24 October 2014

On Prophecy

In his essay “Natural History of Intellect,” Ralph Waldo Emerson argues for the priority of the truth-seeking of the individual over the truth-known of the prophet. Emerson says that the trained mind-that which has undertaken a course on philosophy, (and I recognize the idealist dismissal of the body here)-”will need no priest. And if he finds at first with some alarm how impossible it is to accept many things which the hot or the mild sectarian may insist on his believing, he will be armed by his insight and brave to meet all inconvenience and all resistance it may cost him.” Arguing for the primacy of the power of the individual-on self-reliance and on thought-Emerson disparages the self-aggrandizement and obfuscations that derive from the rhetorics of so-called scholars. He asks, “ . . . was there ever a prophet burdened with a message to the people who did not cloud our gratitude by a strange confounding in his own mind of private folly with his public wisdom.” By which I think Emerson wonders whether within the prophets words doesn’t there always lie some confusion between an idiosyncratic moment with a public movement. That is, doesn’t the philosopher/prophet in order to justify his own position turn the exception into his rule; or doesn’t the prophet confuse his own private thought with that which the public must accept as knowledge.
Now, Emerson doesn’t contrast “this besetting sin of sedentary men” to the wisdom of a public. Indeed, though in the public sphere the “overweening self-conceit” is suppressed, in that former arena only the popular is acceptable “for the entertainment of all . . . Great is the dazzle but the gain is small.” As in all of the comment and analysis on the news channels, and despite the thousands of words in critical commentary in the newspapers and journals, “ . . . here they play the game of conversation, as they play billiards, for pastime and credit.”
How well he seems to define the current practices of discourse in the United States.
I am led to Sanhedrin 89a and the Rabbis’ discussion of I Kings: 2-38. Ahab, the King of Israel, has asked the prophets to foretell whether he should go into battle and be triumphant, and in response four hundred prophets answer in the affirmative. Except for Michaiah, whom Ahab detests “because he never prophesies anything good for me, but only misfortune.” True to form, Michaiah does foretell defeat and Zedekiah, one of the majority prophets, slaps Michaiah and scolds him for assuming authority as true prophet despite the words of the other four hundred! And Ahab sends Michaiah to prison. Alas, Michaiah was correct and Ahab is killed in battle.
Now the Rabbis wonder: how can anyone fault Zedekiah when he had himself been deceived by the spirit of Naboth whom Ahab had had executed so that he might acquire his coveted vineyard. And Rabbi Johanan says that Zedekiah “should have scrutinized (the forecasts of the assembled prophets), even as R. Isaac said, “The same communication is revealed to many prophets, yet no two prophets prophecy in the identical phraseology.” It is argued that Zedekiah should have been suspicious that every prophet used exactly the same words, but a Rabbi suggests that maybe Zedekiah didn’t know of this criterion regarding difference. Alas, King Jehosophat (the very same one who jumps) seemed to be so aware: the Rabbis attribute to him this warning, “I have a tradition from my grandfather’s house that the same communication is revealed to many prophets, but no two prophesy in the identical phraseology.”
Thus it must be that truth is never contained in the words, and therefore, we must keep talking and never to assume ownership of truth. No two prophets prophesy in the same words! Emerson, too, warns against false prophets. “Yes, it is a great vice in all countries, the sacrifice of scholars to be courtiers and diners-out, to talk for the amusement of those who wish to be amused, though the stars of heaven must be plucked down and packed into rockets to this end!” And hence proceeds the anti-intellectualism in American society in the denigration of study. It is not action alone but action informed that concerns. “Yet, what we really want,” declares Emerson, “is not a haste to act, but a certain piety toward the source of action and knowledge.” Study as prayer.

20 October 2014


I gaze out of the oversized patio window door. The trees in the rear of the house lining the properties edge are bare, and behind them, perhaps one hundred yards distance, the brilliant color of the leaves has faded and display lingering shades of brown. My burning bush has lost its brilliant red leaves. The late afternoon cloudless sky is a very pale blue, almost white in shade, the high grass has fallen and the low grass has ceased to grow and begun to yellow. The Jewish Holy Days are completed, and Fall turns not slowly into winter.
            The first year I lived in the mid-West an enormous snowstorm blanketed the area on Halloween and remained on the ground until late April. That approximate length of months is about the extent of winter here. There was a time when I felt that I could tolerate the cold: during the winter months only temperatures below -20 degrees kept me from the roads and I wore overcoats and remained hatless. Today I have taken from storage my winter coat purchased from LL Bean that kept me somewhat warm last winter and that always adds ten pounds to my weight when I put it on, these days at earlier moments and (relatively) higher temperatures. I have at least two hats, several scarves and insulated gloves. Nevertheless, I do not think I will blow much snow this winter. 
            This late afternoon I do yet not smell snow in the air; indeed, the temperature is rather warm, but the air itself feels temporary, and seems to suggest, “Wear a sweater anyway!” Or it is me recognizing the time? Mostly, I remain indoors, and make only occasional forays out of the house. It is said that Thoreau would walk about for four hours per day, but in fact, the day contains twenty-four hours. He must have remained indoors for much of that time, then, writing and reading. “This only is reading, and in a high sense but what we have to stand on tip-toe to read, and devote our most alert and wakeful hours to.” Hence, he must have spent a good deal of time sitting and reading. “I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time,” he states, somewhat proudly I think. And yet, a whole chapter in Walden explores Society: I love society as much as the next! Winter invites society in.

18 October 2014

I Love You, Mrs. Dalloway

I’ve returned to University, again. Well, in reality I have never quite left it: after my own college education (1965-69), I began a master’s program and then a doctoral program, finishing finally in 1990. During that time I also taught high school English, the subject I was studying at the University. I adored reading and studying literature. It was always myself I sought in the books, and in that search I often came across great beauty. Indeed, I taught myself (I learned) to know the beautiful.
And so when my beautiful daughters went off to University and studied literature, I chose to read the books along with them. I have mentioned this occasionally here and more recently in the final chapter, “Of Cabins, Pequods, and Classrooms,” of my new book, The Classroom: Encounter and Engagement. And over these past six and seven years I have experienced great delight in returning to many of the texts I had studied myself during these past forty-five years: how my readings have changed! How I have changed is marked often in my markings in the readings. I have had the opportunity to discuss books and ideas with my daughters but also with the twenty year old as I now commented within the texts to the comments entered upon the texts those many years ago by he who first had read those books at University. 
And so I have been rereading Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. And there is one passage (of many, actually) that struck me as particularly beautiful and poignant. (I wonder now: to what extent poignancy is integral to beauty!) Richard Dalloway has purchased roses for his wife, Clarissa, well, to tell her “in so many words’ that the loved her.” And he was happy.
Theirs is a complex, adult relationship (I know, I know, I should define those words but I won’t here, this is not a literary analysis of Mrs. Dalloway), and Clarissa loved her roses. More than the events of the day (was it the Armenians or the Albanians who were massacred?), Clarissa loved her roses. “What she liked was the simple life.” And it is for the sake of the simple life that Clarissa throws her parties. “They are an offering . . . an offering for the sake of offering, perhaps. Anyhow, it was her gift.” Clarissa is a simple woman: “Nothing else had she of the slightest importance; could not think, write, even play the piano. She muddled Armenians and Turks; loved success; hated discomfort; must be liked; talked oceans of nonsense; and to this day ask her what the Equator was, and she did not know.” Dear Clarissa, so simple and complex.

And then Clarissa reflects on the beauty of the simplicity: “All the same, that one day should follow another; Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday; that one should wake up in the morning; see the sky; walk in the park, meet Hugh Whitbread; then suddenly in came Peter; then these roses; it was enough. After that how unbelievable death was--that it must end; and no one in the whole world would know how she had loved it all; how every instant . . .” Yes, privileged, rich, physically comfortable is Clarissa Dalloway, but how happy in the beauty she enjoys in the diurnal. And how that feeling of happiness dissolves the reality of death and makes it well, unbelievable. It is not that Clarissa is oblivious, nor even that she is not touched by sorrow and doubt. But at this moment, with her roses, and just hours before her party, she loved it all . . . every instant!

07 October 2014

Bull Frogs

There is a wonderful passage in Walden in the chapter “Sounds.” It is late in the evening and Thoreau hears the sounds that come to him as he sits in his cabin¾though I suspect he sits for the most part out of doors in his single chair reserved for solitude. Devoting at least half of the chapter to the thoughts inspired by the sound of the railroad¾of it he says, “it seems as if the earth had got a race now worthy to inhabit it”¾he comes eventually to the natural sounds about his abode in the woods. It is a lovely and beautifully noisy chapter.
And one sound that Thoreau hears is “trump of bull-frogs.” And he likens these creatures and their sounds to “the study spirits of ancient wine-bibbers and wassailers, still unrepentant, trying to sing a catch in their Stygian lake . . .  who would fain keep up the hilarious rules of their old festal tables, though their voices have waxed hoarse and solemnly grave, mocking at mirth, and the wine has lost its flavor, and become only liquor to distend their paunches, and sweet intoxication never comes to drown the memory of the past, but mere saturation and waterloggedness and distention.” On the one hand, I suspect Thoreau refers here to the senior magistrates of the town whose function has become mere ceremony and that serves little purpose, but whose position tenures them to meaningless and empty existences. Their liquor is not sweet enough to cause the past to disappear even for a short time, and they drink embittered in the memory of their unfulfilled lives. “The most aldermanic, with his chin upon a heart-leaf, which serves for a napkin to his drooling chaps, under this northern shore quaffs a deep draught of the once scorned water, and passed round the cup with the ejaculation tr-r-r-oonk, tr-r-r-oonk, tr-r-r-oonk! and straitway comes over the water from some distance cove the same password repeated, where the next in seniority and girth has gulped down to his mark . . .”  Thoreau’s is a rather amusing portrayal of a bunch of overweight bureaucrats that reminds me not a little of James Joyce’s portrayal in the story “Ivy Day in the Committee Room” of minor town bureaucrats gathered on election day discussing politics, awaiting  their pay-offs and sharing the ample supply of liquor.
But to me the description offers some insight into Thoreau’s capacity for humor, a trait not often associated with the Concord hermit. His portrait of the drunken fest bespeaks a certain amusement in the conduct of the participants. Thoreau in this passage appears far from humorless. And of course, to describe so carefully and amusedly the drunken scene might suggest that at some time Thoreau might himself  have engaged in an excess of spirits in the company of society and belched forth his own belched tr-r-r-oonk.  

I am discovering a more nuanced Thoreau in this reading of Walden.