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 10:59:23 PM

Stephen Melville's concluding remarks here infuriate me a little bit:

'…I have spoken both of a certain unholy alliance of epistemology, method, and professionalism and of an interest we evidently now have in being or remaining baffled in our experience. Meetings like this play an important role in renewing and cementing that alliance, so it’s hard to think anything said in this session is likely to make much of a difference.'

The paper stems from the meeting of a professional society; in his concluding remarks Melville is talking about the meeting he is part of, and talking to the people who are there to listen to him, and to do whatever else it is one does at these meetings, or at least to entertain the notion of doing it, to hope imaginatively that it might be done a little. How might they have heard his last remark, which sounds to me bordering on defeatist? Perhaps when he said it, it was with the sound of opprobrium toward unspecified others, who just won't listen, or just don't get it—whoever else it is that is helps to maintain the unholy alliance, who works to keep us baffled about what should be closest to us. And that sound can easily be received in a satisfying way, a self-satisfied way, by the audience members who think they are on the right side, fighting the good fight. But Melville's remark can also sound like he has conceded, about his own words, his own talk: there is no point to this. As if he is saying to his audience: nothing I have said here matters, thanks for coming, there's coffee in the lobby. Given his topic, Melville might think of himself as practicing a kind of argument-by-salutary-reminder, so maybe he thinks of this final maneuver as a kind of reflexive grace note, the kind of thing that leaves the audience members sitting in their seats, before the question-and-answer period starts, thinking, 'yeah, why do we do that? We oughta not do that!' A kind of poke, akin to a gadfly's sting.

But it's hard to accept charitable interpretations like that when the space that a final remark like Melville's travels in is a practical, performative one. It's something, at best, that he is doing, that he hopes to accomplish. But if that's where we are, then why give a professional talk that you feel forces you to sigh at the end about how little difference giving a professional talk makes? You're in a room full of people who are presumably interested in what you have to say, interested in more or less the same things that you are. You're all there to talk, to work some things out, to try some things out. So is there really no other way to do that than by reading out this paper? To anyone on the outside, what you are doing, this getting together in a conference room or a rented hotel ballroom, to stand up and read from a paper for half an hour before the docile audience before you is permitted to ask three to five questions, is nearly the essence of your profession.

1 Aug '12 09:40:59 PM

(A better 'professional' variant: 'state only what raises some issues about what many respected authorities in the field have recently argued one should believe…'.)

1 Aug '12 09:37:47 PM

Perhaps this is a way to schematize Thoreau's approach to philosophical writing (or, to put it more cautiously, his venture to win the status of 'philosophy' for his writing) as contrasted with the prevailing professional one:

'state only what you believe'

vs. 'write only what is worth reading'

The Socratic aspect of the conventional professional paper or talk is probably overstated, but it plays some (possibly distorted) role in the philosopher's self-conception (much complicated by, for example, the co-presence of a Lewis-style 'finding out what follows from what'). And a concern for what is worth believing, what is worth saying, obviously drives some of Socrates' interest in holding his interlocutors to this commitment to only say what they believe (and not what someone else believes, or what they don't really believe). But I feel there's a difference here.

The Socratic requirement could also be put, 'state only what you believe to be true'; perhaps the difference to Thoreau's would be suggested by the adjustment: '…only what you believe to be true to…'. If there's any better way to continue that than with some expression involving 'your…', I don't know it.

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.