josh blog

Ordinary language is all right.

One could divide humanity into two classes:
those who master a metaphor, and those who hold by a formula.
Those with a bent for both are too few, they do not comprise a class.

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1 Aug '12 09:07:31 PM

The care he takes with and the space he spends on detailed description of natural phenomena could suggest that Thoreau thinks of his journal as a kind of record-book, if you were to ignore the way in which he constantly involves himself in his own descriptions (not to mention the passages and entries where he is plainly just writing about himself, or writing in a questioning or speculative frame of mind). But he also writes about writing, and its relationship to experience, to observed and observable—thus recordable, writeable—phenomena.

In an entry (Aug. 22, 1851) which takes De Quincey as its example, his focus is on sentences. Though De Quincey gives 'the most faithful, natural, and lifelike account of [his] sensations, mental and physical', he lacks 'moderation and sententiousness'. He says all he means; his sentences are not the sort 'which suggest far more than they say… which do not merely report an old, but make a new, impression'. The latter would be '[s]entences which are expensive, towards which so many volumes, so much life, went… which contain the seed of other sentences, not mere repetition, but creation'.

This idea of a seed, a germ, runs through the summer 1851 entries (and obviously through anything else Thoreau wrote). On July 19 'germ' names the potential of, or within, his 'almost wholly unexpanded' life (hard not to read within the horizon of worldly, or writerly, success—four years after residence at Walden, two after the failure of A Week, and three before Walden's modest success—since he connects it to his already being thirty-four years old). On September 7, reflecting on 'ecstatic states, which appear to yield so little fruit', or on our sometime experience of 'a mere fullness of life, which does not find any channels to flow into', he imagines himself as a bee, impregnating and intermixing the 'flowers' he encounters in '[t]he scenery, when it is truly seen', which thereby 'reacts on the life of the seer'. He states his 'every-day business':

'How to live. How to get the most life. How to extract its honey from the flower of the world.'

Thoreau is drawn to speak in terms ('seed', 'germ') which we must think of as in, as inner, as inside, when he wants to refer to the potential for his own life to expand, to grow, to dilate, to flow outward; and likewise in terms ('extract', 'impregnate') which induce an inside upon (within?) what he meets with 'outside' himself (experiences, things), so far as he wants to refer to their potential for activating or stimulating the germ of life within him. The register of nutrition, of ingestion (wine, water, nuts, seeds, fruits), then somehow naturally suggests itself as apt for figuring the objects of experience, or experience itself, in their capacity for stimulating this potential. Perhaps it is because of this layer of figuration that we want to say that language seems doubled here: we want to speak of nourishment in a broader sense, for example, as an appropriate complement to the fuller possibilities of experience. (A further field of significance is close by here, one which Thoreau also moves in: health, disease, the purity whose opposite is griminess, dirtiness.)

Thoreau's 'expensive', suggestive sentences are also said to contain seeds, but they are seeds 'of other sentences'. He does not say whether he means the sentences of an author, or of another, but it's clear that he thinks especially of sentences that are made, worked—written? As 'expensive' they seem to be thought of as containing more life, more experience, than something about the sentences might otherwise suggest, but though they 'contain' the seeds of other sentences it's not obvious that they need do so because something else has been stored up within them. Yet they may be 'concentrated', nutty, or more plainly put in a figure: like nuts, fruits (?) of a tree which bear the life of a (new) tree within them. Yet Thoreau apparently sees no contradiction in also thinking of these sentences as lying 'like boulders on the page', worn smooth by water and wind perhaps, but lifeless, to be moved with great effort or accommodated within our life (as we work around them, walk around them); imposing, impositions, obstacles.

On September 4, giving himself advice as a writer, Thoreau seems to link the hoped-for suggestiveness of sentences with a receptivity to the suggestiveness of things:

'Improve the opportunity to draw analogies. There are innumerable avenues to a perception of the truth. Improve the suggestion of each object however humble, however slight and transient the provocation. What else is there to be improved?… He is a wise man and experienced who has taken many views; to whom stones and plants and animals and a myriad objects have each suggested something, contributed something.'

How does he make his sentences expensive, suggestive? How are they not (or more than?) 'the most faithful, natural, and lifelike' accounts of his experience, in what respects do they exceed dry ('scientific') observation (Aug. 5), or even apparently the kind of observation practiced by what we would think of as great naturalists?

'But this habit of close observation,—in Humboldt, Darwin, and others. Is it to be kept up long, this science? Do not tread on the heels of your experience. Be impressed without making a minute of it. Poetry puts an interval between the impression and the expression,—waits until the seed germinates naturally' (July 22).

1 Aug '12 08:59:39 AM

The author of a journal enjoys freedom from any criticism of his form; the sequence of days cannot be badly plotted, the passage from one day to another need observe no conventional expectations. But he opens himself up to questions about the life he writes about, or from. He may also find that questions about how to maintain this life, sustain it—the height of it, or its continuity, its vitality—come to preoccupy him, as a topic.

1 Aug '12 05:43:30 AM

It would not be so hard to win the status of philosopher for Thoreau if it were not so hard to account for sentences as staggering and as simple as this:

'This is a world where there are flowers.'

1 Aug '12 04:58:28 AM

A kind of investigation:

'The breeze displays the white under sides of the oak leaves and gives a fresh and flowing look to the woods. The river is a dark-blue winding stripe amid the green of the meadow. What is the color of the world? Green mixed with yellowish and reddish for hills and ripe grass, and darker green for trees and forests; blue spotted with dark and white for sky and clouds, and dark blue for water.'

It would be easy to say that Thoreau's question doesn't make sense; harder, perhaps, to put into words what moves him to ask it, to say what sense it might seem to have. His answer has the sound of a reminder; and it catalogues what one could call the partitioning of the world—or one partitioning of the world—into familiar (generic?) objects; and surveys the articulation of color concepts across that partitioning. Names alone already need bending, supplementation.

30 Jul '12 05:40:32 PM

(When you return to the pages of your own journal, you are someone else; so if you weren't writing especially for others, you may find that you don't understand yourself. Or: that now to understand yourself calls for much the same kind of thing as trying to understand someone else.)

30 Jul '12 05:37:42 PM

How a journal works: in The Inward Morning, just one day after writing out a detailed description of fishing during a fresh trout run, which Bugbee says illustrates, 'as concretely as may be', a 'basic point... so strongly grasped' by Marcel about individuality and universality, he can write, almost as an aside at the close of the next entry:

'... once again, the ideas of individuality and universality come back to me, hand in hand. Earlier this day they were utterly lost to me, like empty word-shells.'

I take this as a testament to the great distance that can lie between what is expressed in a journal and what seeks expression. One day on, a pair of abstract words supposedly put to forceful use by someone else, and appropriated in that spirit by a writer to epitomize his own lived experience, recalled as vividly as one could wish, have become empty, hollow. You might say that they sound like someone else spoke them. That one day might seem like nothing; but I have often had the experience of paging back through a journal, even a day or two back, and feeling, not alienated or estranged exactly, but less familiar with the words written there than I used to be. Which I take to mean, out of touch with what led me to write them in the first place. Perhaps it's something like sharing a moment with someone from whom one naturally comes to settle back into a natural distance over time. Rather than thinking of yourselves as an 'us', you readily think of there being you, and him or her, and then this other thing, not even a pair of people exactly, but almost a configuration, frozen in the past with the mood of that moment. At any rate, something which has become distinct from each one of you now.

Think of what someone who keeps a journal must do to think of the amassed pages as held together by some sort of continuity of self. Especially when the writer exploits a journal's invitation to stand beside oneself, and to write with little concern to, say, get one's point across; to be heard; to be understood by someone else.

29 Jul '12 09:38:19 PM

I'm surprised not to have found §119 of Dawn quoted more often; it expounds at uncharacteristic length on the talk of 'drives' that elsewhere in Nietzsche can seem to border on the precariously vague:

'…With every moment of our lives some of the polyp-arms of our being grow and others dry up, depending on the nourishment that the moment does or does not supply. As stated before, our experiences are, in this sense, types of nourishment—seeds sown, however, with a blind hand devoid of any knowledge as to who hungers and who already has abundance. And as a consequence of this contingent alimentation of the parts, the whole, fully grown polyp turns out to be a creature no less contingent than is its maturation. Said more clearly: Suppose a drive finds itself at the point where it desires gratification—or the exercise of its energy, or the discharge of it, or the satiation of an emptiness—it's all a matter of speaking in images—: then it observes each of the day's occurrences with a view as to how to make use of them for its own end: whether a person be moving or still or angry or reading or speaking or fighting or rejoicing, the drive, in its thirst, fingers, as it were, every situation the person gets into and, on the average, finds nothing there for itself; it must wait and thirst all the more: a little while longer and it grows faint, a few days or months more of no gratification and then it withers up like a plant without rain. Perhaps this cruelty of chance would spring to mind more vividly if all drives wanted to take matters as seriously as does hunger: which refuses to be appeased by dream food; most drives, however, especially the so-called moral ones, do exactly that: if you will permit my suspicion that our dreams have precisely the value and meaning of compensating to a certain degree for that contingent absence of "nourishment" during the day.…'

My interest was especially captured by the offhand caveat: 'it's all a matter of speaking in images'.

27 Jul '12 09:48:52 PM

I'm writing an essay on philosophical journals. Lord knows I have plenty of notebooks around, but when I got to a certain point in my essay I had for some reason to go to the store and buy a blank notebook to hold in my hand, like I needed to look at it to imagine what it's like to write in one. A little like Thoreau buying farms, maybe.

26 Jul '12 10:59:50 PM

A woman, a customer, came to the counter in the coffeeshop: 'Would you mind keeping my kale in your refrigerator?'. I can remember, several years ago, buying a big bag of nice cheese and then stopping at the Second Moon to write; I had to ask M. to keep the cheese in their refrigerator.

Lots of similar cases:

'My uncle just gave us a ton of venison. Can we use your freezer?'

At a table, or perhaps on a bench, in public: 'Do you mind if I set this here for a moment?'.

'Will you keep this in your pocket?' ('Your purse?')

'Can I park my car in your garage until I get back?'

'I need a place to keep my files while I reformat my hard drive, can you give me space on your account?'

'I just need to stash my (gun, dope, dead body) in your place (trunk, garage) while…'

'OK, remember this number for a minute: two three one…'

'Will you remind me that I have to…'

The woman with the kale had to joke about remembering to get the kale back. Or maybe the barista did. Someone had to, pretty much, given what they were doing.