29 March 2006

I'm Melting . . .

Though not two weeks ago twenty inches of snow fell here in Wisconsin—more snow than we had all winter—it has since all melted. As I look out my windows, there is veritably no snow on the ground. Along the sides of my driveway there are still two big mounds of snow where the plow piles it up, and, of course, it takes much longer for it to melt. What we have there is basically these snow structures that people actually may live in, and if I was a real Wisconsin resident, I would know what they are called. But alas, what I love about winter most is that it offers me an excuse to stay indoors.

The temperature is not the significant factor in the melting snow, though certainly it plays a large part. Actually, the earth’s warmth derives from the new angle of the sun’s rays on the earth. It is Spring, finally Spring. And the rapidly melting snow has made the earth all mushy and muddy; I slurp and slip everywhere, and my soles are all mud-caked. It’s a bit inconvenient, but somehow I don’t at all mind. I love it. Under the mud, there is even some green peeking up, warning me to tune up the mower.

Walden is melting apace; what once was dead is alive again!

17 March 2006

The Peabodys and Concord

Is it possible that there is no image remaining of the younger Elizabeth Palmer Peabody? Nor of her sisters, Mary or Sophia? These Peabodys are a truly remarkable family, I think, and yet, I have no idea what the sisters look like. I want a material presence. I suspect that there are images of them later in their life, and I can and will check on Google Images, but in The Peabody Sisters, by Megan Marshall, the book I have just finished reading, there are no photographs of any of them. Just sketches, and one etching of Sophia at age 36 which no one cared for very much, and which Sophia herself tried to touch up! The book recounts the lives of the sisters (Elizabeth, Mary and Sophia) through their relatively early years, through Sophia’s marriage to Nathaniel Hawthorne in her early thirties, and Mary’s marriage, in her late thirties, to Horace Mann. Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, the eldest sister, never married, though she had fallen in love with both Horace Mann and Nathaniel Hawthorne, had even become secretly though briefly engaged to the latter, and had life long relationships with some very notable and married men: William Ellery Channing, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Bronson Alcott. The sisters knew Margaret Fuller and Henry David Thoreau. Elizabeth is credited with founding the kindergarten in the United States, and she edited The Dial and ran a book store where ‘the transcendentalists’ hung about, before hanging out was a concept, much less a term. Elizabeth and her sisters seemed to have known everybody I would have loved to know, and the three seemed to live at the center of the Transcendentalist furor in a geographical locus I have long considered attractive.

I’ve always imagined that Concord, Massachusetts in the middle of the nineteenth century would be an ideal community. Walk out any morning and I could run into Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, Lidian Emerson, William Ellery Channing, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, Bronson Alcott, Sophia Peabody, (and, on the right day,) Herman Melville, and Henry David Thoreau—who, it might be realized, would be personal favorite. I wonder where he and I might walk—hopefully, we wouldn’t have to eat a woodchuck raw. But to move amongst these personages approaches the community I have invented as my ideal community. Brook Farm without the farm work and financial investment. Fruitlands with meat and root vegetables. Two chairs for company and three for society.

14 March 2006

Packing Up

Last year, during these moments, I sat here in Florida and in this very chair, and wore a deep burgundy cast on my broken ankle. If you care to look back at the beginning of this blog, you’ll discover a whole series of postings concerning my experience with this vulnerability.

At this time last year, I was reading about Baruch Spinoza; I continue to do so still, and I might even start reading Spinoza himself soon. I have discovered over the past year that I am a spinozist. And that I practice a philosophical position referred to as spinozism.

And now I am back at my mother’s home in Florida, this time sans cast, but for the last time; she has decided to move to Toronto where the winter thermometer over a week’s time doesn’t add up to the temperature of one Floridian day. Go figure, as my mother would say.

Spinoza says that our consciousness is filled with inadequate ideas because our consciousness is the awareness of effects and not causes. I know how I feel, and I attribute that happiness to this beer, or that chocolate, or this glorious weather, but I do not know what causes the pleasure derived from this beer, or that chocolate, or this glorious weather. Only those ideas which make causal connections are adequate ones, though Spinoza seems to suggest that though we aspire to complete knowledge, our humanity will always preclude this achievement. Nonetheless, those of us who live in the world which values intellect, understand that the closer we get to knowing causes, the closer we get to God and to Nature, and to God and Nature and Nature as God. And the closer we get to God and Nature, the more joyful we may be. I long for joy.

There is a sense that I have been moving toward spinozism for years. Daniel Isaacson, the protagonist in E.L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel, says that the radical is the one who makes all the connections, at which point the Power must eliminate the Radical. If I read had this novel twenty or twenty-five years ago, then for twenty, twenty-five years I have been a spinozist. I teach my students to be spinozists. I tell them that during my course the one who makes the most connections is the winner.

All that to say this: my father is buried here in Florida. My mother’s husband is here buried. It is no small event to move from here to there, because to do so is to leave her husband. Oh, I know, he had already left her, but it was, perhaps, on his part an involuntary move. This move is occurring in the full light of day.

All that to say this: my father is buried here in Florida. I don’t know if or when I’ll ever be back. Dan Bern says in one of his songs on New American Language, “There is a tombstone for my father, I visit sometime.” On my yearly visits since his death in 1999, I have visited sometime the grave of my father. I am not sure if and when I’ll ever be back.

There are in this posting a great many effects for which causes must be sought.

07 March 2006

For him have I offended

I’ve been reading Thoreau’s journal from 19-22 October, 1859. In these entries, Henry David addresses John Brown’s failed assault on the armory at Harper’s Ferry. Now, admittedly, this is a very complex situation, and Brown is a complex, and even unknown man. Read Russell Banks’ novel, Cloudsplitter, for a marvelous portrait of John Brown.

I do not mean to address here Brown’s actions. Rather, I want to note Thoreau’s ire, indeed, his fury at the various governments whose advocacy of slavery made necessary Brown’s acts. I want to address Thoreau’s thorough respect for the character of John Brown, whose commitment to the oppressed was total. I know that there have been a few heroes in the land, but no man has ever stood up in America for the dignity of human nature so devotedly, persistently, and so effectively as this man.” Thoreau does not condone Brown’s act, but neither does he condemn it. Rather, Thoreau accuses the rest of us of ignorance and cowardice: “Prominent and influential editors, accustomed to deal with politicians, men of an infinitely lower grade, say, in their ignorance, that [Brown] acted “on the principle of revenge.” They do not know the man. They must enlarge themselves to conceive of him . . . they have got to conceive of a man of ideas and of principle, hard as it may be for them . . . of a man who did not wait till he was personally interfered with or thwarted in some harmless business before he gave his life to the cause of the oppressed.” The baseness of the media and politicians is no less offensive today than in Thoreau’s time. I am no less appalled, and no less ashamed of my government officials and my own helplessness.

Thoreau was indignant that a man of principle, a man whose abhorrence of slavery and hatred of the slaveholder led him to extreme measures, could be so little understood in a country begun with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. He was disgusted by the complete moral failure of seemingly everyone in the United States—including himself—at this crucial moment in our history. We live even now in debased times.

I’ve been thinking of George W. Bush again, and I am shocked at the abysmally low moral and intellectual quality of the President and his administration. And for some reason, I recalled John F. Kennedy’s quip in 1962 during the White House dinner he hosted for Nobel Prize winners. In his talk, Kennedy said that in that moment, in that White House dining room “sat probably the greatest concentration of talent and genius in this house except for perhaps those times when Thomas Jefferson ate alone.”

What I hear in Kennedy’s remark is an appreciation of intelligence, of intellect, of culture, and of history. Kennedy’s irony even suggests an awareness of some of Jefferson’s serious flaws which have become all too evident in the more recent years. But Kennedy’s appreciation of the achievement of the guests in that room, and his connection of that achievement to the work and personality of one of our iconic leaders, whose intellect is given focus, reflects tragically on the serious decline in America’s promise during the Bush administration when the reading of a book is a laughable event, and a sure sign of treason and liberal leanings.

“At any rate,” Thoreau writes, “I do not think it is sane to spend one’s whole life talking or writing about this matter, and I have not done so. A man may have other affairs to attend to.” I go now to other affairs.