains to Emerson. All this is not to say there is no value to such interpretations. I have learned from Buell, and I have learned from Arsić. Both have their flaws – Arsić, for instance, has a tendency to lapse into moments of platitude or, worse, unmeaning – but they have their virtues as well. They are both good qua Emerson scholarship. I suspect nonetheless that such Kantian endeavors can never be more than “just fine”—the genius lies elsewhere, and the value of an Arsić or a Buell is secondary: it lies in directing me back to this genius with enhanced eyes.

What, then, is an alternative? If Kantianism is the flaw, perhaps some form of narcissism, of selfishness, of treating oneself as the ends and others as the means, will prove to be the key. I spoke earlier of the sense in which Emerson hates quotations; I can now go on to the sense in which he adores quotations:

When we are praising Plato, it seems we are praising quotations from Solon and Sophron and Philolaus. Be it so. Every book is a quotation; and every house is a quotation out of all forests and mines and stone quarries; and every man is a quotation from all his ancestors. And this grasping inventor puts all nations under contribution. (634)

We are incessant quoters, yes, but what we quote is waste stock, as Emerson called it in his essay on Shakespeare. Waste stock is not to be respected, not to be treated as an end in itself. It is to be used where it offers utility, and ignored where it does not. So too the writer on Emerson: Emerson should be used where he is of use, and forgotten otherwise. To treat him as a means only, to use him without respect for his wishes and intents – only that can lead to a book of primary and not secondary interest.

It may be that this leads to something unselfish in the end, to something that respects Emerson as an end. My insistence that Emerson was a genuine egotist, and that this aspect of his thought cannot be wiped away, does not deny that he hoped egotism would result in something other than mere egotism. If Emerson and I come to share a voice, then I will respect him, even revere him as a god, and this is a form of the “transpersonal” or “impersonal” that is claimed (by both Buell and Arsić) to show Emerson is no egotist. It is, however, only by a thoroughgoing egotism (coupled, I grant, with self-mistrust) that this transpersonal is achieved – and such achievement is not guaranteed, nor necessarily even likely.

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Three reflections on Emerson

In the blur that has been these past three days—since I am writing this after midnight, perhaps I had better call it four—I have come to the close of Emerson’s second series of essays. Fittingly, perhaps, while reading “New England Reformers”, I had no unified idea for a post, so here are three scattered reactions upon its ideas.

[I] Another attempt to justify misreading Emerson

There is power over and behind us, and we are the channels of its communications. We seek to say thus and so, and over our head some spirit sits, which contradicts what we say. (607)

There is something more to what we say, than what we intend. It is not Emerson’s purpose here, I think, to condemn what has come to be called the intentional fallacy, the use of authorial intent in interpretation. The claim is milder, yet more invigorating nonetheless: intent is excellent, so far as it goes, but always something escapes it. We do not quite know what we say, and thus are imperfect guides to our own thought.

My readings or misreadings of Emerson take this thought as their license. A too slavish devotion to Emerson would not even leave me with Emerson. Why not, then, seek what is behind his thought? But keep in mind, here, what is likely to be found behind his thought. It can only be biography. What I am seeking behind Emerson is, inevitably, myself. I am the worst sort of reader: I put myself into the text, then pull myself back out, as if I had made some grand discovery.

Or so it stands when my readings succeed. Of course I will not deny that often, perhaps usually, they fail, and the sad result is a passable interpretation of Emerson. I shall try always to keep these to a minimum.

[II] The apparent impossibility of friendship

There can be no concert in two, when there is no concert in one. When the individual is not individual, but is dual; when his thoughts look one way, and his actions another; when his faith is traversed by his habits; when his will, enlightened by reason, is warped by his sense; when with one hand he rows, and with the other backs water, what concert can be? (599)

Here, then, is a recipe for friendship, or any other alliance between two individuals. Each is to be unified with herself—only then may she work with another. But is such unity within oneself possible? Let us look at what happens when Emerson, two pages later, tries to defend the possibility, even the inevitability of a union between two:

I do not believe that the differences of opinion and character in men are organic. I do not recognize, beside the class of the good and the wise, a permanent class of skeptics, or a class of conservatives, or of malignants, or of materialists. I do not believe in two classes. (601)

A bold statement of the unity between two, a unity on which Emerson unconditionally insists. But the price of this unity between two is disunity within the individual.

I do not believe in two classes of men, but in man in two moods, in Philip drunk and Philip sober. (601)

We know, already, that Emersonian moods do not believe in one another. Moreover, in “Nominalist and Realist”, we learn that this disunity of moods makes sincerity a sort of impossibility: “I am always insincere, as always knowing there are other moods.” (587) What, then comes of Emerson’s “concert”? Insofar as concert is possible, insofar as the two classes melt into one, there is disunity lurking below—disunity that seems to preclude the very possibility of concert. Friendship, for Emerson, may very well be impossible.

[III] Experimental lessons of science

The lessons of science should be experimental also. The sight of the planet through a telescope, is worth all the course on astronomy: the shock of the electric spark in the elbow, out-values all the theories; the taste of the nitrous oxide, the firing of an artificial volcano, are better than the volumes of chemistry. (594)

I have a hunch that the point of this passage may be expressed in terms of property, of ownership. There is a sense in which human knowledge—that which is produced by contemporary laboratories at ever-increasing rates—belongs to no one, or only to very few. Those at work in the lab may finish a successful experiment with knowledge, but perhaps no one else will. This I tried to capture, with some of its ramifications, in my recent essay on skepticism. It is not enough to read a book to come to possess knowledge, so most of today’s knowledge remains predominantly unpossessed.

For this reason, I prefer the act of discovery that brings some piece of knowledge into someone’s possession, even if that act contributes nothing to human knowledge. In Emersonian terms: every mind must go over the whole ground for itself. What a mind does not go over itself, it cannot obtain by any other means. It is the activity of science that is experimental, whereas the uptake of science is ever so much conformity and disappointment.

Daybreak meditations, §35

2014/01/07 2 comments

The spring semester has started, hence I am walking to campus again, hence my Daybreak meditations have begun anew. I am using the Cambridge edition, translated by R. J. Hollingdale.

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The Nietzsche passage, to begin:

Feelings and their origination in judgments. – ‘Trust your feelings!’ – But feelings are nothing final or original; behind feelings there stand judgments and evaluations which we inherit in the form of feelings (inclinations, aversions). The inspiration born of a feeling is the grandchild of a judgment – and often of a false judgment! – and in any event not a child of your own! To trust one’s feelings – means to give more obedience to one’s grandfather and grandmother and their grandparents than to the gods which are in us: our reason and our experience.

Nietzsche has, alongside Emerson, been the primary inspiration for my conception of experiment, and here he illustrates on aspect of that basic idea. What I deem by the term ‘experiment’ is a form of moral perfectionism that insists on honesty to oneself above all else—but does so while questioning the very existence of a self to which one could be honest. Nietzsche in this passage is defending a form of skepticism of the body: our feelings and inclinations are not properly our own, but only the inherited judgments of our ancestors. They are not properly our own; obedience to them is not honesty to ourselves but to others.

We have spontaneous, uncontrolled reactions to things, immediate feelings about them—but we should not trust these feelings. For, if we look to their origin, we find that they come from past judgments made by others. Nietzsche has, at times, antiquated views about inheritance, but this one, I believe, sticks. Our parents judge that something is bad, and then this sense of badness is inculcated in us without our ever arriving at the judgment for ourselves—and perhaps we must in fact look even further than our parents to find the original judgment. An example from my own history: my mother abhors southern accents, and while I do not share the judgment, I do share the feeling. My initial distaste for the sound is fading with time, whether in part due to my rejection of the judgment I do not know, but is still present. There is a tendency of my body to feel in particular ways, and it comes from a judgment made by another.

If we let our feelings, birthed in this fashion, determine our judgments, then we are letting the reason of another, the experience of another, the job of determining our own selves. And this is quite contrary to the experimental injunction to be honest to oneself. In my last Daybreak meditation (link above), I looked at Nietzsche’s distinction between customs in their first generation—when they are motivated by some benefit—and in their second generation, when their force derives from their being the customary thing to do.—This is, incidentally, quite similar to the acquaintance/description distinction I drew in my previous post.—This provides a useful way of thinking about feelings: they are, in effect, customs of thought, received via inheritance and not via any first generation processes of judgment.

That Nietzsche is motivated by the injunction to honesty in this passage is shown by his revealing comment that feelings are not “a child of your own”—it is to one’s own children that one should be loyal, not the children of one’s parents. What counts as a child of our own? Nietzsche suggests that we have something divine, godlike within us: our own reason and experience. As for Emerson, what divinity is possible is nothing other than self-trust—but at the base of this self-trust is a very great mistrust of our bodies. This is not a revulsion of the body as merely material—after all, where else shall we find anything divine, if not in the “merely” material, as there is nothing else?—but it is a recognition that what shapes our bodies is so often foreign to us. And, at the risk of jumping ahead of myself, I cannot help but look to §49, the subject of my next Daybreak meditation, where Nietzsche describes the motto of the last man as follows: nihil humani a me alienum puto—nothing human is foreign to me.

Though my conception of experiment has been brewing since last summer, its development was jolted by Emerson’s “Self-Reliance”. Nietzsche provides the necessary flipside to Emerson’s title: self-distrust. The one is cheap without the other.

Dickinson’s invitation to Dickinson

My recent receipt of The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (ed. Thomas H. Johnson) of­fers as fine an opportunity as any to plunge once again into her sea, admiring now the individual drops of poetry, now the ocean they compose, now the one may struggle against the other. Here I encounter Dickinson’s own invitation to her poetry in the light of my existing, if meager, knowledge of what is to come.

The volume is arranged more or less in chronological order, though not perfectly so. This yields the placement of two poems—“There is another sky” (1851) and “On this wondrous sea” (1853)—at the beginning of my renewed encounter. There are, in fact, two other poems mixed in, both written for Valentine’s Day, one in 1850, the other in 1852. They are stylistically quite different from her other poems, and I shall ignore them; I accept whatever perils doing so entails. The first of these poems functions as an invitation to the poetry to follow—whether Dickinson intended it as such, I do not know—while the second illustrates a further aspect of the mood permeating the first. What follows is my response to this invitation. If I have a theme, it is of the dangers of writing one’s introduction first, rather than last, writing it with the audacity of hope rather than the maturity of experience. I say “dangers”, but I do not condemn: I find inestimable richness in the result, and, moreover, am myself writing this introduction in ignorance of just what is to follow.

It will be good to begin with the text of “There is another sky”:

There is another sky,
Ever serene and fair,
And there is another sunshine,
Though it be darkness there;
Never mind faded forests, Austin,
Never mind silent field –
Here is a little forest,
Whose leaf is ever green;
Here is a brighter garden,
Where not a frost has been;
In its unfading flowers
I hear the bright bee hum;
Prithee, my brother,
Into my garden come!

In isolation, I do not think the poem is much—only with eyes trained by reading the later poems does its significance come into view. The surface of the poem is quite straightforward: a distinction between the outer world with its change of seasons, its sunsets, and the more stable inner world. The inner is a model of the outer, only with greater stability, and a positive—so it seems—stability at that: the inner celebrates a perpetual spring, an ever serene sky, ever green leaves, unfading flowers, ever humming bees. It is addressed to her brother, Austin, and she ends by inviting him into her garden. The poem hums with optimism, with confidence.

It also introduces themes and images that persist throughout her career: the inner world as best modeled after the seasons, the bee and the flower, the sunset, the frost. With this knowledge, the poem begins to look like an invitation into her poetry—of course the direct address to her brother remains, but is easy to “forget” by the final lines—since, of course, that poetry is well-described as a faithful record of her inner world. But what this invitation promises is not at all what the explorer of the forest will discover.

This optimism carries over into her poem from 1853—and from 1854, though I will not look at the one—the text of which is:

On this wondrous sea
Sailing silently,
Ho! Pilot, ho!
Knowest thou the shore
Where no breakers roar –
Where the storm is o’er?

In the peaceful west
Many the sails at rest –
The anchors fast –
Thither I pilot thee
Land Ho! Eternity!
Ashore at last!

More of Dickinson’s themes arrive: first and foremost, life as a sea. The sea is dangerous, violent, unstable—contrasted with the stability of land and Eternity. The character of an introduction emerges more and more when this poem is combined with the last. We get, first, a description of the contents to follow—the exploration of “my garden”—and now a definite sense of direction: a move from turbulence to eternity. Eternity is here situated at the end of life, as what is reached upon death, sunset of the soul in the “peaceful west”.

At first, the poems seem to disagree with one another about the location of stability: the first places it within life, in Dickinson’s inner world; the second, at the end of life, with death and eternity. But the second poem is not espousing the sentiment that life is a burden and death a relief: though the sea is stormy, it is nonetheless “wondrous”. This suggests, to me, the same placidity in the midst of external turbulence that the first poem offers, and thus I see them as consistent.

So we have Dickinson’s introduction and invitation to Dickinson. There is a description of the contents, the task: an exploration of the inner world. And there is the description of the movement, the goal: a movement toward death and eternity. It could not be much clearer. But there is a reason why one is always advised to write the introduction last, after all else is complete. A project never quite ends up the way it is planned from the start—new discoveries lead to new goals, and often contradict initial expectations. So too, inevitably, with Dickinson.

I will bring this out by looking at just two later poems, chosen somewhat arbitrarily. The second, because it has to do with the sea, and because when I first read it it struck me sufficiently that I remembered it upon reading “On this wondrous sea”. The first, because it also has to do with the sea, and because I happened to notice it while looking for the second. So, first, “The Drop, that wrestles in the Sea –“:

The Drop, that wrestles in the Sea –
Forgets her own locality –
As I – toward Thee –

She knows herself an incense small –
Yet small – she sighs – if All – is All
How larger – be?

The Ocean – smiles – at her Conceit –
But she­, forgetting Amphitrite –
Pleads – “Me”?

Once again, Dickinson places herself at sea, only now, she does not sail on it, but is part of it. There is no question of a drop finding stability ashore: there is only the sea, endless, perpetual sea. Nor is the sea still wondrous—or, it is, but not in the same way as before. Rather, it is something within which the drop wrestles. The drop is forgetful: she “forgets her own locality”, cannot see her place in the sea, would be larger than she is, “Pleads – ‘Me’?”—gets trapped, in short, in a harmful egoism, a selfish egoism. The rebuke is gentle: the ocean “smiles”—I do not think it mocking, though Dickinson as poet mocks herself, the absurdity of her conceit.

The shift in the metaphor, from being at sea to being in the sea, makes all the difference. Again, a drop cannot seek stability ashore. The goal toward which she first set sail has turned out to be illusory and impossible, and the placidity with which she traveled has become struggle. There is no purposeful movement, only wrestling in place.

But, while the shift in metaphor is central to this poem, it is not the only way in which the promises of her introduction can break down. Keeping with the old metaphor will do just as well, as “The difference between Despair” well shows:

The difference between Despair
And Fear – is like the One
Between the instant of a Wreck –
And when the Wreck has been –

The Mind is smooth – no Motion –
Contented as the Eye
Upon the Forehead of a Bust –
That knows – it cannot see –

Here Dickinson explores two emotions or moods that one would not have expected to find inside her garden, given her introduction. Despair is likened to the instant of a wreck, fear to the aftermath. Despair is short but tumultuous: cracking timber, the boat being sucked downward, the knowledge of impending death. But fear is quite different. It is placid: the surface is smooth again, there is contentment. It is almost as if one is not even alive, is a bust. Fear knows it cannot see, and does not despair of the fact. It is a sort of grim determination.

We have returned to the image of being at sea and not in it. But if this is so, then what we are seeing is the outcome of the voyage begun with such hopes of reaching shore. Despair and the wreck are ineluctable, and so too the aftermath of fear. Any such voyage will end this way, sucked into life, and no longer heading toward eternity. And then comes fear. Like in her garden, there is a tranquility, but now it is not the tranquility that comes with an endless spring, rather it is a grim determination and contentment. The optimism has vanished.

These two poems illustrate but part of the overall shift in Dickinson’s work from these two early poems. They illustrate what breaks the optimism of those poems. But I do not mean to suggest that Dickinson’s poetry is a poetry of despair. Her quest for eternity is not halted but changed: eternity shifts from being something at the end of life to something found within life, with all its struggle and horror. The result is not optimism—grim determination may well capture it—but I do not feel anything is lost. What is gained is richer, if more terrible—richer because it is more terrible.

These poems also illustrate the power of metaphors, for Dickinson. Dickinson, in those two early poems, brings in metaphors in a youthful, naïve way. She models the inner world on the outer, with its change of seasons and its sunsets, and she models life as a voyage at sea. She does so in an optimistic spirit, and there is a beauty in that. But once she has set down these metaphors they take on a life of their own, and she is led down paths she did not anticipate. The inner world, modeled against the outer, increasingly ceases to represent a happier version of the outer and a bulwark against its vicissitudes—it comes to mirror it. And the voyage at sea exposes Dickinson to the possibility and ineluctability of wrecks. She, in her optimism, overlooked these possibilities, but now she must confront them.

This illustrates, then, the danger of writing an introduction before the work is completed. Dickinson makes promises she cannot fulfill, raises issues with which she must continually struggle and which continually defy her initial optimism. The advice to write the introduction last is of the highest prudence. But there is something poetic about the introduction written at the beginning, and not simply placed there after the fact.

The difference stems from the difference in perspective that each necessarily takes. The introduction written last is a view from above, the view of a spectator surveying the completed work. That the work is her own is important, but the introduction serves only to state her accomplishments, and hardly to contribute to them. The introduction written first, by contrast, is inherently active, is a view from within. It contributes to the project it attempts to introduce, by setting out—and not just describing—paths that will be followed. Of course, these descriptions end up false, but that does not make the description any less valuable. As the example of Dickinson shows, these naïve, youthful, optimistic introductions raise complications that cannot be foreseen, but the struggle with these complications may yield unforeseen fruit. The falseness of the description arises precisely because it raises issues beyond its control, introduces problems that elude its grasp—the very sources of its value.

But perhaps Dickinson captured the difference best. An introduction written at the end is on firm land, “ashore at last”. An introduction written first is, by contrast, at sea, lost, with no land in sight, excepting what is hallucinated. Introductions from above may yield the eternity of a destination reached, but introductions from within offer the eternity of endless beginning and struggle—a more terrible, but for that very reason richer, eternity.

 

On the nothing new, having no alternative, the sun shone

2013/12/18 2 comments

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.]